If you’ve ever read Tolkien—or even just briefly thumbed through the pages of ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for a minute—you’re familiar with runes. If you’re here because of #Norsevember, or just like Vikings in general, you’re definitely familiar with them.
Runes are a prominent element of ancient Nordic culture, and their distinct straight-edged forms have sparked such curiosity and wonder that they have become common across the entire fantasy genre. But like any language, there’s a lot to unpack with the runes, and they are far more than just a fun series of symbols.
The History of the Runes
The runes were the written alphabet of the Germanic peoples—but most famously the Vikings—and there were actually a few different variations of runic alphabets. Runes were used for writing for hundreds of years, and much like modern-day English develops variations in how it’s spoken and written over time, so did the runic alphabets—perhaps even more so due to how spread-out the Nordic people were and how much longer it took to traverse those distances then. The main runic alphabets were the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.
The Elder Futhark was the earliest (and arguably most well-known) runic alphabet, and began to be used at least as early as the second century. The name “Futhark” comes from the first six letters, “f, u, þ, a, r, and k”, in a similar way to how the word “alphabet” comes from the Greek letters “alpha” and “beta” (fun fact: the character “Þ” is called “thorn” and was used to represent the “th” sound. It was used in English up until the 1300s, when it was replaced by “th”, but it’s still used in modern Icelandic).
If you were to google “Viking alphabet” or “Viking Runes”, most of your results will be the Elder Futhark, but interestingly enough the actual Vikings would have never used that particular alphabet. By the time Norsemen started to go out raiding on their longships, the Elder Futhark had already been replaced by newer runic alphabets. In British settlements around the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc was developing—meanwhile in Scandinavia, the Younger Futhark was also emerging. By the ninth century, the Elder Futhark was replaced more-or-less entirely by these newer alphabets.
These new runic alphabets were used up until the 1100s, when Latin became the “official” alphabet as a direct result of the Christianization of Scandinavia. However, a fourth runic alphabet developed for the “common folk” to continue to write in the Old Norse language. This new runic alphabet was called “medieval runes” or “futhork”, and while the clergy used Latin, most common folk would use futhork for written communication or to mark goods. This runic alphabet was still in use in some areas of the world—such as Iceland and Sweden—even up to the 1700s and beyond.
The Magic of the Runes
So historically, the runes were first and foremost an alphabet—and there are plenty of artifacts and examples of it being used in that capacity. However, most people familiar with runes nowadays also know them as mystical symbols, imbued with inherent magical powers and divination abilities.
The road from “linguistics” to “witchcraft” is a fascinating one. Runeologists and modern practitioners of heathen and Norse pagan traditions will all tell you that the runes (particularly the popular Elder Futhark) each have individual names and meanings. For instance, the first letter of the Elder Futhark, “Fehu” is not only the letter F, but translates into the word “cattle”, and represents ideas of wealth—particularly “mobile wealth” that was not tied to the land you inherited and lived on. The story of where these meanings come from and how they are ultimately tied to magic starts with rune poems.
Rune poems were short poetic verses—each one describing a particular rune. Most historians and linguistics will agree that the purpose of these was likely a way to remember the runes and their names—think of it like the “ABC song” that children are taught to learn the alphabet. These rune poems are where most of our knowledge of the names and meanings of the runes comes from.
As for the magic, there is some archeological and historical evidence that runes were occasionally used by the Norse people for magical purposes. Certain inscriptions appear to be used as spells, and there are written accounts of lore where a hero will carve runes onto an item to imbue it with magic—such as carving the rune of Tyr on a sword for victory—suggesting that the Norse people did at times apply supernatural properties to the runes based on their names and meanings. There are also Icelandic magical staves—folk-magic symbols that developed in the 17th century from the later runic alphabets. Symbols like the vegvísir and the Helm of Awe are believed by some to be inspired by the runes, as well, though no one can be certain.
But all these historical tidbits are not complete without the mythology of how they were discovered by none other than Odin himself. Odin was famously always seeking out knowledge and trying to understand the mysteries of the world. During his wanderings, he found himself at the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree. There he encountered the Norns—Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld—tending to the tree and carving runes on the wood of its roots that caused ripples throughout the fates off all in the nine realms. Odin asked to be taught the power of these runes, but the Norns refused, explaining that the runes were not theirs to give, but that they would reveal themselves to one who offered them a great sacrifice. Odin decided that there was nothing he could sacrifice that would be greater than himself—the ruler of Asgard and father of the gods—so he pierced his body with his own spear and hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil, sacrificing “himself unto himself”. After nine days and nights, the runes judged Odin’s sacrifice worthy and revealed themselves and their meanings to him. Odin in turn shared this knowledge, as he was sometimes known to do, leading to mankind’s understanding of the runes.
As rich as their history has been, it can be easy to feel disappointed that we don’t know more about runes—and norse culture in general. But for the past few decades, there has been an increase in both interest in ancient norse culture as well as new archeological findings. Even old artifacts and remains are giving us new insights as technology can analyze them better than before.
And the runes are not dead. If you’ve played video games like ‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’ or the newest ‘God of War’; if you’ve watched movies and shows like ‘Vikings’, Marvel’s ‘Thor’, or even ‘Frozen’; or if—like I said before—you’ve thumbed through Tolkien’s work; you can still find them.
And remember the Medieval Futhork I mentioned that persisted even after Latin took over? It continued to evolve; in the middle of Sweden lies Dalarna County—considered the “last stronghold of the Germanic script”. People in this county have been writing in a runic alphabet called Dalecarlian runes, which descended from the Medieval Futhork, in what seems to be an unbroken tradition since the Middle Ages all the way into the 1900s.
So don’t worry—runes aren’t going anywhere any time soon.