The Old Norse word Rún means "secret", and runes were thought of by Vikings as sacred secrets, and a way of interacting with both the living and the spirit world.
Hávamál - verse 80
Þat er þá reynt When searching for
er þú at rúnum spyrr Answers in the runes
inum reginkunnum Which were created by the gods
þeim er gerðu ginnregin And written by Odin
ok fáði fimbulþulr It is best to reflect
þá hefir hann bazt ef hann þegir Over the meaning
According to legend, the Norse god Odin speared himself to a tree, in a self-sacrificial attempt to receive sacred knowledge. At the end of his ‘shamanistic journey’, hanging suspended for nine windy nights, Odin learned the mysteries of the runes, which he then passed on to his people.
Hávamál - verse 139 (as told by Odin)
Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi, No bread was I given nor drink from a horn,
nysta ek niþr, downwards I peered;
nam ek vp rvnar, I took up the runes,
opandi nam, screaming I took them,
fell ek aptr þaðan. then I fell back.
Since the Vikings believed the runic symbols to be a gift from Odin, they treated them with great reverence. Belief in the divine origin of the runes meant that runes possessed magical powers.
The Vikings are often portrayed as illiterate and uncultured barbarians who were more interested in plunder than in wisdom. This is very far from the truth. The Vikings left behind a great number of manuscripts written on vellum, which are both rich in wisdom and artistic achievement. These documents were based on the earlier Viking oral tradition and information Vikings had carved in stone, wood, bone and metal.
What was carved in these hard materials were enigmatic symbols made up of straight lines. Each symbol, called a rune, had its own unique sound that was said, or sung, to represent them. These sounds could be used singularly as a chant, or together as a chant. These chants, or rune-songs, are known as Galdr, and any serious use of runes would include them.
The first collection of 'Viking runes' is called Eldri rúnaröð, the older rune-row, which had 24 runes. These were the runes used by the Norse people from the 2nd to 9th century. This changed to Yngri rúnaröð, the younger rune-row, which had 16 runes, was also called the Scandinavian runes, and was in use from about the 9th century onward.
We associate runes used for writing as letters of an alphabet. The Viking ‘alphabet’ is now called the Futhark, from the first 6 rune symbols which look like the letters f,u,t,h,a,r, and k. The Elder Rune-row (or Futhark) of twenty-four runes, at some point in time was arranged into three groups of eight runes called an Ætt, meaning clan. Each Ætt had 8 runes, and each Ætt were ruled over by their own particular spirit or Norse God. Respectively these are Freya’s Ætt, Hagall’s Ætt, and Tyr’s Ætt. Freya is the Norse goddess of fertility, we are not sure of the exact meaning of Hagall in this respect, and Tyr is the Norse god of war and justice.
Viking runes can be used to spell out words. The illustration above shows the corrolation between Viking runes and the Alphabet.
THE SECRET OF THE RUNES
We know of the meaning of Viking rune symbols from Viking Rune Poems. These poems list the rune symbols and provide an explanatory poetic stanza for each rune symbol/word. There are three different poems that have been preserved:
The Norwegian Rune Poem is a 17th-century copy of a destroyed 13th-century manuscript.
The Icelandic Rune Poem is recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, the oldest of the four dating from the late 15th century. This has been called the most systemized of the rune poems (including the Abecedarium Nordmannicum) and has been compared to the ljóðaháttr verse form.
The Old English rune poem is dated to the 8th or 9th century.
The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems list 16 Younger Futhark runes, but the Old English rune poem has 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. Each poem differs in poetic verse, but they contain numerous parallels between one another.
The rune poems and old texts, give sets of associations for the runes, but the meanings of the runes are quite fluid. Each rune symbol has a meaning, or several meanings, connecting a variety of things including: objects, creatures and archetypal processes, feelings, experiences, and spirits.
Rune writing was a very important skill for the Vikings, and runic inscriptions are found on artifacts including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, calendars and runestones. But rune symbols were not only used for writing, they were also used to tell fortunes, cast spells, provide protection and for spiritual purposes.
The Poetic Edda mentions the magical significance of the runes. Verses 80, 111, 137, 143 and 158 of the Hávamálare about Odin mentioning the runes in contexts of divination.
The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) gives advice on the magical properties of runes. Some of these are:
"Victory runes" (stanza 6, referring to the Tyr rune to be carved on the sword hilt) Ølrunar "Ale-runes" (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife) Biargrunar "birth-runes" (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth)
Brimrunar "wave-runes" (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder)
Limrunar "branch-runes" (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees "with boughs to the eastward bent")
Malrunar "speech-runes" (stanza 11, refers to a spell to improve rhetorical ability at the thing)
Hugrunar "thought-runes" (stanza 12, discusses a spell to improve wit)
Vikings believed that runes had magical qualities that were very valuable to a warrior, such as protecting a warrior in battle or at sea, cursing or guarding against threats, and curing illnesses. The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period.
Runes inscribed on a sword blade gave it magic power. A warrior who knew the secret of the runes could strengthen his own blade or blunt his enemy’s weapons. Viking warriors customarily carved the runic symbol for Tyr, the Norse god of war, onto their swords and shields. In the Poetic Edda, the Sigrdrífumál mentions "victory runes" which should be carved on a sword: "some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice".
The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc.
Viking runes were inscribed into large freestanding rocks or boulders called Runestones. Runestones were often decorated with inscribed intricate Norse patterns and painted in black, blue, red and white paint.
Many Rune-stones served as spiritual stones for sacred ceremonies. Runestones served as spiritual commemorations for the dead. Runestones also served as memorials to honor men and women, or to document how much land the deceased Viking had owned and listing relatives who would likely inherit that person's estate.
Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald
When the seafaring Vikings traveled to faraway lands, they brought their system of writing with them, and left behind runic inscriptions in paces as distant as Greenland and Byzantium.
Wherever they went, Vikings turned to runes to express both the poetic and the plain, inscribing them on everything from great stone monuments to common household items. Rune carvings varied from "Listen, ring-bearers, while I speak of the glories in war of Harald, most wealthy" to "Rannvieg owns this box".
Runes were carved into many objects, such as staves, staffs. A Rune Stave was found in the cult room of the Norwegian Oseberg burial mound, alongside the two women who were buried there in the year 834. The round birch stave is 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm at the ends. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”.
The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” which translated means “Man knows little”. Another interpretation is that it reads “litill vissm”, which translated reads “(Although) I am small I am wise”. A third interpretation is “litil vés m” meaning “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.
Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone
A Runic calendar is a calendar that correlates to the Sun and the Moon. Runic calendars were written on parchment or carved onto staves of wood, bone, or horn. The oldest known runic calendar is the Nyköping staff from Sweden, from the 13th century. Most of the several thousand which survive are wooden calendars dating from the 16th and the 17th centuries.
A primstav, prime staff, is the ancient Norwegian calendar stick, engraved with images instead of runes. The images depicted the different non-moving religious holidays. The oldest primstav is from the year 1457 and is exhibited at Norsk Folkemuseum.
A bandrún, bind rune, is a binding of two or more rune symbols. Bind runes are rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in earlier (Proto-Norse) and later (medieval) inscriptions. There are several types of bind runes:
One type of bind rune is formed by two (or rarely three) adjacent runes being joined together to form a single conjoined symbol, (usually sharing a common vertical stroke.
Another type is called a same-stave rune, which is common in Scandinavian runic inscriptions. This type is formed by several runic letters written sequentially along a long common stem-line.
The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.
Bind runes are now also being used in modern industry. The Bluetooth logo merges the runes ᚼ (Hagall) and ᛒ(Berkanan) together, forming a bind rune. The two letters form the initials 'H B', alluding to the Danish king and Viking raider Harald Bluetooth.
Bind runes were initially used pre-Viking age on Norse gravestones. They gradually faded out of use along with all other runic writing, except in Iceland where the tradition continued. Not only were bind runes used in Iceland for the purpose of writing in general, but they were also used in protection and luck symbols called Galdrastafir.
According to the Museum of Icelandic history, the effects credited to most of the rune staves were very relevant to the average Icelanders of the time, who were mostly subsistence farmers and had to deal with harsh climatic conditions.
Several popular bind runes, or Galdrastafir, include:
Vegvísir is a stave to guide people through rough weather or used as instruction to guide the way. Vegvísir in Icelandic means 'sign post'. This magical stave is intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather, as attested in the Huld Manuscript, collected by Geir Vigfusson in 1880, consisting of material of earlier origin. (Nearly all ancient/pagan manuscripts were collected in Iceland throughout the centuries). A leaf of the manuscript provides an image of the vegvísir, gives its name, and, in prose, declares that "if this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known"
Ægishjálmur, the ‘Helm of awe’ used to induce fear and to protect against abuse of power. Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive Jötunn associated with the sea; ægis is the genitive case of ægir (and has no direct relation to Greek aigis). In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir bears on his forehead the ægishjálmr "Ægir's helmet" or "Helm of terror/protection".
Bind runes were also used in Viking combat and in glima competition. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi staves were kept in shoes. Gapaldur under the heel of the right foot and ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot.
Viking poetry reads: "Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well". Many from the Viking upper classes could read and write runes, but most Vikings called in a specialist when dealing with the spiritual properties of rune symbols. These experts were called Rúnemester, rune masters, and were specially trained to bring runes into play for divination and spirituality.
One common rune-casting technique was carving runes on pieces of bark then flinging the pieces on the ground. Picking three at random, the symbols inscribed on the bark would give the answer to specific questions.
Another method of divination is using painted runes on flat pebbles, inscribed and painted runes on pebbles, and inscribed runes on pebbles. These rune pebbles are placed in a leather bag and shaken then cast onto a solid surface. Runes that land face up are used for divination.