The runes are the alphabet of the old Teutonic people. As an alphbet they are too similar to the Roman alphabet not to be related, but they are not necessarily descended from it. They agree with the Greek alphabet rather than the Roman one in at least one detail; the last letter, odala is equivalent to the Greek omega. More likely, the runes and the Roman alphabet share a common ancestor, and are cousins rather than one descending from the other.
The runic alphabet does not seem ever to have been used for extended pieces of writing, and certainly not for literature, which had a strong oral tradition. The runes were used for messages, inscriptions, charms, and simple records, and of course for making magic. Runes were normally cut or scratched onto wood, stone, or metal, which are not media that encourage works of epic length. In the Volsunga Saga we hear of a runic message being carved on a gold ring, and in Sigdrifa of carving protective runes on a sword. Nonetheless, the runes were valued by the Teutonic peoples, and Odin is credited with winning them for men and gods by hanging for nine nights on Yggdrasil, the world tree.
The runes varied from place to place and over time. Three runic alphabets, however are well known: the elder futhark, the younger futhark, and the Anglo-
Saxon futhark. The term futhark comes from the first six letters of the runic alphabet, just as the term "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Roman alphabet. The elder futhark, represented below, is the oldest of the runic alphabets, and contains 24 characters traditionally arranged in groups of eight.
The younger futhark is a later, modified version with some of the characters altered and the total number reduced to 16. The Anglo-Saxon futhark was developed in England and increases the number of characters to 33.
The Elder Futhark
There are three surviving rune poems from the middle ages, though none for the elder futhark. The ones from Iceland and Norway are based on the younger futhark; the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, naturally, is based on the Anglo-Saxon runes. In addition, there is a great deal of rune lore scattered through the Edda, the sagas and elsewhere, most notably in the two Eddaic poems, Havamal and Sigdrifumal. The translations of the rune poems used here are from Bruce Dickins' useful little book from 1915, Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples. On this page I include the three poems in translation, and the relevant passages from the Eddaic poems. My site builder does not do accent codes, and so I will not reproduce the originals here. My second page contains my rune poem and those of any others willing to have them offered here.
The longest and oldest of the surviving rune poems is the English one, which in some form probably existed in the pre-Norman era. The Norwegian poem is clearly newer, and the Icelandic poem may be from as late as the fifteenth century. I give them here in order of age.
The names and meanings of the runes, arranged by rows are as follows:
2. hagalaz--hailstone nauthiz--need, lack isa--ice jera--year eihwaz--yew tree
pertho--cup for casting lots elhaz--elk, elk sedge sowilo--sun
3. tiwaz--Tyr berkano--birch ehwaz--horse mannaz--man lagaz--water, lake,
leek ingwaz--the god, Ing (Frey) dagaz--day odala--ancestral property.
The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem perished by fire in 1731, so our source for it is a print version, which does not give the runic forms. Some of the characters the printer does use, however, cannot be reproduced here, since this site builder does not support HTML accent codes. Th, which begins verse three should be a thorn like that in Old English or modern Icelandic. The OE which begins verse twenty-three should be the two letters conjoined.The same is true of AE at the beginning of verse twenty-six.
THE ANGLO-SAXON RUNE POEM
F. (wealth) is a comfort to all men; yet must every man bestow it freely, if he wish
to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.
U. (the aurochs) is proud and has great horns; it is a very savage beast and fights
with its horns; a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.
Th. (the thorn) is exceedingly sharp, and evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.
O. ( ? ) is the source of all language, a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise
men, a blessing and a joy to every knight.
R. ( ? ) seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors and very courageous to
him who traverses the highroads on the back of a stout horse.
C. (the torch) is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame; it always
burns where princes sit within.
G. (generosity) brings credit and honour, which support one's dignity; it furnishes
help and subsistence to all broken men who are devoid of aught else.
W. (bliss) he enjoys who knows not suffering, sorrow nor anxiety, and has
prosperity and happiness and a good enough house.
H. (hail) is the whitest of grain; it is whirled from the vault of heaven and is
tossed about by gusts of wind and then it melts into water.
N. (trouble) is oppressive to the heart; yet often it proves a source of help and
salvation to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it betimes.
I. (ice) is very cold and immeasurably slippery; it glistens as clear as glass and
most like to gems; it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.
J. (summer) is a joy to men, when God, the holy King of Heaven, suffers the earth
to bring forth shining fruits for rich and poor alike.
I. (the yew) is a tree with rough bark, hard and fast in the earth, supported by its
roots, a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.
P. (the chessman?} is a source of recreation and amusement to the great, where
warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.
Z. (the ?-sedge) is mostly to be found in a marsh; it grows in the water and makes
a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
S. (the sun) is ever a joy to seafarers (or, in the hopes of seafarers) when they
journey away over the fishes' bath until the courser of the deep hears them
T. ( ? ) is a (guiding) star; well does it keep faith with princes; it is ever on its
course over the mists of night and never fails.
B. (the poplar) bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers, for it is
generated from its leaves. Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies.
E. (the horse) is a joy to princes in the presence of warriors, a steed in the pride
of its hoofs, when rich men on horseback bandy words about it; and it is ever
a source of comfort to the restless.
M. the joyous (man) is dear to his kinsmen; yet every man is doomed to fail his
fellow, since the Lord by his decree will commit the vile carrion to the earth.
L. (the ocean) seems interminable to men, if they venture on the rolling bark and
the waves of the sea terrify them and the courser of the deep heed not its
NG. (Ing) was first seen among the East-Danes, till, followed by his car, he
departed eastwards over the waves. So the Heardingas named the hero.
OE (an estate) is very dear to every man, if he can enjoy there in his house
whatever is right and proper in constant prosperity.
D. (day), the glorious light of the Creator, is sent by the Lord; it is beloved of men,
a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor, and of service to all.
A. (the oak) fattens the flesh (of swine) for the children of men. Often it traverses
the gannet's bath, and the ocean proves whether the oak keeps faith in
AE (the ash) is exceedingly high and precious to men. With its sturdy trunk it
offers a stubborn resistance, though attacked by many a man.
Y. ( ? ) is a source of joy and honour to every prince and knight; it looks well on a
horse and is a reliable equipment for a journey.
IO ( ? ) is a river fish and yet it always feeds on land; it has a fair abode
encompassed by water, where it lives in happiness.
EA (the grave?) is horrible to every knight, when the corpse quickly begins to cool
and is laid in the bosom of the dark earth. Prosperity declines, happiness
passes away and covenants are broken.
Although the oldest of the three poems, a great deal of Christian language has crept into the verses, and all heathen material has been eliminated. Notice that the Icelandic poem, which is the latest has far less that is Christian and more that is pre-Christian. There are marked similarities between all three, however, and they may all come from a much earlier prototype, perhaps from before Teutonic speech divided into several distinct languages.
The Norwegian Runic Poem
1. Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen;
the wolf lives in the forest.
2. Dross comes from bad iron;
the reindeer often races over the frozen snow.
3. Giant causes anguish to women;
misfortune makes few men cheerful.
4. Estuary is the way of most journeys;
but a scabbard is of swords.
5. Riding is said to be the worst thing for horses;
Reginn forged the finest sword.
6. Ulcer is fatal to children;
death makes a corpse pale.
7. Hail is the coldest of grain;
Christ created the world of old.
8. Constraint gives scant choice;
a naked man is chilled by the frost.
9. Ice we call the broad bridge;
the blind man must be led.
10. Plenty is a boon to men;
I say that Frothi was generous.
11. Sun is the light of the world;
I bow to the divine decree.
12. Tyr is a one-handed god;
often has the smith to blow.
13. Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.
14. Man is an augmentation of the dust;
great is the claw of the hawk.
15. A waterfall is a River which falls from a mountain-side;
but ornaments are of gold.
16. Yew is the greenest of trees in winter;
it is wont to crackle when it burns.
The Icelandic Runic Poem
1. Wealth = source of discord among kinsmen
and fire of the sea
and the path of the serpent.
2. Shower = lamentation of the clouds
and rain of the hay harvest
and abomination of the shepherd.
3. Giant = torture of women
and husband of a giantess.
4. God = aged Gautr
and prince of Asgard
and lord of Valhalla.
5. Riding = joy of the horseman
and speedy journey
and toil of the steed.
6. Ulcer = disease fatal to children
and painful spot
and abode of mortification.
7. Hail = cold grain
and shower of sleet
and sickness of serpents.
8. Constraint = grief of the bond-maid
and state of opression
and toilsome work.
9. Ice = bark of rivers
and roof of the wave
and destruction of the doomed.
10. Plenty = boon to men
and good summer
and thriving crops.
11. Sun = shield of the clouds
and shining ray
and destroyer of ice.
12. Tyr = god with one hand
and leavings of the wolf
and prince of temples.
13. Birch = leafy twig
and little tree
and fresh young shrub.
14. Man = delight of man
and augmentation of the earth
and adorner of ships.
15. Water = eddying stream
and broad geysir
and land of the fish.
16. Yr = bent bow
and brittle iron
and giant of the arrow.
Aside from the three surviving rune poems there is a certain amount of rune lore. The passage below from the Havamal may at one time have stood alone as a runic charm poem. Like all Norse rune lore of the viking age it is based on the Younger Futhark, though the fact that there are eighteen charms suggests that a couple of extra runes have been added. Unfortunately, though we are told what the charms can do, we do not have the charms themselves. The translation is from Henry Adams Bellows. His verse form is based on that of the original, though he gives himself some lattitude with the form either from laziness or ineptitude.
The songs I know that king's wives know not,
Nor men that are sons of me;
The first is called help, and help it can bring thee
In sorrow and pain and sickness.
A second I know, that men shall need
Who leechcraft long to use.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
A third I know, if great is my need
Of fetters to hold my foe;
Blunt do I make mine enemy's blade,
Nor bites his sword or staff.
A fourth I know, if men shall fasten
Bonds to my bended legs;
So great is the charm that forth I may go,
The fetters spring from my feet,
Broken the bonds from my hands.
A fifth I know, if I see from afar
An arrow fly 'gainst the folk;
If flies not so swift that I stop it not,
If ever my eyes behold it.
A sixth I know, if harm one seeks
With a sapling's roots to send me;
The hero himself who wreaks his hate
Shall taste the ill ere I.
A seventh I know, if I see in flames
The hall o'er my comrades' heads;
It burns not so wide that I will not quench it,
I know that song to sing.
An eighth I know, that is to all
Of greatest good to learn;
When hatred grows among heroes' sons,
I soon can set it right.
A ninth I know, if need there comes
To shelter my ship on the flood;
The wind I calm upon the waves,
And the sea I put to sleep.
A tenth I know, what time I see
House-riders flying on high;
So can I work that wildly they go,
Showing their true shapes,
Hence to their own homes.
An eleventh I know, if needs I must lead
To the fight my long-loved friends;
I sing in the shields, and in strength they go
Whole to the field of fight,
Whole from the field of fight,
And whole they come thence home.
A twelfth I know, if high on a tree
I see a hanged man swing;
So do I write and color the runes
That forth he fares,
And to me talks.
A thirteenth I know, if a thane full young
With water I sprinkle well;
He shall not fall, though he fares mid the host,
Nor sink beneath the swords.
A fourteenth I know, if fain I would name
To men the mighty gods;
All know I well of the gods and elves,--
Few be the fools know this.
A fifteenth I know, that before the doors
Of Delling sang Thjothrorir the dwarf;
Might he sang for the gods, and glory for elves,
And wisdom for Hroptatyr wise.
A sixteenth I know, if I seek delight
To win from a maiden wise;
The mind I turn of the white-armed maid,
And thus change all her thoughts.
A seventeenth I know, so that seldom shall go
A maiden young from me;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
An eighteenth I know, that ne'er will I tell
To maiden or wife of man,--
The best is what none but one's self doth know,
So comes the end of the songs,--
Save only to her in whose arms I lie,
Or else my sister is.
In addition to Havamal, the Sigdrifumal contains a large amount of rune lore, so much that it takes up the bulk of the poem. Rather than repeat what I have on
another page, however, I will provide a link to it:
This page is a companion page to a second page, Rune Poems 2, which is a
collection of modern rune poems. The button for that page is below.