NOTE: Full tables of the Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark are available at the bottom of this article.
RunesIn Norse lore, the god, Odin, impaled his heart with his own spear and hung on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights all to perceive the meaning of the runes. The runes were symbols that sprang from the Well of Urd – the source of fate. Odin made his sacrifice at great anguish and risk to himself because he knew that the runes conveyed deep meaning, and if he could understand their meaning he would gain profound wisdom and power.
So, we see from this story how the Vikings thought of runes not merely as letters but as having potent virtues within themselves of a metaphysical or even magical nature. The Norse and other Germanic peoples wrote with runes since at least the first century. However, they did not use this writing the way we do now, or even the way Mediterranean and other neighboring cultures did then. Instead, runes were originally for inscriptions of great importance. They could be carved into runestones to commemorate ancestors and mark the graves of heroes. Because they had inherent meaning, they could be used as a means of communication between the natural and supernatural, and could thus be used in spells for protection or success.
Carved on sticks, bone, shells, or other objects, runes could be cast and deciphered to discern the present or predict the future. Rather than being penned on vellum or parchment, runes were usually carved on wood, bone, or stone, hence their angular appearance. While evidence suggests that most Vikings could read the runes on at least a basic level, for them the true study and understanding of these symbols was a pursuit fit for the gods. It is obvious to see how common influence between runes and English letters used today, such as the T, O, F and S seen in the image of the above pendants. With a little practice, runes are not difficult for English speakers to read.
Our word alphabet comes from the Greek letters, alpha and beta. Similarly, modern experts have termed runic alphabets futharks (or futhorks), based on the first six letters of Elder Futhark which roughly correspond to our F, U, Th, A, R, and K. Elder Futhark earns its designation because it is the oldest-discovered complete runic system, appearing in order on the Kylver Stone from Gotland, Sweden, dated from the dawn of the Migration Era (around the year 400).
UPDATE: 2023: An older runestone known as the Svingerud Stone was recently excavated in Norway and the carved runes are believed to have been inscribed around the time of Christ, pushing back the age the Elder Futhark runes even further. (Read more about the Svingerud Stone here).
As the name implies, runestones were stones (often large monoliths of granite) inscribed with runic messages and sometimes pictures. Roughly 50 runestones have been found from the early Migration Era, before the Vikings. During the Viking Age (circa 793-1066), runestones proliferated and included large, heavy monuments carved by specialists. There are about 3,500 known runic inscriptions in Scandinavia (2,400 in Sweden, 450 in Denmark and only about 140 in Norway). Though gray and weathered now, runestones were once brightly colored and featured red, black, or blue runes.
Runestones were intended as a display of power, declaring the dominion of the ruling family (such as Harald Bluetooth’s famous Jelling stones). Others might have been meant to consecrate ground. Runestones were often raised next to grave sites. Some of the raised runestones first appear in the fourth and fifth century in Norway and Sweden. And in Denmark as early as the eighth and ninth century. However, most of them were found in Sweden, and many of these were erected in the eleventh century as the Viking
The Kingittorsuaq Runestone below was found in Greenland and is currently located at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Phonetically, the runes of the Younger Futhark were working double-duty to cover the changes that were differentiating the Norse tongues from that of other Germanic peoples.
Younger Futhark can be further divided into styles, including the 'long branch' and the 'short twig' runes. The short twig runes evolved as a type of “shorthand” or “cursive” style of runes (faster and easier to write) and became very popular in Norway and Sweden. The long branch runes remained more important for formal inscriptions and were always the standard in Denmark.
There are also other runic systems or futharks, such as the Anglo-Saxon runes and Gothic runes. These runes are closely related to the Elder Futhark.:
The Use of Runes expanded during the Viking Age
The explosion of trade and interaction brought about by the Viking Age created an increased need for writing and literacy, thus archaeologists have cataloged thousands of inscriptions in Younger Futhark while we only have hundreds in Elder Futhark.
While seers and völva priestesses still used the runes to perceive the paths of the cosmos, we have found many runic inscriptions that were related to law or trade, or simply a man or woman carving their name on a personal item. Of course, the Vikings also left runic graffiti from Orkney to Constantinople and beyond as they pushed the boundaries of their world ever-further.
Reading and Writing Runes
The tables below offer a quick and basic introduction to the runes used by the Vikings and their ancestors. These charts should serve for those looking to transliterate their names or other epitaphs or to find known associations with particular meanings. Many books and other resources are available for deeper inquiry, but there is much about runes that is not known. Indeed, they are more mysterious now than they ever have
been, but in words ascribed to Odin, when one understands the meanings of the runes they may find,
Runes you will find, and readable staves, Very strong staves,
Very stout staves, Staves that Bolthor stained,
Made by mighty powers,
Graven by the prophetic god,
For the gods by Odin, for the elves by Dain,
By Dvalin, too, for the dwarves, By Asvid for the hateful giants,
And some I [Odin] carved myself:
Thund, before man was made, scratched them,
Who rose first, fell thereafter
Know how to cut them, know how to read them,
Know how to stain them, know how to prove them,
Know how to evoke them, know how to score them,
Know how to “send them" know how to send them,
(From the Eddic Poem, Havamal – Words of the High One – translated by W. H. Auden and P B Taylo).
Viking Language Translator
The above tables may be used to translate. Click here to view rune necklaces.
Modern Day Rune Jewelry
While Younger Futhark was the primarily choice during the Viking era (750 - 1050 AD), it is very likely that the Vikings could still use and interpret the Elder version (just as we can still interpret it today a thousand years later). Most of today's Viking rune jewelry uses the Elder version simply because letters translate easier to the English alphabet.
The similarities between many of the original Elder runes and today's English letters is undeniable.
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- Dickens, B. (1915), Runic and Heroic Poems. Retrieved from https://www.ragweedforge.com/poems.html
- Bray, O. (1908). The Havamal, (The Words of Odin the High One) from the Poetic Edda. Retrieved from https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/havamal.html#spells
- McCoy, D (2018). Odin’s Discovery of the Runes. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Retrieved from https://norse-mythology.org/tales/odins-discovery-of-the-runes/
- Short, W. (2018). Stories, Poems, and Literature from the Viking Age. Hurstwic. Retrieved from http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/literature/text/literature.htm
- Foster, J. (2016). Norse Runes. Retrieved from http://users.on.net/~starbase/galdrastafir/runes.htm
- Halvorsen, I. The Meaning of the Runes. Retrieved from http://www.sunnyway.com/runes/meanings.html
- Xander, (2016). The Younger Futhark: An Instructive Guide. Huggin’s Heathen Hof.