Elder Futhark

Elder Futhark
Elder Futhark
Type alphabet
Languages Proto-Germanic, Proto-Norse, Gothic, Alamannic
Time period 2nd to 8th centuries
Parent systems
Child systems Younger Futhark, Anglo-Saxon futhorc
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.
A map of the distribution of the older (pre 6th century) Elder Futhark finds

The Elder Futhark (or Elder Fuþark, Older Futhark, Old Futhark) is the oldest form of the runic alphabet, used by Germanic tribes for Northwest Germanic and Migration period Germanic dialects of the 2nd to 8th centuries for inscriptions on artifacts such as jewellery, amulets, tools, weapons and runestones. In Scandinavia, the script was simplified to the Younger Futhark from the late 8th century, while the Anglo-Saxons and Frisians extended the Futhark which eventually became the Anglo-Saxon futhorc after Proto-English /a/ developed to /o/ in nasal environments.

Unlike the Younger Futhark, which remained in use until modern times, the knowledge of how to read the Elder Futhark was forgotten, and it was not until 1865 that the Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge managed to decipher it.[1]


The Futhark

The Elder Futhark (named after the initial phoneme of the first six rune names: F, U, Th, A, R and K) consist of twenty-four runes, often arranged in three groups or ætts of eight each. 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 [θ]. ï is also trans-literated 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 R. 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:


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:

fuþarkgw; hnijïpzs; tbemlŋod

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

fuþarkgw ... hnijïp(z) ... tbeml(ŋ)(o)d

Typesetting and encoding

The Elder Futhark is encoded in Unicode within the unified Runic range, 16A0–16FF; as such, any font with Runic coverage will serve to display the script. Some free True Type fonts that display Rune letters and that are currently available: Junicode, FreeMono and FreeRuneCode. To enter rune letters on a computer requires a keyboard utility. A free utility currently available with all the Elder Futhark keys already installed is called the Elder Futhark keyboard for Microsoft Windows[2] — (QWERTY version).


Derivation from Italic alphabets

the Northern Etruscan alphabet Negau helmet inscription (read from right to left)

The Elder Futhark runes are commonly believed to originate in the Old Italic alphabets: 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) and u (from Uruz).

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, Hariagastiz, 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.

The f, a, g, i, t, m and l runes show no variation, and are generally accepted as identical to Old Italic or Latin F, A, X, I, T, M and L. There is also wide agreement that the u, r, k, h, s, b and o runes 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 (1990:163) 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.[4]

Of the 24 runes in the classical futhark row attested from 400 (Kylver stone), ï, p[5] and ŋ[6] 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: 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,[7] 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 (Askeberg 1944:77, c.f. Odenstedt 1990:168). 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.png and j Runic letter jeran.png from Latin D and G.

The invention of the script has been ascribed to a single person (Moltke 1976:53) 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 (1952:134) 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 (1990:171) 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 names are, however, not directly attested for the Elder Futhark themselves. Reconstructed names in Proto-Germanic have been produced, based on the names given for the runes in the later runic alphabets attested in the rune poems and the linked names of the letters of the Gothic alphabet. The asterisk before the rune names means that they are unattested reconstructions. The 24 Elder Futhark runes are:[8]

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 /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 (or 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 s /s/ *sōwilō "Sun"
t t /t/ *tīwaz/*teiwaz "the god Tiwaz"
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 Ingwaz"
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 R, 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.

Most names, in spite of being reconstructions, can be assumed with a fair degree of certainty for the Old Futhark because of the concurrence of Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic names. 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, ride/journey, year/harvest, gift, joy, need, ulcer/illness.

Inscription corpus

[ek go]dagastir runo faihido inscription on the 4th century "Einang stone"[9]
Seeland-II-C bracteate, 500, hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : ttt

Old Futhark inscriptions were found on artefacts scattered between the Carpathians and Lappland, with the highest concentration in Denmark. They are usually short inscriptions on jewellery (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. Their meaning is unclear, although 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, although there is only one Christian and biased reference to the leek definition whereas all other historical evidence only points to water as the definition of Laukaz. An example of a longer early inscription is on a 4th century axe-handle found in Nydam, Jutland: wagagastiz / alu:??hgusikijaz:aiþalataz (wagagaztiz "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.[10] The inscription reads harja, either a personal name or an epithet, viz. Proto-Germanic *harjaz (PIE *koryos) "warrior", or simply the word for "comb" (*hārjaz). 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 raihan "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 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", Martin 2004:173), 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" (Martin 2004) 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 (Fischer 2004:281). Lüthi (2004:321) identifies a total of approx. 81 known inscriptions from the South (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and approx. 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 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 (Lüthi 2004:323)

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 (2004:281) 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).

See also


  1. ^ The article Forskning om runor och runstenar, by Mats Vänehem at the site of Stockholm County Museum.
  2. ^ Sites.google.com
  3. ^ J. Gippert, The Development of Old Germanic Alphabets
  4. ^ Odenstedt (1990:160ff.)
  5. ^ speculated by Looijenga (1997) to be a variant of b
  6. ^ Westergaard (1981) postulates occurrence in 34 Vimose and 23 Letcani, rejected by Odenstedt (1990:118)
  7. ^ Moltke (1976:54): "the year 0±100"
  8. ^ Page, R.I. (2005) Runes, pages 8, 15, and 16. The British Museum Press ISBN 0-7141-8065-3
  9. ^ Nordic-life.org
  10. ^ Ilkjær (1996a:74) in Looijenga (2003:78).


External links

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