I’ve discussed before that my father is of Italian/German decent and that my mother is of Norwegian decent and for most of my life I felt much closer to my Italian ancestry. That was until about four years ago. Around that time I began to experiment and create a practice with two other like minded witches for the first time ever and maybe it was this convergence of craft that led to an awakening of my Northern European blood. I began a journey that drew me to Freyja, Odin, and the runes, a journey I hope to share with you lovely folks.
So thus I’m beginning a series of posts organizing my research on the Elder Futhark Rune Alphabet. I firmly believe that knowledge should be shared freely so hopefully my journey with the Elder Futhark can help illuminate your way.
In this post I will discuss the history of the Elder Futhark, the Elder Futhark in the Eddas and historically, and I will briefly touch upon the rune poems. In future posts I’ll delve more deeply into the rune poems and each rune individually.
If there is ever anything I am incorrect on, please let me know so I can do some more research! I am not a runic scholar, just an obsessive enthusiast.
As many do, I started off reading Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes, but the text left me unsatisfied. I wanted more. In my research I was led then to the history of the European runes and to the rune poems.
The Elder Futhark is the oldest of the rune alphabets and can be found on artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 8th century.
Vimose Comb circa 150 CE, National Museum of Denmark.
The Futhark consists of 24 letters often broken up into three sets of eight called Aetts- old Norse for Clan (Byock).
The Elder Futhark is thought to have originated from Old Italic scripts: maybe Etruscan or Latin. Some early estimates put the Futhark at 100 BCE while late estimates theorize that the Futhark was developed around 100 CE. Scholars believe the Elder Futhark was created by one person or a small group of people who came into contact with the Roman army. It is generally agreed that the Futhark was developed directly due to Roman influence. One theory suggests the alphabet was created by the Goths (“Britannica”).
A small note: The Viking age in Europe lasted from the late 8th century into the 11th century. The Elder Futhark pre-dates this era.
The Futhark is preserved on the Kylver Stone, a flat limestone dating to the 5th century
found in 1903 near a farm in Kylver, Gotland, Sweden during the excavation of a cemetery. The stone originally lay with the Futhark facing down and had been used to seal a grave (“Britannica”).
The runes are also discussed in the Poetic Eddas, specifically in the Hovamol, a gnomic collection of poems, where Odin explains how he gained knowledge of the runes. Stanzas 139-146 are the Runatal, Odin’s Rune Song. Henry Adam Bellows believed parts of this poem to be remnants of an ancient oral tradition, but the only surviving copy is in the 13th century Codex Regius.
Below is Odin’s description of his trial to gain knowledge of the runes.
“I ween I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
To Othin, mysef to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.”(Bellows)
Now what really struck me during my research is that there is currently no evidence to conclusively suggest that the runes were ever used for divination. During the Sigrdrifumol in which Brynhild the Valkyrie is found by the hero Sigurth, she teaches Sigurth the magic runes (Bellows). So clearly the runes were thought to have magical uses, but are not attested as having divinatory uses.
Sigrdrifumol stanzas 6-12
“Winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.
Ale-runes learn, that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know thou never shalt see Thy mead with evil mixed.)
Wave-runes learn, if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.
Birth-runes learn, if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.
Branch-runes learn, if a healer wouldst be,
And cure for wounds wouldst work;
On the bark shalt thou write, and on trees that be
With boughs to the eastward bent.
Speech-runes learn, that none may seek
To answer harm with hate;
Well he winds and weaves them all,
And sets them side by side,
At the judgment-place, when justice there
The folk shall fairly win.
Thought-runes learn, if all shall think
Thou art keenest minded of men (Bellows).”
So now that I’ve (hopefully) prepared you for what the Elder Futhark is not, let’s talk about what it is. It’s an alphabet!
Above you will find the complete (we think) Elder Futhark as well as the rune names. Though the rune names of the Elder Futhark have been lost, scholars have reconstructed the names based on attestations in the three runic poems which contain the younger rune alphabets (Anglo-Saxon Futhorc 5th-12th Century CE and the Younger Futhark 9th-12th Century CE).
The poems are the Norwegian Poem, the Icelandic Poem, and the Anglo-Saxon Poem and are theorized to have been mnemonic devices to remember not only the rune names, but culturally important information (Acker).
If you’re setting off on a runic journey, I strongly encourage you to read these poems yourself and meditate on the runes. By exploring these poems I crafted my own meaning for the runes of the Elder Futhark.
That’s all for now folks! Next time I’ll dig a little deeper into the rune poems and rune meanings as well as bindrunes.
Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. Routledge, 1998. Print.
Bellows, Henry Adams. The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007. Print.
Byock, Jesse L. Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas. San Bernardino, CA: Jules William, 2013. Print.
“Kylver Stone | Runic Stone, Sweden.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.
“Runic Alphabet | Writing System.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.