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Runic Divination

by Arlea Hunt-Ansch├╝tz

Runic divination, or rune-casting, tends to employ a 'set of runes'. Each letter making up one of the Germanic runic alphabets is carved, painted, or printed onto small tokens made of clay, wood, stone, etc. Generally the alphabet used is the Elder Futhark which is made up of 24 runic letters; thus most rune sets contain 24 tokens (commercial sets sometimes add a 'blank rune' as well). These tokens can be randomised for divination purposes in several ways. For example, they can be drawn a from a bag, tossed onto a cloth, or arranged in various 'spreads'. The meanings of the runic characters are then interpreted by the rune- reader. Correspondences between runic characters and their traditional meanings are found in the Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems. These poems were recorded in medieval times, but may be pre-Christian in origin. Each lists all the letters in a runic alphabet, along with an associated verse. For example, the verse in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem associated with the rune gyfu, 'gift', tells us that "Gift is honour and praise, support and worship for men, and for everyone wretched it is respect and sustenance that they would otherwise be lacking." Thus, a rune-reader might interpret the presence of gyfu (or, to use its common Germanic name, gebo) in a runecast to indicate that the querant was soon to receive a gift, award or donation.

Though runic-divination systems had been described in various 'occult' books during the 1970s, they gained widespread popularly with the 1982 publication of The Book of Runes by Ralph Blum which came boxed with a bag of rune tokens. A wave of books soon followed which offered various divination systems for use with rune sets, either invented by the author or adopted from other traditional forms of divination, particularly tarot. While many authors of popular books on runic divination expanded on the meanings found in the rune poems, some abandoned or ignored the rune poems altogether and invented entirely new meanings for each rune.

Though runic divination is often described as an 'ancient Viking oracle', we have no evidence that it was ever practised by pre- Christian Germanic cultures. There is no ancient or medieval reference to divination that specifically involves 'runes', nor has archaeology uncovered any ancient sets of tokens with individual runic characters inscribed on them. A passage from the Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus, oft cited in books on runic divination, describes the ritual drawing of lots by a priest who interprets the meanings of signs carved into wooden slips. However we have no way of knowing whether the signs (Latin notis) were runic characters. Later references to Viking Age heathens practising divination by the drawing of lots are similarly vague.

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