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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Younger Futhark

Last time we covered the "Elder" Futhark and their (heavily) reconstructed meanings. Those runes were in common use in the age between the Indo-European migration period and the Viking Age (5th-8th centuries CE). As this period passed (characterized by increased exploration) the Elder Futhark was gradually replaced in Scandinavia by the Younger Futhark (16 runes), and in Germany, England and the Low Countries by the Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Frisian Futhorc (from 29-33 runes).

The Younger Futhark (or Futhork) is a result of Scandinavian runic scholars shortening the Elder Futhark of the Germanic farmer class by 8 staves. This happened around the 7th and 8th centuries when the Anglo-Saxons were expanding their Futhark to consist of as many as 33 total runes. Paradoxically at the same time the Old Norse language was also expanding in complexity as it came into contact with new peoples and words through exploration and conquest, just as its futhark was being reduced in complexity!

The Younger Futhark was in this sense a deliberate attempt by Germanic peoples at symbolic revivalism - to return their Runic system back to its shorter and more esoteric original form in accordance with Odin's Rune-songs in the Hávamál. The skalds of the time apparently recognized only the first 16 rune-verses in the Hávamál, and their corresponding runes, unanimously as original Odinic runes - being in dispute over the identity of the remaining two. The Armanen system promoted by Guido von List, which recognizes all 18 Rune-verses in the poem as original, is the only other such attempt.

The Old Norse and Icelandic rune poems associated with the Younger Futhark are from preserved medieval texts, whose final forms were recorded in the 13th century or later, though likely based on older 8th century poems similar to the Anglo-Saxon rune poem. Whether the meanings in these poems are entirely divinatory meanings used by Viking age peoples or more like a combination of meanings and mnemonic teaching devices is still a mystery. In their current form both rune poems are probably no older than 13th century and thus may have changed considerably from their earlier forms. Because of this muddled history - albeit better than the total lack of lore for the Elder Futhark - these poems have likely lost much of their magickal symbolism. References to Christianity are peppered in with the original pagan lore, just as in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, a sign that these poems had undergone many changes by the time they were written down. These poems were likely were being used by parents and village teachers to preserve ancient traditions for future generations amid a rapidly changing world.

The following is a basic breakdown of the Younger Futhark runes, in their more common long-stem "Danish" form, along with the rune poemsIn casting the Younger Futhark runes, modern Rune-Masters may use a system of readings that employs reversed and merkstave (horizontal) positions, either one or both horizonts being "murk" depending on whether the rune can be reversed or not, though there is no evidence that Vikings used such a system. They may have had other means of determining whether a rune cast was positive or negative, such as proximity to other runes in a free-cast of the whole set. Many of the runes seem purely negative but this should be taken with a huge pinch of salt - it may be due to many garblings and bowdlerizations of the rune poems through the ages.

Sound: “f”
Stands for: Cattle (or Money, specifically gold and silver). 
Derived from Fehu (in the Elder Futhark).
Casting meaning: Like other similar runes of different sets, represents cattle and money – a wealth. However it is slightly different because in this wealth we take into account actually monetary pieces such as gold. is not all good, however, for it warns us how unbalanced wealth can cause problems even between family members.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen; the wolf lives in the forest.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Source of discord among kinsmen - and fire of the sea - and path of the serpent.


Sound: “u”, “o”, “y”, “w”
Stands for: Drizzle (or Slurry). 
Derived from Uruz.
Casting meaning: This rune represents how some things can develop from apparent nothingness and desolation. Like the fertile soil that can be created from volcanic ash which in turn with a slight amount of water and sunlight can spawn growth. Conversely, it can also imply how something as seemingly harmless as rain can cause major problems, causing mold to grow and ruining harvested grains.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Dross comes from bad iron; the reindeer often races over the frozen snow.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Lamentation of the clouds - and ruin of the hay-harvest - and abomination of the shepherd.


Sound: “th”, “dh”
Stands for: Giants, or the god Thor, who often fought them. 
Derived from Thurisaz
Casting meaning: Brute force, the crusher. Like Thor and the the giants, Thurs contains a lot of power and strength - like its corresponding forms in all the other Futharks, it may even be a symbolic representation of Thor's hammer. It was often used in bind-runes or magic staves to bring extra power to the staves or bind-rune. Like many other runes, this can have a dual meaning: Thor uses his power to protect mankind, yet the Thurses or frost-giants - who were apparently more often associated with this rune during the late Viking age - are purely harmful and destructive.

Old Norse Rune Poem: The Giant causes anguish to women; misfortune makes few men cheerful.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Torturer of women - and cliff-dweller - and husband of a giantess.


Sound: “o” as in “oh” or "au" as in "Austria" but with more throat resonance. 
Stands for: God and also Mouth/speech. Essentially Odin's rune of divine speech and charisma, but "mouth" may also have metaphorical meanings apart from speech. 
Derived from Ansuz. This rune has a number of alternate variants.
Casting meaning: This rune represents the power of communication, oral bonds, and the commanding force of well-crafted word and song.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Estuary (river-mouth) is the way of most journeys; but a scabbard is [that] of swords.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Aged Gautr - and prince of Ásgardr - and lord of Vallhalla. [These are all titles of Odin.]


Sound: “r”
Stands for: Riding (as well as the means – Horse, Cart, etc.). Also represents the rider as a symbol of right and justice - akin to the German ritter or knight symbolizing order and law. 
Derived from Raidho
Casting meaning: Since this rune stands for the act of riding its symbolic meaning is one of a journey. A trip or adventure that we must undertake in order to fulfill/dominate a path or goal we have set out on.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Riding is said to be the worst thing for horses; Reginn forged the finest sword.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Joy of the horsemen - and speedy journey - and toil of the steed.


Sound: “k”, “g”
Stands for: Wound (Sore or Ulcer/burn). 
Derived from Kenaz (torch).
Casting meaning: Although this rune stands for a wound or a burn, we must understand that it is through the suffering of such a wound that we gain new insight. This rune represents just that, the new insight that we gain from an illness or wound (physical or emotional), and the experience to prevent or deflect another such injury in the future.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Ulcer is fatal to children; death makes a corpse pale.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Disease fatal to children - and painful spot - and abode of mortification.


Sound: “h”
Stands for: Hail, storms. 
Derived from Hagalaz.
Casting meaning: Just like hail will eventually transform into water we need to see that situations in our lives will do just the same. They will make a transformation from something restricting to something that flows more readily for us. This is what Hagall represents, a transformation of a situation into something more simple.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Hail is the coldest of grain; Christ created the world of old. [This is clearly a Christian interpolation added in late medieval times.]
Icelandic Rune Poem: Cold grain - and shower of sleet - and sickness of serpents. [Hail is known to paralyze and kill snakes, and thus make the fields safe to till for planting some not-so-cold grains.]


Sound: “n”
Stands for: Need (or Distress). 
Derived from Naudhiz.
Casting meaning: The rune Naudhr represents not only need but also the effect of how we deal with it on one's fate or Wyrd. As well as the bondage we may fall into if we let the need of something overtake our lives.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Constraint gives scant choice; a naked man is chilled by the frost.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Grief of the bond-maid - and state of oppression - and toilsome work. [Debt/neediness is slavery?]


Sound: “i”, “e”, “j” as in the “y” in “year”
Stands for: Ice
Derived from Isa. Also pronounced in place of Jera, though in magickal usage, Ar is substituted for Jera.
Casting meaning: Ice is unchanging and restricting and like ice this rune embodies the resistant power that tries to prevent change - while it keeps disturbances and chaos locked up, it may also trap the blind and unwary.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Ice we call the broad bridge; the blind man must be led.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Bark of rivers - and roof of the wave - and destruction of the doomed.


Sound: “a” as in “ah”
Stands for: A good year, abundance,  sun-like bounty, harvest
Derived from Jera (primarily), with both chevrons passed over each other and joined at the pinch points into an oblique cross. This rune has a number of alternate variants.
Casting meaning: Ar is a rune of good results that come from the application of using our skills and knowledge at the proper time. Like the lush crops of a fall harvest resulting from the fertile soil and well timed planting season.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Plenty is a boon to men; I say that Frodi was generous. [Ironically, Frodi was a semi-mythical Danish king - circa 1st century B.C. according to Snorri - whose legendary greed and avarice led to his destruction by his giantess slave girls Fenja and Menja.]
Icelandic Rune Poem: Boon to men - and good summer - and thriving crops.


Sound: “s”
Stands for: Sól – the Goddess of the Sun
Derived from Sowilo.
Casting meaning: This rune stands for the Sun Goddess called Sól in Scandinavia and Barbet in Germany and the Netherlands. It is a rune that signifies victory, success, and focused action under spiritual control.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Sun is the light of the world; I bow to the divine decree.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Shield of the clouds - and shining ray - and destroyer of ice.


Sound: “t”, “d”, “nt”, “nd”
Stands for: Tyr the swordsman, god of justice, honor, and self-sacrifice
Derived from Tiwaz.
Casting meaning: In the world of the cosmos this rune represents orderliness. In the physical world this rune signifies law and order.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Tyr is a one-handed god; often does the smith have to blow. [Perhaps a reference to a swordsmith forging Tyr's sword?]
Icelandic Rune Poem: God with one hand - and leavings of the wolf - and prince of temples. [A reference to Tyr's pledge and sacrifice of his right hand to bind the giant wolf-demon Fenrir, thus being forever renowned as a god of unflinching bravery and honor, a prince of temples].


Sound: “b”, “p”, “v”, “mb”, “mp”
Stands for: Birch tree and birch twigs, birth, but also the bier or funeral platform, signifying re-birth after death.
Derived from Berkana.
Casting meaning: The birch tree represents protective birth, 
rebirth and purification through its fast-regenerating, shedding paper-like skin, as does the rune Bjarkan. It is also a woman’s rune symbolizing gestation and birth.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub; Loki was fortunate in his deceit. [This use of Loki's name may be a reference to the Logr rune due to the use of the L-sound. In an earlier form of the rune poem, and hence the Futhark itself, this rune may have come just after Bjarkan. The Armanen equivalent, Laf, is placed just after Bar/Bjarkan likely for this very reason. Conversely, Loki's deceit - the means by which he caused the death of Baldur, the god most associated with Bjarkan - may serve obliquely to reference Baldur as a mnemonic device for this rune.]
Icelandic Rune Poem: Leafy twig - and little tree - and fresh young shrub. [A reference to both birch trees and birth.]


Sound: “m”
Stands for: Man, mankind
Derived from Mannaz with the upper angles removed and the remaining mirrored halves superimposed on top of each other.
Casting meaning: This rune stands not only for humankind but also represents the mythical “first man,” Mannus (or Mannaz), the Germanic root of  the word "man" in English (just as "Adam" means man in semitic languages). Since it represents humankind it symbolizes the continuity of the family and clan.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Man is an augmentation of the dust; great is the claw of the hawk. [Visually the secondary reference to hawk claws is clear to see - this may be a form of visual mnemonics rather than any sort of esoteric meaning.]
Icelandic Rune Poem: Delight of man - and augmentation of the earth - and adorner of ships.


Sound: “l”
Stands for: Power of water (or a leek - the authenticity of this alternate meaning is disputed however).
Derived from Laguz.
Casting meaning: Unlike other “water runes” this rune concentrates on the power of water – waterfalls, ocean wave, flowing rivers. It is a purification or washing away of unwanted or unneeded thing, a way to cleanse oneself by knowing the powers or tendencies of helpful things from those of harmful ones.

Old Norse Rune Poem: A waterfall is a River which hangs from (adorns) a mountain-side; but [human] ornaments are of gold.
Icelandic Rune Poem: Eddying stream - and broad geysir - and land of the fish. [Listing various forms of water.]


Sound: “z”, “r”
Stands for:  Yew tree, bow made from Yew wood.
Derived from Eihwaz and Algiz.
Casting meaning: This rune may be related to the Anglo-Saxon rune Yr, itself a derivative of Ur. It is also the entrance to the underworld and chaos, and in this form is sometimes seen as a death rune, though historically the basis for this reading is very weak before the medieval period, and von List rejects it in favor or more positive interpretations for Yr in his Armanen system.

Old Norse Rune Poem: Yew is the greenest of trees in winter; it is wont to crackle when it burns. [Seems to symbolize survival rather than death.]
Icelandic Rune Poem: Bent bow - and brittle iron - and giant of the arrow. [Sounds more like death.]


  1. Hello! What sources did you use for this information? I've been doing my own research on the Younger Futhark and am having trouble finding sources that aren't in Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian... since I speak and read only English. Would you mind sharing your sources with me so I can further my own research? Thanks!

    1. I consult a lot of sources, but the translations of the rune poems are easily available online. Edred Thorsson's books are good resources, and there is a decent book specifically about Younger Futhark called "Long Branches" by Ann Groa Sheffield.

      The actual lore of the Younger Futhark, however is mostly untranslated. Some clues to its use can be found in the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson.

      Ultimately the goal of the Viking-age skalds in creating the Younger Futhark was to refine the "Elder" one back to its Odinic, pre-migration age roots and deeper esoteric/magickal meanings, hence they were actually engaging in an ancient act of reconstructionism with their ancestors' ways (18 Odinic runes are mentioned in the Havamal, but the skalds were uncertain about which runes fit the last two rune verses, hence they only used 16). It appears they had some success in their reconstruction attempt, but how far they understood the esoteric meanings of Odin's runes in the Havamal is debatable, as the identity of the last two runes seems to have eluded them. By the time the rune poems were written down (well after the conversion to Christianity), there was already a lot of Christian influence in them, and by that point even most of the watered-down meanings of the Younger Futhark used by the Viking-age skalds were largely forgotten or obscured - thus the Havamal is the truly best guide to what the original Odinic runes really meant in their esoteric senses.

      Therefore, you may also want to check out the 18-rune Armanen Futharkh, which is essentially a modern Havamal-based completion of the Younger Futhark with the esoteric meanings restored (or rather, a modern complete reconstruction of the original 18 Odinic Runes which the Vikings had partially attempted to reconstruct with their Younger Futhark).