How to Write in Norse Runes

If you want to write something in Norse runes, you have probably discovered that the task is rather challenging. This guide will help you through all the necessary steps. To begin, one has to look into how it works, and then figure out what kind of inscription is needed, since each type of converting into runes requires a separate approach.

How it Works

VikingAll European and many other languages use Roman letters. It may seem that taking an alphabet devised for one language (Latin in this example) and using it for another one or a whole set of different languages works all right. In fact it took about a millennium to adapt the alphabet we know today for various vernacular uses. The same applies to runes. Runic alphabets cannot and should not transcribe modern languages. We may use them to this end, but we have to invent some rules for this new and unnatural application. The nature of these rules may be illustrated by the following mental experiment: force Seneca who spoke Latin and knew no other language to write the modern German word schwarz (‘black’). To be sure, he would be stuck with both ‘sch’ and ‘z’, since no such sounds (phonemes) existed in his mother tongue. For ‘w’ and ‘r’ he would have only similar counterparts. Perhaps ‘a’ would create no problem. This example might seem forced, but ancient Greek historians had exactly the same difficulties with ancient Persian names. Europeans needed centuries to invent rules that everybody accepted for Roman letters to represent the sounds of their languages. We know these rules as orthography. However, there are no accepted rules for using runes to stand for modern English phonemes. No rules means no way to do it ‘right’.
What’s worse, ancient Germanic tribes did not have any orthography, either. Like both ‘through hardships to the stars’ and ‘thru hardships 2 the stars’ having equal rights to be ‘right’ variants. Runes were used phonetically, that is literally as people heard what they pronounced. So even if you don’t write in modern English, it doesn’t solve all of the riddle. Besides, some words, such as personal names, simply cannot be translated into the ancient Germanic languages for which the original runic systems were invented.

Types of Tasks

  1. Elder Futhark used to write in Migration period Germanic dialects
  2. Younger Futhark used to write in Old Norse
  3. Any of the above runic alphabets used to write in modern English or represent a personal name

On Right and Wrong

Even though there were no orthographic rules at the age when the runes were in usage, some ways to write them are more or less in line with the historical evidence, while others are not. Thus instead of ‘right’ ways to spell something in runes, I suggest to speak about more or less ‘authentic’ or ‘historical’ variants. Below are some recommendation based on my personal understanding of what ‘authentic’ or ‘historical’ is. By no means do I think that other approaches are ‘wrong’.

1. Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark runes were used for the Proto-Norse language between about 3rd and 7th centuries. We know very little about that language, that is we don’t have a grammar and a dictionary for it. We have numerous Elder Futhark inscriptions but their meaning is largely obscure and the attempts to reconstruct the language that stood behind them are not very fruitful. Viking Age runestone inscriptions were not carved in Elder Futhark runes. Vikings spoke the Old Norse language, not Proto-Norse.

  • Recommended: Finding an existing inscription with clear meaning and copying it — you may be interested in so called formulaic words that often occur in the inscriptions.
  • Not recommended: Using Elder Futhark for Old Norse. Even worse is using it for Old Norse words in their Anglicized form, like words Odin or Mjolnir spelt in Elder Futhark (I see them time and again in tattoo designs). When the Elder Futhark was in use, these words were perhaps pronounced *wōðanaz and *melðunii̯az but no one is sure, it’s a reconstruction.

2. Younger Futhark

The Younger Futhark runes were used for the early form of the Old Norse language during the Viking Age. We do have a grammar and a dictionary for that language but it doesn’t mean that any Old Norse phrase or quote can be easily represented in Younger Futhark runes. The distinguishing trait of this runic alphabet is its use of the same runic sign for voiceless and voiced consonants (p and b, t and d, etc.) and even less logical indiscriminate use of the same runes for various vowels (for instance, the rune úr could stand for u, o, y, au etc.).

  • Recommended: Same as above — find an existing inscription and use it (you may be interested in Younger Futhark love quotes). However, writing in runes an Old Norse word or a quote that you have in Roman letters is also possible, since the conventions used by Younger Futhark rune carvers are more or less clear.
  • Not recommended: Permanent use if you converted an inscription into runes yourself. Your own later research or advice from an expert may reveal that you made a mistake.

3. Modern English to Runes

This task is usually much more complex than the previous ones. Transcribing words having sounds that never existed in the languages for which runic alphabets were created requires a lot of research. You may want to use my rune converter that works with modern English only. It is based on my own understanding of phonology and is provided ‘as is’ and free of charge.

See also:

How to Write a Name in Runes for a Tattoo
How to Translate into Runes Correctly
How to Write an Authentic Runic Inscription
Should I Write in Runes Phonetically?

Photo courtesy Olli Wilkman. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

70 comments… add one
  • Tomasz

    I would like to tattoo the Latin inscription VANITAS in runes. Does that make sense? Please help.

  • Mandy


    I would like to get a tattoo of the letter K in rune. Witch symbole do i have to choose?

    • Leon Laika Schaffer

      younger futhark or elder futhark?

  • Coleman

    Hello, so i was wondering if i were to want to spell “Till’ Valhalla” in long branch how would they have wrote it back then?

    • Viking Rune
    • Viking Rune

      Note that the grammatically correct form is til valhallar.

  • Alex

    Would you suggest spelling Truth: Teiwaz, Raido, Uruz, Thurisaz, Hagalaz.
    or Thurisaz, Raido, Uruz, Thurisaz, Hagalaz. or Thurisaz, Raido, Uruz, Thurisaz?

    • Viking Rune

      Alex, the first two variants are not okay, since they have TH + H at the end. They should have Tiwaz + Hagalaz (T + H). All the variants also should have Tiwaz as the first rune.

  • Jackk


    I’m planning my first tattoo, and I would like to use the warchant for ragnarok:

    “Skeggǫld! Skálmǫld! Skildir ro Klofnir!”

    It means “Axe Time, Sword Time, Shields are splintering!”

    How would you write this in runes? Thank you soo much for answering, I was looking everywhere for this!!!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Jackk. These two lines from Vǫluspá (verse 45) grew popular after Floki recited them before the seige of Paris in Vikings TV series, season 3, episode 7. Note that Floiki didn’t say: ‘Skildir ro klofnir,’ he said ‘Skildir klofnir,’ which is both syntactically possible and attested as text variant in some Vǫluspá manuscripts (‘Shields splintering’ instead of ‘Shields are splintering’). The word ro is not standard Old Norse orthography. It’s actually the word eru (are) with the elision of e (‘Shields’re splintering’) and it’s better spelled ’ru not ro (but ro is the orthography of the eldest manuscripts). In runes ro and ’ru are identical.

  • James


    I plan on using a proverb from Havamal as a tattoo idea

    I wish to translate,”Happy is he who hath in himself praise and wisdom in life”, in Younger Futhark runes but I am worried the translation to runes will come out wrong.

    How would you write this?

    • Viking Rune

      James, the Old Norse text is as follows:

      Sá er sæll,
      er sjalfr of á
      lof ok vit, meðan lifir.

      In runes:

  • Ben

    I’m trying to do an inscription on a wedding ring. Are the runes all phonetic, or do they represent concepts as well? Concepts Such as peace ,harmony, well being, or contentment. What they want are the old Norse runes representing peace and harmony, not necessarily the transliteration. Thanks for your site. I would like to get it less wrong.

    • Viking Rune

      Ben, runes normally work like an alphabet.

  • Shännär

    Your site is Odin favoured. It helps many. Although…You should request Englishman’s gold..if folks “need” “extra help” with their tattoos.
    Gold for your efforts.
    Time is money.
    Both are needed to enjoy good mead or ale.

    • Viking Rune

      Good idea, Shännär.

  • will

    How would you write berserker in viking rune, the same way they would have wrote it?

  • Dakota M.

    Hey there I’ve been reading your website and its helped me out quite a bit. I’m getting a tattoo soon with hugin and munin and I was wondering if your could find the original names for the two and the runes that would look the best for them as well. I’d really appreciate the help! Thanks for reading

Leave a Comment