The Origin of Runes

The Origin of Runes

Author: Brunhilde

The term rune comes from ancient European dialects. It means mystery or secret. Each rune symbol represents a concept, like wealth or fertility. Runes were not originally used as letters in an alphabet. Ancient shamans used them in a variety of ways: to focus their thoughts, as an aid to meditation, as a means to communicate with the spirit world, for divination, etc. By necessity, much of this activity took place in the mind of the shaman. The inhabitants of the spirit world did not have physical bodies, so they communicated with the shamans through their thoughts, by using symbols such as runes.

Imitative magick

Often, the shaman would enter into a sacred cave and draw images on the cave wall. We have numerous examples of ancient cave paintings still intact today. We call this type of display imitative magick. On behalf of the tribe, the shaman would dance, chant, and meditate in this sacred space. Some of these cave walls also feature early runes. These symbols may be messages sent from the shamans to the spirits, or images sent from the spirits to the shamans.

For ancient peoples, these paintings and runes were not mere decoration. They were powerful, energized glyphs that held great potential for action when utilized by the trained mind of the shaman.

Runes and Phosphenes

The origin of rune symbols is the topic of much debate. Just how were these symbols impressed upon the minds of the shamans? One theory is proposed by author Nigel Pennick in his book Magical Alphabets (1992) . The author discusses the effects of various stimuli on the visual cortex of the brain.

“Modern neurophysiology has identified phosphenes, geometrical shapes and images that are present subconsciously in the visual cortex and neural system. These are present in all humans. They are described as entopic, being visible when the eyes are shut. They can also be seen when the consciousness is altered by some means: during meditation, in trance, or in hallucinations induced by fatigue, illness or drugs.”

Mr. Pennick’s analysis seems to agree with one modern belief on the possible origin of runes. One can imagine an early shaman entering into a trance state in order to communicate with the spirit world, and perceiving phosphene patterns as part of the process. The shaman would naturally identify these patterns, or runes, as images sent to him from the spirit world.

Odin’s Shamanic Experience

Taken further, this neurophysiologic origin of runes may explain the myth of the god Odin receiving the Norse runes. We find his statements in The Poetic Edda where he describes his own personal shamanic experience. He speaks of a self-inflicted wound, followed by nine days and nights of severe deprivation. He willingly endures this torment in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. And he is handsomely rewarded—he receives the first rune symbols, which he later gives to mankind.

So Where Is the Magick?

If we accept the idea that some of our modern runes are the result of normal neurophysiologic changes in the human brain, a question arises. If rune symbols are simply the product of phosphene production, how meaningful are they? Are runes the result of contact with the spirit world or are they merely the result of chemical changes in the brain? Does their mundane neural origin discredit their spiritual importance? Are they indeed magickal?

Yes. Why? Because with our human brain and its ability to produce phosphenes, it seems that Nature has deliberately provided us with a ready-made vehicle to access the spirit world. First of all, our spirit vehicle is our brain—a preprogrammed cerebral system that is hard-wired to allow for altered states of consciousness.

Transitions to altered states can be tracked by analyzing brain wave functions. Profound changes in human brain wave activity have been reliably documented. Secondly, we now find that our brain vehicle is equipped with signal lights—our sojourn in these altered states can be accompanied by phosphene production.

All Aboard!

Rather than discrediting our spiritual journey, and our acquisition of rune symbols, our human neurophysiology validates it. Our brains are uniquely configured to achieve access to other planes, and then signal us when we arrive. If you believe that Spirit deliberately created our human physiology, then our mental abilities are also deliberate. The sentient, guiding hand of Nature has designed us this way. And if some of our rune symbols are derived from meditative states, they those symbols do indeed come from a spiritual source after all.

One Size Fits All

There is another intriguing question about runes that may be answered by phosphene production. Some runes systems from diverse cultures have many symbols in common. Their similarity may indicate that a single “source culture” or progenitor originally produced the runes. Sometime later, those first symbols were adopted by neighboring cultures. The debate continues over which source culture that may have been. Many scripts and cultures have been proposed.

Perhaps the common source for similar runes was not a single source culture. It may have been shamans of several cultures who engaged in similar meditation practices and trance states. Since they all had similar neurophysiology, they all produced similar phosphene patterns, with the result that their visions produced similar rune symbols.

As modern users of runes can attest, there is definitely something ethereal and powerful about these symbols, even today. It may be their origins in the subconscious mind of all humanity. They possess a resonance with each of us.

People from widely diverse cultures can use the same rune symbols to focus their thoughts in meditation and prayer. They also make powerful conduits for our magickal work. And several symbols can be combined into one single glyph to concentrate their power, called a bind rune.

Finally, they are extremely useful as tools for divination, used in the same way as one would use Tarot cards. The interpretation of rune symbols during divination requires us to utilize our intuition, our sixth sense. These esoteric symbols can often help us to express our thoughts better than words.

They will continue to intrigue and fascinate those of us who follow the old ways.