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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Runes for Divination - the History

In modern times runes are fairly well established as a means of divination, but are often criticized in Heathenry for not being historically used for that purpose. The truth is that we know the ancient pagan Norse and Germans used a system of lots for divination, but we don't know with certainty that the marks on the lots where runes, nor what each rune may have been interpreted to mean. We do, however, know that runes were used for magical purposes so it's not completely unrealistic to believe that the runes used so extensively in magic might also have been used as the marks on lots.
The Havamal says:
 "Hidden Runes shalt thou seek and interpreted signs,
many symbols of might and power,"
Which at least hints at the possible use of runes for divination.
Tacitus tells us:
"For auspices and the casting of lots they have the highest possible regard. Their procedure in casting lots is uniform. They break off a branch of a fruit-tree and slice it into strips; they distinguish these by certain runes and throw them, as random chance will have it, on to a white cloth. Then the priest of the State if the consultation is a public one, the father of the family if it is private, after a prayer to the gods and an intent gaze heavenward, picks up three, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the runes scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there can be no further consultation that day; if they allow it, further confirmation by auspices is required."
Tacitus, Germania
 From this we can gather that the casting of lots was considered an important method to obtain answers to questions, especially those of ritual or communal importance. We also see that in Germania wood from a fruit tree was used and the runes were prepared fresh before each use. The exact ritual described involves throwing all the runes onto a white cloth and then looking up and blindly choosing three to answer teh question being asked.
  In a modern setting runes are certainly used and generally the meanings, at least for those with a more reconstructionist bent, are based on the old rune poems. These poems which come from Iceland, Norway, and Anglo-Saxon England can be found here and while they were likely originally a mneumonic device for learning the alphabet (or futhark as it were) offer insight into things associated with each runic symbol. These associations can be expanded out into meanings that can be associated with teh rune fo ruse in divination. There are also many good books on the market today that offer ideas and share the author's insight into possible divinatory meanings of each rune. I tend to recommend Diana Paxson's book Taking Up the Runes because it includes references and quotes from many other well-known authors as well as all of the original rune poems.

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