Most commonly used for divination or marked on amulets in an effort to imbue them with supposedly magical powers, runes are characters of the earliest written alphabet of people in parts of Europe and Scandinavia. The word rune comes from the Old Norse word run, which means “secret”; this refers to the fact that runes were created for use by pagan priests, who kept their meaning secret. These priests used runes in making charms and magic spells, in both cases by marking the characters on certain objects, which is probably why runes have always been associated with magic.

In both ancient and modern times, runic characters have typically been marked on small stones, crystals, or sticks as a means of divination. Each of the characters has its own deep meaning. Guidebooks on runes offer detailed descriptions of these deeper meanings, and a person using the runes for divination often consults such a book during the process.

Divination Process

To begin the process of divination, a person selects a certain number of rune stones, usually one, three, or five, depending on the method of divination being employed—selecting them at random—and lays them out on a table. While selecting the stones, the person concentrates on a question related to whatever she or he wants to learn from the runes. For example, the person might silently ask the runes, “What will happen if I change jobs?”

In understanding the runes’ answer, the person must consider not only the deeper meaning of each runic character but also the order in which they were selected. In a divination process using three runes, for example, the first runic character usually relates to the current status of the person’s situation, the second to past influences on that situation, and the third to prospects for resolving the situation in the future. Therefore, a rune signifying prosperity will have a different meaning depending on whether it falls in the present, past, or future position. Sometimes, however, the runes do not provide an answer to a question. One rune, called wyrd, is blank; its name means that the answer is unknowable because it is “up to the gods.” In addition to the blank rune, there are twenty-four runic characters in all, each with a different meaning.

Marking Objects

Throughout the centuries runes have also been marked on objects as a way to magically protect them or give them certain powers. For example, Vikings marked their weapons and homes with runic characters to impart strength. Among those who use rune stones today each runic character is believed to be connected to a specific state of being, such as joy, prosperity, strength, or protection, and will theoretically confer that state of being to whomever or whatever bears that runic character. For example, a necklace bearing the rune for protection is said to protect the health and well-being of the wearer. However, it is also said that the runes will not work without some effort on the user’s part. In other words, a person cannot rely on the protection rune alone to ensure good health; he or she must also follow a healthy lifestyle.

Today some practitioners of witchcraft mark runes on objects like amulets, talismans, and ritual tools in order to “charge” these objects with certain types of power. Modern believers also combine characters in an artistic way, connecting or overlapping runes to create a new runic image called a bindrune. A bindrune is said to retain the properties of the individual characters from which it was created. Consequently, a bindrune made from the runic characters for prosperity and success would confer both qualities on the owner.


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The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning