Writing and Magic: The Power of Inscription
The word "rune" comes from the Norse and means not only an alphabetic signary, but also "mystery." Runes, unlike ordinary letters, such as those in the Roman alphabet, are designed to represent magical powers and to convey those powers when written. The Futhark are the principal Norse runes and it is to these that many recent writers have turned to restore the ancient magical systems of the Norsemen and other Germanic-speaking peoples.
Among the other major linguistic groups in ancient Europe, we may look to the Celtic languages and their speakers for another system of magical writing. This is called Ogham. Ogham is a system of correspondences and symbols, and is unrelated to the Greek and Roman alphabet. It uses combinations of tally marks instead of unique individual letters as alphabetic systems do. It appears to have been adapted for use as an alphabet after the Celtic peoples learned of writing from the Greeks or the Phoenicians.
The Phoenicians were the first to invent an alphabet. Inscriptions in ogham signs are found throughout Ireland and Wales, marking battlefields and boundaries, and memorializing leaders. But the use of ogham letters in druid magic is attested in ancient tales. In such cases, letters symbolize some power or intention on the part of the druid instead of spelling out words and sentences.
Not all runic inscriptions or ogham inscriptions are intended to be overtly magical, but many of the old rune and ogham stones of our ancestors were used for marking boundaries or commemorating individuals, battles, or other events. Such purposes seem mundane to us nowadays, but we do well to consider their magical quality, especially in an age when writing of any sort was extremely rare. The ability to render a person, event, or even the boundaries of a tribe's land permanent, immortal was a magical act, and really still could be thought of that way if we desired to do so. Writing something down removes it from the fragile and perishable fabric of the human memory to a more or less permanent form.
Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms work in another way, each sign carrying a particular meaning that may be equivalent to a word or phrase when translated to spoken language. It was the Phoenicians who first thought to use signs to stand for sounds and to assemble words by representing their sounds rather than their meanings. For this reason we call units of sound in language phonemes and their study phonetics. The Greeks adapted and spread the alphabet, and after they were conquered by the Romans, the Roman alphabet was likewise spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
In the magical arts, words and signs are used to represent ideas and the intentions of the mage. Words may carry the power of a blessing or a curse. The old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" was talking about insults and not magical words. Or, it may indeed be that the little rhyme was itself a protective spell against magical cursing.
In the case of wand or athame inscriptions, the magical instrument is enhanced by the addition of signs or words that are significant, magically speaking, to the wielder of the instrument. Inscriptions may take the form of symbols, such as a pentagram or awen, which have multiple layers of meaning. It may also take the form of sigils, signs that are constructed with a particular magical power in mind. Sigils are traditionally designed to represent and channel the power of angelic spirits, planetary intelligences, daemons, or particular magical configurations, such as protection, manifestation, fertility, transformation, and so forth.
Each of the links at the left, under Runelore will take you to pages dealing with these various systems.