Ian Hartas spent many nights in the mid-1980s wandering through his favorite bookstore in Pacific Grove, California.
One such evening, the future website developer stumbled upon a copy of The Book of Runes by Richard Blum. First published in 1983, the slim new age handbook has become a classic for anyone looking to the ancient Viking alphabet for guidance and direction.
The copy Hartas found came with its own pouch of rune stones, thumb-sized tablets engraved with the 24 ancient letters. He bought the bundle.
Soon, he was obsessed. “Reading this book and drawing runes out of the bag passed many hours which would otherwise have been wasted watching American TV,” Hartas told The Daily Beast. But after a few years and a move back to the United Kingdom, the runes were relegated to storage. Then in 2005, at his company’s annual book sale, something caught Hartas’ eye—a copy of Horik Svensson’s The Runes.
Six years later, Hartas and his wife Sharon hit publish on Rune-Stone.com. “According to a legend a Norse warrior called Odin, seeking wisdom and understanding of life and death, fasted with neither food nor water hanging from Yggdrasil, the tree of knowledge, for nine days and nights,” the homepage reads. “From this experience came the knowledge of the Runes.”
Simple, HTML design makes this passion project, which offers fortune tellings and translations, look almost as archaic as its subject matter. According to Hartas, last month 18,000 people visited the site.
Elsewhere online, runes—which originated in the first or second century—are gaining a made-for-Instagram facelift. The hashtag “Runes” yields over 530,000 photos, the most popular among them stylized flatlays of the stones held in perfectly-manicured fingers. Rune readings may not be as mainstream as the better-known Tarot, but some say this could change.
“A lot of people don’t know about them, but they are popular, and when we tell customers about runes, they ask for them at parties,” said Crystal Scott, who works at NYC Tarot. “Runes feel almost like charms, and they’re something different.”
Scott begins her readings by letting clients pick one or three stones out of a velvet bag. That way, she explained, “They get a sense of feeling it, like it’s a part of them.” The reader will then translate what’s drawn as the answer to a client’s question or dilemma.
For instance, Isaz, the I-rune, looks like one straight line. “That tells you there’s a golden pause,” Scott said. “Not that nothing is happening in your life, but a reminder that everything happens during the quiet times. It helps me become less impatient knowing that energy is just quieting to give me a sense of when to move forward, to follow my wisdom instead of banging on every door and getting exhausted.” (Guess the Norse Gods suffered from burnout, too.)
Some runes are more famous—or infamous—than others. The Nazi party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) will forever be associated with the Sig, or victory rune blazoned over their uniforms. Othala, which somewhat resembles a crossed ribbon, also has ties to Nazism. When America’s National Socialist Movement “rebranded” three years ago, neo-Nazis decided to replace their swastika logo with an Odala, a lesser-known racist symbol.
The Anti-Defamation League has kept a database of hateful imagery since 2000. Mark Pitcavage, a historian who works with the ADL, told The Daily Beast that there is “no reason to think or assume that someone using runestones is racist or a white supremacist, just on the basis of them using runestones.”
“Essentially, I would view runestones as innocuous,” Pitcavage said. “Most modern Norse Pagans are not racist or white supremacist, but a subset who will call themselves Odinists or Wotanists are.” These groups are known to appropriate the runic alphabet, spelling out phrases like “skinhead,” “white power,” or “hate,” in tattoos and clothing designs. Still, Pitcavage stressed that casting [reading] rune stones is “more or less normal.”
“There is a clash between those who are fascinated with rune stones as a spiritual aspect, and other people who use it probably more as an agenda for their own political views,” Scarlet Ravenswood, a Chicago-based pagan influencer, said.
The 31-year-old became fascinated with runes when a 23andMe test revealed Scandinavian ancestry, but she does not think that Norse paganism belongs to any one demographic. “I consider myself a universalist, and I think it’s a spirituality open to all,” Ravenswood said.
She finds the ADL’s classification of rune writing as potential hate speech “deeply upsetting,” adding, “I use the symbols for divination or do artwork with them.” For Ravenswood, rune stones can also be “therapeutic tools.” She conducts paid readings over Skype.
“It can work well for people who might not want to go to therapy, but might be lonely and want to speak to someone for an hour about their life,” Ravenswood said. “I use these runes as a way to connect and talk about wider issues, like what’s going on with family, career, feelings.”
Where the New Age generation of rune casters planned events and meet-ups to discuss divinity, Ravenswood sees the next generation as less connected. “You’ll see this massive movement happening online, a YouTuber with 500,000 plus followers, but the old school conventions see declining attendance. It’s becoming more of an isolated experience, expressing your spirituality online,” she said.
Tiffany Ly, 30, lives in San Clemente, California, where she works in the fashion industry. Four years ago, her cousin sent her Blum’s Book of Runes and her own set. Now, she regularly casts for herself and friends and keeps a journal of what the oracle tells her.
“With runes, there’s always the specific theme of breakthrough,” Ly said. She often pulls the dagaz rune, which looks like an hourglass tipped to the side. It represents an illumination, or flash of light. “Looking back, the same theme always stands out—going through rough times and seeing the end of the tunnel.”
Ly cast her first spread of runes the same month her grandmother passed away. “I did a spread that brings closure,” she remembered. “I had a lot of questions and I guess I had some guilt. I wanted to know why I felt guilty, how my grandmother felt about me, and the runes really helped me connect with her. I felt so much love and warmth from that reading. It’s a great way to get more in touch with yourself.”
Ten years ago, Mary Gunther was a freshman in high school and Lord of the Rings fan. J.R.R. Tolkein invented his own system of runes for the Dwarves in his fantasy to use, based in part on the historical language. Gunther, now 24, began to teach it to herself. “Initially, it came out of a place of honestly being kind of a nerd,” she admitted.
There was another reason. “To be honest, I also wanted to take notes in class that no one else could understand, just in case I wanted to talk smack,” she said. “I still do that now in law school. Not even my closest friends know what I’m writing. I’ll leave extensive notes for myself if a professor is doing something funny, or if someone asks a dumb question.”
Gunther feels no spiritual pull towards the runes, but the stones still have a big impact on her life. “It’s persisted through the years,” she said. “I use them every day.”