What was the Elder Futhark Viking Alphabet?

The Elder Futhark is the oldest of the runic alphabets and was used from the first to the eighth centuries AD. So, what are Elder Futhark runes and what messages have they left behind?

3 January 2023

Thought to date back to the 1st century, Futhark was the runic alphabet of the Old Norse language. The term ‘Futhark’ comes from the first six characters of the alphabet: f, u, þ, a, r, k. Like many writing systems, it had several regional variations, and it also evolved over time.

Elder Futhark is the term given to what is thought to be the oldest form of these runes. This differentiates the runes elder from its successor, Younger Futhark. So, what are Elder Futhark runes and what do they mean? We’ll explore all of this, starting with the general question, what is the Futhark alphabet?

What is the Futhark Alphabet?

Elder Futhark Runes engraved on stones (Photo: KatyaSuresh via Getty Images)

The Futhark alphabet is the name given to the rune symbols or alphabet of the Old Norse language. And in the history of runes, Elder Futhark is thought to have been its first incarnation. Some even call the Elder Futhark runes the oldest form of writing in Northern Europe.

Whilst thought to date back to the 1st century, nobody is sure of the origins of Futhark. One theory posits it was a secret code invented by Roman Army mercenaries or merchants who traded between northern Europe and Scandinavia. Many believe it to be derived from Italic scripts such as the Etruscan and Raetic alphabets. However there is no concrete explanation as to how such a system travelled from Italy to Denmark.

What is broadly agreed is that the Elder Futhark alphabet continued to be used until the easier and simpler Younger Futhark alphabet took over around the 8th century.

So, what are Elder Futhark runes? All in all there are 24 Elder Futhark runes or symbols. Like modern alphabets, the symbols represented sound values. For example, the Ansuz rune indicated an “ah” sound. However, Futhark runes meanings went further, acting as ideographs. In other words, they also represented concepts, often several at the same time. Going back to the Ansuz rune, this could mean truth or wisdom, inspiration or god. The most common modern examples of ideographs are road signs and emojis.

Elder Futhark Runes Meaning

Rune stones with black symbols for fortune telling (Photo: Wirestock via Getty Images)

For two millennia, the futhark runes’ meanings have been debated, doubted, discussed and deliberated by experts spanning the fields of Norse history and mythology to linguistics.

As with all studies of ancient languages used by different cultures and communities, original meanings often get lost or diluted. However this list of the letters and meanings of the Elder Futhark alphabet is widely believed to be as accurate as today’s experts can broadly ascertain.

A | Ansuz

Sound – aa, as in car | Meaning – truth, wisdom, god, communication, inspiration

B | Berkan/Berkanan

Sound – be, as in beyond | Meaning – birch tree, fertility, birth, growth, new start

C | Cen/Caunan/Kenaz

Sound – kay, as in okay | Meaning – torch, illumination, creativity, fire, transformation

D | Dagaz

Sound – dee, as in design | Meaning – day, new dawn, awakening, breakthrough

E | Ehwaz\Eihwaz

Sound – short e, as in send | Meaning – cooperation, discovery, trust, teamwork

F | Fehu

Sound – eff, as in fruit | Meaning – achievement, wealth, money earned, luck

G | Gebo

Sound – hard gee, as in grand | Meaning – exchanging gifts, love, partnership

H | Hagalaz

Sound – aitch, as in happy | Meaning – destruction, radical change, loss, transformation

I | Isa/Isaz

Sound – short i, as in pill | Meaning – inertia, stasis, self-control, concentration

J | Jera

Sound – soft j/y as in yarn | Meaning – cycles, time, peace, rewards, prosperity

K | Kaun|Kenaz

Sound – hard c/k, as in brick | Meaning – illumination, fire, transformation, regeneration

L | Laguz

Sound – ell, as in lucky | Meaning – dreams, emotion, the unconscious mind, fantasy

M | Mannaz

Sound – emm, as in mint | Meaning – humankind, collective effort, connectivity

N | Naudiz/Nauthiz

Sound – enn as in nine | Meaning – survival, basic human needs, endurance, hardship

O | Othila\Othala

Sound – short oh, as in stop | Meaning – inheritance, ancestors, home, legacy

P | Perthro\Peorth

Sound – pee, as in puppy | Meaning – fate, destiny, mystery, uncertainty, secrets

R | Raido

Sound – arr, as in raid | Meaning – personal direction, journeys, wheels, travel

S | Sowilo\Sowulo

Sound – ess, as in seek | Meaning – health, energy, success, wholeness

T | Tiwaz

Sound – tee, as in tin | Meaning – righting of wrongs, justice, honour, victory

TH | Thuriaz/Thurisaz

Sound – th, as in think | Meaning – breaking barriers, solving problems, protection

U | Uruz

Sound – ooh, as in food | Meaning – ultimate strength, power, courage, endurance

W | Wunjo

Sound – w, as in wood | Meaning – joy, friendship, celebration, fellowship

Z | Algiz

Sound – zed, as in zip | Meaning – courage, divine protection, self-defence

NG | Ingwaz

Sound – ng, as in ring | Meaning – concentrated energy, unity, agreement, harmony

The Elder Futhark Runes Today

Wooden runes being used for fantasy adventure (Photo: miriam-doerr via Getty Images)

It may be ancient, but the Futhark writing system is far from dead. So, what is the Futhark alphabet up to today? Nowadays, you’re likely to find it in two main spaces. The first is the more obvious area of academia. However, the more surprising use of futhark is within fantasy games, where it is very much alive.


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