Those who want to begin to study the runes are immediately confronted with the deluge of books that have been written on these fascinating and mysterious symbols from the ancient Norse/Germanic world.
Since the runes are a vital part of the pre-Christian northern European mythology, worldview, and spiritual practice, I thought it would be fitting and helpful to provide some recommendations in this field. This list assumes no prior knowledge of the runes, just a willingness to understand them on their own terms.
Books on the runes, especially those of the “how-to” guidebook variety, vary greatly in quality and in the approach they take to studying and working with the runes. As with anything else in life, different approaches are appropriate for different people. This list reflects that necessary diversity, and includes works from several different perspectives that all have something to contribute to the modern study of the runes and practice of runic magic (last updated November 2018).
The works that comprise this list should be considered starting points in one’s journey of discovering and working with the runes rather than being representative of that path in its totality. While there’s a core body of traditional lore to be mastered, the runes speak to everyone at least a little bit differently. What you learn from the runes directly, through experience and intuitive insight, is always more important than anything you read in a book. The books are really just there to help you get to the point at which you’re able to learn from and interact with the runes directly, without the mediation of any second-hand sources.
The books on this list are numbered according to their newbie-friendliness. #1 is the most accessible, while #10 is the least accessible, but #1 is not necessarily “better” than #10.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. Nordic Runes: Understanding, Casting, and Interpreting the Ancient Viking Oracle by Paul Rhys Mountfort
If you’re looking for a single, comprehensive book that gives you descriptions of the meanings of each rune, its role in Norse mythology, the cosmology that provided the context for ancient runic magic, advice to guide the reader through the contemporary practice of runic magic, and much more, Mountfort’s Nordic Runes delivers all of these things outstandingly well. It’s also refreshingly non-ideological, and encourages the reader to develop his or her own runic practice. If it has a weakness, it’s that the practical advice tends to focus on divination at the expense of many of the other uses to which runic magic can be put. That qualm aside, I think that, overall, this is the best single-volume introduction to the runes and runic magic out there currently. Click here to view or buy Nordic Runes at Amazon.
2. Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic by Edred Thorsson
“Edred Thorsson” is the pen name of Stephen Flowers, a runic scholar with a Ph.D. in Germanic studies from the University of Texas in Austin (for his dissertation, Runes and Magic, see #9 below). As you’d expect from someone with that background and those credentials, “Futhark” is, of all of the guidebooks on runic magic, almost certainly the one most thoroughly informed by the historical practice of runic magic, both in the ancient Germanic world and in its earliest revival in the nineteenth-century German Romantic movement and the works of pioneers such as Guido von List. As with all books on runic magic, however, the book is also heavily colored by Flowers’s own insights gained from several years’ experience in practicing runic magic firsthand. That’s far from a bad thing, of course; especially given how fragmentary the surviving primary sources on historical Germanic religion are, it’s absolutely necessary to use one’s intuition to fill in the gaps, and Thorsson’s intuition is exceptionally lucid.
Futhark is extremely thorough and well-informed, and I recommend it very highly. It will especially appeal to indigenists and traditionalists who seek to eschew “New Age fluff” and to base their own practice on historical runic magic as completely as possible. Click here to view or buy Futhark at Amazon.
3. Runelore: The Magic, History, and Hidden Codes of the Runes by Edred Thorsson
Edred Thorsson’s Runelore: The Magic, History, and Hidden Codes of the Runes is something of a sequel to his earlier Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic (#2 above). Earlier editions were published with the (in my opinion better) subtitle A Handbook of Esoteric Runology.
Runelore is divided into two parts, both of which occupy roughly half of the book: “Historical Lore” and “Hidden Lore.” The section on “Historical Lore” gives a history of the origins, development, and use of the runes from before the Viking Age up through the modern runic revival. This section relies heavily on the author’s excellent Runes and Magic, his Ph.D. thesis in runology published under his real name, Stephen Flowers (see #9 below). A particularly delightful chapter in this section is “Rune Poems,” where Thorsson provides translations and discussions of the Rune Poems, one of the foremost primary sources for our knowledge of the runes today.
The section on “Hidden Lore” is more philosophical and psychological. The contents of this section are all firmly rooted in traditional Germanic lore, but go well beyond it. And that’s inevitable in any good book on the runes; due to the paucity of information on the runes in the primary sources, which are themselves of a rather fragmentary nature, one has to round out the available facts with supplemental intuition and explorations of other fields (while still staying true to the sources, of course) in order to (re)construct anything like a coherent, workable system of runic philosophy and/or magic. While I don’t agree with everything in this section, it’s one of the best attempts that have been made so far in this regard.
Any student of the runes will get a lot out of Runelore, whether as a standalone book or in conjunction with Futhark. Click here to view or buy Runelore at Amazon.
4. Runecaster’s Handbook by Edred Thorsson
Edred Thorsson’s Runecaster’s Handbook is the third and final installment in his trilogy on runic magic for the lay reader. (The first two installments are Futhark, #2 above, and Runelore, #3 above.)
Whereas Runelore is the most philosophical, theoretical, and scholarly of the trilogy, Runecaster’s Handbook is the most directly practical. To make sure you’re not aimlessly spinning your wheels or inadvertently doing counterproductive or even dangerous things in your rune workings, however, Runecaster’s Handbook still provides at least some basic theory.
Nevertheless, the primary focus of Runecaster’s Handbook is on the practice of runic magic itself. The book includes numerous different methods and pre-established rituals for rune readings, runic divination, etc. It really takes you step by step through the whole process, from creating and charging the necessary tools to what to expect from the outcomes. Click here to view or buy Runecaster’s Handbook at Amazon.
5. Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick by Jan Fries
First, a disclaimer on what Jan Fries’s Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick is not:
Helrunar is not as academically scrupulous as, say, Stephen Flowers/Edred Thorsson. There are several claims in here that no scholar in this or any related field would take seriously. Nor does it particularly strive to be “Germanically correct” in the way that many traditionalists and purists demand. Nor, at the other end of the spectrum of the expectations people usually bring to the runes, does it offer prepackaged rituals, spells, etc.
In the book’s words, “I do not believe in any tradition except ‘Find out for yourself!’… Instead of asking you to believe in my interpretations, I ask you to examine them critically. I do not want you to adhere to my dogma… but to explore with an open mind in the joy of self discovery.”
Fries’s book is a thoughtful, perhaps even “existential” guide to the runes in the context of, in the book’s words, “pagan nature religion.” Nods to the likes of Aleister Crowley abound. Its primary strengths are its psychological depth and its applicability to true self-transformation.
While Helrunar may not be the most historically accurate book on the runes out there, it’s one of the most experientially valid and useful, and that alone makes it worthy of a high recommendation. Click here to view or buy Helrunar at Amazon.
6. The Rune Primer: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Runes by Sweyn Plowright
Sweyn Plowright probably has little but contempt for some of the books on this list. If you’ve found yourself having the same reaction, and scornfully muttering, “Just the facts, please,” then The Rune Primer: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Runes may be for you.
The Rune Primer is probably the only book on rune magic out there where the author goes out of his or her way to separate factual information from the sources on the one hand and intuitive insights on the other, and to eschew the latter in favor of the former as much as possible. It devotes a significant amount of space to critiquing some common “sacred cows” in the field of rune magic.
Personally, I find some of the general thrust of this book to be quite simplistic and lacking in philosophical nuance. This kind of “stick to the facts” approach is, in and of itself, just a sacred cow of modern positivism, and doesn’t stand up to the trial by fire of the world as we actually perceive and experience it. People who take concepts like “objectivity,” “subjectivity,” and “bias” at face value often live in a world that’s no less fantastical than those of the “New Agers” they (often rightly) love to criticize.
Nevertheless, The Rune Primer makes lots of great points along the way, and the author’s critical rigor is highly commendable. Simplistic though some aspects of it may be, it is indeed a refreshing antidote to some of the cringe-inducing tripe and groundless wishful thinking that have been written on the runes – which is to say, a rather large proportion of the field. Click here to view or buy The Rune Primer at Amazon.
7. Rudiments of Runelore by Stephen Pollington
The final four books on this list aren’t guidebooks on rune magic. Rather, they’re scholarly books on the runes as historical phenomena.
Independent scholar Stephen Pollington’s Rudiments of Runelore is a highly accessible, engaging, and accurate introduction to the study of the runes. While rigorous and reliable, it’s written with a lay audience in mind – the best of both worlds.
Pollington discusses the origin of the runic characters, their meanings and associations, their variations across the Germanic world, their linguistic properties, their historical uses, and more. Since Pollington is first and foremost a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon world, the Old English runes get much more treatment here than they typically would in an introductory work like this. So if you’re especially interested in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, as that runic alphabet is called, you’ll be particularly pleased with this book. And if you’re looking for a pan-Germanic approach, you’ll certainly find that here, too, even if Pollington doesn’t go into as much detail about the other areas of the Germanic world.
If you’re looking for a concise, accessible, single-volume introduction to the scholarly study of the runes, Rudiments of Runelore is an excellent choice. Click here to view or buy Rudiments of Runelore at Amazon.
8. Runes: Reading the Past by R.I. Page
Raymond Ian Page’s Runes is one of the classic texts of runology, the academic study of the runes. It’s probably the most widely-read single-volume introduction to the subject in print, and deservedly so.
While perhaps a bit drier than Pollington’s Rudiments of Runelore (#7 above), Runes is certainly not difficult reading. Another difference is that Pollington’s book is clearly written for an audience interested in the runes for spiritual/magical reasons, whereas Page’s book is clearly written for a general academic audience that probably has no “esoteric” ambitions in mind.
Some will find that to be a positive aspect because Runes could be perceived as more “impartial” and therefore more reliable, whereas others with might see it as a negative aspect in that Runes might not feed into their esoteric pursuits as directly as Rudiments of Runelore.
Nevertheless, both are excellent and written to a high scholarly standard, even if Pollington can’t claim to be one of the great luminaries of the field like Page can. Either way, you can’t lose. Click here to view or buy Runes: Reading the Past at Amazon.
9. Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition by Stephen Flowers
Stephen Flowers’s revised doctoral dissertation on historical runic magic is far and away the best scholarly work out there on the ancient practice of runic magic. Flowers (the author of Futhark, Runelore, and Runecaster’s Handbook under the pen name Edred Thorsson) discusses the role of the runes in the pre-Christian Germanic religion and mythology, establishing a firm conceptual basis for his subsequent discussions of the particulars of the ancient and medieval uses of the runes. He identifies patterns within the surviving source material concerning the runes, ultimately describing certain “formulas” or structural commonalities within ancient runic magic.
This book should be required reading for anyone of a more traditionalist bent, and even those who aren’t of that persuasion will likely find it to be an inspiring and profitable read. After being out of print for a long time, it’s now finally available for a very reasonable price once again! Click here to view or buy Runes and Magic at Amazon.
10. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia by Catharina Raudvere
This 100-page essay on Viking Age magic by Professor Catharina Raudvere, one of three essays in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume III: The Middle Ages, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, is the best single introduction to pre-Christian Norse/Germanic magic (“trolldómr”) out there. While runic magic is only one kind of magic amongst the several that are covered, this essay’s philosophical insights into the runes and pre-Christian Germanic magic more generally make this text a formidable aid to anyone who wishes to understand the runes on an intellectual level as well as an experiential one.
This is definitely the most difficult text on this list, and I’ll confess that I’m not exactly a fan of Raudvere’s writing style, but I still recommend this essay very highly due to the quality of her insights. Click here to view or buy Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume III: The Middle Ages at Amazon.
If you’ve enjoyed this list, you might also be interested in these other guides of mine: