Where did the ancient Icelandic rune alphabets come from? What is the purpose of Icelandic staves such as Ægishjálmur and Vegvísir? Read on and learn about Icelandic Viking Age symbols, their mythological foundation and their magical abilities.
Runes are the characters that make up ancient writing systems, known as runic alphabets, of various Germanic languages. Before the adoption of the Latin alphabet, runes were the dominant form of writing in northern, western and central Europe.
The exact origins of runes are debated, but runic archaeological findings date back as far as 150 AC. Runologists believe the system to originate from earlier Old Italic epigraphs such as Old Latin or the Raetic alphabet of Bolzano.
Runes on one of the golden horns of Gallehus - Photo Credit: 'Bloodofox' Wikimedia Creative Commons
As Europe became Christianised, the Latin alphabet started taking over as the dominant writing form. In central Europe, this shift occurred around 700 AD.
However, in the Nordic countries, the runes were still widely used until 1100 AD, and even longer for specific purposes. Runes, therefore, make up an integral and defining part of Nordic heritage and culture.
Runic writings were imported to Iceland by the country's first settlers and have remained with the nation, in some form or another, ever since. More than simply a writing system, the practice of runes is swept with magic and mystery, and these qualities have long since fascinated modern enthusiasts.
Se let's explore the history of runes, their place in Icelandic culture, their many wondrous uses and their rooting in local mythology and folklore.
The 24 symbols of the Elder Fuþark
There is not only one runic alphabet, but several, known as FUÞARK because of how their first six letters appear alphabetically.
The first fully-formed of these alphabets is known as the Elder FUÞARK, which consists of twenty-four symbols and was in use between the 2nd and 8th Century. Then, in the late 8th Century—or around the beginning of the Viking Age—a shortened variant of only sixteen runes replaced the Elder Fuþark in Northern Europe.
This shorter version became known as the Younger FUÞARK, or Scandinavian Runes. Since the Icelandic Age of Settlement began around 870 AD, the younger version is the runic alphabet of Iceland.
Ingólfur Arnarson during the Settlement of Iceland - Photo by 'Johann Peter Raadsig' Wikimedia Creative Commons
In the eyes of those accustomed to the Latin alphabet, runic writing can appear perplexing; one symbol could have two or more sounds, or represent whole words or phrases, thus resembling more ancient forms of logographic writing such as the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Additionally, the characters weren’t necessarily written from left to right and often, strings of words stood without spacing. Sometimes, runes were written from right to left, or from top to bottom. They could furthermore change directions, or be drawn horizontally as opposed to vertically.
Many runologists believe that these variants affected the meaning of the inscriptions. In a nutshell, runic writing was less straightforward and more cryptic than the writing systems we've grown accustomed to today.
Swedish rune stone depicting the twists and turns of runic writing - Photo by 'Swedish National Heritage Board' Wikimedia Creative Commons
During the Christianisation of Europe, the church indoctrinated every single man, woman and child with the word of God. Fundamental to this vehement conversion was an ethnic cleansing that required the copying of large volumes and transcripts such as the Bible—during the dark ages of the medieval Church, therefore, there was no room for the ancient and mysterious runic writing system.
Additionally, runic characters consisted of straight lines that made them ideal for wood, stone and bone carvings—the very word "rune" means to carve or to cut. As such, the runes were perfect for marking or blessing objects and casting spells, but could hardly be used to convey volumes upon volumes of the written word.
During the Viking Age, stories were traditionally passed down verbally, which is why the Sagas were only written down several hundred years after their events took place. In the new world order, the Latin alphabet simply proved more efficient and writing in ink on parchment took over the practice of carving runes on hard surfaces.
Runes along with Zodiac images on a Bishop's chair in Iceland - Flickr Photo by Brian Gratwicke
The continued practice of runic writing throughout history is in many parts thanks to mysticism and aestheticism. The runes' beautiful imagery was carved on doorways, weapons and various relics, encompassing blessings and mythical meanings beyond what the Latin alphabet could provide.
For the longest time in Northern Europe, therefore, the latin and runic forms of writing coexisted: both had their particular merits and respective uses.
For a long time, historians have been fascinated by the fact that Icelandic runes are frequently found on Christian items and artefacts, such as church relics and tombstones. According to Norse Mythology, however, runes were gifts from the heathen gods. So does the coexistence of the two writing forms suggests a peaceful coexistence between two religions?
Thor battles the Midgard Serpent - Photo by 'Emil Doepler' Wikimedia Creative Commons
In Iceland, approximately one hundred archaeological examples of rune carvings have been unearthed or preserved to date. These include one of the nation’s most treasured relic, Valþjófsstaðahurðin, a wooden church door dating back to around 1200 AC.
The door, currently on display in the National Museum of Iceland, exemplifies that runes were an integral part of everyday life in Iceland, centuries after the nation's conversion to Christianity. In fact, runes were used for decorative purposes until Bishop Oddur Einarsson released the ruling of Kýraugastaðadómur in 1592.
The ruling was aimed at converting all Icelanders to Lutheran orthodoxy by annihilating and outlawing ancient practices belonging to Catholicism and heathenism. This entailed the complete abolition of magic, or galdur, including the humanitarian practices of healing magic, or lækningagaldur, the medical sciences of old.
Back then, the world’s diametric distinctions were different from what they are today. Magic and science weren’t two separate entities, but one and the same, and the runic alphabet was utilised not just as a writing system but for objective purposes as well.
The Icelandic Age of Fire was birthed from the European Witch Trials - Photo by 'R. Decker' Wikimedia Creative Commons
The outlawing of runes reached its peak during the 1600s Age of Fire, Brennuöld, when twenty Icelanders were executed for practising witchcraft, but intimate knowledge of the runes was enough to be labelled a witch or a sorcerer.
The Icelandic witch trials differed from their European counterparts in that the victims were primarily men. The first man burned at the stake for witchcraft in Iceland, Jón Rögnvaldsson, recieved his sentence simply for being in the possession of a few runic scrolls.
Today, runes constitute an important part of the nation's heritage and identity, especially since the foundation of the Ásatrú Fellowship in the 1970s; a religious association devoted to Norse Mythology.
But what constitutes the magical element of runes that the church was so afraid of?
Segment from the BBC Documentary 'The Sorcerer of Iceland'
Although the Latin alphabet may be more efficient and practical for writing, the runes convey much more than simple sounds and vowels; they are powerful symbols which carry great magical properties and were handed down to us from the gods themselves.
Prose Edda title page depicting Odin, Sleipnir and Heimdallur amongst other figures of Norse Mythology
Several heroes of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas use runes for magical purposes. Examples are found in Sigrdrífumál, a section of the Poetic Edda, in which the Valkyrie Brynhildur helps the hero Sigurður on his road to glory by teaching him several magical runes such as victory runes to be carved on swords before a battle; wave runes to be carved on the helms of ships and speech runes to prepare one’s rhetorical abilities before an assembly or þing.
These mystic runes often had names that explained their magical purposes, and some of these are to this day traditional Icelandic female names.
Examples are Hugrún, composed of the words hugur (mind) and rún (rune), meant for increasing one’s wit; and Sigrún, consisting of sigur (victory) and rún, used for the winning of battles.
One of the greatest Vikings of the Icelandic Sagas, Egill Skallagrímsson, was a master of runes and their magical properties. In fact, this knowledge made for a vital aspect of his many famed abilities.
Egill about to engage in a Holmgang with Berg-Önundr - Photo by 'Wiglaf' Wikimedia Creative Commons
In the Saga of Egill, he visits a farmer's daughter that has fallen gravely ill. Egill notices malevolent runes carved on whale bone above her bedpost. He destroys the runes and carves out new ones, saving the girl's life before noting that runes should only be utilised by those who possess the correct knowledge.
On another occasion in the Saga, Egill uses runes along with a protective spell to shatter a poisoned cup meant for him at an enemy's feast. The message of these passages is clear; with runic knowledge comes great power, on par with being a skilled fighter and strong warrior.
In European archaeological discoveries—dating as far back as to the Germanic Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon England—the runic sequence ALU has been found carved on various surfaces of stone, wood, animal horns and weapons.
The three runes Anzus (Ás), Laguz (Lögur) and Uruz (Úr)
Although the exact meaning of the word is disputed, most historians agree that it represents magic and divine inspiration, and that the sequence counts as the most common of all runic charm words of old.
ALU appears both alone and as a part of more elaborate formulas. The first letter is called Ás or Ansuz. It is Latinised as A and usually represents a god or divinity, but also a tree, such as oak or ash.
In Norse cosmology, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, grows through the entire world, connecting its nine realms. When you take into account that Yggur is one of the many names of Odin, suddenly, the same letter, representing both gods and trees, starts to be coherent.
The carving of a rune carried with it a whole network of symbolism and interconnected meanings, understandable only to those who studied them extensively.
God of Wisdom, Magic and Poetry, as well as a certified master of runes - Artist Georg von Rosen's 1886 portrait of Odin
In the Codex Regius poem Hávamál, Odin was one such seeker of knowledge. He is said to have endured great physical sufferings in exchange for learning the secrets of the runes. For nine days and nine nights, Odin hung from the branches of Yggdrasil, impaled by his own spear, deprived of food and water.
After this great trial, the magic of the runes was revealed to the Allfather. According to the poem Rígsþula of the Poetic Edda, the god Heimdallur then passed down Odin's knowledge of the runes to selected members of the human race.
The Germanic people of ancient times didn't think of the runes as having been invented, rather, they were seen as pre-existent forces handed down from eternity.
This divine origin of the runes is telling of the power they behold. Each rune carries with it an ideographic link to a Norse mythological figure, an important animal or a natural element, and knowing how to read them gives way to wisdom verging on magical abilities.
Throughout their history, runes were not only used for magical purposes—they were considered intrinsically magical by their very nature. They promoted communication, not only amongst people but between mankind and deities, allowing for a conversation with the hidden powers that animate the world.
When one gains an in-depth understanding of the characters, one can start arranging them together to increase their power and create potent magical formulas. These more complicated sigils are known as Galdrastafur or "stave".
The spells conducted with these symbols were known as seiður, and the practitioners were called seiðmenn (male) and vísendakona (female). Most of the time, their sorcery consisted of white magic, designed for personal aid and the benefits of others.
Most staves were to be carved on very specific surfaces, such as a particular metal or type of wood. After carving, the spells usually required the anointing of the symbols with blood, and again, a very specific type—such as from the little finger of your right hand.
The use of blood might sound morbid, but it is merely representative of the sacrificial aspects of runic knowledge; carrying references to Odin's original sufferings when hanging from the branches of Yggdrasil. In order to maintain the balance of the universe, you have to give something away in order to get something back.
Let's take a quick look at two of the most popular Icelandic magic staves, their origins and powerful uses.
Ægishjálmur Stave - Photo by 'Ch1902' Wikimedia Creative Commons
Ægishjálmur, or the Helm of Awe, is probably the most well-known stave in modern Iceland. You’ll see it carved into jewellery and printed on T-shirts, as well as constituting what is probably the most popular tattoo choice amongst enthusiasts of Nordic cultures.
The carving of Ægishjálmur is believed to possess powerful qualities of protection against evil or injustice. It was used by warriors of old to induce fear in their enemies’ hearts and prevail in battle. In the Fáfnismál poem of the Poetic Edda, the formidable dragon Fáfnir uses the stave to defend his treasure from enemies.
Looking at the symbol, one can easily imagine eight arms or tridents reaching out from a central point and shielding it. The arms bear the appearance of the Maðr rune (Latin M or Mannaz) in the Younger Fuþark, or the Elgr rune (Latin Z or Algiz) in the Elder Fuþark.
The former represents man or humanity, while the latter an elk whose horns stand for courage, power and defending oneself against predators.
An example for utilising the stave with a spell is found in Jón Árnason’s collection of Icelandic Folk Tales and Fairytales. There, one is instructed to carve the helm in lead, press it between one’s eyebrows and speak the following spell:
Ægishjálm er ég ber, milli brúna mér
(I bear the helm of awe between my brows)
Try it out before your next confrontation with an adversary, and notice your heart filling with courage and your spirit soring towards victory.
Veegvísir Stave - Photo by 'Steinninn' Wikimedia Creative Commons
Vegvísir, or Wayfinder, is a stave very much born out of Icelandic conditions. Its purpose is to aid its bearer through rough weather and storms—helping whoever carries it to find his way home in unfamiliar surroundings.
The stave is quite popular today, despite it only being found in a single collection of spells, the Huld Manuscript, assembled by Geir Vigfússon in 1860, who gathered its material from earlier times. Since no other collection showcases this stave, its age is not known, although it is not deemed to be very ancient.
The Wayfinder has been called a Runic Compass due to its appearance, but as is imminent from the Helm of Awe, many staves form an eight pointed wheel so this is most likely coincidental. The spirals are more varied in the Wayfinder, and harder to interpret, but again the Maðr (man) rune is distinctly visible.
Vegvísir as it appears in the Huld Manuscript, drawn by its author Geir Vigfússon
This verse from the Poetic Edda’s Hávamál might shed some light on the symbol’s runic significance:
Ungur var eg forðum, fór eg einn saman, þá varð eg villtur vega;
Auðigur þóttumk, er eg annan fann, maður er manns gaman.
(Young was I once, I walked alone, and bewildered seemed in the way;
Then I found me another and rich I thought me, for man is the joy of man.)
For what better way is there to find one's way, then with the help of a fellow human being?
Runes painted or carved on separate pieces of wood or stone, kept in a pouch, provide for runic readings
Since most runic spells were aimed at winning battles and obliterating illnesses or curses, their purposes could be considered somewhat obsolete in today's age. Foreseeing one's possible future, however, remains a focal point of interest in modern societies.
The utilising of runes to read the future could be described as coinciding with the similar customs of tarot card readings or astrological chartings. These readings don’t offer any clear answers, but rather instructions as to how the subject's future can be met or affected.
There are several ways of going about this practice, but let us examine the reading of one rune at a time, as to introduce how to interpret the answers provided. When reading prophecies through runes, three representatives from Norse mythology provide for three different guidelines.
Artist Ludwig Burger's interpretation of Urður, Verðandi and Skuld
The first is a trio of foreseeing Norns known as Urður, Verðandi and Skuld. In Norse lore, these women are in charge of the destinies of gods and men, as they spin the threads of fate by the foot of the world tree Yggdrasil.
The second representative is the hawk Veðurfölnir, who glides above Yggdrasil’s branches representing all that is good and noble. His readings of the runes tell of the positive aspects of the prophecy at hand.
The third and final creature is Níðhöggur; a serpent who feeds off the tree’s roots as well as the bodies of dead men. This dark creature serves as Veðurfölnir's opposite and warns the subject of the negative aspects of the prophecy in question.
Let’s try this out. Say you possess a collection of stones, each engraved with a rune. You reach for one and the destinies hand you the letter Jór (Latin E or Ehwaz).
Artist W.G. Collingwood's interpretation of Sleipnir
This is the rune of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. The rune then represents movement or a journey, either in the literal form of travelling or perhaps as an inner journey of the mind.
The Norns would tell you your life is about to move forward, that things are on the verge of change and barriers are about to be broken. Veðurfölnir would advise you not to fear the unknown, to grab whatever chances come your way and to be steadfast on your travels. Lastly, Níðhöggur would tell you to vary of impatient acts such as recklessness or folly.
The wisdom of runic readings lies within the subject self-reflecting on their nature or environment, bearing in mind there is always more than one route to each destiny or destination.
Letters of the Icelandic alphabet - Photo by 'Max Naylor' Wikimedia Creative Commons
The Icelandic alphabet of today is a Latin one, with the addition of ten extra letters in comparison with the English alphabet. Some of these are simply Latin letters with acute accents, but some are letters in their own right, known as séríslenskir (specifically Icelandic) characters.
Out of these, Þ is quite literally a runic letter. It has been present in many historical languages, including Old Norse and Old English, but today it is not a part of any living language except Icelandic. Þ got widely replaced with Th since it is pronounced as such, for example in the English word "theatre".
The rune that birthed this letter is the Þurs or Thurisaz rune, belonging to Thor's hammer Mjölnir, which the thunder god used to slay the giants of Norse Mythology known as þursar. This rune represents awe, terror, destruction or conflict when it comes to runic reading.
In Icelandic, a softer version of Þ is Ð, pronounced like Th in "they". It was interchangeably used with Þ in Old English, but unlike Þ, Ð is a modified Roman letter as opposed to a runic character.
Another special character in the Icelandic alphabet is Æ (pronounced Ai). The letter comes directly from the Old English alphabet, but as such, its origin is the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc rune Ás or Ansuz—the rune of Odin and the ash tree Yggdrasil.
Old Iceland Atlas - Photo by 'Abraham Ortelius' Wikimedia Creative Commons
The word Ás still represents the Norse gods in Icelandic, and the plural of that word takes the form of Æsir; pronounced ice-ir. Some have even suggested that Iceland got its name, not from the natural elements of ice and snow, but the very gods the country's first settlers worshipped.
The magical properties of runes represent the power of the spoken and written word, the competency of knowledge and the brimming symbolism of mythical entities. Iceland is a country founded on these symbols, the Sagas boast of their powerful qualities and legendary folk tales tell of their hidden sorcery.
Runes represent a writing system that dates back near two thousand years, nevertheless, they are still visible in today's heritage, history, culture and language. In all likelihood, and in some form or another, the runes and their magic will always reside with the Icelandic people.
Did you enjoy our guide to Icelandic runes? What is your favourite magic stave? Tell us your thoughts by writing in the comments box below!