Old Norse inscriptions, religion, and magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 1)

When I was very young Norse Gods & Giants arrived. I can say no more than this factually, but it seems now to have always been with me. Even when I couldn’t yet read the book fascinated me. Some children at this age might have taken up a crayon to embellish the illustrations or add their own to obscure the text, gnawed at the page edges or simply torn them out. I did not. I carefully studied each page, absorbing the D’Aulaires’ work down to the last scintilla. I still own the first-edition 1967 copy that I pored over in this way for endless hours, more or less intact, though I’ve since bought a more recent paperback edition to spare wear and tear on the original.

Having a recently immigrated Scandinavian branch to my family, which included a great-grandmother who would speak only Swedish, I was well aware of the idea of Vikings: iconified into wooden toys, they had horned helmets, shields, spears, beards made of soft animal fur, and sailed long, dragon-prowed boats with striped sails, arriving on our shores together with Kalle Anka comic books and strange candy. But Norse Gods & Giants contained nothing so Disneyfied, cutesy or safe—it held the truth of my ancestry. It was a dark, raw, mysterious world filled with grotesque creatures, a category to which humans, as trees that had learned to walk, clearly also belonged. There were chases, contests, thefts, betrayals, murders—in short: everything.

In this world of perpetual subarctic gloom some things glittered as well: flames and sparks, golden jewelry, Baldur’s (Baldr) strange three-pronged halo, the golden feathers of the eagle guarding Yggdrasil (Yggdrasill), Kvasir, the protean god of knowledge emerging from a divine spittoon, the Mjolnir’s (Mjǫllnir) lightning crackling around the Midgard Serpent’s (Miðgarðsormr) head, the face of the first god taking shape under the warm tongue of Ymir’s cow, Odin’s (Óðinn) disembodied eye floating in Mimir’s (Mímir) well, the fiery warriors of Surt (Surtr) surging through the cracked vault of the sky, made of slain Ymir’s skull, to bring an end to all the nine worlds.

And, when I could read, there were some curious passages about a strange and magical system of letters, words, and symbols called runes (rúnar):

On the ninth night he saw that the twigs that dropped from Yggdrasil fell into shapes which spelled out words and symbols. Thus he discovered the magic of the runic letters, which he would share with the Aesir and wise men on earth. Whoever could master the runic alphabet and carve the magic letters on wood or stone possessed great powers. Through reading and writing men could now send their words to others who were far away. They could even share their thoughts with those who were not yet born.

But the runes were dangerous, too; there were evil symbols that witches and sorcerers sometimes used to put a spell on a man or his cattle.

The “ninth night” referred to here, the D’Aulaires do not hesitate to tell us, is how long Odin had been hanging himself.

Later in the book, Skirnir (Skírnir), servant of Frey (Freyr), is trying to persuade a woman named Gerd (Gerðr) to requite the pining god’s love for her. After attempting bribery and threats (solid strategies), Skirnir ups the ante:

In great anger Skirnir pulled out a stick, and on it he carved the rune þ, a rune fraught with evil magic.

And he then proceeds to cast a spell on her. Now that’s some pretty compelling stuff, especially for an impressionable youth: I sought out more sources of information, more books on Norse myth, legends, history, and eventually broadened that to world history, comparative mythology, anthropology, linguistics. I was able to appreciate all its monomythic tropes when I first watched Star Wars, such was the vat of god-spit I’d been steeping in. And then, of course, I got into making games.

Getting back to the topic of runes, it’s important to note that the reality of their origin differs from their myth. It’s not as cool as a god self-asphyxiating until he sees visions, but still pretty cool: It seems that Rhaetian (from the same family as Etruscan) speakers using the Old Italic alphabet north of the Alps which then was blended with native Germanic sacred pictographic symbols. The common origin of runes and our modern Latin alphabet is why some of them bear a greater-than-passing resemblance to the letters we know. The differences arise from the admixture of native symbols, as well as the likely need to express the sounds of the Germanic tongues for which Italic lacked the graphemes.

Although runes are typically associated with Scandinavia, its earliest form, Elder Futhark, was broadly used by continental Germanic tribes speaking a common language, and inscriptions in this alphabet have been found across much of Northern and Central Europe even as far south as the Black Sea. The names of the alphabets are essentially acronyms of the first six letters found therein: fuþark (where þ is romanized as ⟨th⟩) Elder Futhark branched into the simplified Younger Futhark and Futhork (fuþork), sometimes called Anglo Saxon runes. Runes came into being some time in the first half of the first century. Their distinctive, angular shape is actually a common feature of many early scripts, which were often carved into wood or stone. True horizontal strokes are not used in runes because carving such strokes would run with the grain of the former material, and so tend to cause it to split.

Because of how recognizable runes are, because of how graphical they are, and because of their associations with a lost world of barbarian tribes and magic, they have far outlived their original users. The 18th century saw a revival of interest in Norse legends and writing, German occultism focused on the script in the 19th century, and the last century saw its use in both fantasy writing (spurred by Tolkien in particular) and in Germanic Neopaganism. Some of these associations are very important to understand, as I’ll detail later.

Runes are not monolithic; they belong to distinctly different times and places. For the game ChronoBlade, we started the story in the Viking-Age (793–1066) world of Ragnarok, so when it came to using runes, that already ruled out Elder Futhark, mentioned above. It is too old for the period and it was used to express Common Germanic, dying out in the 8th century. Futhorc was also dismissed as belonging mainly to what was to become England. This left Younger Futhark.

Younger Futhark corresponds well in both time and place to the world of Ragnarok. Still, there are three distinct forms of this alphabet: the Long Branch variant, used in what has become Denmark, the Short Twig variant, which was used in what is now Sweden and Norway, and finally the so-called staveless Hälsinge variant, named for the specific region of Sweden it appears in. The names of these subtypes refer to peculiarities in their writing, basically having to do with the morphology of the staves, specifically whether they were full staves (long branch), half staves (short twig) or missing entirely (staveless). Some debate continues as to whether Hälsinge runes were actually a regional variant or whether in fact different alphabets were used for different kinds of writings, or even based on the material being written on. Short Twig and Hälsinge are pretty strange and unfamiliar looking and the latter seems to have been used later than the period of the gameworld. Through this process of elimination, I decided on Long Branch Younger Futhark as being the most commonly used, as well as fitting with the image of runes that people would be familiar with.

When we created a system for modular, customizable equipment upgrades (i.e., gems and sockets), it seemed like a natural fit for runes, drawing on the legends of their magical properties. The process was fairly straightforward: for every property I was trying to create a rune for, I simply searched over the names and meanings of the runes of Younger Futhark looking for a good representative.

For example, the rune corresponding to ⟨h⟩ is named hagall, meaning “hail”. Since we used enchantments corresponding to the four classical elements, having a water enchant use the hagall rune made complete sense. For damaging armor, I used thurs, a rune with the phonetic value /θ/ (in Old Norse, it’s actually spelled þurs, which I normalized per English orthography), whose name means “giant”. Coincidentally, this is the name of the rune þ that Skirnir used in the spell he cast on Gerd. And so we carried on.

I should note that such meanings have been significantly expanded upon and distorted by modern Neopagan systems of divination.

Since runes look cool, the artists were eager to use them, but unfortunately their enthusiasm overtook their knowledge. Wikipedia’s page on runes features a table of Elder Futhark, assuming runes were runes, they put them on a wide variety of elements throughout the game, which needed to be corrected later.

One of the cases that needed to be addressed was that the Elder Futhark rune corresponding to ⟨o⟩ had been used in modernity by Nazis and Neo-Nazis. This one in particular seemed to have caught the artists’ eyes, and they had used it everywhere. In fact, it’s a cool-looking rune, and although there is some degree of “taking back” that you can do, since this was also the wrong alphabet, it seemed best to simply track down all the cases and change them.

Another example was our runegate. The runegate was a magical barrier that was used throughout Ragnarok. While it looked cool, I wanted to make it consistent with the runes being used in the rest of the world. When I was given the file, it looked like this:

They were Elder Futhark runes, in a sequence reading:


Which was also complete gibberish. Instead of simply putting in the appropriate analogues from Younger Futhark, I decided to try to give the inscription real meaning. I adapted an appropriate invocation from a Danish bracteate to use the right number of letters:

houaz laþu alu
high one (Odin) protect!

The ALU sequence seems to have been used to identify an inscription as a runic charm. Old Norse uses a mark that looks something like our modern colon (⟨:⟩) to show breaks between words, and since the charm didn’t line up cleanly, I added those to the image to yield:

Like many things I’ve done regarding worldbuilding, this material is there for those who want to dig into it, which certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea. More than this, it’s about the team’s feeling that there is a consistency and internal logic in the characters, locations, and events we are making—decisions about the things we created got easier as we continued to build because of our shared sense of the world.

You should determine what makes sense to your world: historical runes refer to a specific time and place but fictional ones are also relatively easy to design keeping in mind the rules I’ve presented here. If you do decide to create your own, it’s important to diverge significantly from the real ones, as purists will be confused and possibly even offended.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: Bindunes

Part 3: Magical Staves

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