Runes are a family of linguistically-related lettering systems, which were used by Germanic peoples. There are several rune “alphabets,” changing over time and geography. The particular set of runes that I want to talk to you about, however, is the Elder Futhark. Similar to how the “alphabet” is so called for its first two letters: “alpha,” “beta,”; the futhark is so-named for its first six letters: “F,” “U,” “Th,” “A,” “R,” “K.” The futhark runic systems were the ones primarily used in the Scandinavian areas. Runes were used for writing things down, but also for magic. Each rune has a magic of its own.
It is said that the runes were either first invented or discovered by Odin of the Aesir. In prehistoric times, Odin set out on a quest to learn as much about the universe as he could. He gave one of his eyes to the Jotun known as Mimir the Wise, in exchange for what the Jotun knew about magic and the inner-workings of things.
After parting with Mimir, Odin continued on his knowledge-quest. Soon he was hanged from a tree for 9 days and 9 nights until he became delirious from hunger and thirst, and his blood began to drain out. Some say he intentionally hanged himself; fixing his body to the trunk of the tree by his own spear, Gungir, in order to enter an other-worldly trance. Others say this was done to him. It wouldn’t surprise me either way.
When hung from this tree
’til the color left me
for the weight of the spear
and no water near
by a starry pool
where I fare to try
two ravens flew down
and I left with one eye.
“Old One-Eye” by Blackbird Raum
After hanging for 9 days and 9 nights, Odin received a vision of the runes in his delirium. As he reached out to touch the runes of light dancing before his eyes, he realized that the runes imparted stored wisdom, and their meanings became known to him. He realized there was power in storing wisdom by carving it into stone or wood to make it last, and with this elation he finally broke his trance and cut himself down from the tree.
Now Odin knew the secret of writing through the runes, and he brought this knowledge back to Asgard, the ancestral home of his race: the Aesir.
Runes were subsequently used for spells, for protection, for writing down famous names, and for decoration. Runestones were large stones carved with ferocious gripping beasts and figures, swirling and entangling like knot-work, and bordered by runes. Sometimes runestones recorded famous events of queens or kings or heroes. Sometimes runestones recorded the legendary feats of the Aesir, Vanir, or Jotun.
A “bindrune” is simply a combination of two or more runes, often used as a decorative signature. Runes could be flipped or rotated in order to make them fit attractively into a single rune. J. R. R. Tolkien made for himself a modern bind-letter using the Latin alphabet as his signature, combining a “J,” “R,” “R,” and “T.” The Bluetooth company’s logo is a bind rune of a “B” and a “T.”
Each rune was full of magic and power, but was it magic the way we think of it today, with curses and fireballs? Or was the ability to store knowledge indefinitely the true power of the runes? Isn’t that power some kind of magic, after all?
Jump to an article in my Norse Backstory series:
1) Where did trolls come from?
2) Whatever are “Runes”?