This section provides the sign, name, phoneme (sound), and short description of the meaning of each of the twenty-four runes that comprise the Elder Futhark. The given meanings are based on the medieval Rune Poems exclusively. Where our present knowledge isn’t extensive enough to give an explanation of which one can be reasonably certain, this is noted and the meaning is left unexplained or only partially explained. This article is hardly the place for esoteric speculations, which have been avoided. (If you’re interested in going beyond the evidence and using less academically acceptable means of discerning other meanings of the runes, you have to do that yourself.)
What Are The Norse Runes?
Stands for: Cattle
Color: Green (Brown)
Casting meaning: Fehu is a rune of power and control. It represents new beginnings and “movable” wealth such as money and credit. It is a rune that gives us the power we need to obtain wealth as well as the power we need to hold on to it.
Stands for: Auroch (like a wild ox)
Color: Orange (Dark Green)
Casting meaning: Uruz is also a rune of power, but unlike Fehu, it’s a power that we can neither own nor control. In a casting it can mean that personal success is near. For charms and talismans use Uruz for its healing powers.
Stands for: Thorn (or Giant)
Casting meaning: This rune represents the ability we have to resist unwanted conflicts in a passive manner. It is a rune of protection and can tell us of a possible change that would have otherwise come without warning. You can use the protection aspect of Thurisaz as a defense against adversaries.
Sound: “aa” as in “aah”
Stands for: Mouth (or Divine Breath)
Casting meaning: Ansuz is a rune that symbolizes stability and shows us order. It is also a rune that indicates intellectual activities and directly represents the divine breath of all life and creation.
Stands for: Wheel, Cartwheel (or Riding)
Color: Blue (Black)
Casting meaning: This rune allows us to focus our energy so that we may obtain our goals. However to do so effectively we must be “in the right place at the right time.”
Stands for: Torch
Casting meaning: Kenaz is a rune of knowledge, understanding, learning and teaching. It allows us to view situations with more clarity than we normally would.
Sound: “g” as in “gift”
Stands for: Gift
Color: Gold & Silver (Red)
Casting meaning: Gebo represents the honor and connection that is created between people when they exchange gifts. The connection and honor is similar to the connection and honor that a person has with the gods for giving them life.
Sound: “w”, “v”
Stands for: Joy
Color: Pink (Blue)
Casting meaning: This rune shows us the balance between all things even when in a chaotic world. It is also a rune of fellowship, common goals and well being to all things. If you come across this rune in a reading you can expect good news to come your way.
Stands for: Hail, Hailstone
Color: Blue (White)
Casting meaning: Representing a hailstone we can expect time and situations to be constricting if Hagalaz turns up in a reading. But much like a hailstone will eventually turn to water, which flows smoothly, these situations and times will eventually flow smoothly for us.
Stands for: Necessity (or Need)
Color: Black (Blue)
Casting meaning: This rune represents how our need or want of something can put a restriction on us. It restricts our possibilities but also contains the power we need to break free from those restrictions.
Sound: “i”, “ee” as in “east”
Stands for: Ice
Color: Brown (Black)
Casting meaning: Like an icicle formed at the start of winter, with this rune we can only wait until the warmth of the sun allows us to be free from a constricting form. Isa represents a halt in activity until a change is made.
Sound: “j” like the “y” in “year”
Stands for: Harvest (or Year or Season)
Casting meaning: Jera is a rune that represents the cycle of life. With this rune we see that we must go with the flow of nature to obtain the goals we want.
Sound: “eo”, “æ”
Stands for: Yew Tree
Color: White (Green)
Casting meaning: Eihwaz is a rune that can be used as a magical protector and facilitator. It shows us that in the event of an ending situation we find the start of a new situation.
Stands for: Dice Cup (there are many variations)
Color: Blue (Red)
Casting meaning: Perdhro reminds us of the uncertainties in life and represents freewill and the connection of the restrictions we have due to our circumstances. It is viewed as a rune of memory and problem solving.
Sound: “zz” as in “buzz”
Stands for: Elk (or Protection)
Color: Black (Purple)
Casting meaning: This is a rune of great restraint power, defense and protection. Use this rune in charms and talismans to protect yourself as well as your property.
Stands for: Sun
Casting meaning: With the help of this rune we tend to be able to see things more clearly. Like the sun sheds light on dark times, with Sowulo we too can find the light during dark times.
Stands for: Creator
Color: Green (Red)
Casting meaning: Teiwaz can promise us success in our actions but this time without personal sacrifice. It also means success in “legal” matters but only if we were in the right to begin with.
Stands for: Birch Tree (or Birch Twig)
Color: White (Blue)
Casting meaning: Like the birch tree coming to life from a seed planted in the earth, Berkana represents a new beginning and is also a powerful birth rune.
Sound: “e” as in “every”
Stands for: Horse
Color: Red (White)
Casting meaning: Ehwaz reminds us that in order for success there must be a natural flow in the task at hand. With this rune to give us power as well as it making use of our good intentions we can surely achieve such success.
Stands for: Man (as in human, not gender)
Color: Blue (Purple)
Casting meaning: Mannaz has many powers. First it is a rune that lets us know we can achieve our fullest potential. Secondly it reminds us that we, as humans, all have shared experiences in life. Lastly we can use the power of this rune to gain the upper hand in disputes and arguments.
Stands for: Water (or Lake)
Color: Black & White (Green)
Casting meaning: Laguz represents the power of water and its easy flowing nature. We must learn to “go with the flow” when this rune shows up in a reading so that we can take full advantage of our powers.
Sound: “ng” as in “long”
Stands for: Fertility
Color: Brown (Black)
Casting meaning: This rune allows us to spread our energy out far and wide. It is a protective rune mainly for the protection of our homes. To use Inguz effectively we must learn to build up our powers over time and then release the power all at once.
Stands for: Day
Casting meaning: Dagaz represents a stability between opposites, such as light and dark. It can stop harmful energy from getting to you but at the same time allow the good energy to slip through so that you can make good use of it.
Sound: “o” as in “old”
Stands for: Home (or Odla – sacred ancestral land)
Color: Copper (Brown)
Casting meaning: Much like Fehu this is a rune of wealth. But unlike Fehu, Othala represents a wealth that cannot be sold. This is wealth like family, friendships or our culture and heritage that is passed down to us. It represents an enclosure and maintains the existing state of things as they presently are.
How Are Norse Runes Read?
Runes are generally made up of vertical lines – one or more – with ‘branches’ or ‘twigs’ jutting out diagonally (and very occasionally horizontally) upwards, downwards or in a curve from them. They can be written both from left to right and from right to left, with asymmetrical characters being flipped depending on the direction of writing. Each rune, of which major and minor versions existed, represents a phoneme (speech sound) and had a name, made up of a noun, that started (and in one case, ended) with the sound the rune was mainly associated with. Lots of regional and temporal variation existed in the shapes of the letters.
Elder Futhark (also Elder Fuþark – þ being the ‘th’ sound in English ‘thin’ – or older Fuþark/Futhark) is the earliest classified runic script and was used until c. 700 CE in the Germanic world. Counting 24 characters and being surprisingly uniform, it is named after the first six characters in the alphabet (f-u- þ (th)-a-r-k). The runes are grouped together in three rows of eight, each group being called an ætt (pl. ættir), and each rune was named after things that start (or in one case, end) with that sound. Although preserved manuscripts from the 9th and 10th centuries CE have given us the names of the Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon runes, no such luxury is awarded us for Elder Futhark. However, based mostly on the Younger Futhark names supplemented with Anglo-Saxon and even Gothic, the Elder Futhark rune-names have been reconstructed to the best of our modern-day ability.
Elder Futhark was used to write Proto-Germanic, Proto-Norse, Proto-English, and Proto-High German – thus, geographically quite widely spread – and survives today in just under 400 inscriptions (found so far), most of which show substantial wear and tear and are only partly readable. It is likely this number only represents a fraction of the real total; the rest must be lost in time and space. They are initially found on wood – which of course does a poor job at standing the test of time – and metal in the form of names. Popular surfaces were military equipment, coins, and jewellery such as bracteates, brooches or combs, and the typically Scandinavian runestones, some of which were in Elder Futhark as opposed to the much more frequently represented later Younger Futhark. Although Scandinavia, northern Germany and eastern Europe were the earliest homes to such items, after c. 400 CE England, the Netherlands, and southern Germany joined the club. Because they focus mostly on ownership and show no visible connection to society at any greater level, runic writing in societies up to c. 700 CE is assumed to not to have had a central function.
Despite Elder Futhark’s largely uniform nature, variation existed too, though, and it is important to realise the rune-row generally presented for the Elder Futhark today is only a main line. Here follows the most commonly given Elder Futhark rune-row, starting with the rune, its transliteration, its inferred (Proto-Germanic) name and the meaning of that name:
- ᚦ þ (‘th’) *þurisaz “giant”
- ᚨ a *ansuz “one of the Æsir (gods)”
- ᚱ r *raiðō “ride”/”journey”
- ᚲ k *kaunan “boil”/”blister” (or maybe “torch”)
- ᚷ g *gebō “gift”
- ᚹ w *wunjō “joy”
- ᚺ h *hagalaz “hail” (the precipitation)
- ᚾ n *nauðiz “need”/“emergency”/”desperation”
- ᛁ I *īsaz “ice”
- ᛃ j *jēra “year”, but typically “harvest”/”good harvest”
- ᛈ p *perðō? “pear tree”? (unclear)
- ᛇ ï/æ? *eihaz/ei(h)waz “yew tree” (but very confusing attestation)
- ᛉ z *algiz? “elk“
- ᛊ s *sōwilō “sun”
- ᛏ t *tīwaz/*teiwaz “Týr” (the god)
- ᛒ b *berkanan “birch”
- ᛖ e *ehwaz “horse”
- ᛗ m *mannaz “man”
- ᛚ l *laguz “lake” (or maybe “leek”)
- ᛜ ŋ (‘ng’) *ingwaz “Ing” (/Yngvi, another name of the god Freyr)
- ᛞ d *dagaz “day”
- ᛟ o *ōþala/*ōþila “inherited property”/”possession”
YOUNGER FUTHARK HEADLINES IN THE BIG BANG IN RUNIC INSCRIPTIONS AFTER 700 CE THROUGHOUT VIKING AGE SCANDINAVIA, WHERE IT IS FOUND ON RUNESTONES WHICH DOT THE LANDSCAPE.
After c. 700 CE, in Scandinavia, Elder Futhark was adapted into the Younger Futhark (or Younger Fuþark) script used for writing Old Norse, the language of the Viking Age. Eight of the original 24 characters were ditched and many others were simplified or changed shape, as well as more variety cropping up in general. Vitally, it is the medium of our only written (Scandinavian) Viking Age sources. The runes that were dropped are ᚷ, ᚹ, ᛇ, ᛈ, ᛖ, ᛜ, ᛟ, and ᛞ – transliterated as g, w, ï/æ, p, e, ŋ, and d. The ættir, or runic groups, known from Elder Futhark, remained in place, now becoming groups of six, six, and four, respectively. In Younger Futhark, runes had more than one possible sound attached to them, specifically no longer making clear in writing the distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants such as k and g, which were both written with the rune ᚴ. Vowels, too, learned to share, their value having to be gleaned from the context they were found in. This makes this runic script quite difficult to read (for us, today, at least).
It seems this new script was adopted in a lightning-quick fashion, perhaps due to a deliberate effort, but probably at least influenced by changes in the language or in sounds. Michael Barnes tells us how,
…by the beginning of the eight century all, or virtually all, rune-carvers were using the same sixteen runes – a remarkable example of unity in the apparent absence of a central authority to promote it. But that was as far as the unity went. When it came to the realisation of many of the sixteen runes, a much more open policy prevailed. Some carvers experimented with runic form, simplifying many characters. Others resisted change, or were unaware of it. Different traditions developed. (63)
In Denmark, for instance, a “long-branch” version of the runic script was preferred, whereas Norway and Sweden stuck to “short-twig”, and the Hälsingland area in Sweden even developed a set of runes – Hälsinge/staveless runes – missing the main staves (except in the i-rune) in a zealous simplification. The rune-row given for Younger Futhark below, then, is a composite showing the most common forms across the board; the row starts with the rune, then its transliteration, its (Old Norse) name and the meaning of that name:
- ᚠ f/v fé “wealth”/“cattle”
- ᚢ u/w, y, o, ø úr “slag from iron production”/”rain(storm)”
- ᚦ ᚦ, ð (‘th’) ᚦurs (‘thurs’) “giant”
- ᚬ o, æ áss/óss “Æsir”/”estuary”
- ᚱ r reið “ride”/(“vehicle”)
- ᚴ k, g kaun “ulcer”/”boil”
- ᚼ h hagall “hail”
- ᚾ n nauðr “need”/”threat”/”emergency”
- ᛁ I, e ísa/íss “ice”
- ᛅ a, æ ár “year”, typically “good year”/”good harvest”
- ᛋ s sól “sun”
- ᛏ t, d Týr “Týr” (the god), also used for any god
- ᛒ b, p björk/bjarkan/bjarken “birch”
- ᛘ m maðr “man”/”person”
- ᛚ l lǫgr (lögr) “lake” or a small body or water
- ᛦ r yr “yew”, yew tree, or maybe “elm”
Younger Futhark headlines in the big bang in runic inscriptions: the number of known inscriptions hugely increases for Viking Age Scandinavia after 700 CE, with runes found on often-decorated runestones large and small which dot the landscape. These stones helped bump up the numbers to a total of almost 3000 Scandinavian runic inscriptions during this period – in stark contrast with the barely 400 Elder Futhark ones. All mediums taken together, the inscriptions tell us about ownership or inheritance, politics (power struggles, raiding and conquests, or major invasions), religion (including Christianity and its spread), travel (inland but also abroad), and literature and myth.
What Are The Origins of Norse and Viking Runes?
The runes were created in the Roman era to write the earliest forms of the Germanic language. They were eventually used by the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, and Germans. For over a thousand years, the runes evolved into writing styles that fit the needs of contemporary Germanic culture.
The secrets of reading and writing were also believed to hold deeper secrets. The runes were closely associated with magic. Whether used on charms or invoked by gods, the Norse and other Germanic people believed that the runes were connected to divine powers. This connection has not entirely been lost in the modern era. After hundreds of years of practical use, runes are once again being written in charms, spells, and prayers.
A Deeper Dive In The History of Runes
While runologists argue over many of the details of the historical origins of runic writing, there is widespread agreement on a general outline. The runes are presumed to have been derived from one of the many Old Italic alphabets in use among the Mediterranean peoples of the first century CE, who lived to the south of the Germanic tribes.Earlier Germanic sacred symbols, such as those preserved in northern European rock carvings, were also likely influential in the development of the script.
The earliest possibly runic inscription that we know of is found on the Meldorf brooch, which was manufactured in the north of modern-day Germany around 50 CE. The inscription is highly ambiguous, however, and scholars are divided over whether its letters are runic or Roman. The earliest unambiguous runic inscriptions are found on the Vimose comb from Vimose, Denmark and the Øvre Stabu spearhead from southern Norway, both of which date to approximately 160 CE. The earliest known carving of the entire futhark (alphabet), in order, is that on the Kylver stone from Gotland, Sweden, which dates to roughly 400 CE.
The transmission of writing from southern Europe to northern Europe likely took place via Germanic warbands, the dominant northern European military institution of the period, who would have encountered Italic writing firsthand during campaigns amongst their southerly neighbors. This hypothesis is supported by the association that runes have always had with the god Odin, who, in the Proto-Germanic period, under his original name *Woðanaz, was the divine model of the human warband leader and the invisible patron of the warband’s activities. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Odin (“Mercury” in the interpretatio romana) was already established as the dominant god in the pantheons of many of the Germanic tribes by the first century. Whether the runes and the cult of Odin arose together, or whether the latter predated the former, is of little consequence for our purposes here. As esteemed Indo-European scholar Georges Dumézil notes:
If Odin was first and always the highest magician, we realize that the runes, however recent they may be, would have fallen under his sway. New and particularly effective implements for magic works, they would become by definition and without contest a part of his domain. … Odin could have been the patron, the possessor par excellence of this redoubtable power of secrecy and secret knowledge, before the name of that knowledge became the technical name of signs both phonetic and magic which came from the Alps or elsewhere, but did not lose its former, larger sense.
From the perspective of the ancient Germanic peoples themselves, however, the runes came from no source as mundane as an Old Italic alphabet. The runes were never “invented,” but are instead eternal, pre-existent forces that Odin himself discovered by undergoing a tremendous ordeal. This tale has come down to us in the Old Norse poem Hávamál (“The Sayings of the High One”):
I know that I hung
On the wind-blasted tree
All of nights nine,
Pierced by my spear
And given to Odin,
Myself sacrificed to myself
On that pole
Of which none know
Where its roots run.
No aid I received,
Not even a sip from the horn.
I took up the runes –
Screaming I grasped them –
Then I fell back from there.
The tree from which Odin hangs himself is surely none other than Yggdrasil, the world-tree at the center of the Germanic cosmos whose branches and roots hold the Nine Worlds. Directly below the world-tree is the Well of Urd, a source of incredible wisdom. The runes themselves seem to have their native dwelling-place in its waters. This is also suggested by another Old Norse poem, the Völuspá (“Insight of the Seeress”):
There stands an ash called Yggdrasil,
A mighty tree showered in white hail.
From there come the dews that fall in the valleys.
It stands evergreen above Urd’s Well.
From there come maidens, very wise,
Three from the lake that stands beneath the pole.
One is called Urd, another Verdandi,
Skuld the third; they carve into the tree
The lives and fates of children.
These “three maidens” are the Norns, and their carvings surely consist of runes. We therefore have a clear association between the Well of Urd, the runes, and magic – in this case, the ability of the Norns to carve the fates of all beings.