The Runic Alphabet

The Runic alphabet of today with its runic letters possibly evolved from two distinct sources — one magical and one literate. Pre-runic symbols have been found in Bronze Age rock carvings, primarily in Sweden. Some runic symbols, while used today in runic stones are easily recognized in later alphabets and employed in runic rings in runic jewelry, while others represent ideas or concepts incorporated into the names of the runes (moon, dog, tree, etc.).

The exact meanings and the original purpose of these symbols are now long-lost, but they may have been used for divination or lot-casting, thereby contributing to the magickal function of the later runic alphabets. When the North Italic tribes began integrating the runic alphabet into their own symbolic system, the letters were given names that related to the tribe's secular and religious lives, thus transforming their simple pictographs into a magickal alphabet which could be used for talismans, magical inscriptions and divination.

runic alphabet

Background of the Runic Alphabet

The earliest runic inscriptions weren't coherent texts. They were simple inscriptions on artifacts that identified either the craftsman who had fashioned it or the proprietor who owned it. It is widely believed possible that early runes were used not as a simple writing system, but instead as magical signs to be used for charms or divination. The name rune mean "secret, something hidden" and seems to indicate that knowledge of the runes was originally considered esoteric or restricted to an elite class. Some inscriptions suggest a medieval belief in the magical significance of runes. The Björketorp Runestone and the Stentoften Runestone, both from about the 6th century, warn through a curse:

"Here, I have hidden the secret of powerful runes, strong runes. The one who breaks this memorial will be eternally tormented by anger. Treacherous death will hit him. I foresee perdition."

The Runic Alphabet and Divination

Though Norse literature is full of references to runes, no specific instructions on divination have been found. Tacitus's Germania, Snorri Sturluson's Ynglinga saga and Rimbert's Vita Ansgari contain misty references to divination, but the descriptions are vague and may or may not refer to runes. Tacitus' Germania, describes "signs" chosen in groups of three. In the Ynglinga saga, Granmar, the king of Södermanland, goes to Uppsala for the blót. There, the "chips" fall in a way that indicated he would not live long. And finally, in Rimbert's Vita Ansgari, there are three accounts of what seem to be the use of runes for divination, but Rimbert calls it "drawing lots". One of these accounts is the description of how a renegade Swedish king Anund Uppsale first brings a Danish fleet to Birka, but then changes his mind and asks the Danes to "draw lots". According to the story, this "drawing of lots" was quite informative, telling them that attacking Birka would bring bad luck and that they should attack a Slavic town instead.

Since those early days, and with increased vigor in the last few centuries, entire systems of divination have been reconstructed and developed based on the few specifics that exist.

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