The Elder Futhark Runes: An Instructive Guide
So a lot of people have been asking for in depth guides to the various sets of runes. In order to do this properly I’m going to be writing an entire series of articles, with each individual entry focusing on a different set of runes. Now, each of these is going to touch briefly on the history and use of these runes; however, that’s not going to be my primary focus. When readers ask me about the runes, they invariably want to know ONE thing. “How do I write (whatever) in runes?” So without further ado, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The Elder Futhark
These are the runes that just about everybody learns first, and they’re what you’ll see on just about every set of divinitory runes you’ll likely ever see in a shop. We’re going to take these on first because, quite frankly, they’re the easiest to learn. With 24 runes that represent sounds commonly found in English, these runes don’t require too much study to be able to use proficiently. The Elder Futhark runes were in use from around 300 CE to right around 7-800 CE, just before the beginning of the ‘Viking Age’. In the 8th century these runes were refined and replaced by several regional sets of ‘Younger’ runes, due to changes in the spoken language. The vast majority of Elder Futhark inscriptions that we’ve discovered are very short, usually only a word or two; often a name. The Elder Runes were rarely used to convey actual information, on the contrary most of the remaining inscriptions are written in riddles and codes. Without context or a key, many of these artifacts are perplexing at best. Rather than being used to tell a story or share something to the average reader, most of these are thought to have ‘mystical’ connotations. To the early Germanic tribes the very act of writing something down seems to have been a kind of magic in and of itself.
Writing the Runes
There are a few simple things to keep in mind when trying to write out a word or phrase with the Elder Futhark. First andforemost: the runes are not letters, they’re sounds. A lot of charts will try to directly correlate each rune to a letter. This sometimes works out fine, but it can be misleading. What I mean by that, is that when transliterating a word into Futhark, one should pay less attention to how a word is spelled, and more to how the word SOUNDS.
(The ( ) mark the sound within each word that the associated rune represents. Some runes only have one sound while others have two. *Please note, the (CH) of Loch Ness is the Scottish pronunciation of those letters, which doesn’t really exist in American English)
So in order to write a word in the Elder Futhark, you must first know how to pronounce it, and then use the runes to sound it out. This also means that you’ll never see double letters transliterate into double runes. The last thing to note is that Futhark lacks any form of punctuation or spacing. In later inscriptions it wasn’t uncommon to see a (.) or a (:) between words, but that was a later innovation.
So if you want to write out a phrase into the Elder runes, before you even worry about the runes themselves you’ll need to fix up your text. To explain it with English characters, let’s take the tongue twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”. Since Futhark has no ‘Sh’ sound, what we’d be left with would be SESELSSESELSBITHESESOR (SE-SELS-SE-SELS-BI-THE-SE-SOR). I’m sure you can already begin to understand why these ancient inscriptions can be a bit difficult to translate!
The internet is a wonderful place, but unfortunately there’s an awful lot of misinformation floating about the net. Here are a few of the biggest ‘myths’ about the Elder Futhark that one is likely to encounter, and the truths behind them.
Rune Names and Meanings: You might have noticed that I didn’t include any of the rune NAMES in the graphic above. A quick web search will turn up a hundred and one images of the Elder Futhark next to runic poems that give the name and meaning of each of the twenty four runes. There are several historical ‘Rune Poems’ that teach the meanings behind each symbol, which we will explore in future articles about each individual set. NONE of the remaining poems are about the Elder Futhark runes. Each and every one of them was written for a younger set or symbols. The names and ideas behind the Elder runes are guesswork, patched together from the names of some of the younger runes and archaeological context clues from earlier inscriptions. Now that’s not to knock the hard work and scholarship that went into reconstructing those names, but anything that tries to present a runic poem using the Elder Futhark is either somebody’s artistic license or a flat out mistake.
Vikings Wrote Things In Elder Futhark: Every ‘Viking Age’ runestone you will ever see was written in one of the Younger Futhark scripts. Believe it or not, it is actually neigh on impossible to write Old Norse in the Elder runes. The language simply had too many sounds (mostly complex vowels) that had no corresponding symbol. So they created newer scripts that better represented the spoken tongue, and by the time of the Vikings the older runes had been abandoned for the better part of a century.
Only the Elder Runes Are ‘Magical’: As I mentioned before, the mystical meanings behind each rune come from the various Rune Poems, which were actually written for the Younger Futhark. You can do your inscriptions or divination with just about any set of runes. All are equally valid.
Join us next time to learn about the Danish ‘Long Branch’ runes!