Nordic Runes: A Comprehensive Guide

by | Apr 28, 2023 | Symbolisms, Vikings | 0 comments

Table of Contents

Introduction To Nordic Runes

A Brief History of Runes and Their Origins

Runes are an ancient system of writing used by various Germanic tribes and the Vikings, dating back to around 150 CE. They were used for inscriptions on various materials, such as stone, wood, and metal, serving practical and magical purposes. The word “rune” originates from the Old Norse word “rún,” which means “secret” or “mystery.” Runes were more than just an alphabet; they were believed to hold mystical and divine powers, capable of providing insights, protection, and influencing events.

Importance of Runes in Norse Culture and Mythology

In Norse culture and mythology, runes played a significant role in religious practices, magic, and history recording. According to the myth, Odin discovered the runes after sacrificing himself by hanging from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights. The Norse people used runes for divination, casting spells, and communicating with the gods. They also inscribed runes on runestones to commemorate important events, people, and heroic deeds.

Overview of Different Runic Systems

Elder Futhark

The most well-known runic system is the Elder Futhark, which consists of 24 runes and is used by Germanic tribes and the Vikings. However, several other runic systems developed over time and across different geographical regions. These include the Younger Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, Gothic, Medieval, Marcomannic, and Dalecarlian Runes. Each system has its unique set of runes, shapes, and forms, reflecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of the people who use them.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the fascinating world of Nordic runes, delving into the history, meanings, and applications of various runic systems, their role in Norse mythology and culture, and their enduring impact on modern society.

Elder Futhark: The Original Nordic Runes

Origins and Development

The Elder Futhark, also known as the Older Futhark or Germanic Futhark, is the oldest runic system, dating back to the 2nd to 8th centuries CE. It is believed to have developed from Old Italic scripts and was used across Germanic-speaking Europe, including Scandinavia. The Elder Futhark runes are named after the first six runes in the alphabet, which spell “Futhark.”

The 24 Runes of the Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark consists of 24 runes, each with its own name, meaning, and symbolic significance. Here is a list of the runes along with their ASCII representations:

First Aett Second Aett Third Aett
Fehu: ᚠ Hagalaz: ᚺ Tiwaz: ᛏ
Uruz: ᚢ Nauthiz: ᚾ Berkano: ᛒ
Thurisaz: ᚦ Isa: ᛁ Ehwaz: ᛖ
Ansuz: ᚨ Jera: ᛃ Mannaz: ᛗ
Raidho: ᚱ Eihwaz: ᛇ Laguz: ᛚ
Kenaz: ᚲ Perthro: ᛈ Ingwaz: ᛜ
Gebo: ᚷ Algiz: ᛉ Dagaz: ᛞ
Wunjo: ᚹ Sowilo: ᛊ Othala: ᛟ


Applications of the Elder Futhark in Divination and Inscriptions

The Elder Futhark runes were used for various purposes, such as inscriptions on monuments, amulets, and everyday items. They were also employed in religious and magical practices, as the Norse people believed that runes held divine power. Runes were used in divination, casting lots, or creating talismans for protection and good fortune.

Inscriptions from the Elder Futhark period can be found on artifacts and runestones throughout Scandinavia, Germany, and other regions where Germanic tribes lived. Many of these inscriptions provide valuable insights into the culture, beliefs, and history of the people who used the runes.

Younger Futhark: The Scandinavian Runes

Evolution from the Elder Futhark

The Younger Futhark, also known as the Scandinavian runes, evolved from the Elder Futhark around the 8th century CE. As the Old Norse language underwent significant changes, the Elder Futhark runes were no longer suitable for representing the new phonemes. Consequently, the Younger Futhark was developed to suit the linguistic needs of the time better. It has fewer runes than the Elder Futhark, with only 16 characters, as some runes came to represent multiple phonetic values.

The 16 Runes of the Younger Futhark

Here are the 16 runes of the Younger Futhark:

First Aett Second Aett Third Aett
Fehu: ᚠ Íss: ᛁ Sól: ᛋ
Uruz: ᚢ Ár: ᛅ Týr: ᛏ
Þurs: ᚦ Hagall: ᚼ Bjarkan: ᛒ
Óss: ᚬ Nauðr: ᚾ Maðr: ᛘ
Reið: ᚱ Íss: ᛁ Lǫgr: ᛚ
Kaun: ᚴ Ár: ᛅ Ingwaz: ᛜ


Historical Context and Usage

The Younger Futhark was the primary runic system used in Scandinavia from the 9th to 11th centuries. During this time, the Viking Age was in full swing, and the Scandinavian people were expanding their influence through trade, colonization, and military conquest. As a result, the Younger Futhark runes spread throughout the regions where the Vikings traveled and settled, such as the British Isles, the Baltic region, and even parts of Russia.

The Younger Futhark runes were used for various purposes, similar to the Elder Futhark. They were inscribed on runestones, which served as memorials for important events, people, and achievements. Additionally, they were used to mark personal belongings, create amulets and talismans, and for magical and religious practices. The Younger Futhark runes were also employed for everyday communication and practical purposes, such as labeling and record-keeping.

The Younger Futhark’s influence started declining around the 11th century when the Latin alphabet replaced the runic script. This transition was mainly due to the Christianization of Scandinavia, which led to increased adoption of the Latin script for religious and administrative purposes. However, the Younger Futhark runes continued to be used alongside the Latin alphabet for several centuries in some regions, mainly for inscriptions and traditional magical practices.

In summary, the Younger Futhark played a crucial role in the Scandinavian region’s cultural, religious, and historical development during the Viking Age. It is an essential part of the Nordic heritage, and its legacy continues to be celebrated and studied by scholars and enthusiasts today.

Anglo-Saxon Futhorc: The English Runes

Adaptation from the Elder Futhark

The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, also known as the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc, is a runic system developed in England and the Frisian region around the 5th century CE. It evolved from the Elder Futhark and was adapted better to represent the phonetic changes in the Old English language. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc has more runes than the Elder and Younger Futhark, with 33 characters.

The 33 Runes of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc

First Aett Second Aett Third Aett Fourth Aett
Feoh: ᚠ Haegl: ᚻ Eoh: ᛇ Ac: ᚪ
Ur: ᚢ Nied: ᚾ Peorð: ᛈ Aesc: ᚫ
Þorn: ᚦ Is: ᛁ Eolh: ᛉ Yr: ᚣ
Os: ᚩ Ger: ᛄ Sigel: ᛋ Ior: ᛡ
Rad: ᚱ Eoh: ᛇ Tir: ᛏ Ear: ᛠ
Cen: ᚳ Peorð: ᛈ Beorc: ᛒ Cweorth: ᛢ
Gyfu: ᚷ Eolh: ᛉ Eh: ᛖ Calc: ᛣ
Wynn: ᚹ Sigel: ᛋ Mann: ᛗ Stan: ᛤ
Tir: ᛏ Lagu: ᛚ Gar: ᚸ
Beorc: ᛒ Ing: ᛝ
Eh: ᛖ Daeg: ᛞ
Mann: ᛗ Edel: ᛟ


Historical Context and Usage

The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc was used primarily in England and the Frisian region from the 5th to the 11th centuries CE. It was employed for various purposes, including inscriptions on monuments, weapons, jewelry, and other objects. The runes were also used for magical and religious practices, such as divination and creating protective amulets.
Some famous examples of Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions include the Franks Casket, the Ruthwell Cross, and the Bewcastle Cross. These artifacts provide valuable insights into the culture, beliefs, and history of the Anglo-Saxon people.

Retro Runes Stainless Steel Viking Ring

Retro Runes Stainless Steel Viking Ring

The use of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc began to decline with the arrival of Christianity in England and the increasing adoption of the Latin alphabet. By the 11th century, runes were mostly limited to inscriptions on gravestones, monuments, and other objects with cultural or historical significance. Despite its decline, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc remains an integral part of English and Frisian history, and its study provides a fascinating glimpse into the early medieval period of these regions.

Modern Runic Revival and Usage

Revival of Interest in Runes

There has been a growing interest in runes and their historical, cultural, and spiritual significance in recent years. This revival can be attributed to various factors, such as the popularity of fantasy literature, movies, and games that incorporate runes and the increasing awareness of pre-Christian European history and spirituality. As a result, runes are now used in various contexts, including art, design, and modern spiritual practices.

Runes in Art and Design

Runes have become popular design elements in various artistic mediums, such as tattoo art, rings, clothing, and home decor. Their unique shapes and historical significance make them a popular choice for those looking to incorporate a touch of ancient symbolism into their personal style or living spaces.

Vegvisir and Runes Stainless Steel Viking Ring

Vegvisir and Runes Stainless Steel Viking Ring

Runes in Modern Spiritual Practices

Many people today are drawn to runes’ spiritual and magical aspects, using them for meditation, divination, and other practices. One popular method is the casting of runes, where the user randomly selects runes from a pouch and interprets their meanings about a specific question or situation. Runes are also often used for meditation and visualization exercises, helping individuals connect with their inner wisdom and the energies of the runes.

Runes in Popular Culture

Runes have entered various forms of popular culture, such as books, movies, and video games. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, have introduced many people to the world of runes through his use of the Cirth script, inspired by real-life runic alphabets. Runes have also appeared in various movies and television series, such as The “Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom,” and are featured in popular video games like “The Elder Scrolls” series and “God of War.”

The Importance of Preserving Runic Heritage

As interest in runes grows, preserving and studying these ancient scripts’ rich history and cultural significance is essential. This helps ensure that their use in modern contexts remains respectful and well-informed, allowing us to appreciate the wisdom and beauty of these ancient symbols while also connecting with our shared human heritage.

Rune Stones Around the World

Rune stones are large, inscribed rocks or boulders with runic writing and often bear commemorative or memorial inscriptions. They can be found in various regions worldwide, mainly in Scandinavia and other regions where Norse and Germanic peoples settled. Here is an overview of some notable rune stones found across the globe:


Rök runestone

Rök runestone

Sweden has the highest concentration of rune stones, with over 2,500 discovered so far. Some famous Swedish rune stones include the Rök Stone, which contains the longest known runic inscription, and the Jarlabanke Runestones, a group of rune stones commissioned by a powerful chieftain.


Jelling Stone at Jelling Church

Jelling Stone at Jelling Church

Denmark has around 250 known rune stones, with many found on the Danish island of Zealand. The Jelling Stones are particularly famous in the town of Jelling. Commissioned by King Harald Bluetooth, these large stones feature inscriptions and intricate artwork that celebrate his rule and the Christianization of Denmark.


Dynna stone

Dynna stone at the Hadeland Folk Museum

Norway has fewer rune stones than Sweden and Denmark, with around 50 discovered. The Dynna Stone, found in the village of Dynna, is one of the most well-known examples. The stone features a complex inscription and is believed to have been raised to memorialize a woman who died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.


Ruthwell Cross

Ruthwell Cross at Ruthwell Church

England has several rune stones dating back to the Viking Age, with the majority found in the northern and eastern regions where Norse settlers established communities. One of the most famous examples is the Ruthwell Cross, a monumental stone cross in Ruthwell, Scotland, featuring inscriptions in both Latin and runes.


Kingittorsuaq Runestone

Kingittorsuaq Runestone found on Kingittorsuaq Island

Greenland, colonized by Norse settlers around the 10th century, is home to several rune stones. The most famous is the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, discovered on Kingittorsuaq Island and featured inscriptions documenting a Norse hunting expedition.

United States

Kensington Runestone

Kensington Runestone

Although the authenticity of some rune stones found in the United States is debated, the Kensington Runestone is a particularly well-known example. This stone features inscriptions in Kensington, Minnesota, that suggest Norse explorers reached North America in the 14th century. However, the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone remains a topic of debate among scholars.

These are just a few examples of rune stones that can be found worldwide, showcasing the rich cultural heritage and history of the Norse and Germanic peoples.

Learning and Understanding Runes

Studying the History and Context of Runes

Studying their historical and cultural context is crucial to better understand runes and their meanings. This involves researching the various runic systems, their origins, and how they evolved. Understanding the societies that used these scripts and their beliefs, practices, and values can provide valuable insights into the symbolism and significance of each rune.

Learning the Runic Alphabet and its Meanings

When learning runes, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the runic alphabet of the specific system you are interested in, whether it’s the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark, or the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. This involves learning each rune’s name, shapes, and associated meanings. Many runes have multiple meanings and interpretations, so it’s important to explore these nuances and develop a well-rounded understanding of each symbol.

Developing Your Intuition and Connection with Runes

Working with runes is not just an intellectual exercise; it also involves developing your intuition and personal connection with the symbols. This can be achieved through meditation, visualization, and other spiritual practices that help you attune to the energies of the runes. Building a strong intuitive connection with the runes will allow you to interpret them more effectively in divination and other spiritual practices.

Practicing Runes in a Respectful and Informed Manner

As you learn and work with runes, it is essential to approach them with respect and reverence for their cultural and historical significance. This means being well-informed about their origins and meanings and understanding the context in which they were used. It is also important to avoid cultural appropriation by acknowledging and respecting the traditions and beliefs of the people who created and used these symbols.

Resources for Learning Runes

Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic PaperbackNumerous resources are available for learning runes, from books and websites to workshops and online courses. Some popular books on runes include “Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic” by Edred Thorsson, “Taking Up the Runes” by Diana Paxson, and “Nordic Runes” by Paul Rhys Mountfort. In addition, many online forums, social media groups, and websites such as Runic Studies are dedicated to the study and practice of runes, providing valuable information and support for those interested in learning about these ancient symbols.

Runes and Their Connection to Modern Languages

The Influence of Runes on the Latin Alphabet

The development of the Latin alphabet was influenced, in part, by the runic scripts used by Germanic tribes. As these tribes came into contact with the Roman Empire, they adopted the Latin alphabet and adapted it to suit their own language needs. The process of adaptation and assimilation led to the creation of several new characters in the Latin alphabet, some of which show apparent similarities to their runic counterparts.

Runes and the Development of the Old English Alphabet

The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc played a significant role in developing the Old English alphabet. As the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity and adopted the Latin script, they combined elements from the runic and Latin alphabets to create a writing system that better represented the sounds of their language. Old English letters, such as þ (thorn) and Ƿ (wynn), can be traced back to their runic origins in the Futhorc.

The Connection between Runes and Modern Germanic Languages

Runes have left a lasting impact on modern Germanic languages, including English, German, and Scandinavian. Many words and names in these languages have etymological roots in the runic inscriptions of the past. Additionally, some linguistic features of these modern languages, such as certain phonetic and grammatical elements, can be traced back to the Runic period.

Runes as a Tool for Linguistic and Cultural Studies

The study of runes provides valuable insights into the historical development of modern Germanic languages and their cultural context. Runic inscriptions are essential for understanding the evolution of these languages and the beliefs, customs, and values of the societies that used them. As such, the study of runes is crucial not only for those interested in language and linguistics but also for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage of the Germanic peoples.

The Enduring Legacy of Runes in Modern Culture

Despite the decline of runic writing systems, runes continue to capture the imagination and interest of people worldwide. Their unique shapes, rich symbolism, and historical significance make them an enduring cultural icon that continues to influence art, design, literature, and spirituality. By studying and appreciating the legacy of runes, we can better understand and connect with our shared human past and the fascinating world of ancient Germanic culture.


The Lasting Impact and Legacy of Nordic Runes

Nordic runes have left an indelible mark on the Germanic peoples’ history, culture, and language. They represent a unique and intriguing chapter in the story of human communication and have played a significant role in shaping the modern world. Through their continued study and appreciation, we can gain valuable insights into the lives, beliefs, and customs of the societies that used them and the evolution of language and writing.

The Continued Fascination with Runes in Modern Times

The mystery and beauty of runes continue to captivate people today, as evidenced by their presence in art, design, literature, and spirituality. The ancient symbols offer a connection to our shared human past and remind us of the rich cultural heritage that has shaped our world. As interest in runes grows, so does our understanding of their meanings, uses, and significance, ensuring that their legacy endures for generations.

Encouragement for Further Exploration and Study of Runic Systems and History

The world of runes is vast and complex, offering countless opportunities for exploration and discovery. By delving deeper into the study of runic systems and their history, we can enrich our understanding of these ancient symbols and develop a greater appreciation for the diverse cultural traditions that have contributed to human history. Whether you are a casual enthusiast or a dedicated scholar, there is always more to learn about the fascinating world of runes and the stories they have to tell.

FAQ On Viking Runes

What do the Nordic runes mean?

Nordic runes are alphabetic symbols used by ancient Germanic and Scandinavian people for writing, communication, and spiritual purposes. Each rune has a specific meaning and symbolism, often related to natural elements, mythology, or human emotions. The meanings of runes can vary depending on the specific runic system, such as the Elder Futhark, Younger Futhark, or Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.

What is the most powerful Norse rune?

It’s difficult to determine the “most powerful” Norse rune, as the power and significance of each rune can be subjective and depend on individual interpretation. However, some runes are often considered to hold great power, such as Sowilo (ᛊ), representing the sun, light, and victory, or Algiz (ᛉ), representing protection and connection with the divine.

Are Viking and Norse runes the same?

Yes, Viking and Norse runes generally refer to the same runic systems used by the Norse-speaking peoples, including the Vikings. The most common systems associated with the Vikings are the Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark, which were used for writing Old Norse and other Germanic languages.

Are Celtic and Norse runes the same?

No, Celtic and Norse runes are not the same. While both are ancient writing systems used by different European cultural groups, they have distinct origins, symbols, and meanings. The Germanic and Scandinavian peoples used Norse runes, while the Celts used a different script called Ogham, characterized by a series of lines and notches inscribed along a central stemline.

How do I find my birth rune?

There is no historical basis for the concept of a birth rune in ancient Norse or Germanic traditions. However, modern rune divination and spirituality practitioners have developed various methods for determining one’s birth rune, often based on astrology or numerology. You can find online resources or books that provide instructions on how to calculate your birth rune using these methods.

What language did Vikings speak?

The Vikings spoke Old Norse, a North Germanic language that was the common language of Scandinavia during the Viking Age (roughly between the 8th and 11th centuries). Old Norse is the ancestor of modern Scandinavian languages such as Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

What Nordic runes to avoid?

There is no inherent reason to avoid any specific Nordic rune, as each rune has its meaning and symbolism. However, it is essential to approach the study and use of runes with respect, understanding, and cultural sensitivity.

Extremist groups have misappropriated some runes and symbols, so it’s essential to be aware of these associations and use runes responsibly and respectfully.

What is the most powerful Viking symbol?

As with runes, determining the most potent Viking symbol is subjective and depends on individual interpretation.

Some popular and powerful Viking symbols include the Valknut, a symbol of Odin and the afterlife; the Vegvisir, a compass-like symbol believed to guide its bearer through storms and bad weather; and the Yggdrasil, the world tree that connects the nine realms in Norse cosmology.

What is Thor’s rune symbol?

Thor, the Norse god of thunder and protector of humanity, is often associated with the rune Thurisaz (ᚦ). This rune represents the power of destruction, chaos, and conflict and the potential for positive change and transformation through struggle.

In the context of Thor, the rune symbolizes his strength, protection, and ability to combat evil and chaos, as well as his role as a force of nature.

How were runes used in divination and magic?

Runes were believed to hold magical and spiritual properties, and they were often used in divination and magical practices by ancient Germanic and Scandinavian people.

In rune casting, a form of divination, the practitioner would draw or cast a set of runes onto a cloth or other surface and interpret the patterns, positions, and relationships between the runes to gain insight into a situation or question.

Runes were also used in magical rituals and spells, inscribed on talismans or amulets, or carved onto objects and tools to imbue them with specific energies, powers, or protections.

Can I learn to read runes for divination?

You can learn to read runes for divination through study and practice. To begin, familiarize yourself with the runes and their meanings, as well as the history and context of the runic system you are interested in.

Many resources, such as books, websites, and workshops, are available to help you learn and understand the runes. As you study, practice your rune casting and interpretation skills, and develop your intuition and connection with the symbols. Remember to approach the practice with respect and sensitivity to runes’ cultural and historical significance.

Are there any modern systems or practices based on runes?

Yes, contemporary practitioners of spirituality, divination, and magic have developed modern systems and practices based on runes. These practices often draw inspiration from traditional runic systems and the cultural context in which they were used while incorporating modern perspectives and interpretations.

Some examples include rune divination, rune magic, and rune yoga, as well as various personal and spiritual growth practices incorporating runic symbolism and energy work. It is essential to approach these modern practices with respect and understanding of their historical and cultural origins.


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