There is some evidence that runes historically served purposes of magic in addition to being a writing system.

Historical evidenceEdit

Besides the "victory runes" mentioned in the Sigrdrífumál, the Poetic Edda also seems to corroborate the magical significance of the runes the Hávamál where Odin mentions runes in contexts of divination, of healing and of necromancy (trans. Bellows):

"Certain is that which is sought from runes / That the gods so great have made / And the Master-Poet painted" (79)
"Of runes heard I words, nor were counsels wanting / At the hall of Hor" (111)
"Grass cures the scab / and runes the sword-cut" (137)
"Runes shalt thou find / and fateful signs" (143)
" if high on a tree / I see a hanged man swing / So do I write and color the runes / That forth he fares / And to me talks." (158)

The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period. The Sigrdrífumál instruction of "name Tyr twice" is reminiscent of the double or triple "stacked Tyr" bindrunes found e.g. on Seeland-II-C or the Lindholm amulet in the aaaaaaaazzznnn-b- muttt, sequence, which besides stacked Tyr involves multiple repetition of Ansuz, but also triple occurrence of Algiz and Naudiz. Many inscriptions also have meaningless utterances interpreted as magical chants, such as tuwatuwa (Vadstena bracteate), aaduaaaliia (DR BR42) or g͡æg͡og͡æ (Undley bracteate), g͡ag͡ag͡a (Kragehul I).

A few Viking Age rings with runic inscriptions of apparently magical nature were found, among them the Kingmoor Ring.

Historically it is known that the Germanic peoples used numerous forms of divination and means of reading omens. Tacitus (Germania 10) gives a detailed second-hand account:

Augury and divination by lot no people practise more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them. If they prove unfavourable, there is no further consultation that day about the matter; if they sanction it, the confirmation of augury is still required.[1]

Tacitus' reference is not likely to refer to runes, however, as the runes do not seem to have been in use at the time of Tacitus' writings.

Other oft cited sources for the practice of runic divination are chapter 38 of Snorri Sturluson's Ynglinga Saga, where Granmar, the king of Södermanland, travels to the Temple at Uppsala for the seasonal blót. "There, the chips fell in a way that said that he would not live long" (Féll honum þá svo spánn sem hann mundi eigi lengi lifa).[2] Another source is in the Vita Ansgari, the biography of Ansgar the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, which was written by a monk named Rimbert. Rimbert details the custom of casting lots by the pagan Norse (chapters 26-30).[3] The chips and the lots, however, can be explained respectively as a blótspánn (sacrificial chip) and a hlautlein (lot-twig), which according to Foote and Wilson [1] would be "marked, possibly with sacrificial blood, shaken and thrown down like dice, and their positive or negative significance then decided."


  • Edred Thorsson, A Handbook of Rune Magic, Weiser Books (1983), ISBN 0-87728-548-9
  • Edred Thorsson, A Handbook of Esoteric Runology, Weiser Books (1987), ISBN 0-87728-667-1
  • Fries, Jan, Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick, Second Edition, Mandrake of Oxford (2002), ISBN 978-1869928384
  • Sweyn Plowright, The Rune Primer, Lulu Press (2006), ISBN 1-84728-246-6
  • Meadows, Kenneth (1996). Rune Power: The Secret Knowledge of the Wise Ones. Milton, Brisbane: Element Books Limited. ISBN 1-85230-706-4
  • Foote, P.G., and Wilson, D.M. (1970), page 401. The Viking Achievement, Sidgwick & Jackson: London, UK, ISBN 0-283-97926-7
  • Tritt, Adam Byrn, Tellstones: Runic Divination in the Welsh Tradition, Crossquarter Press, (2001), ISBN 1-89010-932-0

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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