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‘Casting Lots’ in Sagas

We see in a few of the sagas the mention of ‘lots’ and the act of ‘casting lots’ for many purposes. On each of the saga pages I had said that it was uncertain if these lots were really runes or something else completely. There is some evidence that these lots may in fact have been runes or pre-runic magic symbols that were carved on branches.

In the first century A.D. the Roman author Tacitus wrote his Germania 10 in which he gives an account of some divinatory practices of ancient Germanic people.

For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required.

The different signs that were scored on the wood could have only been one of a few things. First off it’s possible that they had carved magical symbols onto the strips. If this is the case they may have been the runes being used as magical symbols or actual magical symbols that date to a pre-runic time. We have to take into account a few things here. If the symbols were in fact magical pre-runic symbols then why would we find items, such as swords and rings, from this time period that contain magical inscriptions carved in runes. Not the pre-runic symbols, but the actual rune symbols. However, there’s another side to this coin. If the runes were used for magical inscriptions then why would we see so many variations in different rune sets? If they were used for magic then there would be no need to make changes to the design of the symbols. It would be similar to the symbols used in astronomy, since each symbol stands for something specific, like the sun or the moon; there is no need to change the symbol. So the symbol gets passed from culture to culture and through time unchanged. However, using the runes as a writing system would give reason to why there were changes in the shapes of the runes.

There is one other possibility that could lead us to believe the symbols carved were rune shapes. This possibility is that the runes were used for both magical purposes as well as for writing. The magical inscriptions were simply oral commands carved onto an item to give the power of the command to the item it was being carved on. This seems to be the more likely explanation. The runes used as a system of writing would allow someone to add magical inscriptions to something without having to know a separate list of magic symbols.

With all that said is it safe to assume that the terms ‘casting lots’ and ‘lots’ referred to the runes in the sagas? Well without any solid proof the answer would be no, we can’t say for certain. However, the possibility of this happening is greater than the possibility of it not happening. At least that’s what I am lead to believe, still you should try to decide that for yourself.

Medieval Runes of Healing and Magick Set

For almost all other rune sets you should be able to find some divinatory meanings for each rune in its set. This is where the Medieval runes differ from the rest. They were never used for divination purposes and are actually not a rune row in their own right. What they are is individual runic symbols that hold magickal properties of protection and healing. They are probably the least known of the rune sets and probably one set that we may never fully understand how and what they were used for. They are said to originate in the Middle Ages and are largely thought to be Germanic or Dutch in origin.

The images and shapes of this set (shown here) are not that different than the other runes that we’ve seen before. But why is that? If these runes were used for magickal protection and healing, why not just use the protection runes or healing runes from an already developed set? The answer to that is not clear and may never be. It could be that the images for the runes were chosen because each rune was said to relate to a god or goddess. If that’s true then setting them apart from the other runes may be the reason why the shape was changed only a little. If you wanted the power of a god to help protect you or your home then it may be wise to use a protection rune from an established rune set. However, if you wanted to make sure that the rune held a little more power and possibly some magick to it, then it may have been the intent of the user to modify the rune just slightly enough so that the image was not identical, but still showed the original rune, therefore adding the element of magick to the rune. This is of course a lot of speculation and guesswork since there is no solid evidence of why these runes were only used for magickal purposes and not in casting.

Armanen Rune Set

The Armanen rune set, like other sets, has a difficult history to pin-point where and when it was established. Some will say that this set was originally developed by Guido List, while others will tell you that List followed the previous works of a scholar named Johannes Bureus. However, either way you look at it List’s work varies enough from previous scholar’s work to make the Armanen rune set one worth having a look at.

Gudio List (1848-1919) was the founder of a school of German rune work. The contributions to the study and preservation of the runes may be one of the reasons that we know as much about the runes as we do today. That’s not to say that all that List had taught was to be held as truth. In fact List claimed that his Armanen rune set was not only older than the Elder Futhark but that his set had laid the groundwork for the Elder Futhark as well as other rune sets.

It is said that the Armanen rune set came to List in a vision one day after he had become temporarily blind from an eye surgery. He envisioned 18 runes that were said to be the original rune set and the most ancient script for the Aryan race. However, if we look closely at the 18 runes we’ll notice that List simply took various Scandinavian rune sets, used from those sets various rune staves and then added 2 more to get a total of 18 rune staves for his set – which incidentally is the number of runes talked about in the Hávamál (Sayings of the High One – Part of the Elder Edda).

As far as the divinatory meanings for List’s runes we can see a close connection to the meanings of the Younger Futhork. However, with List’s set there are different meanings for daemoniums (reversed runes) as well as different names1. The use of this set among Germans and people in German speaking countries seems to be very widespread. However, since this set has ties to Socialist German, the Nazi party and in some aspects even to Hitler, we see this set being used less by modern day rune casters.

Rune Casting

It is still unknown if the runes were first developed for the use of a writing system or for the use of divination (or casting lots). Either way, in the past, the runes were used for casting, we even see evidence of that in mythology and sagas. Recently there has been a new found interest in new age items and we have see a revival of using the runes for casting and divination. You can now buy a set of runes almost as easily as you can buy a deck of tarot cards. However, if you want your runes to be special to you there’s no better way than to make them yourself.

Once you have your set of runes, what do you do? Well there are many fine books out there to help get you started. If you buy your runes, a lot of sets come along with a small starter book that will introduce you to the history, myths and meanings of the runes as well as how to cast them. If you would like to make your own you can follow the guides below and then use the rest of this site to find out the meanings and images.

So let’s get started…

Picking a rune set – Decide which rune set is best for you to use for casting.

Making your own rune set – Find out how to make your own personal set of runes.

What you need for casting – A list of item that are good to have for casting.

How to do a reading – Find out how set up a reading and where and when to cast.

Casting layouts and spreads – A list of casting spreads and layouts to choose from.

Casting record sheets – Here are a few PDFs for you to use to download, print and record your rune casts on.

Improve Your Casts Through Meditation – Learn how to improve your rune casting through meditation in this 4 page article.

* Layouts that were created by Dan Gronitz for this website. If you wish to use any of these layout ideas in any media please contact me.

** – Indicates a rune cast adapted from a tarot card spread.