The runic alphabet is the original writing system of the Germanic (I’m using that term to include both Central European and Scandinavian) peoples; their use ranges from ~100 BCE to ~1600 CE, and throughout that time frame they were seen in different forms.
The Elder Futhark
The original form, and what you will most commonly see written about and used by practitioners, is the Elder Futhark, in use largely from ~100 BCE to ~800 CE and corresponded to the Proto-Norse language which was in use during that time frame. This futhark is a 24-character alphabet consisting of three ‘aetts’ known respectively as Freyr’s/Freya’s Aett, Hagal’s Aett and Tyr’s Aett. The Elder Futhark looks roughly as such:
UruR, in addition to the form shown in the above image (second rune in the first row), also can be drawn using the vertical supporting line and a curved line coming down instead of the straight, angled one. Raido has slightly incorrect representation here, where it should be drawn open rather than closed; basically, the part that comes in toward the vertical bar should not touch.
The Younger Futhark
The next commonly known futhark is the Younger Futhark, in use from ~800CE to ~1600. Contrary to what some may believe, this is actually what would have been commonly used throughout most of the Viking Age. It originated in Scandinavia as the spoken language transitioned from Proto-Norse to Old Norse, and is a reduced form of the Elder, consisting of 16 characters; it largely, but not 100% replaced the Elder Futhark. Its form is shown here:
It is good to note that in this reduced form, several of the runes were used for multiple sounds. As an example, Tyr was used for both a ‘t’ and a hard ‘d’ sound, while Thurs was used for ‘th’ and the softer ‘d’ which is denoted by the Icelandic ‘ð’. A few of the runes also took on different sounds than what they had in the Elder. Óss, which was originally the ‘a’ rune, AnsuR, came to represent a nasal vowel sound early on during the Viking Age, and later was used as the ‘o’ rune in place of Othala. Ara, the new ‘a’ rune, had rune poems similar to those of Jara, suggesting that through the linguistic change it lost the ‘j’ sound and took the place for ‘a’.
The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc
The third and last commonly known representation of the runes is the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which was in use likely from ~400CE to ~900CE and was located in use primarily in Anglo-Saxon England. By about the 10th century CE they were largely confined to use in writing manuscripts, and were basically gone after the Norman conquest. The Futhorc is an extended version of the Elder Futhark, consisting of 26-33 characters, and its form is as such:
Unlike with the Elder and Younger futharks, I am not well versed in this runic alphabet so I will not risk misinforming. Note, though, the open ‘R’ rune, as I described for the correct form of Raido.
The previous images show common forms of these runes, but one thing to note is that there were various representations of all of these runes and most of them have about two or three ways in which they can be drawn, as well as shorthand systems which were developed. Regional linguistic differences created variations in the rune forms, most notably in the Younger Futhark. For example, the runes in Sweden during the Viking Age contained variations of the Ar rune which corresponded to the characters of ä and ö in modern Swedish, as shown in the following chart of runes from about 1000 CE:
Runic inscriptions from around 900 CE also show the short-twig and staveless runes, as shown respectively in the following two charts:
Meanwhile, runic inscriptions from Greenland, which was primarily populated by settlers from Norway and Iceland, show somewhat different variations in the runic symbols:
There is a whole lot more information that one can get into when dealing with runes and their evolution, and if you want to know more of the history, refer to my list of sources.
Now for uses:
Runes are used for various purposes, from writing to divination to magic and even curses. Divination is at the same time the most widely known and widely disputed practice, in which the runes are cast or drawn and then read according to which ones are present and in which orientation. The major evidence for and against the historical practice of runic divination comes from sources such as Tacitus’Germania, in which divination by lots is described. However, it is not stated as to whether or not the symbols on the wood chips described were actually runes as we think of them or rather other symbols. There are supporters on both sides of the argument, but either way, in its more authentic form it is a modern practice which is based upon old techniques.
Each rune has its own meaning, and I encourage you to look at multiple sources to get a good picture of what each one means. While many modern books will list ‘layouts’ to be used when reading runes, these are not authentic to the techniques of the ancient Germanic peoples. The use of layouts is likely a carryover from the more widely familiar Tarot system, which was developed in 15th century Italy, long after the popularity of runes had diminished in most areas. A common way of divining with runes is a single rune draw from a bag; a lot of people will do this daily. A three-rune draw is also common practice, and seems to tie in well with what is described in the source material. For a bigger spread, the easiest method is to take all of them up, toss them onto the ground and read according to which land face-up. One thing that is good to get into is relating runes to which ones lie nearest to them, such as if you have a group of three that are right next to each other, but separate from the rest. Runes are typically carved on a natural material such as wood, stone, antler, bone, etc. and colored with paint (historically red was common, either with dye or blood).
As far as magic goes, the most well known form of runic magic is runic Galdr. ‘Galdr’ literally means ‘song’ in Old Norse, and galdr as it was more designed to be is a verse form. By this, I mean that rather than simply chanting the rune’s name, one sings a verse about the rune itself and it’s meaning. For more information on the form of runic galdr, please check out this post, as it contains information which would render this one too lengthy.
The rune poems themselves, if sung with the intent of invoking their respective runes, could be forms of galdr, and each of my rune studies begins and ends in this way. For example, my galdr for Hagal is:
Vad har döde,
Ska växa upp nya.
Hagal faller ner och förstörar.
Kalla korn blir vatten för tillväxt.
Which translates to:
“What has died,
will grow up new.
Hagal (Hail) falls down and destroys.
Cold grain becomes water for growth.”
This invokes the destructive force of Hagal, which gives way for a new beginning. This is how that understanding and intent is projected forth, and quite a few of the runes have several associations to which a galdr verse or verses could be tailored.
Bindrunes are also a common feature in runic practice. These symbols combine the forms of multiple runes into a single glyph, which combines and magnifies the power of the individual runes; these are commonly inscribed on talismans or tokens as such:
Notice the forms of Fehu, AlgiR, Raido, Othala and multiple other runes in this single symbol. Most will also say that when creating a bindrune, you need to make sure to draw each rune individually over each other, rather than just filling in the extra lines as you go.
If you want more info on runes and their uses, again, refer to my “Read and Do Not Read” list. There are so many meanings and techniques for the runes that I would literally have to write a book or two to do justice to them, so I will leave you with this.
Paxon, Diana. Taking Up The Runes: A Complete Guide To Using Runes In Spells, Rituals, Divination, and Magic. Weiser Books. 2005.
Thorsson, Edred. Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology. Weiser Books. 1987.
Thorsson, Edred. Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. Weiser Books. 1983.
Enoksen, Lars Magnar. The History of Runic Lore. Scandinavian Heritage Publications. 2011.
Hauge, Arild. Arild Hauge’s Runes. 2006. Internet. http://www.arild-hauge.com/eindex.htm