It is likely that the alphabetic order of the runes derives from the written leanguage of the Etruscans, inhabitants of northern Italy. The Germanic tribes in the Alps ( modern – day Switzerland and Austria ) combined the Etruscan forms of writing with their own traditional symbols and spread this knowledge amongst their kindred tribes.
From the very beginning, runes were thought to be magical in nature. They were used for the casting of lots to foretell the future and for magic influence harvests and sea voyages, to curse, to bless and to make love spells. They were also carved into sword bladed to make them more deadly, into shields so that they would provide added protection and into rings and necklaces to increase the beauty of their wearers.
True mastery of the runes was a highly respected skill of wise men and women of those times.
Those who had endured the ordeals of initiations into the mysteries of the runes were called rune masters and were consideres separate form, and supirior to, the general mass of the populace. In the Norse “safa of Erik the Red”, there is a description of a woman who was wise in the ways of the runes.
The ancient Roman historian Tacitus, writting at the end of the 1st centuary AD, provided a description of the Teutonic peoples in his book Germania. Although Tacitus was mainly concerned with the customs, physique and warlike nature of the tribes to the north of the Alps, he also provided the first-known account of runic divinations.
It does not take much of an imagination to identify “the certain marks” as runic symbols cut into the wood of the “fruit-bearing tree”.
Tacitus also descibes divinations taken from the flights of birds, the neighing of horses and the course of battle between two combatants.
Be that as it may, the practice of casting the runes is virtually identical to one of the methods employed today.
“She wore a cloack set with stones along the hem. Around her neck and clovering her head she wore a hood lined with white cat-skins. In one hand she carried a staff with a knob on the end and from her belt, holding together her long dress, hung a charm pouch.”
However, this was not the end of the story for the runes. The 19th centuary saw a revival of interest, not only in the runes, but in the Nordic past in general. The mystical traditions of the Germanic peoples were again a focus for those who wished to renew their link with an almost mythical past. However, this also had a dark side in the form of extreme nationalism and overt racism, especoally in the works of Guido von List, who invented a “restored” version of the ancient Nordic alphabet that he called the “Armanen runes”. Von List provided these runes complete with suitably twisted interpretations, the better to fit in with his own facist ideology. It was the Armanen runes that were used by the Nazis in Germany as source for their Swastika symbol, along with SS insignia, and to further their sinister form of neo-pagan nationalism. It is this connections of the runes with Nazi symbolism that brought the runes into a disrepute during the post-war period.
It was only at the end of the 20th century that the original purpose of the runes, now shorn of the dubious symbolism that had been thrust upon them, was restored. Today, the twenty-four runes of the Elder Futhark can be a helpful guide to the mysterious web Wyrd that governs the fate of all of us.
“No people practise augury and divination by lot more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces:
These are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly at random over a white garment.
In public the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark preciously impressed upon them. If they prove unfavourable, there is no further consulation that day about the matter.”