Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark, Elder Fuþark, Older Futhark, Old Futhark or Germanic Futhark is the oldest form of the runic alphabets. It was a writing system used by Germanic tribes for Northwest Germanic dialects in the Migration Period, the dates of which are debated among scholars. Runic inscriptions are found on artifacts, including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, and, famously, runestones, from the 2nd to the 8th centuries.

In Scandinavia, beginning from the late 8th century, the script was simplified to the Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Saxons and Frisians extended Elder Futhark, which eventually became the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Younger Futharks remained in use during the Early and the High Middle Ages respectively. Knowledge of how to read the Elder Futhark was forgotten until 1865, when it was deciphered by Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge.[1]

Elder Futhark
LanguagesProto-Germanic, Proto-Norse, Gothic, Alemannic, Old High German
Time period
2nd to 8th centuries
Parent systems
Child systems
Younger Futhark, Anglo-Saxon futhorc
Elder futhark inscriptions
Distribution of pre-6th century Elder Futhark finds


The Elder Futhark (named after the initial phoneme of the first six rune names: F, U, Þ, A, R and K) has 24 runes, often arranged in three groups of eight runes; each group is called an ætt[2] (pl. ættir). In the following table, each rune is given with its common transliteration:

f f     u u     th,þ þ     a a     r r     k k     g g     w w    
h h n n i i j j ï,ei ï p p z z s s
t t b b e e m m l l ŋ ŋ d d o o

þ corresponds to the Greek letter [θ] (listen) (theta). ï is also transliterated as æ and may have been either a diphthong or a vowel close to the [ɪ] or [æ]. z was Proto-Germanic [z], and evolved into Proto-Norse /r₂/ and is also transliterated as ʀ. The remaining transliterations correspond to the IPA symbol of their approximate value.

The earliest known sequential listing of the alphabet dates to 400 AD and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland:

[ᚠ] [ᚹ]
[f] u þ a r k g [w] h n i j p ï z s t b e m l ŋ d o

Two instances of another early inscription were found on the two Vadstena and Mariedamm bracteates (6th century), showing the division in three ætts, with the positions of ï, p and o, d inverted compared to the Kylver stone:

f u þ a r k g w; h n i j ï p z s; t b e m l ŋ o d

The Grumpan bracteate presents a listing from 500 which is identical to the one found on the previous bracteates but incomplete:

f u þ a r k g w ... h n i j ï p (z) ... t b e m l (ŋ) (o) d


Derivation from Italic alphabets

The Elder Futhark runes are commonly believed to originate in the Old Italic scripts: either a North Italic variant (Etruscan or Raetic alphabets), or the Latin alphabet itself. Derivation from the Greek alphabet via Gothic contact to Byzantine Greek culture was a popular theory in the 19th century, but has been ruled out since the dating of the Vimose inscriptions to the 2nd century (while the Goths had been in contact with Greek culture only from the early 3rd century). Conversely, the Greek-derived 4th century Gothic alphabet does have two letters derived from runes, j (from Jer Runic letter jeran.svg j) and u (from Uruz Runic letter uruz.svg u).

The angular shapes of the runes, presumably an adaptation to the incision in wood or metal, are not a Germanic innovation, but a property that is shared with other early alphabets, including the Old Italic ones (compare, for example, the Duenos inscription). The 1st century BC Negau helmet inscription features a Germanic name, Harigastiz, in a North Etruscan alphabet, and may be a testimony of the earliest contact of Germanic speakers with alphabetic writing. Similarly, the Meldorf inscription of 50 may qualify as "proto-runic" use of the Latin alphabet by Germanic speakers. The Raetic "alphabet of Bolzano" in particular seems to fit the letter shapes well.[3] The spearhead of Kovel, dated to 200 AD, sometimes advanced as evidence of a peculiar Gothic variant of the runic alphabet, bears an inscription tilarids that may in fact be in an Old Italic rather than a runic alphabet, running right to left with a T and a D closer to the Latin or Etruscan than to the Bolzano or runic alphabets. Perhaps an "eclectic" approach can yield the best results for the explanation of the origin of the runes: most shapes of the letters can be accounted for when deriving them from several distinct North Italic writing systems: the p rune has a parallel in the Camunic alphabet, while it has been argued that d derives from the shape of the letter san (= ś) in Lepontic where it seems to represent the sound /d/.[4]

The g, a, f, i, t, m and l runes show no variation, and are generally accepted as identical to the Old Italic or Latin letters X, A, F, I, T, M and L, respectively. There is also wide agreement that the u, r, k, h, s, b and o runes respectively correspond directly to V, R, C, H, S, B and O.

The runes of uncertain derivation may either be original innovations, or adoptions of otherwise unneeded Latin letters. Odenstedt 1990, p. 163 suggests that all 22 Latin letters of the classical Latin alphabet (1st Century, ignoring marginalized K) were adopted (þ from D, z from Y, ŋ from Q, w from P, j from G, ï from Z), with two runes (p and d) left over as original Germanic innovations, but there are conflicting scholarly opinions regarding the e (from E ?), n (from N ?), þ (D ? or Raetic Θ ?), w (Q or P ?), ï and z (both from either Z or Latin Y ?), ŋ (Q ?) and d runes.[5]

Of the 24 runes in the classical futhark row attested from 400 (Kylver stone), ï, p[a] and ŋ[b] are unattested in the earliest inscriptions of ca. 175 to 400, while e in this early period mostly takes a Π-shape, its M-shape (Runic letter ehwaz.svg) gaining prevalence only from the 5th century. Similarly, the s rune may have either three (Runic letter sowilo variant.svg) or four (Runic letter sowilo.svg) strokes (and more rarely five or more), and only from the 5th century does the variant with three strokes become prevalent.

Note that the "mature" runes of the 6th to 8th centuries tend to have only three directions of strokes, the vertical and two diagonal directions. Early inscriptions also show horizontal strokes: these appear in the case of e (mentioned above), but also in t, l, ŋ and h.

Date and purpose of invention

The general agreement dates the creation of the first runic alphabet to roughly the 1st century. Early estimates include the 1st century BC,[6] and late estimates push the date into the 2nd century. The question is one of estimating the "findless" period separating the script's creation from the Vimose finds of ca. 160. If either ï or z indeed derive from Latin Y or Z, as suggested by Odenstedt, the first century BC is ruled out, because these letters were only introduced into the Latin alphabet during the reign of Augustus.

Other scholars are content to assume a findless period of a few decades, pushing the date into the early 2nd century.[7][8] Pedersen (and with him Odenstedt) suggests a period of development of about a century to account for their assumed derivation of the shapes of þ Runic letter thurisaz.svg and j Runic letter jeran.svg from Latin D and G.

The invention of the script has been ascribed to a single person[9] or a group of people who had come into contact with Roman culture, maybe as mercenaries in the Roman army, or as merchants. The script was clearly designed for epigraphic purposes, but opinions differ in stressing either magical, practical or simply playful (graffiti) aspects. Bæksted 1952, p. 134 concludes that in its earliest stage, the runic script was an "artificial, playful, not really needed imitation of the Roman script", much like the Germanic bracteates were directly influenced by Roman currency, a view that is accepted by Odenstedt 1990, p. 171 in the light of the very primitive nature of the earliest (2nd to 4th century) inscription corpus.

Rune names

Each rune most probably had a name, chosen to represent the sound of the rune itself.

The Old English names of all 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, along with five names of runes unique to the Anglo-Saxon runes, are preserved in the Old English rune poem, compiled in the 8th or 9th century. These names are in good agreement with medieval Scandinavian records of the names of the 16 Younger Futhark runes, and to some extent also with those of the letters of the Gothic alphabet (recorded by Alcuin in the 9th century). Therefore, it is assumed that the names go back to the Elder Futhark period, at least to the 5th century. There is no positive evidence that the full row of 24 runes had been completed before the end of the 4th century, but it is likely that at least some runes had their name before that time.

This concerns primarily the runes used magically, especially the Teiwaz and Ansuz runes which are taken to symbolize or invoke deities in sequences such as that on the Lindholm amulet (3rd or 4th century).

Reconstructed names in Common Germanic can easily be given for most runes. Exceptions are the þ rune (which is given different names in Anglo-Saxon, Gothic and Scandinavian traditions) and the z rune (whose original name is unknown, and preserved only in corrupted form from Old English tradition). The 24 Elder Futhark runes are:[10]

Rune UCS Transliteration IPA Proto-Germanic name Meaning
f f /f/ *fehu "wealth, cattle"
u u /u(ː)/ ?*ūruz "aurochs" (or *ûram "water/slag"?)
th,þ þ /θ/, /ð/ ?*þurisaz "the god Thor, giant"
a a /a(ː)/ *ansuz "one of the Æsir (gods)"
r r /r/ *raidō "ride, journey"
k k (c) /k/ ?*kaunan "ulcer"? (or *kenaz "torch"?)
g g /ɡ/ *gebō "gift"
w w /w/ *wunjō "joy"
h h ᚺ ᚻ h /h/ *hagalaz "hail" (the precipitation)
n n /n/ *naudiz "need"
i i /i(ː)/ *īsaz "ice"
j j /j/ *jēra- "year, good year, harvest"
ï,ei ï (æ) /æː/(?) *ī(h)waz/*ei(h)waz "yew-tree"
p p /p/ ?*perþ- meaning unclear, perhaps "pear-tree".
z z /z/ ?*algiz unclear, possibly "elk".
s s ᛊ ᛋ s /s/ *sōwilō "Sun"
t t /t/ *tīwaz/*teiwaz "the god Tyr"
b b /b/ *berkanan "birch"
e e /e(ː)/ *ehwaz "horse"
m m /m/ *mannaz "Man"
l l /l/ *laguz "water, lake" (or possibly *laukaz "leek")
ŋ ŋ ŋ ᛜ ᛝ ŋ /ŋ/ *ingwaz "the god Yngvi"
o o /o(ː)/ *ōþila-/*ōþala- "heritage, estate, possession"
d d /d/ *dagaz "day"

The rune names stood for their rune because of the first phoneme in the name (the principle of acrophony), with the exception of Ingwaz and Algiz: the Proto-Germanic z sound of the Algiz rune, never occurred in a word-initial position. The phoneme acquired an r-like quality in Proto-Norse, usually transliterated with ʀ, and finally merged with r in Icelandic, rendering the rune superfluous as a letter. Similarly, the ng-sound of the Ingwaz rune does not occur word-initially. The names come from the vocabulary of daily life and mythology, some trivial, some beneficent and some inauspicious:

  • Mythology: Tiwaz, Thurisaz, Ingwaz, God, Man, Sun.
  • Nature and environment: Sun, day, year, hail, ice, lake, water, birch, yew, pear, elk, aurochs.
  • Daily life and human condition: Man, wealth/cattle, horse, estate/inheritance, slag/protection from evil, ride/journey, year/harvest, gift, joy, need, ulcer/illness.

IPA Vowels and Consonants

CLOSE /i/ /u/
CLOSE MID /e/ /o/
OPEN /a/


CONSONANTS Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal /m/ /n/ ᛜ ᛝ /ŋ/
Plosive /p/, /b/ /d/, /t/ /g/, /k/
Affricate /j/
Fricative /ð/ /θ/, /f/ /z/, ᛊ ᛋ /s/ ᚺ ᚻ /h/
Trill /r/
Approximant /l/ (lateral) /w/

Inscription corpus

Einangsteinen inscription
[ek go]dagastiz runo faihido inscription on the 4th century "Einang stone"[12]

Old Futhark inscriptions were found on artifacts scattered between the Carpathians and Lappland, with the highest concentration in Denmark. They are usually short inscriptions on jewelry (bracteates, fibulae, belt buckles), utensils (combs, spinning whorls) or weapons (lance tips, seaxes) and were mostly found in graves or bogs.

Scandinavian inscriptions

Words frequently appearing in inscriptions on bracteates with possibly magical significance are alu, laþu and laukaz. While their meaning is unclear, alu has been associated with "ale, intoxicating drink", in a context of ritual drinking, and laukaz with "leek, garlic", in a context of fertility and growth. An example of a longer early inscription is on a 4th-century axe-handle found in Nydam, Jutland: wagagastiz / alu:??hgusikijaz:aiþalataz (wagagastiz "wave-guest" could be a personal name, the rest has been read as alu:wihgu sikijaz:aiþalataz with a putative meaning "wave/flame-guest, from a bog, alu, I, oath-sayer consecrate/fight". The obscurity even of emended readings is typical for runic inscriptions that go beyond simple personal names). A term frequently found in early inscriptions is Erilaz, apparently describing a person with knowledge of runes.

The oldest known runic inscription dates to 160 and is found on the Vimose Comb discovered in the bog of Vimose, Funen.[13] The inscription reads harja, either a personal name or an epithet, viz. Proto-Germanic *harjaz (PIE *koryos) "warrior", or simply the word for "comb" (*hārijaz). Another early inscription is found on the Thorsberg chape (200), probably containing the theonym Ullr.

The typically Scandinavian runestones begin to show the transition to Younger Futhark from the 6th century, with transitional examples like the Björketorp or Stentoften stones. In the early 9th century, both the older and the younger futhark were known and used, which is shown on the Rök Runestone where the runemaster used both.

The longest known inscription in the Elder Futhark, and one of the youngest, consists of some 200 characters and is found on the early 8th century Eggjum stone, and may even contain a stanza of Old Norse poetry.

The Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus reading raïhan "deer" is notable as the oldest inscription of the British Isles, dating to 400, the very end of Roman Britain and just predating the modifications leading to the Anglo-Saxon futhorc.

Continental inscriptions

The oldest inscriptions (before 500) found on the Continent are divided into two groups, the area of the North Sea coast and Northern Germany (including parts of the Netherlands) associated with the Saxons and Frisians on one hand (part of the "North Germanic Koine"),[14] and loosely scattered finds from along the Oder to south-eastern Poland, as far as the Carpathian Mountains (e.g. the ring of Pietroassa in Romania), associated with East Germanic tribes. The latter group disappears during the 5th century, the time of contact of the Goths with the Roman Empire and their conversion to Christianity.

In this early period, there is no specifically West Germanic runic tradition. This changes from the early 6th century, and for about one century (520 to 620), an Alamannic "runic province"[15] emerges, with examples on fibulae, weapon parts and belt buckles. As in the East Germanic case, use of runes subsides with Christianization, in the case of the Alamanni in the course of the 7th century.


There are some 350 known Elder Futhark inscriptions with a total of approximately 81 known inscriptions from the South (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and 267 from Scandinavia.[16][17] The precise numbers are debatable because of some suspected forgeries, and some disputed inscriptions (identification as "runes" vs. accidental scratches, simple ornaments or Latin letters). 133 Scandinavian inscriptions are on bracteates (compared to 2 from the South), and 65 are on runestones (no Southern example is extant). Southern inscriptions are predominantly on fibulae (43, compared to 15 in Scandinavia). The Scandinavian runestones belong to the later period of the Elder Futhark, and initiate the boom of medieval Younger Futhark stones (with some 6,000 surviving examples).

Elder Futhark inscriptions were rare, with very few active literati, in relation to the total population, at any time, so that knowledge of the runes was probably an actual "secret" throughout the Migration period. Of 366 lances excavated at Illerup, only 2 bore inscriptions. A similar ratio is estimated for Alemannia, with an estimated 170 excavated graves to every inscription found.[18]

Estimates of the total number of inscriptions produced are based on the "minimal runological estimate" of 40,000 (ten individuals making ten inscriptions per year for four centuries). The actual number was probably considerably higher. The 80 known Southern inscriptions are from some 100,000 known graves. With an estimated total of 50,000,000 graves (based on population density estimates), some 80,000 inscriptions would have been produced in total in the Merovingian South alone (and maybe close to 400,000 in total, so that of the order of 0.1% of the corpus has come down to us), and Fischer 2004, p. 281 estimates a population of several hundred active literati throughout the period, with as many as 1,600 during the Alamannic "runic boom" of the 6th century.

List of inscriptions

After Looijenga 1997, Lüthi 2004.


The Elder Futhark is encoded in Unicode within the unified Runic range, 16A0–16FF. Among the freely available TrueType fonts that include this range are Junicode and FreeMono. The Kylver Stone row encoded in Unicode reads:


Encoded separately is the "continental" double-barred h-rune, . A graphical variant of the ng-rune, , is also encoded separately. These two have separate codepoints because they become independent letters in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The numerous other graphical variants of Elder Futhark runes are considered glyph variants and not given Unicode codepoints. Similarly, bindrunes are considered ligatures and not given Unicode codepoints. The only bindrune that can arguably be rendered as a single Unicode glyph is the i͡ŋ bindrune or "lantern rune", as , the character intended as the Anglo-Saxon Gēr rune.

See also


  1. ^ Speculated by Looijenga 1997 to be a variant of b.
  2. ^ Westergaard 1981 postulates occurrence in 34 Vimose and 23 Letcani, rejected by Odenstedt 1990, p. 118.


  1. ^ Vänehem, Mats, Forskning om runor och runstenar (article), Stockholms Lans Museum.
  2. ^ Elliott 1980, p. 14.
  3. ^ Gippert, Jost, The Development of Old Germanic Alphabets, Uni Frankfurt.
  4. ^ Stifter 2010, p. 374.
  5. ^ Odenstedt 1990, pp. 160ff.
  6. ^ Moltke 1976, p. 54: "the year 0±100".
  7. ^ Askeberg 1944, p. 77.
  8. ^ Odenstedt 1990, p. 168.
  9. ^ Moltke 1976, p. 53.
  10. ^ Page 2005, pp. 8, 15–16. The asterisk before the rune names means that they are unattested reconstructions.
  11. ^ Painter, Robert (May 2014). "An Acoustic Investigation of R-Umlaut in Old Norse". An Acoustic Investigation of R-Umlaut in Old Norse. 26 – via Google Scholar.
  12. ^ "Runic", Nordic life.
  13. ^ Ilkjær 1996, p. 74 in Looijenga 2003, p. 78.
  14. ^ Martin 2004, p. 173.
  15. ^ Martin 2004.
  16. ^ Fischer 2004, p. 281.
  17. ^ Lüthi 2004, p. 321.
  18. ^ Lüthi 2004, p. 323.
  19. ^ Jansson, Sven Birger Fredrik (1962), The runes of Sweden, Bedminster Press, pp. iii–iv, The oldest known runic inscription from Sweden is found on a spearhead, recovered from a grave at Mos in the parish of Stenkyrka in Gotland. The inscription, consisting of only five runes, might be dated to the end of the third century of our era.


  • Bæksted, A (1952), Målruner og troldruner, Copenhagen.
  • Elliott, Ralph Warren Victor (1980), Runes: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0-7190-0787-9
  • Fischer, Svante (2004), "Alemannia and the North — Early Runic Contexts Apart (400–800)", in Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. (eds.), Alemannien und der Norden, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 266–317, ISBN 3-11-017891-5
  • Ilkjær, Jørgen (1996), "Runeindskrifter fra mosefund i Danmark – kontekst og oprindelse", Frisian Runes and Neighbouring Traditions, Rodopi.
  • Looijenga, Jantina Helena (1997), Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150–700 (dissertation), Groningen University.
  • Looijenga, Tineke (2004), Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-12396-2
  • Lüthi, Katrin (2004), "Von Þruþhild und Hariso: Alemannische und ältere skandinavische Runenkultur im Vergleich", in Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. (eds.), Alemannien und der Norden, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 318–39, ISBN 3-11-017891-5
  • Martin, Max (2004), "Kontinentalgermanische Runeninschriften und 'Alamannische Runenprovinz'", in Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. (eds.), Alemannien und der Norden, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 165–212, ISBN 3-11-017891-5
  • Nowak, Sean (2003), Schrift auf den Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit (PDF) (diss), Göttingen.
  • Odenstedt, Bengt (1990), On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script, Typology and Graphic Variation in the Older Futhark, Uppsala, ISBN 91-85352-20-9.
  • Page, Raymond Ian (2005), Runes, The British Museum Press, ISBN 0-7141-8065-3.
  • Rix, Helmut (1997), "Germanische Runen und venetische Phonetik", in Birkmann; et al. (eds.), Vergleichende germanische Philologie und Skandinavistik, Festschrift für Otmar Werner, Tübingen, pp. 231–48, ISBN 3-484-73031-5.
  • Robinson, Orrin W (2004), Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-08169-6
  • Stifter, David (2010), "Lepontische Studien: Lexicon Leponticum und die Funktion von san im Lepontischen", in Stüber, Karin; et al. (eds.), Akten des 5. Deutschsprachigen Keltologensymposiums. Zürich, 7.–10. September 2009, Wien, pp. 361–76.
  • Westergaard, Kai-Erik (1981), Skrifttegn og symboler : noen studier over tegnformer i det eldre runealfabet, Osloer Beiträge zur Germanistik (in Norwegian), 6, Oslo: Germanistisches Institut der Universität Oslo, ISBN 978-82-90389-02-9.

External links


Algiz (also Elhaz) is the name conventionally given to the "z-rune" ᛉ of the Elder Futhark runic alphabet. Its transliteration is z, understood as a phoneme of the Proto-Germanic language, the terminal *z continuing Proto-Indo-European terminal *s.

It is one of two runes which express a phoneme that does not occur word-initially, and thus could not be named acrophonically, the other being the ŋ-rune Ingwaz ᛜ.

As the terminal *-z phoneme marks the nominative singular suffix of masculine nouns, the rune occurs comparatively frequently in early epigraphy.

Because this specific phoneme was lost at an early time, the Elder Futhark rune underwent changes in the medieval runic alphabets. In the Anglo-Saxon futhorc it retained its shape, but it was given the sound value of Latin x. This is a secondary development, possibly due to runic manuscript tradition, and there is no known instance of the rune being used in an Old English inscription.

In Proto-Norse and Old Norse, the Germanic *z phoneme developed into an R sound, perhaps realized as a retroflex approximant [ɻ], which is usually transcribed as ʀ. This sound was written in the Younger Futhark using the Yr rune ᛦ, the Algiz rune turned upside down, from about the 7th century. This phoneme eventually became indistinguishable from the regular r sound in the later stages of Old Norse, at about the 11th or 12th century.

The shape of the rune may be derived from that a letter expressing /x/ in certain Old Italic alphabets (𐌙), which was in turn derived from the Greek letter Ψ which had the value of /kʰ/ (rather than /ps/) in the Western Greek alphabet.

Anglo-Saxon runes

Anglo-Saxon runes are runes used by the early Anglo-Saxons as an alphabet in their writing. The characters are known collectively as the futhorc (or fuþorc), from the Old English sound values of the first six runes. The futhorc was a development from the 24-character Elder Futhark. Since the futhorc runes are thought to have first been used in Frisia before the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, they have also been called Anglo-Frisian runes. They were likely used from the 5th century onward, recording Old English and Old Frisian.

They were gradually supplanted in Anglo-Saxon England by the Old English Latin alphabet introduced by Irish missionaries. Futhorc runes were no longer in common use by the eleventh century, though manuscripts show that fairly accurate understanding of them persisted into at least the twelfth century.

Ansuz (rune)

Ansuz is the conventional name given to the a-rune of the Elder Futhark, ᚨ.

The name is based on Proto-Germanic *ansuz, denoting a deity belonging to the principal pantheon in Germanic paganism.

The shape of the rune is likely from Neo-Etruscan a (), like Latin A ultimately from Phoenician aleph.

Bind rune

A bind rune (Icelandic: bandrún) is a ligature of two or more runes. They are extremely rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in earlier (Proto-Norse) and later (medieval) inscriptions.On some runestones, bind runes may have been ornamental and used to highlight the name of the carver.

Bülach fibula

The Bülach fibula is a silver disk-type fibula with almandine inlay found in Bülach, Canton Zürich in 1927. The Alemannic grave in which it was found (no. 249) dates to the 6th century and contained the remains of an adult woman. The fibula, dated to between the 3rd and 6th centuries, bears an Elder Futhark runic inscription, the only one found in Switzerland to date.


Erilaz is a Migration period Proto-Norse word attested on various Elder Futhark inscriptions, which has often been interpreted to mean "magician" or "rune master", viz. one who is capable of writing runes to magical effect. However, as Mees (2003) has shown, the word is an ablaut variant of earl, and is also thought to be linguistically related to the name of the tribe of the Heruli, so it is probably merely an old Germanic military title (see etymology below).

Gothic runic inscriptions

Very few Elder Futhark inscriptions in the Gothic language have been found in the territory historically settled by the Goths (Wielbark culture, Chernyakhov culture). This is due to the early Christianization of the Goths, with the Gothic alphabet replacing runes by the mid 4th century.

There are about a dozen candidate inscriptions, and only three of them are widely accepted to be of Gothic origin: the gold ring of Pietroassa, bearing a votive inscription, part of a larger treasure found in the Romanian Carpathians, and two spearheads inscribed with what is probably the weapon's name, one found in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and the other in eastern Germany, near the Oder.


Jera (also Jeran, Jeraz) is the conventional name of the j-rune ᛃ of the Elder Futhark, from a reconstructed Common Germanic stem *jēra- meaning "harvest, (good) year".

The corresponding letter of the Gothic alphabet is Gothic 𐌾, named jēr, also expressing /j/.

The Elder Futhark rune gives rise to the Anglo-Frisian runes ᛄ /j/, named gēr /jeːr/, and ᛡ /io/, named ior, and to the Younger Futhark ár rune ᛅ, which stood for /a/ as the /j/ phoneme had disappeared in Old Norse.

Note that ᛆ also can be a variation of dotted Isaz used for /e/; e.g. in Dalecarlian runes.


The k-rune ᚲ (Younger Futhark ᚴ, Anglo-Saxon futhorc ᚳ) is called Kaun in both the Norwegian and Icelandic rune poems, meaning "ulcer". The reconstructed Proto-Germanic name is *Kaunan. It is also known as Kenaz ("torch"), based on its Anglo-Saxon name.

The Elder Futhark shape is likely directly based on Old Italic c (, 𐌂) and on Latin C. The Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc shapes have parallels in Old Italic shapes of k (, 𐌊) and Latin K (compare the Negau helmet inscription). The corresponding Gothic letter is 𐌺 k, called kusma.

The shape of the Younger Futhark kaun rune (ᚴ) is identical to that of the "bookhand" s rune in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc.

The ᚴ rune also occurs in some continental runic inscriptions. It has been suggested that in these instances, it represents the ch /χ/ sound resulting from the Old High German sound shift (e.g. ᛖᛚᚴ elch in Nordendorf II).

Kylver Stone

The Kylver stone, listed in the Rundata catalog as runic inscription G 88, is a Swedish runestone which dates from about 400 CE notable for its listing of each of the runes in the elder futhark.


*Mannaz is the conventional name of the m-rune ᛗ of the Elder Futhark. It is derived from the reconstructed Common Germanic word for "man", *mannaz.

Younger Futhark ᛘ is maðr ("man"). It took up the shape of the algiz rune ᛉ, replacing Elder Futhark ᛗ.

As its sound value and form in the Elder Futhark indicate, it is derived from the letter M (𐌌) in the Old Italic alphabets, ultimately from the Greek letter Mu (Μ).

Odal (rune)

The Elder Futhark Odal rune (ᛟ), also known as the Othala rune, represents the o sound. Its reconstructed Proto-Germanic name is *ōþalan "heritage; inheritance, inherited estate".

It was in use for epigraphy during the 3rd to the 8th centuries. It is not continued in the Younger Futhark, disappearing from the Scandinavian record around the 6th century, but it survived in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, and expressed the Old English œ phoneme during the 7th and 8th centuries.

Its name is attested as ēðel in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript tradition.

The rune is encoded in Unicode at code point U+16DF: ᛟ.


*Raidō "ride, journey" is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of the r- rune of the Elder Futhark ᚱ. The name is attested for the same rune in all three rune poems, Old Norwegian Ræið Icelandic Reið, Anglo-Saxon Rad, as well as for the corresponding letter of the Gothic alphabet 𐍂 r, called raida. The shape of the rune may be directly derived from Latin R.


Runes are the letters in a set of related alphabets known as runic alphabets, which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialised purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark or fuþark (derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc (due to sound-changes undergone in Old English by the names of those six letters).

Runology is the study of the runic alphabets, runic inscriptions, runestones, and their history. Runology forms a specialised branch of Germanic linguistics.

The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 AD. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianisation, by approximately 700 AD in central Europe and 1100 AD in northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in northern Europe. Until the early 20th century, runes were used in rural Sweden for decorative purposes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars.

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD). The Younger Futhark is divided further into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway, Sweden and Frisia); short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark); and the stavlösa or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Medieval runes (1100–1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (c. 1500–1800 AD).

Historically, the runic alphabet is a derivation of the Old Italic scripts of antiquity, with the addition of some innovations. Which variant of the Old Italic family in particular gave rise to the runes is uncertain. Suggestions include Raetic, Venetic, Etruscan, or Old Latin as candidates. At the time, all of these scripts had the same angular letter shapes suited for epigraphy, which would become characteristic of the runes.

The process of transmission of the script is unknown. The oldest inscriptions are found in Denmark and northern Germany. A "West Germanic hypothesis" suggests transmission via Elbe Germanic groups, while a "Gothic hypothesis" presumes transmission via East Germanic expansion.

Runic inscriptions

A runic inscription is an inscription made in one of the various runic alphabets. The body of runic inscriptions falls into the three categories of Elder Futhark (some 350 items, dating to between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD), Anglo-Frisian Futhorc (some 100 items, 5th to 11th centuries) and Younger Futhark (close to 6,000 items, 8th to 12th centuries).The total 350 known inscriptions in the Elder Futhark script fall into two main geographical categories, North Germanic (Scandinavian, c. 267 items) and Continental or South Germanic ("German" and Gothic, c. 81 items). These inscriptions are on many types of loose objects, but the North Germanic tradition shows a preference for bracteates, while the South Germanic one has a preference for fibulae. The precise figures are debatable because some inscriptions are very short and/or illegible so that it is uncertain whether they qualify as an inscription at all.

The division into Scandinavian, North Sea (Anglo-Frisian), and South Germanic inscription makes sense from the 5th century. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Elder Futhark script is still in its early phase of development, with inscriptions concentrated in what is now Denmark and Northern Germany.

The tradition of runic literacy continues in Scandinavia into the Viking Age, developing into the Younger Futhark script. Close to 6,000 Younger Futhark inscriptions are known, many of them on runestones.


Seeland-II-C (Sjælland bracteate 2) is a Scandinavian bracteate from Zealand, Denmark, that has been dated to the Migration period (around 500 AD). The bracteate bears an Elder Futhark inscription which reads as:

hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : tttThe final ttt is a triple-stacked Tiwaz rune. This use of the rune is often interpreted as three invocations of the Norse pagan god Tyr.The central image shows a male's head above a quadruped. This is the defining characteristic of C-bracteates (of which some 400 specimens survive), and is often interpreted as a depiction of the god Odin healing his horse.

David W. Krause translates the inscription as: "Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one: I give chance." farauisa is interpreted as fara-uisa, either "danger-wise" or "travel-wise". Erik Moltke translates this word as "one who is wise about dangers". The giving of "chance" or "luck" in the inscription is evidence of the use of bracteates as amulets.

Ur (rune)

The reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of the Elder Futhark u rune ᚢ is *Ūruz meaning "wild ox" or *Ūrą "water". It may have been derived from the Raetic alphabet character u as it is similar in both shape and sound value. The name of the corresponding letter in the Gothic alphabet is urus.

Younger Futhark

The Younger Futhark, also called Scandinavian runes, is a runic alphabet and a reduced form of the Elder Futhark, with only 16 characters, in use from about the 9th century, after a "transitional period" during the 7th and 8th centuries.

The reduction, somewhat paradoxically, happened at the same time as phonetic changes led to a greater number of different phonemes in the spoken language, when Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse.

Thus, the language included distinct sounds and minimal pairs that were written the same.

The Younger Futhark is divided into long-branch (Danish) and short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) runes; in the 10th century, it was further expanded by the "Hälsinge Runes" or staveless runes.

The lifetime of the Younger Futhark corresponds roughly to the Viking Age. Their use declined after the Christianization of Scandinavia; most writing in Scandinavia from the 12th century was in the Latin alphabet, but the runic scripts survived in marginal use in the form of the medieval runes (in use ca. 1100–1500) and the Latinised Dalecarlian runes (ca. 1500–1910).

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