Reading the Runes

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Terracotta rune set with hessian bag and guide book by Horik Svensson.

The Elder Futhark, the oldest known runic alphabet, is of Germanic origin dating from the 1st or 2nd century CE. Similar to the Greek alphabet, which is named for its first two letters, the Futhark takes its name from the first initial or phoneme of the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R and K. Each rune corresponds to a letter or sound (transliteration).

There are many theories as to why this system was invented and what it means, but no one knows for sure. Was it an attempt by northern Europeans to imitate Roman script? Did the runes have a practical purpose, such as recording ideas or events? Or perhaps the characters had mystical or shamanistic properties.

The runes are usually referred to in either ancient Proto-Germanic or 8th century Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. (For the runic items I make for my shop, I use the latter.) The words are from nature — usually animals, trees or weather — or are the names of gods. For example, the first rune, shown in the centre foreground of the photo above, is known as either Fehu (P-G), or Feoh (OE). Feoh transliterates as the letter f, means “wealth” or “cattle”, and is generally accepted today as symbolizing wealth, power and success.

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The runes, woodburned onto a cedar plank, with their names in Old English.

Here are the 24 Elder Futhark runes, their ancient meanings and modern symbolism:

Feoh  •  wealth, cattle  •  Wealth, power, success
Ur  •  aurochs  •  Risk, rapid change, stamina, determination
Thorn  •  the god Thor  •  Protection, luck, inner growth
Ansur  •  mouth  •  Advice, deliberation
Rad  •  wheel, ride •   Journey (literal or toward enlightenment)
Ken  •  torch •   New life, fertility, knowledge, the arts
Geofu  •  gift  •  Union, harmony, love, peace
Wynn  •  joy  •  Happiness, success, fulfillment through hard work
Hagall  •  hail  •  Unpredictability, sudden setback
Nied  •  need  •  Restriction, patience, spiritual growth through hardship
Is  •  ice  •  Caution, put plans on hold, waiting
Jara  •  year, harvest  •  Cycles, birth, time of reckoning
Yr  •  yew  •  Positive outcome after delay, inner strength
Peorth  •  pear tree  •  Unexpected inheritance, recovery of what was lost
Eolh  •  elk  •  Protection, beneficial influence
Sigel  •  sun •  Life force, guiding light
Tir  •  the god Tiwaz  •  Battles, competition, vigorous energy, being prepared
Beorc  •  birch  •  Fertility, inception of idea or project, family
Eoh  •  horse  •  Travel, change (made carefully, not abruptly)
Mann  •  Man, humans  •  Separate but not alone, relationships, inner wisdom
Lagu  •  water, lake  •  Intuition, flexibility, receptivity, creativity
Ing  •  the god Ingwaz  •  Completion, good omen, relief is near
Othel  •  heritage, estate  •  Ancestry, the home, land, obligations, karma
Daeg  •  day  •  New beginnings, growth, inner acceptance, security

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Rune necklaces I made recently for a customer in California, of reclaimed Muskoka white pine. I pyrographed the freehand designs and bark-like edging and finished the pendants with linseed oil and beeswax.

Similar to Tarot cards, runes can be cast for divination, or can be worn or carried as an amulet. I wear Tir as my personal talisman because it is the rune of archers.

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