There are many different varieties of runic writing, ranging from the Early or Elder Germanic script of 24 letters, to the Anglo-Saxon script with an original 28 letters rising to 33, and various Nordic, Danish and Swedish runic alphabets varying from 15 to 16 letters. Over 4,000 runic inscriptions and several runic manuscripts are still in existence, the vast majority of which originate from Sweden. Others are mainly found in Norway, Denmark, Britain and Iceland, and some have also been discovered on various islands off the coasts of Britain and Scandinavia, as well as in France, Germany and the former Soviet Union.
In the past, there were two main types of people who worked with the runes: runecutters, who had a limited knowledge of the runes and their protective qualities, and runemasters, both male and female, who had undergone many initiatory experiences to discover the deeper secrets of rune lore. These runemasters were held in the highest esteem.They knew not only how to divine successfully with runes, but also how to use runes to their advantage in magical and healing work.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, runes have been growing in popularity. Many books about runes are now available, and there are even schools teaching runic divination and the finer arts of rune lore.The fact that runes have lasted two whole millennia is an indication that their potential power has been undiminished by the years.
Rune lore is closely linked to the long spiritual history of the Scandinavians and their gods and goddesses, who are described in the ancient sagas. In Norse mythology, the chief god was Odin, the discoverer of the runes and the first runemaster. He was married to Frigg and they had two sons, Balder (the beautiful god) and Thor (the thunder god). Odin’s brother Loki, was the trickster god. Many other gods and goddesses are mentioned in the sagas, including Njord, god of the sea, Freya, goddess of war, love and magic, Idun, goddess of healing and Tyr, the warrior god. The attributes of these deities pare reflected in the meanings and magic of the runes.
Odin, the all-father of the Norse gods, experienced a shamanic initiation, during which time the runes appeared to him. Legend tells that he hanged himself upside down on the great ash tree Yggdrasil, the World Tree or Tree of Life. After nine days and nights Odin died on the tree, but was reborn through his unquenchable will, bringing back with him to the world the knowledge and wisdom of the world beyond — and the runes — as a gift to humankind.