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The Meanings of the Runes

Sources

There are several historical runic inscriptions, found on everything from swords to stones to bronze pendants, which list the entire runic alphabet in order. One of the oldest and most complete of these is the Kylver stone, found in Gotland, Sweden and dating from the fifth century c.e. Others are less complete, but show a remarkable continuity in the order in which the runes are listed. The only surviving written accounts of the actual names and meanings of the runes, however, were not recorded until the advent of the Christian era. Some of these manuscripts, which date from the 9th. century until well into 12th, are known as rune poems. These poems have a verse for each rune, each of which begins with the rune itself and its name. Some of these poems are more Pagan than others, particularly those from Iceland, where Christianity was not yet as widespread as it was in the Anglo-Saxon regions.

The rune names themselves appear to have been passed down relatively intact, and although no manuscript exists listing the names of the older, Germanic runes, the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian rune poems agree to such an extent that their common origin can be deduced. These names are probably our best clue as to what the individual runes actually meant to the people that used them.


Interpretation

The unique order of the fuþark and their traditional division into three 'aetts' (a word meaning 'families' or 'groups') may be of some significance in decyphering the complex interrelationships between the runes. Several authors have noted certain pairings and groupings within the order (cattle / aurochs, hagalaz / nauthiz / isa, etc.), but so far the meaning of the overall pattern has remained a mystery. Recently, a few authors (notably myself and Freya Aswynn) have independantly developed systems of interpreting the fuþark as a whole, using Norse mythology and literature as a guide, and division into aetts as the underlying structure. Although these efforts are mostly speculative, they do provide some insight into how the Norse might have used the runes as a symbolic key to their understanding of the physical and spiritual world.

I tend to approach the fuþark as a journey - a spiritual odyssey in which the traveller encounters obstacles, receives gifts, and learns vital lessons that will aid in their development as a human being. This process is at once personal and mythic, following cycles and patterns that reflect the Norse world-view. This world-view was fundamentally different from that of the average 20th century Westerner, so a thorough understanding of the myths, culture and lifestyle of the ancient peoples of northern Europe is vital to a complete understanding of the runes. Please see the online resources on these subjects, as well as the Runic Reading List Site for more information.

It should be noted that the following interpretations of the meanings of the runes, while firmly founded in historical evidence and understanding of the Norse culture, are at least partially speculative and should not be taken as the "True and Original Meanings of the Runes". Given that so little is actually known about the runes, it is to be expected that even the most cynical scholar writing about them will inevitably bring their own theories and biases to their subject. I am no exception. To make things a little clearer, I have tried to distinguish hard fact from my own speculation wherever possible.

Each rune is listed with its Germanic name and its literal meaning. If you click on the rune name you can hear how, to the best of my knowledge, it should be pronounced (my apologies for the sound quality). The runes and their interpretations are divided into the three 'aetts':

To download a text version of this site, click here.


The First Aett The Second Aett The Third Aett


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The information on this site is adapted from
'Raido: The Runic Journey'
by Jennifer Smith, copyright 1994.

Jennifer Smith

Created: January 6, 1996
Last Updated: Monday, December 16, 2002