In Other Words




Runic Magic

06 January 2019

On a retail website is a stunning collection of crystals and stones engraved with ancient runic symbols for sale. Helen, the artist from Russia writes: “Northern peoples have been harnessing the healing and protective powers of runes for thousands of years through practicing rituals and creating talismans to attract luck, prosperity, and positive energy.” One item on the site in particular is black agate and the symbol engraved on this, according to the website, inspires victory and protection against evil magic. On another site I find a “runic love amulet” should I be in the market for some happiness, joy, harmony and passionate love magic.  Of course the meanings of such symbolism have evolved over the years. Whereas a runic symbol carved into the head of a sword may have been seen to protect a warrior going into battle, the marketing of such runes leans more toward overcoming stress and the search for calmness and balance. But I’m curious about the historical relevance, and why, with all our knowledge and science-based scepticism, the idea of such magic continues to stand the test of time. Runes, or ancient symbols, are native to early Northern European cultures, and the mystery surrounding them has inspired pagan Norse tales of elemental forces, ancient clues, wizards and goddesses.

Icelandic Viking histories don’t teach us a distinct origin of practice, but they certainly whet our appetite for ancient folklore. In one such tale, Egil’s Saga, the thirteenth-century writer tells of a tale dated three centuries earlier about a rune-inscribed piece of whalebone placed in a girl’s bed to win her affection, only for her to become ill from these erroneous symbolic engravings, known as Icelandic magical staves. The earliest known Scandinavian spell book, Galdrabók, represents a later account of runic lore, written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But any attempt to understand the origin and meaning is convoluted by the scattering of Christian prayer within the text.

The more modern English word of rune derives from ancient equivalents of Old Norse rúnar, meaning “secret lore”, while Old England runian, Old Saxon runon, and Old High German runen mean “to whisper”. Closely related are Old Irish run meaning “secret”, Welsh rhin meaning “magic charm”, and Finnish runo suggesting “song” or “incantation”. With these definitions, the word rune embodies something magical that is only revealed in symbols and ancient scripts, and offers intrigue, inclusion, and an uncovering of secret messages.

Though runes are commonly associated with magic, there is no archaeological evidence to suggest with certainty that the runes themselves were magical. Rather, runic magic in its modern forms derives from divine practices, when the god of sorcery, Odin, was said to be responsible for passing on the magic to other gods and men. Through these ancient symbols he would bestow gifts of wisdom, guidance, victory and protection to name a few. Original runic forms were thought to have been conceived as flashes of inspiration in the minds of Bronze Age priests and magicians, and such markings are found in abundance in rock carvings across Scandinavia. There has been scholarly debate over the origin of runes; whether they are from ancient Germanic alphabets or similar characters with magical powers, and whether they are incantations or poems.

Whatever the true origin, ancient runic symbols have been viewed with significance, and adopted as emblems throughout time. The Nazi swastika resembles the symbol for Thor and all his thunderous power, the double-s rune was adopted for the Nazi Schutzstaffel, the y-rune for the peace sign, and the cross or sun-wheel, used originally to denote holy places, was later adopted by Christians. Even the popular Dutch hex signs used in folk art derive from these ancient symbols.

Runic belief inspires a sense of control over one’s destiny, and these stones and runic messages also offer a chance at satisfying humanly desires, such as love, protection, peace and courage. Humans throughout history have attached themselves to objects. They are often sentimental pieces but for some they signify a connection to something that offers hope. Studies at the University of Cologne showed that “magical thinking” is defined as the belief that an object, not logical to a course of events, can influence an outcome. Experiments showed that performance was significantly influenced by subjects who carried a “lucky charm”. So is simply the power of thought perhaps the secret behind magical practice?

Though it seems to be about control there might also be some science to magical thinking.  Ben Parris of the University of Exeter in England used brain imaging-scans to watch the responses to magic tricks, and found that people used the left side of their brain to form their reasoning, before applying logic. It makes sense that, without access to science and studies, many from ancient times were more accepting of magical thinking and practice. But we could also be programmed to accept a lot of what we see before we find logical reasons. From his studies, Giora Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, found “that persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational. Despite this awareness, they are unable to rid themselves of such behaviour.”

Psychologist and science writer, Matthew Hutson, suggests that magical thinking is nothing to be ashamed of, and magical practice gives us purpose, connection, and meaning. He also believes that exposure to symbols makes things seem more likely to happen: “If they make a particular outcome more vivid and available in our minds, that outcome will seem more likely to occur."

In a local suburban crystal store, I’m not only there to study some objects or “charms” but admittedly I take the opportunity to buy some pretty Christmas presents for the females in the family. Black tourmaline, I find particularly appealing. Where once this particular stone was used to repel ill wishes, its current day use is more to repel the electromagnetic energy of modern technology. There is a girl at the counter who tells the sales assistant she is looking for particular crystals that can help her concentrate, and I’m thinking that I might need some of those, too. Apparently, lemon quartz is good. The girl says that she has certain crystals beside her bed that help her self-awareness. I’m not sure what that means exactly, or how it really helps her go about her day, but I’m reasoning that if one believes strongly enough in a positive outcome or purpose, in this case with the help of stones, then why not create a little magic of one’s own making.


Gemma Liviero



Carey, Benedict. ‘Do you believe in magic?’ The New York Times, 23 January 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/23/health/psychology/23magic.html, accessed 29 November 2018
Etsy Inc. Jewellery & Accessories: Runic.
13 Moons Magical Supplies. Runic Charms.
Bishop, Christopher, R. ‘Runic Magic’ M.A. Thesis. University of Maryland, College Park, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2007.
Hutson, Matthew. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How irrationality makes us happy, healthy and sane, Hudson Street Press, 2012.
MacLeod, Mindy & Mees, Bernard. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects, Boydell and Brewer, 2006.
Mountfort, Paul Rhys. “Divine Mysteries.” Nordic Runes: Understanding, Casting, and Interpreting the Ancient Viking Oracle. Inner Traditions: Destiny Books, 2003.
Thorsson, Edred. Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. Red Wheel Weiser, LLC. 1984.
Valdesolo, Piercarlo. ‘Why "Magical Thinking" Works for Some People.’ Scientific American, 2010.


Detail of the Elder Futhark inscription on a replica of one of the 5th-century AD Golden Horns of Gallehus found on Jutland, now Denmark. Detail of the runic inscription found on one of the copies of the golden horns of Gallehus housed at the Moesgaard Museum.

© Gemma Liviero 2018

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