One cannot travel far in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden without meeting with great stones of different forms, engraven with characters called Runic, which appear at first sight very different from all we know. The letters consist almost invariably of straight lines, in the shape of little sticks either singly or put together. Such sticks were in early times used by the northern nations for the purpose of ascertaining future events. The sticks were shaken up, and from the figures that they formed a kind of divination was derived.
The Runic characters were of various kinds. They were chiefly used for magical purposes. The noxious, or, as they called them, the BITTER runes, were employed to bring various evils on their enemies; the favorable averted misfortune. Some were medicinal, others employed to win love, etc. In later times they were frequently used for inscriptions, of which more than a thousand have been found. The language is a dialect of the Gothic, called Norse, still in use in Iceland. The inscriptions may therefore be read with certainty, but hitherto very few have been found which throw the least light on history. They are mostly epitaphs on tombstones.
Gray's ode on the "Descent of Odin" contains an allusion to the use of Runic letters for incantation:
"Facing to the northern clime, Thrice he traced the Runic rhyme; Thrice pronounced, in accents dread, The thrilling verse that wakes the dead, Till from out the hollow ground Slowly breathed a sullen sound."