Rune Dictionary

written by Venita Wessex

An introduction to the interpretation and usage of Germanic runes.

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Chapter 2: History And Characteristics Of The Futhark

Chapter 4
Origins of the Futhark
Originally, it was believed that when the Germanic tribes migrated westward into Central Europe they encountered the Byzantine Empire and a civilization at its peak and absorbed that culture’s language. It was a strong theory. After all, there was a society with commerce on a truly continental scale, with an international army, currency, language, and culture. To the Germanic tribes, who often negotiated agreements with a shake of the hand and whose word could not be held after the death of a leader, the Byzantine Empire’s ability to administer a vast expanse of peoples and lands would have been incredible. The written word allowed contracts to be negotiated at a distance, helped preserve stories and culture, and provided the key to maintaining and building a stable society. Literacy and a script was the key to it all.

However, since the discovery, dating, and subsequent deciphering of the Vimose inscriptions, which placed the beginnings of Proto-Norse roughly 100 years before the Goths were historically documented to have contact with the Greco-Roman culture, this theory has been largely discarded. While the Greek alphabet was the principle alphabet used across the Hellenistic world, from the Roman province of Illyria on the east coast of the Adriatic all the way to Mesopotamia, many northern Italian societies had their own alphabets that were contemporary with the Roman letters and survived well into the period of contact with the Germanic peoples. Therefore, when the Germanic tribes began experimenting with writing systems of their own to describe their language there were several examples to draw from. These artefacts, and indeed many others which bear the Elder Futhark have angular symbols, a character which bears a significant resemblance to another alphabet at the time, Old Italic. More, there was evidence of mixing between alphabets, with a prominent piece of proof found in the inscription of a Germanic name written not in Elder Futhark, but instead in a North Etruscan alphabet.

While the Germans undoubtedly encountered both these aforementioned linguistic groups, the northern Germanic tribes such as the Norse, Angles, and Jutes were over time, also influenced by the Roman alphabet, with certain alterations made to account for the sounds of Old Norse. We can see the similarities between characters such as Raido “ᚱ” and Roman “R”, Kenaz “ᚲ” and Roman “C” (pronounced hard in Latin), and Isa “ᛁ” and Roman “I”. While there were certainly many sources from which Proto-Norse, Old Norse, and the accompanying script drew, what is clear is that by the beginning of the 2nd century C.E., the Elder Futhark alphabet does seem to have stabilized the character set for much of the next half-century. Though, of course, that is not the whole story. However, the development of Elder Futhark into Younger Futhark and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc will be covered in later chapters of this text.

The History of the Elder Futhark
Owing to the magical nature of the alphabet, most of the early attestations of the Elder Futhark are no longer accessible, particularly to Muggles. Unlike most Mediterranean characters, which must be inscribed on clay, metal, or papyrus to work, the Elder Futhark works best on materials from living things such as wood, bone, and animal hide (see Chapter One, “Divination and Runes”). Thus the oldest Muggle inscriptions simply seem to appear almost simultaneously across the Norse world in about 200 C.E.

In addition to much of the oldest use being on materials that do not last, much of the work was either (1) not designed to last, (2) too magical to be allowed to remain in the Muggle world, or (3) intentionally destroyed by non-magic users. The first category includes things such as weapons, signs, jewelry and tools made for specific individuals, where the metal would often be smelted after the owner died or the war ended. Secondly, after the International Statute of Secrecy was enacted, wizards across northern Europe would take pains to find and preserve runic artefacts with active runes, such as Hans Luecher’s infamous cursed runes. Finally, Muggles often misinterpreted the runes, and Christians from the 5th century on would often destroy runic tablets and tombstones that had no magical value simply because the runes looked pagan.

Muggle scholars argue over the precise date of invention of the futhark script. Most extant inscriptions date from the 4-6th centuries, with work from the 7th century showing transition into the Younger Futhark and/or the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. The oldest universally-agreed upon inscriptions in the Elder Futhark are the Vimose inscriptions from Denmark (c. 160-300 C.E.) and the Øvre Stabu spearhead found in central Norway (c. 180 C.E.), though probably not made there.

More controversially, the oldest potential evidence for the Elder Futhark dates to approximately 50 C.E., inscribed on a brooch discovered in modern-day Meldorf, a village in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. This piece of jewelry, known as the Meldorf Fibula, is inscribed with a short inscription. If in the Elder Futhark, it would read “HIWI,” or matriarch in Old Norse, but others have argued these symbols are actual Roman, and the inscription is in Latin.
This is where our records of magical history can add some insight. According to Gunther Gabbling, in his work on early German and Norse wizardry during the Germanic Wars, The Last Stand Against the Romans, early Roman success was as much through magic as though military might, with the mostly disorganized nature of Germanic wizardry collapsing at the hands of Greco-Roman education and formal training. After Rome took over Frisia in 12 B.C.E., several Frisian youths with magical abilities were enslaved, taken to Rome, and given an education with the expectation that they would help bring Frisia under the banner of Rome.

One of these was a young lady named Bryn, who learned not only the basics of Roman magic, but more importantly how the Romans used their own language in magic. She eventually discovered after much work that the sounds of her native tongue did not work when written on wax or clay, but if on scraps of bark or leaves fallen from a tree, would help channel the magic much as a wand does. Though other tribes were skeptical, the Frisians adopted Bryn’s runes in their revolt against the Romans in 28 C.E., using Kenaz scraped into a tree to see the Romans approach and Raido with Isa built out of branches on the road to make their journey miserable while Uruz and Sowilo were painted in blood on their own weapons to help make them strong.

After the Frisians defeated the Romans at the Battle of Baduhenna Wood, Bryn found herself in demand across the Germanic world. She spent the rest of her life spreading the runelore to all the tribes who would listen. During her lifetime, she was known to many as the Wise Witch of Frisia and given all sorts of honors, including the brooch that is now called the Meldorf Fibula. However, her gender and subsequent Germanic losses to Rome worked against her legacy, and she was already a distant memory by the time the Visigoths sacked Rome in the 5th century. Her legacy, all but forgotten, has only been preserved in a handful of sources that cannot be referenced in the Muggle world.

The Elder Futhark: Alphabet and Meaning
As mentioned, runes have both linguistic and magical functions. Each rune can either act as a letter of the alphabet (represent a phonetic value) or act as an ideogram. This does not mean that the alphabet itself does not contain symbolic and even magical properties. Chapters Three through Five go into detail about the individual sounds and meanings, but it falls to us here to provide an overview of the letters and structures in the alphabet.
The name “futhark,” or properly “fuþark,” comes from the first seven characters in the alphabet, similar to the way English “alphabet” refers to the first two letters of the Greek alphabet or Spanish “abecedario” includes the first four letters of the Roman alphabet.The Elder Futhark alphabet reflects the language and culture of the old Germanic peoples responsible for its development and use. The futhark contains 24 characters, which represent the 23 sounds of the Germanic languages in the 1st century C.E.

While the order of letters is more or less random, there is some general symbolic structure and meaning to the placement of certain runes. The characters are divided into three equal sets of eight letters called aettir, each dedicated to a particular god in the Germanic pantheon. The first aett is Freya’s aett (also known as Freyja’s aett and many other alternative spellings of the goddess’ name), which symbolizes the nurturer. It contains simple runes dealing with concrete matters of daily life — Fehu and Gebo for material wealth and gain, Thurisaz and Ansuz for prayer and hope, and so on.

The second aett is Heimdall’s, and as such deals with conflict and change. The most martial runes from Isa (challenges) to Hagalaz (hardship) are in this aett. It is no coincidence that Sowilo, which symbolizes success and victory, is at the end of the aett; it represents the result of the first seven runes. Jera’s position in the aett is often questioned, but it should be no surprise that Jera is at the center not only of the aett but of the entire futhark. Jera is perhaps the most powerful rune in the entire system, symbolizing not only good harvests, but the changing of the seasons and the cyclical nature of everything — everything in its time and place.

The last aett is Tyr’s, and represents the world of ideas in contrast to the domestic and martial realms of the first two aettir. It begins with Tyr’s own rune, Tiwaz, whose meaning of justice sets the tone for the remaining runes. This aett includes both elemental water (Laguz) and earth (Ingwaz), as well as reminders of the universality of human existence (Mannaz, Berkano), and two runes that speak to looking toward the future (Dagaz and Othala). There is controversy over which of Dagaz and Othala come last — both versions of the Elder Futhark exist. Some runologists prefer thinking of Dagaz as a final prayer for further revelation beyond the meanings of the runes, while others see Othala’s message that family and community come first to flow nicely back into the beginning of the alphabet.

Here is a basic inventory of the language with individual sounds (phonemes) between slashes and the names of the letters in the Elder Futhark following:
1. The voiced stops /b/, /d/, and /g/: Berkano, Dagaz, Gebo
2. The unvoiced stops /p/, /t/, and /k/: Perthro, Tiwaz, Kenaz
3. The unvoiced fricatives /f/, /s/, and /h/: Fehu, Sowilo, Hagalaz
4. The voiced fricatives /ð/ and /z /: Thurisaz, Algiz
5. The nasals /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/: Mannaz, Naudhiz, Ingwaz
6. The liquids /l/ and /r/: Laguz, Raido
7. The glides /w/ and /j/: Wunjo, Jera
8. The vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/: Ansuz, Ehwaz, Isa, Othala, Uruz

All of the consonants have the same values as in modern English, except /j/, which is pronounced as English “y” as in “yellow.” Two sounds that lack specific letters are /ð/, which is English “th” as in “this” and “heather” and /ŋ/ which is English “ng” as in “running” and “king” (try saying “kin, king, sin, sing” to hear the difference). The vowels are as in modern Spanish.

But what about Eihwaz? Well, there is a good deal of debate about what sound it stands for. That it is a vowel is clear. Some scholars suggest it was pronounced /æ/ as in “mat” while others opt for /eı/ as in “mate”, and yet others /ε/ as English “met” or /ı/ in “mitt”. The evidence from the runes themselves in not clear, and it seems to have been used for a sound that became /ı/ in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and lost altogether in the Younger Futhark, which complicates the search for meaning. It is generally transcribed “Æ” to clearly distinguish it from the other vowels, but this should not be taken to suggest the sound is /æ/.

The names and meanings of the letters are usually correlated with the meaning of the Proto-Germanic name. For example, Fehu means “cattle” in the language of the runes, and is associated with wealth and good luck — which come from owning lots of cattle. However, some of the meanings have been lost. Kenaz was likely always pronounced so, but that particular word meant “boil” in Norse and “torch” in Anglo-Saxon. The ancient symbolism favored here the Anglo-Saxon, but elsewhere the Norse meaning seems to be the reliable one as in Berkano, “birch tree.”

In the wizarding world, the names have been codified since 1648, when famous runologist Sofia Schreiber standardized the rune forms. She did extensive research and experimentation using the runes to determine the proper names, meanings, and associations, particularly those not known to the Muggle world, even in early times. These corrected meanings are termed as Schreiber’s corrections. They were leaked to the larger world during the 1960s, during the beginnings of the New Age movement, thus ensuring that few Muggles will take the runes seriously.
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