Greetings and welcome back to Journeys! This month we explore the runes of the Elder Futhark and their analogies with the Western zodiac signs.
Following both a recent visit by a friend to Scandinavia and a conversation with another friend on rune magic, both of which coincided with the unearthing of some old journals in storage, I came across some notes from 30 years ago which I wanted to share with you this month. I have been using the runes since that time in the early 90s although not religiously, so to speak. They are part of my magical toolbox and form part of my understanding of the cosmos. I occasionally turn to them for guidance and contemplate them in my meditations.
The runes are both an alphabet and a divinatory and magical symbol set. The Elder Futhark is a set of 24 runes (letters) and is the earliest stage of this alphabet that we know of. The language itself is little understood and mostly forgotten now. The earliest known inscriptions that we have come from Denmark and date to around 160 A.D. and the language itself was in use until around the 8th century when it was replaced by the Younger Futhark (which had fewer letters) and the Anglo Saxon Futhark (which had more). However the Elder Futhark was almost certainly in use centuries before these earliest inscriptions and therefore predates the time of Christ.
The names of the runes are not provided in Elder Futhark and have to instead be reconstructed from rune poems written in the later Futhark. The 24 letters of the alphabet are associated with concepts and deities which were important to the people who used the language. These concepts and deities also embodied magical properties, the powers and qualities of the letter and the concept being inseparable. We have to remember also that in these early centuries language was regarded as a magical thing by many people. Knowing how to read and write was not commonplace but beyond this arcana the runes had secrets which only magical initiates, called vitki, could penetrate or understand. According to legend the runes were delivered to the people by Odin who was suspended upside down on the Tree of Life with a self inflicted spear wound for nine days and nights before receiving them in a vision. Probably this is an account of a shamanic vision quest in which the magical properties of the alphabet were unearthed, although the spear wound and the nine days of hanging upside down (a method of inducing visions through blood pooling in the head, giddiness and blood sacrifice) are likely not metaphorical. The runes are meant to be spoken. In this respect rune magic can be considered a mostly lost tradition of the northern European practice of magical utterance, with the utterance of the runes conveying divine power. Since it was mostly an oral tradition, the practice has been lost to the mists of time and the Akasha, known to the Norse as the Well of Mimir, to which Odin gave an eye for a draught of its wisdom.
As mentioned many of the runes are connected to Norse gods, who are as in many cultures mythological representations of the planets. Odin for example is a planetary expression of the essential meaning of Saturn – he is an authoritative All Father, he has a beard, a cloak, a pointy hat and is wizened but stern, he has two magical ravens who spy everything for him (Huginn – ‘Thought’ and Muninn – ‘Memory’ or ‘Mind’), he has one eye (the other was sacrificed in return for wisdom) and he endures hanging upside down for nine days. Likewise, Thor is a deity of Jupiter, Loki of Mercury, Freya of Venus, Tyr of Mars, Balder of the Sun. However the Norse were not particularly astrological and these associations are only very loose. Odin for example is a complex figure who has qualities that associate him with Jupiter as well as Saturn and the concepts of Venus belong not just with Freya but with a variety of goddesses, while the Sun is also signified by the chariot riding goddess Sunna (and the Moon by her sister Mani). Monotheism has trained us to think of gods as singular entities when in the ancient world they were more a cohort of different avatars. What we call ‘Norse’ was also actually a pagan patchwork of different localised beliefs and customs. For these reasons the Norse pantheon does not fit smoothly into a planetary scheme like the more organised and astrologically minded Greek or Roman pantheon does.
Some runes are connected to trees, which to these people were also spiritual entities, sacred and imbued with magic. The multiverse itself was an Ash Tree. The Ash was too sacred to be given a single rune (although one rune symbolises its protection) but the birch, yew and possibly also the pear tree are given runes, while other runes are given to three important totem animals, the aurochs (a now vanished animal similar to a buffalo), horse and elk. Cattle are also honoured. The remaining runes are given over to important aspects of nature (all of which was seen as supernatural) and basic concepts of human society like property, traveling and the dangers and gifts of wielding fire.
The runes are therefore imbued with the magic of nature and the gods and were often carved on wood, stone or living flesh where the welling of blood, sap or the impressing of the will gave them immediate power, along with chants and songs to the gods. They are also associated with the metaphysical otherworlds, of which there were nine decorating the branches of the World Tree, the Great Ash called Yggdrasil. We live in Midgard, the material plane, in the centre. Above us is Ljossalfheimr, the world of light elves (celestial and cosmic beings described elsewhere as angels) and above them is Asgard, the realm of the gods and Valhalla, the heavens. A Rainbow Bridge extends from Midgard to Asgard, a passageway composed of red (Fire), green (Water) and blue (Air) light, and it is guarded by Heimdal, a god cloaked in white who can see all that happens throughout all the nine worlds. Below us is Svartalheimr, the realm of the dark elves and dwarves, a realm of tunnels and darkness. Deeper still or just adjacent lies Hel, the underworld of the dead. Midgard is also surrounded by four Elemental realms, Niflheimr (a realm of ice in the north), Muspelheimr (a realm of fire in the south), Vanheimr (a realm of water in the west, inhabited by the Vanir, a separate and less important group of gods than the Aesir of Asgard) and Jotunheimr (a realm of chaos in the east inhabited by giants). Here chaos is the hermetic Air and Ice is hermetic Earth – the land was very cold, and high wind and storms brought disasters. The squirrel was an important totem as there is one named Rat-Tusk who scurries up and down the branches conveying messages between a Dragon that gnaws at the roots (Nidhogg – ‘Malice Striker’) and an Eagle (Vethrfolnir – ‘wind bleached’) who lives in the highest branches.
The 9 realms are therefore not analogous to the sephira of the Tree of Life, they are instead analogous to the planes, the Physical, Astral and Mental and to the four regions of the Earth Zone, although again they do not exactly match. The two realms above us (inhabited by the light elves and the gods) symbolised the mental and spiritual or causal plane. The light elves are the embodiment of noble truths and spiritual principles, while the gods are the embodiment of divine power, which we connect to and make fully manifest through the Elemental equilibrium (the Rainbow Bridge, making Heimdal the Greater Self). The other realms signify aspects of the Norse astral, except for Midgard which is the physical plane. This difference is very telling because it helps us to see how the Norse viewed the metaphysical cosmos in which we live. Their cosmology places them as neighbours to all of the elemental and astral beings. It is as if Malkuth is placed in the centre of the Tree. Only the gods are situated somewhat remotely, the rest are literally neighbours. This reflects the relationship they had with these beings and would have underpinned their belief system, cultural practices, and magic.
The shape of the runes are simple straight lines making them easy to inscribe and to read in nature – for example in the legs of cranes or other birds flying through the sky or the arrangement of branches on the forest floor or in the canopy, even the flow of running water – but there is also a deeper occult reason for these designs. The shape of each rune can be seen to be formed by other runes, indicating a web of connections between the concepts. For example the rune for the sound TH (thorn, sting, giant) is a combination of the rune for the letter ‘I’ (ice) and the letter ‘K’ (blister, sore). Some runic concepts are very esoterically connected in this way and we lack the required cultural and social mindset to be able to interpret the connection or draw meaning from it in today’s world, but others we can still grasp. I believe this was a way in which the deeper secrets of rune magic were unveiled to initiates according to certain meditations and trials.
This feature also allows multiple runes to be combined together into a single runic sigil. There is some art to this in that you have to be careful not to accidentally include a rune you do not intend to call upon and in cases where this is unavoidable you have to incorporate the essential meaning of that rune into the end result. This is almost always the case with the rune Isa (ice, or Elemental Earth) since it is a simple vertical line and most runes contain a vertical line, but it is always appropriate because the Isa rune as the Earth Element symbolises the process of combining multiple sigils into a single physical form.
In divination some runes can be reversed while others (Isa again, but also Dagaz and others) do not alter their form when they are reversed. The reversal of a rune indicates either its opposite or its blockage. All of the runes may have had a different meaning if they were laid on their side. A common divinatory practice was to throw all of the runes from out of a bag onto a cloth or a circular design drawn into the ground representing the World Tree. The face up staves would then be interpreted according to which of the nine realms they fell into, which other staves surrounded them, and whether or not they touched or covered one another. The runes were also divined from nature, in particular the shape that the legs of herons and other birds made as they flew overhead, but really from any natural occurrence.
As noted previously the Norse were not crazy about astrology although they did observe omens in the sky. The system of astrology being used in these times was non-horoscopic, meaning there were no birth charts, and it also included weather phenomena like clouds, animals and colours in the sky. In other words it was far more visual and connected to more unpredictable natural phenomena. The concept of Wyrd or fate/Akasha was extremely important to the entire view of the world and embodied in the 3 Norns who live together at the base of the World Tree and weave together the fabric of Wyrd through time, determining the length of life and the fate of every thing that is the fruit of their loom. It’s likely that the Norse had some tradition of observing the sky on important dates or during the births of important individuals, and at some point there may have been a division of the solar year into 24 (a kind of runic astrology that assigned a rune to you from the season of your birthday), but there was no significant interaction between early western astrology as it was practiced in southern Europe and the use of runes in northern Europe.
So historically they are separate divinatory systems but a number of years ago it occurred to me that beyond the connection between some runes and certain planets (via the gods associated with them) there may still be an analogy between the runes and the zodiac signs since both sets of symbols are flexible enough to meet one another. When I sat down to meditate on mapping these connections I ended up assigning exactly 2 runes to each sign with no overlap on my first attempt, and I stayed with that assignment after many reviews. I recently unearthed this in one of my notebooks and would like to share it with you as a way of introducing you to the concepts of the runes and as a starting point for your own meditations. I have also given a colour for each rune. The connections that I present arise purely from my own meditation and experience. In cases where my attributions of a zodiac sign to a rune might fit elsewhere, I make note of that.
The two runes of Aries are Tiwaz (T) and Dagaz (D). Tyr (who gives his name to the rune Tiwaz) is the god of war and justice (Mars) and Dagaz signifies daybreak, a new dawn.
Tiwaz was called on in battle and inscribed on sword hilts and Tyr was most often clothed in bright red. He lost a hand in battle with the wolf Fenris, placing it within the wolfs jaws so that the gods could bind it. This rune is therefore also connected with self sacrifice. He was originally a sky god and the chief deity in the Norse pantheon before being replaced by Odin and this establishes a relationship between this rune and the next rune in the sequence of the Futhark, the B rune which symbolises the Earth Mother (see Cancer). The similarity between this rune and the glyph for Mars is striking and tantalizing. Tiwaz is a rune of justice, trust, bravery, victory and decisive action.
Dagaz is the last rune in the alphabet and fittingly it symbolises a new beginning, a renewal of the cycle. This is suggestion that the Norse view of time was not linear but cyclical. The shape of Dagaz underscores this by resembling the mathematical symbol for infinity, the lemniscate. This is a rune of hope, of light glimmering at the end of a tunnel, of eventual victory over the night and the return of light following a period of darkness or winter. It’s power is an awakening and transformative power, its magic a gateway or portal, a breakthrough, the bringing of light to a murky situation and it connects to the passage of daily time (see Libra for the rune of yearly time and Cancer for monthly time, while Capricorns runes are about the present moment). Its colour is deep green and golden.
Tiwaz could be connected to Sagittarius as a flaming arrow and symbol of justice but is more suited to Aries. Dagaz connects with both Scorpio and Aquarius through its transformative qualities and to Leo through its connection to the Sun.
The two runes of Taurus are Fehu (F) and Uruz (U).
Fehu means both cattle and fee, and the rune signifies both concepts, but it also denotes luck or good fortune in general. Cattle essentially means wealth or valuable property and mobile possessions, while fee is the same concept we know today, a price or the value of things, a bartering system. However the wealth signified by this rune is more than just material wealth but any kind of abundance and more properly a spiritual wealth which comes from living life courageously and honourably. The concept of this rune is connected to the notion of things that need to be in motion in order for them to thrive and do the greatest good. It is the first letter of the Futhark (named after the first set of 8 letters) that sets everything in motion and thus receives the light of Dagaz, the last letter of the alphabet. So it is a rune that initiates things and causes them to flow but also a fundamental cosmic force, one that governs the ability to gather luck or vitality and wield it magically. Like gold, the great symbol of wealth, Fehu glimmers like fire when beheld in sunlight. Its colours are light red and gold.
Uruz means aurochs, a beast similar to a bison or buffalo. It is the second letter of the alphabet and symbolises empowerment, endurance, powerful strength and vitality, the flow of Earth power (ley lines, etc), strength of purpose and health. It was sometimes used as a rune of good luck due to its resemblance in form to a horseshoe. Unlike its sister rune Fehu, however, this is a wild animal and is therefore symbolic of wild or untamed forces of nature and fortune. This is raw earth power, the ‘Chi’ of the land. It is also linked to the concept of slag iron and to storms. Uruz is a rune of vigor, grounding and stamina that can be used to strengthen anything but is particularly helpful for the physical. Its colour is dark green.
Fehu could also be attributed to Capricorn but that sign gets two very appropriate runes, like Taurus. Uruz has a connection to Aries as a symbol of power and strength, but that association is also secondary.
The runes of Gemini are Ansuz (A) and Raido (R).
Ansuz is a rune of divination, contact with the realm and family of the gods and the Divine mind. It means ‘god’ and is taken to be Odins rune. It represents the sacred connection between humanity and the gods, the link of communication and inspiration as well as worship and song, the wellspring of new ideas and the origin and source of conscious thought and knowledge. Thus it often signifies important messages. It is connected to the magic of breathing and speaking and the magic of words, of animating things with the breath of life and the power of ecstatic mental states, with spirit communication and telepathy and all theurgy. Its colour is a light blue.
Raido is the origin of the English word ‘ride’. It signifies movement, travel, change of circumstances, the physical and astral journey of life and can also be connected to modes of transport like the wagon and cart (but not the horse, which has its own rune). Journeys in these earlier times were extremely dangerous and so this rune was often used as a form of protection, especially for unexpected journeys. It signifies both the wheel of karma and the wheel of time and space turning in an ever journeying cycle and thus is connected to understanding everything as part of a sequential journey where the present moment is continuously moving. In this respect it is connected to the motion of the stars and the planets and also to ritual, especially those involving the changing seasons. Its colour is a bright gold.
Ansuz is somewhat analogous to Pisces through its connection to the Divine mind and to Aquarius through its wellspring of new ideas. A case could be made connecting Raido with Sagittarius.
The two runes of Cancer are Berkano (B) and Othala (O).
Berkano is the rune of the Earth Mother and is connected to the birch tree, a sacred tree of bringing new life forth. Its shape resembles the form of a pregnant woman or her breasts after birth. It is a rune sacred to midwives and those who nurture the feminine mysteries. It signifies the emergence of new life and is connected to the magic of monthly time (see Libra and Aries for yearly and daily time and Capricorn for present time). Birth is not without pain, however, and this rune calls down a process of becoming that often involves struggle. This is a rune of plant magic, sanctuary and growth. The colour of Berkano is a deep, emerald green.
Othala means inherited property, enclosure or land, ancestral inheritance, home. It is connected to the family unit and the bloodline and its protection and would have been used to ward and safeguard ancestral buildings as well as to contact or honour ancestors. Othala is a spiritual rune that relates to the inherited wealth we gain from our ancestors and our previous incarnations. Its magic reaches into the past and opens burial mounds. It is a rune that helps us read the Akashic Records, especially of an area of land. Its colour is sea-green.
Berkano can also be attributed to Taurus and Othala to Capricorn or Scorpio (ancestors and the realm of the dead).
The runes of Leo are Wunjo ( W) and Sowilo (S).
Wunjo means simply ‘joy’, referring to the joy of being alive. It is a rune of harmony, celebration and the realisation of the true will. It is a wish granting, glory bringing rune with the power to embolden and invigorate the spirit (just as Uruz invigorates the body, see Taurus). It is a rune of enthusiasm and the creative spirit of our inner child and it brings enlightenment, commitment to spiritual liberation, humour and relief, but there is always the teaching that joy and pain are insperable. Its colour is shimmering gold.
Sowilo means ‘Sun’, which for frozen lands is a great boon. Unlike Dagaz which represents sunlight this rune represents the raw elemental power of the Sun, expressed in the runes form as rays of fire or streaks of lightning. Because the Sun is seen as a nurturing and warming influence over a cold climate Sowilo is a rune of fortune, virtue, luck and life force but its power can also be unleashed towards devastation. It can light things on fire both metaphorically and literally. This is a rune of wholeness, warmth, good cheer, leadership, restoration, honour and confidence. Its colour is red-gold.
Wunjo could be attributed to Gemini through its playfulness and wish granting power and Sowilo could be connected to any Fire sign or to Aquarius for its quality of bringing swift and powerful change.
The runes of Virgo are Ehwaz (E) and Inguz (NG).
Ehwaz means ‘horse’ and likely represents Odins horse, Sleipnr, which has 8 legs. The relationship between a horse and its rider (or any animal and a human) is Virgoan, since there are mutual acts of trust and service involved in maintaining the bond. The horse provides its back, but the rider must provide respect, food and shelter. There is a duality in the relationship between horse and rider which links this rune with the concept of relating or twinning, and Virgo is symbolic of the stage of adolescence when we become aware of our virginity and innocently step into the world of relating. Thus there is a power of innocence and purity in this rune like the purity of the bond between horse and rider. Additionally the rune is related to the bodies as vehicles (physical, astral, mental) and the maintenance of these bodies so that they are healthy. Its colour is white.
Inguz means seed or the god Ing, an earlier Freya, who is the goddess of grain, agriculture and farming as well as fertility. This is the rune of the Green Man. The rune resembles an opening representing the womb or the hole in the ground in which a seed is to be placed. Like Berkano and Jera it is a rune connected with the magic of midwifery, birth, menstruation and the feminine mysteries. However it has a deeper and older connection to the more masculine mysteries of sacrifice i.e. the death of one plant is necessary to fertilize the life of another, meaning it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice one’s life for the greater good. Its colour is wheat yellow and green.
Ehwaz could obviously be connected with Sagittarius or any of the signs with dual bodied forms (Gemini, Libra, Pisces). Inguz could be connected with Taurus or Cancer.
The two runes of Libra are Gebo (G/Q) and Jera (J/Y).
Gebo or Gyfu means ‘gift’. The rune is a large ‘X’ symbolizing mutual exchange and reminding us of a kiss in written form. This is a rune of contracts, promises, oaths, bartering, relationship and partnership, sexual union, of giving and receiving all kinds of gifts but especially the gift of company. Sometimes the gift is given to the gods in a sacrifice (of self for a partners wishes, for example). It is a rune of weighing up consequences, of reciprocation and cause and effect and action/reaction. This rune is green in colour.
Jera means year or more specifically the time of year in which a good harvest was hoped for. This is a rune representing a cycle of time coming to a harvest (like a pregnancy) and is thus a karmic rune signifying the fruition of past actions and the planting of seeds for future consequences. It is the rune of yearly time, of farming and gardening, alignment with nature and communication with the otherworlds through seasonal ritual, of balance. It brings the expectancy of joy after a period of long labour. Its colour is corn yellow.
Gebo could be attributed to Taurus (if a physical gift) or Virgo (helpful assistance is a gift). Jera could be linked to Virgo.
The two runes of Scorpio are Eihwaz (AE/EI) and Perthro (P).
These runes are both mysterious. Eihwaz means yew tree, a highly sacred tree to the Norse with the power of longevity and death. The leaves and berries are poisonous but the tree itself is an evergreen and is extremely long lived with some being more than a thousand years old. Its wood was used to make the longbow for hunting and battle so it is a rune of powerful attack and protection. I believe it was in use as a protection against living a short life. It is a rune of magical initiation, mysteries of life and death, travel between the otherworlds, all forms of necromancy, immortality and inner transformation. The colour of Eihwaz is a light brown.
Perthro is a mystery. ‘P’ is not commonly used in the language and we do not know what Perthro means and rely on educated guesses. It is possible that linguistically it is connected to the pear tree. Other interpretations of what its name means include ‘lot box’ or a game of chance, Wyrd and fate, the Norns. The lack of knowledge we have leads me to suspect that the rune is indeed connected to the Wyrd and the concept of the mysteries of life. Regardless it is a rune of omens, prophecy, initiation, chance or chaos, fate and mystery. Its colour is dark grey to black.
Eihwaz could connect to Sagittarius through the yew bow.
The runes of Sagittarius are Thurisaz (TH) and Kenaz (K/Q).
Thurisaz means both giant and thorn but the rune is often assigned to Thor who defeated them with his hammer (which the rune resembles). The power of this rune is that of waging war and bringing destructive change but it is also the power of being pierced in an initiatory sense, the rapid awakening of awareness being punctured and opened to other states. It has both a sharp and a thunderous quality and was also connected to sexual fertility rites since Thor was the husband of the corn goddess Sif. This is also a rune of weapons and tools, striking against demons or wickedness, infectious disease, betrayal, chaos, psychic force, impulses, breaking blockages and arousing sexual urges. Its colour is crimson.
Kenaz means boil, blister, sore and torch. It symbolises the dangers and benefits of wielding fire and is a rune of ingenuity and exploration but also a warning. The flame of Kenaz is seductive, it is symbolic of the lure of a pilot fish or mischievous spirit that calls you deeper into the woods in search of treasure, adventure and thrill. The principal flame here is knowledge itself. This is a rune not only of scolding and burning but also of art, inspiration from muses, exploration and the cooking pot. Its colour is a glowing campfire orange.
Thurisaz could be linked to Aries or Scorpio in its warlike aspects or Aquarius through its sharp awakening, and Kenaz to Virgo (as smith of the gods and the lord of the flaming forge) or Scorpio (as probing into darkness).
The runes of Capricorn are Nauthiz (N) and Isa (I).
These are, like the runes of Taurus, a close and obvious fit. Nauthiz means need, desperation, emergency, necessity. It is a rune of lacking something and needing to draw upon inner resources instead of outer ones. It is a rune of duty and obligation and a binding rune that places constraints around things but also one that calls trials down upon things as a means to break or strengthen them. This is the rune of the Norn Skuld who weaves the Wyrd of the future. It embodies the mysteries of necessity, the reasons why things need to happen. Its colour is grey.
Isa means ice and is a rune of standstill, silence, composure, serenity and peace. It brings stasis and delay but also stability, sober clarity and a cooling off of heated situations as well as control. It is also a binding rune that could be used to freeze or imprison spirits or paralyze enemies. It is the rune of the Norn Verthandi who weaves the strands of the present, the hard, cold realities of what is happening. Its colour is crystal clear or white.
Nauthiz could be connected with Scorpio (desperation and emergency) and Isa with Scorpio or Aquarius (both connected to ice).
The runes of Aquarius are Hagalaz (H) and Mannaz (M).
Hagalaz means hail, as in lumps of ice falling on your head. It is a disruptive power, a rune of interruption, destructive natural forces, sudden change and reversals. Often a curse levied on enemies to accelerate the arrival of their karma it can also be a force that breaks the momentum of negative cycles. It is the rune of the Norn Urdr who weaves the strands of the past and thus represents the inevitability of forces beyond our control. It can be used as a rune of banishment. Its colour is storm grey or silvery and violet.
Mannaz means man, as in people or humanity, mortal society, the body we are part of that is greater than our physical body. It is a rune of community spirit, collective awareness, egregores, memes, alliance, kinship, connection and shared purpose, of the secret powers within human beings and their activation and awakening. Its colour is cyan (midway between green and blue).
Hagalaz is also linked with Scorpio (destructiveness) and Mannaz with other Air signs.
The runes of Pisces are Laguz (L) and Algiz (Z).
Laguz means ‘lake’, a living body of water. It is an astral rune that also influences the emotions. It is a rune of dreams, psychic powers, prophecy, meditation and imagination. There is a revivifying magic in this rune, the refreshing effect of water on thirst being quenched, but it is also a rune that controls the physical aspects of water like rain, river, flooding, tides, fish, etc. Its colour is olive green.
Algiz (or Elhaz) means ‘elk’, a reindeer like herd animal. The antlers are displayed in the runes form, but this form also embodies the sacred World Tree itself. This is a rune of protection, the protection of the herd (social contracts) and of the gods. It calls upon guidance from the otherworlds and brings help where it is needed. In modern times this rune (reversed) has become the symbol for nuclear disarmament. Its colour is yellow.
Laguz could be attributed to any Water sign and Algiz to Cancer or Capricorn, both of which are protective signs.
Thats all for now, thanks for reading I hope you enjoyed it! If you have any comments please leave them below.
Thank you very much for this offering. There is so much clarity and depth in your descriptions.