Runes are an alphabetic script used by the peoples of Northern Europe from the first century c.e. until well into the Middle Ages. In addition to their use as a written alphabet, the runes also served as a system of symbols used for magic and divination. Runes fell into disuse as the Roman alphabets became the preferred script of most of Europe, but their forms and meanings were preserved in inscriptions and manuscripts.
The primary characteristic which distinguishes a runic alphabet from other alphabets is that each letter, or rune, has a meaning. For example, whereas "ay", "bee", and "cee" are meaningless sounds denoting the first three letters in our alphabet, the names of the first three runes, "fehu", "uruz", and "þurisaz" are actual words in the Germanic language, meaning "cattle", "aurochs", and "giant", respectively. Runes also have magical and religious significance as well, thus transforming the simple process of writing into a magical act. They are also used for divinatory readings and to create magical spells.
Today, runes have been rediscovered as a symbolic system and have gained immense popularity as a means of divination. They are, however, much more than a curious alternative to Tarot cards for telling fortunes. They provide a key to understanding the lives and beliefs of the ancient people who created them, and have much to teach us about a way of life that was perhaps more inimately connected to the natural world, and to the realm of spirit, than our own.