The Runes – A Shamanic Tool from Dreamtime
The Nordic shamanic tradition is part of the vast phenomenon called circumpolar shamanism made up primarily of different brands of Siberian, Inuit and Saami shamanism. The Saami spiritual tradition arose in the northern areas of Scandinavia and survives to this day as a living tradition in the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Nordic shamanism arose further south in Scandinavia among peoples of Indo-European origin. During long periods of time these traditions met and intermingled and today you can find many similarities between Saami shamanism and Nordic shamanism although both have very specific traits that differ. The last traces of the Nordic shamanic tradition faded away with the old men and women practicing popular medicine in the countryside towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Since the early 1980’s however there is an ongoing effort to recreate and renew the Nordic shamanic tradition with the help of core shamanic methods and with inspiration from the Saami tradition. One essential element of this effort is rune magic based on the original uthark system consisting of 24 runes.
I regard the runes as one of six sacred rites that were given as a gift from the holy beings in Dreamtime, in “distant times”. Unfortunately there is no living oral tradition about these rites but you can find references to them in different songs in The Poetic Edda. I must state that this book is a book of poems and not a religious document or shamanic handbook, but it contains fragments of very old stories and myths holding lots of shamanic knowledge. The sacred rites are utiseta (vision quest), blot (ceremony), seidr (soul journeying), galder (magic singing), ordskifte (wisdom competition) and rune magic which is the mother of all the other rites.
The runes have been used as a system of magic for at least 2000 years when skilled people made runic inscriptions on knives, spears, bracelets and cups for protection, victory and wellbeing. Many other ways of using them are described in the Edda songs. The original use of the runes was undoubtedly magic, purely magic. This use is much different and should not be mixed up with the use of runes on commemorative stones – a tradition that blossomed during the so called Viking age, 900-1100 C.E. especially in the central parts of Sweden. The rune stones represent an exoteric use of runes as an abstract alphabet. The esoteric, magical use of the runes was still performed as a more or less secret tradition among initiated rune magicians, rune masters.
Many scholars describe the runes as a rune row, but the runes should not be perceived as a linear system. The runes are cyclical, dynamic processes, living entities with will and personality. They can’t be portrayed as “a row”. Bear these things in mind if you read any books on rune magic. Bear also in mind that the magical use of the runes are based on a certain way of numbering them, i e which rune you consider to be number one, two, three and so on and which one you consider to be number 24. This is very important if you want to use the numerical magic aspects of the runes. I will come back to that later on and it will do now to mention that the name of the runic system depends on which rune you put first in your system. The name consists simply of the five or six first runes and you either refer to them as the uthark or futhark. I use the system as an uthark based in part on the research by the Swedish scholar Sigurd Agrell who wrote several books in the 1920’s and 1930’s on the magical use of the runes. 30 years of shamanic work with the runes have convinced me that this is the right way to get the most power from the runes.
The word runa (rune) has a complex meaning but I think that the most appropriate translation is “hidden, or secret, knowledge”. The runes contain knowledge on all things in the universe. They contain knowledge on the essence of all things. The runic system, the uthark, is a story about the origin, the quality and the essence of everything. The uthark is a map of the cosmos, an ever-changing map since the cosmos is in constant change. The runes are process and movement – one follows the other and there is neither beginning, nor end in the runic system. There is no polarity, no hierarchy among the runes. In the runic system one is transformed into the other. The uthark is identical with the cosmic web, that which is called Urd’s web. The runes are not letters, they are symbols of the energies that constitute the cosmos and they are these energies. The runes are everywhere, all the time.
I usually describe the runes as esoteric knowledge of Mother Earth, for Mother Earth. They are sacraments from Dreamtime, brought into this world as gifts from holy people like the norns, Oden and many others. This process is described in The Seeress’s Prophecy, the first song in The Poetic Edda:
I know an ash standing, her name
From there come maidens, much
The three “maidens” are the three norns – Urd, Verdandi and Skuld – who weave the cosmic web, Urd’s web, that everything is embedded in. In the process of weaving they are carving on wooden slips, which means that they are weaving the cosmic web using runes. So, in the Nordic shamanic tradition the runes are very much connected to female powers. But they are not exclusively brought into this world by female powers. The runes do balance female and male energies and beside the norns the runes are much connected to Oden and his shamanic initiation, hanging in the world tree (Yggdrasill) for nine consecutive days and nights without food or drink and wounded by his own spear. This is described in Sayings of the High One:
I know that I hung on a wind-blown tree,
nine long nights,
with a spear wounded, and to Oden dedicated,
myself to myself.
Bread no one gave me, nor a horn of drink,
downward I peered,
I took up the runes, wailing I took them,
then fell down thence.
Oden “took up” the runes, which means that he received them from Mother Earth and by saying that he took them “wailing”, he shows that the runes primarily are about sound – the holy wind, önd, vibrating through our vocal cords. Oden also describes the runes as stained by the mighty sage, made by the powerful gods, carved out by the runemaster of the gods:
Odin for the Aesir, and Dain, for the elves,
This secret knowledge is spread out in many dimensions of the non-ordinary reality, in Dreamtime. There is a very beautiful description of where you can find the runes in the Edda song The Lay of Sigrdrifa, where the valkyrie (warrior woman) Sigrdrifa teaches a young man, Sigurd, about the runes:
They are, it said, on the shield
Sigrdrifa mentions 24 places where the runes have been carved – one for each rune. They are all sorts of places: from the shield before the sun and the horses Arvaker and Alsvinn who pulls the sun across the sky to the claws, paws and beaks of wild (and shamanic) animals like the wolf, the bear, the eagle and the owl. And the runes have been sent wide ways among several different kinds of sacred beings. They are everywhere all the time.
The runes contain knowledge from all dimensions in Dreamtime and from all sorts of creatures in ordinary reality. Each of the 24 runes represents a separate power that is essential to the world as we know it. The uthark has its name after the “first” five runes: Ur, the creative primordial force, Thurs, the destructive primordial force, Ass, the holy wind, life-giving power, Reid, the power creating order, Ken, the power of fire and heat. There are runes representing the four directions (or the six directions if you prefer), the seasons, day and night, Mother Earth, Father Sky, the sun, minerals, plants, animals, water, rain, snow, ice, sexuality, fertility, planting, harvesting, harmony, love, joy, happiness, sacrifice, death, the shaman, transformation etc.
By using the runes you can tap into the knowledge and power of Mother Earth and of non-ordinary reality. The runes are doorways to Dreamtime. By sounding them, by singing them, you enter into an altered state of consciousness where you are accessible to the knowledge and power of Mother Earth and Dreamtime. Several traditional shamanic ways can be used to gain insight into the wisdom of the runes, e g spirit journeying to the realms in non-ordinary reality where runic knowledge is to be found (I guess most shamans would call this the upper world), vision quests together with runes, sleeping on runes, dreaming on runes or just contemplating runes, breathing runes or carrying runes (you carry wooden runes with you for a certain time).
When you have become skilled in using the runes you can contemplate them and depict them at the same time as you sing them, thereby reinforcing their power. Every rune has a specific sound and is connected to a specific cosmic vibration so by singing a rune you get access to the power connected to that specific rune. By singing e g gifu, the harmony rune, you bring your whole being into interplay with a strong harmonizing energy. By singing lagu, you connect to water and the powers of water, the night and the moon. By singing the whole uthark, all the 24 runes, you bring your being in harmony with all that is.
How do you sing the runes? Is that the same thing as reciting so called rune poems, that can be found in Icelandic as well as Anglo-Saxon traditions? No, this is not about reciting rune poems, which often have lost much of the original magic essence of the runes. This is about sounding the runes in a way that resonates with your body, with the environment, with “your” landscape, with Mother Earth and with Dreamtime. You just let the runes stream through your vocal cords and when doing that the runes will decide how to sound – low or high, shrill or somber, loud or soft. When singing the whole uthark you start with the first rune and continue through the system to the last rune with one following the other in an organic way, with one hooking into the next one. The most common way to sing the whole uthark is to do it three, four, six or nine rounds. All this means that the runes will be sung in different ways on different occasions.
How do you pronounce the runes? In Cosmology of the Uthark you can see their names and their pronunciations (which are identical) right after each rune sign. I pronounce them in Swedish. Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders will pronounce them somewhat different. How should an English speaking person pronounce them? My suggestion is: by trying to sound them with their Nordic names and letting the runes decide what works. I don’t think that it is possible to construct a workable phonetic system for the runes, but knowledge in German or Dutch ways of pronouncing might be of help. If you want to know how to sound and sing the runes you can listen here.
What about the meanings of the different runes? Where have I picked them up? The short explanations in Cosmology of the Uthark are very much based on traditional knowledge that has been expressed in the Edda songs and older literature on the runes. But what I write about the meaning of runes is to a great extent the result of many years of work with the runes, some of it done with core shamanic methods, i e by shamanic journeying. For a long period of time I was a member of a very ambitious and energetic group of shamans working close together to revive the Nordic shamanic tradition. Finding out about the runes, discussing the runes, using the runes was one of the main efforts of this group. What I write here is accordingly part of a collective body of knowledge. And remember: the word runa is about secret knowledge. There are things about the runes that are not to be disclosed even today.
How come that sound is so essential in Nordic shamanism? Part of the explanation can be found in the first song in The Poetic Edda when the seeress, who is a shaman, tells about the creation of the world out of emptiness:
Young were the years when Ymir made his settlement,
Ymir is the first creature to be created out of the vast emptiness called Ginnungagap in the primal embrace between heat and frost. Ymir was a giant and he was later slain by Oden and his two brothers who built the earth of the giant’s body parts. Ymir was The First One and his name means “the clamoring one”. First there was just emptiness and then there was heat and frost creating sound, so sound is really a constituting power in Nordic cosmic myth. This doen’t mean that Ymir created the world. It means that sound is a basic power constructing the world. When the norns were weaving the runes into the cosmic web we can assume that they were simultaneously sing the runes into the web. This process still continues and by singing the runes you connect to the primordial forces of the cosmos, you vibrate in resonance with everything else. In that way you can say that the runes are sound. And because sound is created by the primordial wind, the holy wind, önd, the runes are also wind, spirit.
By singing the runes you attune yourself to the cosmic web, to Urd’s web, thereby receiving the knowledge and power of the runes and thereby also transforming yourself and the world. Another way to say this is that you connect to the intelligence field of Mother Earth, you let Mother Earth’s power embrace you. This is a way of healing. By singing the runes you overcome the gap between yourself and the sacred, tuning into the sacred and, in fact, becoming sacred, whole, healed. You sing Mother Earth’s song as a creative co-actor in The Great Cosmic Cycle, in The Great Mystery.
The runes contain esoteric knowledge about the world and they are a philosophical tool that helps us to understand the world and its workings. But the runes are not only for understanding how everything works but also for doing magic, trying to influence the world, helping and healing people, animals, plants and Mother Earth. The runes are tools that enable us to intervene in the cosmic web. By using them in this respect they may function as an act of healing and an agent of change. Songs in The Poetic Edda give several hints about situations where the magic use of the runes might help, common to all shamanic traditions; healing physical and psychical ailments, reviving dead people, weather working, finding lost persons or objects, protecting from black magic, putting out fires, restraining hatred and bringing harmony, finding out the future etc. In this way the runes are a shamanic tool expressing knowledge and power that are common to and can be found in shamanic traditions worldwide.
There are strong ethic rules associated with the runes, what we can call a proper protocol. Oden himself states in Sayings of the High One:
Better not to pray, than to
sacrifice too much,
And in Sigrdrifa’s words:
Those are book-runes, those are
When using the runes for good, not asking too much or too often, i e using the runes in a humble and respectful way, then they will help bringing harmony and balance, which in itself is an ongoing, dynamic process.
There are several ways to use the runes as magic tools. The main method is singing them, just like singing them is a way to receive their knowledge. You can sing the runes over a person that needs healing. You can sing them and at the same time draw the runes with your fingertips on or over the body of your client. Such a ceremony can also be performed as distance healing. Then you still sing the runes out loud, simultaneously sketching them with your fingertips in front of you and visualizing how they travel to the client. Runes can also be sent to the intended recipient through the elements water, earth and fire. You just draw them with your fingertips in water or in the earth as you sing them. If you want to use fire you could sketch the runes on paper and burn the paper as you sing the runes.
My personal runic protocol is very simple: 1) I create a sacred space/circle by greeting the six directions and asking the spirits of the place for permission to perform the ceremony, 2) I sing the whole uthark one or three or four rounds to root myself in the earth and attune myself to the cosmic web, 3) I send the runes to those I want to help (persons, animals, plants, places or Mother Earth) by singing them and sketching them in the air in front of me, 4) I complete the ceremony by singing the uthark as a kind of blessing-way, 5) I thank the place, Mother Earth, the runes and all spirits that have helped me and leave a small gift.
Can you use the drum together with runes? Absolutely! It can be an earthshaking experience to drum and simultaneously sing the runes. In fact the runes can be combined with all possible shamanic methods. How do I know which runes to use in a magic ceremony? By intuition, by making a spirit journey or just by asking the runes.
Do the runes always help? That is a very complex question to answer. I guess that one answer is that they are just as helpful as any other shamanic method and that the main thing in all shamanic work is to create or recreate harmony and balance. Sometimes the runes help, sometimes they don’t – and you can’t always tell why. The runes are living entities, they do have a mind and a will of their own and they decide if and when they want to help. We can pray and we can ask, but we can’t command the runes. However I have seen them heal and protect. Once I visited a Saami shaman in Kautokeino in northern Norway. He had promised to take me to a magic spot just below a sacred mountain the next day. When I arrived he had caught a severe cold and didn’t feel like coming along but was willing to change his mind if I could help him get well. He sat down in front of me, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply to let some runes come into my mind. Then I wrote two or three of them on his forehead at the same time as I sang them out loud. Next morning he was extremely energetic and took me to the sacred mountain where I had a very shocking experience which is quite another story. Did I cure him? I would say: no, the runes did, Mother Earth did.
I have also, alone as well as together with friends, been able to use runes to protect areas and places that have faced exploitation of some kind, e g clearcutting or peat cutting, or to heal places that have been exploited or desecrated, e g ancestral places of worship. When healing a place it is important to sing strong runes of harmony and balance and I always prefer to sing the whole uthark, three or four times.
I could mention more instances of how the runes do help but the runes really don’t want to talk about these things in public and I prefer not to violate their proper protocol.
Divination with the runes is perhaps the most famous aspect of rune magic. Yes, they are a powerful divinatory tool. But a very complex tool. The runes never answer yes or no to a question. You have to put your question in such a way that the runes start telling you things. You can simply ask for guidance or you can word your question as how, why, what? Any wording that inspires the runes to answer and talk and tell. The runes will show the essence of your relation to the world, your connection to the cosmic web and the potential of your present situation. Of course you can ask the runes on behalf of other persons. There are three main draws or castings of runes: 1) Oden’s draw, 2) the draw of the norns and 3) the draw of the nine worlds. If you have your runes in a medicine bag you draw one, three or nine runes, depending on how complex an answer you want. Another way of doing divination is by casting the runes on a cloth and then pick up one, three or nine runes.
In Oden’s draw or casting only one rune is picked so the wording of your question is very important. In the draw of the norns you pick three runes that will tell you a) what has brought about the present situation, b) what choices of action you have and c) what kind of outcome is probable if you act like suggested in b). The draw of the nine worlds is a variation of this draw. You simply pick three runes to answer each of the three aspects above (“past-present-future”).
Some people working with rune divination claim that it doesn’t matter which runes you draw, because all runes have something important to tell when asked. My opinion is that the runes have a life of their own, they have will and personality, i e spirit, and therefore the runes you receive are not a matter of chance. You receive exactly the runes that you need. The problem is that the message can be hard to decode and difficult to face.
When divining with runes I do use 25 and not 24 runes. The 25th rune is a non-rune, without sound and form, a rune of paradox. It is called The Empty One or The Unknowable. The Empty One is not mentioned anywhere in the old texts. It is a new creation of the 20th century, although it suits extremely well into the archaic system. You could say that The Empty One is the rune of Ginnungagap (Emptiness) or that it is the emptiness that brings forth the uthark. It is not a part of the uthark – it precedes the uthark. Why use it divination? In a way The Empty One means nothing, but at the same time it means everything. When drawing this non-rune the uthark tells you that you are facing something that could be quite shocking – a jump into the void. Or the uthark simply tells you that it won’t or can’t answer your question.
The uthark is a map of the cosmos. How do you depict a map that is a process in ever-changing movement? What comes closest to this dynamic stream or flow of energy is an open-ended spiral – although also this depiction is very approximate.
30 years now I have been trying to incorporate the runes in my shamanic work
and in my life. This has been an adventure, and it still is. The runes have a
life of their own and they do continuously surprise me. Still.
Jörgen I Eriksson, March 2012
Agrell, Sigurd: The Runic Numerical Magic and Its Antique Prototype (Lund 1927)
Ellis Davidson, Hilda: The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (London 1993)
Eriksson, Jörgen I: Rune Magic and Shamanism (Umeå 2012)
Price, Neil S: The Viking Way (Uppsala 2002)
The Poetic Edda (translated by Carolyne Larrington). Oxford 1996.
(This article was originally written for The Journal of Shamanic Practice)
Details on my book Rune Magic and Shamanism – Original Nordic Knowledge from Mother Earth can be found here.