Fact 1: Runes are symbols that form the Viking Alphabet
The Vikings used something called ‘runes’ – which is their equivalent of our letters. Often, they would carve them into wood or stone, which is why they are often quite simple-looking, with straight lines.
You may hear the words ‘Elder Futhark’ runes – this is the full set of original runes that the Vikings used. It can be split into three groups of eight:
- The first eight is known as aett, and is ruled over by the Goddess Freya
- The second eight is ruled over by Heimdall and Mordgud
- And the final eight is ruled over by Tiwaz and Zisa
Fact 2 – Every Rune Has A Meaning!
You can see in the picture above that every rune has a meaning. It is interesting that many of these words are really important in Viking life – words such as ‘year’ also means ‘harvest’ – but you also see ‘god’, ‘joy’, and ‘inherited land’!
The word ‘rune’ itself also has a meaning – it comes from an old word that means ‘mystery’. So for many Vikings, even the runes were a mystery!
Fact 3 – Vikings Believed That Odin Created The Runes
The Vikings used to believe that runes were created by the God Odin. In this story, Odin hanged from a ‘Cosmic World Tree’ for 9 days, and the runes were revealed to him!
The runes were a gift from Odin to the Viking peoples, and had mystical powers that only certain people could use.
Fact 4 – The Runes Actually Came from the Germanic People
Of course, Odin didn’t hang from a tree for 9 days and give his people an alphabet! In truth, runes originated from people who lived in what we now know as Germany. The Germanic people brought runes to Denmark around the year 100AD.
Fact 5 – There Were People Called Rune Masters!
Runes had magical properties, and only Rune Masters could use that magic properly.
There are many stories of Viking people who misused runes. One woman was carving runes on a whale bone, but she made a mistake and the runes fell on her head, hurting her. A Rune Master corrected the runes, and the woman recovered!
Rune Masters could tell fortunes, too. They would put the runes – carved into stones – in a bag. They would then shake them, and see what falls out. For example, if you get runes that say: harvest, joy, wealth – then you can imagine how happy that Viking would be!
Fact 6 – Runes Had Very Practical Uses
Yes, runes had magical properties – according to Viking folklore. But they also had some very practical uses, especially:
- Claiming ownership of something (like writing your name on your pencil case today!)
- Keeping track of sales and trading (by merchants for instance)
Fact 7 – There is an Elder Futhark, and a Younger Futhark
Yes, there are TWO alphabets! The Elder Futhark is the older version, and has the 24 runes you saw earlier.
The Younger Futhark removes E, D, G, O and P.
We first see people using the new set of runes around the year 800AD, at the start of what is known as the ‘Viking Age’, when Vikings set out to dominate Europe. This is also when more Vikings started to use the runes, and the Viking language developed too.
These are the runes of the Younger Futhark:
- ᚠ fé (“wealth”)
- ᚢ úr (“iron”/”rain”)
- ᚦ Thurs (“thurs”, as in Thor)
- ᚬ As/Oss (“a god”)
- ᚱ reið (“ride”)
- ᚴ kaun (“ulcer”)
- ᚼ hagall (“hail”)
- ᚾ/ᚿ nauðr (“need”)
- ᛁ ísa/íss (“ice”)
- ᛅ/ᛆ ár (“plenty”)
- ᛋ/ᛌ sól (“Sun”)
- ᛏ/ᛐ Týr (“Týr, a God”)
- ᛒ björk/bjarkan/bjarken (“birch”)
- ᛘ maðr (“man, human”)
- ᛚ lögr (“sea”)
- ᛦ yr (“yew”)