Introducing the Elder Futhark

Note: This post contains runic characters. Without proper Unicode support, you might see blank boxes, question marks, or other awkward characters where runes are supposed to be.


When it comes to runes, the Elder Futhark are certainly the most popular; they are the most romanticized, as well as the most common runic characters found on products, tattoos, and the internet. While there is much to say about these famous runes, this page will only serve as a bare-minimum introduction, providing only the basics to help the curious wanderer get by—but more posts will come, eventually.

While most people get interested in these runes because of the Vikings, this futhark was primarily used before the Viking Age: they first appear toward the end of the 1st century, but were replaced by the Younger Futhark in the 8th century (at the beginning of the Viking Age).[1] Nevertheless, this futhark contains 24 runes: ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲᚷᚹᚺᚾᛁᛃᛈᛇᛉᛊᛏᛒᛖᛗᛚᛜᛞᛟ, which we know from runestones such as the Gotlandic Kylver runestone from around 400 CE (pictured below).[2] You may notice that some of the runes on the Gotlandic Kylver runestone are ‘backwards,’ but this was a relatively common practice. Such runes are often referred to as ‘retrograde’ or ‘reverse’ runes. Likewise, upside-down runes are referred to as ‘inverted’ runes.[3]

Kylverstenen_2

The Gotlandic Kylver runestone: note the runes in the upper left corner.[x]

vadstena-and-grumpan

The Vadstena (top) and Grumpan (bottom) bracteates.

But these futhark (like most others) are typically split further into three ættir, or families: ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲᚷᚹ, ᚺᚾᛁᛃᛈᛇᛉᛊ, and ᛏᛒᛖᛗᛚᛜᛞᛟ.[4] The division of the futhark into these ættir goes back to the Vadstena and Grumpan bracteates (pictured to the right) from roughly the 6th century, but the use of the term ættir for this tendency comes from 17th-century Icelandic manuscripts.[5] The significance of this practice is unclear, so if you encounter a website or text that elaborates on the meaning of these ættir, take caution: be critical and check their sources.

Out of the roughly 350 known inscriptions containing Elder Futhark runes, 260 of them are found in Scandinavia (and only 65 of those being on runestones, which generally date near the end of the Elder Futhark period). The rest come from continental Europe, reaching as far east as the Baltic Sea. These inscriptions, which have withstood the wearing winds of time, are typically very short and carved on objects made from bone or metal. Nevertheless, it is likely that there were longer inscriptions on wood, leather, and other organic materials that don’t preserve as well.[6]

I will only make a brief note on language: these runes were not used to write Old Norse, although that is commonly believed (and practiced). Old Norse developed out of North Germanic (also referred to as Proto Old Norse) around the beginning of the Viking Age, which was when the Younger Futhark replaced the Elder Futhark.[7] Vaguely speaking then, the language written with the Elder Futhark was Germanic (in the Indo-European sense of the term). I would be more specific, but there is an academic debate about which Germanic branch the Elder Futhark best reflect. The assumption is typically Proto Old Norse, since the majority of inscriptions are found in Scandinavia; but it has also been argued that the language was only “mildly Scandinavian” and thus something more like a West-North Germanic.[8] Most people don’t need to worry about such things too much, though; it is well enough to simply be aware of the debate and avoid spreading faulty information.[9]

Below is a table containing each Elder Futhark rune, its Latin letter equivalent, its name (in the language it was most commonly used for), and an English translation of its name. Many of the runes below can be found in variant forms, but I have only included the most common forms:

[Fig.1] The Elder Futhark

Rune

Letter

Name

Translation

f *fehu cattle (wealth)
u *ūruz ox
þ (th) *þurisaz giant
a *ansuz god
r *raiðō ride
k *kauna ulcer
g *gebō gift
w *wunjō pleasure
h *hagalaz hail
n *nauðiz need
i *īsaz ice
j *jēra year, harvest
æ? *eihaz? yew
p *perðo? ?
z *algiz? elk
s *sōwilō sun
t *tīwaz Tyr
b *berkana birch
e *ehwaz horse
m *mannaz man
l *laguz lake, water
ŋ (ng) *ingwaz Ing, fertility
d *dagaz day
o *ōþala possession

ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ:ᛚᛁᛋᛏᚱ. Þǫkk fyrir lestr! (Thanks for reading!)
ᚠᛁᚬᚱᚾ


Endnotes and Resources

    1. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 2: The Old Norse Reader (Pacific Palisades: Jules William Press, 2015), 166. ^
    2. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas (Pacific Palisades: Jules William Press, 2013), 76. ^
    3. Michael P. Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012), 19. [Google Books preview available] ^
    4. Byock, Viking Language 1, 76. ^
    5. Barnes, Runes, 17. The practice may go back further, but those manuscripts are currently the oldest sources we have that actually name these groupings as ættir^
    6. Byock, Viking Language 1, 76. ^
    7. Ibid., 22. ^
    8. Barnes, Runes, 23. ^
    9. In regards to contemporary practice, it is technically fine to write any language using the Elder Futhark as long as they properly reflect the sound each rune represents. It is a writing system, after all, and not a language in-and-of itself; but don’t simply match up the rune to its Latin letter—consider the sound of the word as well, because that’s how they were used. See this brief introductory post for more. ^

    Figures

    1. This table was made using various sources: Jesse L. ByockViking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas (Pacific Palisades: Jules William Press, 2013), 76; Michael P. Barnes, Runes: A Handbook, (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012), 4; Tineke Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the oldest runic inscriptions (Leiden: brill, 2003), 7; and Dr. Jackson Crawford’s video on the names of the Elder Futhark. ^

    Books

    51jR6lWzGlL._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_ 51jbnmm-EUL._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_ 51F2wsvIcxL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_

    Minor Disclaimer: Most of the book links provided in this Hall are affiliated with Book Depository, which always offers free shipping (regardless of where in Midgard you dwell). Better yet, every purchase made using those links will help the Hall grow and prosper at no additional cost to you. ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ (Þǫkk fyrir)

    Online

    • Michael P. Barnes‘ book, Runes: A Handbook, is quite expensive. Luckily there’s a small portion of the book available online through its free Google Books preview. Although it isn’t much, it could still be very useful!
    • If you’re going to watch a video online to learn about the Elder Futhark, make it one by Dr. Jackson Crawford (it’s way more reliable than 99% of the stuff you’ll find elsewhere):

    Acknowledgements

    Patreon LogoAs always, I extend my most sincere thanks to my dear Fellowship of esteemed patrons over on Patreon. Without their support, this Hall would not be as lively and warm as it is today. Here are the names of those who supported me during the writing of this post (taken from Patreon): Anastasia Haysler, Froggy, Jonas Lau Markussen, Kathleen Phillips, Kevin McAllister, Patch, and Sarah Dunn. ᚦᛅᚴᛅ:ᛁᚴᚱ:ᚴᛅᚱᛚᛁᚴᛅ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ (Þakka ykkr kærliga fyrir)


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