Runes v. Tarot, Part II

As a system, the Tarot is more complex, comprehensive, flexible, accessible, and nuanced than the runes. In a word, I find the system of the Tarot to be generally superior to that of the runes.

However, I still like the runes very much, and lately I find myself gravitating toward them. Of course, this town is big enough for the both of them, so I could just leave it at that. But why have a blog about the Tarot if I’m not going to use it as a platform to examine the cards against my other tools for divination? And, despite the favoritism I show the cards, there are certain situations for which I find the runes to be better suited.

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There are many folks out there (especially users of the TdM, it seems) who totally disregard the Minor Arcana when reading with the Tarot, calling them superfluous. That seems to me to defeat the purpose of the Tarot, but I’m not one to deal in absolutes (like a Sith), and I’ve found that there sometimes are circumstances that do require only a portion of the deck.* Either they are simple questions that don’t call for the detail of a large reading with the whole deck to choose from, or they are matters which are of a purely spiritual nature and therefore do not need the Minors, but in any case, the runes have largely negated the issue. I don’t want to make the claim that the runes and the Major Arcana are interchangeable, because that is far from the case (although comparisons of them are great mental exercises). However, I would say that any issue which can be adequately answered with only a set of the Majors can just as well be answered by the runes.**

But it’s not so much the nature of the question that determines which system I use; it’s the nature of the reading I use to answer the question. To break it down into binary terms, there are either simple readings, or there are complex readings. The more complex the reading, the more likely I am to use Tarot cards. The simpler the reading, on the other hand, the more likely I am now to resort to my stones. This is not universally the case, but as a rule of thumb, you can more or less count on it. My runecasts these days tend to range from one to five runes; while I do still enjoy the classic three-card-draw, my Tarot cards won’t likely be removed from their box or bag unless I plan on laying down a serious spread (or if I just feel like flipping through them, but that’s neither here nor there).

The complexity of the reading isn’t always the deciding factor, either, now that I’m really thinking about it. Another variable is how much time I have to spend on the reading. I’ll likely use the runes for more on-the-fly, I’m-almost-out-the-door-but-I-want-some-quick-advice sorts of queries. If I’m reading with cards, I want to have the time to really sit with them and ruminate on what they’re trying to say to me.

The daily draw? Not with cards anymore (at least for the moment). I pull a rune.

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Of course, divination is not the sole use for the Tarot, as I’ve discussed a few times before on this blog, and the same is true of the runes. To think of either of these systems as only divinatory tools is to miss out on the many other things they have to offer.

When it comes to in-depth divination, the Tarot is generally better, and the same can be said (at least in my opinion) as prompts for intellectual musing. What I mean by that should be made evident by the very existence of this blog: I can write forever on the Tarot and never run out of subject matter; the runes, on the other hand, are not as giving with inspiration. They are silent and stoic by comparison, which is fine – refreshing, even – but not conducive to the rambling and musing that I like to do here. The relative simplicity of the runes is a hindrance in these cases, at least when compared to the Tarot.

When it comes to things like meditation and spiritual development, I think the argument could go either way, although I will say that the pictures on the cards (as well as their willingness to be adapted to fit any number of themes) do make for an accessibility that the runes lack. And I think it goes without saying that the runes do not have the artistic merit of the cards.

In theory, Tarot cards can also be used as charms or talismans or for similar types of magic. I wouldn’t know how well they actually work for these things, though, because no cardstock can withstand a day in my pocket or wallet, and no magic is worth sacrificing my precious favorite cards. I know I could keep them tucked in a small notebook, but that’s just awkward. This is the primary instance for which runes are better suited. Having a stone or two (or three) in a small pouch in my pocket is a tangible reminder of the energies I wish to harness. This is why I use the runes now for my daily draw (aside from just getting to know them). It is far easier to internalize the message of a daily draw when you physically carry it with you. I tend to pull out my rune several times a day, when I’m stressed or bored, and the stone on which it is inscribed has a tactile advantage that any card, no matter how pretty the picture, lacks. I can feel it in my hands, play illusionist tricks with it, and slide it covertly into my pocket again when my attention is required elsewhere. It’s like a magician’s fidget spinner.

I believe that magic is the power of the mind, and things like charms are not absolutely necessary for it to work. They are tools for the wizard, and nothing more, but they do help if you appreciate them for what they are. And, to share a personal example of the magical utility of the runes, I recently found myself in a trying, white-knuckle situation of temptation, a test I’ve failed again and again in the past. This time, though, I had Uruz, the rune for the aurochs, symbolizing strength, clamped tight in my hand, and I made it through. It worked much better than all the times previously when I had only a mental image of the Strength Tarot card to cling to. They both have the same essential message for me, but the medium of communication is different; and sometimes, the medium makes all the difference in the world.

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If I’m being truthful, though, whether I use runes or cards for any purpose often depends entirely on my mood, and I therefore can’t fully explain myself in rational terms. Just having a set of runestones around as an alternative to the cards has proven at the very least to be fun for me, and it’s added a depth to my divinatory and magic practice that would otherwise have been absent. The runes act like a counterbalance to my cards, and my appreciation for the latter has grown immensely just by possessing a set of the former.

It doesn’t have to be runes. The possibilities for divinatory and magical means are virtually endless. It just so happened that the runes clicked for me.

As a conclusion to these posts about the runes versus the Tarot, I want to talk a little bit about some of the binary oppositions – the black and white columns of the High Priestess – that are formed in my mind by the presence of these two systems side-by-side on my table.

Navigation of the metaphysical realms is made all the easier when one has two points of reference with which to work, after all. Spiritual triangulation, if you will.

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I ended the first post about my runes by referring to them as the Earth, compared to the Sky of the Tarot. This is incredibly abstract, and it may not line up with the elemental understanding of others, but there are few oppositions more primal than this pair. I don’t know how to really clarify the “Earth : Sky :: Runes : Tarot” analogy, but it makes so much sense to me that I hardly feel the need to.

Of course, there is the simple/complex dichotomy that formed the basis of many of my comparisons above, and while I find the complexity of the Tarot tends to garner my interest in most situations, sometimes less really is more, and so the runes do come out on top from time to time.

An interest in linguistics leads me to point out that the Tarot is Romantic in origin and early dissemination, while the runes are Germanic. As a native English-speaker, it’s only fitting that both are represented in my divination practice.

Then, there is the historical, non-“woo” uses for these systems. Number-based gameplay for the Tarot, and phonetic letters for the runes. This one’s a double-whammy of an opposition, because you have the plebeian frivolity of gaming against patrician literacy, as well as the numbers against the letters. Perhaps the latter isn’t technically an opposition, but the fundamentals of all communication can probably be broken down into numbers and letters.***

These are only some examples of the sorts of things that go through my mind when thinking about runes and cards, and I assure you, I could continue on if I put a little more thought into it, but I’ll spare you that. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read enough. The point has been made, and the dead horse has been brutally beaten.

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Well, that about wraps it up for the runes. This one also ended up quite a bit longer than I thought it would be at the outset, but I figured enough was enough – no need to keep milking this series by further breaking it down into even more installments. I’ll try my best to keep the next few posts all about the Tarot, although I can’t promise that I won’t return eventually with another post combining the cards and the runes, especially if I strike the writer’s block again. After all, as I briefly alluded to above, comparisons of the Major Arcana and the runes can be a great way to break a mental sweat. I think it might be fun to explore those possibilities someday.

One final note: this entire post (and the one before it) was all about the runes versus the Tarot, for the sake of comparison. However, I’ve found that using them in tandem is a great way to go. Who says you have to choose? What this usually means for me is that I’ll lay out a spread with the Tarot, and then pull a rune(s) for conclusion or clarification. Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity, call it the hands of the gods, call it natural overlap of comparable systems – call it whatever you will – but they often support or illuminate each other in uncanny ways. Food for thought for those of you out there who use multiple sorts of tools for divination.

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*In my experience, that portion of the deck does not necessarily have to be the Majors. It could be only the Minors, or only a single suit, or the courts. But for the purposes of this post, I don’t need to get into all of that.

**I was once involved in a debate on the Aeclectic forums (R.I.P.) about the necessity of the Minors in a deck of Tarot cards, and at one point I said that, if I was only going to read with Majors, I may as well just use runes or some system with a comparable amount of lots from which to choose. Now, this might sound a little disparaging, which wasn’t my intention, but I maintain the point all the same. The Majors are flashier and more fun to talk about, but the Minors are what sets the Tarot apart from simple sortilege. If the Tarot gives more nuanced readings than the runes, it’s largely because of the Minors. And, as I said above, I do find value in Majors-only readings, but that’s beside the point. These folks were saying the Minors are unnecessary across the board – a waste of cardstock, you might say – and I find issue with that stance. But I’ll get off my soapbox, now.

***And here is one thing the runes can be used for that the Tarot cannot: writing (at least, not unless you can write in Hebrew and subscribe to a Tarot-Kabbalah system of correspondences, and even in such a case, you’re still really only using Hebrew, and not Tarot). I for one get a kick out of writing my to-do lists and other, similarly mundane things in runes. It makes my grocery list look like it should be chiselled into the walls of the Mines of Moria.

Well, I think that’s fun, anyway.

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Runes v. Tarot, Part I

My last post focused on my new, self-made runes. They are incredibly cool, if I do say so myself, and I’ve put the cards aside for a couple weeks in order to really work closely with them. It has been enlightening and empowering in many ways.

And of course, since this is a Tarot blog, I made it a point to say in that post that I would not be writing about runes very often afterwards, if at all.

So what gives with this post?

Well, for one, I’m currently experiencing some writer’s block with my other Tarot posts. Perhaps it’s because I’ve temporarily put my cards away in favor of my stones, but I just can’t seem to get my words out (and truthfully, I can’t just blame this on the runes, since the dry spell began long before my stones even had letters on them, or were even my stones). I’ve got two WIPs in particular that I really want to share, but both of them have hit a wall, so they must wait until another time.

But I also made kind of a big deal about the runes in that last post, and then just sort of dropped it before it really felt finished. I think I ought to provide a follow up. But worry not, for this post is not strictly about the runes. It is a post about both the runes and the Tarot. This one belongs on my blog, and I hope it will provide some context that will make the previous post feel a little more at home here, as well.

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One of the main points of my rune post was that, since they were crafted by my hand, I feel a very strong connection with my runestones, especially compared to the connections I feel with my cards. This statement might be misleading, because despite the fact that I like my runes so much, I have to admit that, as a system for introspection and divination, I find the Tarot to be superior.

So, in a nutshell, the point of my post today is to answer these questions: why do I think the Tarot is superior, and, despite its general superiority, are there some things for which the runes are better suited?

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The short answer to the first question is that the Tarot is a better divinatory system than the runes because of its comparative depth. There are 78 cards and only 25 runes.*

Here is one website that I’ve found to be particularly helpful with learning to use the runes, and under the heading of runecasting is a brief discussion of divination in general followed by principles of runic divination. Divination works (it says), because the tools for divining represent the entire Universe on a symbolic level. The complete set of tools mirrors the total reality, and by randomly selecting some runes, your subconscious is gleaning what it needs from relevant aspects of a greater whole. I actually like this notion very much, that the divination tools are a model of the macrocosm; so, according to this website, my rune pouch is a tiny little universe. Pretty cool.

Except, there’s a lot missing from the universe of my rune pouch. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Tarot, but the runes just are not that comprehensive. Sure, I can see how they could pretty well describe the worldview of a pre-modern, northern European pagan, but it still strikes me as incomplete, and anyway, that worldview isn’t exactly “universal”, is it?

The Tarot, on the other hand, is so much more versatile. I would say that the runes are more limited than the cards in meaning, and not just in number. Each rune has both a phonetic letter and a symbolic meaning attached to it. Since these ideograms are the pieces which make up a real written language, there isn’t much leeway when it comes to “intuitive interpretation”. Each rune means what it means, and that’s that. The cards were made originally for gaming, though, so in truth, there is no fixed deeper meaning aside from numerical value (no matter what the occultists say). Sure, there is a generally agreed-upon way to interpret the Tarot, but there is no law. According to one system, this card means this, but according to another, it means that. There’s much more room for the intuitive among us to make what we will of the cards. Add to that the fact that most cards today have pictures (and even the oldest had pictures on 22 of the 78 cards) that aid interpretation, while the runes may as well be abstract cuneiform, and you start to see what I mean. The cards are just more flexible and accessible.

I’ll grant that, despite the runes’ limits I mentioned above, there’s extrapolation of meaning, which frees things up a bit. For example, the rune called Ansuz literally means “mouth”, but for divination purposes, that meaning is expanded to include things like advice or wisdom or communication. So I suppose that, with enough contemplation, anything that could possibly happen in this world might be assigned a rune.

But it’s not really a question of the meanings of specific cards versus specific runes in my mind, anyway; it’s in the system.

The Tarot is constructed in such a way that it actually does align with my philosophical conception of the Universe. There are four “worldly” elements, and a fifth, “aethereal” element. There are four “mundane” suits in the Tarot, and a fifth “spiritual” one. Each of the five suits portrays a progression or a gradation (for the Minors, it’s a progression of 10, plus 4. For the Majors, it’s a progression of 20, plus 2. Very mathematically pleasing). You also have court cards to stand in for people. To me, the Tarot is a much better model of the Universe than anything else I’ve encountered.**

I guess it boils down to personal preference, but the Tarot just gives more nuance to a reading, and I really like that. However, depending on my mood, sometimes the runes are the better tools for finding what I’m searching for.

Well, this entry has turned out to be a bit longer than I thought it would be, so I think, rather than cram more in here and end with a mind-numbingly long post, I’m going to return later with yet another Tarot/rune post to wrap things up. Stay tuned.

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The Multiverse in my bedroom.

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*My set of runestones numbers 25, although to be technical, only 24 of the stones actually have runes inscribed upon them. The 25th is blank, referred to in new-age runecasting circles as the Wyrd rune (and it is only in new-age runecasting that there is any reference to a blank rune). As I was slowly familiarizing myself with the runes over the last few months, I was constantly flip-flopping back and forth on the matter of the Wyrd. Some people find it very useful, and some people are vehemently against it. I was still unsure of the utility of the Wyrd when I was searching the Icelandic sand for my stones a few weeks ago, but I picked up 25 because I figured I’d kick myself if I went home with only 24 just to decide after all that I wanted to use that unmarked extra. Having made that decision, I’ve since found that I actually do really like the Wyrd, and though I’d like to explain my rationale, I think I’ve rambled far enough away from the point of this post that I’ll put an end to this footnote.

**I suppose the system of the runes could be similarly broken down: there are 25, so numerically, there’s enough for one of each element within each element. This isn’t the traditional breakdown of the runes, which is supposed to be three groups of 8 plus the Wyrd, but I guess it could still work. I’ll have to study my runes anew with this in mind.

Runes: That Other Way to Divine.

Divination. Such a strange, misunderstood concept. I’ve written a little bit about my thoughts on divination in general here, and believe it or not, I do actually intend to follow up that incomplete post with a conclusion someday.

But that’s not (directly) why I’m here today.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are myriad other ways aside from the revered Tarot to commune with oracular forces. By and large, though, I am fairly disinterested in these, with one notable exception:

The Runes.

This is a Tarot blog, and a Tarot blog it shall remain; but divination is a major theme throughout, and I feel compelled to dedicate at least one post to these other symbols of divination.*

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I recently returned from a trip to Iceland, the land where my beloved Eddas were penned. And, my favorite cycle of mythic literature aside, I have never been to a country so starkly beautiful.

Now, the runes were not invented in Iceland, either in a mythic or an historic sense. However, because the only surviving versions of the myth in which Odin obtains the runes were written there, I say: close enough. The letters of the land may have first been gotten elsewhere, but they were used to their most lasting effect in Iceland.**

As a novice but eager runecaster, I fashioned my own runes while I was there. It seemed only fitting. I selected for my lots several small and smooth igneous stones from a beach of black sand on the southernmost coast of the island.

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This is the place.

Keeping watch over the beach a little ways off-shore were some massive, towering boulders, called the “troll-rocks” by the locals. I couldn’t have selected a better setting for my personal Odinic rune-quest if I lived in a fantasy novel.

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Admittedly not the best photo of the Troll Rocks, and I’m sorry to say that after snapping this one, I got so caught up in the moment of being at the beach in fucking Iceland that I forgot to take more, even though I’d meant to. You get the idea, though.

As I searched in the sand, I instructed one of my friends on the basic lore and what to look for so he, too, could fashion a set of runes (a fun Hierophant moment for me). Once we’d gathered the proper number of stones, my friends and I left the beach. Before we’d gone too far, though, we paused, and we gave thanks to the land for our runestones with pentacles and prayer.

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Just for fun, this is some of what was behind us while we were on the beach.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I sat down to inscribe my stones with the runic ideograms. Afterwards, I left them out to be imbued with the energy of Iceland’s “midnight sun” while I slept.

I must admit, part of my reason for relaying this story here is just so I can bask in the reminisces of my epic journey. But it’s also to illustrate that my new runes were hand-selected and hand-crafted by me, for me, under intentionally symbolic circumstances. Prior to my touch, they were shaped by nothing more or less than the four elements.

None of my many Tarot decks come close to this type of personalized (and elemental) connection, and while such a connection isn’t necessary for effective divinatory tools, it goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong; I do feel a connection with all of my cards. But not exactly this kind of connection.***

I had already been dabbling in runic divination for a few months before this trip. I even considered for a minute re-branding this site as a Tarot and rune blog, but decided against it. You see, the runes do have an intense hold on my imagination, very much like the Tarot. Unlike with the cards, however, my thoughts and feelings regarding the runes are not (for me) as easily put into words (or maybe I just don’t feel like trying). And, despite my occasional struggles elucidating abstractions on this blog, the cards simply offer far more raw material for word-smithing than do the runes.

As tools for divination, I believe the runes are intrinsically the same as the Tarot; yet they are their own entity – one that provides a fascinating counterpoint against which to compare and appreciate the cards as symbols and as systems. The two are as fundamentally different and as fundamentally related as the Earth and Sky.

Or that’s how I think about it, anyway.

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Wrought of Fire and Earth; sculpted by Sky and Sea.

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*Like the Tarot, the runes are not confined only to divinatory uses. However, because divination is common to them both, and for the sake of simplicity, it is what I’ve decided to focus on for this post.

**I’m speaking metaphorically here, since the Eddas were not actually written in runes. To be technical, the runes Odin obtained numbered only eighteen, and are not the same literal runes as those most commonly used for writing and divination, which number 24. Odin’s runes are rather symbolic of all written language (and otherworldly magic), whether it be the ancient Norse with its runic scripts or the subsequent old Icelandic with its more or less Latin-ized alphabet, with which the Eddas were actually composed.

***Someday, I would like to design my own pack of Tarot cards. But that’s really nothing more than a lofty pipe-dream at present.