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Norse Runes

Medieval - Viking - Danish - Norwegian - Icelandic

Last updated 19 December, 2016


This is an examination of runes that relate to my research of Galdrastafir - this can be found on my web page Galdrastafir: Icelandic Magical Staves.

Concerning the magic associated with runes, on which I will expand upon later, I will make these important points:

1. There is no supporting historical evidence that Furthark runes of any sort were used for divination. The multitude of 20th and 21st books written about esoteric runology have no basis in fact. This however does not make belief in the power of runes used for any purpose illegitimate.

2. Sometimes Futhark runes are used to add to the mystique and perhaps even enhance the magical properties of charms, talismen and symbols, including the Icelandic galdrastafir.

3. Occasionally stand-alone unrecognizable secret runes are used within Icelandic magic. Futhark runes are rarely used in that way.

It is for those reasons that I advise the reader and students of runology to tread cautiously and be aware that new age religions that attribute power and meanings to runes are beliefs rather than facts.

If you have any questions or want the latest information just ask me - I’ll answer as soon as possible. I can also help with tattoo design of Galdrastafir, Bindrunes, Runes and advice on their original meanings.

Write to me:  galdrastafir-dot-sigils-at-gmail-dot-com

Rune History and Parent Systems

The history of runes begins with the Elder Futhark from the 2nd to 8th centuries, which generally comprised of 24 characters. The term Futhark comes from the first six letters of the runic character set, much the same as the word alphabet is from the first two letters alpha and beta of the Greek character set.

By around 800 AD/CE this had been split in two, adding more characters to form the short-lived Anglo-Saxon runes used principally in the British Isles, and reducing the set to 16 to form the Younger Futhark used in the 9th to 11th centuries throughout Scandenavia.

The Younger Futhark runes soon became inadequate to cover all the needed Latin alphabet coming in from European texts, so they were expanded back to form the various 27 characters of the Medieval Runes used from the 12th to 15th centuries. During this period and beyond runes were studied and used in Iceland (which is the main subject of this page).

Codex Runicus, 1300AD, pp 37v – 38r.

The term Medieval is actually too restrictive - really the period from 12th to 18th centuries includes the Late Middle Ages which saw much transition and variation in runic letter forms.

There are unfortunately few remaining texts written entirely of runes. One rare exception is the Codex Runicus written around 1300AD providing 82 pages of Scanian and Ecclestical Law and a subsequent addition of 9 pages about Danish Monarchs and details of the Danish Swedish border. 5

These runes have also been called Viking runes, however this term does not fit well. Firstly the Viking people were mostly illiterate and secondly the Viking period spans from late 8th to mid 11th century. Runic use by Vikings was limited to the occasional labelling of personal possessions, if at all. Evidence for this is almost non-existent.

Most curious is that some runes kept their form throughout and even match the Latin capital letter equivalent. These include the B, I and R runes and to a lesser degree the F and T runes (ᛒ, ᛁ, ᚱ, ᚠ and ). Meanwhile other runes took completely different forms depending on era, region or even on the scribe writing them.

Rune Translation and Transcription

The conversion of English words and phrases into Icelandic runes often brings difficulties when certain letters are used. Ordinarily, the letters c, q, w and z are not part of the common Icelandic alphabet, and like in English, x is rarely used. Also, j and v form different sounds than when said in English. Actually the letter j is only a recent addition, which previously was just another form of i. There are additional letters in the Icelandic alphabet too; ð and þ are used for the English th sounds, all vowels have an accented version, and there are ö and æ letters.

Medieval to Pre-Modern Age Rune Forms

Nordic Medial Runic Alphabet

The difficulties are not insurmountable, certainly because foreign names were common and texts from foreign countries needed translating. Some words became borrowed and kept their spelling. Therefore runes for these uncommon letters were created, however one or another is often omitted from runic alphabets, and alternating forms appear for each of them.

There was not an extensive tradition of runic writing in Iceland like there was in other Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Norway and especially Sweden. Artifacts and runestones marking grave sites number in their hundreds, even thousands, in those other countries, whereas in Iceland there are less than one hundred.

Runestone IS IR;73
IS IR;73 - ÚTSKÁLAR KIRKE 2  ⇑  Click on the picture to toggle on and off rune highlighting.
Line 2 →
Line 3 →
Line 1 →
hier ⋮ huiler ⋮ (b)(r)eti-- (⋮) orms
dotter ⋮ lese (⋮) þu (⋮) paaternoste
r ⋮ fyrer ⋮ sal ⋮ hennar
Hér hvílir Bretti[fa] Orms
dóttir, lesi þú paternoste-
r fyrir sál hennar.
Here rests Brettifa Ormr's
daughter. Read Our Fathe-
r for her soul.

The above gravestone from the Church in Útskálar Iceland is dated to the 14th century includes the following runes ᛆ ᛒ ᛑ ᛂ ᚠ ᚼ ᛁ ᛚ ᛘ ᚿ ᚮ ᛕ ᚱ ᛍ ᛐ ᚢ ᛨ and , which equal the characters a b d e f h i l m n o p r s t u y and þ. This leaves c g j k q v w x and z plus the extra Icelandic characters unrepresented. Note that font shapes within my text may vary, such as the e and s - their variations are shown in the Runic Alphabet image above.

Despite the lack of many artifacts this does not mean Icelanders were less interested in runes. In fact, there are many Icelandic manuscripts that discuss runes, providing examples of common and less common runic alphabets, variations and secret runes. Additionally, runes in Iceland were commonly used in magic spells and as part of their tradition of magic symbols known as galdrastafir, far more than their nordic neighbours.

The first appearance of extended runic alphabets in Icelandic manuscripts are in copies of Málfræðinnar grundvǫllr [the foundation of grammar], a section of the now lost Third Grammatical Icelandic Treatise by Ólafur Þórðarsson. These were transcribed several times in the 14th century.

Nordic Medial Runic Alphabet
Málfræðinnar grundvǫllr (copies)
AM 748 Ib 4to., 1300-1325 || AM 242 fol. p97. Codex Wormianus, 1350-70
These letters and their significations my lord King Valdemar compiled with a short word-formula in this manner: Sprængd mannz hǫk flyði tovi boll [The man's tired hawk flees from the ?double-ball]
   (Translation by Tarrin Wills's) [1]
Note that as is usually the case with all old manuscripts, it is heavily abbreviated, usually indicated by short lines or squiggles over where the dropped characters would be. Also particular about old manuscript text are alternate forms of characters, including an s that looks like an f and an f that looks like a small B. In the above manuscripts the first two words are þessa stafi; as mentioned earlier þ is equivelent to the English th, so these two words translate into the similar sounding English words these staves.

The original Málfræðinnar grundvǫllr is believed to have been written around 1250 CE by Óláfr Þórðarson, the nephew of Snorri Sturluson. He describes most of the runes in detail; discussing their names, form and sounds.

The text continues making the following observations:

Both scripts say there are 11 named consonants however they list only 10 - the other is the H-rune [hagall]: , mentioned seperately in only one of the manuscripts. Also not covered are other common variations, one of the P-rune being a dotted B-rune: and the other of the Icelandic letter ð which usually is given the same rune as the D-rune, however occasionally a variation appears as a dotted þurs: . The descriptions of semi-vowel and mute seem rather odd and inconsistantly applied. In modern day phonetics, terms such as voiceless (f, s, t...), nasal (m, n), plosive (b, k, t...) and so on are easier to comprehend.

AM 434 a 12mo - Lækningakver; Iceland, 1475-1525
image image image image image
Alphabet - A to Þ
Page 40r
For dice gambling
Page 4v
Against theft
Page 4v
Causes fear in enemys
Page 5r
To settle hatred
Page 5r

The Lækningakver [medical book] manuscript AM 434 a 12mo is one of the eariest known written in Icelandic and containing rune text, a full runic alphabet and galdrastafir (magic symbols). It is held within The Arnamagnæan Collection at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The alphabet on page 40r is in the latin equivalent order:

a b c d e f g h  /  i k l m n o p q  /  r s t u x y ö z þ

This for the most part has standard runes. Those that vary slightly include the d, e and s where the main stem usually continues through the small ring. The h- and q-runes are unseen elsewhere, and the later x-, y- and z-rune forms are rarely seen or else shuffled.

The runes seen in the gambling spell on page 4v does use very standard forms. It translates to Olafr. Olafr, Haralldr. Haralldr. Eirikr., being an invocation of names of Christian leaders. It seems odd that these standard rune forms (i.e. d-, e- and h-runes) were not reflected on page 40r.

The Icelandic Rune Poem

AM 687 d 4to - Icelandic Rune Poem; 1490-1510
AM 687 8vo - Icelandic Rune Poem
Received by the Árni Magnússon Institute
from Gudrun Ögmundsdóttur of Flatey in 1704

The following table shows a transcription of the Icelandic rune poem from AM 687 (above) as deciphered by R I Page. The translation is from the 1915 book Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples by Bruce Dickins, in which he evaluated this and other later manuscripts before formulating his translation. Therefore as given here, the transcript and the translation will not always match.

fer fnda rog ok flædar viti ok g[ra]fseids gataAurum fy<l>ker
Wealthsource of discord among kinsmen and fire of the sea and path of the serpent.
úruer skygia gratur ok skæra þuer[rir ok] hirdis hatrVmbre. Visi
Showerlamentation of the clouds and ruin of the hay-harvest and abomination of the shepherd.
þursþer kuenna kuöl ok kleita ibui ok […]lrunar verSat[ur]nus. þeingill
Giant torture of women and cliff-dweller and husband of a giantess.
óss {ас} oer alldingautr ok asg[ar]dz iof[ur ok v]alhallar visiJupi[ter] Oddviti
God aged Gautr and prince of Ásgarðr and lord of Vallhalla.
reiðrer sitiandi sela ok snudig ferd ok iors erfidiIte<r>. Ræsir
Riding joy of the horsemen and speedy journey and toil of the steed.
kaunker barna baul ok bardagi ok h[o]ldfuahus.Flag[...] [k]ongur
Ulcer disease fatal to children and painful spot and abode of mortification.
hagallher kallda [k]orn ok knap[a dri]fa ok snaka sott.G[ran]do Hilldingr
Hail cold grain and shower of sleet and sickness of serpents.
nauðner þyiar þra [ok…] kost[r] ok v[o]ssamlig verk.Opera Niflungr
Constraint grief of the bond-maid and state of oppression and toilsome work.
íssier aR baur[k]r [ok un]nar þ[e]kia ok feigra manna far.Gl[a]cies jofur
Ice bark of rivers and roof of the wave and destruction of the doomed.
áraer gumna g[.] d […] ok d[a]ladreyri.Annus Allvalldr
Plenty boon to men and good summer and thriving crops.
sólser s[k]yia skiolldr [ok sk]inandi raudull ok isa aldrtregi.Rota : Siklin<gr>
Sunsol shield of the clouds and shining ray and destroyer of ice.
lögrl[er] vellanda va[..] ok [..]dr ket[i]ll ok glaummunga grandi.lacus Lofdlacus Lofd<ungr>
Water eddying stream and broad geysir and land of the fish.
bjarkanber […] ok litid tre ok u[.]gsamligr uidrAbies . Budlungr
Birch leafy twig and little tree and fresh young shrub.
maðrmer manns g[a]man ok moldar auki ok skipa skreytir.Homo Milldingr
Man delight of man and augmentation of the earth and adorner of ships.
Týrter [ein]hendr [a]s ok vlfsleifar ok hofa hilmir.Mars . Tiggi
Týr god with one hand and leavings of the wolf and prince of temples.
ýryer ben[…]otgiarnt jarnArcus ynglingr
Yew bent bow and brittle iron and giant of the arrow.

There are extensions to the stanzas and kennings given above, not only for the standard Younger Futhark runes but also for the runes added later. For the intrepid researcher some Icelandic manuscripts to compare, transcribe and translate include AM 166a 8vo pages 104r to 105v together with ÍB 68 4to pages 136v and 137r, as well as NKS1867 pages 167r to 169v. Finally Jón Ólafsson's Runologia AM 413 fol. gives the same with slightly more readable handwriting, however getting hold of this manuscript is more difficult.

Runic Studies

Latin Rune Published Works
image lingvae septentrionalis page C runir seu danica
⇑  Click on any image to see it enlarged.
Crymogæa sive Rerum Islandicarvm, 1610 by Arngrímur Jónsson Lingvæ Septentrionalis elementa tribus assertionibus adstructa, 1651, by Runólfur Jónsson Runir seu Danica literatura antiqvissima, 1651 by Ole Worm (Dr. Olaus Wormius)

Icelandic Manuscripts copying Lingvæ Septentrionalis
IB 658 - p32v IB 658 - p33r IB 299 - p142r
ÍB 658 8vo - page 32v, 1680 ÍB 658 8vo - page 33r, 1680 ÍB 299 4to - page 142r, 1764

Other Icelandic Runic Manuscripts
AM 749 - p25v IBR 64 - p71v LBS 632 - p175v
AM 749 4to - page 25v, 1611-1700 ÍBR 64 8vo II - page 71v, 1813 LBS 632 4to - page 175v, 1810

Rune stick IS IR;206 from Bergþórshvoll, 16th-17th century

Rune stick from Bergþórshvoll
Rune stick from Bergþórshvoll

This rune stick found buried shows the runic alphabet on one side, and on the other the complete Sator Arapo verse.

A final word on the letter W; This is a very elusive rune in the Norse runic alphabet. As a standard modern day letter it is not considered part of the Icelandic alphabet, and in other Scandenavian countries it is named double-V (not double-U). What traces exist equate it with either the letters U or V, where it takes dotted-U or dotted-F rune forms.

In three manuscripts (shown above), beside the letter U are the characters , Ʌ and - which may mean U = ᚢ and Ʌ (V) = , but I need confirmation on that.

Within the Runic Unicode Block the rune is given for V and given for W. The bind-rune-like ᚢ+ᚢ = seems to be historically unsupported and may only be a modern day invention for the lack of anything better.

Runes in Icelandic Magic

IB 383 p26v
Huld ms, IB 383 p. 26v

The Icelandic manuscript called "Huld", presumably from the word "hulda" meaning secrecy, was made by Geir Vigfússon in 1860. It is one of many dated from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries featuring collections of runic alphabets and/or galdrastafir that were used in earlier times. The first half comprises a list of 329 runic rows or alphabets, some recognisable but most very cryptic. The second half comprises a comparitively small set of 30 staves along with Icelandic and crypticly coded text that provides titles, descriptions and instructions for each case.

No. XXVIII. Þjófastafur.
Sé stafur þessi ristur á munnlaugar botn utan og innan með fullu-tungli og fullu-sjávarfalli ...

Note differences in rune used in magic compared to those used in tradition and scholarly investigations.

  1. Málfræðinnar grundvǫllr - Third Grammatical Treatise PhD thesis from 2001 by Tarrin Wills.
  2. Islandske Runeinnskrifter Text and translation of runic gravestone IS IR;73.
  3. The Icelandic Rune Poem by R I Page.
  4. ISLANDSKE RUNER by Arild HaugeĀ © Danmark, Aarhus
  5. Codex Runicus Pages 1 to 161 From a full database of all known runic texts and artifacts.

Justin Foster, Norse Graphics © 2014 – 2016.