The runes are a set of symbols like the Alphabet. Like the alphabet, the set is named by its first characters. It’s called the Futharc in Old Norse or the Futhorc in Old English because they changed the order of the letters when they added new runes.
The runes were developed from Etruscan writing in the first to third century, also using some pre-runic symbols from Scandinavia. These symbols, as well as the runes, had mystical meanings, but the most common use of the runes was simply writing. Earliest inscriptions are to the Etruscan goddess of writing, to whom doing writing was intrinsically an offering. Later runes were used for magick, and very occasionally for divination.
The runes were initially designed with only vertical and diagonal lines so that they could be easily read if carved into wood (horizontal lines would get lost in the grain). As they came to be more frequently used on stone, metal and paper, this became unimportant.
The runes were used as a writing system up until the 19th century, and over the centuries have taken many forms. The earliest is called the Elder Futharc, and consists of three rows of eight characters each. These rows are called aetts– which means family (not eight). The Younger Futharc contained only 16 runes, fuðąrk,hnias, tbmlR, and Futhorc was the Old English variant. The English monks added several other runes: Os, Ac, Yr, Ior, and Ear, in order to be able to write sounds needed in Latin. Each culture adapted the runes to their own needs, and major variations included the Anglo-Frisian, Marcomannic, Gothic, medieval, and others. (One variant, the “short twig”, took out the vertical line leaving only the cross marks resulting in a sort of shorthand.) These variations can be confusing if you don’t know which set is being used.
In divination and magick, Frey’s aett/family deals with the divine world, Hagal’s deals with the natural world, and Tyr’s deals with the world of men. As Christianity position clearly denied magick, the Church often forbade the use of runes in case they were being used for magick, so sometimes the position of the rune was described by which row and which position in the row to designate which rune was meant. This can be confusing since the positions are changed in the extended futhorc. Os (mouth) was moved to the 4th position of the first row, and As (god) was renamed Aesc (Ash) and became the 26th rune. They also renamed Thurs (Giant) as Thorn. Don’t worry about it while first learning. Also we don’t know what P meant, only its sound.
Much of what we think we know comes from interpreting the Rune Poems that have survived. These are thought to contain hints about the magickal meanings of the runes- but may well be simple mnemonic devices. Other hints come from the Havamal and other old writings, and still others are based on personal interpretations from using them (UPG*).
In the 19th century antiquarians became fascinated with Runes, especially their esoteric uses. The Nazis embraced them, along with other forms of ancient northern culture, which, combined with their having been adopted by some white supremesist groups, has left them in unfair bad repute. More recently the works of Tolkien and Blum have resurrected interest, and a new generation has adopted their use. Because of Blum, many people think of them primarily as a form of divination. They do function as such beautifully, but one should not forget their use as a simple writing system and their use as magickal tools.
*unverifiable personal gnosis