FUTHARK: The Development of the Old-Germanic Runes

by LadyTia

Many forms of runic writing to develop throughout Europe amongst nations of Indo-European descent served a variety of purposes within their respective cultures. Among these is the Norse rune-set, Futhark, which held many religious and social functions in Scandinavian society, such as the protection of land, marking of identification and possession, and communication between men and old Germanic pagan Gods.

In 350 AD, Futhark was the only form of writing in use in Scandinavia. As Christianity spread upwards into Scandinavia, Futhark was slowly replaced with Latin. Charlemagne's revisions of Roman accounts of the gospels had been more closely geared towards the culture of the northlands, written in the style of Norse mythological sagas in an effort to gain converts among the Saxons. In these sagas Jesus was essentially rewritten as a war hero, whose task had been to take long journeys and perform feats in battle. Upon its failure the conversions did not take place immediately, but rather had been a much slower fusion between the old and new religions. Futhark remained the dominant language. Much archaeological evidence of runic inscriptions upon or near churches exemplified the slow integration of the two belief systems.

Inscriptions were found on the Stentoften and Bjorketorp stones of southern Sweden circa 650 CE. Edred Thorrson, in his book Runelore, explains why he believes these inscriptions were made by the Erulian (the priesthood of the old-Germanic folk religion, also called rune-masters), who were thought of as being capable of causing change (on some level) in their environment by composing messages out of runic characters in natural language. This was most often done to prevent the desecration of a grave or holy site.

The Inscriptions on Torvika A and Torvika B, archaeological sites on the Torvika farm in Kvam, Hardaager, Hordaland 400-450 CE, Arild Hauge (on his website Arild Hauge's 'Runes and Vikings', argues might be examples of missing runes because there are more twigs carved onto the runes than what exists in the three character system of Futhark. However, Thorrson argues that they are not missing runes. There is no evidence in Futhark of anything which looks like missing runes, and for that reason Thorrson proposes that these "missing runes" are actually of a non-natural order to man. In addition that they serve as a means of communication between the seidhmenn (devotees to Odin who functioned as the old Germanic diviners or seers in their societies), and the old Germanic pagan gods. Thorrson continues to suggest that the system represents a motive for concealment in that on a very deep religious level, they were never intended to be read. It was an integral aspect of appealing to the divine forms of the old-Germanic folk religion.

Inscriptions from the Norum Church and the Rok stone, in figure 1.2 are methodologically similar in that symbols which were turned to the left indicated the character set (or aett) and the right turned characters were directly linked to specific characters within a given character set (of which Futhark has three character sets).

Carvings from the Rotbrunna and Valsta stones are also essentially based on comparable structural rules. For instance, the lines on the left exist in either a numbering system or are of a size which specifically distinguishes itself as representative of one of the three character sets. To the right of the first linear identifier are a series of linear shapes which, when counted can easily be used to find the corresponding rune name. Despite the complexity of evidence from early periods, later periods provide a more in depth religious involvement of the runes.

Runes found at Byrggen in Bergen, Sweden, appear more advanced because the base staves have become more than linear. The staves of these runic inscriptions take on shapes such as the head of a man and the body of a fish. It is likely that rune-unknown, whose stave is in the shape of the body of a fish expresses the influence of Christianity on what was a previously pagan culture. There is little to no difference in differentiating which shapes symbolize the character set and the characters from the Early Age to the Middle Ages.

A series of differing written styles and structural rules, as Hauge explains, provides a more open view of the kinds of structural understandings which must be considered when reading specific runic forms. "Boustphedon" is expressed when the first sentence proceeds from right to left and the second sentence, below the first, proceeds from left to right. Next, “Venderuner”- runes which were written in a reversed pattern (as a mirror image). Third, “Stupruner”- runes were written upside-down. In some cases, a series of dots or period marks were used to separate words or phrases from each other. For example:


Based on runestave shapes and sound values, Thorrson explains why he believes Futhark is an ideographic system. Stave names, as Thorrson points out, are acrophonic in that they indicate the sound value of a stave through the initial sound in the name. Refer to figure 1.1 for the sound values of all twenty-four characters. Figure 1.1 reveals a chart cataloging runic characters, sounds, variation in word structure and shape.

"Lonnruner", Norwegian for "secret runes", was a system where messages or inscriptions could hide the meaning. For the secret runes, the first six characters were contained within the first character set. Figure 1.3 shows the sixth rune (6 slashes on the right) of the second aettir (2 slashes on the left) and translates to P, meaning stone or rock. This system of writing is particularly consistent for younger Futhark, although has been used for older versions of Futhark and its variations.

Sometimes examples like figure 1.3 are reversed or show some kind of discrepancy in the format which might indicate the layout is in a reverse pattern from what might be expected. Inscriptions such as the written manuscript of St. Ggallen make use of sort lines to represent the aettir and long lines to represent the runes.

Bind-runes, as Hauge explains, are runes or characters which illustrate a concept by symbolizing the names of runes as opposed to writing it out. These "concept-runes" cannot be interpreted as secret or coded runes. Figure 1.4 exemplifies this concept. Another method of expressing coded runes, as Hauge explains, is to use differing signs to indicate the rune or aettir.

On Storaborg farm, Austur-Eyjofjallahreppur, Rangarvallasysla, in Iceland, a wooden stick was uncovered. It was believed to be a coded runic inscription which was thought of as a puzzle or mental exercise. In the case of runic learning puzzles, the structure would be based on counting one character backwards and two characters forward (its latin equivalent, "fegfhgihj").

Another inscription, thought to have ties to the Galder song, "busluboen" (Bula's curse), Hauge explains, involves the writing of singular runic characters in sequence with a repetition of characters. The inscription reads "Ristil Aistil Thistil Kistil Mistil Listil", better viewed as "R. A. Th. K. M. L. : iiiiii ssssss tttttt iiiiii llllll." The five groups of "i, s, t, i," and "l" are thought to scramble the inscription shown in Figure 1.5.

Inscriptions of a similar pattern were found on a coffin in Lomen Stave Church, Groslev stone in Sjelland, Denmark, and the Ledberg Stone in Ostergotland, Sweden, before the northerly spread of Christianity. The inscription read "pmk iii sss ttt iii lll, i.e., pistil mistil kistil." This was thought to function as a protecitve ward against ill spirits.

While Gwyn Jones, in his book A History of the Vikings, recognizes that many scholars stress the folk (magical) significance of the runes, he has reason to believe that they stood on their own as an alphabet and was employed for recording, commemoration, identification and other non-magical purposes. Thorrson, on the other hand, argues that the runes were less likely to have been used as a writing system and more as a primer for the "runic system" based on Old Germanic magical-religious symbols.

Single formulaic words also functioned as a form of magical communication, as Thorrson explains, in that formulaic words were imbued with great symbolic powers. Such words were inscribed on various objects to invoke or imbue the power of the concept into (the vicinity of) the object.

Futhark formulas, as Thorrson indicates, appear to have existed as a twofold system. In the first place they existed as a collection of all things essential to old Germanic culture, and secondly they existed in a special, set order. What identifies Futhark as ideographic is that it is comprised of staves which each stand for their respective names (hence, a logographic system). There are also certain types of magical signs (galdrastafir) which were originally comprised of bind-runes.

Character formulas composed by rune-masters which were documents of transformative magical acts, in these the rune-master assumed a divine aspect of the performance of a form of ritual work. The aspects are designated by names or likenesses of the divine (just as a raven is an aspect of Odin, the old-Germanic All-father and God of Wisdom). The ritual work enabled the rune-master to invoke a magical force within the stones he inscribes upon while also protecting it from those who would seek to desecrate it. Characters were carved onto pieces of wood (both singular characters and character combinations), which were then colored by blood or a red dye. At the end of a casting, the material on which the rune had been inscribed was destroyed. In this use, there is no need for others to know or understand what was written.

Within the last century there have been great revivals in study and interest of the old Germanic runes in different parts of the world. Two examples of which include research and use of runes in NAZI Germany and in contemporary neo-paganism. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his book The Occult Roots of Nazism, shows how Ellergaard Ellerbek, a prominent German author of the völkisch movement, utilized a variety of gnostic, theosophical and anti-semetic philosophies to vilify the Allies of the first World War and elevate the Germans to the status of god-men. Ellerbek later lectured widely in Germany, stirring the population in a frenzy over a national lineage which Ellerbek claimed had stemmed from old Germanic pagan Gods. This was undoubtedly successful in driving the country towards reclaiming face it lost in World War I.

Some of the symbols used to refer to the Storm-troopers of Nazi Germany were originally two Tyr runes, which indicated victory. They sought to imbue the National Socialist Party with victory in all endeavors, and in turn, imbue the whole of Germany with a potential for victory as well. The Nazi party, as Thorrson points out, had been so talented at producing propaganda and inciting mental associations to specific symbols that some of the old-Germanic runic symbols retain a strong linkage to messages of hate and acts of genocide even in contemporary times.

The Neo-pagan revival has, much like the German volkish movement, brought occult and mythic concepts back into mainstream society. Many Neo-pagan groups have incorporated within their liturgy, the study and implementation of futhark. This is particularly prevalent among members of Asatru and Odinism (whose primary focus rests on the mythology, art, folklore, supernatural and spiritual beliefs, and the written language of old Germanic culture), as well as other more ecclectic subgroups of Neo-paganism today. The Neo-pagan movement, much like their ancient predecessors, utilize Futhark for divination, protection (of land, possessions and persons), and communicating with the old Germanic Gods.

Early evidence of Futhark reveals a simplistic use of runic characters which were commonly used used to protect a region of land. Evidence of middle and later periods reveal a more developed system which many contemporary Runologists use as examples of more advanced religious and social purposes in Old Germanic society. Studies of contemporary Runologists sparked the reintegration of Futhark into the mainstream by the Nazis and NeoPagans within the past the last century. Given the pattern to date, its plausible that many may establish themselves in research to better understand the more mystical aspects of runic characters between those ancient concepts and their associations with the old Germanic Gods.


Fontaine, Lise. Nordic Life : Nordic Magic Healing. 1998.
Kodratoff, Yves. Runic Inscriptions.

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Occult Roots of Nazism. New York University Press. New York; 1992.

Hauge, Arild. Secret Runes. Denmark, 2002.

Hauge, Arild. The History of the Runes. Denmark, 2002.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1968.

Thorrson, Edred. Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology. Weiser. York Beach, 1987.

Additional Sources:

Hauge, Arild. Secret Runes. Denmark, 2002. Visual Aids, Adapted.
Figure 1.1; Figure 1.2; Figure 1.3; Figure 1.4; Figure 1.5



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