views updated May 29 2018


An ancient alphabet found in inscriptions on stone in Scandinavian countries. The runic alphabet belongs to the Germanic group of languages, but is related to Greek and Latin alphabets. The earliest inscriptions were pictured in the hands of the goddess Idun, the keeper of the gods' magic apples of immortality. Dating from the 3rd century C.E. , runic inscriptions have been found in areas between the Black Sea and the Baltic (territories occupied by Goths) as well as throughout Scandinavia.

At one point, Odin dies to acquire the runes for humankind, and, as men were expected to imitate his sacrifice, high praise was given to one who died in battle. In place of dying in battle, a Norse warrior might carve the runes on his body and bleed to death, that day thus being marked as a "red-letter day."

Runes were inscribed on stone monuments to commemorate events and individuals as well as for magical purposes. They were also used on objects like brooches. Typical of runic inscriptions is the writing on an ancient Danish monument which reads: "Rolf raised this stone, priest and chieftain of the Helnaes dwellers, in memory of his brother's son, Gudmund. The men were drowned at sea. Aveir wrote (the runes)." A Norwegian monument indicates that runes were believed to give magical protection: "This is the secret meaning of the runes; I hid here power-runes, undisturbed by evil witchcraft. In exile shall he die by means of magic art who destroys this monument."

The use of runic inscriptions has been revived in both the modern magical and New Age ideas and activities, and crated a vast contemporary literature. Among the most popular, Ralph Blum has adapted runes for divination purposes. His publications The Book of Runes (1984) and Rune Play (1985) are issued in conjunction with a package of twenty-five runic letters on ceramic counters. These counters are "cast," rather in the manner of a simplified I Ching system, to give oracular guidance on personal questions and decisions.

The concept of "casting the runes" also occurs in Western magical practice, where spells are inscribed on a slip of paper in runic letters, to be unobtrusively delivered to and accepted by the victim of the spell. This is brilliantly described in the short story Casting the Runes by M. R. James (included in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1911) in which one character takes a ticket-case belonging to the victim and places the slip of paper with the runic spell on it inside the case. He then hands it to the victim, implying casually that he must have dropped it. The victim recognizes the ticket-case as his own, and gratefully accepts it, so the runes are cast.


Blum, Ralph. The Book of Runes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

. Rune Play. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Branston, Brian. Gods of the North. London: Thames & Hudson, 1955.

Elliott, R. W. V. Runes. Rev. ed. UK: Manchester University Press, 1963.

Flowers, Stephen E. Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition. New York: Kang, 1986.

Hermannsson, H. Catalogue of Runic Literature Forming Part of the Icelandic Collection at Cornell University. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1918.

Howard, Michael. The Magic of Runes. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1980.

Peschel, Lisa. The Runes. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications,1989.

Thorsson, Edred. Futjhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1984.

Tyson, Donald. Rune Magic. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications,1989.

Willis, Tony. The Runic Workbook. New York: Sterling Publishers, 1986.


views updated May 23 2018

RUNE. A character in an ancient script of 24 angular LETTERS, usually cut on wood or carved in stone, and known as either the runic alphabet or Futhark/Futhorc (with or without an initial capital: from the names of its first six letters, regarded as equivalents of f, u, th, a or o, r, and k or c). The origin of the script is uncertain; most probably it was adapted by the Goths from the Etruscan ALPHABET and later influenced by Roman. It was used from the 3c to the 16/17c, especially in Scandinavia, Iceland, and Britain, to write GERMANIC LANGUAGES. Runes, long regarded as magical, have been used on monuments, in charms, in fortunetelling (casting the runes), and as decorative motifs. Each has a mnemonic name beginning with the sound of the letter, such as feoh (property) and ūr (bison) for the f and u symbols. The letters THORN (thorn) and WYNN (joy) were added to the Roman alphabet for writing OLD ENGLISH, and the runic name æsc (ASH) was given to the digraph æ. Runic writings survive in c.4,000 inscriptions and some manuscripts.


views updated May 18 2018

rune / roōn/ • n. a letter of an ancient Germanic alphabet, related to the Roman alphabet. ∎  a similar mark of mysterious or magic significance. ∎  (runes) small stones, pieces of bone, etc., bearing such marks, and used as divinatory symbols: the casting of the runes. ∎  a spell or incantation. ∎  a section of the Kalevala or of an ancient Scandinavian poem.DERIVATIVES: ru·nic / ˈroōnik/ adj.


views updated May 21 2018

rune a letter of an ancient Germanic alphabet, related to the Roman alphabet; the original runic alphabet dates from at least the 2nd or 3rd century, and was formed by modifying the letters of the Roman or Greek alphabet so as to facilitate cutting them upon wood or stone.
In Scandinavian mythology, runes (supposedly won for humankind by Odin) were also seen as having magical powers; in current British usage, the phrase read the runes means to try to forecast the outcome of a situation by analysing all the significant factors involved.

The word comes from Old English rūn ‘a secret, a mystery’, not recorded between Middle English and the late 17th century, when it was reintroduced under the influence of Old Norse rúnir, rúnar ‘magic signs, hidden lore’.


views updated Jun 27 2018

rune character of the earliest Germanic alphabet. XVII. Adopted from Danish writers on Northern antiquities, and repr. ON. *rún, pl. rúnar, rúnir secret or hidden lore, runes, magical signs (Sw. runa, Da. rune) = OE. rūn mystery, runic letter, secret consultation, OS., OHG., Goth. rūna (cf. ROUND2).
So runic XVII. — modL. rūnicus.


views updated May 21 2018

runes Angular characters or letters of an alphabet formerly used by Germanic peoples in early medieval times. Also called futhark after its first six letters (f, u, th, a, r, and k), the runic alphabet may have been developed by an unknown Germanic people from a n Italian alphabet.