Magic Runes

Among the most ancient Elder Futhark inscriptions there are a few words that appear pretty often, but what they actually mean is unclear. According to a subtle remark by R. I. Page, in runology, like in too many other knowledge areas, the following principle has been extensively used as a guideline: “Whatever cannot be readily understood must be sorcery.” Indeed, it is quite tempting to declare that runic formulae, which have no clear explanation, were used with magic purposes. However, in this case such attribution is more or less justified. Certain words (called formulaic) do seem to have been used for magic, even though, in the words of J. H. Looijenga,

“Nobody really knows what these words refer to and why they frequently appear on bracteates.”

Bracteates are gold single-sided disk-shaped pendants manufactured in the 5th and early 6th centuries in Scandinavia. Their use is also unclear: they may be interpreted as regalia, political or diplomatic gifts. In any case, bracteates reflected high social status of their owners. Researchers agree that they are in fact imitations of imperial medallions of the Constantinian dynasty, which are thought to have often been used as magical amulets. According to A. Andrén, the four formulaic words in runic inscriptions may reflect four words frequently used on Roman medallions: dominus, pius, felix, augustus (‘lord,’ ‘upright,’ ‘fortunate,’ ‘worthy of honor’). The formulaic or magic words in runic inscriptions are as follows: alu, laukaR, auja, laþu, ota.

alu runes

alu literally means ‘ale,’ but why writing these runes on a stone and bury it in a mound face down? This is what was actually done with the Elgesem rune stone (Norway). It is supposed that alu refers to the state between the world of the living and the dead, some kind of extasy or trance caused by an intoxicating drink. Thus the word might have been connected with death-cult, since the dead were often buried with a drinking vessel in order to enable them to participate in the eternal feast. May be alu replaced or symbolized such a vessel. The word ealuscierwen (Beowulf, line 769) contains the same root. It denotes the state of the warriors who stayed in Heorot while Beowulf fought Grendel, and almost certainly means ‘mortal fear’. E. C. Polomé links runic alu to Hittite *aluwanza-, ‘affected by sorcery’. Below: bracteate Djupbrunns-C, Gotland (Sweden), hoard find. Runes alu run from right to left, swastika.

Djupbrunns bracteate

The other magic word found in runic inscriptions is laukaR:

laukar runes

laukaR means ‘garlic, leek’ and the magical use of these runes might have been connected with the notions of growth, fertility and sexuality. A bracteate with these runes might serve as a magical amulet protecting against evil. Some researchers explain this by the fact that garlic was often used as a medicine or antidote.

auja runes

The possible meaning of auja is ‘good luck’ or ‘hail’. These runes are interpreted as referreing to ‘fortune,’ ‘wealth’ or ‘possession’. Amulets containing auja might be used for protection. Part of inscription on two identical Raum Køge-C bracteates reads: gibu auja, ‘I give luck’ or ‘I give protection’. Enigmatic gagaga on Kragehul I spear-shaft is sometimes interpreted as meaning gibu auja repeated three times.

lathu runes

laþu means ‘invitation’. These magic runes appear only on bracteates. Their use seems to be connected with the calling of supernatural forces.
Another word that is possibly formulaic is ota:

ota runes

This word is etymologically related with ON ótti, ‘fear.’ The inscription on the two bracteates found in a grave in Donaueschingen (Schwarzwald, Germany) reads: alu ota.

Copyright notice: photo of Djupbrunns Bracteate used in this article is public domain.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave

I find these webpages as extremely interesting!!! It helped me more than Wikipedia, thank you man! :)

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Viking Rune

You are welcome, Dave.

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Tony

I have a question: a friend of mine got a tattoo of what he said is the Viking coming of age tattoo and it resembles an infinity symbol but with straight lines and points at the top and bottom. I was wondering if it is true, don’t want to see him being ripped off, thanks =)

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Viking Rune

Hi Tony. This may be the Anglo-Saxon rune dæg. Visit Futhorc: Anglo-Saxon Runes to see how it looks. I hope it helps.

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Fenrir

Greetings! Can you help me with my following question?

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Helena

I have a friend who will be going to Iraq (he is in the army). I would like to get him a necklace with rune for protection. Which rune or symbol would do the best job at protecting him?

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Viking Rune

It is perhaps the Elder Futhark rune algiz, ‘protection’.

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James Christopher

I am looking for Rune tattoo that means wealth prosperity and love can you help

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helena

Thank you.

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Niko

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo with an inscription in the Futhark, but I am having troubles finding words and phrases like you have here. I was wondering if you knew of more resources like this? I’d much rather find the whole words instead of transposing them myself for fear of making a mistake. This will be an elaborate tattoo with many parts and help would certainly be welcome. Thank you. ^_^

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Viking Rune

Hi Niko. Among other books, Runes (Reading the Past) by R. I. Page has examples of actual runic inscriptions.

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Pyrhonik

Thank you for this amazing website. I don’t believe I have ever commented before, though I have been visiting here for a long time!

I am curious if you have ever seen any reference to actual rituals from the Norse peoples? Rune casting is certainly supported by the sagas. However, there seems to never be any mention about ceremony from the pre-christian times.

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Viking Rune

Hi Pyrhonik.
Tacitus (Germania, 10) gives the following account of divination rituals of Germanic tribes: “Augury and divination by lot no people practise more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them. If they prove unfavourable, there is no further consultation that day about the matter; if they sanction it, the confirmation of augury is still required.”
It is not certain whether or not runecasting is implied here. However, it is a possible interpretation of the text.

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Pyrhonik

Thank you.

I wasn’t expecting divination! That was a surprise.

For some reason, I thought there may have been something that was connected to solstice celebrations or with regard to the harvest or an expedition of any kind.

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RNhare

Hi,
I am looking to have a tattoo done using the Elder Futhark Runes and as I am a waterman I would like it to have a safe travel on the ocean / new destination meaning. I dont want to pick the wrong runes regardless of mine or anyone elses belief in there power as i want to respect the culture and be correct with the tattoo. Do you have any suggestions?

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Viking Rune

Hi RNhare. I am not aware of the Elder Futhark runes or runic formulae that wold be connected with safe travel on the ocean. However, there are later Norse signs and symbols, which have the meaning of finding one’s destination, for example the runic compass or Vegvísir.

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Lee

Laguz is the Rune for mariners.

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PAUL GILLESPIE

Hello,
Can you kindly please confirm if Vikings/Norse, had birthstones something like our birthstones of today, (mine being a blue sapphire for September the 7th, and my Astrology sign being Virgo). The reason I am asking is because I am strongly into anything Norse/Viking. I am Irish, and the Celtic/Irish have what’s called CELTIC TREE ASTROLOGY, where my Celtic Tree is the Vine, my Goddess is Branwen, and my Gemstone is an Emerald. Taking this into consideration, and trying to compare this with the YOUNGER FUTHARK runes, my rune is Twaz, and the Norse God TYR. I did manage to find a Norse website where they stated the gemstone for the Tyr rune was the SMOKEY TOPAZ, but this website was using the ELDER FUTHARK runes. Any suggestions or help of any kind would be very appreciated, thank you.
Best Regards
Paul

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Andreas

Hi Paul, the answer seems to be no. I’ve never heard of, or read about, any significant stones in Norse mythology, except for the blótstones to the native vættir.
Best regards, Andreas.

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PAUL GILLESPIE

Hello Andreas,
Just happened to notice that you were very nice to answer me, and I just wanted to say THANK YOU!
Best Regards
Paul

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Fenrir

Greetings!

I have some question and help.

I’m an artist, and I would put some “real” words or qoutes to the art/characters. How and wich language is where to I should translate the words, and after into elder runes?

Thanks so much!

F.

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Viking Rune

Hi Fenrir. The Elder Futhark runes were used for the Proto-Norse language. Actually, we do not know a lot about it, since the inscriptions are scarce and many of them have not been deciphered until now. More on this in my article about the Eder Futhark.

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