Runes, Norse Magic, and Magical Content


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

Let’s consider Norse magic and the written word. If the fleeting spoken word potentially has power, the lasting written word has even more power—and this is where runes come into the picture. Rune is a term for a letter in one of the carved alphabets in use by speakers of Germanic languages, including Old Norse and Old English, before the adoption of the Roman alphabet.

Black Norse runes on a blank background
Runes were originally created since old Nords believed that written words had more power than spoken ones. (Image: Olga Turovskaja/Shutterstock)

Runes: Basically Alphabet

In medieval northern Europe, the Roman alphabet came alongside Christianity as a tool for the church for writing its language, Latin. Because of the prestige of this alphabet, and arguably its more efficient system for representing the sounds of spoken language, it deliberately came to replace the runes in writing Old Norse and its descendent Scandinavian languages after the conversion to Christianity.

In Iceland, the runes were supplanted quickly, and our first manuscripts written in Old Norse in the Roman alphabet come from Iceland from about AD 1150. The Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the sagas were all written after this—in the Roman alphabet.

Now, the runes were fundamentally just an alphabet, no different in that respect from our ABC. And, when runes were gradually replaced by the Roman alphabet in Scandinavia, the spoken language went on being Norse. It was only the letters used to write that language that changed.

A Way to Become Permanent

Now the lion’s share of runic inscriptions are not magical, and most are not even very long. Most of them say something like “So-and-so owns me” or “So-and-so made me” on some constructed object like a sword. There are also many memorial runic inscriptions, which usually offer a sentence or two of praise in memory of the fallen.

The runes come to be used in magic as a way of making permanent the incantation one wishes to perform. So when runic inscriptions have magical content, that content is in the words, not in the alphabet they are written in. For example, take this inscription on a copper plate from the 1000s in Sweden, which is a curse:

Rise in the road under the ever-giving stars! Make it crazy, mist! Destroy it, sunshine! I say three anti-gods, nine threats. I am the protector.

The context evades us, but natural forces, and some supernatural forces, are called upon to thwart someone else. So, the content is clearly a curse.

So it is the incantation itself, and not the letters it’s written in, that is intended to work the magical effect. The very same letters that spell these words are used, in the majority of inscriptions, to spell words of much humbler and simpler import.

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Elder Futhark

What can we say about the letters of the runic alphabet? Well, first, there was no single rune alphabet used to write all the early Germanic languages like Old English and Old Norse. Rather, there were several in the course of more than a millennium of development.

The Roman alphabet used to write English today is called the alphabet after the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta), which is what our Roman alphabet is derived from. Likewise, each variety of the runic alphabet is named after the sounds of its first six letters, f-u-th-a-r-k, and thus called a futhark.

The oldest known inscriptions, beginning in about AD 160, are in a 24-letter alphabet known today as the Elder Futhark. This alphabet is the best-known to popular culture today, largely owing to the mystique of its name (the “Elder” of anything sounds spookier and more hardcore than whatever is “Younger”).

Younger Futhark

However, the Elder Futhark was going out of use in Scandinavia by about the late 600s, before the language had completed a long evolution from what linguists call “Proto-Norse” into “Old Norse” proper. By contrast, the recognizable Viking Age and medieval language in which the Eddas and sagas were told, was a time when Younger Futhark was the alphabet in use.

That is, by the time the language had developed into the stage we call Old Norse, the runic alphabet in use in Scandinavia was the Younger Futhark. This is a reduced 16-letter alphabet based on a radical structural simplification of the Elder Futhark.

Inscriptions with Magical Content 

And to turn back to their content again: the fact that the rune letters were not inherently considered magical on their own does not mean that there aren’t inscriptions with magical content. The nature of spells written out in the Middle Ages is particularly likely to be related to the prime purpose of medieval magic: healing.

Illustration of pages of a book with lunar magic spells
Healing was the main purpose for writing spells in the Middle Ages. (Image: Vera Petruk/Shutterstock)

Small copper amulets are found from the 1000s in Sweden, which converted to Christianity roughly a century after Iceland. These amulets are apparently intended to be worn, as they have small holes to allow a string to pass through them. 

An example of one of these inscriptions reads, following some undeciphered words, like this:

I, Bufi, have a foulness inside my skin, which you know about! Keep the evil from Bufi! Thor, watch over him with that hammer that struck Am! You have the affliction, Am! Fly away, evil creature! The affliction leaves Bufi, gods are under him and over him.

“Am” here is apparently the name of an anti-god or other evil figure. “Bufi” is apparently the person wearing the amulet, a sufferer from some kind of medical malady, perhaps a skin infection. Unsurprisingly, he calls on Thor, guardian of gods and mortals alike, to crush the enemy creature that is held to be infecting him. What “gods are under him and over him” can be taken to mean is unknown.

Common Questions about Runes, Norse Magic, and Magical Content

Q: What are runes?

Before the adoption of the Roman alphabet, carved alphabets were used in Germanic languages. Every letter in one of those carved alphabets is called a rune, so runes were simply a carved alphabet.

Q: What was the philosophy behind the magical runic inscriptions?

In Old Norse, the magical runes were used to make one’s incarnation permanent. This was since written words would last long, so they carved magical content in runic inscriptions such as wood, bone, stone, or metal.

Q: How did the Roman alphabet replace the runes letters?

In medieval northern Europe, the Roman alphabet appeared as a tool for the church to write its language, Latin. Because of the Roman alphabet’s more efficient system and prestige, it gradually came to supplant the runes alphabet in Old Norse languages after Scandinavians converted to Christianity.

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