Despite the growing awareness and popularity of runes over the past thirty years or so, there is still a lot of confusion about what runes actually are.
Rune sets, especially the Elder Futhark, are often sold inscribed on small rocks, leading many people to believe that the rocks themselves are "runes".
However the runes can be inscribed on almost anything: rocks, wood, cardstock, bone, even metal.
Another mistake is thinking that the runic characters are runes rather than representations of the runes.
The characters are indeed symbolic representations of the runes, and can be used to invoke runic power, but the runes themselves are nothing less than sacred mysteries.
In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the word rún means a secret. It is the stem of other Old English words such as rúnian (to speak in a whisper),
rúnlic (mysterious) and rúnwita (councilor or sage, one who is learned in the mysteries).
It may help you to think of the runes as a sort of magical language, and, like other languages, there are local "dialects", each with its own mysteries.
These mysteries have been preserved for us in three Rune Poems. A Rune Poem describes the runes - the mysteries - of its own "dialect". These three works are:
The Old English Rune Poem. It was recorded in the 8th or 9th century, but, like all three Rune Poems, is probably much older than this.
The Icelandic Rune Poem is the second oldest source of rune lore, recorded in the 15th century.
The Norse Rune Poem, the youngest of the three, was recorded in the 17th century.
There are also three rune sets (with local variations), but these do not correspond exactly with the three poems. The rune sets are:
The Elder Futhark, which was used from the 2nd-8th centuries. There are 24 runes in the Elder Futhark, although it is often marketed on stones or clay chips with an extra "blank rune".
This extra piece, of course, is not a rune at all since there is no runic character inscribed on it. The Elder Futhark is the oldest set of runic symbols. Unfortunately nothing is known about its mysteries.
Everything that has ever been written about the mysteries of the Elder Futhark has been taken from the Rune Poems (which do not address these early runes), or from an author's personal intuitions.
The Futhorc, which was used in England from the 5th-11th centuries. There are two variations: a set of 29 runes, and a set of 33 runes (the latter sometimes referred to as Northumbrian Runes).
The mysteries of the 29 runes have been preserved in the Old English Rune Poem.
The Younger Futhark was used in Scandinavia and Iceland from the 9th-11th centuries.
There are 16 runes in the Younger Futhark, but these runes can be expressed and interpreted in two different "dialects" as described in the Norse Rune Poem and Icelandic Rune Poem, respectively.
These three rune sets, while sharing similarities, are NOT interchangeable.
Just as the American word "bum" and the British word "bum" have completely different meanings, a rune can represent wholly different mysteries depending on which runic dialect you are working with.
For example, in the Old English Rune Poem, the mystery of the rune Cen is described:
The pine is a tree known to all for its flame
shining and brilliant, it often burns
where the people relax inside.
Let's compare this to the corresponding rune in the Norse Rune Poem, which says:
The sore is fatal to children,
death makes a corpse pale.
As you can see, these are two entirely unrelated mysteries. This is why attempting to apply the mysteries of the Old English Rune Poem (or the other two Rune Poems) to the Elder Futhark is an error. We can do no more than hypothesize the mysteries of the Elder runes. And if you are going to work with the Old English mysteries, it only makes sense to use all 29 runes described in the Old English Rune Poem! For a Saxon Pagan to use the runes of the Elder Futhark is like working with the Tarot and throwing out the suit of Pentacles. Ignoring those additional runes means you are working with only 83% of the mysteries.
Historically, runes were used more for active magic than for divination. Runes of triumph were often inscribed on swords, shields and knives. Runestone monuments (boulders with ancient runic inscriptions) sometimes included a statement that the runes etched into the stone would bring misfortune and death to anyone who tried to destroy the monument.
Included here are two additional rune pages. One gives the full Old English Rune Poem for those who would study the mysteries. The other is a divinatory oracle for those who are looking for some insight into a problem or situation.