The Futhork Runes

by Raven Kaldera

Most people who work with runes prefer to stick to the basic 24 Norse Futhark set, largely because those are what they can find all around them. Of course, I was always the kind of kid who preferred 64 crayons to a box, just on principle, and so I was drawn to the Futhorc initially because there were just more of them. As I studied them, however, I was moved and shaken by the deep meanings of the extra Futhorc runes. They are dark, complex, and difficult; their concepts are ambivalent, and they reek of the Rokkr or Jotnir, the "dark gods" of Norse mythology. Now, after years of using them, I can no longer imagine going back to only 24 runes.

Whereas the other aettir are dedicated to Aesir or Vanir, it's always been clear to me that these last runes are Hel's Aett. The exception is the ninth rune, Gar, which is Odin's rune.

On a linguistic level, Norse runes were made for writing Old Norse, and they don't work so well for either Old English or modern English. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc are much more adaptable for writing ordinary messages in English, as they contain certain letters and sounds that Norse doesn't use.

Let's start with the most controversial rune of all: Ear, the Rune of the Grave. It is sacred to Hel, the Lady of Death whose home is open to all, who is half beautiful woman and half rotting corpse. The rune itself is shaped like a singletree, the hanging yoke that a newly slaughtered animal is hung on upside down for ease of butchering. As I live on a farm and butcher my own livestock, the single tree strikes a strong chord in me. It reminds me of all that dies so that I and my family, tribe, and community may live.

Such is Ear's message. Like the Death card in the Tarot, Ear speaks of how death and loss are part of the cycle of life. In order that one thing may live, another must die. We cannot subsist on anything that was not once alive. Even the vegetables that we eat grew out of other rotting vegetation. Life gives way to death which brings life again. The Rune of the Grave reminds us that everything passes, all is impermanence, but that each loss will usher in a new part of the story....and that this cycle is the only thing that is permanent, that can absolutely be counted on. Hel's power is absolute, and it is eternally unchanging even as she bring eternal change to our lives.

Ear generally means that your life, or some part of your life, needs a total reboot. It's not about whether or not you should do it - there is a definite element of nonconsensuality to Hel's rune. Ear says that it *will* happen, because it's time and because it needs to happen. How painful it is depends on your attitude. The only thing that you can control, in the end, is how you will meet the oncoming onslaught.

The internal death spoken of by Ear, however, is not a fast and furious death. It is the long slow rotting down of gradual but inevitable change. That means that this rune can be used for galdr purposes to do that, and it's particularly good for letting-go spells. I've given it as a talisman to people who were divorcing and needed to learn to live whole different lives over the next few years.

The next rune to look at is Ac, the rune of the Oak Tree and the oaken stave. The glyph for this rune is that of a person holding a stick. Although there's no lorebound basis for it, the entity who seems to speak up for this rune whenever I use it is Angrboda, the Hag of the Iron Wood, first wife of Loki. Oak was one of the trees referred to as "iron wood" because of its strength and endurance, and also because it was frequently struck by lightning and exploded in fire. Thor (and other storm deities) has a close association with oak trees as well. This is largely due to a natural coincidence: due to its rough bark and specific cellular makeup, oak trees are poor conductors and the lightning tends to blow them up rather than run smoothly down them. Because of this, they are revered for bringing controllable fire to humanity.

The figure of Angrboda is that of a female Jotun, or giant; she is seen as tall, immensely strong, and very assertive. She also brings forth powerful children - Fenris, the great wolf who nearly ate the world; the Midgard Serpent that surrounds it, and Hel, the Goddess of Death. Unfortunately, she was secretly killed by Odin, who feared that she and Loki would populate the entire world with such creatures and thus overthrow his regime. It is said that all Loki found of her was her ashen heart, burnt like the heartwood of an oak tree.

To draw the rune Ac is to be the lightning rod for the fears and anger of others, whether or not it is deserved. You will have to stand as strong as the oak tree, and endure the blows and flames. If it does not kill you, it will make you stronger. Ac's keyword is Endurance, as opposed to the other "strength" rune, Uruz/Ur. Ac is the rooted tree and the high mountain. Indeed, there is something very "masculine" about Ur's strength, that of the wild charging buffalo, while there something more feminine (but not passive) about Ac's strength. Consider one the irresistible force and the other the immovable object.

I use Ac for healing galdr, as I also use Ur, and a bind rune of the two is especially good to put on someone's body (with bodily fluids, or Sharpie if you don't have that kind of relationship) in places that need strength and endurance. I put that bind rune on my knees when I have to hike, as mine are in pretty bad shape.

The next rune to look at is Ior, the rune of the Serpent. This is clearly dedicated to yet another of Angrboda's children, Iormundgand the Midgard Serpent, the largest snake in the world whose coils surround the entirety of Midgard. Iormundgand is also the boundary between Midgard and everywhere else, and this is the secret of this rune. Its lower-octave keyword is Boundaries, and getting it in a reading may mean that you need to set boundaries for yourself. (I use it in galdr as a good boundary-setting rune for this purpose, often in bind-rune form with Eihwaz for defense or Algiz for protection, and I've given it as a talisman to codependent people who need to form better boundaries.) It's higher-octave meaning is the reminder that every boundary is actually liminal space, and to stand there is to be a part of both things.

Unlike Fenris who is clearly male and Hel who is clearly female, there is some confusion over Iormundgand's gender. Some see him as male, others see her as female. Serpents are very hard to sex, and they are associated throughout history with gender-ambiguous deities - Shiva, Dionysus, Ariadne, Athena, Lilith - and with regeneration, and wisdom. Iormundgand's gender is as slippery as hir scales - I've noticed that men seem to sense him as male, and women sense her as female, so personally I think that s/he falls into that third category of Neither And Both.

Yet, as cosmic hermaphrodite, s/he surrounds everything, making a boundary around the whole world. To be both male and female is a powerful place, because you take in everything. As one gender-crossing individual stated, "I'm just like everybody else....only more so." To surround everything, you must bring opposites together, because opposites divide and thus are antithetical to Iormundgand's job.

Thesis - antithesis. Black - white. Male - female. To extract one's self form this constant war or opposing forces, you must drop out of the war entirely and come to a new place, a point called Synthesis. At this point, you realize that you actually have both poles within you, and you stop embracing one and demonizing (and projecting) the other. To draw Ior is to stop putting yourself on one side of the ideological camp, and finding yourself in both places, and thus surrounding the entire issue. Only when you can see it from every perspective can you accurately figure out what to do.

Yr is the Rune of the Archer, associated with Aurvandil the famous Norse archer. I've also seen it referred to as the Rune of the Hand, the talisman of artisans, which would place it in the camp of Aurvandil's brother Wayland, the tragic smith. Regardless of which brother lays claim to it, this is a rune of Focus. The total focus of the hunter on the prey, drawing back the bow, closing one eye until his entire being is centered on the task.....this is not that different from the focus of the artist or artisan whose muse is driving them to Create, obsessive hour after obsessive hour, dogged day after dogged day. Each tries to capture something elusive that can only be tracked with the utmost care, patience, and perfect aim. To draw Yr is to bring that focus into your life, whether it is to create or to destroy. You have been scattered long enough, says the Universe; it is now time to discipline your awareness.

Os, the Rune of the God-Voice, is vied for by several deities. It is sometimes associated with Bragi, the skald of the Norse gods, and sometimes with Odin himself when he speaks through a human body. It also has an affinity with Odin's blood brother and arch enemy, Loki the Trickster. What each of these deities has in common is that they represent different ways of speaking divine truths through a human mouth. The skald or bard speaks or sings dramatically, moving the crowd to new emotions. The prophetic voice is often confusing, bringing the stories of the future to the waiting crowd of the moment, but it also important is helping them to touch the divine Wod.

However, the urge of the Trickster is yet another way in which the God-Voice can work through you. It can be the smooth seductive voice that can persuade Eskimos that ice machines are a good thing, or it can be the uncontrolled fool's voice that asks "Why?" - even when no one is supposed to notice that things are going wrong, much less comment on them. Loki fools the gods with trickery, but he is also the only one to honestly point out their shortcomings.

To draw the rune Os is to be told that you must Use Your Words....and they must come from the deepest part of you. You must speak the truth aloud, even if it gets you ostracized. Of course, you're allowed to slant it carefully so that it will be more willingly heard, but you must not compromise the message in the process. The Powers That Be have something that needs to be said, and you are the mouthpiece that they need to say it.

The glyph of Os is that of a person gesturing, holding forth to an audience. The galdr use for Os is as a talisman of good communication and fine speech. Use it for job interviews, orations, teaching, or anywhere else the gift of words needs to be accessed. Unlike other runes, Os very much seems to like to be eaten; one is reminded of how Iduna carved the runes into Bragi's tongue in order to give him eloquence. Os likes to pass the tongue. I've drawn it on my tongue with ketchup and mustard, drawn them on bread with same and eaten them in a sandwich, and carved them onto cookies that I was baking.

Cweorth, the Rune of the Funeral Pyre, is a glyph of a fire-twirl, the tool used to start sacred fires well after the days of flint and steel. Like Ken/Kaunaz, it is a rune of Fire, but where Ken is the smith's fire that forges, or the torch of Truth that lights the way, Cweorth is the fire of purification and destruction, the funeral pyre that burns away the dead flesh. The home of all fire in the Norse cosmos is Muspellheim, the fire-world. Its keeper is Surt, the great grim fire giant who engineered the beginning of Midgard, deliberately steering his fiery realm into the ice-world of Niflheim. Surt is the Keeper of the Funeral Pyre, and he is a no-nonsense deity who demands perfection.

To draw Cweorth is to face the need to purify your life of excesses, strip down, burn away, keep only that which is absolutely necessary to keep on going. Unlike Ear, which is the slow, inevitable entropy, Cweorth is the fiery death that demands your cooperation or you will be burned far worse in the process. (It is interesting to note that the two Death runes correspond to the two sorts of body disposal in Norse times; the upper warrior classes, associated with the Aesir, burned their dead, while the "straw death" folks who went to Helheim buried theirs.) The galdr usage for Cweorth is to help someone get through such a burning time, and have the strength to excise what needs to go.

The next three runes are the Northumbrian runes - Stan, Chalc, and Gar. Stan (pronounced shtan) means "stone", and it is the Rune of the Stone. In this sense, stone refers to the keystone of an arch, or a standing stone, that which stands in the center of the Universe. What is the keystone of your beliefs? Stan asks you to question that, to either reaffirm or abolish it. Wherever it lies in a reading is a key point, the central "touchstone" of the issue. It may be that the real source of the conflict may be something entirely different from what the parties involved think it is, or are ready to admit.

Stan is an indicator rune, rather like Ansuz which points out a divine message. When you draw Stan for a reading, note the runes just before and after it. These are the keystone of the matter. Its galdr usage is as part of a bind rune to protect something crucial.

Chalc or Calc (pronounced khalk, with a gutteral H, although modern people have trouble with that sound and usually just use "ch") is the Rune of the Chalice. This is the Holy Grail, Arthur's ideal at the end of the quest, and this rune is the ideal that we all strive for. Each person's Holy Grail may be different, but we all have them....or we suffer greatly from lack of that quest. To draw Chalc is to find again that your grasp must exceed your reach, that you may not reach the goal on the horizon, but your life will not be worth much if you don't try.

Chalc has two galdr uses, one high-minded and one rather sleazy. On the one hand, it can be used as a talisman to help you find whatever it is that you are spiritually questing for. On the other hand, it can be applied to an object to temporarily make others desire that thing beyond its real value, which can be used by sleazy salespeople in ways I don't recommend.

The final rune, Gar, is not part of the aett. It has no associated colors, stones, or actual phonetic use. (Some would say "g", but that's covered nicely by Gebu/Gyfu.) Some decades ago, when Ralph Blum put together his now-infamous book of Futhark runes, he decided for whatever reason to stick a blank rune at the end of them that was outside of the other aetts. Its meaning was basically that of a "mystery" rune, saying that whatever was happening, you weren't to know. He called it Odin. The Futhark has no such extra blank rune. Why did he feel compelled to create such a thing?

If he had looked a little further, into the Futhorc, he would have found Gar, which is an actual rune that means exactly that. When I draw Gar, it's usually a sign to stop asking. It's not that the universe isn't set yet, and that things could go many ways - that's more a Peorth sort of thing - it's that for whatever reason, you're not supposed to know. Sometimes knowing something in advance does not have the same impact as actually coming to that wisdom on your own, through experience. That's usually the thrust of Gar, the Spear of Odin.

I submit that Mr. Blum had a strong hunch that such a rune ought to be there, and that it had something to do with Odin, but he missed the glyph and the name, so he simply left it blank. When folks come to me with Blum-style rune sets and I teach them Futhorc, rather than adding a ninth stone I simply tell them to carve Gar into the blank rune, and it works.

Gar means spear, referring to Odin's spear, but this is actually a "kenning" or wordplay on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the shaft on which Odin hung, speared and bleeding, until he found the Runes. There is no evidence as to what its glyph means, but those who work with it are convinced that it is a picture of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. To draw Gar is to be told by the Universe that this is not a time to be second-guessing its plans. Instead, one should wait and watch and learn, and let things settle out. The World Tree branches out in many directions, and it is much larger than we are, and we cannot always see what is coming. Instead we must wait, hanging on its branch like Odin, until wisdom chooses to reveal itself to us.