Learning the Runes – A Few Tips to Those Starting Out

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One of the key mysteries of our tradition is that of the runes. The word itself, rúnrúnar (1) means just that: ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Our high God Odin (Oðinn) hung on Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days in agony, pierced by His own spear, a sacrifice to Himself. The result of this ordeal was acquisition of the runes and the knowledge and ability to wield them. There is much the story doesn’t tell us, starting with where the runes originate, what they are, and what their connection to the fabric of creation might be. 

I talk about all of these things in my book Living Runes, so I won’t focus on that too much in this post. In short, I think they originate in the Ginnungagap, are a family of living, sentient spirits, and are worked into the architecture of existence in numerous ways, creating loopholes through which the holy can seep (or work) again and again. When I think about this, they’re so often in motion, coursing through creation the way platelets, plasma, and blood cells course through our veins. They may rivet the more liminal parts of creation in place, or they may whirl and dance through the world working His will and their own. I think it varies and it’s something I’m still exploring in my own practice.  

What I wanted to discuss today is one of the techniques that I employed when I was first learning how to really engage with the runes. This is also something that I give to my apprentices when they are learning the runes for themselves. Usually, this is done after one has initially met the runes through offerings and galdr – a round 1 of ‘getting to know you,’ shall we say. Once a student has passing familiarity with the runes, knows what they are, has maybe galdred a bit, or meditated with them, once he or she has his or her own devotional relationships to Gods and ancestors securely established (2), when that student is ready for the second round of in-depth engagement, this is what I have each of my apprentices do (and no, this isn’t in my book). I do this myself every now and again myself. One never stop learning after all!

Before I describe this, I want to offer one caveat. If you are going to do this, begin with Odin. He is Master of the Runes (Rúnatýr – God of the runes) and they are first and foremost His mysteries. Afterwards, next approach the Deity or Deities in turn to whom you are dedicated, Whom you would consider your fulltrui, Who hold the most significant place in your personal devotions. This is simply a matter of both protocol, and courtesy and respect. 

Now, onto the exercise. 

A). Make a list of the various Deities that you venerate or Whose insight you might be interested in gaining with respect to the runes. For instance, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Loki, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Heimdall, Mani, Sunna, Sinthgunt, Eir. (Make your own list, starting with Odin. This is just an example, though it’s close to the list one of my apprentices recently employed). 

B). Each night, meditate upon and galdr the same rune, first making offerings to one of these Deities, and then to the rune itself. So, start with Fehu. Set up a working altar or shrine, some place where you can make offerings to the rune of the night and to whatever Deity you’re approaching. If you have a personal household shrine (and if you’re doing this, you should (3)), you can go ahead and use that. The first night, make an offering to Odin. Offer prayers to Him and ask Him if He would be willing to teach you something about fehu. Make an offering to fehu itself, asking it if it would work with Odin and teach you something about itself. Then galdr the rune, meditate on it, write down your insights. Thank the two powers, Deity and rune invoked, and you are done for the night. Work through your list of Deities meditating on the *same* rune. When you’re done, move on to the next rune and go through the list again in the same order. 

What you’re essentially doing is building your own book of correspondences as you engage in this process. I would also repeat this, either approaching the same Deities or perhaps with a new list (though always begin with Odin. He is the doorway to the runes in many respects), every few months. Be polite when you approach both Powers. You are not after all, entitled to Their wisdom. As with anything, the more polite you are, the more productive this is likely to be. Even having worked with the runes for close to thirty years, I still keep this in mind every time I approach them. At the end of your list, or even somewhere in the middle of it, do one night where you do NOT approach a Deity, but work only through the rune itself. 

I stumbled on this process of approaching various Deities like this accidentally. I was having a bit of trouble with something and struggling to figure out how to work the rune I had decided to call upon. Completely unexpectedly, Sigyn sorted it out giving me an unexpected bit of insight. I thought, ‘wait. You know runes?’ Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – She is a Deity after all –but when we have deeply personal devotional relationships with our individual Gods, it can be easy to forget that They are well, Gods. It can be easy to think that we know Them as we might know a friend down the way. We may indeed know a little given that relationships are mutual processes, but no matter how much experience we have in devotion to a Deity, THEY are always so much more. 

One of the things that I really like about this particular exercise also, is that it allows the one doing it the opportunity to approach Deities he or she may not have previously considered approaching. It allows for a potential devotional relationship to bloom. It gets one out of one’s comfort zone, away from the regular way of doing things and allows room for unexpected insights to occur. 

There are things to consider when you are engaging in this process: how does the rune feel? When you galdr, do you get any images running through your mind, any words popping up wanting to be worked into the galdr, any other sensory expressions of its presence (and that may include taste and smell too)? How do you feel before, during, and after? Has your impression of the rune changed at all? Do your best to keep a good record of this. It is helpful when you’re going back to check your progress. Be sure to stay hydrated and maybe eat a little protein after your nightly sessions. I would also be sure to center and ground well afterwards.

 Finally, the futhark tells a story. Each Aett (4) contains its own mysteries. It is normal that some runes will prove harder and more difficult to access than others. That’s ok, and the reverse is also true. Most will have one or two runes stepping forward as a guide through the futhark and through one’s work therein. When you encounter a rune that just won’t open, that’s ok. Be respectful, do your best, make your offerings and come back to it later. There are runes (for me, mostly in the third aett) that have taken years before they allowed me to so much as dip a toe into their mysteries. Again, as with so much spirit-work, you’re building a relationship. Part of the process of learning to work with runes is that they are learning your mental patterns, internal language, internal symbol set and you are learning something of theirs and the two of you are building this pidgin (is that the correct linguistic term?) by which you can communicate. You’re learning each other’s language and building a shared syllabary through which you can productively communicate. That’s going to take time. Some things cannot be rushed. 

Before I close, I want to take a moment’s focus on the first aett. As with our sacred texts, there are numerous ways that one can approach and interpret the narratives that we’re given. Since there are numerous patterns in the way the runes relate to each other, one can tell many stories. While these stories are not direct engagement with the runic powers, they are a means of conceptualizing and learning from them. They are doorways into each rune’s power. Here is a very brief way of reading through the first aett connectively. Fehu is the luck that flows through our blood (ancestral luck, hamingja), vitality, wealth, abundance, power. Like a sap through a tree or chlorophyll through a leaf, it flows through our veins and the veins of our soul body giving it life – just like Loður gave us sense-awareness and color, and the roaring pulse of our heart’s blood when the Gods created humanity. Uruz is raw power, maegen, the ability to tap into, access, and use one’s luck. It is initiation that awakens us to the Powers, challenge by which we earn the right to use what we have been given. Thurisaz is a challenge to focus, to discipline, to hone and temper our power. It’s the hard work we do to strengthen our spiritual and ethical muscles. It is the force that shatters our illusions,  clears us out, devours what no longer serves, frees one – sometimes violently – from constraints, burns like napalm in the soul until we order ourselves rightly and leave our bullshit behind. (Edited 3/7 to include ansuz, as I was writing with a migraine and accidentally left one of my favorite runes out). Ansuz is divine inspiration, ecstasy (in the classical religious sense), surety and confidence in the Work. It is the touch of the Gods, grace that allows us to persevere in our spiritual becoming even when it is hard. It is the opener of the way, that, if we are working to become rightly ordered, will show us the way forward. Raido is movement, momentum, overcoming of obstacles, the progress made when we accomplish the first three runic lessons and are rightly ordered with the Powers, and the power by which we may find our way through any obstacles in the way of that. Kenaz is the torch, the hearth fire, the offering fire, a candle on a shrine, the light of knowledge, piety, and devotion. It is that which we have been given to tend, to keep fed and bright and warm (our devotion, our traditions). Gebo is the process of exchange between us and the Holy powers, the law by which we are called to live our lives, the pious sensibility underlying every positively ordered engagement with the Powers, and with each other. Wunjo is the fulfillment of fehu, pleasure and ecstatic awareness of the powers, perfection and glory, joy and transformative power. It is the sum total of the other seven runes in this aett. One cannot access the fullness of wunjo, without first accessing and understanding these preceding runes. Wunjo is also the mead of inspiration, of frenzy, of magic, of inspiration on every possible level. How will you drink of it, how will it shape itself to your mind and talents? It will enliven you for the work to come with the next aett, which takes us down immediately into the place of the dead. This is the foundational work one must do in order to access the Mysteries, in order to be of use to our Gods, in order to become functionally realized human beings. It is ongoing work, and the runes can reflect that, though they are also so much more (5). I would also stress that this is only one way of lightly tapping into their insights. 

I’ll wrap this up for now. As all rune work begins with Odin, so too should it end with praises to this God Who had the will to win them. 

Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.

Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.

Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.

Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,

Eternally let us praise Him.

Notes: 

  1. These are the nominative and genitive singular forms respectively. 
  2. It goes without saying that the runes are a specialty, as well as being a Mystery all their own, and not only does one not have to work with the runes to be a good Heathen, but those who don’t already have their spiritual houses, i.e. their devotional world, in some semblance of order, should not work with them. They are tools of magic and divination and it becomes very complicated, very quickly. 
  3. Really, if you don’t have the most basic devotional space set up and active in your home, you’re not ready to work with the runes no matter how far along you think you are. 
  4. This word just refers to a set of eight. There are three sets of eight that make up the elder futhark. 
  5. They are sentient, amoral, non-human spirits. They have their own agendas and are allied to the All-Father Who also has His agenda. It’s healthy to never forget that. 
AM 28 8vo, Codex runicus

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on March 6, 2021, in devotional work, Esoterica, Heathenry, Lived Polytheism, Ritual Work, Spirit Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. So here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask: should only devotees of Odin work with the runes? I keep on running into people that try to work with the runes but they have nothing to do with Odin. I find this disrespectful. I might be misremembering but I believe you said that there are eschatological consequences too in working with the runes. Is that true? Thanks

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    • ganglerisgrove

      I think that if you aren’t working within the Northern Tradition you have no business touching the runes. They are sacred mysteries specific to THIS tradition. I don’t think you need to belong to Odin, however…though it is important to honor Him and understand that all runic roads eventually lead to Him. So first and last He should be consulted. But one can belong to another Deity and study the runes in this capacity. For instance, my current apprentice belongs to Freya. There’s no conflict there. She honors Odin when it is appropriate and certainly when she’s doing rune work.

      Let me think about the second question. It is a more complicated response.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Eschatology has to do with theological approaches to death and salvation, end of the world, what happens after, etc. so it’s a pretty big topic. I believe — not based on lore but on decades of working with the runes — that the spirits the symbols on our rune tines represent–are an integral part of the infrastructure of creation. I think they are embedded in it in ways that allow the sacred to constantly eke through, and I think they move freely along its architectural structure. For rune workers, particularly those owned by Odin, the initiations we undergo and the work that we do with them and for Him does have an impact on our afterlife — just like initiation into the Bacchic mysteries impacts the final destination of those who undergo it. These things are not just happy rituals that we might undertake. They have deep consequences for the future trajectories of our souls. THAT is one of the primary things an initiation does. 

      *big exhale* So, in two ways, yes, I ascribe significant eschatological import to the runes: 1. if they are removed from the fabric of creation, I believe that the very infrastructure itself would grow brittle and crumble. Runes keep it vital in a unique way. When I’m feeling better (bad pain day today), maybe i’ll write something on that; also, 2. for those who work with the runes as vitkar in service to Odin, there may be obligations incurred and initiations undergone that affect our final destinations. Does that make sense, Tetrad? 

      Either way, they’re not a game. They’re Mysteries and need to be treated with that reverence. Scholars may approach the runes solely as an alphabet. That is fine. For them, that is all the runes will ever be. We, however, are looking past their most literal iteration, behind the curtain, so to speak, and are dealing with the spirits that work through those symbols. It’s a different universe with very different stakes. 

      good questions!

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  2. Galina, thank you so much for the lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Galina – what happened to Ansuz? Did you intentionally omit Ansuz, or do I need more coffee?

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    • ganglerisgrove

      I had a migraine when I was writing this. In trying to work through that, I left out one of my favorite runes. thanks for catching it.

      Liked by 1 person

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