An introduction to the interpretation and usage of Germanic runes.
Chapter 1: Basics of Runology
This chapter gives the basics for using runes in magic, distinguishing between normal and magical runes, and determining the function of mysterious runes.
Students should pay close attention to the valuable warnings below concerning dealing with unknown runes and take caution before trying to read or use any runes they are not familiar with. Be advised that each particular language has its own system of usage. The instructions below will work for the various related futharks (including the futhorc), but you will find that the methods for transcribing other systems like the Ogham involve different materials and procedures.
Magic and Runes
Contrary to what many wizards may think, runes are not necessarily more intrinsically magical than your basic sprig of peppermint or stick of rowan wood. Taken on their own, runes are simply letters. When put into a string, they might form words and phrases such as “This hammer was made by Gunther” or “Peace be upon you.” There is nothing wrong with using runes in this way, and most runic inscriptions are no more magical than the letters you write when completing your homework. The Elder Futhark is, first and foremost, a script for Old Norse in much the same way that Latin letters are used to write French or English.
Yet, runes are also, of course, used for magical purposes. They are used for divination, casting, spells and enchantments, and can even be used in potions by inscribing runes onto the cauldron or vials. They are frequently used as talismans, and it is well-known that runes can enhance almost all areas of magic. Runes may even be a necessary component for a spell to last or maintain its effect for extended periods of time. As will be explored more in-depth in further chapters, uses for runes are varied, and it may take a lifetime to learn them all. However, even the ability to recognize the difference between magical and non-magical runes or between Perthro upright (a fertility blessing) and Perthro merkstave or inverted (a curse of infertility) can serve a wizard well.
As we discussed, runes -- and indeed any form of writing -- transmit information across time. It is easy to see how the simple linguistic property of runes is preserved across time, but what of their magical properties? Through the Renaissance, scholars believed that runes drew upon the power of will or belief, and that if a society stopped believing in a rune’s power, it would no longer work. However, evidence from Egypt and other ancient sites contradicted this theory. Nowadays, current research suggests two principal theories of how runes draw magical power:
Battery theory: The first theory, developed in the early 18th century by French and German wizards, is that runes are like enchantments. That is, runes are imbued with magic at the time of spellcasting and once that store of magic is gone, the rune must either be “recharged” by a wizard or become a non-magical rune.
Self-regenerating theory: After the discovery of large numbers of Late Neolithic Chinese runes that did not seem to lose their strength, a British alchemist named Benjamin Bellows posited in the mid-20th century that runes only needed the initial transformation into magical runes. Once imbued, properly set runes would automatically maintain their magic until a magic user transformed the rune again.
Since the creation of the theory of self-regeneration, it has been commonly accepted that the latter is correct, as it would explain the incredible longevity of many runic curses and enchantments. However, we must keep in mind that, in a field as old as this, no one knows what knowledge has been lost that we have yet to uncover!
It is also important to note that each runic script does not activate in the same way or with the same spells. After all, you would hardly expect the Mayans to use the same words to form magic that the Vikings would use! In fact, spells are not the only way to activate runes, though it certainly is the most common. However, for the purposes of this book, we will only be discussing spell-based activation as it applies to the various scripts of Scandinavia and Frisia.
Activating and Testing Runes
Regardless of which theory is ultimately correct, both make use of the same spells to activate, deactivate, and determine whether a rune is magical. This section provides the beginner’s overview of spells used for enchanting and disenchanting runes. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to interpreting the runes using magic (though non-magical runes may be translated using magic), so students must continue to carefully read and interpret runes before using them.
The most important spell that every runologist should know is a general Enchantment-Revealing Charm. Specialis Revelio is perhaps the most basic and general of them, so we will focus on that here, but there are more specialized spells that will be covered later. Specialis Revelio will tell you if there is magic in the area, but is limited in that it will only show you the first layer of magic you come across. It will also not reveal what the precise effect of the magic is, but only give you a general idea of what kind of magic it is through the color the target glows. Specialis Revelio has four principal results when cast on runes:
No glow: The targets are non-magical runes, either because the magic has been drained, or were not magical to begin with.
Bronze or amber: The rune is active and functioning as expected. Please be aware that functioning does not mean safe. Touching an active Kenaz, for example, may result in burning your hand.
Bright red: Rune is active but not functioning as expected. This could mean that the rune structure is physically or magically compromised. Consult an expert runologist to assess the rune before touching or triggering in any way.
Pale blue: There is an enchantment over the rune. This may not mean anything, but it could indicate that the rune you see is not the actual rune (i.e. someone has cast Illegibilis to cover up the real rune). If this is the case, you will need to use Finite Incantatem to break the enchantment before casting any more rune-detecting spells.
The easiest way to imbue magic into a rune or string of runes is to create them with your own hands and tools, focusing in on putting your intent into the rune or runic design, in much the same way you do when you use your wand. Though, when you are finished making the runes, do not let your concentration waver! It is just as important, if not more, to maintain your focus on the intent of the magic as you enchant the runes, which is something we will cover in more detail later.
To make your own runic enchantments, the principle spell for activating runes is Venenate (pronounced VEH-neh-nayt). It is performed by drawing a circle clockwise from the top around the entire rune design with the wand before stabbing the central rune. Unsurprisingly, Devenenate (pronounced deh-VEH-neh-nayt) is the spell to deactivate the rune. Devenenate is performed by drawing a counter-clockwise circle from the top around the entire rune design before pulling your wand away from the central rune.
Wizards should confirm whether the spell has worked by casting Specialis Revelio after any attempt with Venenate or Devenenate. The most common reason the Enchantment-Revealing Charm produces a bright red light is because a wizard has activated or deactivated only a portion of the rune structure. That is, if a wizard has drawn a circle around or touched the wrong rune in casting the spell, the magic cannot suffuse through the design, rendering the magical energy unbalanced. So, if a rune goes from amber or non-glowing to red, immediately reverse your work and reinterpret the rune, looking for clues as to which rune is central such as those described below.
While you will not be ready to enchant your rune until much later, after you have learned and committed to memory their meanings and connotations, it is of the utmost importance that you keep your intent in mind when you enchant your runes. That is, if you want to use Kenaz in an enchantment for wellness, focus on how the “disease” meaning of the rune plays into the spell at large, or you may find it to be completely unsuccessful or even wildly unpredictable.
Principles of Runic Design and Interpretation
Just like different runic languages must be written in different ways and sometimes on different materials, each language has its own typical methods of writing and designing rune structures. However, there are three universal basic forms of runic designs. These are:
Divinatory here refers to the way runes are used in divination. In general, this entails the creation of a complete, limited set of individuals or groups of symbols. Functional designs cover the use of single or multiple runes in patterns that serve specific magical purposes, for example, the use of runes on jewelry, talismans, buildings, clothing, weapons, or even as part of a transfiguration spell model. Finally, literary designs are the use of runes in writing to preserve information and transmit knowledge.
Now, before we get into magical designs properly, we must discuss the geometry of the individual runes in the various futharks (noting that the terminology we discuss here may also apply to other runic systems). Each rune has two basic positions formed by rotating the rune 180° each time: upright, and merkstave, however, some more finicky runologists will speak of differences between 90° as well. Regardless of how many degrees you believe to be important, many of the runes have different meanings when inverted (or merkstave) compared to the standard, upright position. This becomes complicated quickly as there are eight (or nine, depending on how Sowilo is written) runes that have rotational symmetry, which means that the upright and merkstave forms are identical to the naked eye, and the reader must decipher the intent. Some argue this means these runes have no inverted position, while others argue that the merkstave forms are still possible. Finally, it should be noted that these issues do not apply to literary runes -- similar to the way that an upside-down “s” means nothing at all other than perhaps indicating the writer’s low age -- but are essential for using runes in magic.
The position, number, and specific design belong as much to the spheres of arithmancy, divination, and creativity as to ancient runes. Later volumes, particularly for our N.E.W.T.-level students, will cover more specific rules for common scenarios. However, for any functional rune design, we must follow the Central Rune Principle. This law states that for any runic design to function, it must contain a subject or target, which is indicated through the choice of the central rune. It is essentially no different than the central card in a tarot spread or the Sun sign in astrology. The secondary runes that surround the central rune support, modify, or limit it. Using Sowilo as the central sign, for example, could focus the design’s power on victory, and including secondary runes such as Isa or Naudhiz might clarify that the victory comes despite challenges, while Uruz or Perthro might indicate the target to be a man or woman, respectively.
It is important to clarify that “central” does not necessarily entail “placed in the center,” but typically, it will be called out or marked somehow. Often it is simply drawn bigger than other runes in the design, or touches all of the supporting runes. It is not uncommon to place a non-runic symbol in the center such as a religious icon (cross, star, sun), or even an animal or plant image. This is particularly common when the central rune is not upright. For example, if you come across a shield with an image of a bear in the center with an Algiz inverted in the bear’s eye, you would be wise to interpret that Algiz inverted is the central rune in the design. This is no light matter. A friend once designed a money bag with Fehu in the center, but then decorated the edges with stylized fruit pointing the wrong way, and lost all his money betting on the wrong races. It was enough to change the central rune to Fehu-inverted.
Runes and Divination
While the student looking for a thorough background in divination as applied to runes may wish to seek out another book, the basics of runecasting will be covered in addition to a few divinatory notes here and there for each rune’s interpretation. Runecasting involves drawing (or “casting”) runes in specific numbers and sets, and interpreting those runes. This usually requires selecting runes at random and having the runes inscribed on some sort of physical object in order to do so. Many people are quite particular about their sets. A common way of ensuring that your runes are particularly sensitive to you is to create your own runic patterns or sets. Many diviners feel that no rune set will give you as accurate a reading as runes you have created yourself (though family heirlooms may come close). Runes created in this way are attuned to you in much the same way a wand works best for its wizard. Using the rune frequently is the best way to ensure that the rune’s magic continues to function. This following section covers rules for choosing your material and tools.
As mentioned above, when creating your own runes for divinatory use, it is essential to begin by researching your particular runic language’s constraints. For example, an Ogham rune set should be cast using rods from twenty trees of Ireland with each rune on its appropriate tree. Cretan hieroglyphics, in contrast, function best when inscribed with a metal tool onto shards of pottery (ostracon) or brick. It is a common belief that futhark runes inscribed on anything manufactured cannot hold magic, and are therefore likely to produce results as random as a Muggle using a crystal ball.
Future volumes covering individual languages will detail the appropriate method(s) for creating runes for that language. The remainder of this section focuses on the Elder Futhark and would also theoretically apply to its close cousins the Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc were they to have any divinatory use or meanings.
For magical purposes, futhark runes should be inscribed using material from living things, such as wood, bone, or animal hide. While stone and metal are extremely popular for writing the various futharks in a literary sense, they should be second choices in creating runes for divination. In no case should ceramic, pottery, jewels, or modern metals like steel be used in runework; they simply cannot channel the magic of the futhark unless certain provisions are made to counteract the unsuitability of the material. Such provisions are often highly ritualistic and always require the use of one of many life-giving liquids to be applied to the surface in question. Suffice it to say that choosing natural surfaces will avoid unnecessary hassle.
This also helps explain why studying Norse runes in a purely historical setting is less dangerous. While reading an Avestan passage on parchment can result in the magic being released (think of how long enchantments can survive), those surviving Norse runes inscribed on stone or metal only become magical with deliberate effort. Indeed, in order to make some of their runes engraved in metal function correctly, the Norse had to suffuse the metal with blood in the forging process.
With single runes or entire rune sets, the best runes are made from material that comes from a single source. This can be wood from a single tree, rocks from a single point in a river, or sections of hide or bone from the same animal. Raw material from northern Europe tends to work best for the Elder Futhark, though there is considerable disagreement over the detail of the material. Roman historian Tacitus described the earliest runes used for divination as being written on scraps of bark from an ash or an oak tree. However, given their greater propensity to last, the most common surviving runes are written on naturally weathered stone and magically-forged metal.
Philomena Finney, an expert on the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc at Queen’s College Dublin, recommends using wood from fruit trees because it connects the human and plant worlds. She suggests the best time for cutting the wood is just prior to harvest for maximum power. Jürgen Grünwalt, runologist at the University of Freiburg, on the other hand, argues that animal sources create more potent runes for divination, and that wooden sets cannot last for as long as bone or hide.
In any case, rune blanks for divination should be cut to be equal in size or as close as possible so as to let the magic decide when casting the runes to interpret, not subconscious memories of which rune is which. They should also be longer by height than length. This will help identify whether the rune is upright or merkstave (see below). If the blanks are perfectly circular or square, the back of each rune should contain a marker to indicate direction. Larger or more complex designs should be properly proportioned to the rune design, though the rules are more flexible.
Once you have cut your blanks, you must then inscribe the symbols on them. The three primary methods are cutting, burning, and painting. Painting is by far the most common, and again, natural methods are preferable to synthetic. Painting should be done using plant dyes with organic oils or albumen using a brush with bristles made from animal hair. No varnish or sealant should be used. The same is true of cutting and burning methods. For either, it is best to use a magically-forged blade to cut into the material. Many runologists suggest carving the rune into the material, then painting over it. In any case, runes should look red or reddish-brown when finished. Traditionally, blood was used either in the paint or cut into the material, but this is not recommended for any but the most experienced runologists.