What's up with the blank rune? How (and whether) to read it

What's up with the blank rune?

The blank rune is a curious appendage to most rune tile sets. Called the “Wyrd rune” or “Odin’s rune,” this mute little tile is a topic of much debate among rune readers.

The 24 Elder Futhark runes are—among other things—an archaic alphabet and a divinatory system. Each character has three broad levels of meaning: a phonetic sound, a worldly object or concept, and a spiritual/esoteric idea. The blank rune is no exception to this schema. It represents, respectively: The sound of silence (phonetic), the absence of things (material), and the unknown/unknowable hand of Fate (abstract). That’s why it’s associated with wyrd, the Norse word for Fate.

The original runemaster, the god Odin, received knowledge of the runes, and so passed from ignorance into wisdom. The blank rune—the absence of runes—invites the student to reflect on the experience of not-knowing. It is also known as Odin’s rune in honor of the All-Father and the patron of runic lore.

The blank rune is silence, the zero, the void of infinite possibility. The space between words, the breath before speech. Its Tarot equivalent is the Fool—the sensation of empty space, the Hebrew letter Aleph, the most primordial form of the element of Air.

As we’ll see in a moment, the divinatory tone of the blank rune is ambiguous. Nobody can really agree if the blank rune is a “good” omen or not. (Or even if it belongs in readings.) It may represent the darkness of ignorance, the sinister hidden workings of destiny—or the eternal wordless hum, the AUM of the complete and enlightened universe.

What does the blank rune mean?

When a blank rune appears in a reading, it signals that there has been some complication with your divination. It hints that your question may be ill-formed, or the answer you seek may be unknowable (or already known to your deepest intuition). It is an invitation to meditate and wait. (Or—let’s be honest—to throw that sucker back into the bag and draw another tile.)

Here is what some different rune books have to say about reading the blank rune:

This is the Rune of total trust and should be taken as exciting evidence of your most immediate contact with your own true destiny which, time and time again, rises like the phoenix from the ashes of what we call fate. The appearance of this Rune can portend a death. But that death is usually symbolic and can relate to any part of your life as you are living it now.  —The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle (1983) by Ralph Blum

When this rune appears in your reading, you may be certain that something unexpected is going to come to you. Whether this something is positive or negative depends on what you warrant by virtue of your past behavior. […] Its meaning may best be interpreted by the way in which it relates to its neighbors. —A Practical Guide to the Runes: Their Uses in Divination and Magick (1989) by Lisa Peschel

When we cast this Rune, it indicates to us that our own spiritual development is progressing. It also offers a reminder that our own knowledge is greater and stronger than we think. —Pagan Portals: Runes (2013) by Kylie Holmes

The closest approximation to this rune is the Wheel of Fortune in the Tarot, which simply indicates that some kind of change is about to take place, but whether it is a change for good or ill depends on the rest of the reading. —Simply Runes (2006) by Kim Farnell

Aetters gonna aett

There are plenty of readers who think the blank rune should just keep mum. Their objects fall into two main categories: Functional and historical. Let’s tackle the blank rune’s functional problems:

First of all, there are 24 runes contained in the Elder Futhark. Twenty-four runes—not 23, and not 25. Other runic alphabets have different numbers of characters, but never mind that. The addition of an extra tile, some say, upsets the mathematical perfection of the system. The number 24 works well with the four seasons, twelve zodiacal signs, four classical elements, eight Pagan festivals, 24 Greek letters, and various other systems that have become intertwined with the runes over time.

The 24 runes are traditionally divided into three groups of eight (the aetter). Each group (aett) is ruled by one of the Norse gods—the first by Freyr, the second by Hagal, and the third by Tyr. Twenty-five is obviously not divisible by 8. So that leaves the blank rune without any of the customary correspondences.

Of course, proponents of the blank rune will say that’s just as it should be. The blank rune floats along, as moorless and anachronistic as a Steampunk airship hovering above the ancient fjords.

Other problems? There is already a rune that represents fate, the unknown, and the unrevealed: Perthro. Many rune scholars think that Perthro (also spelled Pertho, Peorth, or Parz) probably represents a dice-cup, from which Norse gamblers would cast lots. Archaeologists have even found Perthro inscribed on dice-cups!

The enclosed shape of Perthro is like a dark cave from which our destiny comes tumbling forth. It is an apt enough metaphor for all the unrevealed causes and effects knocking around together in a dark place—fate unknowable, or perhaps yet unwritten.

For me this is the best argument against the blank rune—reading the runes is complex enough without having two tiles that stand for ambiguity and flux. Leave the blank rune alone, people will say, and let Perthro whisper of the Wyrd.

History of the blank rune

It’s not clear whether the runemaster of old would have understood the point of a blank rune. Runic lore centered around what could be seen and experienced—the cattle, the hearth-fire, the valor of the warrior. The concept of eloquent nothingness would have been a tough sell.

The Norse didn’t have a numeral zero, or any character to represent nothing. Runic inscriptions didn’t leave space between words—the words on rune stones all run together, or occasionally are separated with dots. There is certainly no reference to a blank rune in many centuries of early literature about the runes.

So if it’s not a part of Norse tradition, where does the blank rune come from? Most runic scholars place the credit (or blame) squarely upon author Ralph Blum, who published his Book of Runes in 1983. This was the first textual reference to the blank rune. He was also the first to associate the blank rune with Odin, the most powerful of the Norse Gods.

Blum claimed that the idea for the blank rune came from a set of rune tiles he purchased in England in the 1970s. It’s possible, some say, that this blank tile was intended to be used as a replacement for a lost tile.

When preparing to write his book, Blum scrapped the traditional (3 x 8 = 24) configuration of the runic system, and instead organized his runes on a 5x5 grid according to a random casting. The blank tile happened to fall into the final position on his grid, which he interpreted as an accident of great significance: A new rune for the New Age.

Blum’s books distilled the dense and scholarly lore of the runes into an accessible list of spiritual principles. He then ran them through a filter of trendy modalities including astrology, the I Ching, and the shamanic quest.

Blum’s Book of Runes was a huge seller in multiple editions. Its commercial success was due in part to the New Age and self-help publishing boom of the 1980s, and to the fact that some editions came packaged with a nifty set of ceramic rune tiles—blank rune included, of course. Among people who use runes casually for divination, it was often the first and only rune book on the bookshelf.

The improvisations in The Book of Runes caused an outrage among runic traditionalists, and the blank rune became a focal point of contention. Norse reconstructionists charged Blum (and later New Age authors) with trivializing the runes and co-opting their heritage.

But the damage—if indeed it was damage—was already done. A physical blank rune is included in almost every commercially-produced rune set. The concept of the blank rune garners at least a passing mention in practically every book on runes published since 1983, though it probably only dates to the 1970s.

Having considered the blank runes questionable pedigree, we will now pass to the even more delicate question of whether you should use it or not. There is a lot at stake here. The runes do not always deal kindly with dilettantes and poseurs. Misusing them can result in dire and incomprehensible readings, or perhaps, cause your family’s name to be whispered with shame in the halls of Valhalla.

But, should you use the blank rune, or not?

For such a small thing, the blank rune gathers a lot of hate. Some of the most strenuous objections come from professional readers, who are under a lot of pressure to provide actionable answers to querents. The blank rune is risky. Drawing it can open the session up to further contemplation and conversation…or just suck all the air out of a reading.

Someone pays you for a reading, entrusts you with their deeply personal queries, and you draw a tile that says, effectively, “Nah nah nah, can’t tell you!” Ugh. Then there’s that awkward moment of turning the blank rune over two or three times after casting, just to make sure it’s really blank. Answer hazy, try again later. One imagines that a psychic who didn’t want to work very hard could fill an entire bag with blank tiles and dish them out, dispensing platitudes about the power of your own choices.

I’ve known readers who accept the rune in their personal practice but remove it when reading for clients. Rune teachers will often advise their students to use their intuition when deciding rather to accept or reject the blank rune. After all, it's not heresy to adapt an oracle to your needs. Languages and systems evolve. I’m willing to entertain the idea that the Runes may not have been finished when they were handed off to Odin, just as Odin himself was not able to foresee the entire fate of the world.

But not everyone is so flexible in their thinking about the blank rune. To purists, even an “optional” blank rune is an abomination. It’s a symptom of the New Age-y lightheadedness and ravenous appetite for sacred cultural artifacts. A rune is a symbol, not the absence of a symbol. A symbol for the absence of the symbol, is a betrayal of the concept of runes, an oxymoron. Even magicians who embrace pragmatism and experimentation have come out in defense of a traditional Elder Futhark: “Any book that includes a blank rune should not be consulted as an authority.” —Postmodern Magic (2005) by Patrick Dunn

Despite their objections, the blank rune is here to stay. It’s a thoroughly propagated idea with nearly 40 years of analysis in countless rune books—authoritative or not. It’s such a fixture of rune sets that rune-makers (on Etsy and other marketplaces) who choose not to include it still feel compelled to mention that it’s not included. Not too bad for something that stands for nothing!

What’s more, I believe that the blank rune has at least one function that justifies its existence. Here’s something I’ve observed in my experience as a reader:

Every system of divination has occasions when it has nothing to say and is eager to tell you so. For scryers, this phenomenon might manifest as a blank glass or crystal—for Tarot readers, as a pack of cards fumbled and dropped all over the floor. Not every day is a good day for prophecy. True oracular tools have their own energy, their own rhythms, their own grumpy moods in which they’d prefer not to be poked and prodded. Persist anyway, and you can end up with a totally garbled reading (or worse). Including a blank rune with your rune set gives it room to breathe, along with a personal code word for “not tonight, sweetie.”

Author Galina Krasskova offers a more theistic expression of the same concept of the blank rune as null:

To me, the blank “rune” is my way of telling the Gods that I am aware They need not answer the phone. The blank “rune” means nothing at all, no response to our query. Without it, a response becomes unavoidable and I consider this to be of the utmost impertinence towards the Gods: as though They were at our beck and call bound to answer our every question. —Runes: Theory and Practice (2009)

Having been unable to arrive at a final verdict on the blank rune, I’m going to retreat into the well-worn cocoon of New Age relativism: Use the blank rune if it works for you, and shelve it if it does not.

If you do readings with the blank rune, purists will scoff and snicker at you behind your back. If you write about the significance of the blank rune, as I do, you will occasionally receive a strongly worded email telling you why you’re wrong. (I delete these, along with any other communication that begins with the words “you should never” or “actually.”)

Fact: It’s easier to turn 25 runes into 24 than the other way around, so yes—I include a blank rune with all my sets. I advise customers to use it as a spare or put it in their fairy garden if they don’t like it. Or, if they persist, to drill a hole in it and wear it as a trophy to show their commitment to the purity of the Art. Raven Kaldera offers an intriguing alternative: Carve the blank tile with Gar, a “lost” rune associated with Odin—which he suspects escaped Blum’s notice (though not Blum’s intuition).

Well…there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the history, issues, and opinions surrounding the blank rune. Whatever you choose to do with that tile, I wish you wisdom and joy in your runic studies!

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