The Origin of the Runes

The Viking civilization which thrived from the 6th to the 12th century made extensive use of Runes. The word Viking is derived from a Nordic word meaning ‘adventurer’ or ‘explorer’, for what characterized these Scandinavian people was their maritime achievements in exploring vast areas of waterways and uncharted seas in their elaborately built wooden sailing boats. Traveling shamans accompanied many of these vessels, so with them went knowledge of the Runes and myths and legends regarding their origin. Myths are attempts to explain in allegorical stories how life began and developed on this planet and how events that took place in past Ages had a subsequent effect on the human condition. They were conveyed to illiterate peoples by word of mouth and passed on orally from generation to generation.

Mythology is an unscientific way of explaining how the Universe came into being and the interrelationship between the fundamental powers of Nature and how they function. A myth expresses in poetic or narrative form underlying principles rather than literal truths, and thus appeals to the intuitive rather than the logical senses and stimulates feeling rather than the intellect.

The difference between a myth and a legend is that a myth usually relates to a non-ordinary reality — an Otherworld — whereas a legend is concerned with human activity in ordinary reality. It is possible that myths were part of a racial memory of an earlier ‘civilization’ and presented in a form that the descendants of the survivors of a worldwide natural ecological catastrophe could relate to. Indeed sacred writings also contain references to a civilization of prehistory that was destroyed by an ecological disaster. Noah’s flood in the Old Testament is an example.

Runes are presented in the myths of the Eddas as no invention of the human mind, but as something already in existence, waiting only to be re-discovered and revealed. What is not clear from these mythological accounts is whether the Odin who recovered them was a celestial or an extraterrestrial being, or a shaman who was later deified as a result of his achievements. The relevance of the accounts, however, is not affected by whichever of these alternatives is believed.

The poem Havamal (meaning ‘Song of the High One’) in the Elder Edda describes how Odin, in an attempt to gain something of value for mankind, experienced a self-imposed ordeal by hanging upside down on a tree for nine days and nights without food or drink, pierced by his own spear. During his suffering he lost an eye but found the Runes, which were revealed as a gift to humanity from the non-ordinary reality of shamanic experience. They provided a means of acquiring knowledge about the hidden forces of Nature and the processes that enable manifestation to take place. They enabled the development of perception to reach out beyond the range of the physical senses — a ‘seeing’ with the Spirit through the opening of ‘inner’ eyes, and a ‘listening’ to unheard sounds through the opening of ‘inner’ ears. Personal transformation was possible because the Runes themselves are great transforming powers.

The following is taken from the Poetic Edda (1200 AD), Translated from the Old Norse. An account of Odin's Experience:

Down to the deepest depths I peered
I know I hung on that windy tree,
Swung there for nine long nights
Wounded by my own blade
Bloodied for Odin.
Myself an offering to myself
Bound to the tree
that no man knows
Wither the roots of it ran.
None gave me bread.
None gave me drink.
Down to the deepest depths I peered
Until I spied the Runes
With a Roaring cry I seized them up
Then dizzy and fainting I fell
Well-being I won
And wisdom too
From a word to a word
I was led to a word
From a deed to another deed.

Why did Odin hang upside down on the tree? This question is largely ignored by writers of books on the Runes, yet Odin was clearly endeavoring to convey some important knowledge.
The account of Odin hanging on a tree has similarities with the Crucifixion story. Indeed, Christianity became acceptable to the Nordic people partly because Jesus' suffering on the cross reminded them of Odin’s ordeal and that he too had been pierced by a spear. But one difference was that Odin was suspended upside down!

Hanging upside down on the tree may be regarded as the action of a martyr willing to sacrifice his own life in furtherance of the truth, and as a sign of readiness to put aside the Ego in order to receive a greater wisdom. Facing downwards on the tree and looking towards the roots may be interpreted as symbolic of seeing into the depths of the Unconscious, where lies hidden the potential of everything that is manifested — or an expression of Death, or transition of awareness from the external activity of physical existence to that of rest and renewal as a preliminary to rebirth. Odin’s sacrifice of the Ego-self for the greater good of the Higher Self may have provided the power to spark that sudden flash of inspiration — that insight, that inner seeing which enabled a vision of the Runes to be experienced. But there was more to it than that. Let us consider further.

Although there is an affinity between humans and trees, their characteristics and functions are reversed. For instance, the leaves of a tree take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and give out oxygen. The lungs of a human being, on the other hand, breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Trees have their roots in the earth and their reproductive system — their flowers and fruit — at the top of the trunk. The human reproductive system is at the base of the trunk and the ‘stem’ and ‘roots’ are in the head, for whilst nourishment of the physical body comes from the Earth, the source of life — which is in the Spirit — is from the Universe, and it is in the head that consciousness is nurtured and individual personal development is realized. Micho Kushi, in The Book of Macrobiotics writes: ‘It is more accurate to say that we hang down from heaven than stand on earth.’

So Odin, through his shamanic experience, was demonstrating that our roots are the brain cells, and our structure and constitution, though physical, are essentially spiritual, but we are suspended between the two. Odin was thus conveying an understanding of the energetic nature of human life and teaching us that the purpose of human life is to harmonize the forces of Heaven and Earth so that body, mind, Soul and Spirit function harmoniously and in unison. His experience was to indicate that whilst, in physical reality, growth is outward and expanding, in the non-ordinary reality of the Spirit, growth is inward towards its own seed and source, until the physical and the spiritual become integrated.

The tree on which Odin was suspended is called in Northern mythology ‘the Tree of Yggdrasil’ (pronounced ‘Yag-drill’) which symbolized the Tree of Life. The Old Norse word Ygg is said by some writers to be another name for Odin, but I understand that a better translation is the word ‘I’ — the identity of the essential Spirit within. The word drasil can be translated as ‘steed’, but its sense is that of a carrier or transporter. So ‘the steed of I’ is the vehicle that conveys the essential Spirit — the shaper and creator — through a journey of life and experience within a multidimensional Reality in order that it may be cultivated to transcend that which is human. The Tree of Yggdrasil is thus the Tree of I’s Existence, in and out of Time.

Before we look at how the Runes were revealed to Odin and what it was he experienced as he looked down into the hidden depths of the Unconscious, we should note that a Caucasian shaman in the Northern tradition was also known as a ‘staff carrier’ or ‘staves carrier’. A staff might be likened to a walking stick, and sometimes the features of a horse’s head were carved into its top or attached there. Indeed, a child’s hobbyhorse is an adaptation of the shaman’s staff, which some believed was the means by which travel into other dimensions of existence — into realms beyond ‘ordinary’ physical and mental reality — became possible. It was the forerunner of the witch’s broomstick. In times of persecution ordinary household items served as substitutes for shamanic tools. The broomstick stood in for the shaman’s staff. It had, however, no magickal power in itself but was a symbolic representation of different levels, planes or conditions of existence, and boundaries in between — root, stem and branch.

For special occasions a female Runic shaman is said to have worn a dress with embroidered hems and a necklace of amber beads, plus bones or shells. She also wore a shawl that hung in nine tails — one for each of the nine levels or enclosures of reality. Her headdress contained the antlers of an elk or reindeer and she was shod with soft leather, fur-lined boots like moccasins. In addition to a drum and rattle she carried a staff topped with a representation of a horse’s head and banded with Runes. The staff was not only a symbol of office but also a representation of the Tree of Existence — Yggdrasil. Other women Runic practitioners or seers wore similar outfits; some had cloaks made from animal skins with a hood lined with fur which could be pulled down over the eyes for ritual purposes.



Although there are two distinct ways of working with the Runes — either for one’s own benefit and empowerment, even at the expense of others, or as a means of personal development, in harmony and balance with the forces of Nature and the Universe — the two became less defined as practitioners pursued their own individual paths. The distinction could only be discerned in the way Runic practitioners operated, and in the effect of their workings — for good or ill — in their own lives and in those of others whom they influenced. I have used the term ‘Runic shaman’ to distinguish those who worked with the Runes in their natural sequence — rather than in the so-called ‘traditional’ Futhark order adopted by the Runic magician.

Runic shamans regarded the Runes as ‘a gift of the divine’, not simply because of the way they were revealed to Odin but because, like any form of writing, they were a means of imparting knowledge and wisdom. The Runes were thus understood to be a divine revelation, given in love, and intended to bring benefits to humankind through an understanding of how Nature functioned and how the patterns that are within Nature are also within human beings.

~~ Source Unknown ~~