The Runes and Their Meaning
Runes shalt thou find, and fateful signs,
That the king of singers colored,
And the mighty gods have made;
Full strong the signs, full mighty the signs,
That the ruler of the gods doth write.
HÁVAMÁL (TRANS. BELLOWS)
All over the world, people have devised devices and techniques that give some insight into the hidden processes of life. This recognition is at the base of those sacred traditions in which knowledge and wisdom are valued. There are many symbolic techniques that allow people to interact with the unseen, of which alphabets are perhaps the most developed. In the West, there are five main alphabets that have magical connections: Hebrew, Greek, Glagolitic, Ogham, and Runic. Although they were or are used in everyday life for written communication, they all began as sacred symbolic alphabets in which every character had an array of meaning far beyond the mere sound it represented. The runes, which originated in central Europe about 2,500 years ago, are the prime example of such an alphabet. Strictly speaking, the runes are not an alphabet at all. An alphabet begins with alpha and beta—A, B, and so on. The runic rows do not have this Greek-derived character sequence, but a different one. They are known as the Fuþark because the characters (or staves) are arranged in a specific order, which begins F, U, Þ, A, R, K. As the third runic stave (Þ/þ) is equivalent to the sound “th,” a common alternative transliteration is Futhark, which will also be used in the present book.
However, the word alphabet is used now (incorrectly) to refer to any system of writing comprising separate individual characters with phonetic meanings. But whether we call their array an alphabet or a Futhark, the runes are far more than mere phonetic sigils designed for information interchange in so-called “barbarian” central and northern Europe. They encapsulate symbolic meanings that go far beyond the modern materialist images of practical necessity.
The connotations surrounding the word rune itself provide evidence for this. They are far removed from the idea of a character or letter, words used to describe an individual stave in more prosaic alphabets. The rune is a precise concept in its own right. The word itself possesses associations with the carefully guarded inner secrets of the esoteric mysteries. This is apparent in the old languages of northern Europe, where it is directly cognate with words meaning “to whisper” such as the archaic English verb to rown and the modern German verb raunen. There are also related words in the Celtic languages, including Old Irish word rún, “mystery, secret; secret intention” (modern Irish rún, “intimate friend”), and Middle Welsh rin, “secret, mystery,” “privacy, intimacy,” and “magic spell, charm” (modern Welsh rhin, “virtue, essence”). The leaders and councilors of Anglo-Saxon England called their discussions “runes” (rūne), where the runes were used for divination when problems arose. For instance, the meeting where Magna Carta was signed in 1215, which guaranteed the citizens of England certain civil rights, was held at a traditional site of royal councils, Runnymede, the “Meadow of the Runes.” This site was the place of former runic consultations in Anglo-Saxon times. ***
At the basic level, a rune is literally a mystery that -comprehends -fundamental secrets of the inner structure of the reality. Each stave, which we call a rune, is a storehouse of knowledge and meaning, which is apparent only to those who study runecraft in all its aspects. Each individual rune expresses an amorphous yet eternal reality, which is revealed in the world of our experience as the specific things or processes characterized by it. Unlike many rigid magical disciplines, the runic system is dynamic, creative, and developing. At a fundamental level, the meanings of the runes are fixed, yet every day new things are made and new experiences, new juxtapositions, and new relationships occur. No time or place is ever like any other, and accordingly, the action of the runic archetypes is affected by the specific conditions there.
From Runes and Astrology by Nigel Pennick © 2023 Destiny Books. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
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