Old Norse mythology is filled with fascinating symbolism, and the runic alphabets of Germanic Europe have told numerous tales of heroic deeds and tragic deaths over the years. Having worked with graphic design for most of my adult life, I’m a huge fan of typography and symbolism, and also a huge history nerd. So I’ve spent a lot of time studying and appreciating the Viking symbols left behind on runestones, jewelry, weapons, armor, and other items from the Viking Age.
But the world of Norse symbols is not without its controversies and misconceptions; from extremist groups trying to hijack the symbols to serve their agendas, to magical sigils with questionable historical accuracy spreading like wildfire among millennials (I’m looking at you Vegvisir).
So let’s clear some things up and go through the facts and myths surrounding Norse runes and symbols, how they look, and what we know about their meaning.
Hopefully, you’ll find this as fascinating as I did, and learn a thing or two along the way.
- Germanic and Norse Runes in Scandinavia: A Timeline
- Viking Age Scandinavian Runes & Their Meanings (Younger Futhark)
- Germanic Runes and Their Meanings (Elder Futhark)
- Later Scandinavian Runes: the Futhork & Dalecarlian Alphabets
- Real Viking Age Symbols: Separating Fact From Fiction
Let’s start by looking at the Runes, the letters of the Old Norse language the Vikings spoke, after which we will look at some of the symbols from the Viking Age specifically.
Germanic and Norse Runes in Scandinavia: A Timeline
A runic alphabet adjusted for the Old Norse language of the Vikings. Overlapped for a few centuries with Elder Futhark, but eventually replaced it altogether
As Christianity and the influence of the Latin alphabet spread across Scandinavia, the runes were adjusted to include new sounds and letters. Stunged or dotted runes were used to pronounce in a different way.
When tales were told of Viking adventures, they were generally written down in Old Norse on runestones using the Younger Futhark runic alphabet (used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age).
This is also what people look for when it comes to Nordic lettering in general, so I feel like it’s fitting to start here, and then dive into both older and newer runic alphabets afterward.
Viking Age Scandinavian Runes & Their Meanings (Younger Futhark)
The Scandinavian Younger Futhark is a simplified version of the Germanic Elder Futhark, with 16 (instead of 19) characters specifically tailored for the Old Norse language.
By the time the Viking Age took off around 800 CE, Younger Futhark was the dominant alphabet in Scandinavia, and is the one you’re most likely to see on runestones and other objects from the Viking Age.
I’ve listed all the Old Norse runes as well as their Latin letter equivalent below:
Each rune is a letter in the Old Norse alphabet, and as such they all represent a sound similar to the Roman/Latin letters we use in the western world today. However, they also carried names that can sometimes be construed as a separate meaning associated with the rune, which runologist Victoria Symons explains in her book Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts as she compares runes to Roman letters:
Runic letters, on the other hand, are inherently multivalent; they can, and often do, represent several different kinds of information simultaneously. This aspect of runic letters is one that is frequently employed and exploited by writers and scribes who include them in their manuscripts.Victoria Symons in Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (2016), p. 6-7
So it’s also important to note that although we have found plenty of evidence of the runes being used both as letters and as symbols with further meanings, each individual rune may not always have carried multiple meanings on top of the sound it made and the words it created in combination with other runes.
Meanings and Explanations of the Viking Runes (Old Norse Alphabet to English)
|Rune||Latin Letter||Old Norse Sound/Name — Meaning or Explanation in English|
|F||Fé — Beast, cattle, wealth|
|U||Úr — Clock, aurochs, primordial power|
|TH||Thurs — Thor (Norse god of thunder, one of the more prominent Æsir, origin of “Thursday”), giant, troll|
|Ą / O||As / Oss — Æsir, i.e. the gods in Norse mythology|
|R||Reið — Ride, journey, wagon|
|K||Kaun — Wound, ulcer, fire|
|H||Hagall — Hail (as in “it’s hailing outside”)|
|N||Nauðr — Need, force, danger|
|I||Íss — Ice|
|A / Æ||Ár — Plenty|
|S||Sól — Sun|
|T||Tyr — Norse god of war and justice, origin of “Tuesday”|
|B||Bjarkan — Birch|
|M||Maðr — Man, human|
|L||Lögr — Water, Sea|
|ʀ / Y||Yr — Yew (a tree with an especially long life)|
The Younger Futhark runes were also divided into two different styles: Long-branch runes and Short-twig runes.
Some argue that they were used depending on location; with Long-branch runes primarily used in Denmark, and short-twig runes primarily used in Sweden and Norway.
Others believe that instead of specifically Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian runes, their usage was more of a practical matter: If you wanted to write on stone, you used Long-branch runes, and if you wanted to write on wood, you used Short-twig runes.
I’ve seen many runestones in Sweden with Long-branch runes, so I am partial to the practical divide theory; that you used whatever type of rune was more practical for the medium you wrote/carved on.
For instance, here is a runestone I came across in Uppsala, Sweden that features long-branch runes:
What Do Upside-Down Runes Mean?
Since runes are mostly equivalent to our modern-day alphabetical letters, writing them upside down doesn’t change the sound they are attached to. This is especially relevant in many of the runestones, where the runes are written in circles and other irregular patterns, instead of on a straight line as we tend to do today.
We haven’t found any indication that they would mean something different upside-down when they were used in a way that would convey their inherent meaning (i.e. ᛋ = sun).
Next, let’s go back in time and look at when people in Scandinavia started using runes, which takes us all the way back to the Iron Age.
Germanic Runes and Their Meanings (Elder Futhark)
The Elder Futhark Runic alphabet consists of 24 runes, and was in use across all Germanic cultures since the Iron Age (starting around 200 CE), and in Scandinavia specifically deep into the Viking Age.
In other words, this is the first runic alphabet the Norse people (a.k.a. the Vikings) started using on their runestones, weapons, jewelry, etc.
It started being replaced by Younger Futhark around 700-800 CE, and was no longer in use by the 10th century CE, when the Viking Age was at its height.
The Elder Futhark started being used in Scandinavia around 600 years before the Viking Age started, but was still used by Vikings early on, before Younger Futhark took over completely.
The Proto-Germanic language spoken in Scandinavia and Northern Germany spread across Europe with the Germanic migrations that spurred on the fall of the roman Empire, and the Germanic Runes could be found across most of the European continent during the Iron Age.
Here’s how the Germanic language and runes spread across Europe and the extent of the Germanic migrations around the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Elder Futhark runic symbols were usually written as a rune row divided into three ætts (meaning “eights”, with eight runes in each ætt). The first ætt is Frey’s, the second is Hagal’s, and the third is Tyr’s (the names of the first letters of each ætt).
Below this is visualized in three rows:
The Meanings Attached to Elder Futhark Runes
As they both stem from the Nordic Bronze Age culture and language, the Germanic and the Scandinavian runes have the same meanings and origins.
However, due to differences in pronunciation and style in the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Norse languages, the names and sounds are slightly different (and there are of course 3 more runes).
|Rune||Latin Letter||Germanic Sound/Name — Origianal Meaning|
|ᚠ||F||Fehu — Beast, cattle, wealth|
|ᚢ||U||Uruz — Clock, aurochs, primordial power|
|ᚦ||Þ||þurisaz — Thurs/Thunraz(god of thunder, one of the more prominent Æsir, origin of “Thursday”), giant, troll|
|ᚨ||A||Ansuz — A Norse god, an Æsir|
|ᚱ||R||Raido — Ride, journey, wagon|
|ᚲ||K||Kaunan — Wound, ulcer, fire|
|ᚷ||G||Gebö — Gift|
|ᚹ||W||Wunjo — Joy|
|ᚺ||H||Hagalaz — Hail (as in “it’s hailing outside”)|
|ᚾ||N||Naudiz — Need, force|
|ᛁ||I||Isaz — Ice|
|ᛃ||J||Jera — Year, good year, harvest|
|ᛇ||Æ||Ihwaz — Yew-tree, evergreen tree|
|ᛈ||P||Perþ — Cliff, earth, rock*|
|ᛉ||Z||Algiz — Elk, protection, defense|
|ᛋ||S||Sowila, Sol — Sun|
|ᛏ||T||Tiwaz, Tyr — God of war and justice, origin of “Tuesday”|
|ᛒ||B||Berkana — Birch|
|ᛖ||E||Ehwaz — Horse|
|ᛗ||M||Mannaz — Man, human|
|ᛚ||L||Laguz — Water, lake|
|ᛝ||Ŋ||Ingwaz/Ing/Frey — God of fertility, Frey is the origin of “Friday”|
|ᛟ||O||Oþilaz, Oþala — Dynasty, heritage, estate, possession|
|ᛞ||D||Dagaz — Day|
Later Scandinavian Runes: the Futhork & Dalecarlian Alphabets
The Viking Age is generally agreed by historians to have ended with the successful invasion of England by William the Conqueror (who was a Norman of Viking descent ironically), specifically the decisive Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Scandinavia slowly started getting Christianized around the same time, and as continental European influence grew in the region, the language slowly expanded.
The Old Norse language started including sounds from the Latin alphabet, and the use of stung or dotted runes to indicate alternate sounds for specific runes started to become more and more common.
Despite the strong influence of the Latin alphabet, the people of Scandinavia did not stop writing in runic script. Instead, the Younger Futhark runes that had been in use during the Viking Age were expanded into a new runic alphabet that included ways to write out all the sounds of the Latin alphabet.
The Medieval Runic Alphabet: Futhork
The Medieval runic alphabet also had 16 runes, just like Younger Futhark, but each rune had variations that could form all the sounds latin letters could.
Interestingly, one of the oldest books preserved written with medieval runes is this copy of the Scanian law book, which is from the region I live in:
Dalecarlian Runes (late 1500s to 1900s)
The Runic alphabets had disappeared from Scandinavia almost completely by the 1500s, but the Swedish regions of Dalarna and Gotland people kept the runic alphabets alive, in Dalarna specifically all the way into the early 1900s.
Here’s how the Early Dalecarlian Runes looked like:
Here’s how the late Dalecarlian Runes looked like:
Real Viking Age Symbols: Separating Fact From Fiction
The Old Norse culture was rich in symbolism, and there were many inscriptions, ornaments, pendants, pins, and other accessories left behind for us to get an insight into the popular symbols of the Viking Age.
But there are also a lot of misconceptions floating around on the interwebs regarding viking symbolism, so I’d like to try to separate fact from fiction by grouping the real Viking symbols we for sure know are from the Viking Age, apart from mostly modern symbols we have not been able to link to Viking Age Scandinavia.
The Real Viking Symbols: Authentic Norse symbols dating back to the Viking Age
The Norse people of Scandinavia loved to carve pictures of Norse gods and other mythological creatures, along with tales of their own deeds onto runestones, jewelry, weapons, shields, helmets, and all kinds of other objects.
Luckily, we have been able to find many such examples that are still intact, giving us a pretty good idea of the types of symbols and ornaments the Vikings used and valued.
Here are some of the more famous symbols that have actually been found on objects dating back to the Viking Age in or around Scandinavia (meaning they are as authentic as can be):
Kraken / Hafgufa
Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr
Those are a few of the most famous Viking Age symbols we’ve found so far, but there are of course countless more depicted on all the runestones, jewelry, weapons, armor, and other objects from the Viking Age.
If all you’re interested in are historically accurate Norse symbols and runes, this is a good place to conclude your reading.
For those who are interested in finding out more about symbols that are not actually linked to Vikings and the Norse culture, but are commonly referred to as such anyway, let’s keep going to the murkier waters of Norse symbolism: the ahistorical symbols.
The False Viking Symbols: Nordic Symbols Commonly (But Likely Mistakenly) Linked to Norse Mythology
There are a whole bunch of symbols in use today that are assumed to be linked to the Vikings, but in reality have not been seen on any item found from the Viking age.
In some cases they’re mentioned in the sagas but never pictured anywhere, and in some cases they have just been popularized by pop culture or celebrities for no good reason.
They may be designed in a style befitting of the era, and they sure look cool — but you should know that there is very little that points to the symbols below actually being used by the Norse people who came from Scandinavia during the Viking age.
Nonetheless, here are some of the more popular symbols, or Icelandic staves as they technically are:
A pathfinder sigil
If you want to learn more about why these symbols may not date back to or be linked to the Viking Age, here’s Jackson Crawford’s (Old Norse specialist with a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies) very informative takes on the Ægishjalmur and Vegvísir respectively:
Dr. Crawford taught courses in Norse language, myth, and sagas at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and University of Colorado over the years 2011-2020, and is currently on a mission to teach full-time through YouTube & Patreon.
His videos are always informative, based on actual evidence, very thorough, and well worth a watch if you’re interested in the Old Norse world.
More Ahistorical Symbols: Rudolphs Koch’s Symbols in The Book of Signs
German typographer Rudolph Koch published a book in 1930 with 493 classified and documented illustrations – collected, drawn, and explained by himself.
Koch doesn’t really provide any sources for these symbols, but he does include most of the Younger Futhark runes, and somehow attributes the symbols below to either Nordic, Pagan, or Germanic origins:
Sunwheel / The Cross of Wotan
The Dragon’s Eye
The Eye of Fire
The Eight-spoked Wheel
None of these symbols have been found to have any type of connection to the Norse people of Scandinavia, nor even the Germanic people of Iron Age Europe, and to illustrate this we can look at how vaguely Koch describes his sources:
On many of the signs illustrated in this book the Nordic influence can be clearly traced, but the basic forms, with their wealth of significance and symbolism, undoubtedly take us back to the dim, remote and unfathomed ages of Mankind in the far Eastern countries of this World.Rudolph Koch, The Book of Signs p. 104
In other words, take these meanings with a grain of salt (to say the least)!
By the way, if you'd like to connect to your inner Viking and spruce up your walls at the same time, I've created a collection of high-quality and authentic (in other words, historically accurate) Norse posters and apparel.
Shop Authentic Norse Posters & Apparel
Get in to the Viking spirit at home with our premium museum-quality prints and original apparel sent right to your doorstep with free shipping worldwide.Get Them Now
- Swedish Vikings: A Guide To Viking Age Swedes & Their Journeys
- Leif Erikson: The Full Story (History, Facts & Timeline)
- The History of Sweden: A Timeline of the Swedish People
- Vegvisir: A Complete Guide (Origins, Meaning & Accuracy)