Elin aka MooseLady
What are runes?
Runes are historical characters whose purpose is to reproduce and mimic certain sounds to create words and meanings. They are in that sense comparable to any other alphabet. The oldest finds of rune carvings date back to the 2nd century.
Geographically the runes have been used mostly around Scandinavia, it is also in Scandinavia where most archaeological objects with rune carvings have been found. There are no older sources of texts written in their indigenous language than the rune carvings (besides of course Latin, Ancient Greek and a ceramic tablet found in ancient Bulgarian).
Since Scandinavia is the rune’s home and since that is where finds go back to the 2nd century, this post will mainly focus on the Scandinavian use of these characters. However, we will absolutely show and inform about different runic alphabets other than the ones found in Scandinavia. If you have ever wondered about what runes used to be, what they are used for nowadays and most in between - welcome and enjoy!
Did you know?
Runes have their pointy shapes because of them being carved into wood or stone. During the times where the runes were used there was no access to softer material to note them down on. Which also explains why the rune staves aren’t carved horizontally, since that would crack, break or melt together with the veins of the wood.
Runes and language
The first language of the runes (elder futhark) is still somewhat of a mystery, since we can’t be 100% sure exactly how it sounded like. Proto-Norse (a form of a Proto-Germanic language) is the foundation for what the Nordic languages would become later on.
The first runes to be found were found on a small comb in Denmark. It is known as the Vimose Comb and has been dated back to around the year 160 AD.
The runic inscription has been translated to the word “harja”, which could refer to the comb’s owner. It has also been theorised to mean “warrior”. The word “harja” has also been found carved on a runestone in Sweden (Sö 32), this stone dates back to around the 5th century.
Even though the earliest finds of this language are from the 2nd century, we can assume that the runes are much older, since the first finds show a defined way and an awareness of using these characters.
Earliest carved runes found on a comb from Denmark around 160 AD
The language had changed drastically during the 6th- and 7th- centuries, which also naturally changed the rune’s sounds and shapes (younger futhark).
Theories implies that traveling and the need for broader communication might have been the indicators for these changes.
A society where you can communicate is a society that expands culturally. If a society can also add characters in order to communicate, that’s a sign of an expanding community and dynamic times taking form.
The first changes we can see in the language through the runes is that the words were shortened down (examples: stainaR -> stæin, wulfaR -> ulfR, jara -> ar), which maybe also shows why the runes became fever in number.
The next big change regarding the Nordic language and the runes came during the medieval times. The medieval runes were made to fit the Latin alphabet, so new runes were created in order to have the same number of runes as Latin letters.
All of these different looking runes were not included in the rune row however, so even if the runes expanded in number, the official number of futhark runes kept on being 16, like in the Viking age.
Did you know?
The teachings and knowledge about runes has its own field of expertise. It is called ‘runology’ and has a long history in Sweden. There it dates back to before the 16th century but became more organised and specialised under the lead of the founder of The Swedish National Heritage Board: Johannes Bureus.
Futharks and finds
Finally, we have reached the part of our journey with the runes where we will address the futharks!
Now that we have the explanation for why the runes look as they do in different ages, it is more than time to show these runes in a more organized manner.
A futhark is the collection of rune characters from a specific era. It works easily explained as an alphabet, where the characters come in a specific order (which can vary here and there).
The expression “futhark” is used because of the six first runes of these “alphabets”, they spell out ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲ (or ᚠᚢᚦᛅᚱᚴ ) which translates into “futhark”.
Because of various archaeological finds such as the Kylver-stone (Sweden), the Vadstena-bracteate (Sweden), and the Grumpa-bracteate (Sweden). On all of these finds the elder futhark is written down in a specific order.
The Kylver-stone (4th century) is the oldest find of a fully carved down elder futhark. The oldest find containing younger futhark runes is quite macabre.
It is the skull fragment from Ribe (Denmark), where the younger futhark runes are carved on the inside of a human skull (8th century). The oldest find of the complete younger futhark can however be seen on the Gørlev stone (Denmark), this stone is from the 9th century.
The three main groups of Scandinavian runes
Even more runes!
Above we have explored the most common groups of futharks. But since we are exploring the world of the runes and the futharks, let us look at even more exciting examples!
It is theorised that these runes came from Frisia (what is now parts of Germany and the Netherlands) to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, hence they are also called Anglo-Frisian runes.
The Futhorc takes different shapes depending on location and point in time.
These types of runes are mostly found in Hälsingland, Sweden. They are mostly found on stones. Wood carvings with these runes are very few.
The Short-twig runes were also commonly used in Norway (Oseberg ship, 9th century).
Believe it or not, but the beardy faces you can see on the wooden stick (late 11th century, Bergen, Norway) are runes. The beard-staves to the left represents where in the Futhark the rune belongs, and the beard-staves to the right represents which one of these runes of the family it is more specifically. The same principle can be used on other secret runes. It is however very hard to read these types of runes and they are absolutely for the more hardcore rune-enthusiast to decipher.
Where do the runes come from?
“I know I hung on that windy tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises.
None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence” – Odin, Hávamál
The Hávamál is a collection of old Norse wisdom that can be found in the Poetic Edda written down during the 13th century.
It is however theorised that its content is much older and that its tales have been a part of the oral tradition in Scandinavia before it was ever written down.
In the poems we are told that Odin was the one to give the runes to the humans of Midgard after discovering their secrets when he hung from the worldtree Yggdrasil.
If these tales are much older than the 13th century, it is possible that the people living through the 7th and 8th centuries didn’t know either where the runes came from originally, and these stories could be an expression of that.
Especially when the earliest form of runes might have been difficult to understand as well for them, since the evolution of the language drastically had changed at a fast pace.
The Nolebystone and Sparlösastone (Sweden) are two of these runestones whose carvings mention how the runes are originating from the gods.
Sparlösastone in Sweden
But if not from Odin – then who and where?The discussion of where the runes came from originally is a topic that keeps being debated by runologists. There are constantly new archaeological discoveries being made and with this there are naturally new theories taking form.
The three most discussed theories where the runes originate from are as follows:
It is very hard to pinpoint of course.
When does borrowing shapes or letters become their own, after being inspired from another source than their own language?
Since cultures constantly change and language evolves uncontrollably during many periods of human history, it might seem an impossible task to know where to start with trying to find the origin of the runes.
“Impossible” is however a word enthusiasts and experts never have believed in, luckily.
Will we ever get a completed answer to when and how the runes came to be?
Maybe one day.
Then what – where did the runes go?
To understand why the runes are not used as the common style of writing (carving) anymore we must understand two things:
- What the runes were mainly used for
- What went on in the society during the 11th and 12th centuries in Scandinavia
Every great era must end eventually, and this also meant that the people in Scandinavia stopped raising runestones during the 11th and 12th century to honour their deceased loved ones.
Before the 11th century it was more common to raise a runestone close to different roads and paths where people would easily see them. The bodies of the deceased were often buried in a burial field close by to the farm.
Did you know?
There are messages of love carved in runes from medieval Sweden. On a wooden weaving-knife (Lödöse, Sweden) the runes say: - Think of me, I think of you. Love you me, I love you.
Somewhere during the early 11th century and during the 12th century the Scandinavians, in different capacities, stopped burying their loved ones in the burial fields. The dead were instead brought to the cemetery. In a cemetery the deceased were often given a tombstone instead of a raised runestone near a road.
Picture of a miniature church showing runestones used as tombstones
Absolutely not the case! Even though the runestones and burial ceremonies changed during the early medieval times the usage of runes didn’t decrease. Instead of carving runestones, the carving continued with different objects, some made out of wood. There were messages being sent back and forth, secrets shared, prayers carved down and the names of the owners of different tools.
Did you know?
There are also medieval messages in runes, on wooden sticks (Bryggen, Norway) saying things like: - Lovely c*nt, let d*ck fill it.
However – wooden materials aren’t spared by time passing by as well as stones. So not many of these wooden objects have been found. There have been many finds of medieval messages carved in runes made on metal-, horn- and bone- objects.
Baptismal font showing runes being used on it
It took a couple hundreds of years for the Latin alphabet to become the norm in Scandinavia.
When Christianity in Scandinavia became more and more common during the 10th, 11th and 12th century, so did the art of writing the much softer shaped Latin letters on parchment.
Since most common people back then had easy access to knives, it was both easier and cheaper continuing to carve runes on tree sticks.
There is absolutely a transition taking place in early medieval Scandinavia, both with how the society was changing in terms of religion, tradition and with the usage of runes. Some finds from these times have a mix of runes written in Latin and not old Norse, but also runes and letters being used together.
Gravelid from Ugglum showing latin and runes together
During the mid-14th century, the art of carving runes disappeared in most parts of Scandinavia. If the sudden decrease around that time was just a natural transition or if it was connected to the horrific ravage of the black plague, we do not know.
There is no period in time that is completely black and white, this also goes for the transition from runes to Latin letters.
As earlier mentioned there is something called the Dal-runes used in Dalarna (Sweden) up until the 19th century. These runes were mixed with the Latin letters and had different shapes than the medieval runes.
The Dal-runes tells us about the starvation taking place during the 18th century. Someone has carved: “On this table a lot of food could be stored. One could be happy to have as much. Amen.” on a wooden table.
Rune carving was also spared longer on the island of Gotland (Sweden) and in Iceland. This tradition was upheld until around the 16th century.
A table showing Dal-runes
Believe it or not, the usage of runes never completely went away and is on the rise again. There have been more modern usages of the runes. Even though we are having a hard time pinpointing where they came from, we can undoubtedly talk about where they have been recently.
The names of the runes - poetry and calendars
The names of the runes is a topic that comes up time and time again, whenever one searches for information about them.
These names have later become connected with mysterious and magical meanings, which we will go through more in the “Magic and binding” section of this post.
The names of the runes however originate from rune poems that have been saved from England, Norway and Iceland.
These rune poems could originate from different points in time, we will be transparent about what we know and what we have no idea about so far (2021 AD).
That copy from 1705 is the base of what we know about the Old English rune poem today. It contains 16 similar runes to the other two poems, 8 elder futhark runes and 5 Anglo-Saxon runes (these 5 have nothing to do with Scandinavian runes at all).
The Old English rune poem covers the sounds and “names” of the 29 Anglo-Saxon runes, while the Norwegian and Icelandic poems cover the sounds and “names” of the 16 runes of the younger futhark.
What is fascinating is that these different rune poems tie into each other and have more similarities than differences, when it comes to the 16 runes they have in common.
Now when we have the background of what these poems are, let’s talk about the names of these runes.
It seems like just as when children today use rhymes to remember the alphabet, humans back in the day used rhymes to remember the sounds of the runes.
These poems could connect the ᛋ-rune (s) with the word sól (sun) like this:
The rune is followed with a poem whose first word starts with the same sound of the mentioned rune.
If there were other local poems going around depending on dialect differences, we don’t know. Since these are the poems we have to rely on in today’s world, the runes have been named thereafter.
The rune calendars are viewed as a Swedish invention introduced during the 13th century (probably earlier), but mostly used from 16th to 17th centuries. They spiked in popularity again during the end of 18th and early 19th century.
In some of these calendars Christian holidays are included and some are without holidays.
These calendars have been carved on horns, wood and bone.
The oldest find of one calendar is a so-called “rune stave” from the 13th century. This stave was found in Nyköping, Sweden.
Picture of a rune calendar from 1778
One of the greatest reasons why people do mistakes and continue to feed upon misconceptions, continue to feed on errors and historical fantasy is precisely because many people do not have access to education...
.. education should - must be accessible to everyone - it is a right of every human person, and frankly the world would be a far better place if people had access to education and a lot of mistakes would not have to happen again and again.” – Arith Härger, 2021
“Tistel – mistel- kistel” is an expression that can be found on runestones and church walls around Scandinavia. It is written somewhat like this: “ᚦ ᛘ ᚴ ᛁᛁᛁ ᛋᛋᛋ ᛏᛏᛏ ᛁᛁᛁ ᛚᛚᛚ”. And these runes have had people scratching their heads, since there is a “rule” with viking age runestones; that they never repeat the same runes after each other.
However, both in Sweden and Denmark this exact sequence of runes has been found on stones. On the Gørlev stone (Denmark) the carver makes sure to mention, after this repetitive sequence of runes, that “I placed the runes right/in order”.
On the Ledsberg stone (Sweden) this sequence shows up yet again.
Tistel-mistel-kistel are the words you get from deciphering the sequence (these are a form of hidden runes).
What the function of this spell would have had is discussed. Maybe it is to keep the deceased safe from graverobbers (there are other examples of curses written on runestones where the carver is threatening graverobbers), or maybe as protection to keep the deceased from walking again. After all, no one wants to have a draugr at their door.'
In Norway there is a beautiful stave church in Borgund, which was built somewhere around the 12th century.
Apart from that this church is beautiful inside and out, it also contains four different variations of the tistel-mistel-kistel sequence.
One of them is carved into logs of the church, and it spells out with runes: “Tistil mistil ok hn thirithi thistil”, this translates to “Tistel, mistel, and the third thistel”.
An illustration of a Draugr
The answer might be underneath a loose stone, which was found on the church’s floor. It was by the looks of it a place where women buried unwanted children. They were placed into the church in small chests, under the floor, and maybe the tistel-mistel-kistel above their hidden away bodies would give them peace?
An illustration of a stave-church
Runemagic on Iceland and something small on bindrunes
In Iceland there are numerous accounts mentioning runemagic. As mentioned above, in Hávamál, there’s a mention of how Odin learned the runes and then gave them to the humans. In the saga of Bósi and Herraud (14th century) there’s a mention of the magical rune formula. Also the saga of Erik Skallagrimsson contains magical runes (13th century). They can heal sicknesses and pain, however they also can be used for bad intentions. In the Erik Skallagrimssons saga; a young man named Egil tries to cure a sick woman by carving ten different runes on a whalebone and putting it in her bed. When she gets sicker he feeds the bone to the flames and then creates a new one with different runes.
Now is a perfect moment to bring up facts and what we do know about rune magic. There are not reliable and authentic sources older than the viking age or the medieval times about rune magic. So those are the sources we have to keep in mind when talking about these things. When it comes to the elder futhark and the migration period we have no reliable source material.
The magical runes that have been hidden away on the inside of clothes, carved on door frames, or carved on small wooden chips - looks far from the usual runes.Here we have examples of magical takes on ᚦ, ᚼ and ᛏ.
Magic symbols that bare similarities to runes
The idea is to bring out the inner meaning of the runes and make them stronger in their qualities.
They could be hidden through spit or other body fluids, so people wouldn’t spot them, and also be used in something called “blótspónn”.
Blótspónn included runes being painted on wooden pawns in visible body fluids, such as blood.
Before they were to be used they would include a full futhark (so at least 16 pawns), and then also some extra characters depending on who and what the purpose was. These pawns were then thrown and from there the ritual would follow.
It is wiser to say that we know less than more when it comes to these types of things, just because the sources are so limited.
In Tacitus Germania (written around the 1st century) there is a mention of activities, much like the blótspónn, going on in Germany around the 1st century:
Now to the small part about bind runes. Bind runes can be found at a couple of rune carvings. They are often confused with the Icelandic Galdrastafir (magical staves). Galdrastafirs are not runes or bind runes. A bind rune is a rune that has two runes merged into one. As for example on a runestone in Bolum (Sweden) where ᛅ + ᛒ turn into one rune, a bind rune.
Example of bindrunes on real runestones
Modern uses of the Runes
When writing about the modern usage of runes, we have to address the big, pink, tooting elephant in the room – the modern political use of them.
It does not often pass anyone by; there was an intense usage of runes during WW2 (1939-1945).
Amongst other ones, the ᛋ rune and the ᛟ has been used heavily in different forms and ways during these times.
Some quirks has also been added to these runes (as is the case with the ᛟ with two wings added at its bottom) which has created new forms of symbols. These symbols do not have a longer running history than from this point in time during and after World War 2.
It is therefore important to know the difference between historical futhark runes and newer adaptations of them.
This has also inspired more modern political movements to use runes to promote their own agendas and ideologies. ᛘ and ᛏ are also runes that has lately been used for these purposes. No matter who these people are or what they promote, one thing is fact – no one owns the runes. Education will always be the solution to end misconceptions and mistakes to these things.
The big mix of Ragnar Lothbrok, assassins and mystical music
The hit TV-series “Vikings” tells the tale about Ragnar Lothbrok and his adventures. Anyone who has an interest in Norse history will have heard about this series, and probably have one or two things to say about the historical accuracy of the show’s different elements.
Even though the series does not give us anything in terms of runestones, it does display runes in different ways. The most noticeable usage of the runes in this series are the big runic tattoos running across the bodies of these TV-vikings.
So the question that many get from watching these types of shows is
The honest answer is that we do not know. There has been no finds from the 8th - 11th centuries to give credit to this. However, there is an account about tattooed northerners by the Arabic observer Ibn Fadlan (10th century). He notes down in his Risala:
There is however no clear mention of runes in this encounter. What we do know is that humans during this time made “teeth tattoos'”, which meant that they carved different lines on their teeth.
Illustration of Floki from the TV series "Vikings". Showing rune tattoos on the side of his head.
Recently a game called “Assassin's creed – Valhalla” launched (2020 AD).
In this game you play as the viking hero Eivor, whose mission is to lead her/his clan of Norwegian vikings to the lands of the Anglo-Saxons. This game has the magical approach to runes. In the game you can find different gems with runes, and they will with their magical powers upgrade your armor and weapons.
Remember the Icelandic rune poem? - The Icelandic rune poem is what makes out the lyrics to the band Heilung’s hit song “Norupo”. The Norupo song is the 15th century poem word for word, put into a rhythmic beat and song.
In the music video they have also included elements of magic and some of the magical takes on runes from Iceland.
Wardruna is yet another band where runes take a central role in the music. They have songs inspired after the rune poems naming for each rune, such as the songs “Fehu” (ᚠ), “Tyr” (ᛏ), “Uruz” (ᚢ) and “Raido” (ᚱ) to name a few.
Illustration of Heilung.
Social media and community
No one can deny the importance of social media today. It plays a huge role in spreading a sense of community, knowledge and curiosity when it comes to the runes.
A big part of the community online who dabbles with the runes are often very creative and many are different forms of crafters and creators. Just as this page focuses on design and jewellery, many crafters focus on a modernised way of spreading and creating - with help of the runes.
Be it woodcarvers, tattoo artists, photographers, makeup artists, illustrators, musicians, writers, or any other creative ambition – the “norse / history” community online does its part in keeping the runes alive in today's world. Historically accurate or not, it creates a new historical use for them for the future which is filled with creativity and positivity.
A quick mention of modern runestones
The tradition of raising runestones might have ended somewhere during the early medieval era, doesn’t mean it remained so. There are a lot of examples all throughout Europe of modern runestones and replicas placed in various countries.
This new way of raising runestones also plays a part in keeping this tradition alive. Thousands of years from now on, maybe these runes on these stones will tell the future of us and who we were.
An example of a modern runestone found in Sweden
An example of a modern runestone found in Estonia
An example of a modern runestone found in England
Knowledge and science - always in motion
This article was written in 2021, which means that all the information in this article might change.
Questions we are one archaeological find away from getting answers to; can be just around the corner.
We will publish all the sources used for writing this article, some of which are in Swedish and not English.
The goal with this article is to give a fair and informed image of what the runes are and how they have been and are being used. We have been transparent with what is known and what lacks when it comes to source material. All speculations and theories are explained as such, and it should be taken in consideration that these theories might not be the true facts.
I would like to thank all of you who have made it this far – Skål and thank you for your time.
Best wishes – Elin aka MooseLady
1. The Vimose comb – Someone has carved “Harja” on a comb dated back to the year 160 AD, this is the oldest runic find.
2. The Berga-stone – Runestone in Sweden from the migration period, raised around the years 375-570 AD.
3. The Gallehus horns – Golden horns from 400 AD, these horns contain the longest sentence in elder futhark
4. Vadstena bracteate – Golden bracteate made around 500 AD, contains the whole elder futhark rune row
5. Ribe skull fragment – 725 AD century, oldest find containing the younger futhark
6. Gørlev stone – 800 AD, the oldest find containing the full younger futhark and the tistel-mistel-kistel sequence of runes.
7. The Gokstadsship oar – 890 AD, a mask carving which is also usually found on runestones from this time
8. U80 rune carving – from around 1000 AD, big rune carving containing an impressive number of runes from the younger futhark.
9. Högstenagaldern – 1100 AD, bronze sheet containing runes casting a spell to prevent the dead from rising
10. Södervidinge church baptism font – 1100 AD, the medieval runes are being used in the churches
11. Runestave – 1691 AD, a more modernised way of keeping track of time with the runes being used as calenders.
12. Bluetooth – during the late 1990 AD technology reaches a point where Bluetooth is introduced and the icon is using a bindrune containing the younger futhark runes ᚼ ᛒ.
Nordisk runläsebok, Rask Lars, 1996
Lägg Runor, Om din framtid, En nordisk variant av tarot, Hansson Carl-Gustaf, 2006
Runor, Mästarens handbok, Enoksen Lars Magnar, 2015
Vikingarnas egna ord, Enoksen Lars Magnar, 2003
On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script, Typology and Graphic Variation in the Older Futhark, Odenstedt Bengt, 1990