Elder Futhark (also called 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. Its inscriptions
are found on artifacts (including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons,
and runestones) from the 2nd to the 8th centuries.
In Scandinavia, from the late 8th century, the script was simplified
to the Younger Futhark, and the
Frisians extended the
Futhark, which eventually became the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Unlike the
Anglo-Saxon furhorc and the Younger Futharks, which remained in use
during the Early and the
High Middle Ages
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.
2.1 Derivation from Italic alphabets
2.2 Date and purpose of invention
3 Rune names
4 Inscription corpus
4.1 Scandinavian inscriptions
4.2 Continental inscriptions
4.4 List of inscriptions
6 See also
9 External links
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 called an ætt (pl. aettir). In the
following table, each rune is given with its common transliteration:
þ corresponds to [θ]. ï is also transliterated as æ and may have
been either a diphthong or a vowel near [ɪ] or [æ]. z was
Proto-Germanic [z], and evolved into
Proto-Norse [ɹ] 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 and
is found on the
Kylver Stone in Gotland:
[ᚠ] ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ [ᚹ] ᚺ ᚾ ᛁ ᛃ ᛈ ᛇ ᛉ ᛊ ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛜ ᛞ ᛟ
[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
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
See also: Runes
Derivation from Italic alphabets
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 Celtic contact to Byzantine Greek culture was a popular
theory in the 19th century, but has been ruled out since the dating of
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, (from Jer j) and (from Uruz 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
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.
Meldorf inscription of 50 may qualify as "proto-runic"
use of the
Latin alphabet by Germanic speakers. The
of Bolzano" in particular seems to fit the letter shapes well. 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)
Lepontic where it seems to represent the sound /d/.
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.
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 () gaining prevalence only from the 5th
century. Similarly, the s rune may have either three () or four ()
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, 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
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. 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
and j from Latin D and G.
The invention of the script has been ascribed to a single person 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.
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[by whom?] 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.[original research?]
This concerns primarily the runes used magically, especially the
Ansuz runes which are taken to symbolize or invoke deities
in sequences such as that on the
Lindholm amulet (3rd or 4th
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:
"aurochs" (or *ûram "water/slag"?)
"the god Thor, giant"
"one of the
"ulcer"? (or *kenaz "torch"?)
"hail" (the precipitation)
"year, good year, harvest"
meaning unclear, perhaps "pear-tree".
unclear, possibly "elk".
"the god Tyr"
"water, lake" (or possibly *laukaz "leek")
"the god Yngvi"
"heritage, estate, possession"
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, ear (of grain).
Daily life and human condition: Man, wealth/cattle, horse,
estate/inheritance, slag/protection from evil, ride/journey,
year/harvest, gift, joy, need, ulcer/illness.
Elder Futhark inscriptions
[ek go]dagastiz runo faihido inscription on the 4th century "Einang
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.
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. 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
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.
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
Frisians on one hand (part of the "North Germanic
Koine"), and loosely scattered finds from along the
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
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" 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
Elder Futhark inscriptions with a total of
approximately 81 known inscriptions from the South (Germany, Austria,
Switzerland) and 267 from Scandinavia. 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
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.
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.
Period I (150–550)
Vimose inscriptions (6 objects, 160–300)
Øvre Stabu spearhead
Øvre Stabu spearhead (ca. 180), raunijaz
Illerup inscriptions (9 objects)
Mos spearhead (c. 300), gaois(?)
Golden horns of Gallehus (ca. 400)
Einang stone (400)
Kylver Stone (400)
Runestone (5th century)
Hogganvik runestone (5th century)
Bracteates: total 133 (see also Alu)
Period II (550–700)
Runestone (6th century?)
South-Eastern Europe (200–550): 4 AD.
Gothic runic inscriptions
Gothic runic inscriptions (200–350)
Continental inscriptions (mainly Germany; 200–700): 50 legible, 15
illegible (39 brooches, 11 weapon parts, 4 fittings and belt buckles,
3 strap ends, 8 other)
Thorsberg chape (200)
English and Frisian (300–700): 44; see futhorc
Further information: Runic (
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 separately is the "continental" double-barred h-rune, ᚻ. A
graphical variant of the ng-rune, ᛝ, is also encoded separately.
These two have separate codepoints because they become independent
letters in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The numerous other graphical
Elder Futhark runes are considered glyph variants and not
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 ᛄ, the character intended as the Anglo-Saxon
^ Speculated by Looijenga 1997 to be a variant of b.
^ Westergaard 1981 postulates occurrence in 34
Vimose and 23 Letcani,
rejected by Odenstedt 1990, p. 118.
^ Vänehem, Mats, Forskning om runor och runstenar (article),
Stockholms Lans Museum .
^ Elliott 1980, p. 14.
^ Gippert, Jost, The Development of Old Germanic Alphabets, Uni
^ Stifter 2010, p. 374.
^ Odenstedt 1990, pp. 160ff.
^ Moltke 1976, p. 54: "the year 0±100".
^ Askeberg 1944, p. 77.
^ Odenstedt 1990, p. 168.
^ Moltke 1976, p. 53.
^ Page 2005, pp. 8, 15–16. The asterisk before the rune names
means that they are unattested reconstructions.
^ "Runic", Nordic life .
^ Ilkjær 1996, p. 74 in Looijenga 2003, p. 78.
^ Martin 2004, p. 173.
^ Martin 2004.
^ Fischer 2004, p. 281.
^ Lüthi 2004, p. 321.
^ Lüthi 2004, p. 323.
^ 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
Stenkyrka in Gotland. The inscription, consisting of only
five runes, might be dated to the end of the third century of our
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., 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,
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., Alemannien und der Norden,
Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 318–39,
Martin, Max (2004), "Kontinentalgermanische Runeninschriften und
'Alamannische Runenprovinz'", in Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter,
Franziska; et al., 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., 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,
Stifter, David (2010), "Lepontische Studien: Lexicon Leponticum und
die Funktion von san im Lepontischen", in Stüber, Karin; et al.,
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 .
Wikimedia Commons has media related to runes.
Runenprojekt inscription database at the University of Kiel
Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017).
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for
the Science of Human History.
Ancient Scripts: Futhark
Omniglot.com – Elder Futhark
Rune Converter hosted by Viking Rune
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