The Elder Futhark was a runic writing system that may have been influenced by Roman culture. It was widely used by Germanic peoples across Northwest Europe and Scandinavia during the "Migration Period" (ca. 100 – 500 CE). 

It was the precursor of the famous Scandinavian runes that dominated Viking-era societies.

Cross-cultural diffusion?

Despite the fact that Rome's legions never marched it to the Scandinavian Peninsula, there was a surprising amount of cultural diffusion and trade between the Roman Empire and peoples in Scandinavian societies before the collapse of Rome in the West. 

One of the more interesting ways in which Roman culture rubbed off on the people living in Scandinavia was through linguistics. The Elder Futhark runes – precursors of the famous Viking runes, which were an intrinsic part of Viking societies' culture – are believed to have been influenced by the Latin alphabet sometime during the "Migration Period" (ca. 100 – 500 CE).

During this period, large-scale migrations of peoples took place across the European continent leading, in part, to the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. 

This widespread migration of peoples – over the course of approximately five centuries – saw tribes such as the Goths, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons – leave Scandinavia and settle in the former provinces of the Roman Empire.

Indirect trade networks saw Scandinavia linked to the broader Roman Empire before its collapse, and a cultural diffusion must have taken place.

Used by Germanic peoples near and far

The Germanic peoples – labeled Germani by the Romans – were a historical group of people that occupied Northern Germany and Scandinavia from antiquity to the beginning of the early medieval period. 

The Elder Futhark runic alphabet was believed to have been the preeminent writing system used by Germanic peoples during the Migration Period, as far north as Scandinavia. 

However, inscriptions were found on artifacts – such as armor or jewelry, as well as runestones – that postdate this period, with its use up to the 10th century CE.

Though the Elder Futhark has been widely associated with people living in Scandinavia during this period, it should be noted that this form of the runic alphabet was in widespread use throughout what is now Northern Germany, with other instances found in Poland, Ukraine, and Romania. 

The earliest known instance discovered, as yet, of the Elder Futhark writing system was found on a runestone in Kylver, Sweden, and is believed to have been inscribed in the early 5th century CE. 

Eighty-one known inscriptions have been discovered south of Scandinavia, especially in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, compared to the 267 recorded in Scandinavian countries.

A unique writing system

The writing system has 24 runes, divided into three groupings (ætt) of 8 runes. The most common transliteration of the Elder Futhark runes are:

The Elder Futhark rune sets with letters and explained meaning. Photo: RedKoala / Shutterstock

The name of this writing system is taken from the initial phoneme of the first six rune names - F, U, Þ, A, R, and K. The invention of this system has been, according to academics, attributed to a group of Germanic peoples who had firsthand contact with Roman culture, perhaps as mercenaries. 

There is, however, widespread disagreement about exactly when it first appeared – with early estimates dating it to the 1st century BCE while more later estimates date its appearance as later as during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE).

The names of the runes appear to arise from the mystical elements of mythology (e.g., God, Tiwaz, Ingwaz), the human condition (man, need, illness), or the surrounding natural environment (day, year, ice, water, elk).

Precursor for Viking era runes

From the 7 – 9th centuries CE, the Elder Futhark runic alphabet, with its 24 runes, appears to have entered a period of transition. 

By the 9th century CE, the beginning of the so-called "Viking Age," the number of runic characters was reduced to 16 to form what academics have called the Younger Futhark runic alphabet. 

The reduction in written symbols came at a time when the Proto-Norse language was developing a richer lexicon and evolving into Old Norse. The lifespan of this newer form of the runic alphabet ran concurrently with the Viking era (793 – 1066 CE).

By the late 11th century CE, the Christianization of Scandinavia was almost complete. Not only did the Catholic Church bring with it a whole new religion but also a whole new alphabet – Latin. From the 12th century CE onwards, the Latin script was to dominate Scandinavia henceforth.

Runes, however, did not entirely disappear from Scandinavia after this period as a Latinized form of runes (Dalrunes) was used in the Swedish province of Dalarna until the early 20th century CE.

For an in-depth analysis of the adoption of the Futhark runic writing system by other European tribes during the Migration Period, click here.

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