Reading the Runes: The Viking Runic Alphabet - ‘Futhark’, History and Meanings

General knowledge, History and Mythology -

Reading the Runes: The Viking Runic Alphabet - ‘Futhark’, History and Meanings

The runic alphabet has existed for thousands of years and was used to write many Germanic languages before the introduction of the Latin alphabet, including that of the Vikings.

As well as being a literal alphabet used during the Viking ages, runes were (and still are by some) believed to hold power, symbolize inherent qualities and values and be associated with magic, as well as having meanings in more modern divination and oracle reading practices too.

Today, runes have also become a common occurrence in popular culture and the fantasy genre as a whole. When exploring the origins behind them, it’s easy to see why runes still resonate with us so much still.

Origins, history and etymology

Early examples and uses

The oldest runic inscriptions found to date are from around 150 AD, while runes were used by many Germanic communities from the 1st or 2nd century AD. Runes began to be replaced with Latin characters once Christianity began to take hold between 700-1100 AD, though their practical use persisted for some decorative and specialized purposes for sometime after.

The three most well known runic alphabets are the Scandinavian ‘Elder Futhark’ (150-800AD) and ‘Younger Futhark’ (800-1100 AD) and the Anglo-Saxon ‘Futhorc’ (400-1100 AD). The Anglo-Saxon form differs in name due to a shift in the sound when pronounced in Old English. The Younger Futhark is also subdivided into several branches and developed into the Medieval and Dalecarlian Runes as time went on.

The Younger Futhark was widely spread and examples have been found around 3,000 times in Scandinavia and other Viking Age settlements. The Elder Futhark is thought to have been a more secretive script, know by a much fewer literate elite (only about 350 inscriptions have been found).

Between 650 to 800 AD, some inscriptions mixed the use of Elder and Younger Futhark runes.

Fun fact: The Swedish province of Dalarna (where the Dalecarlian runes persisted until the 20th century) has been called the ‘last stronghold of the Germanic script’.

The word ‘rune’

The name ‘rune’ is derived from the Germanic root ‘run’ (Gothic ‘runa’), to mean ’whisper’ or ‘secret’.  Similarly, in Old Irish Gaelic, ‘run’  also means ‘secret’ as well as ‘mystery’ or ‘intention’ and in Old English and Welsh, 'rūn' and 'rhin' mean ‘mystery’, ‘secret’ or ‘secret writing’ - fitting, considering the mystery and power that runes (and language as a whole) have been considered to wield throughout history, and an insight into why they may have been looked upon to wield magical properties too.

In other cultures, the root ‘run’ means ‘’speech’’ in some Baltic languages, while ‘runoti’ (Lithuanian) means ‘’to speak’’ or ‘’to cut with a knife’’ – we imagine their ancestors must have had some sharp tongues and wits indeed!

Another theory is that the root of ‘rune’ comes from the root ‘reuə’ ('dig’) in Indo-European language, while the Finnish term for rune (‘riimukirjain’) means ‘scratched letter’ and ‘runo’, which originates from a similar source to the English ‘rune’ means ‘poem’ – a word borrowed from the Proto-Germanic ‘rūnō’, which means ‘letter’, ‘literature’ or ‘secret’.

No wonder Tolkien was inspired by the runic alphabet for the languages he forged for The Lord of the Rings. If we imagine runes as the physical embodiment of secrets and intention, it’s not hard to imagine them having fantastical properties – bringing mystery, power, protection and a certain magic that lies beneath to the world in a more physical form; especially when, during early history, the written word was mastered by far fewer people than it is now. Those that became adept in it were not only able to speak power into the world, but carry it with them too.

Vikings and runes

In Norse lore it is told that Yggdrasil (the world-tree) holds all nine worlds and grows out of the Well of Urd. In this well live three female entities called Norns, who use runes to carve the destiny of every individual being into the ancient bark at the base of the timeless tree. Odin - king of the Norse Gods - impaled himself with his own spear, hanging from Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to discover the true significance of the runes and the secrets that they hold.

Odin made this painful sacrifice because he knew that runes held deep meaning and that understanding them would bring upon him profound wisdom. After the ninth night, Odin found the runes among Yggdrasil, reached out for them and in turn earned back his life, grasping within his hands the power, wisdom and responsibility of the written form; all their secrets, all their mysteries, all their intent, all the magic that they hold.

It’s this story from Norse Mythology that makes us suspect that Vikings did not simply view runes as mere letters, but as symbols with potent inherent qualities, that could be used to communicate with the supernatural realm.

Runes were used in Viking religion and magic, carved into weapons to imbue them with power and worn by many as a form of luck, faith, meaning and protection

Runes in magic, divination and oracle reading

As well as a writing system, some evidence suggests runes historically served a purpose in magic, as well as being used in more modern-day divination and rune reading.

Runic magic

In the infamous Poetic Edda there is mention of ‘victory runes’ being carved on swords, while evidence from the Roman and Germanic ages in the form of the words ‘alu’ and ‘erilaz’, are thought to mean an instance of runic magic and someone who is versed in runes and their magical applications respectively. More recently, we have Icelandic magical staves - runic sigils, believed to have magical effects and found in Icelandic grimoires from the 17th century onwards.
 
More recently still, new varieties of ‘runic magic’ were developed in Germanic mysticism, and built-upon by followers of Germanic Neopaganism.

Rune reading and divination

Today, more modern systems of divination using runes draw their influence from Hermeticism, Occultism and the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divination text).

Johannes Bureus, a 17th Century  practitioner of Hermeticism and Rosiscrucianism, invented a runic system of divination based on the Futhark (Runes) and Kaballah (from Jewish Mysticism), called the Adulruna, after being inspired by visions. In 1902 Guido von List developed the Armanen runes (based on the Younger Futhark) in his book ‘The Secret of the Runes’, and they have since been built upon more recently by others too.

Several other runic divination systems have been developed since then, with the first book on runic divination being written in 1982 by Ralph Blum, which led to the creation of a set of runes designed for oracle reading, divination and fortune telling - where runes are selected from a bag, or thrown down at random for a reading.

Rune names and meanings

Since runes have been around for a long time and used in different ways by different cultures and communities, some of their meanings and names may vary here and there. Below we’ve listed the common transliterated runes as well as some of their perceived meanings and qualities.

(If you'd like your own rune, we stock Viking rune necklaces here at Happy Piranha, handmade by Viking experts in Scotland.)

  • A - Ansuz (ᚨ)
    ''God'' - Odin, wisdom, truth, communication, inspiration, deity
  • B – Berkanan (ᛒ)
    ''Birch'' - birth, fertility, growth, new beginnings
  • C - Kaunan/Cen (ᚲ)
    ''Torch'' - revelation, creativity, fire, transformation, regeneration, illumination
  • D - Dagaz (ᛞ)
    ''Day'' - dawn, awakening, awareness, breakthrough, new enterprises
  • E - Ehwaz (ᛖ)
    ''Horse'' - fluidity, partnership, swiftness, trust, teamwork, harmonious relationships
  • F - Fehu (ᚠ)
    ''Cattle/Wealth'' - money, abundance, luck
  • G - Gebo (ᚷ)
    ''Gift'' - love, partnerships, generosity, exchanges, marriage
  • H - Hagalaz (ᚺ)
    ''Hail/Precipitation'' - radical change, loss, transformation, uncontrollable force of nature
  • I - Isa/Isaz (ᛁ)
    ''Ice'' - challenge, stillness, self-control, concentration
  • J - Jera (ᛃ)
    ''Year/Harvest'' - peace, rewards, prosperity, fruitfulness
  • K/O - Kaun (ᚴ)
    Wound, transformation, regeneration, illumination, fire
  • L - Laguz (ᛚ)
    ''Water'' - flow, sea, renewal, dreams, fantasies, intuition, sensitivity
  • M - Mannaz (ᛗ)
    ''Man'' - friends, self, mankind, social order, intellect, mind, memory, learning
  • N – Naudiz (ᚾ)
    ''Need' - necessity, hardship, endurance, survival, self-reliance
  • O - Othila/Opila/Opala (ᛟ)
    ''Heritage/Possession'' - ancestral, home, plenty, inheritance, legacy
  • P - Peorth/Perþ- (ᛈ)
    Hearth, magic, mystery, secrets, divination, uncertain, hidden
  • R - Raido (ᚱ)
    ''Ride/Journey'' - wheel, movement, travel, destiny
  • S - Sowilo (ᛋ)
    ''Sun'' - health, energy, mastery, success, wholeness
  • T - Tiwaz (ᛏ)
    ''Tiwaz'' (the god) - Victory, honour, justice, balance, leadership, authority
  • U/V - Uruz (ᚢ)
    ''Aurochs'' (an extinct cattle) - power, strength, courage, creative force, endurance
  • W - Wunjo (ᚹ)
    ''Joy'' - fellowship, hope, harmony, friendship, kinship, comfort
  • X/Z - Algiz (ᛉ)
    ''Elk/Protection/Defence'' - self-defense, divine protection, courage, valkyrie energy
  • Y/æ - Eihwaz (ᛇ)
    ''Yew tree/Yggdrasil'' - stability, reliability, strength, tree of life, eternity, resilience, longevity
  • TH/þ - Thuriaz/Purisaz (ᚦ)
    ''Giant/Thord'' - strength, defence, protection, conflict, change, catharsis
  • ŋ -Ingwaz (ᛜ / ᛝ)
    ''Ing'' (the god) - unity, harmony, agreement

Runes today

It’s not hard to see why runes are so popular in culture still today. At a time when humanity was still very much grasping with making sense of the world, being able to write secrets, stories and intentions down must certainly have seemed like a certain type of magic.

Their bold, straight, visceral lines echo their era of conception: A time when life was hard and the people were harder still, a time when the distance between cultures and the individuals in them seemed larger and more unknown. Their roots in history and mythology imbue them with an ancient, fantastical sense and their use in popular culture and modern divination solidifies this further still. They just look pretty damn cool too.

We might not know definitively to what extent the Vikings and their Germanic cousins believed in the significance of runes - other than as an important communicative tool - but it’s easy to see how one could think them much more than simply spoken words carved into rocks. 

Many a mystery still lies behind the runes that have been found to date and there’s probably still some Germanic secrets waiting to be unearthed that are written down in them, daring to be deciphered.

Future discoveries aside, in a world where hastily hashed-out text travels as fast as a finger can push, the time and consideration that must have gone into ancient writing is of stark comparison. In a way, runes and other old alphabets hark back to a time when words seemed more significant. They still are, maybe they can help remind us of that even today.

So, next time you find yourself writing something important, try crafting it with the conviction of a Viking, scratching the letters into stone.

You never know who might find them in 2,000 years time.

Want to harness the power of runes for yourself?

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