The first thing anyone with some interest in Norse or Germanic culture and mythology asks is often what the runes are and what they really mean.
I first fell under the spell of the runes as a child, probably around 10 years old, when I read (with some struggle) a TOR translation of Jules Verne's epic novel "Journey to the Center of the Earth". I had known of the Aesir even earlier than that. The said Journey is undertaken by an eccentric professor upon finding a startling clue in a mysterious parchment written all over with Icelandic Runes, allegedly by a legendary Icelandic alchemist who found a (mostly non-lethal) way into the Earth's core. At least the characters reproduced in the book were purported to be Icelandic runes.
Many of us first heard of runes (as I did for my second time) in J.R.R. Tolkien's books, particularly The Hobbit (which contains an illustration of a runic treasure map used by Dwarves) and The Lord of The Rings (where the Angerthas or Dwarf-runes take a backseat to Elvish Tengwar script for most of the story, but do appear on a gravestone in Khazad-dum and also in a pronunciation table in the index of the third volume). Tolkien actually invented his own languages (two in fact, out of some thirteen he created) which used runes.
Little did I know that Tolkien's runes were in fact adapted from the Anglo-Saxon runes of his ancient English ancestors, which he was very familiar with - he was the top professor of Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford in fact! Slowly, in short bursts, this trail led me to other runic systems.
Of course some of our younger readers may know of "runes" through video games and MMORPGs on their computer. Games like Runescape, Runes of War, World of Warcraft, etc. have no end of references to Runes and "Rune Magic", although little of it has any connection to the real thing. Well boys and girls, this IS the real thing. You won't be slaying any level 80 trolls here, but you just may (the few of you who have what it takes to become a rune master) learn some very valuable and useful things, powerful magick to change your life forever, and learn the keys to true mastery in many areas you may only be dreaming of.
Essentially here we will be covering what the runes are, and what uses they have.
TYPES OF RUNES:
There are many systems of symbols today that get called "runes" or "runic", and few of them actually are that. Once you filter through all the pop-astrology BS that clogs most of the esoteric internet, you basically find that aside from rune-like symbols in other Indo-European cultures (Celtic Ogham, Scytho-Persian tree-runes, etc.) there are mainly four widely practiced rune systems, or "Futharks" in the Nordic/Germanic tradition (some elements of which are also present in the Slavic tradition due to the Rus/Varangian influence). These 4 major rune rows or systems are:
1.The Elder Futhark
2. The Younger Futhark (which has long-stem "Danish" and short-stem "Norwegian" variants)
3. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (a variant of which also existed in the Netherlands)
4. The Armanen Futharkh (or Futhorkh depending on your accent - simply saying "Armanen" usually gets the point across just fine).
Out of these, the Elder and Younger Futharks have been used (in various local variants) on rune-stones dating to Viking-age times (8th-10th century) and in some cases far earlier. Despite their names, the 24-rune Elder Futhark can in rare cases be found on newer inscriptions than the 16-rune Younger Futhark, and even among the Younger Futhark the "Danish" and "Norwegian" runes were often used interchangeably by the other one's culture. The Anglo-Saxon futhorc (which can include up to 33 runes in some versions) was used in many manuscripts dating to 8th century, almost exclusively in England and Friesland, while the Armanen Futharkh are essentially an early 20th-century reconstruction of the original 18 mythical proto-Aryan runes discovered by Odin in the Poetic Edda, which are considered by many occult rune masters (in Germany at least) to be the origin of all other rune rows.
WHAT RUNES ARE, OR HAVE BEEN, USED FOR:
Essentially runes have been painted, carved, scratched, or implied through observation of nature, for a few different purposes.
1. Casting, or divination (note: this is a dead-serious operative oracular art - not mere fortune-telling)
2. Creating spells for various results (either as written-out formulas, or as bind-runes)
3. As protective pendants or charms ("passive rune magick")
4. As incantations, spoken or sung out loud, for initiations, power, or connection with supernatural energies
5. As meditations, for connecting with higher realms of creation, solving problems, and strengthening the will.
6. As an alphabet, for mundane, everyday writing purposes. This was very rare until medieval times.
On this site, the focus is mostly going to be on uses 1-5. If you simply want to know how to write your name in runes or other cheesy parlor tricks, there are plenty of other sites for that.