Runes are heavily associated with Vikings. Not only did they leave thousands of runestones behind them that still dot the Scandinavian landscape, but they also carved runes during their expeditions, forever marking Greek statues and walls in magnificent temples. What are the runes, where did they come from, and do they possess magical powers?
Runes are shrouded in mystery and have influenced a lot of people, ranging from J.R.R. Tolkien to modern practitioners of magic. Where do they come from and when did runes appear for the first time?
It’s a huge topic so we’ll settle with the basics.
Fittingly the word ‘Rune’ originates from the Germanic root run-, that means “secret” or “whisper”. A lot of people are still intrigued by them and it’s easier than ever before to find quick information using the internet. Unfortunately, the information available on the internet (and in a lot of books for that matter) isn’t always complete, or even correct. This misinformation is often mistaken by many as the historical truth.
One of the main problems is that the runes taking up most of the space weren’t even used during the Viking Age. Another problem is that the information available usually describes how these pre-Viking Age runes are used in modern divination systems. In other words – it’s quite easy to be misinformed if you’re interested in Viking Age runes.
ORIGIN OF THE RUNES
Mythology vs History
In Norse mythology it was the god Odin who was the first one to gain access to the runes through an act of self-sacrifice. After hanging for nine days and nine nights from the world tree Yggdrasil he finally saw the runes swirling around in the dark waters below.
What if we’d set mythology aside and look at historical evidence…what does it tell us?
It all began with the Germanic tribes, from as far up north as Scandinavia, that came in contact with Roman culture through their merchants and warbands. Upon returning to their northern lands they brought with them many impressions that in turn influenced and changed Germanic culture and religion. The Old Italic scripts of southern Europe are an example. They would undergo a change into the first runic script – the Elder Futhark.
THE ELDER FUTHARK
Migration Period Runes
If searching for information about runes, one will most likely encounter the earliest Germanic runes known as the Elder Futhark. They are, however, not the runes used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
The Elder Futhark was invented around the 1st century and originated in the Old Italic scripts that our own Latin Alphabet also is derived from (the similarities between the Elder Futhark and the Old Italic scripts are striking). Just as our Alphabet is named after the two first letters (A=Alpha, B=Beta), so is the Futhark named after the initial phoneme of the first six rune names (F, U, Th, A, R, K).
The classical Elder Futhark consists out of 24 runes, all confirmed from the Kylver stone in Sweden. The stone could have been used by a rune carver to practice his work on, or to teach an apprentice how to carve the individual runes. It’s a fantastic example of how the actions of one person can keep an entire world informed 1500 years after his death.
The might and influence of Rome eventually declined, but the impressions left in the Germanic culture persisted and took a life of their own. An indigenous runic mythology was born as they fell under the domain of Odin, the god of all things magical and mysterious. The Elder Futhark was also embraced as the writing system used by the Germanic tribes during the Migration Period, from the 2nd to the 8th Century. They weren’t common knowledge though, which is reflected by the fact that only some 350 surviving inscriptions remain.
Viking Age runes
Winds of change blew in Scandinavia by the end of the 8th Century, which is when the Viking Age began. The Scandinavians had by then perfected their shipbuilding techniques, which allowed them to explore the world by its seas and rivers for trade, raids and conquest. The Scandinavian language also underwent a change as ‘Proto Norse’ evolved into the ‘Old Norse’ spoken by Vikings. Not even the runes were left untouched. The Elder Futhark was reduced from 24 to 16 runes to reflect the changes in the language, thus becoming the Younger Futhark.
Where the Elder Futhark was sparsely used, the Younger Futhark became accessible to nearly every man. Runes were carved on possessions to show ownership and left as early graffiti in Scandinavia and abroad during expeditions. However, the most prominent use of the Younger Futhark was on the more than 6 000 runestones, out of which the majority still dot the Scandinavian landscape. Many were risen as memorials over kinsmen and comrades who had passed away, or as reminders over great deeds.
As time passed, the Younger Futhark evolved and different variations tailored for specific uses appeared. An example is the simplified version called ‘Short Twig Runes’ that is believed to have been used for carvings on wood. ‘Stung Runes’ on the other hand began appearing occasionally around the year 1000 to separate different sounds. A dot was basically added to the runes i, k and u, resulting in the sounds e, g and y. The 16 rune Futhark was in practice thus extended to a 19 rune Futhark. This technique was exploited further in the Middle Ages when the runes developed into an alphabet.
As the Viking Age had ended in Scandinavia and the Middle Age began around the year 1100, the runes saw a change as well. The Younger Futhark developed into an alphabet, where each phoneme of the Old Norse language was given a sign. Dots were added to existing runes and several new runes made an appearance. The Medieval Runes were used until the 15th Century, when they were replaced by the alphabet we know today. The use of runes persisted to some extent until the 19th-20th century in isolated Swedish communities.
RUNIC MAGIC IN THE PAST
Were runes used in religious and magical practices? There is indeed historical proof of runes having a magical purpose besides being a writing system. This was noticed by the Romans some 2000 years ago when Germanic tribes used various forms of divination, such as carving signs onto sticks that were thrown onto the ground. What those signs were and how they were interpreted is, however, not known.
The Migration Period saw the use of the Elder Futhark for magical purposes. Various combinations of runes were added to amulets and other items. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to identify what a lot of these inscriptions meant and all that remain are more or less educated guesses. There are certain entries that stand out though – such as the word ALU that appears on several artifacts dating back to 400-800 AD. It’s the most common runic charm word of the time, but it’s origin and meaning are disputed. Most scholars agree though on that it represents a form of amulet magic.
“Grass cures the scab and runes the sword-cut” (Odin in the Havamal)
The Viking Age also saw the use of runes for magical purposes and a number of items with magical inscriptions have been found. In addition there are runestones that have curses and other carvings that indicate that the runes in fact were considered to hold magical properties and powers. Various sagas also mention details that reveal the use of runic magic, such as the Ynglinga Saga, where a King recites his visit to the temple in Uppsala where: “…the chips fell in a way that said that he would not live long”. The Poetic Edda, that is a collection of Old Norse poems and texts, is the richest source of runic magic that can be associated with the Viking Age. In it Odin tells of the use of runes for divination purposes.
There are also several stanzas where a Valkyrie gives advice on how to use runes for magical purposes. Even though the Poetic Edda is collected after the Viking Age, a lot of the content is verified to originate already from the 10th century. This isn’t surprising since myths aren’t born overnight.
Runic magic had a revival in Iceland in the 1400s when Icelandic Magical Staves, known as Galdrastafir, began appearing. They were based on the runes and on Norse mythology, gods and folklore. There are hundreds of different Galdrastafir and one of the most popular ones is the Ægishjálmur (old norse: helm of awe/helm of terror) . The concept originates from the Völsunga Saga where Sigurd defeats the dragon Fafnir, who bears the Ægishjálmur on his forehead. It is not an actual helmet, but more so a ‘magical mark’ that inspires great fear in people. Scenes from the Völsunga Saga are depicted on 8 rune stones in Sweden that are dated to the 1000s, which means that the concept of the Ægishjálmur can be traced as far back as the 10th century.
RUNIC MAGIC OF TODAY
A lot of people mistake the runic magic invented in the 20th century with something that was practiced during the Viking Age or by the earlier Germanic tribes. It is, however, important to understand the difference between them, since most modern runic magic systems have very little to do with history.
One of the greatest influences to early 20th century runic magic and Neopaganism was an Austrian occultist named Guido von List. The man stated to have suffered a 11-month period of blindness in 1902 during which he claims to have had a vision that opened his “inner eye” to the “Secret of the Runes”. He stated that this “secret” was encrypted in the Poetic Edda and revealed the “primal runes” upon which all the other runes were based on. He called these runes the “Armanen Futharkh” and ascribed them various magical powers.
It wouldn’t be the last time the runes were seized and warped to serve modern purposes. Modern systems of runic magic and runic divination saw an upswing in the 1980s and countless of books on the subject has been published since then.
Ralph Blum was one of the pioneers and his first book “The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle” was marketed with a small bag of runes. According to Blum himself, he was mainly inspired by the ancient “I Ching divination system” of China when he constructed his runic system. Most of the later authors follow the same pattern, where little is based on historical facts, but more so on tarot systems and other inventions.
These systems and modern presentations of the runes, usually in the form of the Elder Futhark, are what most people encounter for the first time when they search information.
DO YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE?
If you are interested in learning more about Viking Age runes, make sure to choose the source of your information carefully. There is a sea of books out there that’ll just feed you with nonsense. Obviously the main thing to check is that the runes are of the Younger Futhark. If you are interested in learning more about how the runes were used for magical purposes and what powers they were given, then we advice you to go straight to the source and read the Poetic Edda. The next step is to find the acknowledged scholars, preferably working at an university within their field of expertise, who have their own theories and interpretations based available historical sources.
As said, the topic is a huge one, but hopefully you’ve gotten a basic glimpse into the world of runes.
Below is a short video where we visit Anundshog that holds a magnificent runestone and Sweden’s largest burial mound.
Early Germanic warriors wore their hair in a so called “Suebian Knot”
Runestone ÖG 208 from Östergötland, Sweden, that uses all three stung runes
Modern runic divination