The Mystery, Magic and Meaning of Viking Runes

Norse civilization has provided an enormous amount of culture to the world, from its rich history to its vast mythology. One captivating aspect of Norse culture is often overlooked: runes. Most people know them when they see them, but give no thought to the history or meaning behind them. They’re much more interesting than you may realize.

Godguest was here: The inscription on the Einang stone (350–400 AD) is the earliest use of the term ‘rune’. It translates as ‘I, Godguest wrote this runic inscription.’ (Lars Gustavsen / CC BY SA 4.0)

Godguest was here: The inscription on the Einang stone (350–400 AD) is the earliest use of the term ‘rune’. It translates as ‘I, Godguest wrote this runic inscription.’ (Lars Gustavsen / CC BY SA 4.0)

The Mythology of Viking Runes

There is a deep and interesting mythology behind Viking runes. The story goes that the god Odin impaled his own heart with his spear and hung on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights in order to understand the meanings of the runes. The runes were symbols that came from the Well of Urd, or Urðarbrunnr. This well was one of three different wells that lay beneath Yggdrasil. According to Norse legend, from this well sprung three Norns, mythical creatures who decided people’s fate. For this reason, the Well of Urd is known as the ‘source of fate’. The Norns used the runes to carry that fate up through the trunk and branches of Yggdrasil and out to the nine worlds among its boughs.

Odin sacrifices himself by hanging from the world tree Yggdrasil (which is inhabited by various creatures), as attested in Hávamál, 1895. (Public Domain)

Odin sacrifices himself by hanging from the world tree Yggdrasil (which is inhabited by various creatures), as attested in Hávamál, 1895. (Public Domain)

Odin’s sacrifice was made at great pain and risk to himself, but he knew that the runes conveyed deep meaning, and if he could understand them he would gain an immense amount of knowledge and power. Odin succeeded in his mission and forever after was closely associated with knowledge and wisdom. The story of how Odin gained his knowledge shows how the Vikings didn’t see the runes in the same way we see the alphabet. Instead, Viking runs had a mystical or magical nature to them. Because of this, Viking runes were only really used on inscriptions of great importance, such as on runestones that mark graves.

Before the Viking Age, runes were most commonly used for gravestones (Erich Ferdinand / CC BY 2.0)

Before the Viking Age, runes were most commonly used for gravestones (Erich Ferdinand / CC BY 2.0)

This magical meaning given to runes also meant that they were frequently used as a means of communication between the natural and the supernatural, such as in spells. The runes would be carved on sticks in order to be cast so that people could predict the future. They were usually carved onto harder materials rather than written on parchment or vellum. This is the reason they are more angular in appearance compared to other languages of the time.

Collection of Viking runes from a 1597 rune book (Bengt A Lundberg / CC BY SA 2.5)

Collection of Viking runes from a 1597 rune book (Bengt A Lundberg / CC BY SA 2.5)

The Types of Viking Runes

There are a few different types of runic alphabets. These are called futharks, after the first 6 letters of the Elder Futhark, which roughly correspond to the letters F, U, Th, A, R and K. It’s called the Elder Futhark because, unsurprisingly, it is the oldest discovered runic system. It first appeared on the Kylver Stone from Gotland, Sweden, which is dated to around 400 AD. The Elder Futhark has 24 runes and was widely used among the Germanic tribes of northern Europe for centuries leading up to the Viking Age.

The Elder Futhark Viking rune alphabet (Public Domain)

The Elder Futhark Viking rune alphabet (Public Domain)

By the time of the Viking Age (793 – 1066 AD), the Elder Futhark was gradually replaced by the Younger Futhark. This futhark has only 16 runes. You might think this meant the language was becoming simpler, but in fact, the opposite was true. Viking runes were becoming more complicated. In the Younger Futhark, the runes actually had double meanings to help encompass the changes that were differentiating the Norse languages from the other Germanic tribes. The Younger Futhark can also be divided into two different styles: the “long-branch” (Danish) and the “short twig” (Swedish and Norwegian) Viking runes.

The Younger Futhark: long-branch runes and short-twig Viking runes (Public Domain)

The Younger Futhark: long-branch runes and short-twig Viking runes (Public Domain)

While previously, Viking runes were used almost exclusively for special, important occasions, by the Viking Age runes became much more commonly used for everyday tasks. This was largely due to the increase in trade and interaction with foreign people that increased the need for writing and literacy. Earlier, Viking runes were only really seen on runestones, but later runes were used to track trade or outline laws.

The Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript with one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes, circa 1300 AD (Public Domain)

The Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript with one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes, circa 1300 AD (Public Domain)

Of course, Viking runes were still used for magical purposes too. Even during the Viking Age, runes were exclusively carved into items rather than written down on parchment or vellum. In fact, the number of runestones erected increased massively during this period. The increase in runic inscriptions was so massive that items have been found all over Europe, from Iceland to England – and even as far as Constantinople!

Over 1,100 years ago, a bored Viking soldier carved ‘Halfdan was here’ on a wall of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Hermann Junghans / CC BY SA 3.0)

Over 1,100 years ago, a bored Viking soldier carved ‘Halfdan was here’ on a wall of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Hermann Junghans / CC BY SA 3.0)

The Design of Viking Runes

Since some Viking runes were missing from the Younger Futhark to express all sounds in the language, the Vikings had to use the runes closest to the sound they were supposed to use. There were no runes for the letters O, D, E, or G. The U-rune was used for the O sound, the T-rune for the D sound, the I-rune for the E sound, and the K-rune for the G sound. The runes themselves are generally made up of vertical lines with branches or twigs extending out diagonally, upwards, downwards, or in a curve from them. There are some exceptions to this though.  Runes can be written from left to right or from right to left. Asymmetric runes are flipped, depending on the direction they have been written in.

Viking runes also made their way to Britain in the form of the Anglo-Saxon Futhark. These runes were used to write Old English and Old Frisian. This Futhark actually added between 4 and 8 extra runes, rather than removing runes like the Younger Futhark. This Futhark may have begun as early as the 5th century and lasted until at least the end of the 10th century. During the medieval period, the Younger Futhark developed into the Medieval Futhark, which added some small details, such as dotted runes that sounded different to their undotted partners. Surprisingly, these runes were still in use up until the 20th century in Sweden’s Dalarna province. Viking runes have also had a major influence in the modern fantasy genre, most notably influencing J.R.R. Tolkien’s dwarven script known as Cirth in the Lord of the Rings universe.

The fantasy dwarf Cirth alphabet created by J.R.R. Tolkein was inspired by Viking runes (Jugydmort / CC BY SA 4.0)

The fantasy dwarf Cirth alphabet created by J.R.R. Tolkein was inspired by Viking runes (Jugydmort / CC BY SA 4.0)

Top image: Viking runes have been an object of fascination for centuries, but we can decode their meaning.         Source: La Cassette Bleue / Adobe Stock

By Mark Brophy

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