NOTE: Full tables of the Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark are available below this article. Updated on 5/21/18.
In 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 – and the Norns used these runes to carry that fate up the trunk and branches of Yggdrasil to the nine worlds amidst its boughs.
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 for inscriptions of great importance. They could be carved into rune stones 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 as spells for protection or success. It is obvious to see how many of these runes were an influence on our English letters used today, such as the T, O, F and S seen in these pendants.
Carved on sticks or other objects, they 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.
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).
Roughly 50 runestones have been found. Runestones were often raised next to grave sites within the Viking era of 950-1100AD. 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. The Kingittorsuaq Runestone below was found in Greenland and is currently located at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Elder Futhark has 24 runes, and over the next few centuries became widely used amongst the many Germanic tribes that vied for survival throughout Europe. By the Viking Age (roughly, 793-1066) the Elder Futhark gradually gave way to the Younger Futhark. The Younger Futhark has only 16 runes, not because the language was becoming simpler but because it was becoming more complicated. 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’ (Danish) and the ‘short twig’ (Swedish and Norwegian) runes:
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 following tables 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,
Then I was fertilized and became wise;
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.
Viking Language Translator
The above tables may be used to translate English to “Viking.”
Modern Day Rune Jewelry
While Younger Futhark was the primarily choice during the Viking era (800 – 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. Sample translations include the following two words: LIFE and ODIN.
Norse Runes are found in MANY of our jewelry items. Examples found here:
- King, B. ( The Meaning of the Runes. Retrieved from https://www.ragweedforge.com/runemean.html
- 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. Retrieved from http://www.heathenhof.com/the-younger-futhark-runes-an-instructive-guide/