Runes are a form of divination tool. They are usually made up of a cultures's symbols, or alphabet letters, imprinted on a physical object. The letters are unlike today's alphabet in that each letter has an extra correlated meaning. These rune sets are used as a physical tool to focus one's mind and energy. This allows the user to ask the Universe, or their Spirit Guides, a question and better hear a clear answer.
It could be argued that runes have been around since the day that the first person carved a symbol into a tree. However, archaeologists in Norway claim that they have found the oldest Nordic runestone, carved 2,000 years ago. There are older runes that have been found on artifacts such as: shields, spears, needles and tools, but this is the oldest inscription on stone to date. The completion of the Nordic Germanic Elder Futhark alphabet was completed by the early 5th century.
Many early cultures had a runic alphabet. The Nordic, or Germanic, cultures are the most well known. Their alphabet progressively developed over time throughout Northern Europe, including Germany, Denmark and Sweden. It is believed that the Germanic people did not use the runes as a form of writing, but were used in magical practices. Although runes today are often used as a form of divination, there is no proof to indicate that the Elder Futhark language was originally used in this way.
The Irish cultures had their own set of runes called Ogham. Their alphabet was unusual because it was a written language, a rare development in the 4th century. Ogham inscriptions have been found in Ireland, Britain, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Scotland. One reason that the Ogham alphabet flourished is because of the progressive education system of the Druids. It was also a language that adaptively integrated into other languages from surrounding countries. The Ogham letters each correlated with a tree sacred to the Druids.
(Illustration by Yuri Leitch)
Another country that developed a runic system over 2,000 years ago were the Greeks. The Greeks loved education. They had a profound written system of record keeping, developed libraries and universities, excelled in math and science. They had an alphabet of 24 letters, often seen today in math equations (ie. Alpha, Beta, Gamma). These letters were carved or painted on items such as bones, stones and pottery. Many people would seek out an Oracle, or psychic, who would perform a rune reading for them. However, it was common for the lower class to use a form of runes called Astragaloi. Astragaloi were sheep knucklebones converted into a form of dice. Each side of the dice had a letter engraved onto it.
(Girl playing astragaloi (knucklebones), from Caelian Hill in Rome, 150 CE, Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.)
These are just several of the many cultures that developed an alphabet rune system. Today, runes have developed into a spiritual tool for communication, similar to tarot decks. Runes can be made out of any item; such as bones, wood, stones, buttons, metal, etc. There are individuals who prefer the ancient methods and try to keep their runic practice as authentic as possible and then there are people that have altered the ancient ways in order to adjust for the modern times. As long as the method used feels comfortable to you, and your Spirit Guides, then everything else is white noise. Follow your intuition. However, I suggest researching the ancient methods first to acquire a base of knowledge to create a method that works best for you.