On Runes

David F. Leigh
May, 1997

I first became interested in runes while reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit in the third grade. Imagine my surprise to find that the "elvish" characters labeling the illustrations were actually a real alphabet, and the inscriptions were in English! While in the military I had the good fortune to serve a five-year tour in England, where my idea of a pleasant weekend was driving around the country looking for stone circles, standing stones, and other ancient monuments.

"Runes" are the generic term used for letters used in several related alphabets that were generally used in Europe between the second and eleventh centuries CE (although they survived in Scandinavia for quite some time after). Notice I said several alphabets. Specifics of runic alphabets (or "futharks") varied greatly with geography and time. Further confusion results from the fact that runes from different regions were sometimes mixed, rotated, or flipped; and sometimes runes were even scattered among Roman letters! So anything you read about them here (or anywhere else) is open to interpretation. The alphabets you'll see on this page, the correct number and order of the letters, and the names and meanings of the symbols are reconstructions.

Runes form alphabets, plain and simple. Anything you've been told about their "mystic properties" is pure hogwash. Runes were considered "mystic" to ignorant people of the dark ages precisely because those people were illiterate and superstitious. Many of them could not read. (Many people of modern times consider runes to be "mystic" in and of themselves. Such people are simply gullible... they do not think.). To quote from R.I. Page(***):

...Most distinguished Scandinavian runologists now take the view that the Germanic peoples used runes as they would have done any other script (had they known any other), for practical, day-to-day purposes.  Of course, if they wanted to cut a religious or magical text, if they wished to produce a charm word, they would use runic, the only script they had for it, just as a modern wizard would be likely to write his magic gibberish in Roman characters.  But that would not confer upon runes the status of a magical script.

That is not to say that many of the people who used these symbols did not believe runes had mystic properties. They did, but I tend to believe that these properties were assigned after the fact by people that really didn't understand them well. It is true that each rune was assigned a name. It is also true that often a single rune was used to represent the object for which it was named, or even just the syllable (as in using the "M" rune in place of "mon" in the name "Solomon"). Thus runes were used as ideograms, phonetic script, and alphabetic script, sometimes in the same message!

You'll note that runes have very distinctive shapes, having vertical and slanted lines, but no horizontal or curved lines. This form is dictated by their function. Runes are designed for inscription; particularly, for inscription in wood. As such, their form takes the grain of the wood into account. Vertical lines were cut at right angles to the grain. These an the slanted lines showed were easily discernible. Horizontal lines would have disappeared into the grain and curved lines are difficult to carve, so both were avoided.

Elder Futhark (Germanic)

sounds like: Fsounds like: Usounds like: THsounds like: Asounds like: Rsounds like: Ksounds like: Gsounds like: Wsounds like: Hsounds like: Nsounds like: Isounds like: Jsound kind of like: EIsounds like; Psounds like: Zsounds like: Ssounds like: Tsounds like: Bsounds like: Esounds like: Msounds like: Lsounds like: NGsounds like: Osounds like: D
What you see above is a reconstruction of the Germanic futhark, in the order that the runes are usually presented.

Of the three major variations of this alphabet family, this futhark is the oldest.

Name notwithstanding, as alphabets go, even the "Elder Futhark" is a Johnny-come-lately. The earliest examples we have are from the 2nd century CE. In comparison, some of the more well-known alphabets of the ancient world (Hebrew, Roman, Greek, and many others) are thousands of years older. As you can tell from the shapes of some letters the futhark borrowed from these outside sources. The F, U, B, T, L, H, I and S share not only their shapes but also their sounds with the Roman alphabet.

Incidentally, the word futhark comes from the pronunciation of the first six runes, just as the English word alphabet is derived from the names of the first two letters of the Greek aphabet (alpha and beta). Obviously there's no "right" way to phonetically order any alphabet!

Futhork (Anglo-Saxon)

sounds like: Fsounds like: Usounds like: THsounds like: Osounds like: Rsounds like: Csounds like: Gsounds like: Wsounds like: Hsounds like: Nsounds like: Isounds like: Jsounds sort of like: EIsounds like: Psounds like: Z{sounds like: Ssounds like: S}sounds like: Tsounds like: Bsounds like: Esounds like: Msounds like: Lsounds like: NGsounds like: Osounds like: Dsounds like: Asounds like: AEsounds like: Ysounds like: EAsounds sort of like: Gsounds like: Ksounds sort of like: K
The English expanded the number of runes to accommodate new sounds, changing the sound and position of some of them in the process. As a result they had a "futhork" rather than a futhark.

Younger Futhark (Danish)

sounds like: Fsounds like: Usounds like: THsounds sort of like: A or Osounds like: Rsounds like: Ksounds like: Hsounds like: Nsounds like: Isounds like: A{sounds like: Ssounds like: S}sounds like: Tsounds like: Bsounds like: Msounds like: Lsounds sort of like: R
Rune-masters in the North went the opposite direction fo the English when they reduced, rather than expanded, the number of runes. Even after some study it seems that this was a puzzling move, because they eliminated many sounds that you might think were necessary. For example, there was no E, O, P, D, or G! On the other hand, there are two A's and two R's , subtly differing in pronunciation.

Younger Futhark (Swedo-Norwegian)

sounds like: Fsounds like: Usounds like: TH{sounds sort of like: A or Omay sound sort of like: A or O}sounds like: Rsounds like: Ksounds like: Hsound like: Nsounds like: I{sounds like: Asounds like: A}sounds like: Ssounds like: T{sounds like: Bmay sound like: B}sounds like: Msounds like: Lsounds sort of like: R
In later years the Scandinavians reduced the futhark to only 16 characters (again, with some mirroring or regional variations... In particular, the might have been used as an A, O (or something similar) or even a B). The letters that were left were not enough to represent the spoken language, so they took to modifying the sounds of some of the letters by adding dots to them (thus a K could become a G, or a T become a D). I have no idea why they just didn't retain the characters from the elder futhark that represented these sounds.

Others

There are plenty of variations on the runes you've seen above. There's no way I'm going to take time to draw them all, even if I knew them. Just keep in mind that if you see anything at other sources that contradict what I say here, then that source is likely to be also correct. In particular, the various late forms that were used in Scandinavia were so varied and confusing that I don't really want to go into them here, as they are of little interest to folks making casual inquiry on the Web and I don't have the scholarly background to make sense of them for you.


Runes by Sound

These are ordered by the Roman alphabetic equivalents. I've put the names of the runes next to them where I know them... and took a stab at some others (I've marked my uncertainty with question marks).  If you know more than I then please send me mail so I can improve this table.
 

Roman

Germanic

Anglo-Saxon

Danish

Swedo-Norwegian

A

ansuz
god

ac
oak-tree

ar (?)

or

AE

 

aesch
ash-tree

 

 

A/O

 

 

or

B

berkanan
birch-twig

bercon (?)

or

C

 

cen
torch

 

 

D

dagaz
day

 

 

E

ehwaz
horse

 

 

EA

 

ear
earth, grave(?)

 

 

F

fehu
money, cattle, wealth

feoh
money, property (compare to the modern word "fee")

fe
money, property

fe
money, property

G

gebo
gift

gyfu / geofu
gift (?)

 

 

G

 

gar
spear

 

 

H

hagalaz
hail

hagol (?)

I

isa
ice

is
ice

iss
ice

Ï The sound of this character was something close to, but not exactly like I or IE.

ihwaz / eihwaz
yew-tree

 

 

J

jera
year, fruitful part of the year

 

 

K

kenaz
torch, flame (?)

calc
 (?)

K

 

name unknown
found only at Ruthwell, Dunfries and Galloway.

 

 

L

laguz / laukaz
water / fertility

M

mannaz
man

N

naudiz
need, necessity, extremity

nou (?)

NG

ingwaz
the god "Ing"

ing
the god "Ing"

 

 

O

othala-
hereditary land, possession

oethil

 

 

OE

 

 

 

P

perth-(?)
meaning unclear

peorth (?)

 

 

R

raidho
riding, carriage

reth (?)

R

 

 

S

sowilo
sun

orsol (?)
sun

or

T

tiwaz / teiwaz
the god Tiw (whose name survives in "Tuesday")

tyr (?)

TH

thurisaz
giant, monster (?)

thorn
thorn

thurs
giant, monster

U

uruz
wild ox (?)

ur
wild ox

W

wunjo
joy

 

 

X

 

 

 

Y

 

yr
bow (?)

 

 

Z

agiz(?)
meaning unclear

 

 

 




Credit

Finally , for unknowingly assisting with this web page, I'd like to credit Bjorn Stade, from whose website I "borrowed" the the bulk of the graphics and some of the information you see here. (You'll find some minor variations between the runes he shows on his site and the runes I show. That's not unusual, as there was a great deal of regional variation.  My runes are the version reconstructed by R.I. Page). Please visit Bjorn's website, it's very nice, and he presents the names of the runes and their ideographic representations (which I won't reproduce here). Be forewarned, it's in German.


The informational content of this website is copyright 1997-2002 by David F. Leigh unless otherwise stated. Permission to distribute is granted under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.