The Futhark runes are a set of runes based on an alphabetic script that was used by the Norse (Vikings) and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe and are about 2000 years old.
As well as being used as a written alphabet, the rune symbols were used for magic and divination. As the Roman alphabet became the preferred script of most of Europe, Runes as an alphabetic script fell into disuse, but their forms and meanings were preserved in inscriptions and manuscripts.
One major characteristic which distinguishes a runic alphabet from other alphabets is that each letter, or rune, has a meaning. For example "eh", "bee", and "cee" are meaningless sounds denoting the first three letters in our alphabet but the names of the first three runes, "fehu", "uruz", and "thurisaz" are actual words in the Germanic/Norse languages, meaning "cattle", "aurochs", and "giant", respectively. The Futhark runes are split into three aettir or sets.
Runes have long been held to have magical and pagan religious significance as well and they have been used throughout the centuries for divinatory readings and to create magical spells.
Although the exact origin of the runes is unknown, what we now know as the runic alphabet seems to have developed from two distinct sources - one magical, one literate. Early pre-runic symbols, have been found in Bronze Age rock carvings, mostly in Sweden. Some of these symbols are readily identifiable in the later alphabets, while the meanings of others are now lost to us, as is their original purpose. They are, however, believed to have been used for divination and the magical casting of spells.
Theories have been put forward for both Latin and Greek derivation. However, the strongest evidence still seems to point to a North Italic origin. The parallels between the two alphabets are so similar that they cannot be ignored. This would also explain why so many of the runes resemble Roman letters, since both Italic and Latin scripts are derived from the Etruscan alphabet. The original creation of the futhark runes would therefore be sometime before the first century. It is possible, according to some scholars, that the rune's origin may have been at least one hundred years earlier than that.
The runes remained in common use until well into the 17th. century. They could be found on everywhere on everyday items. Most people knew simple runic spells. And of course, the runes were frequently consulted on matters of interest i.e. divination. Although actually sanctioned by the church in some areas they were officially banned in 1639. The rune masters were persecuted and either executed or driven underground. Whether the original knowledge of the runes died with them or was passed on in secret is almost impossible to say. The ancient traditions and the more modern philosophies relating to runes cannot be separated.
After the Second World War, the runes fell into disfavor as a result of their association with Nazism. Not until the mid-eighties with the advent of the "New Age" did the runes regain their popularity as a tool for divination and for self-awareness.
Today, runes have gained immense popularity as a means of divination having been rediscovered as a symbolic system. Some believe they are an alternative to Tarot cards for giving insight and foretelling the future. They have much to teach us about a way of life that was more intimately connected to the natural world than our own. Some practitioners use a 25th rune called Wyrd in additional to the original set.