Runes and their meanings

Legend has it that runes were given to humankind by Odin, the Scandinavian ruler of the gods. To attain spiritual enlightenment, he hung himself upside down on the tree of life known as Yggdrasil. After nine days of suffering, Odin passed on to the realm of the afterlife. As a reward for his self sacrifice, he received wisdom he could pass to the people in the form of runes. With such an evocative tale of origin, it’s little wonder the magic of runes has endured through the ages.

In the realm of the mortal world there remains much scholarly debate about where runes first emerged. According to Kenneth Meadows, author of Rune Power: The Secret Knowledge of the Wise Ones, one school of thought is that runes emerged among the Teutonic tribes of northernEurope around 500 BCE. Others credit the Goths of Scandinavia around 200 CE, while some historians claim runes emerged during the Viking civilisation, or in northernItaly. The reality is no one really knows for sure. However, historians and scholars across the globe generally agree that runes are pagan in origin and were widely used in northernEurope for centuries.

Runes have been used for various purposes since their inception. This complex alphabetic script was used to communicate in symbolic form, to predict potential future events and to guard against undesirable events. Rune markings on a person’s home or their cattle signified ownership. Rune symbols were carved into sticks and sent with runners, delivering messages to friends or foes. Rune symbols were also chiselled into Viking shields and swords to bring protection against the enemy in times of battle.

Love letters were also etched into runes, according to Joanna Sandsmark, author of Explore Your Destiny With Runes. “Viking swains would beg the object of their desire … think of me, I am thinking of you. Love me, I love you,” she says. The X-shaped rune Gebo is still in existence today, signifying a kiss.

A dark period in runic history

The wisdom of the runes almost disappeared forever with the rise of Christianity. Christians believed there was no place for pagan magic in their religion, so runes went underground for centuries. Only some parts of Scandinavia continued to use runes.

The revival of runic use in the 20th century was orchestrated in Germanyby occult organisations, during the time of the Nazis, according to Kenneth Meadows. The runic resurgence stemmed from the creation of a system devised by Guido von List, a German occultist. He became an influential writer, knowledgeable about the ways of the occult, Aryan symbols, and the predictive power of runes. It’s said that Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess, among others, were influenced by his teachings.

The magic of runes has endured over the centuries. They are ever changing and dynamic. Because their messages are timeless and lie in their fluid interpretation, runes will remain a powerful form of divination into the new millennium and beyond.

Elder futhark runes

The runic alphabet begins with the letters F,u,Th,a,r,k, and runic alphabets are always known as futharks. The oldest known runic alphabet is known as the common Germanic Futhark or the Elder Futhark. The numbers of runes have changed over the centuries. Originally, there were 24 runes in the Elder Fulhark. In Frisia, a region covering parts of the Netherlands and Germany, numbers of runes were increased to 28, then 29, and eventually a 33 character rune was created, called the Northumbrian Futhark. InScandinavia, a new form of runes emerged, called the Younger Futhark — it contained only 16 runes.

Sounds confusing? With such a diverse history runes have evolved in many forms across the globe. Most rune casters use the original 24-letter Elder Futhark and it is this form of rune rows that we will delve into to discover more about their magic.

Why are runes so powerful?

Author Joanna Sandsmark says runes help us to discover what we already know. “I’ve always felt that when we ask for help on difficult decisions or situations, the answers are inside us,” says Joanna. “It’s getting to that answer that’s difficult. The runes are like a road map, guiding you to what your higher self already knows.”

In the runic alphabet each rune has a marking that also symbolises something in the natural world, unlike the English alphabet where the letters are devoid of meaning. They only gain significance when linked with other letters to form words.

Within the 24 runic signs of the Elder Futhark, the runes are divided into three families or aett, which are ruled over by individual spirits. There is also a blank 25th rune called Wyrd, which is the symbol of karmic fate.

Do it yourself

You can buy runes through many different sources: online merchants, New Age stores and those who specialise in spiritual healing. However, rune reading works best with runes you have crafted yourself, because your runes become infused with your own essence, according to Joanna. “It helps to make your own because you imbue them with your energy as you do so,” she says. For this reason you should also avoid letting others handle your runes if you are doing a reading for them.

Traditional runes were made from wood, but you can craft them from stone or clay. To find the perfect piece of timber, stroll through the bush and look for a small branch of a tree around 3–4cm in diameter. When you find the branch you want, ask permission from the tree and give your intent before taking the branch, suggests Kenneth Meadows. Since a tree is a living spirit, allow your spirit to connect with it. You should never just take from nature; talk to the tree and ask for its co-operation, explaining why you need the branch, he suggests. “Once you talk to the tree, it will not remove its life energy from the branch as you cut it, so you’ll have a piece of ‘live’ wood from which to fashion your runes,” he says.

Once you have removed the branch, cut 25 pieces of equal size. Using a craft knife, carve out the rune pieces with the symbols, leaving the 25th rune blank. Then varnish your runes.

To use stones to create runes, simply collect 25 small, smooth, round stones. Wash each stone to remove any dirt and paint with a light coat of clear varnish. Let it dry and paint the other side. Matt enamel paint works well for painting the runic symbols. Apply the paint with a very fine paintbrush or use a toothpick and dip into the paint tin. As you paint on the runic symbol, whisper the rune’s name to evoke its power. Leave the 25th rune blank after you varnish it.

Craft your runes in a quiet place. Light a candle before you begin. The candle symbolises when you begin and end your rune crafting sessions. Candle light also serves another purpose. “It is also a powerful symbol of the living light that is within you — the inner light of your spirit and the illumination which you seek,” writes Kenneth Meadows.

You can also simply use twigs as runes. Just gather 24 spindly sticks and cast them in front of you. The way they fall determines the runes they make. This technique is different from all others in that the runes are created by the pattern the sticks make as they fall, according to Nigel Pennick, author of The Complete Illustrated Guide to Runes. “In this way, we are able to create new runes each time we make a cast, accessing the hidden inner realities of the moment,” he writes.

Evoking the power of rune magic

Runes have no power within themselves. They need to be activated by you. To begin the process, hold the rune firmly in your left hand. Form your right hand into a cylinder shape, but don’t enclose it into a fist; you need to be able to blow through your right hand onto the rune in your left. Take a deep breath and forcibly blow onto each rune in turn. “Each time you breathe in you should have the deliberate intention of taking in the life-force of chi,” writes Kenneth Meadows. Hold your breath for a few seconds as you blow, saying the name of the rune out loud. Repeat three times for each rune, including the 25th rune.

Runes can be used to tap into the power of the universe. They can evoke questions, pose conundrums, challenge your preconceived thoughts and notions and empower you to take action and make positive changes in your life. The magic of runes lies in their holistic embrace of life force and all that lies within it, according to Joanna Sandsmark.

“Runes don’t foretell the future — they’re guides that can present both problems and solutions,” she says. “If one continues on the same path, doomed to fall into the same patterns and engender the same problems, paying attention to a rune reading that outlines a possible solution that includes a change in patterns could be extremely helpful,” she explains.

“When you understand the message of the runes, you really understand how that guidance can impact on your life. You’re finding those internal answers that were inaccessible before. In that way, runes can help you change what needs changing and keep that which is already working for you.”

Setting the scene

Keep your runes in a soft pouch made of natural material. This enables you to reach in and draw individual runes. You’ll also need a rune cloth — a square of fabric you can lay down to cast your runes on. When casting your runes, create a quiet, calm ambience by removing distractions, closing curtains and lighting a candle.

There are many different ways to read runes. Some rune casters choose to cast all their runes. If this is what you want, sit comfortably on a cushion on a rug and gently toss all the runes in front of you. Some will fall face down; these need to be discarded from the reading. Then take up the runes you choose to incorporate in the reading.

You can also draw runes from your pouch, asking them a single question. Not sure which one to choose? The trick is to let the rune choose you, according to the experts. Slip your hand into the pouch and run your hands through the runes until you feel drawn to one particular rune. Alternatively, you can scatter the runes face down on a table and choose one.

Didn’t find the answer to the question you seek? This is where the magic of runes comes into its own. If the universe feels there is a more pressing issue in your life that needs your attention, the runes will answer that unspoken question for you. It might be an issue you have been avoiding for some time. It’s important to remember when you cast your runes that they may fall right way up or be inverted. If some of the runes are inverted, their meanings can be vastly different.

Rune reading options

A three-rune reading: runes placed left to right

This type of rune reading can help you work through a pressing issue. Perhaps you want to discover what you can do to make your child more co-operative, or you may need advice on how to deal with a difficult work colleague. This basic spread of three runes is representative of the three sisters of Norse mythology who embody the past, present and path you need to follow for enlightenment. Work from left to right, placing the runes side by side. The rune on the left is the past actions that affect the matter at hand. The rune in the centre is the present and the rune on the right is the potential future — what will come into being unless you change your course of action.

A four-rune reading: runes placed in a circle

Perhaps it is time to make changes in your life and the task can seem overwhelming. This runic reading helps you to examine how to tackle a situation, given your individual strengths and weaknesses. It shows you the challenges you will face and where you will find support. Place the first rune at the bottom and work in a clockwise motion.

  • Rune 1 — your strength
  • Rune 2 — obstacles
  • Rune 3 — your weaknesses
  • Rune 4 — support networks

Runic cross

This cast uses six runes laid out in a cross formation — four in a downwards column and one either side. Rune 1 is placed to the left of the column (the past), rune 2 is second from the bottom of the column (the present), rune 3 to the right of the column (potential future), rune 4 is at the bottom of the column (the heart of the matter in question), rune 5 is second from the top (what could block the desired outcome), rune 6 is the rune at the top (the most possible conclusion).

Keeping a rune journal

Once you begin communicating with your runes, it’s a good idea to keep a rune journal, to note down your feelings and thoughts. You can set up your rune journal any way you like, but one important component is listing the runes and allowing room to note any personal insights your runic journey has provided.

The more you familiarise and personalise yourself with your runes, the greater and more frequently flashes of insight will appear to you. It’s important to note them down even if you don’t think they are very significant, says Joanna. “Sometimes, the biggest insights begin with the smallest of thoughts,” she says.

Making a runic talisman

You can also evoke the power of the runes by crafting a runic talisman. Rune masters of ancient times, including the Vikings, used these often. To make a runic talisman, Nigel Pennick suggests the following:

  • Decide what material you are crafting your runic talisman from — wood, stone, metal or clay.
  • Prepare your workspace by lighting a candle to symbolise fire, and sprinkle salt and water.
  • As you carve or paint your runic symbol on the talisman, call out its name, drawing on the power of ancient wisdom to enter the talisman.
  • When you have finished crafting your talisman, pass it slowly over a flame three times.
  • Once again, call out loud its purpose and your talisman is ready to serve you.

Runes and their meanings: Elder Futhark

The 1st Aett

Fehu (beginnings)


Literal meaning: cattle.

Power to gain wealth and keep it.

Inverted — frustrations.

Uruz (strength)


Literal meaning: wild ox called aurochs.

Inner strength and perseverance to achieve.

Inverted — depleted strength.

Thurisaz (protection)


Literal meaning:   thorn.

Defence or attack against enemies.

Inverted — the situation isn’t nearly so dire.

Ansuz (the god rune)


Literal meaning: the ash tree.

Symbolises stability and the divine order of the universe.

lnverted — be wary of advice given.

Raidho (journey)


Literal meaning: the wheel.

The travelling rune or symbol of journeys ahead.

Inverted — travel problems


Kenaz (good health)


Literal meaning: torch.

Inner knowledge, learning and power.

Inverted — the end of something of value to you.

Gebo (partnership, love)


Literal meaning: gifts given between people.

The sacred mark that symbolises a connection.

Inverted — no reversed meaning.

Wunjo (joy)


Literal meaning: metal wind vane.

Good news from faraway places. Signifies fellowship and wellbeing.

Inverted — issues with romance or work.

The 2nd Aett

Hagalaz (unforseen disruptions) 


Literal meaning: hailstone.

Uncontrollable forces are at work, changing your life almost overnight.

Inverted — no reversed meaning.

Naudhiz (necessity)


Literal meaning: need.

Tread cautiously and don’t rush into new endeavours.

Inverted — try to right any wrongdoings.




Isa (unmoving)


Literal meaning: ice.

Delay, not moving forward or backward. Can mean the end of a relationship.

Inverted — no reverse meaning.

Jera (full cycle)


Literal meaning: year or season.

Completion, reaping the benefits and rewards for effort and hard work.

Inverted — no reverse meaning.

Eihwaz (flexibility and endurance)


Literal meaning: yew tree.

The 13th rune is one of the most powerful. Regeneration and rebirth. Your plans may come to fruition.

Inverted — no reverse meaning.

Perdhro (hidden meanings)


Literal meaning: dice cup.

Secrets may come out into the open, or it can mean a change in fortune.

Inverted — secrets can cause problems.

Elhaz (protection)


Literal meaning: elk.

A powerful defensive sign that wards off all evil. Honour your spiritual choices.

Inverted — you may be deliberately deceived.

Sowulo (energy and good health)


Literal meaning: sun.

With clear vision your goals can remain in sight and can be reached.

Inverted — no reverse meaning.

3rd Aett

Teiwaz (law and order)


Literal meaning: the sky god, Tyr,

A powerful rune. Vikings went to battle with it etched in their swords. Victory is yours in legal matters if you’re in the right.

Inverted — you lack energy and creativity.

Berkana (fertility and family)


Literal meaning: birch tree.

A birth rune that represents new beginnings.

Inverted — family problems.

Ehwaz (movement)


Literal meaning: horse.

Strengthening of the bonds between you and your partner. You will carry a task through to completion.

Inverted — a misleading opportunity.

Mannaz (social order)


Literal meaning: humankind.

Seek the advice of someone in a position of power who can help you.

Inverted — stand alone and be self-reliant.

Laguz (intuition)


Literal meaning: water.

Learn to trust your intuition, but go with the flow.

Inverted meaning — your inner voice is not giving the right advice.


Inguz (new beginnings)


Literal meaning: god, Ing.

A positive rune of change and completion.

Inverted meaning —no reverse meaning.

Dagaz (growth)


Literal meaning: day.

A period of prosperity and abundance. A relationship may blossom into love.

Inverted meaning — no reverse meaning.

Othala (material possessions)


Literal meaning: possessions.

A favourable outcome if you are moving house or buying property.

Reverse meaning — frustration and delay.


Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist based in the lush tropical Sunshine Coast Hinterland. She writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia and loves climbing mountains, trekking, and exploring the great outdoors with her young family.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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