A Beginner’s Guide To The Not-So-Ancient Art Of Reading Runes

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Welcome, dear reader, to the exciting and complicated realm of runes. You may have seen them in a museum, J.R.R. Tolkien's work, or that one scene in Stardust — they're the little stones with mysterious (probably incomprehensible) symbols carved in them that you draw from a bag or "cast." Those of you who know them from your local esoterica store may equate rune stones with tarot cards — a mystical means of divination with set, designated meanings. But they haven't always been this way. Way back when, "runes" were actually just an alphabet. The earliest runic alphabet is thought to be modeled after the Latin alphabet, and it most likely first appeared in southern Europe among Germanic tribes.

The people most commonly associated with runes are the Norsemen, and, within that, Vikings. Countless artifacts, from gravestones to vases, have been found with rune carvings on them. People used these objects to communicate, pray, and denote ownership. Rude messages have even been found in rune form — yep, not even the Vikings were safe from trolls.

The exact letters of the runic alphabet have countless variations, and it took some time before everyone could agree on how to read them (the final call was from left to right). There's evidence that ancient people wrote out spells, prayers, and invocations in runes, but using them for divining purposes only came later.

While runes reemerged in 20th-century neopaganism and (strangely enough) attempts at diabolical magic during the Third Reich, the process of runic divination that we're most familiar with now was developed by Ralph Blum in the '80s, with The Book of Runes. It has since gone through several other, updated editions, and other authors of esoterica have offered their own, rather different interpretations of the alphabet's soothsaying capacity.

Just like there are different rune alphabets and meanings, there are a variety of ways to read runes, too, from drawing just one to casting a grid of nine. It all depends on what you hope to divine, and whether you're doing it for fun or to answer a specific concern. That said, do watch out for how the runes appear when you draw them. Much like tarot cards, runes can have different meanings when they are drawn in reverse.

Unless you've already dipped a toe into the rune pool, Blum's interpretation of the alphabet will probably be what you first encounter as a beginner. So, take this as your introduction to the world of runes, but don't hesitate to explore which alphabets, sets, and stones speak to you most.

Ahead, 25 Viking runes and their meanings to help you through your next reading.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
The Self
Mannaz
Blum writes that this rune reminds the reader that change starts within. "Regardless of how great may be your merit, be yielding, devoted, and moderate, for then you have a true direction for your life," he writes. It's a signal of self-awareness and conscientiousness — so consider your place in the world when you draw this rune. Act with selflessness and avoid acting rashly right now.

When drawn in reverse (upside down), take Mannaz as a cue to turn inward and reflect for a while — that's how you'll find "the enemy of your progress," Blum writes.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Partnership
Gebo
Also known as the Gift Rune, Gebo indicates union of any kind. Whether in a romantic or business context, look to how you collaborate with others when you draw this rune. "True partnership is achieved only by separate and whole beings who retain their separateness even as they unite," writes Blum.

True to its meaning, Gebo has no reverse. In this way, it really is nothing but a gift — it's up to you how to receive it.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Signals
Ansuz
Blum associates Ansuz, also called the Messenger Rune, with the Norse god Loki. Though he often appears as the impetus for mischief, he's also known to be very wise. Drawing Ansuz suggests incoming information that may change the current state of things. You may feel inspired to listen more closely to those around you.

If drawn in reverse, Ansuz can imply miscommunication or, in keeping with Loki's connection to this rune, incoming mischief. Be aware that Ansuz instructs you to seek out the good in these potential misfortunes.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Separation
Othila
As its shape suggests, Othila signals a time of separation. You may leave behind a romantic partner or a possession — regardless, there is something you must shed. Blum notes that this rune in particular can be applied to the modern world, given how often we must make choices in our daily lives. "Whether it is your attachment to your position in society, to the work you do, or even to your beliefs about your own nature, the separation called for will free you to become more truly who you are," he writes. It's in what you choose to keep, after this separation, that will really inform you.

Othila's reverse has nearly a perfectly opposite meaning. It asks you to focus on the good of the group — your friends, loved ones, coworkers — and act in a way that will benefit everyone.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Strength
Uruz
"The life you have been living has outgrown its form," Blum writes in defining Uruz. This initially foreboding statement can actually manifest as an opportunity rather than a total loss. For example, a much earlier form of this rune symbolized wild oxen that had been domesticated — in exchange for their freedom, they grew stronger as they were trained to work. Not that you need to think like an ox, but there may be a task you've been dreading that could ultimately make you stronger.

A reversed Uruz symbolizes a missed opportunity. Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open now.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Initiation
Perth
The future is unclear if you draw this rune. "Powerful forces of change are at work here. Yet what is achieved is not easily or readily shared," Blum explains. Something major is coming, but don't take this as an invitation to investigate. Remaining passive, and letting the change come to you, may be your best course of action right now.

While Perth normally asks you to think about the changes to come, its reverse urges you to live in the "true present." Here, you'll see what changes you must make in yourself.
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7 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Constraint
Nauthiz
Nauthiz's shape is derived from the image of two sticks rubbing together to create a fire. With this in mind, think about opposing forces in your life (or within yourself) and remember that friction, or conflict, can provide the spark needed for something new.

Constraints in your life may cause your progress to slow, but take this time to address what you may have done to contribute to this delay, Blum writes: "Examine what it is in your nature that attracts hardship or misfortune to your life."

Nauthiz's reverse asks you to undertake any hardships in your life and embrace whatever darkness may surround you. This rune is known to be a great teacher, but it expects you to learn in spite of (and through) whatever difficulties may get in the way.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Fertility
Inguz
You draw Inguz when you are ready to emerge from an old state, or, in an everyday sense, abandon a bad habit. Something you began a long time ago is nearly finished, and don't be surprised if this is cause for celebration. You're reaching this completion thanks to your own work and effort. Blum explains that "you must fertilize the ground for your own deliverance" — in other words, you put in a lot and now it's time to take your reward.

Inguz has no reverse, but it has another, equally valid interpretation. If there are no major conclusions on your horizon, take this as a prompt to prepare for one.
9 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Defense
Eihwaz
If this rune was created today, it'd be called the Don't Panic Rune. So you've run into an obstacle or inconvenience, and you don't know what to do — Eihwaz instructs you to have patience above all else. It suggests that, even if you don't have the power to do, you always have the power to decide. From there, you may have to make your peace with waiting out whatever inconvenience you've encountered.

Again, this rune is lacking a reverse meaning. Truly, all you can do sometimes is wait.
10 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Protection
Algiz
Algiz indicates movement. You may be presented with a new opportunity or positive change, but remain cautious. "It is important not to collapse yourself into your emotions, the highs as well as the lows," Blum writes. Other sources on runes will even refer to drawing Algiz as a "Study of Stillness" — despite any external transitions, maintain a constant and tranquil inner life.

Algiz's reverse advises you not to concern yourself with others right now. It's fine to be courteous, but beware of burdening yourself. In other words, look out for No. 1 for the moment.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Possessions
Fehu
Remember that reward you had coming when you drew Inguz? This is it. Drawing this rune signifies that newfound wealth, health, or even affection could be headed your way, but Fehu also warns against basking in your good fortune. Instead, reflect on "the meaning of profit and gain in your life," Blum writes. And don't let this recent fulfillment distract you from what you may already have — be generous but don't waste anything at this time.

If you couldn't guess, the reverse of Fehu isn't exactly an ideal drawing. Something you've been hoping for may never come to fruition. Even worse, you may fall into poor health or lose money. Blum offers one reassurance: "This is part of coming to be and passing away, and not that which abides." This isn't the end of your story.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Joy
Wunjo
Let the self-restraint that has guided you through Nauthiz and Fehu come to an end. Wunjo is a sign that "you have come to yourself in some regard," Blum writes, and that comes with new energy, a sense of illumination, and, yes, joy. He adds that this rune also encourages restoration. You may suddenly wish to "renounce existing plans, ambitions, goals," and he says you should follow these feelings. You've reached a point where you feel aligned with your true self.

In reverse, Wunjo reflects a delay in what you want. A change of circumstances — or a change of heart — may be in order.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Harvest
Jera
As its name suggests, Jera implies that you're investing in good things to come, but it may take awhile. Don't push right now — you're on the right track, and, much like Eihwaz, Jera urges you to be patient. You're in a time of great potential (perhaps you're on the right track at work or you're trying to conceive) that could lead to a great reward down the road.

While there is no reverse for this rune, it comes with a warning, from Blum: "Remember the old story about the farmer who was so eager to assist his crops that he went out at night and tugged on the new shoots....You cannot hasten the harvest."
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Opening
Kano
This is a rune of focus, concentration, and clarity. You may be on the verge of a new or difficult chapter in your life that would call for this kind of mindset.

Many runic traditions associate Kano with fire — with that in mind, a sacrifice may be in order, but it will be one with positive results.

In its reverse, Kano's fire is put out. "Expect a darkening of the light in some situation or relationship," Blum warns. Whatever loss you experience, it's for the better, because it was "no longer appropriate to the person you are now becoming."
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
The Warrior
Teiwaz
After so many runes calling only for patience, Teiwaz leaves room for conquest — "self-conquest," that is. Blum writes that this rune symbolizes bravery and single-mindedness in all things, from your relationships to your inner life. Any attack you launch will be in the name of improving your own character. Progress is more attainable right now than it may be usually.

The reversed Warrior suggests that you may misinterpret that invitation to conquest as a chance to dominate others. Be wary of maintaining friends' trust in you right now.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Growth
Berkana
Following the Warrior, this is a much gentler rune. "What is called for here is to consider your issue with care and awareness," Blum writes. Something is in its early stages — maybe that thing is yourself. Be clear with your motives right now and exercise control. Whatever comes later will be easier in exchange for your diligence right now.

If you draw a reversed Berkana, you may be at a loss for what to do at the moment. Consider what needs to grow or advance in your life, and see what you can do to make room for that.
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17 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Movement
Ehwaz
A physical change is coming — maybe a big move or a major career transition. Don't worry: Any change that happens now should be an improvement upon your current state. Plan for the future now, even if your present feels to be in flux.

Simply put, drawing Ehwaz in reverse means you're stuck. You may feel muddled, confused, or simply fatigued, but this will pass.
18 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Flow
Laguz
"This rune often signals a time for cleansing: for revaluing, reorganizing, realigning," writes Blum. Its name suggests a stream's movement — what you see on the surface doesn't even begin to capture what's going on below. You may enter a period of deep reflection now, so make sure to show yourself enough love on this inner journey.

Because, as the reverse of this will show, delving so deeply into your spiritual self can have major consequences. Laguz in reverse suggests an outpouring of emotion. You may be too demanding of yourself or others right now.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Disruption
Hagalaz
"Hagalaz has only an upright position," Blum writes, "and yet it always operates through reversal." Simply put, this rune means big things — a radical change, a failed relationship, or sudden freedom. Whatever it is, you will not feel in control. In fact, you'll only be subjected to the intensity of the moment, so prepare to call your inner strength in order to endure. Take comfort in the promise that any disappointment you experience will be short-lived.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Journey
Raido
The journey in question is toward "self-healing, self-change, and union," Blum writes, which can only be reached through inner communication and alignment with yourself.

You may notice that the rune of Joy's shape is nestled within Raido. This is no coincidence — when you draw this rune, your reward and that joy is in sight.

If Raido appears reversed, look outside yourself, at your personal relationships. Be attentive and maintain your good sense of humor at this time — even in reverse, communication is key here.
21 of 25
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Gateway
Thurisaz
This rune "represents the frontier between Heaven and the mundane," writes Blum. To put in mortal terms, you're ready for something bigger. Thurisaz, frequently associated with the god Thor, is imbued with energy and even chaos. Without direction, this energy can easily turn destructive, which is why Blum emphasizes that one should exercise nonaction upon drawing this rune. Think before you act.

A reversed Thurisaz can mean accelerated progress, but you can still act mindfully. Ignore the urge to act hastily and don't lose sight of your intentions.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Breakthrough
Dagaz
This rune alludes to a complete transformation of the self. Symbolic of the dawn, Dagaz may even indicate the end of your previously ordinary life. As dramatic as this may sound, Blum writes that you should exercise "radical trust" and seize this moment of change.

Without a reverse, this rune's message is clear: You've achieved something great. Remember what brought you to this point.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Standstill
Isa
You've reached a stillness that Blum describes as "the winter of the spiritual life." This shouldn't be cause for alarm — rather, accept this state. It's unlikely you did something to cause this freeze in activity. Isa can also suggest a moment of renewal, just as winter leads to the rebirth of spring, but you still won't run into any opportunities for positive change right now. So, Blum writes, "submit and be still....To surrender is to display courage and wisdom."
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Wholeness
Sowilu
This is the thing you seek throughout your times of reflection, stillness, and even progress. When you draw this rune, you've reached the end of your journey as well as your next opportunity for regeneration, "down to the cellular level," Blum writes. Now is the time to set goals that you can and will achieve.
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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
The Unknowable
The Blank Rune
This rune symbolizes both beginnings and endings. Drawing it means you're as in touch with your goals and fate as you can be. Everything you're doing to change — and improve — is working.
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