Runes are a method of divination similar to the Tarot or the I-Ching, but are made of 25 stones. As with the Tarot, most of the Runes may be upright or inverted, the meaning differing with the case, although some Runes appear the same no matter how they fall. Runes may be made of any material; ceramic, stones, sticks, or drawn on cards.
A Bit of History
Scholars disagree as to where and when runic writing first made an appearance in Western Europe. Before the Germanic peoples of ancient Western Europe possessed a true alphabet, they used pictorial symbols to carve into stones their ideas and thoughts. The earliest of these pictorial writings date from about 1300 BC. They were probably linked to Sun and Fertility cults. Among the signs were parts of the human body, weapons, animals and variations on geometric forms.
These pictoglyphs later evolved into the more abstract glyphs composed of lines resembling no particular objects. That there was power endowed to those who were adept at the use of these glyphs is indicated by the name given to the glyphs themselves. These glyphs were called Runes, from the Gothic Runa, meaning 'a secret thing, a mystery.' The Runic letter or Runastafr was use to foretell the future by Runemal, or the casting of the Runes. But, before the Germanic peoples had any form of script, they used picture symbols that were etched into rocks. Common in Sweden, these rock carvings date from as early as the second Bronze Age (ca. 1300 B.C.). Symbols common were for men and animals, parts of the human body, weapons, sun symbols, the swastika and different variations of squares and circles. The early carvings were called runes from the Gothic runa, meaning "a secret thing, a mystery."
From the very beginning, Runes had a ritual function. Casting of lots, divination and to evoke higher powers that could influence the lives and fortunes of people. The craft of runemal was highly respected and touched every aspect of life. There were Runes and spells to influence the weather, the tides, crops, love, healing. Runes of fertility, cursing and removing curses, birth and death. Runes were carved onto amulets, drinking cups, battle spears, over the thresholds of dwellings and onto the prows of Viking Ships.
Many of these runic practitioners were women and were honored, welcomed, and feared. They were also easily recognizable by their eye catching clothing. As the 13th century author of the 'Saga of Erik the Red' said:
She wore a cloak set with stones along the hem. Around her neck and covering her head she wore a hood lined with white catskins. In one hand she carried a staff with a knob on the end and her belt, holding together her long dress, hung a charm pouch.
To pre-Christians, the earth and all created things were alive. Twigs and stones served for runecasting since, as natural objects, they were believed to embody the divine. Rune symbols were carved into pieces of wood, incised on metal or cut into leather. The most common runes were made with smooth flat pebbles with symbols or glyphs painted on one side. Ordinarily rune practitioners would shake their pouch and scatter the pebbles on the ground; those landing face side up were interpreted.
The most detailed description of reading the runes comes from the Roman historian Tacitus. Written in A.D. 98, he reports:
To divination and casting of lots they pay attention beyond any other people. Their method of casting lots is a simple one; they cut a branch from a fruit-bearing tree and divide it into small pieces which they mark with certain distinctive signs (notae) and scatter at random onto a white cloth. Then, the priest of the community, if the lots are consulted publicly, or the father of the family, if it is done privately, after invoking the gods and with eyes raised to heaven, picks up three pieces, one at a time, and interpret them according to the signs previously marked upon them.
~(from the now defunct site: http://www.ramtechnology.com/mystical/Runes.html)
Runic inscriptions, rune scripts and the runes themselves can be used in many ways. The images can be inscribed on a talisman - a permanent, physical manifestation of the magic of the runes that a person would wear or carry around with them. They may also be used for more immediate purposes, by carving them into a piece of wood and then burning it, by scratching them into a candle and lighting it, or in any number of other ways. Making runes for magical use is a little bit different from making a set for divination, but the process of marking, coloring and naming them is essentially the same.
The choice of materials when making a talisman or spell is important, since this will be the medium which 'carries' your message and add its own peculiar energies to the process. A permanent talisman or inscription can be carved on anything you like, although natural materials are best. Specific rune spells are traditionally sent by burning them, so your medium must be flammable. Paper or parchment is handy and will do in a pinch, but keep in mind it is also fairly impermanent. Paper is also magically quite neutral, and while it won't detract from what you are trying to accomplish, it certainly won't add anything.
Rune spells and talismans were traditionally cut or scratched into wood. Of the few wooden runic artifacts recovered from that many were made from yew, which has a long history of association with the runes and magic. There are many other woods which have their own magical associations.
The Runes were inscribed into tools, weapons, rocks, alters, and other personal items. Runes were also used by the clergy as an alternative to the Latin alphabet. It is believed that Runes were derived from a northern Etruscan alphabet used among Italic tribes in the Eastern Alps. They may have been developed by people living in the area of Bohemia. From the beginning Runes were used for the casting of lots, for divination and to evoke higher powers that might influence the 'luck' of man. There were Runes that influenced the weather, the harvest, curses, the tides, love, and healing.
As time wore on, the Runes themselves became standardized throughout Europe. Although in some places the Runes numbered as many as 36 or as few as 16. Twenty-four of these were the basic Runes, or futhark. The name futhark comes from the first 6 Runes.
There were 3 families of 8 Runes each, named after the Norse Gods Freyr, Hagal and Tyr. These three aettir, as they were called were: Freyr's Eight: Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raido, Kano, Gebo, Wunjo Hagal's Eight: Hagalaz, Nauthiz, Isa, Jera, Eihwaz, Perth, Algiz, Sowelu Tyr's Eight: Teiwaz, Berkana, Ehwaz, Mannaz, Laguz, Inguz, Othila, Dagaz.
The Anglo-Saxons are credited with spreading Runes and Runecraft throughout Europe. It is unfortunate that more than 300 years ago the last of the Rune Masters died taking with them the true art of Rune casting. In recent years people such as Ralph Blum have tried to revive the ancient art of Rune Casting through books, casting Runes, and through research into ancient books and manuscripts for references to Runes.
Witches often use Runes to inscribe their name into magical tools due to the power of this magickal and mysterious form of writing. When Runes are used as a divination method they are normally carved on stone and carried in a pouch. The Runes are then pulled from the pouch and "cast" by the Witch. There are many ways you can cast Runes, and a lot of methods are very similar to the way tarot cards are read. These days you often see Runes printed on cards or even on dice. I have used stones and cards and I think that cards can't even compare to using stones. The aesthetics of using stones are to me an important thing, even though a good set can be costly.
These interpretations are from "The Book of Runes" by Ralph H. Blum:
Algiz - Protection - Sedge or Rushes - The Elk
Ansuz - Signals - The Messenger Rune - The God Loki
Berkana - Growth - Rebirth - The Birch Tree
Dagaz - Breakthrough - Transformation - Day
Ehwaz - Movement - Progress - The Horse
Eihwaz - Defense - Avertive Prowers - Yew Tree
Fehu - Posessions - Nourishment - Cattle
Gebo - Partnership - A Gift
Hagalz - Disruption - Elemental Power - Hail
Insuz - Fertility - New Beginnings, Ing, the Hero God
Isa - Standstill - Withdrawal - Ice
Jera - Harvest - Fertile Season - One Year
Kano - Opening - Fire - Torch
Laguz - Flow - Water - That Which Conducts
Mannaz - The Self
Nauthiz - Constraint - Necessity - Pain
Odin - The Unknowable - The Divine, Odin, the All-Father
Othila - Separation - Retreat - Inheritance
Perth - Initiation - Something Hidden - A Secret Matter
Raido - Journey - Communication - Union, Reunion
Sowelu - Wholeness - Life Force - The Sun's Energy
Teiwaz - The Warrior, Tiw, The Sky God
Thurisa - Gateway - Place of Non-Action - The God Thor
Uruz - Strength - Manhood, Womanhood, The Wild Ox
Wunjo - Joy - Light
Runes can be used to create 'spells' or bring influences to bear. I have carried a particular rune around for a couple of days, holding it in my hand, or in my pocket, as a way to invoke that power in my life, much like others carry crystals or images.