Norse Runes Do Not Convey Whole Words

Thurs runeFor years, I have been receiving questions like ‘What is the rune for Joy?’ or ‘What is the rune for Happiness?’. The point is, Norse runes aren’t ideograms. Normally, they do not stand for abstract notions like ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’. Neither are they logograms, that is, they do not stand for all kinds of words like ‘go,’ ‘bird,’ or ‘angry’, unlike Japanese kanji or Chinese Han characters. After all, there are over 50,000 Han characters and this pretty explains why you can possibly ask, what is the character for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. There should be some. Even though to read a Chinese newspaper you would need to learn only about 3,000 characters, the 16 runes of the Viking Age Younger Futhark cannot work the same way simply because they are so few. I think, there is no human society that needs only 16 words to function.

In some instances, however, Younger Futhark runes may stand for whole words. These words are usually the names of the corresponding runes. The instances are not very numerous. A great example is the runic inscription known as Storhedder III (192).

At Storhedder, north of the lake Storheddervatnet in the county Aust-Agder in Norway, there is a large overhanging soapstone rock. For centuries, it has been providing shelter for hunters. People who found refuge there in the Middle Ages left several runic graffiti, including a cute one that reads:

I would like to choose the girl who is most beautiful in the worlds

In the last segment of the inscription ihaiminum the runes ih were carved as a bindrune (combined rune sign that features two or more runes carved on a single vertical stave). Later someone added to the same stave the bow of the rune þ. As a result, the segment now reads: iþhaiminum.

The name of the rune þ is þurs, which means ‘giant’ or ‘ogre’. So the intended meaning is ON í þursheiminum. Thus the girl is now most beautiful ‘in the ogre worlds’. The rune þ stands here for the word þurs.

We do not know whether it was a rather crude joke or an attempt at a serious curse. Doomed to be married to an ogre is a motif that sometimes occurs in Scandinavian mythological tradition.

So normally Younger Futhark runes work as an alphabet (a not very convenient alphabet for the Old Norse language). Sometimes they may stand for a word but you cannot write a whole sentence with runes functioning as words.

11 comments… add one
  • Pete Forest

    This also hints towards the problem with the multitude of books relating to ‘runic divination’ based upon using the runic alphabet (futhark). I reject ALL of them.

    I know, I’ve been in that state of delusion, too.

    The meanings ascribed to the letters of the futhark are no more than mnemonics, similar to ”A’ for ‘apple’, ‘B’ for ‘banana”, etc. The rune poems do it, well, a bit better, a bit more memorably, with a little story for each letter. People had more time in those days.

    Using the futhark as a divination system is on the same level as using the ‘alphabet’ of any other writing system as a system of divination.

    For example, each letter of the Hebrew ‘alef-vet’ has a mnemonic meaning, too. But (AFAIK) they are not used as standalone ideograms in written Hebrew, although they are used in the game of Driedl. But even then, the meanings of the letters do not correspond to the Hebrew alphabet mnemonics.

    Tacitus mentions Germanic people making divinations by casting pieces of wood upon which symbols had been carved (‘lots’: ergo ‘lottery’: ‘chance’, ‘fortune’, ‘fate’). But he did not specify what was carved.

    The scene of the old seer casting stones and bones in The 13th Warrior is probably closer to the truth.

    Perhaps the Elder Futhark already existed, perhaps not. I am fairly certain that it was an adaptation of northern Italian scripts, as a result of contact by a hitherto illiterate, although highly adavanced culture for those ‘Iron Age’ times, that appreciated the value of the written word.

    They had been in contact with the Romans for long enough, and many would have been fairly fluent in Latin. There was more trade than war (Roman merchants got their amber from the Baltic). How else was Tacitus able to make his observations? And let us not forget the number of ‘German’ auxilliaries in the Roman army.

    ‘Rune’ means ‘secret’, ‘spell’, or ‘enchantment’. And the old Norse peoples were very suspicious and superstitious about these things. Galdr and Seidr were fairly taboo, as was ‘going out’ to ‘places inhabited by spirits’.

    These matters were not taken lightly.

    The fact is that the futhark is an ‘alphabet’. It is a writing system. The storytelling runestones and random runic carvings and graffiti survive as evidence of this.

    The futhark is not a tarot deck (which are actually playing cards), and certainly not a ‘magick’ script, let alone a form of ‘yoga/qigong/tantra’ (LOL).

  • Oli

    Hi there
    I´m Icelandic and have been looking at the history of the vikings and whatever came before. The culture seems not to have had the same ideas about the gods accross all the lands and stuff got mixed among others in the great folkvandrung.
    The letter Þ is actually called thorn and in old times, it occurred in the english language. Today it is often seen as th, an example is ÞÓR for THOR and thou for þú, it (þ) can be found in some old-english teksts if I remember correctly.
    Runes were probably more serious than just to use as bling in the old days, hence something like joy is not something you would consider for runes. Bling would rather be valknud or specific runes like ægishjálmr.
    The usage of runes are not that common, else we would probably know more about their culture.
    Egill Skallagrimsson is said to have known runes, he among others used them when erecting a nid-pole to curse a king and his queen and also helped a woman who had wrong runes on her bed who were supposed to help her recover.
    I read somewhere that twig runes are as they are because when out in nature and needing advice from the gods, you could fetch some twigs, throw them on the ground and try to read them according to the runes.
    Well just commenting to add to the discussion.

    All best

    • Pete Forest


      Egil’s saga is a great read, and quite mad in places, but it’s never explained (in) what (form) the ‘runes’ that he carved were.

      Were they some form of bind runes, or were they spells/charms of written/carved words using a local Futhark? Were they traditional runic ciphers?

      We can never know, although we can be fairly certain that Egil was able to read/interpret the wrong runes that had been carved.

  • NicestPancake

    I checked this site out because on Google images I noticed your runes were different from the ones I learned in my book. It’s really interesting to learn things that I had questions on that weren’t answered and such!

  • Meaghan Grant

    Hi!! Love this website!!! I have been trying to convert the word SAVAGE for quite some time and keep coming up with different answers. Would the translator on here be correct?

    • Pete Forest


      I think that all of the translator versions are acceptable.

      I would likely use a dotted or inverted ‘F’ or ‘W’ for the ‘V’, and a dotted ‘J/Y’ (Jera) for the ‘G’; although the ‘W’ rune would probably be pronounced as a ‘V’, as in ‘Vinland’.

      Alternatively, use ‘DJ’ for a phonetic rendition of the ‘j’ sounding ‘g’, as in ‘Djent’ music.

      Perhaps ‘SAWIDJ’ would be an acceptable phonetic rendition.

  • Chris

    That’s fascinating. I had long thought that runes were, more or less, a substitution (or universal?) character set for foreign languages. I suppose it makes sense that people would create compound characters to represent ideas, kind of like how logos are used today.

    • Viking Rune

      Chris, that’s interesting indeed. I’ve always wondered why certain ancient cultures chose logographic systems and others alphabets or syllabaries.

      • rocketride

        Almost every ancient people went with pictogrammatic systems, which sometimes evolved into ideogrammatic systems– the symbols would simplify or abstractify away from being pictorial representations. One problem that such systems have is representing foreign words. They usually evolve a system of phonetic representation for this- identifying certain of their ‘grams with phonemes. This is how things stood in about 4,000 BCE.

        Egypt had such a system. Actually they had two distinct forms, but that’s neither here nor there for this discussion.

        Sometime around the above date, some genius, probably a Levantine Semite in the service of the Pharaoh, probably somewhere in the Sinai, had the brilliant idea of using just the phonetic symbols and representing ALL words that way. Another brilliant idea was to make these symbols simplified pictorial representation of things and name the letter for the thing– so the sound of the letter was the first sound of the name of the thing the letter pictured– a very useful mnemonic device. Bear in mind that at this stage only consonants were represented with letters– the way Semitic languages construct words made this much less impractical than it would be for, for example, English. This writing system, is usually referred to as proto-Caananite. It is directly ancestral to Hebrew, Arabic, Phoenician and Aramaic writing. The Hebrews developed a partial system of representing vowels. (I don’t know, offhand, whether the Arabs, Phoinokoi or Aramaeans (Syrians) ever did.)

        Long story short, Greeks noticed the Phoenician traders using an efficient writing system and fairly quickly emulated it– discarding consonants that their language didn’t use and using those letters for vowels. The Etruscans got it from the Greeks and tinkered with it some more to suit their phonetics. The Romans and others did likewise from the Etruscans. We’re not sure who those ‘others’ were, but Runic systems seem to descend from that branch.

        Meanwhile, to the east, there was a similar dispersion from Aramaic (which was the main language of commerce and administration of the Achaemenid (Persian) empire, not Persian) all across south Asia– India all the way out to Indochina. All those scripts on horizontal staves are descended from Aramaic.

        As for syllabaries, they are not practical unless the language has a simple syllable structure- CV or CVC (C=consonant, V=vowel)– The number of symbols needed will vary as the product of the number of consonants available to precede the vowel and the number of available vowels (and the number of consonants available to follow the vowel in the case of a CVC language.

        In the case of a language which allows stringing consonants together either before or after the vowel (like English, which is a CCCVCCC language), the number of symbols would increase exponentially. You might as well use logograms/pictograms/ideograms.

        • Pete Forest

          Arabic does have a diacritical written vowel system, but it’s only really used in educational books and printed versions of the Qur’an.

          Arabic language books and newspapers do not generally use diacritical vowel marks, assuming that the reader understands the text by context.

          A.J.Arberry, in his primer to Arabic Poetry gives an excellent example of the poetic device of ‘jinas’, whereby all four lines of a quatrain are written with the same fundamental letters, but the diacritical marks change the meaning of (the words of) each line.

          The difference between ‘Al-lah’ (The God) and ‘Al-Lat’ (The Goddess) is a dot.

      • Pete Forest

        That’s a very good question.

        I suppose that when the world was less complicated, logographs/ideographs were a more econimical method of communication, like shorthand.

        Alphabets and syllabaries require more space, more material resources.

        Under Chairman Mao, the PRC government tried to convert to the Latinxua Sin Wenz system (Putonghua written in the western alphabet), but gave up, compromising by simplifying Mandarin characters, some of which required up to 58 strokes!

        From this side, combine a load of runes into a ‘bindrune’ that no-one else can decipher!

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