Viking Nordic Runes: Meaning, Origins

Proto-Germanic runes from Nordic, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon countries
By KarmaWeather - 24 June 2020
© KarmaWeather by Konbi - All rights reserved

The runes are the ways of wisdom and knowledge of the ancient Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Viking Germanic peoples.

Discover the historical and mythological origins of Nordic runes, their use as a writing system and their magical and divinatory meaning. This article also includes the complete list of the 24 runes of the futhark alphabet, with for each runic character its name, its traditional meaning and its symbol (runic character).

Origin of the runes

The Nordic or Proto-Germanic runes constitute the original alphabet of the East Germanic (Gothic language) and North (Nordic language) peoples, who adopted them as a writing system before Latin ended up to impose itself throughout Europe at the same time as Christianity. The first historical traces of runic writing date back to the 1st century even if their use is probably much older. The Indo-European root of the prefix "ru" of the word "rune" means mystery, secret or whisper, which clearly implies an oral tradition pre-dating the creation of the runic alphabet (futhark).

Whether in Old Irish ("rún": mystery, secret), in Old English ("runian": whisper), in Old Nordic ("run": mystery, secret), in Gothic ("rúna": secret, mysterious world), in Lithuanian ("runat": to speak), in modern German ("raunen": to whisper) or even in Egyptian ("ren": secret name), the persistence and the geographical extent of the word "rune", always with an almost identical or equivalent signifier, once again testifies to an ancestral practice which falls outside the historical field to join legends and founding myths. Recent scientific studies tend to show that most of the folk tales of the Indo-European peoples, such as those collected in the 19th century by the Grimm brothers and taken up in the 20th century by Walt Disney could go back more than 6000 years.

If the contemporary word "rune" has a less poetic and much more pragmatic Latin root ("runa" = runic character of the Nordic people), the fact remains that a strong mysterious imprint continues to this day to envelop the runes. The origins of the runes, their deep meaning, their role in the everyday life of the Germanic, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples or even the divinatory practices with which the runes were associated, are still the subject of research and divide the specialists who are passionate about runeology since the 19th century. Each archaeological discovery of an ancient funerary site in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and everywhere else in Europe can at any time upset the understanding of the Norse and Viking ways of life and allow to lift a little more the mystery of the runes.

Some researchers were long convinced of the Greco-Latin origin of the runes. Excluding Greek with Etruscan roots and Latin with Greek roots, it would seem that in reality the runes have mixed roots between Southern Europe (Etruscan alphabet) and Northern Europe, via a Germanic tribe with a language symbolic and magical heir to the Scandinavian pictograms. It would therefore be thanks to the many commercial exchanges that took place in Europe during the Bronze Age that merged with the Etruscan alphabet and the sacred Nordic proto-symbols.

Reminder: this article deals specifically with Viking Nordic runes and not Celtic runes. Very present in Ireland, the Celtic runes (the oghams) were mainly used by the Celts and the Gallic ones at the time of Julius Caesar, who forbade their use. Like the futhark, the ogham alphabet is runic. If correspondences exist between these two ancient alphabets, they are however two distinct systems, as well in their spelling (their symbols) as in their literary, practical and magical uses.

Nordic mythology

The magic and divinatory function of the runes rests, in addition to the hidden meaning of the runic symbols which have not revealed all their secrets to date, on Norse mythology, that is to say the ancient Nordic religion before it got supplanted by Christianity. According to Viking mythology, the god Odin reigns over Asgaard, one of the 9 worlds, Midgard (the middle world) being occupied by men and Svartalfheim being the world of dwarfs.

Each of the 9 worlds, organized on three main levels, is inhabited by different peoples. Among them Asgard, inhabited by the gods, Midgard (the middle world), occupied by men, or Svartalfheim, the world of dwarfs. It is therefore a multiverse, since according to the ancient Nordic peoples, the cosmos is contained within a central world tree, the Yggdrasil, which contains and links both these 9 independent worlds. Odin is one of the primordial gods, present long before the creation of men. Legend credits him with the invention or rather the discovery of the runes, through the story of his ritual self-sacrifice to Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of the 9 worlds. Odin attaches his feet to the sacred tree, pierces himself with a spear and hangs upside down for 9 complete nights, with the objective of acquiring both wisdom and knowledge.* At the end from the 9th day, Odin falls from the tree and during his fall reveals to himself and to the universe the name of each rune. He therefore knows the name, value, meaning and symbols of everything hidden and mysterious in the universe.**

* It is tempting to compare the initiation rite of Odin, hanged on Yggdrasil to acquire wisdom and knowledge with the episode of Genesis when Adam and Eve taste the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden which gives them access to the knowledge of right and wrong. Their banishment from the Garden of Eden is also due to the fear that God may later taste the other tree that was forbidden to them, the tree of eternal life (Genesis 3:22).
** In the prologue to the Gospel of Saint John, the latter wrote in his first verse: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in God, and the Word was God". The verb, that is to say the word, therefore precedes all creation and merges with God himself. John recalls that the act of divine creation is a breath which passes through the verb: "God says: Let there be light! And there was light." (Genesis 1: 3). In the Nordic religion, Odin may be the most powerful of the gods, but he is not omnipotent and omniscient. This is why, like Buddha and Jesus who lived their own trials, Odin resorts to a sacrificial initiatory experience to gain wisdom and knowledge of the hidden meaning of things, in cosmic communion. In addition, we find the power of words as a medium for magical creation of reality through the phonosemantic construction of the runes. There is no thought possible without language. The creation of the world is therefore first of all the fruit of a thought which takes shape through the expression of language.

The futhark alphabet

The runes form an alphabet, the futhark. Just as Alphabet is the contraction of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha and Beta), futhark corresponds to the first six runic characters; F for ᛓ, U for ᚢ, TH for ᚦ, A for ᚨ, R for ᚱ and K for ᚲ. The futhark includes 24 runes in its most complete version and only 16 signs in its simplified form. Each runic character is the transcription of a sound and a phoneme making it possible to write words and sentences, in the same way as the Greek or Latin alphabet.

Futhark alphabet, divinatory runes and Nordic gods

Rune Phoneme Character Divinatory meaning
(upright rune)
Norse god
1 Fehu F Fortune, abundance, success Frey, Njord, Freya
2 Uruz U Primal Force, health Thor
3 Thurisaz Th Brute force, protection Thor
4 Ansuz A Communication, omens Odin
5 Raido R Travel, honorable action Ing
6 Kaunaz K Creativity, transmission of knowledge Heimdall
7 Gebo G Gift, generosity, reciprocity Odin, Thor
8 Wunjo W Felicity, prosperity, confidence Frigga
9 Hagalaz H Destiny, inheritance, sacrifice Urd (Norn of the past)
10 Nauthiz N Constraint, cunning, warning Skuld (Norn of the future)
11 Isa I Immobilization, self-awareness Verdandi (Norn of the present)
12 Jera Y Harvest, results of efforts Nertus
13 Iwaz I Longevity, protection, anchoring Ullr
14 Perthro P Secret, magic, destiny, luck, childhood 3 goddesses of destiny (Urd, Verdandi, Skuld)
15 Algiz Z Protection, good luck, spirituality Heimdall
16 Sowelu S Fullness, reconciliation, persuasion Baldur
17 Teiwaz T Planning, logic, victory in battle Tyr
18 Berkana B Growth, fertility, birth Hlín
19 Ehwaz E Change, discovery, communication Odin (and his horse Sleipni)
20 Mannaz M Memory, clairvoyance, transmission of secrets Heimdal
21 Laguz L Water, vitality, fertility, purification, healing Aegir
22 Ingwaz Ng Peace, fertility, sexual pleasure, abundance, heroism Frey
23 Dagaz D Fertile union, marriage, hope Dellingr
24 Othila O Roots, material possessions, inheritance Odin

Meaning of the runes

Role and function of runes

Without wishing to caricature the runeologists in two schools, it is clear that two currents oppose each other: on the one hand those who believe in an almost systematic mystical-magic symbolism of the uses of the runes and on the other the rationalists, for whom the runic alphabet had an exclusive practical use of literal transcription. As often when it comes to interpreting ancient times, the reality is most likely mixed. The talismanic and divinatory use of runes is however proven, as evidenced by magic or prophetic formulas that we have been able to find, in particular the famous stone of Björketop, which dates from the 7th century. The magic use of runes somewhat resembles the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs; the inscription reinforces the magic dimension of the object and the power of the incantation is all the stronger when it remains hidden from mortals.

Whether engraved in stone, a piece of horn or leather, the historical and archaeological traces of the runes seem to favor short inscriptions. The spelling of runic symbols also favors an application for engraving on stone and other hard surfaces. Note as an aside that this is also the case for the Latin alphabet, which at the start is mainly capital, therefore more angular and adapted to the tools of the stonecutters and stone carvers of the Roman Empire.

Divinatory runes

The Roman historian Tacitus relates in the 1st century the drawing of runes in his work "Germania", during which strips of hazel wood on which symbols are engraved are then thrown on a white sheet, then the oracle chooses 3 at random and interprets their meaning. Then, depending on whether the divinatory reading is positive or not, the planned action is initiated or postponed until later. Although the runic alphabet did not seem to have already been formalized at that time, this type of divination, the formula of which seems quite similar to the printing of ossicles, was to be done using pre-runic symbols, it is ie ancient Nordic shamanic magic symbols.

As for the way in which the divinatory interpretation of the runes can be envisaged, certain beliefs consider that the set of the 12 halls of Hasgard, each being ruled by a god (exactly like the 12 gods of Olympus), is symbolized by 3 runes. Each rune trio can also be associated with a specific calendar period. Thus, depending on your date of birth, it is possible to determine which divine house you belong to and what your personal runes are. Knowing your personal birth runes allows you to have a reading base in the perspective of divinatory prints in response to specific questions. In a more classic approach to the divinatory draws of runes, which is similar to the 3 card draw of the tarot and the example related by Tacitus, each rune can be associated with a Nordic God and the powers, virtues and symbols associated with it . Likewise, like tarot, an reversed rune has an inverted meaning.

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