This will be the first post in an ongoing series taking a look at the correspondences between tarot and runes, or more precisely, understanding the runes through a tarot lens. Now, before any purists get their knickers in a twist, it is true that there is no historical connection between the two systems. With that said however, I am hoping to show that knowing one can be helpful in learning the other, and while this is primarily aimed at people with a basis in tarot wishing to start learning the runes, I hope it is still accessible to people who are at the very beginning of either study.
I am a visual learner and although I bought my first rune set a year before my first deck, I found tarot much easier to get to grips with because of all the visual clues in the cards. Once I had the basics of tarot down, the runes started to click into place because I could relate them to the images in cards that shared similar themes.
There are a number of different suggested correspondences between tarot and runes, but I have always found them somewhat incomplete. Because of the amount of cards versus staves, the runes have always been related to the Major Arcana only, which I think severely impedes a more rounded understanding of each rune. The tarot has 22 cards to explore the deep spiritual events, understandings and milestones in life, and 56 to express the earthly experience, whereas the runes have only 24 symbols to encapsulate both the esoteric and mundane. As such, I relate the runes to both the Major and Minor Arcana cards that touch upon the multiple levels of each rune.
This series is in no way an exhaustive study of the runes and these correspondences are not set in stone, so feel free to disagree, take what is useful and what is not as you wish!
Now, for some rune basics – here I will be using the Elder Futhark runes, these are the most commonly used runes for divination and magic, however some prefer using the Younger Futhark (a similar but shortened alphabet that was used during the later Viking era) and the Anglo-Saxon runes (also called Futhorc, are an extended alphabet that was product of the multiple invasions and settlement of Norse peoples on the British Isles and the Netherlands). The Elder Futhark alphabet contains 24 runes (which are divided into 3 sets of 8 called Aetts) with Northern European Iron Age historians estimating their emergence around the 1st Century AD. The word Futhark originates from the first six letters of the runic alphabet, Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raido and Kenaz.
So, for our first rune:
Fehu [pronounced fey-hoo] means ‘cattle’ or ‘livestock’ and in its simplest terms concerns wealth, abundance, good fortune and the material resources upon which we place value. The importance of cattle in old Norse societies cannot be over-stressed. Most people lived in isolated farmsteads or small settlements and focused their productive efforts on animal husbandry. Dairy, fresh in the spring, churned to butter and cheese in preparation for winter (and beef when an animal could be spared) were key components of their diet. So central to their survival and sustenance, the words for cattle and money were one and the same, fe.
With Fehu’s focus on material resources, it will come as no surprise then that this rune shares a lot in common with a number of cards from the suit of Pentacles, as well as a few others.
In the Ace of Pentacles we see all the earthy potential that Fehu has to offer. Contained within both is the promise of material prosperity, the opportunity for new growth and the manifestation of abundance. The Ace is held above a plush garden, the plants are in bloom and the scene is suffused with a light of assurance and hope. Such is the feeling of Fehu in all of its happy potential.
Continuing with this idea of plenty, Fehu also shares many aspects with another lush garden, that of the Empress. She is the part of this rune that reflects the concept of creation and resources multiplying – the cattle have birthed calves and the milk is flowing. Fehu in this aspect speaks to the fertility and fecundity of wise investments and the idea that if you nurture your resources they will in turn reward you with abundance. It is interesting also to note that in a Norse creation myth from the Prose Edda, it is a cow, Auðumbla, that manifests the first god (and grandfather of Odin) by licking his form out of primordial ice, so here again we see an Empress aspect of Fehu as a creatrix.
Upright and surrounded by complimentary runes in a spread, Fehu displays all of the wealth, refinement and physical comfort that epitomises the lavish lifestyle and success we come to expect with the King of Pentacles. He is a man who deeply values the material success held within this rune – the attainment of Fehu is his core motivation. There is an element of luck suggested in Fehu, but much like this king’s Midas touch, it is of the make-your-own variety.
Merkstave (reversed) or shadowed by surrounding runes in a spread, it can refer to destitution. Returning the runes to their historical context, a shadowed Fehu can represent the sort of feelings and precarious situation of a family whose livestock, their sole means of sustenance and trade, is wiped out by disease.
In an advice position Fehu can recommend the saving of resources seen in the Four of Pentacles, however it comes with the same warning against accumulation for accumulation’s sake. Norse societies placed particular emphasis on the importance of gift giving (which we will see in greater depth in Gebo), so much so, that generosity was considered one of the highest virtues and a cornerstone of thriving communities, where wealth flowed continuously and was not hoarded by one individual or family.
In its strongest negative aspect Fehu can be represented by the Devil, where we see an obsessive and unhealthy attachment to material wealth and earthly attachments. It is in this card we see Fehu transformed from the ideal – an energy of abundance that continuously changes hands and enriches all – into material possessions that are greedily amassed and stockpiled to the benefit of very few. The Devil is an excellent depiction of this descent into pure materialism, where a desire for prosperity mutates into a worship of belongings and fiscal power. All of the key sources for runic lore, the Icelandic, Norwegian and Anglo Saxon rune poems contain verses warning against the misuse of wealth, one going so far as to call it the “path of the serpent”.
And so we can see with Fehu that despite the different ways of life, the benefits and trappings of wealth now are much the same as they have ever been.
Next rune – Uruz
Smith Waite Centennial Tarot Deck property of U.S Games Systems, 2014