Old Nordic Symbols: Norse Runes & Viking Ornaments (Meanings & Examples)

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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 life, I’m a huge fan of typography and symbolism, and also a huge history nerd. So I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and trying to understand the Viking symbols left behind on runestones, jewelry, weapons, armor, and other items from the Viking Age.

But the world of Nordic 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 I decided to clear some things up and to go through the facts and myths surrounding Norse and Nordic symbols, how they look and what we know about their meaning. Hopefully you’ll find this as fascinating as I did!

Scandinavian Runes and Their Meanings (Younger Futhark)

When tales were told of Viking adventures, it was generally written down in Old Norse on runestones using the Younger Futhark runic alphabet (used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age). The Scandinavian runes are a simplified version of the Germanic Elder Futhark runes, with 16 (instead of 19) characters specifically tailored for the Old Norse language.

I’ve listed all the Old Norse runes as well as their Latin letter equivalent below:

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The 16 Scandinavian runes (a.k.a. Younger Futhark). These are Long-branch runes that can commonly be found in Denmark, and was used by Danish Vikings.

Each rune is a letter in the Old Norse alphabet, and as such they all represent a sound. They also carry names that can sometimes be construed as a meaning associated with the rune. However, each individual rune may not have necessarily carried much meaning on top of the sound it makes and the words it creates.

RuneLatin Letter
& Norse
Name
Original Meaning
F – Beast, cattle, wealth
U – úrClock, aurochs, primordial power
TH – ThursThurs/Thor (Norse god of thunder, one of the more prominent Æsir, origin of “Thursday”), giant, troll
A – AsA Norse god, an Æsir
R – reiðRide, journey, wagon
K – kaunWound, ulcer, fire
H – hagallHail (as in “it’s hailing outside”)
N – nauðrNeed, force, danger
I – ísaIce
Æ – árPlenty
S – solSun
T – TyrTyr (Norse god of war and justice, origin of “Tuesday”)
B – BjörkBirch
M – maðrMan, human
L – lögrSea
Y – yrYew (a tree with an especially long life)
Source: Swedish National Heritage Board

The Younger Futhark runes were divided into two different styles depending on where you were: Long-branch runes primarily used in Denmark, and short-twig runes primarily used in Sweden and Norway.

Long-branch runes
Short-twig runes
Latin lettersfutharkhniastbmlʀ
Runestone with Younger Futhark Runes in Uppsala, Sweden

What Do Upside-Down Runes Mean?

Turning the runes upside-down is supposed to bring the opposite meaning to the symbol, so for example an upside-down ᚹ would mean “sadness” instead of “joy”.

Germanic Runes and Their Meanings (Elder Futhark)

The Elder Futhark Runic alphabet consists of 24 runes, and was in use across all Germanic cultures during the Scandinavian/Germanic Iron Age (500 BCE–800 AD).

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 first letters of each ætt). Below this is visualized in three rows:

Freyᚠ – f    ᚢ – u    ᚦ – þ    ᚨ – a    ᚱ – r    ᚲ – k    ᚷ – g    ᚹ – w    
Hagalᚺ – hᚾ – nᛁ – iᛃ – jᛇ – ïᛈ – pᛉ – zᛊ – s
Tyrᛏ – tᛒ –  bᛖ – eᛗ – mᛚ – lᛜ – ŋᛟ – dᛞ – o
Elder Futhark runes have been found in all Germanic cultures and usually date back to around 400-600 CE.

The Meaning Attached to Elder Futhark Runes

The Germanic runes have the same meanings as the Scandinavian runes, but due to differences in the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Norse languages, the names and sounds are slightly different (and there are of course 3 more runes).

RuneLatin Letter
& Germanic
Name
Original Meaning
F – FehuBeast, cattle, wealth
U – UruzClock, aurochs, primordial power
Þ – þurisazThurs/Thor (Norse god of thunder, one of the more prominent Æsir, origin of “Thursday”), giant, troll
A – AnsuzA Norse god, an Æsir
R – RaidoRide, journey, wagon
K – KaunanWound, ulcer, fire
G – GeböGift
W – WunjoJoy
H – HagalazHail (as in “it’s hailing outside”)
N – NaudizNeed, force
I – IsazIce
J – JeraYear, good year, harvest
Æ – IhwazYew-tree, evergreen tree
P – PerþCliff, earth, rock*
Z – AlgizElk, protection, defense
S – Sowila, SolSun
T – TiwazTiwaz, Tyr (Norse god of war and justice, origin of “Tuesday”)
B – Berkana, BjarkaBirch
E – EhwazHorse
M – MannazMan, human
L – LaguzWater, lake
Ŋ – IngwazIngwaz/Ing/Frey (Norse god of fertility, Frey is the origin of “Friday”)
O – Oþilaz, OþalaDynasty, heritage, estate, possession
D – DagazDay
*Unknown exact meaning for “Perþ”, possible meanings listed. Source: Swedish National Heritage Board
Show more +

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 is also a lot of misconceptions floating around on the interwebs, so I wanted to separate fact from fiction by grouping the symbols we know are from the Viking Age separately from the ones we have not been able to link to Viking Age Scandinavia (yet?).

Authentic Viking symbols dating back to the Viking Age

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):

Meaning & Significance

Mjölnir

Thor’s hammer
Meaning & Significance
Mjölnir means “the crusher”, and was Thor’s weapon by choice as he rode the skies and caused thunder and lightning to crash down on earth. It has been found on countless runestones, pendants, and other types of jewelry dated back to the VIking Age.

Yggdrasil

The Tree of Life
Meaning & Significance
Yggdrasil is an ash tree that connects and contains all four worlds (Midgard, Asgard, Jotunheim, and Nifelheim) of Old Norse mythology. It can be translated to “the horrible thundergod’s horse” and is also known as “Mimer’s tree”. It is the largest tree in the Norse world.

Hrafnsmerki

The Raven Banner
Meaning & Significance
The Raven banner was flown by numerous Viking armies and the raven played an important in Norse symbolism (with Odin’s two ravens Hugin & Munin telling him everything there is to know).
Meaning & Significance

Dragon’s head

Meaning & Significance
It was common for Vikings to create lavish and intimidating ornaments on their ships, so placing a dragon’s or snake’s head in the front was common practice.

Valknut

Odin’s knot
Meaning & Significance
Valr means warrior, and knut means knot – so the literal meaning would be “the warrior’s knot”. It is currently used as part of Swedish paper company SCA’s logo, as well as the German Football Association (the badge on the national team’s jerseys).

Triskele

Horns of Odin
Meaning & Significance
Found on the Snoldelev Stone from Ramsø, Denmark. Dated to the 9th century CE.
Meaning & Significance

Trikvetra

A variant of the Valknut
Meaning & Significance
This symbol has been found on one of the Funbo Runestones (from the 11th century), located in Uppsala, Sweden as well as numerous coins from 11th century Norway. It is likely connected to and based on the Valknut.

Sleipner

Odin’s Horse
Meaning & Significance
Odin’s eight-legged horse, capable of running faster than any other horse, even faster than the wind. Sleipner is not limited to running on land either, as he can fly in the air and thunder over the water to get where he needs to go.

The Longship

The Viking Warships
Meaning & Significance
The Viking Longship was a very significant factor behind the influence of the Vikings, so it’s no wonder it has been depicted on numerous runestones and other ornaments from the Viking Age. It is thought to symbolize the Viking spirit, and the sagas mention many ships used by the gods as shuttles between realms, and used during Ragnarök to transport Loki and his army of giants to slay the Æsir and bring forth the end of the world.
Meaning & Significance

Jörmungandr

The Midgard Serpent
Meaning & Significance
A giant serpent that is nothing but trouble for Thor and the other Æsir. ends up being killed by Thor during Ragnarök, but not before it poisons Thor who also dies as a result of this.

Kraken / Hafgufa

Legendary Sea Monster
Meaning & Significance
The Kraken is a mythological beast that is supposed to lure on seafarers on the bottom of the ocean, only to lunge up and swallow boats whole when it feels like it. The Kraken sea monster that has been described by various authors since the 1800s, is thought to be the same as the Old Norse Hafgufa which supposedly lived in the depths of the Greelandic and Icelandic seas according to mid-13th century Norwegian tract Konungs skuggsjá.

Fenrir

World-eating Wolf
Meaning & Significance
The Fenrir Wolf is destined to swallow and destroy the world when the predetermined Ragnarök, or the end of the world, comes along. Has been depicted on runestones, drinking vessels, jewelry, and many more items dated back to the Viking Age.
Meaning & Significance

Gyllenborste

Frey’s Golden Hog
Meaning & Significance
A golden hog that Frey rode around on and that has been depicted on quite a few runestones and inscriptions dated back to the Viking Age.

Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr

Thor’s legendary goats
Meaning & Significance
The two goats that pull Thor around as he wreacs havoc in the skies with his hammer Mjölnir.

Bear’s Head

Berserker style
Meaning & Significance
Elite Norse warriors have been documented to wear animal skins and heads, specifically bear (Berserkers) and wolf heads (Ulfhednars). Wearing the skin and head is supposed to have transferred the strength of the animals and raise the warriors above mere humans.

Symbols commonly (but perhaps mistakenly) linked to Norse mythology

Meaning & Significance

Vegvisir

A pathfinder sigil
Meaning & Significance
First documented in 1860 in the Huld manuscript by Geir Vigfusson, and may not stretch much further back than that according to historians such as Jackson Crawford. Geir described the meaning of the symbol like this: “Let a man carry these staves on himself, and the man will not get lost in storms nor bad weather, though he is unaquanted”.

Ægishjalmr

“The Helm of Awe”
Meaning & Significance
Is mentioned by name in the Poetic Edda as a helmet that is supposed to bring the wearer more courage and cause others to look upon him in awe. But we do not see the actual symbol pictured above until it shows up in an Icelandic manuscript dating back to the 1600s (now in the national library of Iceland). In this manuscript, the symbol is supposed to be “printed on ones forehand when meeting ones enemy, who shall then be overcome”.
Meaning & Significance

Herðslustafir

Meaning & Significance
First documented in 1860 in the Huld manuscript by Geir Vigfusson, and may not stretch much further back than that according to historians such as Jackson Crawford. Geir described the meaning of the symbol like this: “Strengthening symbols. Carry these symbols on your left chest, in order to strengthen up the mind”.

Svefnthorn

The Sleep Thorn
Meaning & Significance
The Svefnthorn is mentioned numerous times in many of the sagas so there is no doubt that the word and tool that is described in the sagas is connected to the Old Norse world (Where it is described as a magical tool that puts adversaries to sleep). However, we do not know if there is a symbol attached to this tool, or indeed how the symbol looks; as we have not found the actual symbol drawn on any object from the Viking Age (only mentioned in text). The actual symbol depicted above is first documented in the Huld manuscript from 1860.

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:

Ægishjálmur (“The Helm of Awe”)

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 fulltime via YouTube & Patreon subscriptions.

Vegvísir (wrongly called "Viking Compass")

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.

Rudolphs Koch’s Nordic & Germanic symbols in The Book of Signs

German typographer Rudolph Koch published a book with 493 classified and documented illustrations, collected, drawn, and explained by himself.

Koch doesn’t really provide any sources for the symbols he draws, but he does include most of the Younger Futhark runes, and attributes some other symbols to either Nordic, Pagan, or Germanic origins:

Meaning & Significance

Triceps

Divine Power
Meaning & Significance
The Triceps is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is described as “an old Nordic sign” and “a symbol of heavenly power”. Famously used by the Japanese car manufacturer Mitsubishi Motors.

Sunwheel / The Cross of Wotan

Meaning & Significance
The Sunwheel or Cross of Wotan is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is either linked to the sun or Odin (Wotan). It is also described as “from the early Germanic peoples, and nothing further is known of it”.

The Dragon’s Eye

Meaning & Significance
The Dragon’s Eye is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is described as “from the early Germanic peoples, and nothing further is known of it”.
Meaning & Significance

Eight-angled figure

Divine Power
Meaning & Significance
The Eight-angled figure or the sign of the DEhmic Courts is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is described as “from the early Germanic peoples, and nothing further is known of it”.

The Eye of Fire

Meaning & Significance
The Eye of Fire is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is described as “from the early Germanic peoples, and nothing further is known of it”.

The Eight-spoked Wheel

Meaning & Significance
The Eight-spoked wheel is included in Rudolph Kuch’s “The Book of Signs”, and is described as “from the early Germanic peoples, and nothing further is known of it”.

This is how Rudolph 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

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 full set of stylish and minimal rune poster printables that include their names, meanings, and equivalent modern letters. You can write your own name in Younger Futhark, display the runes that mean something to you personally, or why not hang up all 16 runes in an epic Old Norse wall gallery!

Hang the Old Norse Runes on your walls

Get in to the Viking spirit at home

Full set of 16 + 1 Old Norse runes (a.k.a. Younger Futhark) printables. Learn the Viking ways with these beautiful prints that you can hang on your walls or use digitally.

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Sources:

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By Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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