The mystery of the runes and their hidden secrets

Norse mythology

  • The Norse regarded the runes as sacred symbols with mystical powers. This is reflected in the very meaning of the word 'rune' - which is 'secret' and 'to practise magic'.
  • Magical runecraft is described in their ancient writings as a highly complex practice, requiring great skill - as well as caution.
  • The so called Uthark hypothesis, first conceived a century ago, is casting new light on the esoteric mysteries of the Norse culture.
  • Embark on a fascinating journey deep into what may have been the hidden cipher of the rune magicians.
Updated today 17:21 Published 15 March 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Embark on a unique journey into the secrets of the runes.

Who created the runes? According to the ancient legends, it was Odin, the highest of the Æsir gods, who was first endowed with the knowledge of the runes.

He received this knowledge in magical visions after sacrificing one of his eyes in Mimir’s Well, the source of wisdom beneath the World Tree, Yggdrasil. He then impaled himself on his spear, Gungner, in a kind of symbolic ritual suicide, and hung from Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days. It was during this time that he peered deep into other worlds – and was able to grasp the true essence of the runes.

The word “rune” itself means “secret,” and the magical connotation of the word is evident in Nynorsk, the reconstructed version of Norwegian as it was spoken before the Danish influence, where the verb “runa” literally translates to “divine or practice sorcery”. The Icelandic sagas also tell of how the Norse believed they could practice magic, both good and bad, by carving runes. It is described as a very complex art, where the most minute mistake in the process could produce the opposite meaning and effect.

The original meaning of the Swedish word for “letter” – bokstav – from ‘bok’ and ‘stav’ – originally referred to a rune, a stav or staff carved into the wood of a beech tree – “bok” in Swedish. Runes generally consist of a main staff, a vertical line and one or more secondary staffs, as is reflected in the Song of the High One (Odin) in the Edda;

You shall find runes, rightly interpreted staffs, very large staffs, very strong staffs, which the father of poetry has carved, and the powers of the gods have dug, and the lord of the rulers has carved.

On a wooden base, the main staff was cut perpendicular against the grain of the wood and the secondary staffs were cut at an angle. This prevented the notches from swelling when the wood got wet and the runes from becoming blurred. Therefore, not a single rune has a horizontal line, as this is against the rules of the rune master.

According to the Edda, it was Odin who discovered the true essence of the runes in magical visions on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, after sacrificing his eye in Mimir’s Well. Illustration: TNT.

Runic script has been used in the Nordic countries for much longer than Latin script, which only became dominant in the 14th century. In Dalecarlia (Dalarna), runes were still being carved in the 19th century. Sweden’s last Catholic priest, Johannes Magnus, even argued in 1554 that the history of Nordic writing goes back to the time “before the Flood or shortly after”.

The Goths had their letters long before the Latin ones were invented, which is shown by the ‘great stones’ erected at the old Gothic burial sites …. they were erected before the Flood or shortly after by great heroes” he wrote.


Read in depth articles of each rune below:

Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raidho, Kenaz, Gebo, Wunjo

All 24 runes will be covered in depth before end of May.


The seven rune theories

There have been many modern theories about the origin of the runes, but they can essentially be divided into seven different groups of hypotheses.

1) The Dane LFA Wimmer’s theory (1874) that the runes are a modification of the Latin cursive script of the early Roman Empire, as evidenced by the characters ‘f’, ‘h’ and ‘r’.

2) The Norwegian Sophus Bugge’s theory (1898) that the runes are based on both Latin and Greek cursive, developed by the Goths and adapted by them for a Germanic language. This theory was supported by the Swede Bernhard Salin, who demonstrated the origin of Nordic animal ornaments from the Goths of the Black Sea.

3) The theory of the Swede Otto von Friesen (1904) that the runic script is based mainly on Greek and to a lesser extent on Latin cursive – and was created by the Goths.

4) The Swede Elias Wessén’s theory that the script was created by the Goths and the Heruls and was brought north in connection with the remigration of the Heruls.

5) The theory of the Dane Holger Pedersen (1923) that the script is of predominantly Latin origin.

6) The Swede Sigurd Agrell’s hypothesis of the so-called Uthark (1925) – according to which the rune row reflects a magical-religious series of objects and numbers as within the late ancient Mithraic mysteries. According to Agrell, the runic line originally began with “u” (the so-called primeval cow) and ended with “f” (wealth), after which “f” was moved backwards and became the first character, where the line became a so-called one-step cipher in order not to be misused by the uninitiated – or, as it is formulated in the encyclopedia Fornnordiskt Lexikon, “in order not to sully the magic”. Agrell particularly emphasizes the purely magical use of runes in connection with the ancient numerological mystical art known as gematria.

7) The Norwegian Carl Johan Marstrander’s theory (1928) that the runes, via the Latin alphabet, derive from a modified North Etruscan writing system used by Celtic (and Rhaetian) peoples in the northern Italian Alps before the birth of Christ. This theory was also supported by the Finnish Latinist Magnus Hammarström.

Discussions of these theories have differed considerably, as can be seen, for example, in two significant runological works published in the same year, 1976, in Copenhagen and Oslo, by the two Danes Erik Moltke and Gerd Høst. While Høst’s work tends to lean towards Gothic theories, Moltke’s work resolutely throws this theory overboard and considers the Etruscan-Celtic theory to be the only defensible one.

The advantage of the latter theory is that the oldest runes could have been written before the birth of Christ. Gerd Høst also believed that this was the case, and that the magical “notae” mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania of 98 could be regarded as ancient runes.

The idea that the runes could date back so far remained controversial until 2021, when a spectacular discovery in Norway was made during the construction of a railroad outside the capital Oslo – confirming that the runes were indeed older than previously thought.

The new find – “Every rune researcher’s dream”

In 2021, during the construction of the Ringeriksbanen railway in Norway, archaeologists excavated four burial mounds in a cemetery in Svingerud, about 50 kilometers from the capital.

The findings, presented in January 2023, include what is described as the world’s oldest known runestone. Grave goods and charcoal from the grave were dated by carbon content to between 1 and 250 AD, while the bone remains were dated to between 25 and 120 AD, a strong indication that the runic script is older than previously thought and indeed existed when Tacitus wrote his account of the northern peoples. The larger of the two runestones, dubbed the Svingerud stone, is expected to have a huge impact on how researchers view the history of runestones and the early development of the Old Norse language.

You almost stop breathing and become a bit speechless when you realize what you are standing on” excavation director Steinar Solheim told national Norwegian national broadcaster NRK. In an interview with U.S.-based CNN, he added that the find “makes us wonder what else we might not know” about the use of runic writing in early Iron Age Scandinavian society.

Runic inscriptions on the Svingerud stone. Photo: RexCrudelissimus/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Kristel Zilmer, a professor of writing culture and iconography at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, has worked to interpret the carvings in the stone and believes that the carver spoke what is known as urnordiska (indigenous/original Norse) and that it is the older Futhark, the Old Norse alphabet, that was carved. The runes ‘F’, ‘U’ and ‘Þ’ are carved and together form the beginning of the Futhark.

Runologist and Associate Professor Magnus Källström of the Swedish National Heritage Board points out that several of the runes on the stone are unique, and that some bear a form not previously thought to have been expressed in runic script until the year 400, although Källström adds that more research is needed to be certain. The smaller stone, like one side of the larger stone, also appears to be covered with more carvings, including the word ‘runo’. At the time of writing, no dating information has been released for this stone.

The Uthark hypothesis – The hidden code of rune magic

The Uthark hypothesis proposed by the linguist Sigurd Agrell, who studied the runes in the first half of the 20th century, has been of particular interest to many and is frequently mentioned in the Fornnordiskt Lexikon. It is not difficult to understand Agrell’s great influence on both supporters and critics, given that he is closest to the Norse people’s own view that the runes were indeed to be regarded as an esoteric-magical system, and the amount of evidence that points to this.

The role of runes as tools for an ancient magical practice is reflected in a variety of magical-numerical connections and references to significant numbers in the Asatru as described in the Eddas and the ancient ancestral cult of Mithra, as well as in other ancient cultures – and in a variety of different messages found on runestones and other artifacts.

The practice of carving runes into weapons is evident in the Eddic poem Sigrdrifumal, where a valkyrie imparts much important runic wisdom to the legendary hero and dragon slayer Sigurd Fafnersbane.

Left: Sigurd Fafnesbane as portrayed by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, c. 1843. Right: The Ramsund carving, from around the year 1030, depicting the legend of the dragon slayer. Montage. Photo: Pbuergler/CC BY-SA 4.0.

You should know the runes of victory,
if you want victory,
and carve them on the hilt of the sword,
some on the shoulder of the sword
some on the pommel of the wheel,
and mention Tyr twice. (Tiwaz) ᛏ

Sigrdrifumal

The Danish folk music group Danheim’s popular song Runar also highlights the same poem’s emphasis on runes as tool of healing:

Branch-runes learn, if a healer wouldst be,
And cure for wounds wouldst work;
On the bark shalt thou write, and on trees that be
With boughs to the eastward bent.

 

The practice of runic magic is deeply connected to the Norse mythology, which describes the fate of the world as being woven by the three Norns: Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. They represent the past (Urd), the present (Verdandi) and the future (Skuld). Urd means “fate” or “primeval” (Ur), Verdandi means “being” and Skuld means “result” or “debt”, reflecting the more famous concept of karma in the Vedic tradition. Even the gods are subject to this Nornic web of destiny, though it can be influenced. The runes, representing the different powers and aspects of the web, can be used by the skilled magician to exert such an influence.

Runestones with magical purpose

The Norse view of the runes as divine symbols is reflected in many runestones, such as the ancient Noleby stone, found in Vara in Västergötland in 1894 and dated to between 375 and 500 AD. Part of the inscription has been translated as ‘I carve the runes, those of the gods‘.

Runic inscription on the Noleby runestone. Photo: SHM/CC BY 2.5.

A more advanced form of runic magic can also be seen at one of the Nordic region’s most remarkable ancient monuments in Björketorp, Sweden. Here a 4.2 metre high runestone, the second highest in the country, carries a very rare curse. Located in a thousand-year-old burial ground, the stone, along with two side stones and a ring of judgment, has given rise to many interpretations, much speculation and folklore. The so-called Björketorp Stone could be seen from the road by travelers on their way to Hjortsberga and Västra Vång – two important places in central Blekinge, probably from the birth of Christ until around the year 1000.

The three stones are placed in a triangle, a shape often used in the Younger Iron Age and repeated in jewelry and graves. The triangular shape has been interpreted as a symbol of the world tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, with its three roots, the first root of which reached the worlds of men and gods, Midgard and Asgard. The second root went to the world of the giants, Jotunheim, and the third to Nifelheim, the underworld.

The line of honourable runes I have hidden here, mighty runes. Restless with wrath [i.e. perversion], dead with cunning shall be he who breaks them. I trace depravity,” the stone reads.

The three stones in Björketorp. Photo: Joachim Bowin/CC BY-SA 3.0.

“Wrath”, originally “arghet”, like the ancient icelandic “ergi”, means “immorality” and has strong connotations of passive male homosexuality. In short, the carver predicts that anyone who destroys the monument will suffer the curse.

On the north side there are 10 runes, which according to the Uthark have a numerical value of 100. The number 10, the rune of death, appears in three variations on the stone.
Thus the curse of death is directed to the north, while the south side offers the protection of the highest deity to the landowners and the gift of wealth to the neighbourhood.


Runic number magic often assumes that the number of a line or an entire text is divisible by 13 or 24. This may seem far-fetched, but the numbers 13 and 24 tend to recur with remarkable frequency. For example, the inscription on the south side contains 79 runes divided into 6 lines. The total value of all six lines is 888, which can be divided by 24 to get 37. The total value of the 100 on the north side and the 888 on the south side is 988, which is divisible by 13, making 76. Even this number – 76 – should be considered of mystical value in this context, as it is the number of Thor multiplied by the human number – 4 times 19.


The stone thus served a dual purpose: it threatened death (10) to anyone who violated the property rights of the landowners, and it was intended to provide the landowners with the protection of the supreme divine power (13) and the gift of wealth (24).
The fact that the curse is directed to the north and the lucky inscription to the south is most certainly due to the rules of magic.

Another inscription that is undoubtedly gematric in nature is the Kylver Stone, a limestone slab that was part of a burial coffin. This is one of the few runic inscriptions in which the entire proto-Germanic Futhark line is carved, in the order u þ a r k g w h n i j p e/ï R/z s t b e m l ŋ d o – in runic script ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ ᚹ ᛬ ᚺ ᚾ ᛁ ᛃ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛊ ᛬ ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛞ ᛟ. Before the discovery of the Svingeruds Stone, this was one of the oldest finds of runic writing. It is noteworthy that the F-rune is missing and that an I-rune, the rune of death, is engraved on the front instead, providing further evidence for the Uthark hypothesis.

The inscriptions on the Kylver stone. Photo: SHM/CC BY-SA 4.0.

In a unique series, we will take a closer look at each rune according to the gematric Uthark. Embark on a fascinating and unique journey to explore what may have been the cipher of the Norse as intended by the ancient rune magicians.

Click on a rune to discover its hidden secrets…

Uruz

Uruz   –  The primeval rune

ThurisazThe rune of chaos

Ansuz – The rune of the gods

Raidho

Raidho – The rune of Thor

Kenaz – The rune of fire

Gebō – The rune of gifts

Wunjō – The rune of joy

HagalazThe rune of hail


Runes to be revealed…

– Nauthiz

– Isa

– Jēra

– Eihwaz

– Perthro

– Algiz

– Sowilō

– Tiwaz

– Berkano

– Ehwas

– Mannaz

– Laguz

– Ingwas

– Dagaz

– Oþala

– Fehu

 

The Nordic Times

TNT is truly independent!

We don’t have a billionaire owner, and our unique reader-funded model keeps us free from political or corporate influence. This means we can fearlessly report the facts and shine a light on the misdeeds of those in power.

Consider a donation to keep our independent journalism running…