Although the various markings on objects of stone and wood known as runes are commonly referred to as an ancient alphabet of the Northern European Germanic and Scandinavian people, they do not really constitute a language as such. The runes are essentially symbols with particular meanings that were used to convey brief magical inscriptions and were often used in rites of divination. The word "rune" means "secret," especially as it might apply to a hidden wisdom, and the various symbols were inscribed on a wide variety of objects to give them power. The runes were used to send secret messages, to cast spells, to divine the future, and to communicate with the spirit world.
Some scholars say that some of the symbols used in the mystical runic markings may have originated as far back as Paleolithic times and been combined in historic times with certain characters from an old Etruscan alphabet. Certain traditions attribute the runes to the Volsungr, an ancestral tribe of heroic and semi-divine beings that settled in Northern Europe just prior to the Ice Age. According to some of the legends of the Volsungr, the godlike beings gave the magical symbols as a gift that might assist lesser humans in their struggles to survive in the harsh environment of Ice Age Europe. In the Old Norse religion, it was Odin, the father of the gods, who, seeking higher wisdom, hung upside down from the World Tree for nine days before he received the rune symbols as the answer to his quest.
When the runic symbols were placed on small rocks or blocks of wood, the Old Norse cast them to predict the success of a hunting or fishing expedition, when to plant crops, or what course their children might follow throughout their lives. In the eleventh century when Christianity began to replace the old Viking religion and Latin became the written language of the educated, the runes were not replaced, but gained an even stronger reputation for containing magical powers. While the priests of the new religion frowned upon any supernatural connotations attributed to the runes, the symbols remained as integral designs in folk art, jewelry, and wearing apparel. In recent years, the casting and reading of runes—the "Viking Oracle"—has again become a popular tool of divination.