These runes, believed to have been created in the 1st century CE, were once common throughout all of what is now the Nordic region.
The meaning of each rune shows the inner workings of the Viking mind, what was valued, what was important, and their everyday experiences.
A unique alphabet
By the first century of the first millennium CE, North Germanic societies had established their own form of an alphabet – the runic alphabet.
Unlike the Latin alphabet, which dominated much of southern Europe (and would be introduced to the Nordic region with the process of Christianization between the 5th and 11th centuries CE), the runic alphabet consisted of letters but had much more meaning than letters have for us today in the 21st century.
Each rune was a powerful symbol – of either a cosmological or pictographic meaning or principle. In fact, it is believed that the proto-Germanic term for "rune" meant something akin to "secret" or "mystery."
The runic alphabet is often named the "Futhark" alphabet after the first six letters – Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, and Raido (FUTHARK).
This is similar to how the word "alphabet" originates from the first two letters of the Semitic letters (Aelph and Beth).
Traditionally, runes were not written on parchment or paper but carved into wood, stone, or other rough surfaces. Their angular design was perfect for this rugged transmission.
The 24-letter Futhark alphabet that has become one of the most visual symbols left to us of the Viking Age is believed to have been developed by the early 5th century CE.
Over the course of the next three centuries, this alphabet evolved and shrunk to become the "Younger Futhark" alphabet by about the middle of the 8th century CE.
This was, of course, the start of the Viking world, where this alphabet was soon exported across much of the North Atlantic Ocean, making it one of the early medieval world's most important writing systems.
The meaning behind the meaning
Academics and scholars believe that the runic alphabets were more than just a means of communicating ideas and information.
For people in Viking societies, there was an intrinsic intertwining of the runic alphabets and magic.
- READ MORE: The role of magic in Viking societies
It was thought that by an individual simply carving a runic letter or by recanting it out aloud would help invoke the force, or result, that was required. There was a mystic relationship between this form of written communication and sacred forms of magic.
Each rune had a phonetic and philosophical meaning that hinted at its direct and indirect meaning.
For people in Viking societies, there was an intrinsic intertwining of the runic alphabets and magic. Photo: Andriana Syvanych / Shutterstock
Let us take, for example, the "T" rune. This rune was called "Tiwaz" in Proto-Germanic (the basis of the Old Norse language which dominated the Viking world), which then evolved into "Tyr" by the emergence of the "Younger Futhark" alphabet by the mid-8th century CE.
"Tyr" was the god of bloodshed and war, having sacrificed his arm to a giant wolf who lived in the sky above. The image of the "Tyr" rune is an arrow pointing upward – a nod to both the occupation and habitation of the Norse god.
Aside from Tyr, some of the definitions of the other runes that scholars have translated are:
Fehu = literally means "cattle" but used as a symbol of wealth.
Uruz = a meaning akin to "strength of will."
Thurisaz = "Giant" but meaning a sign of danger.
Asnuz = an Æsir God but meant to be a sign of vitality or wealth.
Berkanan = Birch, meant as a symbol of growth and fertility.
Dagaz = Day, a sign of hope and/or happiness.
There is a plethora more of the letters themselves, as well as their meanings, but unfortunately, there just aren't extensive enough archaeological records to gain even knowledge to do a deep dive analysis.
Unlike Odin we, at The Viking Herald, wouldn't quite give an eye to gain that knowledge, though...
The history behind the mystery
Tyr was not the only Norse God who is intertwined with the story of the runic alphabet.
The runic alphabet was believed to have originated in the late Nordic Iron Age, sometime within the first century of the first millennium CE.
With its origins in the Germanic societies, especially in Central Europe, it gradually drifted northward during an era that encompassed the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe and the many population migrations throughout the boundaries of the fallen empire.
Amongst the population displacements of the early medieval period, there was a proliferation of religious ideas and beliefs.
The celebration and solemn worship of a prototype of the Norse God Odin, Woðanaz, was a key feature of many Germanic peoples' religious beliefs.
As these Germanic peoples headed north into the Scandinavian region, this God would eventually be shaped into Odin, who was not only a literal master of magic but also mystery.
This was a God who, remember, gave an eye for knowledge and wisdom, so there is no doubt that the mysteries of the runes would have fallen under his sway.
A sensational recent Norwegian archaeological discovery has thrown new light onto the development of the runic alphabet. Science Norway has recently published an article on this discovery, available to read here.
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