Runes have always been mysterious and forbidding. The very word "rune" means a secret, a mystery. In popular folklore runes are dangerous, evil, pitiless, and destructive. But how did runes get so wicked a reputation?
Part of it can be attributed to the magical efficacy of the runes. Rune magicians were feared for their power to command and destroy. Each time the might of the runes was revealed through an act of magic, their authority grew. Coupled with this is the natural human tendency to fear what is not understood. The mystery of the runes heightened their dreadfulness. In the Middle Ages everybody believed in magic, and runes, the most secret and most potent system of magic, was the most feared.
When the Church solidified its power in the north to the point that it felt confident in attacking the pagan gods and branding them as devils, and all their works as devilish, it is not surprising that runes came under especially severe censorship. Just carrying the runes was enough to get you burned alive in Iceland as late as the seventeenth century.
This kind of absolute suppression is impossible to resist. It is amazing that runes survived as long as they did, and it is a tribute to their potency. As more and more common people renounced the old gods and embraced Christ, there were few dedicated or brave enough to seek out and preserve the vanishing wisdom, which had been handed down from master to disciple, communicated from mouth to ear in solitude.
Runes became associated with stories of human sacrifice that probably had their foundation in kernels of fact. The Druids did sacrifice men in Gaul, as Julius Caesar attests in his Gallic Wars. Although the Druids were a Celtic order, it is certain they would have known rune magic. Druids were the most learned pagan scholars of their day. Their order was based in England but extended into Gaul, and they were notorious as magicians among the Romans. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Vikings also sacrificed men ritually, although not on a wide scale. Tacitus in his Germania speaks of the German slaves who purified the ritual chariot of the goddess Hertha on her sacred island, after which they were drowned as sacrifices.
The Church and her newly converted did nothing to minimize this connection between rune magic and human sacrifice, as can be seen from this passage from the Old English poem Andreas:
Casting lots they let them decree
Which should die first as food for the others.
With hellish acts and heathen rites
They cast the lots and counted them out.
This sort of extreme hysteria was the rule rather than the exception once the popes gained confidence in their power, and it goes far to explain the utter annihilation of runes as a magical system. Runes were anathema both to the priests from Rome and to their zealous converts. It is always the way that those inspired by religious fanaticism repudiate most strenuously the very practices which they themselves formerly believed in and followed. There is no stauncher prohibitionist than a reformed alcoholic.
With the rise of the Romantic movement in Germany in the eighteenth century (it started somewhat earlier on the Continent than in England), those most romantic of cultural relics, the runes, were rediscovered. Unfortunately there was very little accurate information available, and several crackpot schemes and notions gained currency. Even so, runes remained an integral part of German occultism through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while being virtually ignored in English-speaking nations.
The adoption of runes by those preaching doctrines of Aryan purity and the supremacy of the "master race," doctrines embraced with such enthusiasm by the Nazi movement, dealt another blow to the reputation of the runes, one that endures to the present day. In fact the Nazis were not very good occultists, but their use of some runes and related symbols tainted them in the world mind.
Eventually the runes will purge themselves of their evil connotations, at least among occultists, as they become so common that they are understood for themselves, not for the destructive baggage of vicious tumors and corrupting fables that presently encumber them. But this process may take decades. Every user of the runes must personally come to terms with their legend in his or her own mind.