For other uses, see Runes (disambiguation).
Languages Germanic languages
Time period
Elder Futhark from the 2nd century AD
Parent systems
Child systems
Younger Futhark, Anglo-Saxon futhorc
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Runr, 211
Unicode alias

Runes (Proto-Norse: ᚱᚢᚾᛟ (runo), Old Norse: rún) are the letters in a set of related alphabets known as runic alphabets, which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialised purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark or fuþark (derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the names of those six letters).

Runology is the study of the runic alphabets, runic inscriptions, runestones, and their history. Runology forms a specialised branch of Germanic linguistics.

The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 AD. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianisation, by approximately 700 AD in central Europe and 1100 AD in northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in northern Europe. Until the early 20th century, runes were used in rural Sweden for decorative purposes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars.

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD). The Younger Futhark is divided further into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden); short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark); and the stavlösa or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Medieval runes (1100–1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500–1800 AD).

Historically, the runic alphabet is a derivation of the Old Italic scripts of antiquity, with the addition of some innovations. Which variant of the Old Italic family in particular gave rise to the runes is uncertain. Suggestions include Raetic, Venetic, Etruscan, or Old Latin as candidates. At the time, all of these scripts had the same angular letter shapes suited for epigraphy, which would become characteristic of the runes.

The process of transmission of the script is unknown. The oldest inscriptions are found in Denmark and northern Germany, not near Italy. A "West Germanic hypothesis" suggests transmission via Elbe Germanic groups, while a "Gothic hypothesis" presumes transmission via East Germanic expansion.

History and use

An inscription using cipher runes, the Elder Futhark, and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th-century Rök Runestone in Sweden
A Younger Futhark inscription on the 12th-century Vaksala Runestone in Sweden

The runes were in use among the Germanic peoples from the 1st or 2nd century AD.[lower-alpha 1] This period corresponds to the late Common Germanic stage linguistically, with a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries: North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic.

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. Similarly, there are no signs for labiovelars in the Elder Futhark (such signs were introduced in both the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Gothic alphabet as variants of p; see peorð.)

The term runes is used to distinguish these symbols from Latin and Greek letters. It is attested on a 6th-century Alamannic runestaff as runa and possibly as runo on the 4th-century Einang stone. The name comes from the Germanic root run- (Gothic runa), meaning "secret" or "whisper". In Old Irish Gaelic, the word rún means "mystery," "secret," "intention" or "affectionate love." Similarly in Welsh and Old English, the word rhin and rūn respectively means "mystery", "secret", "secret writing", or sometimes in the extreme sense of the word, "miracle" (gwyrth). Ogham is a Celtic script, similarly carved in the Norse manner. The root run- can also be found in the Baltic languages, meaning "speech". In Lithuanian, runoti means both "to cut (with a knife)" and "to speak".[3] According to another theory, the Germanic root comes from the Indoeuropean root *reuə- "dig".[4] The Finnish term for rune, riimukirjain, means "scratched letter".[5] The Finnish word runo means "poem" and comes from the same source as the English word "rune"; it is a very old loan of the Proto-Germanic *rūnō ("letter, literature, secret").[6]


Main article: Elder Futhark

The runes developed centuries after the Old Italic alphabets from which they are probably historically derived. The debate on the development of the runic script concerns the question regarding which of the Italic alphabets should be taken as their point of origin and which, if any, signs should be considered original innovations added to the letters found in the Italic scripts. The historical context of the script's origin is the cultural contact between Germanic people, who often served as mercenaries in the Roman army, and the Italic peninsula during the Roman imperial period (1st century BC to 5th century AD). The formation of the Elder Futhark was complete by the early 5th century, with the Kylver Stone being the first evidence of the futhark ordering as well as of the p rune.

The alphabets of Este (Venetic), Magrè and Bolzano/Bozen-Sanzeno (Raetic), Sondrio (Camunic), Lugano (Lepontic)

Specifically, the Raetic alphabet of Bolzano is often advanced as a candidate for the origin of the runes, with only five Elder Futhark runes ( e, ï, j, ŋ, p) having no counterpart in the Bolzano alphabet.[7] Scandinavian scholars tend to favor derivation from the Latin alphabet itself over Raetic candidates.[8][9][10] A "North Etruscan" thesis is supported by the inscription on the Negau helmet dating to the 2nd century BC.[11] This is in a northern Etruscan alphabet but features a Germanic name, Harigast. Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante suggest that runes derived from some North Italic alphabet, specifically Venetic: but since Romans conquered Venetia after 200BC, and then the Latin alphabet became prominent and Venetic culture diminished in importance, Germanic people could have adopted Venetic alphabet within 3rd century BC or even earlier.[12]

The angular shapes of the runes are shared with most contemporary alphabets of the period that were used for carving in wood or stone. There are no horizontal strokes: when carving a message on a flat staff or stick, it would be along the grain, thus both less legible and more likely to split the wood. This characteristic is also shared by other alphabets, such as the early form of the Latin alphabet used for the Duenos inscription, but it is not universal, especially among early runic inscriptions, which frequently have variant rune shapes, including horizontal strokes. Runic manuscripts (i. e., written rather than carved runes, such as Codex Runicus) also show horizontal strokes.

The "West Germanic hypothesis" speculates on an introduction by West Germanic tribes. This hypothesis is based on claiming that the earliest inscriptions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, found in bogs and graves around Jutland (the Vimose inscriptions), exhibit word endings that, being interpreted by Scandinavian scholars to be Proto-Norse, are considered unresolved and long having been the subject of discussion. Inscriptions such as wagnija, niþijo, and harija are supposed to represent tribe names, tentatively proposed to be Vangiones, the Nidensis, and the Harii tribes located in the Rhineland.[13] Since names ending in -io reflect Germanic morphology representing the Latin ending -ius, and the suffix -inius was reflected by Germanic -inio-,[14][15] the question of the problematic ending -ijo in masculine Proto-Norse would be resolved by assuming Roman (Rhineland) influences, while "the awkward ending -a of laguþewa[16] may be solved by accepting the fact that the name may indeed be West Germanic".[13] However, it should be noted that in the early Runic period differences between Germanic languages are generally presumed to be small. Another theory presumes a Northwest Germanic unity preceding the emergence of Proto-Norse proper from roughly the 5th century.[lower-alpha 2][lower-alpha 3] An alternative suggestion explaining the impossibility of classifying the earliest inscriptions as either North or West Germanic is forwarded by È. A. Makaev, who presumes a "special runic koine", an early "literary Germanic" employed by the entire Late Common Germanic linguistic community after the separation of Gothic (2nd to 5th centuries), while the spoken dialects may already have been more diverse.[18]

Early inscriptions

Ring of Pietroassa (from between 250 and 400 AD) by Henri Trenk, 1875

Runic inscriptions from the 400-year period 150 to 550 AD are described as "Period I". These inscriptions are generally in Elder Futhark, but the set of letter shapes and bindrunes employed is far from standardized. Notably the j, s, and ŋ runes undergo considerable modifications, while others, such as p and ï, remain unattested altogether prior to the first full futhark row on the Kylver Stone (c. 400 AD).

Artifacts such as spear heads or shield mounts have been found that bear runic marking that may be dated to 200 AD, as evidenced by artifacts found across northern Europe in Schleswig (North Germany), Fyn, Sjælland, Jylland (Denmark), and Skåne (Sweden). Earlier - but less reliable - artifacts have been found in Meldorf, Süderdithmarschen, northern Germany; these include brooches and combs found in graves, most notably the Meldorf fibula, and are supposed to have the earliest markings resembling runic inscriptions.

Theories of the existence of separate Gothic runes have been advanced, even identifying them as the original alphabet from which the Futhark were derived, but these have little support in archaeological findings (mainly the spearhead of Kovel, with its right-to-left inscription, its T-shaped tiwaz, and its rectangular dagaz). 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 the letters themselves. A handful of Elder Futhark inscriptions were found in Gothic territory, such as the 3rd- to 5th-century Ring of Pietroassa.

The Encyclopædia Britannica even suggests the original development of the runes may have been due to the Goths.[19]

Magical or divinatory use

A bracteate (G 205) from approximately AD 400 that features the charm word alu with a depiction of a stylized male head, a horse, and a swastika, a common motif on bracteates
An illustration of the Gummarp Runestone (500-700 AD) from Blekinge, Sweden
Closeup of the runic inscription found on the 6th- or 7th-century Björketorp Runestone located in Blekinge, Sweden
Main article: Runic magic

The stanza 157 of Hávamál attribute to runes the power to bring that which is dead back to life. In this stanza, Odin recounts a spell:

Þat kann ek it tolfta,
ef ek sé á tré uppi
váfa virgilná,:
svá ek ríst ok í rúnum fák,
at sá gengr gumi
ok mælir við mik.[1]

  1. ^ "Hávamál", Norrøne Tekster og Kvad, Norway .

I know a twelfth one if I see,
up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
And talks with me.[1]

  1. ^ Larrington 1999, p. 37.

The earliest runic inscriptions found on artifacts give the name of either the craftsman or the proprietor, or sometimes, remain a linguistic mystery. Due to this, it is possible that the early runes were not used so much as a simple writing system, but rather as magical signs to be used for charms. Although some say the runes were used for divination, there is no direct evidence to suggest they were ever used in this way. 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 6th-century Björketorp Runestone warns in Proto-Norse using the word rune in both senses:

Haidzruno runu, falahak haidera, ginnarunaz. Arageu haeramalausz uti az. Weladaude, sa'z þat barutz. Uþarba spa.

I, master of the runes(?) conceal here runes of power. Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who breaks this (monument). I prophesy destruction / prophecy of destruction.[20]

The same curse and use of the word, rune, also is found on the Stentoften Runestone. There also are some inscriptions suggesting a medieval belief in the magical significance of runes, such as the Franks Casket (AD 700) panel.

Charm words, such as auja, laþu, laukaʀ, and most commonly, alu,[21] appear on a number of Migration period Elder Futhark inscriptions as well as variants and abbreviations of them. Much speculation and study has been produced on the potential meaning of these inscriptions. Rhyming groups appear on some early bracteates that also may be magical in purpose, such as salusalu and luwatuwa. Further, an inscription on the Gummarp Runestone (500-700 AD) gives a cryptic inscription describing the use of three runic letters followed by the Elder Futhark f-rune written three times in succession.[22]

Nevertheless, 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. There are at least three sources on divination with rather vague descriptions that may, or may not, refer to runes: Tacitus's 1st-century Germania, Snorri Sturluson's 13th-century Ynglinga saga, and Rimbert's 9th-century Vita Ansgari.

The first source, Tacitus's Germania, describes "signs" chosen in groups of three and cut from "a nut-bearing tree," although the runes do not seem to have been in use at the time of Tacitus' writings. A second source is the Ynglinga saga, where Granmar, the king of Södermanland, goes to Uppsala for the blót. There, the "chips" fell in a way that said that he would not live long (Féll honum þá svo spánn sem hann mundi eigi lengi lifa). These "chips," however, are easily explainable as a blótspánn (sacrificial chip), which was "marked, possibly with sacrificial blood, shaken, and thrown down like dice, and their positive or negative significance then decided."[23]

The third source is Rimbert's Vita Ansgari, where there are three accounts of what some believe 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 tool in the "drawing of lots," however, is easily explainable as a hlautlein (lot-twig), which according to Foote and Wilson[24] would be used in the same manner as a blótspánn.

The lack of extensive knowledge on historical use of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the reconstructed names of the runes and additional outside influence.

A recent study of runic magic suggests that runes were used to create magical objects such as amulets,[25] but not in a way that would indicate that runic writing was any more inherently magical, than were other writing systems such as Latin or Greek.

Medieval use

Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript from approximately AD 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian Law, is written entirely in runes

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 to itself to represent diphthongs unique to (or at least prevalent in) the Anglo-Saxon dialect.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Younger Futhark has 16 runes, while the Elder Futhark has 24, is not fully explained by the some 600 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 fewer different rune signs at the same time as the development of the language led to a greater number of different phonemes than had been present at the time of the older futhark. For example, voiced and unvoiced consonants merged in script, and so did many vowels, while the number of vowels in the spoken language increased. From approximately AD 1100, this disadvantage was eliminated in the medieval runes, which again, increased the number of different signs to correspond with the number of phonemes in the language.

Some later runic finds are on monuments (runestones), which often contain solemn inscriptions about people who died or performed great deeds. For a long time it was presumed 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.

In the mid-1950s, however, approximately 600 inscriptions, known as the Bryggen inscriptions, were found in Bergen. These inscriptions were made on wood and bone, often in the shape of sticks of various sizes, and contained inscriptions of an everyday nature—ranging from name tags, prayers (often in Latin), personal messages, business letters, and expressions of affection, to bawdy phrases of a profane and sometimes even of a vulgar nature. Following this find, it is nowadays commonly presumed that, at least in late use, Runic was a widespread and common writing system.

17thC clog almanac collected by Sir Hans Sloane. Now in the collection of the British Museum

In the later Middle Ages, runes also were used in the Clog almanacs (sometimes called Runic staff, Prim, or Scandinavian calendar) of Sweden and Estonia. The authenticity of some monuments bearing Runic inscriptions found in Northern America is disputed; most of them have been dated to modern times.

Runes in Eddic lore

In Norse mythology, the runic alphabet is attested to a divine origin (Old Norse: reginkunnr). This is attested as early as on the Noleby Runestone from approximately 600 AD that reads Runo fahi raginakundo toj[e'k]a..., meaning "I prepare the suitable divine rune..."[26] and in an attestation from the 9th century on the Sparlösa Runestone, which reads Ok rað runaʀ þaʀ rægi[n]kundu, meaning "And interpret the runes of divine origin".[27] More notably, in the Poetic Edda poem Hávamál, Stanza 80, the runes also are described as reginkunnr:

Þat er þá reynt,
er þú að rúnum spyrr
inum reginkunnum,
þeim er gerðu ginnregin
ok fáði fimbulþulr,
þá hefir hann bazt, ef hann þegir.[1]

  1. ^ Cite error: The named reference H.C3.A1vam.C3.A1l was invoked but never defined (see the help page).

That is now proved,
what you asked of the runes,
of the potent famous ones,
which the great gods made,
and the mighty sage stained,
that it is best for him if he stays silent.[1]

  1. ^ Larrington 1999, p. 25.

The poem Hávamál explains that the originator of the runes was the major deity, Odin. Stanza 138 describes how Odin received the runes through self-sacrifice:

Veit ek at ek hekk vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr ok gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.[1]

  1. ^ Larrington 1999, p. 34.

In stanza 139, Odin continues:

Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ek niþr,
nam ek vp rvnar,
opandi nam,
fell ek aptr þaðan.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.[1]

  1. ^ Larrington 1999, p. 34.

This passage has been interpreted as a mythical representation of shamanic initial rituals in which the initiate must undergo a physical trial in order to receive mystic wisdom.[28]

In the Poetic Edda poem Rígsþula another origin is related of how the runic alphabet became known to humans. The poem relates how Ríg, identified as Heimdall in the introduction, sired three sons (Thrall (slave), Churl (freeman), and Jarl (noble)) by human women. These sons became the ancestors of the three classes of humans indicated by their names. When Jarl reached an age when he began to handle weapons and show other signs of nobility, Rig returned and, having claimed him as a son, taught him the runes. In 1555, the exiled Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus recorded a tradition that a man named Kettil Runske had stolen three rune staffs from Odin and learned the runes and their magic..

Runic alphabets

Elder Futhark (2nd to 8th centuries)

Detail of the Elder Futhark inscription on a replica of one of the 5th-century AD Golden Horns of Gallehus found in Denmark
Main article: Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark, used for writing Proto-Norse, consists of 24 runes that often are arranged in three groups of eight; each group is referred to as an Ætt. The earliest known sequential listing of the full set of 24 runes dates to approximately CE 400 and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland, Sweden.

Most probably each rune 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 produced, based on the names given for the runes in the later alphabets attested in the rune poems and the linked names of the letters of the Gothic alphabet. The letter /a/ was named from the runic letter called Ansuz. An asterisk before the rune names means that they are unattested reconstructions. The 24 Elder Futhark runes are:[29]

Rune UCS Transliteration IPA Proto-Germanic name Meaning
f /f/ *fehu "wealth, cattle"
u /u(ː)/ ?*ūruz "aurochs" (or *ûram "water/slag"?)
þ /θ/, /ð/ ?*þurisaz "the god Thor, giant"
a /a(ː)/ *ansuz "one of the Æsir (gods)"
r /r/ *raidō "ride, journey"
k (c) /k/ ?*kaunan "ulcer"? (or *kenaz "torch"?)
g /ɡ/ *gebō "gift"
w /w/ *wunjō "joy"
ᚺ ᚻ h /h/ *hagalaz "hail" (the precipitation)
n /n/ *naudiz "need"
i /i(ː)/ *īsaz "ice"
j /j/ *jēra- "year, good year, harvest"
ï (æ) /æː/(?) *ī(h)waz/*ei(h)waz "yew-tree"
p /p/ ?*perþ- meaning unclear, perhaps "pear-tree".
z /z/ ?*algiz unclear, possibly "elk".
ᛊ ᛋ s /s/ *sōwilō "Sun"
t /t/ *tīwaz/*teiwaz "the god Tiwaz"
b /b/ *berkanan "birch"
e /e(ː)/ *ehwaz "horse"
m /m/ *mannaz "Man"
l /l/ *laguz "water, lake" (or possibly *laukaz "leek")
ᛜ ᛝ ŋ /ŋ/ *ingwaz "the god Ingwaz"
o /o(ː)/ *ōþila-/*ōþala- "heritage, estate, possession"
d /d/ *dagaz "day"

Anglo-Saxon runes (5th to 11th centuries)

Main article: Anglo-Saxon runes
The Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc

The futhorc are an extended alphabet, consisting of 29, and later, even 33 characters. It probably was used from the 5th century onward. There are competing theories as to the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc. 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 fuþorc was modified and exported to Frisia. Futhorc inscriptions are found e.g. on the Thames scramasax, in the Vienna Codex, in Cotton Otho B.x (Anglo-Saxon rune poem) and on the Ruthwell Cross.

The Anglo-Saxon rune poem gives the following characters and names: feoh, ur, thorn, os, rad, cen, gyfu, wynn, haegl, nyd, is, ger, eoh, peordh, eolh, sigel, tir, beorc, eh, mann, lagu, ing, ethel, daeg, ac, aesc, yr, ior, ear.

The expanded alphabet features the additional letters cweorth, calc, cealc, and stan. These additional letters have only been found in manuscripts. Feoh, þorn, and sigel stood for [f], [þ], and [s] in most environments, but voiced to [v], [ð], 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.

"Marcomannic runes" (8th to 9th centuries)

A runic alphabet consisting of a mixture of Elder Futhark with Anglo-Saxon futhorc is recorded in a treatise called De Inventione Litterarum, ascribed to Hrabanus Maurus and preserved in 8th- and 9th-century manuscripts mainly from the southern part of the Carolingian Empire (Alemannia, Bavaria). The manuscript text attributes the runes to the Marcomanni, quos nos Nordmannos vocamus, and hence traditionally, the alphabet is called "Marcomannic runes", but it has no connection with the Marcomanni, and rather is an attempt of Carolingian scholars to represent all letters of the Latin alphabets with runic equivalents.

Wilhelm Grimm discussed these runes in 1821.[30]

Younger Futhark (9th to 11th centuries)

Main article: Younger Futhark
The Younger Futhark: long-branch runes and short-twig runes
While also featuring a runic inscription detailing the erection of a bridge for a loved one, the 11th-century Ramsung carving is a Sigurd stone that depicts the legend of Sigurd.

The Younger Futhark, also called Scandinavian Futhark, 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 is a matter of controversy. A general opinion is that the difference between them was functional (i.e., the long-branch runes were used for documentation on stone, whereas the short-branch runes were in everyday use for private or official messages on wood).

Medieval runes (12th to 15th centuries)

Main article: Medieval runes
A church bell from Saleby, Västergötland, Sweden, containing a runic inscription from 1228 AD

In the Middle Ages, the Younger Futhark in Scandinavia was expanded, so that it once more contained one sign for each phoneme of the Old Norse language. Dotted variants of voiceless signs were introduced to denote the corresponding voiced consonants, or vice versa, voiceless variants of voiced consonants, and several new runes also appeared for vowel sounds. Inscriptions in medieval Scandinavian runes show a large number of variant rune forms, and some letters, such as s, c, and z often were used interchangeably.[31][32]

Medieval runes were in use until the 15th century. Of the total number of Norwegian runic inscriptions preserved today, most are medieval runes. Notably, more than 600 inscriptions using these runes have been discovered in Bergen since the 1950s, mostly on wooden sticks (the so-called Bryggen inscriptions). This indicates that runes were in common use side by side with the Latin alphabet for several centuries. Indeed, some of the medieval runic inscriptions are written in Latin.

Dalecarlian runes (16th to 19th centuries)

Main article: Dalecarlian runes

According to Carl-Gustav Werner, "In the isolated province of Dalarna in Sweden a mix of runes and Latin letters developed."[33] The Dalecarlian runes came into use in the early 16th century and remained in some use up to the 20th century.[34] Some discussion remains on whether their use was an unbroken tradition throughout this period or whether people in the 19th and 20th centuries learned runes from books written on the subject. The character inventory was used mainly for transcribing Elfdalian.

Academic study

Main article: Runology

The modern study of runes was initiated during the Renaissance, by Johannes Bureus (1568–1652). Bureus viewed runes as holy or magical in a kabbalistic sense. The study of runes was continued by Olof Rudbeck Sr (1630–1702) and presented in his collection Atlantica. Anders Celsius (1701–44) further extended the science of runes and travelled around the whole of Sweden to examine the runstenar (runestones). From the "golden age of philology" in the 19th century, runology formed a specialized branch of Germanic linguistics.

Body of inscriptions

Main article: Runic inscriptions
The Vimose Comb from the island of Funen, Denmark, features the earliest known runic inscription (AD 150 to 200) and simply reads, ᚺᚨᚱᛃᚨ "Harja", a male name.[35]

The largest group of surviving Runic inscription are Viking Age Younger Futhark runestones, most commonly found in Sweden. Another large group are medieval runes, most commonly found on small objects, often wooden sticks. The largest concentration of runic inscriptions are the Bryggen inscriptions found in Bergen, more than 650 in total. Elder Futhark inscriptions number around 350, about 260 of which are from Scandinavia, of which about half are on bracteates. Anglo-Saxon futhorc inscriptions number around 100 items.

Modern use

Main article: Modern runic writing

Runic alphabets have seen numerous uses since the 18th-century Viking revival, in Scandinavian Romantic nationalism (Gothicismus) and Germanic occultism in the 19th century, and in the context of the Fantasy genre and of Germanic Neopaganism in the 20th century.


Germanic mysticism and Nazi symbolism

Runic script on an 1886 gravestone in Parkend, England
From 1933, Schutzstaffel unit insignia displayed two Sig Runes

The pioneer of the Armanist branch of Ariosophy and one of the more important figures in esotericism in Germany and Austria in the late 19th and early 20th century was the Austrian occultist, mysticist, and völkisch author, Guido von List. In 1908, he published in Das Geheimnis der Runen ("The Secret of the Runes") a set of eighteen so-called, "Armanen runes", based on the Younger Futhark and runes of List's own introduction, which allegedly were revealed to him in a state of temporary blindness after cataract operations on both eyes in 1902. The use of runes in Germanic mysticism, notably List's "Armanen runes" and the derived "Wiligut runes" by Karl Maria Wiligut, played a certain role in Nazi symbolism. The fascination with runic symbolism was mostly limited to Heinrich Himmler, and not shared by the other members of the Nazi top echelon. Consequently, runes appear mostly in insignia associated with the Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary organization led by Himmler. Wiligut is credited with designing the SS-Ehrenring, which displays a number of "Wiligut runes".

Modern neopaganism and esotericism

Runes are popular in Germanic neopaganism, and to a lesser extent in other forms of Neopaganism and New Age esotericism. Various systems of Runic divination have been published since the 1980s, notably by Ralph Blum (1982), Stephen Flowers (1984, onward), Stephan Grundy (1990), and Nigel Pennick (1995).

The Uthark theory originally was proposed as a scholarly hypothesis by Sigurd Agrell in 1932. In 2002, Swedish esotericist Thomas Karlsson popularized this "Uthark" runic row, which he refers to as, the "night side of the runes", in the context of modern occultism.

J. R. R. Tolkien and contemporary fiction

In J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit (1937), the Anglo-Saxon runes are used on a map to emphasize its connection to the Dwarves. They also were used in the initial drafts of The Lord of the Rings, but later were replaced by the Cirth rune-like alphabet invented by Tolkien. Following Tolkien, historical and fictional runes appear commonly in modern popular culture, particularly in fantasy literature, but also in other forms of media such as video games (for example the 1992 video game Heimdall used it in especially "magical symbols" associated with unnatural forces).


Main article: Runic (Unicode block)
Runic Steel Stamps, Elder Futhark

Runic alphabets were added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999 with the release of version 3.0.

The Unicode block for Runic alphabets is U+16A0–U+16FF. It is intended to encode the letters of the Elder Futhark, the Anglo-Frisian runes, and the Younger Futhark long-branch and short-twig (but not the staveless) variants, in cases where cognate letters have the same shape resorting to "unification".

The block as of Unicode 3.0 contained 81 symbols: 75 runic letters (U+16A0–U+16EA), 3 punctuation marks (Runic Single Punctuation U+16EB , Runic Multiple Punctuation U+16EC and Runic Cross Punctuation U+16ED ), and three runic symbols that are used in early modern runic calendar staves ("Golden number Runes", Runic Arlaug Symbol U+16EE , Runic Tvimadur Symbol U+16EF , Runic Belgthor Symbol U+16F0 ). As of Unicode 7.0 (2014), eight characters were added, three attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien's mode of writing Modern English in Anglo-Saxon runes, and five for the "cryptogrammic" vowel symbols used in an inscription on the Franks Casket.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 9.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also


  1. The oldest known runic inscription dates to around AD 150 and is found on a comb discovered in the bog of Vimose, Funen, Denmark.[2] The inscription reads harja; a disputed candidate for a 1st-century inscription is on the Meldorf fibula in southern Jutland.
  2. Penzl & Hall 1994a assume a period of "Proto-Nordic-Westgermanic" unity down to the 5th century and the Gallehus horns inscription.[17]
  3. The division between Northwest Germanic and Proto-Norse is somewhat arbitrary.[18]


  1. Runic (PDF) (chart), Unicode.
  2. Stoklund 2003, p. 173.
  3. "Dictionary of the Lithuanian Language". LT: LKZ. Retrieved 2010-04-13.
  4. Friedrich Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin/New York 2001, ISBN 978-3-11-017473-1
  5. Nykysuomen sanakirja: "riimu"
  6. Häkkinen, Kaisa. Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja
  7. Mees 2000.
  8. Odenstedt 1990.
  9. Williams 1996.
  10. Dictionary of the Middle Ages (under preparation), Oxford.
  11. Markey 2001.
  12. G. Bonfante, L. Bonfante, The Etruscan Language - see page 119
  13. 1 2 Looijenga 1997.
  14. Weisgerber 1968, pp. 135, 392ff.
  15. Weisgerber 1966–7, p. 207.
  16. Syrett 1994, p. 44f.
  17. Penzl & Hall 1994b, p. 186.
  18. 1 2 Antonsen 1965, p. 36.
  19. "runic alphabet", Encyclopædia Britannica, A likely theory is that the runic alphabet was developed by the Goths, a Germanic people, from the Etruscan alphabet of northern Italy and was perhaps also influenced by the Latin alphabet in the 1st or 2nd century BC.
  20. "DR 360", Rundata (entry) (2.0 for Windows ed.).
  21. Macleod & Mees 2006, pp. 100–1.
  22. Page 2005, p. 31.
  23. Foote & Wilson 1970.
  24. Foote & Wilson 1970, p. 401.
  25. MacLeod & Mees 2006.
  26. "Vg 63", Rundata (entry) (2.0 for Windows ed.).
  27. "Vg 119", Rundata (entry) (2.0 for Windows ed.).
  28. Seigfried, Karl E.H. (Mar 2010), "Odin & the Runes, Part Three", The Norse Mythology (blog).
  29. Page 2005, pp. 8, 15–16.
  30. Grimm, William (1821), "18", Ueber deutsche Runen [Concerning German runes] (in German), pp. 149–59.
  31. Jacobsen & Moltke 1941–42, p. VII.
  32. Werner 2004, p. 20.
  33. Werner 2004, p. 7.
  35. Looijenga, Tineke (2003). Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions. Leiden: Brill. p. 160. ISBN 90-04-12396-2.


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  • (1968), Die Namen der Ubier (in German), Cologne: Opladen .
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