FUTHARK AND UTHARK
IN RUNE MAGIC, RUNE CASTING,
AND RUNIC DIVINATION
At left is a lovely set of rune stones used in
divination. In describing them, i would like to tell a
personal story, and present a theory of mine about how this
fortune telling system came to be.
The first time i ever heard mention of employing runes
for divination was in the early 1970s. At the time, runic
divination was said to be "ancient," and so, feeling a bit
stupid because i had been studying magic for years and had
never heard of it before, i bought a bag of rune-carved
rounds of wood in Austin, Texas, and dutifully read
the instructions, which involved pulling a random disk out
of the bag and interpreting its meaning according to a
little pamphlet supplied with the runes. After playing with
my runes for a while, i became curious about their
history, and so i looked them up in the only book
i had that mentioned them, "The Book of Signs," by
To my surprise, Koch distinctly said that the
runes had never been used in divination!
When i mentioned this to devotees of the runes, i was
dismissed as ignorant. Soon there were many varieties of
runic divination kit available in occult stores,
including runes carved onto lovely
semi-precious stones and packed in a velvet bag.
I upgraded my wooden disks for polished jasper,
but then found that i had run afoul of
rune-snobs who claimed that the only truly ancient
runes used in divination were those carved on wood.
Eventually, as time passed, other folk magicians and academics
began to provide evidence that supported my doubts about the
antiquity of rune reading. The kits seemed to have originated
in America, not in Germanic or Scandinavian Europe among the
descendants of the long-haired Visigoths and Vikings. But as certain as
i was of their recent invention, that still left an important
question unanswered: If rune reading is modern and American, then
how did Americans come up with the idea, and why?
It is my belief that runic divination originated in America under
the influence of the very book that disclaimed the role of
runes in divination, namely the 1955 Dover reprint of "The Book
of Signs" by Rudolf Koch. Dover's paperback
re-release of the first English translation of Koch's
German book (which had been published in London in 1930) was
enormously popular during the hippie era when runic divination first
surfaced. It was continually in print at that time, was
nationally marketed at a low price, and has remained in
print for more than 50 years.
(A personal aside: i myself was a constant proselytizer for the book during that period,
despite the fact that, according to my mother, a German-Jewish refugee and rare book dealer,
Koch had been a Nazi and had designed
type fonts for the National Socialist Party. I am still
partial to Koch's fonts (Kabel, Neuland [the Nazi font],
Futura, etc.), and i use them often in designing my
Lucky Mojo Curio Co. labels.
The very heading at the top of this web page is a digital copy of
a hand-cut wood-block alphabet by Koch, Neuland.)
Koch only mentioned runes in one short chapter of his
book, as a wood-type alphabet, and he presented no runic
sigils among his examples of Medieval
Germanic symbols. His brief introduction to the runic
alphabet, the last chapter of the book, did, however,
contain two paragraphs which i firmly believe led American
readers into quite a bit of confusion regarding the magical
role of the runes, and inadvertently fomented the creation of
today's runic fortune-telling systems.
After introducing the runes as a form of alphabetic
lettering, Koch made brief mention of rune magic, no doubt
with implied reference to the so-called "uthark theory" of
Sigurd Agrell, who, in the 1920s, had claimed, with little
substantiation, that the normal order of the runes, called
the "futhark", after the first letters of the old Germanic
24-letter alphabet (f, u, th, a, r, k), had once been supplemented by
a magical "uthark" alphabet, in which the letter "f" was
moved to the end, and the first letters were u, th, a, r, k.
Agrell further theorized that these uthark runes were employed
in numerological magic, while the futhark runes were relegated to use as a
The great problem with Agrell's uthark theory is that no
Medieval examples of rune magic of the type Agrell posited
have actually been found. It is thus a theory that exists in
an academic vacuum, and its factuality has been hotly
debated, beginning with a repudiation by Anders Baeksted in
1952. However, at the time when Koch originally wrote "The Book of Signs,"
the uthark theory was more or less in play among scholarly
Germanic Medievalists and had become popular
with Volkische German occultists as well.
Koch explained Agrell's theory very briefly, without much enthusiasm, as follows:
"Rune magic was peculiar to North Germany, and we have
only very fragmentary information about it. There the Rune
represented the object after which it was named; the runic
character became the object itself, and with it good and
evil could be worked. The magic properties of each rune were
only known to very few."
Had Koch at that point included a few examples of magical runic
sigils, such as the Icelandic galdr sigils or a Swedish runekafle stick
with a magical spell written in the futhark alphabet,
his readers would have understood what he was
writing about, but he did not, which left them in
expectation of further magical information about runes.
Unfortunately, an ambiguously translated sentence
further on in Koch's text provided all
the impetus these eager readers needed to create, from whole
cloth, the "ancient" practice of fortune telling by reading the
runes. Koch wrote:
"For purposes of soothsaying, runes were only used
indirectly: it was believed that the dead could be awakened
by means of Rune magic, and that they could foretell the
The "they" in that sentence clearly refers not to the
runes, but to the dead foretelling the future, a technique
called necromancy. According to Koch, the only use that
runes had in divination was indirect: by means of rune
magic, the dead could be awakened and they -- the awakened dead --
could then foretell the future.
Pronouns being notoriously ambiguous, it appears that
someone (or several someones) got the idea that Koch had
presented the opinion that once necromancers had awakened
the dead, they -- the necromancers -- could use the runes to foretell the
The fact that fortune telling and divination by runes was
not found in Scandinavia or Germany until after it became
common in the United States and England
points to the widely read English translation reprint of
Koch's work as the source of American and English divination
Over time, as Agrell's uthark theory fell out of academic
favour, American occultists suspended their endorsement of his
semi-Kabbalistic numerological assignments to the letters.
Substituting the historically correct futhark alphabet for
Agrell's hypothetical uthark, they aligned their
thinking with current academic models, while yet retaining
the central premise of Agrell's hypothesis, that the
runes were employed in magic -- and they never ceased to
believe in their misinterpretation of the flawed translation
of Koch's book, by which their "ancient art of runic
divination" was justified.
The most interesting thing about this grammatical comedy of
errors is that since its invention, runic divination,
originally presented as the random selection and
interpretive reading of runes pulled out of a bag,
has become become more diverse and complex.
Using as documentation a passage from a 1st century book called Germania
by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus,
in which he described an ancient Germanic form of divination accomplished
by casting three thin marked "slips" of wood onto a cloth and
reading the results, a new format of rune reading,
called "casting the runes" was developed. Tacitus' "slips" were broadly
interpreted to mean "disks." and this became a
justification for the rune-snob belief that the wooden divination-runes
were more "authentic" than the stone divination-runes.
Rune casting was followed by the development of cartomancy layouts for runes,
including the three-rune layout (derived from the
old-time three card cut used by playing card readers)
and the Celtic Rune layout (taken from the Celtic Cross
tarot card layout devised around 1900 by members of
the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and
popularized in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite,
illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith).
Most modern rune-reading systems are based on the futhark,
the twenty-four alphabetic letters which are named after the
the first six letters in the array: f, u, th, a, r, and k.
But how do these letters become the basis for a reading? I
believe i can answer that question. In order to help children
memorize the alphabet, each letter was related to a word that started with
that letter. We still do this in modern English, teaching the alphabet
with short phrases like "A is for Apple, B is for Boy," and so forth.
Now, just imagine that we drew each alphabet letter on a square of
wood -- or selected a set of 26 Scrabble tiles, one for each letter of
our alphabet -- and that we held our childhood memory-images in
mind as metaphors for states of being, whether
spiritual or mundane. We might draw three wooden tiles out of a bag -- say A, C, and E.
Remembering the "Apple, Cat, Egg" of childhood, we could then read the culturally inherent
meanings of those images: Apple: a time of fruitfulness and fertility, with a hint
of sexual seduction; Cat: a self-possessed and beautiful woman, also sexual;
Egg: the creation of new life, a child-to-be."
See how simple that is? All you have to do is agree on which image-laden words
will accord with each letter of the alphabet.
And that's where it gets complicated. While one person may have learned that
"A is for Apple," another person may have been taught that "A is for Aardvark."
It should be obvious to you how quickly that will change the meaning of the reading!
This did in fact happen to the futhark letters. Rune-poems
were created in several areas of Northern Europe
to assist in alphabetic memorization, but as the centuries rolled on, the images shifted.
Thus the letter with the sound of a hard K might in one region or era be
found in a rune-poem as Kaunan, an ulcerative
disease like cancer, while a few centuries later, or a few hundred miles away,
it might be linked in a different rune-poem to the word Kenaz,
a torch of light and wisdom. There is no easy way to resolve such differences, but
creative diviners have given it their best shot. In this instance, the cancerous
ulcer of Kaunan is taken to stand for any disease, and from there it is taken
to be a fever, which nicely correlates with the burning torch of Kenaz.
The number of variant rune systems now available is impressive. There are cast pewter runes,
carved wooden runes, stamped pottery runes, and engraved
stone runes. Some sets stick to the 24-letter futhark alphabet,
others have an extra, blank stone in position 25, popularly called
the Wyrd or Odin stone.
Why the blank stone? As a printer and publisher, i think i know the reason for that, too: Ralph H. Blum's
book on rune divination, which came out in 1982, was the first such full-length book.
As released, it was packaged complete with a set of ceramic rune-tiles for use, and
these tiles lay over and covered the surface of the book. Now, there
are several ways to lay out an array of
24 tiles, but none of them will fit the proportional configuration of a standard
book. You see, 2 x 12 tiles is too long and narrow to lay on a book cover, and
3 x 8 tiles is not much better.
Even 4 x 6 tiles will make for a book that is too tall and narrow to be shelved with other books.
But if you make a 5 x 5 tile grid, the runes will lay out exactly in a space the size of
the book's cover. Of course you now have 25 tiles. Hmmmm. Let's make the 25th one
a blank. We can say that it is an extra for you to mark if you lose a rune while casting --
or, hey, let's make it be like a Joker in a playing card deck -- you know, "Jokers wild" --
We'll call it the Wild, the Wyld -- No! The Wyrd rune! That's it, The Wyrd! And Odin
will be the Joker. They'll love it!"
And so they did.
With dozens of formats of divination to choose from, and dozens of
options for aesthetic presentation of the runes themselves,
rune reading has became a much-loved staple of American occultism,
especially among Americans of Germanic or
Scandinavian descent and Neo-Pagans who identify with
Asatru and Wicca.
The results obtained by runic divination certainly equal in
accuracy the readings derived from older methods of foretelling,
such as astrology, geomancy, casting bones or cowrie shells, reading the I
Ching, palmistry, numerology, cartomancy and tarot reading,
graphology, and tea leaf reading. Every human invention has
a beginning date, whether ancient or modern, and rune
reading, although not very old, has actually earned
an honourable place for itself in American, Anglo-Saxon, and
Germanic-Scandinavian folk magic.
Search All Lucky Mojo and Affiliated Sites!
You can search our sites for a single word (like
archaeoastronomy, hoodoo, conjure, or clitoris),
an exact phrase contained within quote marks (like
"love spells", "spiritual supplies", "occult
shop", "gambling luck", "Lucky Mojo bag", or "guardian angel"), or a
name within quote marks (like "Blind
Willie McTell", "Black Hawk", "Hoyt's Cologne", or "Frank
||Did you like what you read here? Find it useful?
Then please click on the Paypal Secure Server logo and make a small
donation to catherine yronwode for the creation and maintenance of this site.
Here are some other LUCKY MOJO web sites you can visit:
OCCULTISM, MAGIC SPELLS, MYSTICISM, RELIGION, SYMBOLISM
Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by cat yronwode: an introduction to African-American rootwork
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic by cat yronwode:a materia magica of African-American conjure
Lucky W Amulet Archive by cat yronwode: an online museum of worldwide talismans and charms
Sacred Sex: essays and articles on tantra yoga, neo-tantra, karezza, sex magic, and sex worship
Sacred Landscape: essays and articles on archaeoastronomy and sacred geometry
Freemasonry for Women by cat yronwode: a history of mixed-gender Freemasonic lodges
The Lucky Mojo Esoteric Archive: captured internet text files on occult and spiritual topics
Lucky Mojo Usenet FAQ Archive:FAQs and REFs for occult and magical usenet newsgroups
Aleister Crowley Text Archive: a multitude of texts by an early 20th century occultist
Lucky Mojo Magic Spells Archives: love spells, money spells, luck spells, protection spells, and more
Free Love Spell Archive: love spells, attraction spells, sex magick, romance spells, and lust spells
Free Money Spell Archive: money spells, prosperity spells, and wealth spells for job and business
Free Protection Spell Archive: protection spells against witchcraft, jinxes, hexes, and the evil eye
Free Gambling Luck Spell Archive: lucky gambling spells for the lottery, casinos, and races
Hoodoo and Blues Lyrics: transcriptions of blues songs about African-American folk magic
EaRhEaD!'S Syd Barrett Lyrics Site: lyrics by the founder of the Pink Floyd Sound
The Lesser Book of the Vishanti: Dr. Strange Comics as a magical system, by cat yronwode
The Spirit Checklist: a 1940s newspaper comic book by Will Eisner, indexed by cat yronwode
Fit to Print: collected weekly columns about comics and pop culture by cat yronwode
Eclipse Comics Index: a list of all Eclipse comics, albums, and trading cards
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course with cat yronwode: 52 weekly lessons in book form
Hoodoo Conjure Training Workshops: hands-on rootwork classes, lectures, and seminars
Apprentice with catherine yronwode: personal 3-week training for qualified HRCC graduates
Lucky Mojo Community Forum: an online message board for our occult spiritual shop customers
Lucky Mojo Hoodoo Rootwork Hour Radio Show: learn free magic spells via podcast download
Lucky Mojo Videos: see video tours of the Lucky Mojo shop and get a glimpse of the spirit train
Lucky Mojo Publishing: practical spell books on world-wide folk magic and divination
Lucky Mojo Newsletter Archive: subscribe and receive discount coupons and free magick spells
LMC Radio Network: magical news, information, education, and entertainment for all!
Follow Us on Facebook: get company news and product updates as a Lucky Mojo Facebook Fan
The Lucky Mojo Curio Co.: spiritual supplies for hoodoo, magick, witchcraft, and conjure
Herb Magic: complete line of Lucky Mojo Herbs, Minerals, and Zoological Curios, with sample spells
Mystic Tea Room Gift Shop: antique, vintage, and contemporary fortune telling tea cups
the eclectic and eccentric author of many of the above web pages
nagasiva yronwode: nigris (333), nocTifer, lorax666, boboroshi, Troll Towelhead, !
Garden of Joy Blues: former 80 acre hippie commune near Birch Tree in the Missouri Ozarks
Liselotte Erlanger Glozer: illustrated articles on collectible vintage postcards
Jackie Payne: Shades of Blues: a San Francisco Bay Area blues singer
Lucky Mojo Site Map: the home page for the whole Lucky Mojo electron-pile
All the Pages: descriptive named links to about 1,000 top-level Lucky Mojo web pages
How to Contact Us: we welcome feedback and suggestions regarding maintenance of this site
Make a Donation: please send us a small Paypal donation to keep us in bandwidth and macs!
OTHER SITES OF INTEREST
Arcane Archive: thousands of archived Usenet posts on religion, magic, spell-casting, mysticism, and spirituality
Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers: psychic reading, conjure, and hoodoo root doctor services
Candles and Curios: essays and articles on traditional African American conjure and folk magic, plus shopping
Crystal Silence League: a non-denominational site; post your prayers; pray for others; let others pray for you
Gospel of Satan: the story of Jesus and the angels, from the perspective of the God of this World
Hoodoo Psychics: connect online or call 1-888-4-HOODOO for instant readings now from a member of AIRR
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church: spirit-led, inter-faith; prayer-light services; Smallest Church in the World
Mystic Tea Room: tea leaf reading, teacup divination, and a museum of antique fortune telling cups
Satan Service: an archive presenting the theory, practice, and history of Satanism and Satanists
Southern Spirits: 19th and 20th century accounts of hoodoo, including ex-slave narratives & interviews
Spiritual Spells: lessons in folk magic and spell casting from an eclectic Wiccan perspective, plus shopping
Yronwode Home: personal pages of catherine yronwode and nagasiva yronwode, magical archivists
Yronwode Institution: the Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology