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Norse Runes Origins, Meaning and Use

To understand Elder Futhark Norse Runes, we need to examine them with two lenses. First the scientific lens, then the mystical lens. Anthropology provides the scientific facts of their origin and use within the culture. Likewise, mythology and folklore provide the spiritual facts of the rune’s origins and use. Combining the two gives you a deeper understanding of what are runes. It also provides the foundation for understanding the Norse rune meanings and use.

Table of Contents

What is the Anthropological Origin of Norse Runes?

Runes are a set of glyphs used by the early Germanic and Nordic people. Historians speculate the rune symbols originated around 300-200 BCE. Anthropologist agree that originally, they used the line combinations of each rune as ideograms or sigils.

 
What are ideogram or sigils? They are a symbol resending a meaning. Let’s comparing runes to modern street signs. What does an image of a car with two vertical squiggly lines mean? Slippery When Wet. Similarly, Norse rune meanings were represented in the shapes of the rune symbols. What does this mean? It means, the runes were not originally a vernacular alphabet.

 
If they did not develop runes to be an alphabet, how did they become used as an alphabet? The Germanic tribes were not isolated. They traded with Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Consequently, knowledge and cultural devices like writing were exchanged as well.


Scholars theorize that their exposure to the Etruscan and/or Latin alphabet inspired some tribes to relate runes to phonetics. So, the Germanic tribes of Ostrogoths, Marcomanni or Raetia experienced the use of shapes representing phonetic language. As a result, they related their phonetic dialect to the rune symbols already in use.


We also need to consider that even with the runes being an alphabet, only those of great status or wisdom used them in language. This was well over a thousand of years before literacy became widespread. Imagine being able to understand street signs but not able to read a book. If you can imagine that, then you are where the people of the runes were.

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Are Norse Runes and Celtic Runes the Same?

First, Rune origins were Germanic. When we look at the geography of Germanic and Celtic tribes, you see that they overlap. Because of this, we can suppose there was cultural exchange, including language and magic practices. This exchange is how we find runes on stones in the continental Celtic regions.


Later, as the Nordic peoples, known as Vikings, explore past their geography, they took with them their rune language and rune magic. Again, we see this cultural exposure and consequent exchange of rune knowledge. Therefore, there are stones with runes and ogham in the insular Celtic regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Briton and coastal locations.


Let me relate this to the fortune cookie. We find the fortune cookie originated in Japan. We also discover fortune cookies throughout the US. Is the fortune cookie American now, or still only Japanese? The same holds true with Norse and Celtic Runes. They are Germanic but overlap into the Celtic lands.

What are Elder Futhark Runes, Anglo-Saxon Runes and Younger Futhark Runes?

As I mentioned, the runes were originally a symbolic way of communicating; similar to a road sign. There was never a single universal rune codex. As runes spread, their meanings changed by tribe and region.
As they used the runes as phonetic alphabets, each regional tribe adapted existing runes to their own dialect. Some regions had unique dialects. This required them to create rune symbols to match how they spoke.

The “original” runes are the Elder Futhark. We find these 24 runes recorded on the 4th century Kylver Stone in Gotland. This stone, and two others from the 6th century, record the sequence of Futhark. However, they do not provide the Norse rune meanings. Two variations of Elder Futhark exist, the Danish-Scandinavian and Swedish-Norwegian.

elder futhark norse runes meanings

The next iteration is the Anglo-Saxon Futhor runes, named after their first 5 characters. This rune set comprises 33 runes that include phonetic diphthongs of the dialect. We believe they organized their meanings in the 7th century. Humfrey Wanley recorded them in the late 17th to early 18th from a 10th century manuscript that was lost in a fire. There are at least three variations of Anglo-Saxon runes, the Ruthwell, Vienna, and Thames.

Last are the Scandinavian Younger Futhark (Futhork) which only contain 16 rune characters. We mainly found these on stones of the Viking age.

With 6 different known sets of runes, which one is correct? They all are.

Which one is most powerful? They all are.

Which meanings are the best? They all are.

What is the Mythological Origins of Norse Runes?

Now we turn to the mythological origins of the runes. Let me set the stage. Mythology doesn’t mean false. We understand myth better when we relate it to the sacred story or holy story of a culture. The holy story or holystory-History is sacred. Mythology is a sacred history.


Also, mythology was passed on orally. Because of this, we may find similar stories with different names or places. On another hand, we may find the names match, but the plot elements are different.


A story would take decades or centuries to migrate geographically and linguistically. We need to understand this because it explains the truth that there is no one absolutely correct story.


I am going to share the dominantly accepted myth. This is not the only rune origin story, but it is the most widely recognized one.


I know I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself,
On that tree no man knows from where it roots run.

No bread did they bring me, nor drinking horn;
Down I peered
I took up the runes.
Screaming I took them.
I fell back from there.
Hávamál: 138-39


In this rune origin story, we find the Norse God Odin hung from Yggdrasil, the world tree. He hangs there for nine days and nights with no food, nor drink. He used a spear offered freely by himself to pierce himself. Then, as he crossed over to death, he reached out and took possession of the runes, then fell back to Asgard.


This possibly describes a type of shamanistic initiation. Odin passes through the nine worlds (nine nights). Upon entering the last world, which is Hel (death), it granted him the gift of the runes. The gift was more than the rune meanings; it was all wisdom and knowledge of the runes. The wisdom of the runes comes from all 9 worlds of Yggdrasil. You could say, the runes are part of all that is, and all that is became one with Odin.

How do I Understand Norse Rune Meanings?

Understanding the Elder Futhark Norse runes meanings is more than memorizing their related words. When Odin took up the runes, He and the runes became as one. It impressed the magic upon his very essence.

The runes are part of the Germanic cosmology. They manifested from the 9 worlds of Yggdrasil. Building a relationship with the mythology and folklore unlocks the hidden secrets of the runes.

Memorizing the meanings of the runes falls short. You need to develop an understanding of the cultural and spiritual concepts. Allow the cosmology and mythology to penetrate you. Like Odin, you have to symbolically sacrifice, or let go of your concept of self. Then, you can receive the rune knowledge.

This is when “all that is”, the wisdom and knowledge of Yggdrasil and the 9 worlds, become one with you. That is when you stop putting meanings to the runes and the runes become your meaning. That’s when the Elder Futhark rune meaning comes to life.

What are Spiritual Uses for Runes?

We use runes as a divinization tool. They help you see what might be hidden in a situation. We can find future possibilities and answers using runes.
Combining runes in a sequence or sigil can create spells for protection, strength and healing. You can use rune scripts from books or create them yourself as you become one with the runes.

Warding can is accomplished by inscribing runes on staves, totems or stones. You can etch, scribe or paint runes on door’s, door posts, headers, and around windows.

You can use runes in meditation by sitting with the rune in your hands and connecting with Yggdrasil. This enables you to travel through the worlds to discover the deeper meaning of the rune. Mediate by repeating the name of the rune over and over using it as a mantra. Include positioning your hands or body in the shape of the rune like a Mundra or meditation pose.

Are Runes Racists?

Runes and their meanings are not racists. Genetic superiority was not part of the Germanic and Nordic mythology. These cultures, including the Vikings, did not view themselves as a superior race. Nothing is innately racist. Babies are not racists; they are taught to be racists.


In the early 20th century, fascism polluted the Germanic history. This group raped the Germanic history of its vibrant cultural diversity. It is a punch in the spiritual gut for the runes and Germanic folklore to be appropriated by white supremest racist homophobes.

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Rev. Lloyd

Rev. Lloyd, along with his husband Joe, owns and operates Hermits' Cupboard. He holds a Masters of Divinity, Bachelors of Metaphysical Science and is a Journeyman Herbalist having studied under the late Master Herbalist Rev. Paul Beyerl. He practices a solitary Druid-Craft based on his Scots-Irish heritage. Rev. Lloyd is actively working on his PhD. which addresses meeting the spiritual and social needs of restored Pagan's who are reentering society after incarceration.

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