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RUNES - part 1

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The word “rune” itself is well known to most people in our cultural sphere, along with the set of symbols it refers to.. Before embarking on an analysis of the symbols themselves, however, it might be useful to look closer at the actual word “rune” and its history, together with the different variations of the word and the meaning thereof in different cultures and languages.

The word “rune” is rooted in the Germanic word “run”, which can be translated as both “secret” and “that which has been whispered”. When analyzing other indoeuropean languages, we see that “rún” in old Celtic can be translated as both “secret”, “mystery”, “intention” and “love”. In old English, the words “rūn” and “rhin” mean “mystery”, “secret” and “secret writing”, while the Lithuanian “runoti” translates to both “to cut (with a knife)”, and “to speak”. The Finnish word for rune is “riimukirjan”, or “carved letter”, and another interesting Finnish word is “runo”, meaning “poem”. This is a Finnish loan-word deriving from the same root as the modern English “rune”: the old Germanic “runo”, which means both “secret” and “letter”. Another fascinating theory postulates that the word itself derives from the proto-indoeuropean “reue”, which means “to open”, “to dig” and “to make room”

Regarding the meaning of all of these related words, we will highlight two important translations that we see recurring, namely “letter” or “carved sign”, and “mystery”. This text will revolve around these two translations of the term. The first part of the text will discuss the runes as a system of writing, whereas the second part will approach the runes from a spiritual perspective.

It’s natural to approach the first of these meanings, which translates the word rune to “letter” or “carved sign”, from an academic perspective, treating the runes as a system of writing. This perspective tends to be materialistic and historic in orientation, and is usually not overly focused on topics such as runic magic, understandably. It might be tempting, for those of us who are attracted to the Norse and indoeuropean spiritual tradition, to skip that part and move on to the mystical stuff. One might fear that the magic of the runes will be stripped away, and that historical facts will negate one’s own spiritual convictions. We ask you not to be afraid of this, and to be patient for a little longer and endure the academic part of the essay first. We will approach the Runes spiritually in part two of this article, but will for now give the scholars their due.

It’s a common trope that the Germanic tribes first learnt to read and write during the christianization, in between the lectures on sin and remorse they received from the Roman church. Although this in some, isolated cases, is true, it’s a gross simplification. Many Germanic tribes had their own written languages, alphabets that consisted of singular letters we today recognize as runes. We moreover know that runes were used to write among the Gothic, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, English, Frisian and Frankish peoples prior to the christianization, in addition to among the central-Germanic tribes.

The runes were not made to write, in the the sense that we understand writing today, The old english word “writan”, from which we get “write”, means “to carve”, and the old english “rædan”, or Norse ráða, can be translated to “the interpretation of carved text. The runes were originally designed to be carved into wood, something the symbols themselves illustrate. . This method of communication was cheap, simple and practical. Most germanic men carried a knife in their belts, and a piece of wood could be picked up anywhere. Picking up a branch of wood, shaping it into a flat plank, and then carve it with the same knife you used to shape it was relatively quick business. The practicality of this method becomes especially evident when contrasted with the christian method of writing: flaying a cow or a sheep, tanning the leather, cutting into appropriate pieces, making a pen out of a bird’s feather, producing ink out of metallic salts, bile or soot, and then proceeding to the actual writing of the text, is quite a time-consuming process. It’s clear however, that writing an entire book with rune-sticks is not ideal either. For short, concrete messages, however, rune-sticks were ideal. If you misspelled a part of the message, you could simply cut the letter away and start over, writing the correct rune on the now smooth wooden surface. When the stick had served its purpose, it could be used as firewood, showing the long tradition of German efficiency!

Unfortunately, we don’t have any rune-sticks from early history or from England. Woodwork, in most types of soil, disintegrates quickly. Excavations done in the Bergen area, in the western part of Norway, however, have given us a number of rune-sticks from the 12th century. These sticks were used as markers of ownership for bought goods. Some of these were simple, everyday notes, while others were more complicated messages. An example of the latter is a message requesting ships to serve the king, requested by a norseman by the name Sigurðr Lavarðr, who also is known from the norse sagas. The message, loosely translated, reads as follows:

“Sigurðr Lavarðr sends god’s greetings, and his own. The king has need of your ships, your equipment and your weapons (...). My question here is whether you will aid us. If you do so, you will have my friendship now and forever.”

Because the runes originally were designed to be carved into wood, the earliest runic alphabets consisted solely of straight vertical and diagonal lines. Horizontal lines could split the fibres of the wood and were therefore avoided. Most of these runes had at least one vertical line, in addition to diagonal lines extending from this “stem”. The evidence from the earliest runic alphabets we have, the elder futhark, shows that there were variations in style between different groups of people. The elder futhark as we know it today, shown in the diagram below, is a synthetic reconstruction based on several such sources.

This is also the reason you will find the runes Othala and Dagaz (numbers 23 and 24 on the diagram above), in opposite places from time to time.

Each of the runes in the elder futhark has been given reconstructed proto-germanic names in modern times, based on the names of the corresponding runes from the anglo-saxon Futhorc that was used in england from the 5th century on. These names are taken from the anglo-saxon rune poem from the 8th-9th century. These names can make the mouths of those of us longing for magical interpretations of runes water. The name of the 12th rune in the elder futhark, “yera”, means “good year” or “harvest”, while the 8th rune in the elder futhark is called “wunjo”, or “joy”. It is therefore tempting to think that all we need to do for a good harvest and joy is to carve the “yera” and “wunjo”-runes into a piece of wood, drip some blood onto it and put it under our pillows before we go to bed. However tempting this might be, it’s not academically defensible. The runes, as we will see in the second part of this essay, had magical properties and mystical uses, but none of the sources describe this specific method of runic magic, which is commonly sold as runic magic in the modern world. For the time being, however, we will spend some more time on the linguistic aspect of the runes.

A rune stone from the 7th century found at Stentoften, Blekinge in modern day sweden carries the inscription hathuwolAfRgAfj. This inscription is long and quite elusive, and can be hard to interpret for modern readers. If we segment the inscription into smaller components, however, we might easier be able to decode the message. Segmenting the inscription into three components, we get the following:

“hathuwolAfR gAf j”

The two first components can be understood as “Hathuwulf (a name), gave”. The third component is a single letter, namely the rune “yera”, discussed earlier. In this text, the single yera rune can taken as short-hand for its name, which we remember means “good year” or “harvest”, and with this we can read the full inscription as “hathuwolAfR gAf jera”. The inscription in other words state that Hathuwulf brought prosperity to an area in the form of a good year with a bountiful harvest. We also see in this inscription a continuation of the indoeuropean idea that a good leader is synonymous with prosperity!

Another example of the practical application of the names of the runes can be seen in the old gothic Pietrosa-necklace. This necklace is engraved with the phrase “gutaniowihailag”. Yet again, the inscription reads much easier by segmentation into several components: “gutani o wi hailag”. Gutani means “the Goths”, “wi” means “incorruptible” and “hailag”, as you might have guessed, means “holy”. In the midst of these words we find a single rune, namely “o”, which is named Othala. Othala means “heirloom”, and is still used in modern Norwegian “odel” and “adel”, meaning heritage and nobility. All in all, we can thus render the inscription as “gutani othala wi hailag”, a message stating that the necklace is “the incorruptible and holy heirloom of the Goths”.

The Pietrosa-necklace, with inscription.

In the same way, we find that single runes, in several places, are used as short-hands for the runes’ names in several anglo-saxon manuscripts from the medieval era. This is especially prominent with the M-rune, which was used as short-hand for “man”, given that the name of the rune meant “man”. We thus find christian manuscripts about Solomon the King writing his name as “SALO-M”, using an M-rune, or Mannaz, to write Solomon.

The earliest runic inscriptions that we know of is assumed to be from the late third century. These inscriptions show a mastery of the alphabet and a variation in technique that suggests that the runic alphabet in question had been in use for at least a century prior to the date of the inscription. This places the origin of the elder futhark close to the year 0 according to our modern calendar. It is naturally quite hard to date exactly when something was carved into a rock, but the dating of the rune stone in questions are generally held to be quite precise.

The Snoldelev-stone from the 9th century in denmark is dated with runic and linguistically typological dating methodology. This method is in other words a combination of comparing the language and runes on the stone with other findings that have been easier to date, and through that comparison ascertaining an approximate time when the stone was carved. The inscriptions read «Gunwalds sten, sonaʀ Roalds, þulaʀ a Salhøgum». This text is a bit easier for modern readers to decode: “This is the stone of Gunwald, son of Roald, Thule of Salhaugen”. Thule is assumed to be a title, and can be seen in light of the old norse “thula”, which means “to recite”. The word is cognate to the later old norse “thulr”, which described the role of a “wise man”, often associated with chieftains and royalty. The Snoldelev-stone is special, because it in addition to being a runic inscription, is marked with a horn-triskelion and a swastika, assumed to have been carved at the same time as the runes, in addition to a much older sun-cross.

The Snoldelev stone, with its runic inscription, sun-wheel, triskele and swastika.

The swastika.

A triskele.

The sun-cross symbol is familiar from many bronze-age indoeuropean cultures. We should be cautious as to interpreting the reason why a huge stone with a sun-cross later was used to carve runes by the descendants of the bronze-age tribe in question, but will point to the fact that the swastika, like the sun-cross, has been a prominent and powerful solar symbol for many cultures throughout time. This might suggest a continuation or similarity between the two symbols: sun-cross and swastika. The wise man Gunwald could probably explain the symbolism to us in depth, if we were lucky enough to have him with us today. Without him, we will have to rely on our own educated guesses and intuition.

As the Germanic languages developed, so did the runes. The anglo saxon rune alphabet, the Futhorc, has already been mentioned, and in addition to this, there arose several local variations of the younger futhark. The younger futhark is a simplification of its predecessor, consisting of only 16 symbols. This was by far the most widespread runic alphabet in the viking age, even though we often see the elder futhark being portrayed as “viking writinge”. As christianity, with more or less violence, established itself as the dominant religion in Europe, the Latin alphabet became more prominent than the runic one. The latin written language challenged the simple younger futhark, which was later reformulated in what we today know as the medieval runes. This runic alphabet consisted of 29 symbols, and was used from the 13th all the way up to the 18th century, in Dalarna, Sweden.

A manuscript written in medieval runes.

All in all, we see that the runes as a written language was used by the Germanic tribes prior to christianization, as not necessarily as a result of contact with the Greek or Roman world. It must also be noted that it is incredibly hard to pin-point which culture influenced which regarding this subject, as languages, both written and oral, tend to mutually influence each over time. This process is rarely one-directional, and the notion that the Germanic tribes “took” their written language from the Romans is tied to the traditional academic perspective on the Germanic peoples as underdeveloped and uncivilized barbarians, which we now know not to be the case.

As to the question of where in the world the runes first emerged, there has been, and still is, much debate. The obvious similarities between the elder futhark and the roman alphabet lead early scientists to believe that the runes first emerged amongst the germanic tribes due to proximity and contact with the Roman empire. The assumption here was that the latin alphabet was observed and copied by the barbaric Germanic tribes, who made a simplified version suited to their barbaric literary intentions. Runic inscriptions have been found in eastern Europe, Romania, central Germany and Russia that can be used to support this theory. The similarity between the runes “berkana” and “sowilo”-runes and the Greek letters “beta” and “sigma” can be used to further support this perspective. In 1920, a theory was proposed that argued that the origins of the runes could be in southern Switzerland, and northern Italy, based on the similarities between the elder futhark and old alphabetic symbols found in the valleys of those areas. Later on, a theory argued that the runes originated in Denmark, not surprisingly proposed by a Danish scientist. He argued that due to the proximity between southern Jylland in Denmark and the Roman empire, one could assume that the runes emerged there.

The issue of the origin of the runes might seem like a mystery, but for those of us who have heard the Speech of the High One, the Havamal, the answer to this question is strikingly simple:

We got the runes from Odin! This aspect of the runes will form the basis of the second part of this post, where we will discuss modern runic magic, along with a traditional approach to the mysteries of the runes and their magic.

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