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Runes are the characters of ancient alphabets: Teutonic (24 letters), Anglo-Saxon (32 letters), and Scandinavian (16 letters). Runic characters are similar to Latin letters, except that they tend to have few curves and consist mostly of straight lines, suitable for carving with knives. Runic letters were used for over one thousand years. For most people, the runic alphabet died out sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. But for those special New Age people with one foot in the world of secrets and the other in the world of mysteries, runes are used as a form of divination.*
The Norse used Runic characters mostly for practical purposes, such as marking graves, identifying property, or for defacing other's graves and property with graffiti, such as at Maes Howe in Orkney. New Agers ignore these uses and prefer to side with superstitious 12th century Norsemen and women who thought they could see the future in alphabetic characters on wood or stone. Somehow, the image of Viking warriors, worshippers of Thor and Odin, kneeling down to cast runes to decide whether or not to invade Ireland, seems incongruous.
The word 'rune' derives from the Old Norse and Old English run which means "mystery." The real mystery is why anyone would think that writing the letters of an alphabet on little pieces of wood or stone, putting them in a bag, and then drawing them out and throwing them or laying them down in certain ways, would answer their questions, give them direction for the present, guide them to see the future or help them make good decisions. Runes may have gotten their reputation for being tools of divination when Christian Church leaders claimed they were used to cast magic spells or communicate with the devil. Many New Agers seem to like Tolkein, so the fact that his Hobbits used a kind of runes in their writing may have enhanced the association of runic letters with magic and mystery.
It is said that rune reading is useful for gaining spiritual insight. No doubt, it is as good as any other method. Dr. Martin D. Rayner, a professor of physiology at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, claims that by gazing at the runes one can tap into the subconscious and find great knowledge about oneself.
How can the random selection of marked stones tell you anything about yourself? Perhaps these Rune Interpretations are simply so evocative that each contains some point, which can be accepted as relevant to some part of what is happening at the limits of consciousness any day, any time, to anyone. That is the easiest possibility to accept from a strictly scientific standpoint. [The Runes Explained]
The good doctor is giving new meaning not only to his life but to science as well. Nevertheless, he says he has found rune reading to be "transformational" and leading to "breakthroughs", which are common goals of New Agers.
How is it that random alphabetic stone selection can be so useful? Easy. Anything can be a source of transformation and breakthrough if you decide to let it be. Runes, tarot cards, the I Ching, enneagrams, Myers-Briggs....anything can be used to stimulate self-reflection and self-analysis. Anything can be used to justify coming to a decision about an unresolved matter. Coming to a decision brings relief, reduces anxiety, and may well seem like a breakthrough and transformation. Using something like rune stones to help make your decision relieves you of responsibility for it. The choice was made for you by the stones and your subconscious mind, so you are off the hook if anything goes wrong. Furthermore, since there is no standard interpretation of any of this stuff, you can always change your initial interpretation to fit new facts or desires.
When you are the oracle yourself, it is always a win-win situation.
note: Tacitus, in Ch. X of his Germania, describes a form of divination used by Germanic tribes:
"To divination and casting of lots, they pay attention beyond any other people. Their method of casting lots is a simple one: they cut a branch from a fruit-bearing tree and divide it into small pieces which they mark with certain distinctive signs and scatter at random onto a white cloth. Then, the priest of the community if the lots are consulted publicly, or the father of the family if it is done privately, after invoking the gods and with eyes raised to heaven, picks up three pieces, one at a time, and interprets them according to the signs previously marked upon them."
Though the signs are not described as letters of the runic alphabet, some New Agers have interpreted this passage as evidence both of the existence of runes in the first century and their use in divination. Neither seems justified from this passage alone.
There is evidence that the Norse used runes for divination before the 12th or 13th centuries, however.
Runstenar / Rune stones by Ingrid Karlmar and Urban Fredriksson