Runic alphabet

From Academic Kids


The Runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes, formerly used to write Germanic languages, mainly in Scandinavia, and the British Isles. In all their varieties, they may be considered an ancient writing system of Northern Europe. The Scandinavian version is also known as Futhark (derived from its first six letters: 'F', 'U' 'Th', 'A', 'R', and 'K'), and the Anglo-Saxon version as Futhorc (also so named after its first letters). The earliest runic inscriptions date from ca. 150, and the alphabet was generally replaced by the Latin alphabet with Christianisation, by ca. 700 in central Europe, and by ca. 1200 in Scandinavia. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes, mainly in Scandinavia, in rural Sweden until the early 20th century (used mainly for decoration as Dalecarlian runes, and on Runic calendars).

Younger Futhark inscription on the
Younger Futhark inscription on the Vaksala Runestone

The three best known runic alphabets are:

The Younger Futhark is further divided into:

  • the Danish futhark script
  • the Swedish-Norwegian runic script (also: Short-twig or Rök Runes)
  • the Hälsinge Runes (staveless runes)
  • the latinised Dalecarlian futhark script (ca. 1500–1910)

Template:Alphabet The most likely candidates for the origins of runic scripts are the 5th to 1st century BC Northern Italic alphabets, Lepontic, Rhaetic and Venetic, all closely related to each other and themselves descended from the Old Italic alphabet. These scripts bear a remarkable resemblance to the Futhark in many regards.



Missing image
Younger Futhark inscription on the Rök Stone

The runes were introduced to, or invented by, the Germanic peoples in roughly the 2nd century(edit:?. a short time ago helmets where found, one of them with runes. They where dated to the kimber-time, 120 before Chr.). While at this time the Germanic language was certainly not at the Proto-Germanic stage any longer, it may still have been a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries, viz. North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic. Most of the early runes from the Scandinavian countries are assumed to be in the Proto-Norse, the common ancestor language of the modern North Germanic languages. No distinction is made in surviving runic inscriptions between long and short vowels, although such a distinction was certainly present phonologically in the spoken languages of the time.

As Proto-Germanic evolved into its later language groups, the words assigned to the runes and the sounds represented by the runes themselves began to diverge somewhat, and each culture would either create new runes, rename or rearrange its rune names slightly, or even stop using obsolete runes completely, to accommodate these changes. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc has several runes peculiar unto itself to represent diphthongs unique to (or at least prevalent in) the Anglo-Saxon dialect. However, the fact that the younger Futhark has sixteen runes, while the Elder Futhark has twenty four, is not fully explained by the some six hundred years of sound changes that had occurred in the North Germanic language group. The development here might seem rather astonishing, since the younger form of the alphabet came to use the same few runes to express an unusually great number of different phonemes that the older version had distinguished clearly. For example, voiced and unvoiced consonants merged in script, and so did many vowels. Later, this disadvantage was partly eliminated in the dotted runes of Dalecarlia (see below).

The name given to the signs, contrasting them with Latin or Greek letters, is attested on a 6th century alamannic runestaff as runa, and possibly as runo on the Einang stone (ca. 4th century). The name is from a root run- (Gothic runa) meaning "secret" (c.f. also the chapters of the Kalevala, called runo, plural runot, a loan from North Germanic).


In Norse mythology, the invention of runes is attributed to Odin: The Havamal (stanzas 138, 139) describes how Odin receives the rune through his self-sacrifice. The text (in New Icelandic and in English translation) is as follows:

Veit eg aš eg hékk vindgameiši į I know that I hung on a windy tree
nętur allar nķu, nights all nine,
geiri undašur og gefinn Óšni, wounded with a spear and given to Odin,
sjįlfur sjįlfum mér, myself to myself,
į žeim meiši er manngi veit hvers af rótum renn.   on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run
Viš hleifi mig sęldu né viš horni-gi. No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
Nżsta eg nišur, downwards I peered,
nam eg upp rśnar, I took up the runes,
ępandi nam, screaming I took them,
féll eg aftur žašan. then I fell back from there

The runes developed comparatively late, centuries after the Central European alphabets from which they are probably descended. There are some similarities to alphabets of Phoenician origin (Latin, Greek, Italic) that cannot possibly all be due to chance: ᚠ - F, ᚢ - V, ᚱ - R, ᚲ - C or K, ᚺ - H, ᛁ - I, ᛊ - S, ᛏ - T, ᛒ - B, ᛗ - M, ᛚ - Λ, ᛞ - Δ, ᛟ - Ω. However, other letters seem to be independent. The Northern Italic alphabet is usually quoted as a candidate for the origin of the runes. Their angular shapes are generally interpreted as an adaptation to the practice of carving in wood (rather than writing with a reed or a brush).

Another theory is that the runes originated directly from the Middle East, and are related to the Nabataean alphabet, a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. The introduction of runes is in this scenario ascribed to the Roman legions, which left Syria Palaestina during the 2nd century. This theory is based on discovery of early runes on weapons, such as longbows, and arrow heads, characteristically belonging to these soldiers. (The historical Nabataean kingdom, spanning Jordan, Sinai, and South Israel, corresponds to early Arabia.)

The "West Germanic hypothesis" assumes an introduction by West Germanic tribes. This hypothesis is based on claiming that the earliest inscriptions of ca. 200, found in bogs and graves around Jutland, exhibit West Germanic name forms, e. g. wagnija, niþijo, and harija, and that these names refer to tribes located in the Rhineland. However, Scandinavian scholars interprete these inscriptions as Proto-Norse, but it should be noted that the differences between Proto-Norse and other Germanic dialects were still minute and that the classification is mostly based on location rather than forms.

Runes are a popular field for scientific speculation, and many other theories have been advanced, e. g. a claim by Olaus Rudbeck Sr in Atlantica that all writing systems originate from proto-runic scripts.

In the later Middle Ages, runes were mostly used in the Clog almanacs (sometimes called Runic staff, Prim or Scandinavian calendar) that became standard equipment within Northern Europe with the introduction of Christianity. The authenticity of some monuments bearing Runic inscriptions found in Northern America is disputed, but most of them date from modern times.

Magic and Divination

Missing image
The Björketorp Runestone. It is 4.2 m tall.
The earliest runic inscriptions were certainly not coherent texts of any length, but simple markings on artifacts (e.g. bracteates, combs, etc.), giving the name of either the craftsman or the proprietor, or, sometimes, remaining a linguistic mystery. Because of this, it is possible that the early runes were not so much used as a simple writing system, but rather as magical signs to be used for charms, or for divination. The name rune itself, taken to mean "secret, something hidden", seems to indicate that knowledge of the runes was originally considered esoteric, or restricted to an elite. The eerie 6th century Björketorp Runestone warns in Proto-Norse using the word rune in both senses:
Haidz runo runu, falh'k hedra ginnarunaz. Argiu hermalausz, ... weladauže, saz žat brytz. Užarba spa.
Here, I have hidden the secret of powerful runes, strong runes. The one who breaks this memorial will be eternally tormented by anger. Treacherous death will hit him. I foresee perdition.

There are also some inscriptions suggesting a medieval belief in the magical significance of runes, such as the Franks Casket (AD 700) panel.

However, it has proven difficult to find unambiguous traces of runic "oracles": Although Norse literature is full of references to runes, it nowhere contains specific instructions on divination or magic. There are two sources on divination with rather vague descriptions that may or may not refer to runes, Tacitus' Germania and Rimbert's Vita Ansgari.

The first source, Tacitus' Germania, describes "signs" chosen in groups of three, although the specifics of Tacitus' description may fit with Celtic Ogham better than Germanic Runes (consistent with the position of scholars such as Peter Ellis who believe that Tacitus confused Germans and Celts). The second source is Rimbert's Vita Ansgari, where there are three accounts of what seems to be the use of runes for divination, but Rimbert calls it "drawing lots". One of these accounts is the description of how a renegade Swedish king Anund Uppsale first brings a Danish fleet to Birka, but then changes his mind and asks the Danes to "draw lots". According to the story, this "drawing of lots" was quite informative, telling them that attacking Birka would bring bad luck and that they should attack a Slavic town instead.

The lack of knowledge on historical usage of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the runes' reconstructed names. Perhaps the most popular of these is the system created by Ralph Blum, whose Book of Runes comes with a set of runes on ceramic tiles, that are loosely based on the runes of the Elder Futhark. In his book, Blum writes the meanings of the runes "came to him" (that is, he either made them up, or else received them as a revelation, but did not derive these from scholarly research). Another author is Edred Thorsson, whose best known books are Futhark, Runelore and Runecaster's Handbook (originally published as At The Well of Wyrd).

Common use

Missing image
Church bell from Saleby, Västergötland, Sweden, containing an inscription from 1228 in the Runic alphabet

Later runic finds are mainly monuments (rune stones) and often contain solemn inscriptions about people who died or performed great deeds. For a long time it was assumed that this kind of grand inscription was the primary use of runes, and that their use was associated with a certain societal class of rune-carvers.

However, in the middle of the 1950s, about 600 inscriptions known as the Bryggen inscriptions were found in Bergen. These inscriptions were made on wood and bone and contained several phrases of a profane and sometimes even vulgar nature. Following this find, it is nowadays commonly assumed that at least in late use, Runic was a widespread and common writing system.

Gothic runes

Theories of the existence of Gothic runes have been advanced, even identifying them as the original alphabet from which the Futhark were derived, but these have little support in actual findings. If there ever were genuinely Gothic runes, they were soon replaced by the Gothic alphabet. The letters of the Gothic alphabet, however, as given by the Alcuin manuscript (9th century), are obviously related to the names of the Futhark. The names are clearly Gothic, but it is impossible to say whether they are as old as, or even older than, the letters themselves.

Elder Fužark

main article: Elder Futhark.

the Older Futhark
the Older Futhark

The Elder Futhark, used for writing proto-Norse (urnordiska), consist of twenty-four runes, often arranged in three rows of eight. The earliest known full sequential listing of the alphabet dates from ca. 400 and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland.

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ ᚹ
ᚺ ᚾ ᛁ ᛃ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛊ
ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛜ ᛞ ᛟ

The letter values, and their common transliteration are: ᚠ [f], ᚢ [u], ᚦ [þ], ᚨ [a], ᚱ [r], ᚲ [k], ᚷ [g], ᚹ[w], ᚺ [h], ᚾ [n], ᛁ [i], ᛃ [j]; ᛇ [ļ] ([ei]), ᛈ [p], ᛉ [R], ᛊ [s], ᛏ [t], ᛒ [b], ᛖ [e], ᛗ [m], ᛚ [l], ᛜ [ŋ], ᛞ [d], ᛟ [o].


Each rune most probably had a name, chosen to represent the sound of the rune itself. The names are, however, not directly attested for the Elder Futhark themselves. Reconstructed names in Proto-Germanic have been suggested for them, based on the names given for runes of the later alphabets in the rune poems and the names of the letters of the Gothic alphabet.

fehu "wealth, cattle", ᚢ ûruz "aurochs" (or ûram "water / slag"?), ᚦ thurisaz "giant", ᚨ ansuz "one of the Aesir" (or ahsam "ear (of corn)"?), ᚱ raidô "ride, journey", ᚲ kaunan "ulcer, illness", ᚷ gebô "gift", ᚹ wunjô "joy",

haglaz "hail", ᚾ naudiz "need", ᛁ îsaz "ice", ᛃ jera "year", ᛇ îgwaz / eihwaz "yew", ᛈ perþô? "pear"?, ᛉ algiz "elk"?, ᛊ sôwilô "Sun",

tîwaz (a god), ᛒ berkanan "birch", ᛖ ehwaz "horse", ᛗ mannaz "man", ᛚ laukaz "lake", ᛜ ingwaz (a god), ᛞ dagaz "day", ᛟ ôþalan "estate, inheritance"

Frisian and Anglo-Saxon Fužorc

main article: Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.

The Futhorc are an extended alphabet, consisting of 29, and later even 33 characters. It was used probably from the 5th century onward. There are competing theories as to the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Fužorc. One theory proposes that it was developed in Frisia and later spread to England. Another holds that runes were introduced by Scandinavians to England where the fužorc was modified and exported to Frisia. Both theories have their inherent weaknesses and a definitive answer likely awaits more archaeological evidence. Futhorc inscriptions are found e.g. on the Thames scramasax, in the Vienna Codex, in Cotton MS Otho B (†) and on the Ruthwell Cross.

The Fužorc
The Fužorc

The Anglo-Saxon rune poem has: ᚠ feoh, ᚢ ur, ᚦ thorn, ᚩ os, ᚱ rad, ᚳ cen, ᚷ gyfu, ᚹ wynn, ᚻ haegl, ᚾ nyd, ᛁ is, ᛄ ger, ᛇ eoh, ᛈ peordh, ᛉ eolh, ᛋ sigel, ᛏ tir, ᛒ beorc, ᛖ eh, ᛗ mann, ᛚ lagu, ᛝ ing, ᛟ ethel, ᛞ daeg, ᚪ ac, ᚫ aesc, ᚣ yr, ᛡ ior, ᛠ ear.

The expanded alphabet has the additional letters ᛢ cweorth, ᛣ calc, ᛤ cealc and ᛥ stan. It should be mentioned that these additional letters have only been found in manuscripts.

Feoh, žorn, and sigel stood for [f], [ž], and [s] in most environments, but voiced to [v], [š], and [z] between vowels or voiced consonants. Gyfu and wynn stood for the letters yogh and wynn which became [g] and [w] in Middle English.

Younger Fužark

The Younger Fužark, also called Scandinavian Fužark, is a reduced form of the Elder Futhark, consisting of only 16 characters. The reduction correlates with phonetic changes when Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse. They are found in Scandinavia and Viking Age settlements abroad, probably in use from the 9th century onward. They are divided into long-branch (Danish) and short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) runes. The difference between the two versions has been a matter of controversy. A general opinion is that the difference was functional, i.e. the long-branch runes were used for documentation on stone, whereas the short-branch runes were in every day use for private or official messages on wood.

The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems have 16 runes, with the letter names ᚠ fe ("wealth"), ᚢ ur ("iron"/"rain"), ᚦ Thurs, ᚬ As/Oss, ᚱ reidh ("ride"), ᚴ kaun ("ulcer"), ᚼ hagall ("hail"), ᚾ naudhr/naud ("need"), ᛁ is/iss ("ice"), ᛅ ar ("plenty"), ᛋ sol ("sun"), ᛏ Tyr, ᛒ bjarkan/bjarken ("birch"), ᛘ madhr/madr ("man"), ᛚ logr/lög ("water"), ᛦ yr ("yew").

Long-branch runes

Missing image
the Younger Futhark (long-branch runes)

The long-branch runes are the following signs:

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚬ ᚱ ᚴ ᚼ ᚾ ᛁ ᛅ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ ᛘ ᛚ ᛦ

Short-twig runes

Missing image
short-twig runes

The short-twig runes (or Rök runes) are a simplified version of the long-branch runes, consisting of the following sixteen signs:

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚭ ᚱ ᚴ ᚽ ᚿ ᛁ ᛆ ᛌ ᛐ ᛓ ᛙ ᛚ ᛧ

Hälsinge Runes (staveless runes)

Missing image
staveless runes

Hälsinge runes are found in the Hälsingland region of Sweden, used between the 10th and 12th centuries. The runes seem to be a simplification of the Swedish–Norwegian runes and lack vertical strokes, hence the name 'staveless.' They cover the same set of letters as the other Younger Futhark alphabets. This variant has no assigned Unicode range (as of Unicode 4.0).

Dalecarlian Runic script

Missing image
the Dalecarlian runes

Named after the Swedish province Dalecarlia (see Dalecarlian language), the Dalecarlian runic script is an alphabetic script influenced by both long-branch and short-twig runes. It introduces dotted variants of voiceless signs to denote the corresponding voiced consonants, or vice versa, voiceless variants of voiced consonants. It came into use in the late Middle Ages (or in the early 16th century) and remained in some use up to the 20th century. Its inventory is suitable for transcribing modern Swedish:

ᛆ a, ᛒ b, ᛍ c, ᛑ d, ᚦ þ, ᚧ ð, ᛂ e, ᚠ f, ᚵ g, ᚼ h, ᛁ i, ᚴ k, ᛚ l, ᛘ m, ᚿ n, ᚮ o, ᛔ p, ᚱ r, ᛌ s, ᛐ t, ᚢ u, ᚡ v, ᛦ y, ᛎ z, ᛅ æ, ᚯ ų

There are other varieties of the Younger Futhark, in particular the Edward-script which can be considered as a variant of the Dalecarlian runes (see Image of Edward-script). In total, about 380 objects dating from 1500–1910 have been found in the provinces of Dalecarlia, Gestricia and Herdalia. The Edward-script was in use until the 1910s in Älvdalen, Dalecarlia, and also appears on the Kensington Runestone, which to most researchers indicates its status as a hoax.

Modern use

Fascist symbolism

From , the Nazi  displayed two "Sig runes".
From 1933, the Nazi SS badge displayed two "Sig runes".

Runes have been used in fascist symbolism by Nazism and neo-Nazi groups that associate themselves with Scandinavian traditions, mainly the Sigel, Eihwaz, Tyr (c.f. Thor Steinar), Odal (see Odalism) and Algiz runes.

The fascination that runes seem to have exerted on the Nazis can be traced to the occult and völkisch author Guido von List, one of the important figures in Germanic mysticism and runic revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1908, List published in Das Geheimnis der Runen ("The Secret of the Runes") a set of 18 so-called "Armanen Runes", based on the Younger Futhark, which were allegedly revealed to him in a state of temporary blindness after a cataract operation on both eyes in 1902.

In Nazi contexts, the s-rune is referred to as "Sig" (after List, probably from Anglo-Saxon Sigel). The "Wolfsangel", while not a rune historically, has the shape of List's "Gibor" rune.

Popular culture

Runes are used for divination and ritual in varying ways in occultism and neo-paganism (e.g. Įsatrś, Wicca). Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to draw a precise boundary line between these and Nazi mysticism, but the mere use of runes should not be construed as sufficient proof of any connection to fascist ideas.

J. R. R. Tolkien popularized runes by his use of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc in The Hobbit, and he also invented his own fictional runic alphabet, the Cirth. In Tolkien's wake, runes appear frequently in Fantasy literature.

Like in fantasy literature, role-playing games (both computer games and pen-and-paper ones) often use either historical or invented runes for the effect, usually to write short messages, such as signs or tombstones. In some games, these are used so frequently that players quickly learn to read them without aid - the Ultima computer game series is a good example of this, also employing other invented scripts. In other games, such as Dungeon Master (see Dungeon Master Runes) and online game RuneScape (see RuneScape runes), often use runes to cast magic spells. There are typically many kinds and sophisticated magical effects may often be achieved by combining them during the casting or enchantment.


Runic alphabets are assigned Unicode range 16A0–16FF. This block is intended to encode all shapes of runic letters. Each letter is encoded only once, regardless of the number of alphabets in which it occurrs.

The block contains 81 symbols: 75 runic letters (16A0–16EA), three punctuation marks (Runic Single Punctuation 16EB ᛫, Runic Multiple Punctuation 16EC ᛬ and Runic Cross Punctuation 16ED ᛭), and three runic symbols that are used in mediaeval calendar staves ("Golden number Runes", Runic Arlaug Symbol 16EE ᛮ, Runic Tvimadur Symbol 16EF ᛯ and Runic Belgthor Symbol 16F0 ᛰ). Characters 16F1–16FF are presently (as of Unicode Version 4.1) unassigned.

Table of runic letters (U+16A0–U+16EA):

16A0 fehu feoh fe f 16B0 on 16C0 dotted-n 16D0 short-twig-tyr t 16E0 ear
16A1 v 16B1 raido rad reid r 16C1 isaz is iss i 16D1 d 16E1 ior
16A2 uruz ur u 16B2 kauna 16C2 e 16D2 berkanan beorc bjarkan b 16E2 cweorth
16A3 yr 16B3 cen 16C3 jeran j 16D3 short-twig-bjarkan b 16E3 calc
16A4 y 16B4 kaun k 16C4 ger 16D4 dotted-p 16E4 cealc
16A5 w 16B5 g 16C5 long-branch-ar ae 16D5 open-p 16E5 stan
16A6 thurisaz thurs thorn 16B6 eng 16C6 short-twig-ar a 16D6 ehwaz eh e 16E6 long-branch-yr
16A7 eth 16B7 gebo gyfu g 16C7 iwaz eoh 16D7 mannaz man m 16E7 short-twig-yr
16A8 ansuz a 16B8 gar 16C8 pertho peorth p 16D8 long-branch-madr m 16E8 icelandic-yr
16A9 os o 16B9 wunjo wynn w 16C9 algiz eolhx 16D9 short-twig-madr m 16E9 q
16AA ac a 16BA haglaz h 16CA sowilo s 16DA laukaz lagu logr l 16EA x
16AB aesc 16BB haegl h 16CB sigel long-branch-sol s 16DB dotted-l
16AC long-branch-oss o 16BC long-branch-hagall h 16CC short-twig-sol s 16DC ingwaz
16AD short-twig-oss o 16BD short-twig-hagall h 16CD c 16DD ing
16AE o 16BE naudiz nyd naud n 16CE z 16DE dagaz daeg d
16AF oe 16BF short-twig-naud n 16CF tiwaz tir tyr t 16DF othalan ethel o


Area number of rune stone inscriptions
Sweden 3430
Norway 1552
Denmark 844
Scandinavian total 5826
the British Isles 100
Greenland 92
Iceland 39
Ireland 15
Faroes 9
Non-Scandinavian total 255
Total 6081

"Runiform" scripts

The 8th century Orkhon script (sometimes called Old Turkic), and the related medieval Old Hungarian script are often called runes, but strictly speaking that term refers only to the Germanic alphabet. For this reason, they are also sometimes referred to as "runiform".

See also


  • Erik Brate: Sveriges runinskrifter, 1922 (online text ( in Swedish)
  • R.I. Page. An Introduction to English Runes. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1999. ISBN 0851157688.
  • Orrin W. Robinson. Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0804714541

External links


Special characters

Template:SpecialCharsals:Futhark da:Runealfabet de:Runen eo:Runaj alfabetoj es:Runa fr:Alphabet runique ja:ルーン文字 lv:Rūnu raksts nl:Rune nn:Runer no:Runer pl:Runy pt:Runas ru:Руны sv:Runor


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