3 - The 24 runes of The ancienT futhark




We are now able to begin studying the 24 runes of the ancient Germanic Futhark. Each of them is called a ‘song’ by Ódhinn (Hár’s saying, 146) – its Old Norse name is: Hávamál [Note 1].


Ljóđ ek ţau kann                     The songs, I know them

er kann-at ţjóđans kona          She does not, the king’s wife,

ok mannskis mögr.                  and no sons of the man.


Thus, Ódhinn boasts of the knowledge of charms, and to even best the queens in this knowledge (certainly, he alludes here to the Valkyries who are princesses), some of them being unknown to those who are supposed to teach them to men. I think that Ódhinn means that he himself found new charms or new songs in order to use the runes, besides those already known by the “kings’ wives and the sons of the men”. This explains why Ódhinn can be looked upon as being the first male rune master. He did not create them, as many believe, but (screaming!) he gathered them and improved the knowledge about them. Chapter 2 explains that they were created by the ‘Powers’.

The ancient Germanic runes names were ascribed by special linguists – specialists in the field of historical linguistics – who analyzed the etymology of these names within the context of the grammar of the language used in the runic inscriptions. The names I use in this chapter are thus the names of the runes in the language of the runic inscriptions, which obviously differs from Old Norse and Old English. You should not be surprised to see different naming of the runes: each language has its own. My only concern is how many people mix up the languages when they attribute names to the runes: That, I will avoid carefully. The names in the runic inscription languages derive thus from the work of the three great grammarians of the runic inscriptions: Krause, Makaev and Antonsen. Again, the name of the rune will change from runic language to Old Norse and to Old English. For each rune, I will underline these changes and comment on them, especially when the new name includes a new meaning as well.

We shall use the four main [Note 2] texts where the role of the runes is really given: the Norse runic poem (I also call it sometimes: the Viking rune poem), the Icelandic rune poem, the Old English rune poem (OERP also known as Anglo-Saxon rune poem, since Old English is nothing but the language of the Anglo-Saxon civilization), and The Saying of Hár (as already said, it is called Hávamál in Old Norse). This long poem ends with 18 verses that has been long named Rúnatalsţáttur Óđins (I have seen a Rűna Talsţattúr Oţińs in an 18th century manuscript), and is now known as Ljóđatal. We shall thus use the eighteen verses of the Ljóđatal.


As was explained in the first chapter, I will associate 18 of the 24 runes of the ancient Futhark to one of the 18 verses of the Ljóđatal, the runic part of the Hávamál. My attributions are very similar to those of Guido List. Let it be very clear that I do not follow List here : It only happens that it is the simplest association rule since it approximately follows the ordering of the Viking Futhark (of 16 runes), and the two extra runes necessary to reach the number 18 fit very nicely with the two verses I attribute them to [Note 3]. In order to make sure that nobody believes I follow List’s so-called « Armanen runes », I will give in an appendix a translation of the chapter of List’s Geheimnis der Runen relative to the Armanen runes, together with my personal (very) critical notes. I found it necessary because Flower’s English translation of this chapter tends to hide the absurdity of some of List’s statements, and softens the brutality of List’s 'pre-Nazi' thinking.


Obviously, we will have to use the knowledge of Northern, Celtic and Germanic myths we have studied in chapter 2. In some cases, I will even ‘foresee’ on chapter 4 which comments on the nine runic songs Sigrdrífa teaches Sigurdhr after he awoke her. I tried to avoid this illogical foreseeing as much as possible, but it showed to be sometimes impossible to avoid.


The shape of the runes is far from being neutral. I will describe the form of each rune and its changes with time in the ancient Futhark (i.e., say before year 800). Odenstedt’s book on this topic will be my basic reference. Viking, Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon runic poems contain the shape of their runes; you will see it with the poem. Inversely, this book being dedicated to the ancient Futhark, I will not provide all the variations of the runes, in the Danish, Swedish and Norse worlds after year 800: This book can help but it will not give all what is necessary to read the famous Viking runic stones of the 9th-12th centuries.


As said, the meaning of the runes follows here from the runic poems. I must insist on the fact that present day scholars (Page excepted) – and all mystical books – present these poems as giving the name of the rune, followed by a translation of this name, followed by the runic poem proper. This way of presenting is correct for the Old English runic poem, but a complete cheat for the other two, the Icelandic and Viking ones. As far as I can explain where this strange habit comes from, it seems to me it originates in the way the first scholar to provide a complete version of these poems: L. F. A. Wimmer, in Die Runenschrift, translated to German and published in en 1887. Wimmer of course is an honest scholar, and he explicitly says that he added to the drawing of the runes a name that seemed probable [Note 4], but the experts who followed him copied Wimmer and forgot to hint at this ‘detail’. Below you will find part of a manuscript showing the Norse runic poem. This manuscript now belongs to Copenhagen Royal Library and is classed under the name of Bartholinus. I am very thankful to the old manuscript service of this library for sending me a complete copy of the pages containing this poem. I checked that this version contains all the variations Wimmer attributes to what he calls ‘manuscript A’ (and which appears to have then belonged to the University Library).



You can see that the name of this rune, fé, is not given, as opposed to all the presentations of the runic poems I could observe. The same took place with the most ancient Icelandic manuscript (dated 1500 and called ‘AM 687d 4°’). By the way, R. I. Page who recently studied the Icelandic runic poem (The Icelandic Rune-Poem, 1999) explicitly says: « Rune forms are here given in their conventional transliterations in bold characters » so as to underline that the runes are drawings placed before the text. For each rune, I will respect the original presentation of the runic poem.

On the top of it, the translation itself of the poems is more than problematic since they show several possible meanings. When this happens, I will provide the Old Norse version to enable anyone to check my claims. As for the Old English rune poem, it has been so much mistreated by the translators who imposed on it their Christian views – be it conscious or unconscious – that I retranslated it completely by following the dictionaries instead of the academic tradition. My version is somewhat too much word-for-word and thus less easy to catch than the one of the academic tradition, and the innumerable fantasy translation inspired by it.


Finally, quite a large number of runic information is given in several manuscripts, now available on the web, thanks to Icelandic scholars, but they are not translated. They are: Ţrideilur Rúna (manuscript spelling – available on ‘saganet’ that put on the web this manuscript written between 1660 and 1680, manuscript JS 43 4to), the Málrúnir, and the Nockrar Deylur. Translating all of them is very long work, which I am doing slowly, and they are not to be found in this book. Nevertheless, the Ţrideilur Rúna is more readable than other manuscripts (the excerpt of the Bartholinus given above is exceptionally easy to read). It also contains Latin comments that shed light on the meaning of the poem – or on its variations with time – which I will translate for you.


As a humorous conclusion, here follows the opinion of the famous inquisitor of the Basque country in 1608, Pierre de Lancre, who speaks of these magical practices.

Extracts from Pierre de Lancre’s  Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons, Buon, Paris 1613.


Quant ŕ ces caracteres conceus en Hieroglyphes non entendus, gravez en lettres incognues, & billebarrees en formes estranges : tous ces brevets composez de noms sauvages, & mots nouveaux peu intelligibles : toutes ces receptes …, comme des os de taupe, des aisles de chauve souris, … Toutes ces superstitions … nous tirent ŕ des curiositez diaboliques … au peril de nostre ame.

As for these not understood characters conceived in Hieroglyphs, engraved in unknown letters and scribbled in strange forms : all these patents composed with wild names and new hardly intelligible words : all these receipts … such as mole bones, bat wings … All these superstitions... draw us toward devilish curiosities … and threaten our soul.


Welcome to the uncouth realm of the “lettres incognues billebarrees en formes estranges” that drive thee to devilish curiosities and threaten thine soul!




[1] The accents on the ‘a’ are important to the wording. The founder of the Ásatrú religion in Iceland, Sveinbjörn Beinteinson, pronounces it as ‘aovamol’. What seems to be a very minor point will show up as very important in the following. The nineteenth century scholars decided to ‘normalize’ the writing of Old Norse poetry, and introduced accents where they deemed them necessary. As we shall see quite often when studying the runic poems, this implies choices on the meaning of the words. For instance, the modern version of the runic poems relative to the rune Ár say this rune is a góđi, which means it is a boon, while the oldest manuscripts write gođi, actually leaving to the reader the choice between an ‘o’ or an ‘ó’. If you choose to read that Ár is a gođi, you read that it is a (Pagan) priest. These nineteenth century scholars thought that gođi was meaningless and imposed the spelling góđi. I know that many people ironically ‘believe’ in this nineteenth century normalizations as if it were Christ’s word. To these people, I say : please, bear in mind that a really conscientious scholar should check the old editions of the Edda and the manuscripts in order to establish whether the two choices were possible, and propose you the different meanings, with an argumentation as to which one makes more sense within the cultural context of the Viking world. I did try to follow these lines.


[2] There exists also an « abecedarium nordmannicum » that provides only the shape and the name of the Norse runes. A meaning of the runes can also be inferred from the four « signatures of Cynewulf »: four texts in which the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf spells his name and uses the corresponding runes with a short commentary. You will find them appended to this chapter.


[3] I recall that this way of speaking is well known for being partially improper. I use it simply because it is a popular qualifier of the post-year 800 Nordic civilization.

Saying “following the rune ordering” is also partially improper. It is notably more complex.

I give you below the exact list of the correspondences between Ljóđatal’s 18 verses, the 16 runes of the Viking Futhark, and the 24 runes of the ancient Germanic Futhark. I divided the runes in 3 families (ćtt). The name of a Norse rune is just after its rank in the Viking Futhark. After that, between [ ] and in italics, follows the name of the corresponding rune of the ancient Germanic Futhark, and the rank of the associated verse of the Ljóđatal, when there is one.

First ćtt : 1. fé [fehu,1st verse], 2. úr (or úrr) [uruz, 2nd verse], 3. thurs [thurisaz, 3th verse], 4. áss (or óss) [ansuz, 4th verse], 5. reiđ [raido, 5th verse], 6. kaun [kaunan, 6th verse], [miss the last 2 runes of the first ćtt : gebo, 18th verse, wunjo, 17th verse]

Second ćtt : 7. hagall [hagala, 7th verse], 8. nauđ [naudiz, 8th verse], 9. is [isaz, 9th verse], 10. ár [jeran, 10th verse], [ihwaz becomes the 16th Norse rune, ýr, thus the 16th verse is associated to ihwaz], [pertho and algiz have no equivalent in the Viking Futhark, and have no associated verse], 11. sól [sowelo, 11th verse]

Third ćtt : 12. týr [tiwaz, 12th verse], 13. bjarkan [berkanan, 13th verse], [misses ehwaz, no associated verse], 14. mađr [mannaz, 14th verse], 15. lögr [laukaz, 15th verse], 16. ýr [ihwaz, 16th verse], [miss ingwaz, dagaz and othala, no associated verse].

As you see, it is as announced, with a little bit of complexity at Ihwaz because the ordering of the two Futhark is changed for ýr, the corresponding rune, and because the 15th verse applies to bjarkan and lögr. Besides, the Viking Futhark has 16 runes, I had to find where to put the 17th and 18th verses. I will later explain my choices.


[4] I used the German translation of Wimmer’s book (the original is in Dutch – Wimmer is a famous Dutch linguist of the ninetieth century). My internet site provides a transcription of Wimmer’s chapter relative to the runic poems, in German, together with an English translation: http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/we.htm (English) and wd.htm (German)