What is a rune? It’s a symbol that was used as a letter in one of the early Germanic written languages. Only those symbols are runes. Any symbols that were not used as letters, such as a vegvísir or the valknut, are not runes.
What does the word rune mean? Its origin comes from the Old English rūn, which means secret, or a mystery.
Runes = alphabet. Specifically, alphabet of an ancient Germanic language. The runes that are most popular today are the Elder Futhark. However, during the Viking era, the Elder were already considered archaic and the Younger Futhark was in common use.
Runes were used for everyday communications and were not assigned “magical” meanings until well after the Viking era had ended. Generally, we don’t look at our own alphabet as mystical, and it’s unlikely the Vikings looked at their writing very differently. Although there is definitely some degree of mysticism associated with consulting runes in Norse mythology.
The meanings assigned in books about rune magic may have some relation to how they were used factored in. For example. The first letter of the Younger is Fe. It was also used as a symbol for cattle. In a barter system, cattle is currency. So in transactions, you might buy a cart of furs in exchange for 3 fe. The modern English word fee is a descendant of that practice.
In assigning special meanings to the runes, it is common to see wealth associated with Fe and Fehu. Fe is the symbol for cattle, a currency. Having a lot of cattle would represent wealth. But that same logic could be applied the the dollar sign $ or any currency symbol.
Other magical meanings come from associations that were made based on the sound of the letter: Thurisaz is for Thor, Laguz is for Lake, Sowilo is for sun, and so on. This is a method to help learning the alphabet. It is similar to “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat”. There is nothing inherently mystical about the letters or the runes.
The term “Futhark” is from the sounds of the first six letters of the set. It’s similar to how we refer to the “ABCs” as meaning the entire alphabet. The exact origin of the Elder runic alphabet is still unknown, but there is evidence that the symbols were influenced by contact with the Romans.
If the runes are not inherently “magical” and their meanings are based on functional associations, does that mean that rune-casting and bind runes don’t work? No. Runes are a tool. Tools are used by skilled workers to further their craft. Intent can be imbued or woven into a physical object. The runes are used as a point of focus during this process.
Any set of symbols with meanings applied to them can be used for similar purposes. We could imbue a Fe rune as we carve it into a stone while focusing on wealth, success, financial security. We could color it with drops of blood that leave a dark red color on the rune. We can tell our friend that this is Fehu, the rune for wealth, and it has been imbued with a focus on bringing prosperity to the home in which it resides.
But technically, I could do the same with a dollar sign that I carve into the same stone. I may stand over it and read from the front page of the WSJ while focusing on profits and luxury. Both the dollar sign and the Fehu rune are tools that allow us to accomplish the same thing. They’re just from different sets.
It’s important to understand this: Runes are a chosen toolset. They are not magical symbols that have inherent power.
As with other tools, you must first familiarize yourself with them before you can even begin to develop a skill with them. You likely aren’t able to sit down in front of a piece of wood with a set of carving tools before you and then carve out a beautiful statuette. Reading runes, making bind runes…these are arts and require time honing the skills to be effective with them.