I get a lot of questions from people about whether it’s better to buy or make your rune set. So firstly (confession time) I have many rune sets – it’s a little bit of a weakness. Having said that there are some that I use every now and then because it feels right and two that I consider to be my rune sets. One of those is made by my own fair hands and the other I bought. So with that full disclosure let’s discuss choosing a rune set.
I bought my first rune set from my local book shop. I knew nothing about the runes or the northern tradition but, when I saw them, I just knew I was supposed to work with them. In order to connect with and empower my runes I performed a number of rituals and meditations with them. They were buried, passed through fire, incense and water and then regularly left under the light of the sun and moon. All of these things were helpful in bonding me with the set and with the energies of the runes as I knew them at the time. I should also note that, whatever material they are made of (some kind of ceramic I think) they are very durable so withstood all these loving interventions on my part. I don’t tend to use that set now as ceramic, clay and stone hold on to the energy and can be a bit tricky to cleanse. I remember one infamous time when I was persuaded to do a reading for someone I instinctively didn’t want to. After the reading she picked up the runes and threw them at me – apparently because it was too accurate. Lesson learned there about following my instincts – and I couldn’t use the set for weeks.
The most important learning for me from that set was the importance of building my own personal connection with them. If you are a tarot reader you will know the difference between a shiny new tarot pack and a well-thumbed set where the cards have grown soft from love. Runes are like that but stronger. Passing the runes through my hands and tracing their shapes with my fingertips brought familiarity and a strong sense of connection. I also carefully noted which runes I felt the strongest affinity with, which ones were dropped or otherwise jumped out as I worked with them (i.e. during my fire working a small number were stained with red wax) and which ones tended to appear first or last. In this way I began to understand which runes were most readily available for me to work with, which ones were blind spots and which ones represented challenges.
Breathing their names gently over them was also very powerful and reminded me that the act of ‘naming’ was extremely important to the Northern peoples (as it is in much magical practice). If you have read The Hobbit you will remember Bilbo’s blade which he names ‘Sting’; the naming act informed the blade of its purpose but also seemed to give Bilbo a sense of confidence wielding it – Sting was definitely his blade. As you work with your runes they will begin to speak to you and to take on a quality unique to that individual set and to you. The Voluspa in the Poetic Edda tells how three Gods (or some say three aspects of the god Odin) ‘breathed’ life into an Ash tree and an Elm tree to create the first man and woman. Until they were given the gifts of soul, sense, heat and hue they were empty of ‘rune might’. As you breath upon your runes you pass on rune might. As you work with them your runes return the favour; they will gift you wisdom and skill in seership the more you work with them.
Now the technique I have just described of breathing into the runes is much more in keeping with the technique I use now. This has developed over time using a part of the poem Havamal which is the most commonly cited piece of text used my practitioners teaching rune-making today:
Dost know how to write, dost know how to read,
dost know how to paint, dost know how to prove,
dost know how to ask, dost know how to offer,
dost know how to send, dost know how to spend?
Beautiful rites can be formed using energy raising, breath-work, carving and your own ‘rune-knowledge’ to create powerful runes. This is a lovely way to work but you need to know the runes before you can work like this so in choosing your first set go with what feels right and powerful for you.
Stones and semi-precious stones
While historical sources inform us that rune sets were traditionally made from wood, sets made of stone are very durable and increasingly popular. A rune set made from earthy materials might be thought of as having stronger connections with dwarves, giants and ‘earthier’ deities such as Freyja. I hugely enjoy making rune sets from clay. It reminds me of the Norns who smooth white clay from the banks of the Well of Wyrd upon the bark of the World Tree to heal it.
I also have a pewter set and an iron set which are both lovely to work with. The pewter set was manufactured and it annoys me that the logo is printed on the back. In honesty the thing I love about them is their small size and smoothness – I can perform a whole reading in the palm of my hand! The iron set is gorgeous and very powerful to work with. It does have a fairly heady energy which I keep an eye on. Like clay sets metal runes are good at storing the energy placed in them. Watch who you read for and whether you let them handle your runes as clay, metal and some stones retain negative as well as positive energy and are not as easy to cleanse as crystal. For metal I would recommend burying them in dry soil or sand, or even immersing them in salt. For clay burial or passing through a candle flame can do the trick.
Unless you already work in stone or crystal this is a tricky medium to start making sets with. My recommendation is to go to an independent seller if you can, particularly if you know they have made them themselves – Etsy is a good place to start. There are any number of rune sets available on Amazon and e-bay ranging from £5.00-50.00 . These are pre-dominantly made of semi-precious stones which are very beautiful, but low prices decrease the likelihood that they were sourced ethically (e.g. they could have been strip-mined or mined by workers for little pay). Some will have the runes etched into them before painting and others will simply be painted. The advantage of etching is that you can trace the rune shapes with your fingers as well as seeing them. Over time practitioners have attributed particular stones and gems to particular runes but as many of these would be prohibitively expensive to make, stone rune sets tend to be made from a single stone or a random mixture of semi-precious stones.
Wooden rune sets
The Roman traveller Tacitus described a practice of divination used by Northern tribes where staves or ‘notae’, made of fruit bearing trees and inscribed with symbols were thrown upon the ground and read by a priest or the male head of household. The rune poem Havamal mentioned above describes cutting, carving, scratching and staining the runes which could refer to either stone or wood – but wood would be more convenient. I have made sets of apple and cherry which are very pretty indeed. Ash and Yew are old favourites because of their associations with the World Tree.
As you might imagine, carving and colouring 24 runes is a slow business and hand made wooden rune sets are therefore fairly expensive. I am an advocate for making your own wooden rune set but if you are really all fingers and thumbs a well made wooden rune set is well worth it. I have a wonderful rune set made out of blackthorn and inlaid in copper which was created by a rune worker in Glastonbury. I took it with me on a retreat and after charging it up myself with voice work I persuaded my entire group to drum energy into the runes for much longer than was reasonable. They remain powerful to this day.
I have never purchased rune cards but I don’t have a particular aversion to them. I have made my own rune cards and keep them by my bed for my rune of the day reading – they are also the ones you will meet if you join me on Mondays for Middle Earth Readings. The card is quite thick but doesn’t really have an energy or presence of its own. If I was to buy a rune card set (and I have seen some I covet) I would want to spend a significant amount of time charging each rune and meditating on the card before using them in readings.
My personal advice would be to buy your first rune set or make cards. Learn the basic meanings and spend some time getting to really know the runes. When you come to make your own rune set you’ll be familiar with their energies and you’ll make some lovely, powerful runes that you can be proud of.
A final note of caution when buying a rune set is to make sure that you are getting the set you expect. Most crystal rune sets will be the Elder Futhark as this is the most commonly used, but wooden rune sets may be one of the less well-known Futharks or an odd mixture of Futharks – they might also be ‘runes’ in the loosest possible sense (a mystery or secret symbol). Check the set over carefully before you buy. A common point of confusion is the Inguz rune which can be shaped like a diamond, or like a diamond with an open ended triangle at top and bottom (a bit like a Christmas cracker or a small strand of DNA). Both shapes are fine to work with.
We have a full module dedicated to making your own rune set on our 1-year Awakening to the Runes programme. Many of my students choose to make a set through the course of the year, taking two weeks to make and charge each rune.