The Elder Futhark Runes | Origins & Symbolism | Meaning

The Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark are two ancient runic writing systems used by the Old Norse people in …

The Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark are two ancient runic writing systems used by the Old Norse people in Northern Europe. Both systems consist of a series of symbols known as runes, which were used to represent sounds, words, and ideas. The Elder Futhark is the oldest of the two systems, and it was used in the early medieval period, from around the 2nd to around the 8th century AD. The Younger Futhark is a later development of the Elder Futhark, and it was used from around the 8th to the 12th centuries AD.

Origins of the Elder Futhark

The origins of the Elder Futhark are somewhat mysterious, but it is believed to have evolved from earlier runic systems used by the ancient Germans and Celts. The Elder Futhark consists of 24 runes, which are arranged in three groups of eight known as aettir. Each aett is associated with a particular deity or concept, and the meanings of the runes within each aett are often related to these associations. 

24 runes
ClaesWallin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early medieval times of Northern Europe several other variants, or similar runic-based writing systems existed. One such system was the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which was used by the Anglo-Saxons in England from around the 5th to 11th centuries. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc consists of 33 letters and was used primarily for writing Old English.

Another runic system was the Gothic runes. They were a runic alphabet used by the Goths, an East Germanic people, with a lot of similarities with the Elder futhark. It is thought to have been derived from the Greek alphabet, and it consisted of 27 letters.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Goths established their own kingdom in what is now modern-day Italy. The Gothic runes were used in this kingdom, as well as in other parts of Europe where the Goths had a presence.

The Gothic runes fell out of use after the 6th century, as the Goths adopted the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet eventually replaced all of the older runic alphabets in Europe, although some of the runic traditions and symbols have been preserved in modern times.

As these writing systems developed it is worth mentioning that there was considerable overlap both in time and area. One system didn’t supplant another overnight, but it was a process spanning centuries.

When and where the Elder Futhark runes were used

The Elder Futhark was widely used in the early medieval period, from the 2nd to the 8th centuries AD. It was used by the Old Norse people, who lived in what is now Denmark, Sweden, Norway, as well as parts of Germany and the Netherlands. The Elder Futhark was also used by other Germanic peoples, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who migrated to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD and brought their variants of the system with them.

The Elder Futhark was used for a variety of purposes in the cultures and societies that employed it. One such use was for divination, with each rune having a specific meaning so that they could be interpreted in the context of a particular question or situation. 

It was also used in magical practices, with the runes believed to have the power to influence events and bring about desired outcomes. The Elder Futhark played a central role in the culture and society of the Old Norse people, and continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration to this day.

Structure and meaning of runes in the Elder Futhark

The 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are divided into three groups called “aettir,” or “families.” Each aettir contains eight runes, and each of the runes within an aettir is believed to be connected in some way, either through their meanings or through their connections to Norse mythology. 

24 runes
Runologe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The runes of the Elder Futhark had a wide range of meanings, and each one represented a particular concept or idea. Some of the runes were associated with specific deities or natural forces, such as the sun, water, and fire. Others represented more abstract concepts such as wisdom, protection, and justice. 

The meanings of the runes were often related to the aett in which they were found, and the associations between the runes and the deities or concepts they represented could vary from one culture to another. Despite these variations, the runes of The Elder Futhark remain a powerful symbol of the ancient Norse culture and the enduring influence of these ancient signs.

The following is a brief overview of each of the aettir and the runes that they contain.

Freyja’s Aett

The first aett is called “Freyjas (and/or Freyrs’) Aett,” and it is associated with the goddess Freyja (and god Freyr). 

This aett contains the following runes:

Fehu (F) – “cattle or wealth”. It is associated with prosperity, abundance, and the natural cycles of life.

Uruz (U) – “Wild ox, Aurochs”. It is associated with primal power, physical strength, and the forces of nature.

Thurisaz (Th) – “Giant, or thorn”. It is associated with danger, protective powers, and the courage to face challenges.

Ansuz (A) – “God, thought to mean the breath of Odin”. It is associated with wisdom and the power of the spoken word.

Raidho (R) – “ride, journey”. It is associated with movement, change, and the journey of life.

Kaunan/Kenaz (K) – “ulcer/torch”. It is associated with fertility, creativity, and the power of procreation.

Gebo (G) – “gifts, exchange”. It is associated with generosity, partnerships, and the exchange of energy and resources.

Wunjo (W) – “joy, success” Associated with joy, success, and the attainment of personal goals.

This aett is associated with material abundance, fertility, as well as the natural world. The runes in this aett are believed to represent the forces of creation and the cycle of life.

Hagall’s Aett

The second aett is called “Hagall’s Aett,” and it is associated with the god Heimdall (also known as Hagal). 

This aett contains the following runes:

Hagalaz (H) – “hail” Associated with change, transformation, and the forces of chaos.

Nauthiz (N) – “need”. Associated with need, constraint, and the challenges that we must overcome in life.

Isa (I) – “ice” Associated with stillness, isolation, and the need for introspection and self-reflection.

Jera (J) – “year, harvest, abundance”. Associated with abundance, prosperity, and the cycle of the seasons.

Eihwaz (Ei) – “yew, or ash-tree”. It is associated with healing, strength, and the power of transformation.

Perthro (P) – “pear-tree/wood”. Both its meaning and association is unclear. One possibility is that it translates to pear-trea/wood and the association would be with games or fun.

Algiz (Z) – “elk” Associated with protection, defense, and the guidance of the higher powers.

Sowilo (S) – “sun” It is associated with success, victory, and the attainment of spiritual enlightenment.

This aett is associated with transformation, change, and the passage of time. As such the runes in this aett are believed to represent the forces of destruction and renewal.

Tyr’s Aett

The third and last aett is called “Tyr’s Aett,” and it is associated with the god Tyr. 

This aett contains the following runes:

Tiwaz (T) – “Tiwaz / the god Tyr”. As an extension of the god Tyr, it is associated with justice, honor, and the qualities of a strong leader.

Berkana (B) – “birch”. It is associated with growth, fertility, and the cycles of life and death.

Ehwaz (E) – “horse”: Associated with partnership, loyalty, and the bonds of trust and commitment.

Mannaz (M) – “man”. It is associated with humanity, society, and the relationships that we have with others.

Laguz (L) – “water or lake”. It is associated with flow, emotion, and the power of the unconscious mind.

Ingwaz (Ing) – “Ingwaz, old name for Freyr”. It is associated with completion, fulfillment, and the attainment of personal goals.

Dagaz (D) – “day”. It is associated with transformation, enlightenment, and the attainment of balance and harmony.

Othala (O) – “home”. It is associated with inheritance, property, and the transmission of cultural and spiritual values from one generation to the next.

This aett is associated with social order, justice, as well as the structure of society. The runes in this aett are believed to represent the forces of order and stability.

The symbolism of the aettir

Each of the aettir is believed to contain within it the energies and forces of the cosmos. The aettir is also thought to be connected to a specific god or goddess. The meaning and symbolism of each aett and the runes within it are complex and multifaceted and so can be understood on many different levels. 

Some people believe that the aettir and the runes within them represent the cycles of the natural world, while others see them as reflecting the deeper mysteries of the cosmos. Ultimately, the meaning and significance of the aettir and the runes of the Elder Futhark are open to interpretation and personal exploration.

Magic and the Elder Futhark runes

The Elder Futhark runes were an important part of Norse culture and were used for a variety of purposes, including magic. The Vikings believed that the runes had special powers and that they could be used to influence the world around them. 

Runic magic
Nick Fraser, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Based on descriptions in the sagas and the Eddas, these are some areas where the Elder Futhark runes might have been used for magic.

Divination

I will take a firm stance here and say that it is obvious that Vikings used the runes for divination. Meaning the practice of seeking guidance or insight through the use of runes in some way. There are several different techniques that the Vikings may have used for divination with the runes, such as casting the runes onto a flat surface or drawing a single rune from a bag or set of runes. 

Another way that is documented is with blótspón. These were wood pieces inscribed with runic symbols that were dipped or covered in blood, then read. The person doing the divination would then interpret the meaning of the runes based on their positions and relationships to one another.

Inscription on weapons

The Vikings believed that the runes had the power to protect and bring victory, and they often inscribed them on their weapons for these purposes. There have been a number of finds of weapons with Elder Futhark runic inscriptions. They are typically meant to protect the one bearing them or ensure victory in battle.

Carving on staves

The Vikings also believed that the runes could be used to cast spells and affect the world in other ways. They often carved the runes onto staves, which were wooden rods that were used as magical tools. The Vikings believed that the staves could be used to cast spells, bring good fortune, or protect against harm.

Examples from Egils Saga

In the Egils saga there are several mentions of how Egil uses runes to ward off danger or heal someone. In chapter 44, two of Egils enemies are trying to kill him, passing him an ale horn that has been poisoned so he uses the magic of the runes.

Runes warding off danger

“Egil then drew his knife and pricked the palm of his hand. He took the horn, scratched runes on it , and smeared blood in them. He sang:

“I carve runes on this horn,
Redden all the spell with blood;
Wise words choose I for the cup
Wrought from branching horn of beast.
Drink we then, as drink we will,
Draught that cheerful bearer brings,
Learn that health abides in ale,
Holy ale that Bard hath bless’d.”

Then the ale horn burst into pieces and the poisoned ale flowed onto the floor, saving him.

Runes used for healing

In another example from Egils saga we are told about a young woman who has fallen ill. 

“After eating his fill, Egil went to where the woman was lying and gave orders for her to be lifted out of bed and for clean sheets to be placed beneath her. Once this was done, he examined the bed and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, he shaved them off and burned the whalebone in the fire. He also had the woman’s bedclothes aired. Afterwards, Egil recited a verse:

No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well;
many a man go astray
around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw
ten secret letters carved,
from them the linden tree
took her long harm.

Egil carved some runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where the woman was lying. As a result, she felt as though she were waking from a deep sleep and reported that she was feeling better, though still quite weak.”

These stories illustrate the power that the Vikings believed the runes to possess, and the potential danger of using them improperly. 

Inscriptions found using the Elder Futhark

There are many examples of texts and artifacts written in the Elder Futhark runes that have been discovered and studied by historians and linguists. Some of the most notable examples include:

The Kylver Stone: This is a 4th-century AD stone slab found on the island of Gotland, Sweden. It bears a runic inscription in the Elder Futhark. The inscription is a list of names, and it is one of the oldest surviving examples of runic writing.

The Vimose inscriptions: These are a series of inscriptions found on various objects, such as weapons and jewelry. They were all found in an area called Vimose in Denmark. They date from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. The Elder Futhark inscriptions contain a variety of information, including personal names, phrases, and also some magical formulas.

The Bracteate from Funen: This is a gold pendant found in Denmark that bears a runic inscription in the Elder Futhark. In the center there is a depiction of what is believed to be Odin, Sleipnir and a raven. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracteate#/media/File:Bracteate_from_Funen,_Denmark_(DR_BR42).jpg 

These are just a few examples of texts and artifacts inscribed with Elder Futhark runes that have been discovered. The Elder Futhark was an important writing system in the culture and society of the Old Norse people. It continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration to this day.

Transition from the Elder to the Younger Futhark runes

Around the 8th or 9th century there was a transition from the Elder to the Younger Futhark. 

There are several major differences between the Elder and Younger Futharks. One such differences is the number of runes in each system. The Elder Futhark consists of 24 runes, which are arranged in three groups of eight known as aettir. The Younger Futhark, on the other hand, consists of only 16 runes, which are divided into two groups, or aettir.

Another significant difference between the two systems is the phonetic values of the runes. The Elder Futhark is based on an older form of the Old Norse language. Its runes correspond to a wider range of phonetic values than those of the Younger Futhark. This means that the Younger Futhark runes represent a more limited set of sounds than those of the Elder Futhark.

The transition from the Elder Futhark to the Younger Futhark was most likely driven by changes in the Old Norse language. So as the language evolved over time, the phonetic values of certain sounds changed. Reflecting these changes likely explains part of why the Younger Futhark was developed. 

Having said that, I have not found many good practical possible reasons for why the change happened. In a society that was growing more complex and the written language also became more widely adopted it is surprising that the runes became simplified. It might be that the wider adoption also drove the simplification, for ease of use. 

Despite the differences between the two systems, both the Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark have had a significant impact on the cultures and societies of the Old Norse people, and they continue to be a source of fascination and inspiration to this day.

The use of Elder Futhark runes today

Runes and other Viking symbols have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Particularly in the realm of popular culture. They have been featured in a number of movies and TV shows, such as the “Harry Potter” series and the “Thor” films, and have also been used as a motif in various forms of merchandise and art.

In addition to their use in popular culture, runes have also been adopted by some people as a form of divination and spiritual practice. Rune casting is the practice of using runes to gain divine insight and guidance. It has gained popularity in recent years. Practitioners believe that runes can provide insight into the past, present, and future. So using the knowledge gained they aid in making decisions or solve problems.

Runes have also been embraced as a way to connect with their ancestral heritage or to explore Norse mythology. Many people find the symbolism and meanings associated with the various runes to be fascinating and meaningful. Applying them as a form of personal empowerment or self-discovery. 

So, if you do a search online for “rune tattoos”, you will quickly understand what I mean.

Overall, the popularity of runes in today’s culture reflects a renewed interest in ancient traditions and a desire to connect with the spiritual or mystical aspects of our world.

Photo of author

Marius

Norse mythology enthusiast, Norwegian and living next to a series of old Viking age burial mounds.Quite surprisingly I am also able to navigate and understand quite a lot of the old Norse texts and have used those as well. in editing posts. As a Norwegian, although quite foreign, the old texts are still understandable, even more so with a bit of practice.