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What is a rune?

This article was written by Donald Tyson on February 03, 2004
posted under Rune

The runes are a set of symbols that concisely embody the most potent magical system of the ancient world. Because rune magic was rarely described in written records, persecution by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages succeeded in obliterating almost the entire tradition of rune use from the memories of the peoples of northern Europe, the indigenous home of the runes. Runes became the recreation of antiquarian scholars, known only as an obscure and obsolete alphabet preserved in crumbling parchment manuscripts and on leaning stone monuments erected by the vanished Vikings.

Runic characters are letters that can be used for writing. This is their exoteric function. But in pagan times they were used for much more. The undivided forest wilderness in which the wandering Germanic tribes hunted and made war upon each other was ruled by elemental forces - Water, Sun, storm, the seasons, trees, necessary beasts such as the bull and the horse, fire on the hearthstones, the cleared camp circle, the human virtues of cunning speech, courage, battle skill, the mysteries of birth, growth and deathóall of which combined together to determine the life of frail human beings.

The German god Donar, called by the Norsemen Thor, can be traced back to the Sun. Woden, or Odin, was originally the fury of the storm. Ing, the deity who gives England its name, sprang from the fertility of the Earth. All the major Teutonic gods are based upon a limited number of natural potencies. Although they were later refined and made more human in poetry and art, in earliest days they were different masks of the ever-changing face of Nature.

The Germanic tribes embodied these same elemental forces in simple symbols that were used for works of magic and divination by the shamans, who served the combined function of magician-physician-priest. By making symbols to represent the most important powers of the world, these powers could be manipulated for conscious human purposes. The symbols formed the magical link between men and the blind gods of Nature and allowed the shamans to control the destiny of their tribes.

Runes are the descendants of these shamanic power symbols, whose origin extends deep into the past before the beginnings of writing. Each rune is both a letter and a vessel of natural potency. There is a rune for water and a rune for earth, a rune for hail and a rune for ice, a rune for horse and a rune for man. There are also runes that name some of the Teutonic gods. Ing has his own rune, as does Woden (Os) and Tiw (Tyr). These runes represent both the gods and the natural potencies upon which the gods are based. For example, the rune for Tiw is both the god Tiw and the human virtues of honor and courage.

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