Magic Runes in Elder Futhark Inscriptions

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.

108 comments… add one
  • Rose

    In my house all sorts of these symbol have been appearing were there is dust and sometimes you can see them in the mirror. Do you think you can tell me what it says if I send you some pictures?

  • Davin

    Do you think the word translation could be for a potion or something

  • Elaine

    So, for metal engravings, what sort of combinations would bring good luck, or protection against harm?

  • Mats

    Hei Rune,
    Jeg driver og smir et vikingsverd og tenkte jeg skulle hatt “Dvergsmidd” gravert i runer på siden, som at det var magisk. Finner lite om dette på nett, kjenner du noe til begrepet?

  • Damian

    I have the name Hayden on my forearm, is there possibly bad luck linked with certain rune combinations? Thank you

    • Damian

      The name Hayden is in runes. Could this combination bring bad luck? If so is there a way to counter act it? Thank you.

  • Evie

    So I’m a knitter trying to make a sweater for a friend and I’d like to put a runic phrase into it. The problem is a) it’s easier for me to knit things with straight line letters as opposed to anything with a curve in it and b) my friend is into heavy metal so — no love quotes. I was actually trying to find something like ‘Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set . . ‘ or some other heroic or gorey (preferably short-ish) quote from one of the sagas.

  • King

    Hi Viking Rune,

    I am looking to get a tattoo of Viking runes. Are there any runes in particular that Vikings had on their skin?

    • Dex

      The most popular would be the Elhaz rune, looks like a Y.

      It is. Life rune andd a protection rune thats why vikings put horns on thier helmets to give it that Y shape. To protect them in battle . Also ring ceremonies they utter the word of this rune Elhas , slowly andnd a singing type of way to incant protection upon the ceremony. Also iv eard that the most powerful protection bind rune is a combination of several elhaz’s, just not shure how many i think it’s 7 but you’ll want to research that. I have the elhaz rune myself tatood on the back of my neck where many chri5get the fish symbol. But if you are not a follower or believer of this faith dont do it bc it has religious and magical meaning behind it. It wold be comparable to a muslim getting a cross tattooed

      • Dustin

        When did the Vikings have horns on their helmets?

      • DexIsWrong

        Doesn’t know that Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets but claims to follow their religion and practice their magic. Riiiiiight.

  • Kendra

    Is there a magic rune that I can write on myself to give me fire and ice powers or just have the ability to make the elements appear out of thin air?

    • Dex

      No….. only the deities have that power. The runes are an energy force , linked with destiny, the norns , they cannot actually produce a ecific outcome at an xact instant.

      • DexIsWrong

        Also magic isn’t real.

  • skotokhalifaaaa

    how to make use of rune

    • Viking Rune

      It depends on the type of use you have in mind.

  • Danielthelion

    Hi Viking Rune,

    Thank you for the website! Great stuff to learn about.
    I have two questions for you about the use of runes. When using runes and old Norse how does one show possession? In what order do adjectives go in (before a noun or after)?
    Thanks again for the site!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello. In nouns (whether in runes or in letters) the possession is usually expressed through the genitive case: Íslands ‘of Iceland’.
      An adjective may either precede or follow the noun it modifies. They agree in gender, case, and number.

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