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What are the Runes?

Runes are the letters of the ancient runic alphabets. They functioned much like the letters in our alphabet; each represented a sound and could be written out to express the spoken word.

Before writing systems became popular, people's histories and traditions were passed down orally. There were many Runic scripts in use when the Romans first encountered the tribes in the region. Many of these peoples, their languages and traditions were quickly Latinized. Or, in some cases, done away with altogether. This makes studying them almost impossible.

My personal favourite Runic alphabet is the Elder Futhark, the first written Germanic language. We have many detailed accounts of the Germanic peoples by the Romans; we have their alphabet, and we have evidence of its use on jewellery, weapons, armour and stones dotting the landscape. We've unlocked all the secrets now? Right? Well, in my opinion, still no.

Here's the problem. The Elder Futhark represents the sounds of the "Proto-Germanic language." That's just a fancy placeholder for a vast network of people who had used mostly the same symbols, had mostly the same language and were doing it at mostly the same time. The simple answer is this: Proto-Germanic isn't one language, it's a network of them, and none of the languages within the network are known to us 100%.

So then, what do we know? Lots. Plenty enough for generations of more study and exploration. We know the languages that inspired these runes, like the early Italic scripts, Latin, Greek and Etruscan. Some even believe the Egyptian hieroglyphs and their sibling scripts were influential in the runes' creation. The area in which these Proto-Germanic peoples lived was vast and bordered many regions and people with their own writing systems.

We know some words from artifacts and old texts, but much of what we know we borrowed from sibling systems of the runes. We also get a lot of insight from studying the languages the runes evolved into. By exploring all the people, places and systems that Germanic peoples encountered, we can better begin to unlock the secrets of their runes.

However, the first thing you'll notice when you look at historical rune evidence is there is little consistency in how the Futhark was used. Evidence from region to region may show wildly different uses of the same runes. Let me give you just a few examples.

We see overt discrepancies in the directions of individual runes. Sometimes a rune is depicted facing left, sometimes right, and sometimes it is inverted. There is no one rule as to when, where and why these variants happen. In writing, we see runic inscriptions written right to left, left to right, boustrophedon (going from one way to the other, snaking back and forth), and top to bottom, making it more difficult to catalogue and understand them as a definitive system. But I think that's the beauty of them.

They aren't one definitive system; they are an immense network of people with different histories and traditions, different accesses and skills, all sharing a similar motive. To communicate, to preserve history, tradition and to share and trade.

The runes allowed the Germanic people to communicate effectively enough to trade, explore and migrate further into the unknown. Their runes were a tool that could create incredible works. These people didn't always get along with each other and were constantly fighting off invaders and the elements. Despite all this, they came together to communicate, share, learn, trade and explore. Beautiful, right?

This explains why there are so many differing opinions on the runes. I think that's great and should be celebrated. However, this open-source access has inevitably created some darker Futhark and seen some make claims to runes for supremacy, hate, or oppression. I hate this, but let's not end on that note.

I didn't bring you all this way to not talk about divination. Here's a quick run-through of the runes in their history in divination and auguring. Many of the systems that we use today originated around the 1980s. The oldest systems we still commonly use were written in and possibly created around the 17th century. There was a sort of Runic renaissance.

Many claim there is evidence in the Eddas, the famous stories from the Northlands. The rune references in there are about the power of individual runes; and the power, use and significance of some bind runes. There is authentic Runic divination evidence even earlier than the Viking Age, though. Tacitus, a Roman historian, recorded some Germanic people using the runes to divine guidance on matters. And so that's what I think we should use them for today.

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