In their most basic description they are a series of marks made out of straight lines. There can be from 16 to 33 runes in differing scripts. They have been used for many different purposes, from writing to talismans, from protective amulets to representing whole words and concepts. I’ll be touching on the types of runic script, but the one I’ll be mostly referring to is the germanic, or elder futhark with 24 runes.
The runic alphabet is called the futhark (or futhork in the case of the Anglo Saxon runes) after it’s first six letters. (there’s seven letters in English: the ‘th’ counts as one sound)
There have been many discussions about where the runes originated from, the most widely accepted theory nowadays is that they came from the Etruscan written language, with a little bit of Roman lettering mixed in for good measure. The Etruscans flourished as a separate people for several centuries, until the first century BC, when they were effectively absorbed into the expanding Roman empire. There never was an Etruscan empire, more a loose collective of cities who had langauge, religion, clothing and customs in common.
They are most associated with the Viking period in history. The Vikings used them as a written script and as script on weapons, tools, brooches, gravestones and anything else with a flat surface. Just to give an idea of numbers and scale, the runic alphabets was known in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, the Orkneys, Isle of Man and England, the south of Russia. In Denmark there just less than 200 inscriptions, most of which are earlier than 1150AD. There are over 2000 runestones in Sweden alone, England reveals a few relics of the Danish conquest and subsequent Anglo Saxon inscriptions. Norwegian inscriptions generally date from 1030-1350, Icelandic ones no earlier than the 13th Century. So, lots of places and a huge span of time…
So why are runes so complicated? Take the first rune as an example, It translates as the letter ‘f’, has the name of ‘feoh'(there are also variations on the spelling) and the meaning of ‘material wealth’ or ‘possessions’. So a carver, wanting to write the word ‘possessions’ in the middle of his text, may carve the rune of material wealth to represent the idea rather than writing the whole thing out (especially if they didn’t have the space!). Essentially, the runes can stand for a single letter or a concept when they are written on an object. There are examples of swords from the Viking period which have a rune on them representing ‘t’ or ‘the warrior’. With the connotations of strength, greatness in battle and survival, the rune surely means this instead of (as well as) the letter ‘t’ in this circumstance.
So: to start at the beginning:
This presentation will go through the different ways in which to write the runes, the differences between types of runic script, some examples of artefacts with runes on to show the diverse things they were written on, the runic poems and then into the runes in the modern day.
Runic scripts: ways of writing
There are several things to consider when reading/writing in runes: there are several ways in which to read/ write a runic script and examples of all of them can be seen on different artfacts:
1)top to bottom, left to right (as english)
2)top to bottom right to left ( with words being spelt backwards)
These are known as ‘Wendrunes’ and can be seen on the stone at
Mojbro, Uppsala, Sweden.
3)top to bottom left to right with every second line written backwards
right to left. This is called ‘Boustrophedon’ translating essentially as
‘the way of ploughing’
4)following a set of borders which create a design: as the example below
(“Read the runes! Tolir, Roden’s steward, had them properly carved for the King. Tolir and Gylla, a married couple, had them carved as a memorial for themselves. Håkan had it carved.”)
5) Any way the writer can get the inscription onto the object – which doesn’t help matters…. Sometimes letters are missed out, or inscriptions are squashed up.
Runic script: different types
As well as differing ways to write the runes, there is also more than one type of runic script.
The oldest type of runic script. The 24 runes of the Germanic futhark are split into 3 groups of eight runes, called aettir or aett, each named after a Norse deity (Aettir = ‘families’, this word can also have variant spellings, so don’t worry if someone else spells it differently).
Frey’s aett (fertility)
f u th a r k g w
Heimdall’s aett (guardian)
h n i j eo p z s
Tir‘s aett (law and justice)
t b e m l ng d o
There is a slight discrepancy in that some accounts switch the order of the last two runes round to read o then d…
Two slightly differing versions of the Younger Futhark came into being from the linguistic changes in Scandinavia during the seventh and eighth centuries. The Elder Futhark was changed and became the following in Scandinavia:
f u th a r k : h n i a s : t b m l R
f u th a r k : h n i a s : t b m l R
Both of these are used in inscriptions from the Viking period in Northern Europe, which is roughly from the 7th century onwards. Although both are similar, there are some problems when it comes to reading inscriptions.
Although there are symbols for t,k and b there are none for d,g and p. There are two different symbols for a but none for e and o. The Viking spelling for their inscriptions is therefore a bit peculiar.
When the carver wanted to represent d they used a t instead, for g they used k and for p they used b.
Confused? For example the Danish King Gormr (who we know as Gorm) appears on his memorial stone as kurmR and the Danish King Svien is recorded as suin
To further confuse, there was a grammar rule which meant that a rune carver could omit an n when it came before a consonant. So a man called Thormundr appears in runic spelling as thurmutR
Anglo Saxon Runic Letters
Around the same time in England the Elder Futhark changed: instead of getting shorter as it did in Scandinavia, it got added to, to handle the different kinds of linguistic sounds in the Anglo Saxon alphabet.
f u th o r c g w h n i j i p x s t b e m l ng d oe a ae y ea g k k
Confusingly some letters can also have variants…
Variants for c: the first is rare and there are occasional Old English examples of the second two
Variant for h: this is the earlier version of the letter
Variants for s; the first of these appears on runic coins, the second two are rare early forms of the letter
Variant for j: appears rarely in inscriptions, but more common in Old English manuscript accounts of runes
Variant for oe: appears occasionally in manuscripts
What it all ends up meaning is that there’s plenty of scope when it comes to translating runic script…
So now that we’re thoroughly confused about which way to read and what letters are used, let’s look at some pictures and see stuff with runes on
Runes are found on an awful lot of things, from merchant’s scales to tombstones, swords to sticks, some meant to be disposable messages; others carved to withstand the ages. Below is a small selection of inscriptions and objects, to show the variety and uses to which runes were put.
The earliest use of runes is probably found on the Negau helmet. This is one of a hoard of 26 bronze helmets found on the Austria-Croatia border in 1812. These have been dated to 2nd Century BC, one having an inscription engraved into the brim ‘harigasti teiva’ which is taken to mean ‘to the God Harigast’. The inscriuption is not purely runic, and there are some etruscan letters also used. (written right to left in the illustration below)
(reads left to right)
Its official name is G88, and it dates from about 400 AD in Gotland. The stone was a flat rock used to seal a grave, with the inscription face down. It shows the earliest known listing of the Elder Futhark. Looking carefully, there are several variants of runes in the main line. The second inscription to the right translates as ‘sulius’ and is known as a ‘magical formula’ which appears on other inscriptions.
It is now housed in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities where it is currently not on display.
The Franks Casket
Named not after the Frankish people, but by the man who presented it to the British Museum, Sir Augustus Franks… Measuring 23cm long by 18cm wide by 10cm high, the scenes carved depict images from Germanic, Christian and Roman historical or mythological pasts. The runic inscription running round the outside of the panels is an Anglo Saxon riddle describing a whale beaching itself, the answer to which is the material from which the casket is made: whalebone.
‘The fish beat up the seas onto the mountainous cliff;
The king of the terror became sad when he swam onto the shingle’
There are inscriptions relating to the panels themselves, and these are either in runic or roman lettering (in one case a mixture of both!) The front panel, shown below in more detail is split to show the Weyland legend on the left, and the Adoration of the Magi at the stable on the right.
Found in 1857 in the Thames, the Thames Scramsax is a 9th Century English single edged iron sword which has the Anglo Saxon rune alphabet inlaid into its surface in brass and silver wire.
The script here reads left to right and also has a personal name on the far right hand side
After WWII the Norwegian town of Bergen was so badly damaged that it was decided to raze whole sections and rebuilt then from scratch. When this happened, archaeologists took the opportunity to excavate huge areas of pre-medieval Bergen and found thousands of short ‘message sticks’ carved in runic. The majority of these come from Bryggen, which is the harbour district of Bergen and are known as Merkelapper
Lincoln Comb Case
A Viking comb case found at Lincoln and now in the British Museum contains a homely inscription:
‘Thorfast made a good comb’
The Vikings not only wrote idly in runes, but also used them for serious business:
The remains of the Braddan Cross, on the Isle of Man has the following:
The inscription is in two parts: the dotted line shows where I have joined them together
It reads ‘nroskitil:uilti:i:triku aithsoara:siin
In Standard Old Norse this becomes ‘[e]n Hrossketill velti i tryggu eidsvarra siin’
Which translates in English to: ‘and Hrosskeitill deceived under trust his oath sworn [friend]’
So here shameful behaviour is publicised, showing what someone could expect if they cheated.
Runic Coins and Bractates
Runes are also used on coins and bractates (which is a coin or medal with a ring or hole at the top to make it into a brooch or pendant)
Sixth century coins minted by the English Kingdoms of East Anglia and Merica for the Kings Beonna, Ethilberht, Peada and Aethred all had inscriptions in runes.
Above left is the a coin from Gressli with runic contained around the border, and below right the Aegedal bracteate with a runic inscription.
The majority of runic inscriptions are on stone, and the majority of these are found in Sweden. They may start with a command to the reader of ‘read the runes!’ or just ‘read’, and may also include the name of the person who carved them, and the person who painted them. Runestones have been found with traces of paint, which in reconstruction show a vivid and colourful way of presenting information. Any slight mistakes by the carver could be covered up and adjusted by the painter.
The monument at Jelling is an important one: Between two large burial mounds and next to an early church are two runestones. The smaller of the two bears a runic inscription which records that it was erected by King Gorm in memory of his wife Thyre.
“King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s salvation.”
The second stone here is a massive piece of granite standing about 2 metres high, with three surfaces for ornament. The first of which is a beast intertwined fighting a snake, the second is a representation of the crucifixion and the third contains a runic inscription stating:
“King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”
(a copy of the crucifixion scene from Harald’s runestone has been restored with its original paintwork in yellows, reds and oranges)
Like Haralds stones at Jelling, there are other ‘memorial’ inscriptions carved in runes to commemorate the deceased. The usual formula or phrasing for these reads something like ‘XXX set this up in memory of XXX’. It’s a bit like the Christian gravestone phrase ‘In Memory of’, or ‘Rest In Peace’
For example: a runestone at Nora, Uppland, Sweden reads:
“Bjorn, Finnvids son, had this rock carved in memory of his brother Olaf. He was treacherously killed on Finndeven. God help his soul. This farm is the rightful estate and the family inheritance of the sons of Finnvid at Algesta”
Here the runestone is used to help quell any objections for the inheritors. As a legal and binding document, the runes help show how the land and farm changes hands, who to, and why.
For the most part, runestones are found to be located on what were the old ‘county’ borders of Scandinavia – so entering a new area, a traveller could instantly read the legal goings on with regards to deaths and inheritance. (as well as know exactly where the county boundary was!)
Memorial inscriptions are not the only thing that runes are used for. They also help records the spread of Christianity into Scandinavia. The early church encouraged people to sponsor ‘good works’ to ensure that their soul went to heaven after death. Instead of a funerary monument, runic inscriptions might read ‘XXX built this bridge for the good of their soul’
The advent of Christianity also introduced new phrases into the traditional funerary monuments. Phrases such as ‘God help his soul’ begin to appear alongside the more traditional phrases mentioned above. The phrase ‘to die in white clothes’ may seem like a strange one, but actually means that the person concerned converted to Christianity on their deathbed.
So far runes have been dealt with purely as a script. However they hold deeper meanings. These are mainly based on the rune poems which survive to the modern day:
The rune poems are usually a verse per rune, describing the characteristics of each one, usually headed by the rune itself.
The verses are partially cryptic, using descriptions rather than plain language. The verses usually appear in the manuscripts, headed by the rune or its title, with no translation of the rune itself. So translators, after putting words into English are faced with verses like these (from the Anglo Saxon rune poem):
is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon
seems interminable to men, if they venture on
the rolling bark and the waves terrify them,
and the courser of the deep heeds not the bridle
The verse which is most controversial is the one for of which the verse is the following:
______ is a source of recreation and amusement to the great
where the warriors sit in the banqueting hall blithely together
It’s generally taken to mean a dice cup, chess piece or gaming piece, but has also been translated as music, a womb or vulva, the grave, birth or the casting of lots.
It’s now generally accepted as either a chess piece (and therefore linked to fate), or a representation of something secret…
There are four sources for the different rune poems, each of which has gone through many rewrites, and different versions. Below are the four poems and a little of their origins. These poems would, in the first three cass be a verse for each rune, with the rune letter itself, or the name of the rune being the first word of the verse. Keep in mind that these poems are written down a good couple of centuries after the runes go out of general use, and therefore may not be entirely accurate…
The Anglo Saxon Rune Poem
Consists of 29 verses, of between 2 -5 lines each. The oldest record of this was in a manuscript which was destroyed in a fire in 1731. Fortunately it had been previously published as a curio by Hickes in his Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus a few years earlier.
The Norwegian Rune Poem
First published in 1636 in runic characters by Olaus Wormius in his Danica Literatura Antiquissima. Again the manuscript it came from perished in a fire at the University Library of Copenhagen in 1728. The original had been copied by Magnusson and Eggerston previous to its destruction. Their transcripts are a lot more complete that Wormius, and the first critical edition is based on these.
The original poem is thought to be written by a Norwegian author in the 13th Century
The Icelandic Rune Poem
Supposedly dates from the 15th Century. It’s taken from four manuscripts which each provide an incomplete record.
9th Century manuscript giving the earliest known listing of the sixteen letter alphabet.
Thuris thritten stabu
Os ist himo oboro
Rat endost ritan
Chaon thane cliuot
Hagal, Naut hab
Is, Ar endi Sol
Tiu, Brica endi Man midi
Laog the leohto
Yr al bihabet
All of these poems give the same basic meaning to each rune that they describe, although there are some differences, which may account for the modern differences in interpretation.
So finally, the meanings for the runes. Here are the 24 accepted meanings and names for the Elder Futhark. Don’t fret about the spellings of the names, there are several ways of spelling each, but they are roughly as follows.
Feoh – material possessions, wealth and cattle, community wealth, goods
Uruz – wild ox, strength, the aurochs
Thurisaz – giant, thorn, gateway
Ansuz – answers, signals, mouth
Radio – cartwheel, communication, a journey
Kennaz – sudden illumination, opening, torch,
Gefu – a gift, partnerships
Wunjo – joy, happiness
Halagaz – Hail, sleet, disruption, natural forces which damage
Nauthiuz – need, constraint, lessons, hardship, necessity
Isa – ice, standstill, freezing
Jera – harvest, full circle, year, a fruitful year
Ehiwaz – Defence, yew tree, avertive powers
Perth – Initiation, a dice cup, fate, destiny, something secret
Algiz – Protection, defence, the elk, sedge grass
Sowelu – Sun, life force, wholeness
Teiwaz – warrior, victory, a guiding star
Berkana – growth, birth tree, fertility, rebirth, teaching
Ehwaz – Horse, movement, the course of the sun
Mannaz – the self, man, the human race, interdependancy
Laguz – flow, water, sea, intuition
Inguz – fertility, the completion of beginnings
Dagaz – daylight, breakthrough, prosperity and fruitfulness
Othila – home, inheritance, native land
Runes as divination
The most read quote on divination by the peoples that the Romans encountered is by Tacitus. He’s a Roman who writes about the people in Germania, which is a huge piece of land encompassing most of the lands which butt up against the Roman Empire in the West – so lands including what are now France, northern Germany and Denmark.
Tacitus describes in his multi volume work Germania:
‘Beyond any other people they take note of divination and casting lots. Their technique for casting lots is simple; they cut a branch from a fruit bearing tree and cut it into small portions. They mark these with certain signs and scatter them at random without order on a white cloth. Then having invoked the gods and with eyes towards the heavens, the community’s priest, if the divination is in public, or if in private the father of the family, picks up three pieces, one at a time, then interprets them according to the signs previously written upon them’
This account seems fairly clear on a method, and although it doesn’t specifically mention runes by name (which is translated when the Bible is converted into Gothic in the 4th Century as runa, the word for secrets) this passage is the one which people generally accept as being about divination by runes.
I cast the runes with a five rune spread, but there are plenty of methods out there, and it really is a case of finding one to suit! Some people take a rune for the day – drawing one rune per day as part of their morning ritual and using it as a focus and guide for that day, others use three or five rune spreads, and there are year readings which use up to twelve.
Some runes to use as foci
Runes cover all sorts of things, from aspects of the natural world, such as water, hail, ice and sun, through to aspects of the Viking world, such as horse, cartwheel and warrior.
If you are beginning to work with runes, or wish to integrate them into your workings, then I would suggest one of the following:
Joy and Happiness
Sun, life force, wholeness
There are many books and internet sites on runes, some of which is not entirely accurate. If you want to know more stuff – of which there is a huge amount, I would suggest the following:
For a good introduction into european change from Paganism to Christianity:
Fletcher, R 1998 The Conversion of Europe: from Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 AD
A good, but slightly fluffy look at the whole subject of runes:
Pennick, N 1998 The Complete Illustrated Guide to Runes Element Books Limited
A good basic, if slightly Christian look at how to use the runes for divination (and the one I started with!) Watch out, he does change the order that the runes appear in!
Blum, R 1984 The Book of Runes Michael Joseph
(or by the same author The New Book of Runes)
Excellent study into the Scandinavian rune stones:
Sawyer, B 2000 The Viking Age Rune Stones: custom and commemoration in early medieval Scandinavia Oxford University Press
Runes as purely a written script:
Anything by R I Page! But especially:
Page, R I 1999 Runes and Runic Inscriptions: collected essays on Anglo Saxon and Viking runes. The Boydell Press
Elliott, RWV 1963 Runes Manchester University Press
The Vikings in general:
Graham-Campbell, J 2001 The Viking World Francis Lincoln Limited
Jones, G 1973 A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press
A fictional account of 8th Century Mercia in which the runes are used:
Bates, B 1983 The Way of Wyrd Century
Books on lost languages and writing:
Robinson, A 2002 Lost Languages The Bath Press
Robinson, A 2000 The Story of Writing Thames and Hudson