Understanding the Runes
Above all, the runes are steeped in nature and symbolize the power exhibited by different elements of nature—the wind, the sun, ice and rain for example. Therefore it is impossible to understand the runes by adopting an intellectual approach. The peoples of northern Europe led lives that were extremely close to nature and dominated by these elemental forces. As in many other ancient cultures, nature and the gods were considered to be one and the same thing. Each god symbolized a different element of the natural world and was believed to be responsible for the creation and continuation of his or her natural phenomenon. For example, to the Germanic peoples, thunder was believed to be an action of the god Thor.
This can be quite a hard concept for the modern mind that is trained in logical, empirical thing to grasp, but it is essential for understanding and using the runes effectively. In ancient times, the runes, by symbolizing these elemental forces, allowed the user to make direct contact with the forces of nature, and thus perhaps to gain some insight into how the patterns of life were unfolding, so that they could take the necessary steps to ensure survival. Life at that time was an extremely tenuous affair, and natural forces could cause death and disaster to those who were unprepared. To a certain extent, this still holds true today, witness the large scale destruction caused by hurricane Katrina, but we have such a sophisticated social system that, to a great extent we are protected from the real chaos that nature can cause. Early peasant cultures were not; they were at nature’s mercy.
One of the most important things to remember about the runes is that the wisdom which the tradition contained was handed down from one generation to another orally – largely in the form of poetry to make it easier to remember. In ancient times, this sort of knowledge was not considered to be for everyone’s eyes so it was never committed to writing.
The shaman, who had been initiated into the knowledge of the runes, played a hugely important role in those times. He or she was the spiritual member of the community who gave each rune character its symbolic meaning and thereby it’s mystical power. The shaman was the most powerful figure in the tribal community as it was he, or she, who could determine and cure illness, foster fertility, ensure a good harvest, and solve many other concerns that were essential to everyday life, perhaps and most notably protecting the tribe from its enemies – both the human and the animal kind.
For many cultures and many thousands of years, the shaman was the person who could bridge the gap between the world of the gods and that of ordinary humans and use their psychic ability to communicate with the sprit world. In that sense, they were conduits for nature itself, considering the gods and the elemental forces of nature as one and the same thing. In many parts of the world, shamans made a connection with the other world when they were in a trancelike state induced by drugs – especially those with hallucinogenic powers – or by dancing, fasting or conducting rituals.
Shamans were an integral part of the culture of the runes, yet they were especially selected, trained, and set apart from other people in the community. Both physical and mental powers had to be well above average in order to perform many of the rites and ceremonies involved. Although revered for their knowledge, shamans also inspired considerable awe through their apparently supernatural powers. In many parts of the world shamanism still exists, and shamans still live in self-imposed isolation living on a separate plane, wrapped in their magical universe.
It was not uncommon for shamans to be in some way physically impaired at a time when it was almost impossible for anyone else to be crippled or survive. For ordinary people, disability was socially unacceptable. On a practical level, it was almost certain to lead to an early death and there was no form of social welfare in existence to make life more manageable. If you could not hunt or gather crops for the community, you were an outcast. The only possible existence for a disabled person was to become a shaman – if he or she had the strength for such a demanding position. Even so, they would never be accepted into the day-to-day affairs of the community, regardless of their hugely influential role in community life.
The role of shaman was kept in the family, passed down from generation to generation – from mother to daughter and from father to son.
The runes are derived from natural forces, which the observant can see everywhere they look: in the shape of a stream as it flows through a field, at the point where the branch of a tree forks, or the random shape of stones on a beach. It is as if nature talks to us directly in the shapes of the runes. The knowledge they impart is also all around us, as long as we have the eyes to see and the mind to understand.
The runes have no history of being used in fantastic or magical enterprises; their powers are grounded firmly in the natural world. They do not give political dominance or unearthly powers on the battlefield. Like nature itself, they are pragmatic and down to earth.
To this day, our language has a number of little sayings that express the underlying philosophy of the runes – such as “nothing comes for free” and “what goes around comes around”. If a king wished to win a battle and gain more territory, this desire would bring greatly increased responsibilities; if a peasant wished for more cattle he would know that this would create considerably more work for him. The people who used runes realized that there is always a price to pay for any gain in life. Because of this they took a less demanding approach to life than many people do in today’s world.