The Evolution of the Runic Alphabets: Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, and Younger Futhark Runes

23 September 2018, 03h45:

Spring Equinox for the Southern Hemisphere

Today is the spring equinox – it is the day of the year where the hours of darkness and daylight are equal for both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Southern countries witness a spectacular display of renewal and rebirth, sprouting forth from the foundation of the previous season’s growth or from life preserved as last year’s seeds.

I am going to do something a bit different for this year’s Spring equinox, however keeping with the overall alignment of Spring with the element of Earth. I am going to take you back to a time during which we see the development of speech and writing, where scripts were carved into stone. Here we honour the lasting remnants of our ancestors and our roots as we take a trip back into time. I am specifically touching upon the emergence of scripts within the Germanic tribes (my ancestors by a few thousand years LOL!). I will be discussing the Evolution of the Runic Alphabets under changing linguistics with the focus on our Current Knowledge about the Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhark (Futhork). Thus, this leads to the main theme of today’s article:

I have been researching the Elder Futhark extensively for the last few years and I have created a Mini Oracle deck based on this research as well as a Bindrune Oracle. My biggest reason for delving into the literature was that the Runic Alphabets lack standardisation, mostly due to the way in which each originated from the predecessor and several influences from the Roman language and its scriptures. For instance, when you simply type ‘Runes’ into a search engine you would find contradictions between the available sets – all of which are denoted as the ‘correct’ version. Doubting many of these sources, I began pulling information from more credible expert sources, specifically those from scholarly Runologists (not just the new age books).

Because of the vast amount of research that went into elucidating each of the rune sets, I have decided to divide the information into 4 articles:

Spring Equinox 2018: The Overview of the Runic Alphabet Evolution

An article for each set: The Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhark, where I can explain the differences and similarities of each, and how one informs the other.

My main aim was to create a trust-worthy, ‘universal’ representative of each of the Runic Alphabets, backed-up by proper research that can be used as divinatory tools. In these articles I want to illustrate the linguistic flow of the runes and how that gave rise to the other systems as well as explaining the potential discrepancies between available literatures. This was quite an undertaking – I remember being thoroughly confused at the discombobulated state of Runic literature and I went through heaps of literature to find the handful of informative ones I used for the reconstructions (listed in the References section). I believe that I have managed to create a standard set of runes for each of the Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhork with justification for some of the rune scripts favoured above others as per scholarly debate. (BTW: These runes sets I have made available as Mini Oracle Decks from my MakePlayingCards Online Shop!) Thus, we will start with the overview of how the systems originated and co-evolved from the most primitive of languages.

Evolution of the Runic Alphabets, Elder Futhark, Younger, Futhork, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, Italic, Celtic, Latin, Roman, Ogham, Runes, Medieval, Dalecarlian
Evolution of the Runic Alphabets over the centuries

The runic alphabet along with the Latin alphabet is generally believed to be derived from Old Italic (with additional influence by Greek, Latin and Etruscan) as part of the Indo-European languages. The term ‘rune’ is used to describe an alphabet and/or writing system other than that of Latin or Greek letters. These are generally angular in shape as they were primarily used for inscribing wood and/or carving stone.

The root for Rune is:

– ‘run’ in Germanic and ‘runs’ in Gothic, both inclining to the words: secret or whisper

– ‘runo’ in Proto-Germanic (primitive Germanic) that means letter, literature or secret

Indo European Languages map 500 BC 500 AD, Runes

When we look at the original languages of the Indo-Europeans we see the linguistic origins of each of the runes. For simplicity, we start with the ‘original’ languages, each is a separate language and is distinct from the other. Here we have Hellenic, Italic, Celtic and Germanic making up the ‘top-tier’ of the linguistic evolutionary tree if you will (refer to the picture below). Thereafter, we see each develop through history due to the spread of the tribes, their inevitable convergence and how this influenced and moulded the present-day forms.

I am mainly concerned with the Germanic languages, but I will provide a quick language association for each of the others:

– Hellenic → Greek

– Italic → Latin/Roman

– Celtic → Irish

– Germanic → Norse, Frisian, English, Saxon and Gothic

Indo European Languages and the Runic Alphabets, Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, Younger Futhark, Lineage
Indo-European languages of the tribes and the development of the runic alphabets. Possible Elder Futhark lineage (linguistic evolution) in green, Younger Futhark lineage in red and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc lineage in Blue.

From the picture above, I have indicated the flow of the Germanic languages, depending on the locations of the various tribes during that time.  ‘Northern Germanic’ (Red in pic) developed into Old Norse, followed by Icelandic/Norwegian in the ‘North’-West and Danish/Swedish in the ‘North’-East. ‘Eastern Germanic’ (Black in pic) gave rise to a single Gothic system, whereas the ‘Western Germanic’ (Blue in pic) split-off into Anglo-Frisian and Old-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxon lineage then gave rise to Old Frisian and Old English.  This covers the way in which the language systems originated, now we move on to their alphabets.

Evolution of the Runic Alphabets, Elder Futhark, Younger, Futhork, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, Italic, Celtic, Latin, Roman, Ogham, Runes, Medieval, Dalecarlian

Evolution of the Runic Alphabets over the centuries. Superscripts indicate the number of letters in each system. Language and location associations are also listed.

During the initiation of Indo-European languages it would seem that Old Italic and Proto-Celtic were present at somewhat the same time (~ 800 BC).  The Latin or Roman alphabet was derived from Old Italic (~ 700 BC) and has been in use to this present day as the main alphabet, which we are all very familiar with. Initially, we see the Runic Alphabets split off from Old Italic and they develop in isolation from the Roman language and its counterparts for a few centuries. At this point in time we are already a bit farther down the language lineage, hence we see the influence of Old Italic on the Runic Alphabets. In contrast, some scholars argue that the Runic alphabets are derived from the Roman one…

When Proto-Norse was the main language during 150-800 AD, we predominantly find the Elder Futhark amongst the few surviving carvings. The letters of the Elder Futhark are clear and very few variants exist, giving rise to a mostly coherent system of runes. Very little is known about the pronunciation and meaning of the Proto-Norse letters, since there is no ‘Proto Norse Poem’ or ‘Runic Poem’ equivalent for the Elder Futhark as for the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhark. Thus, the rune names are derived from Proto-Germanic approximations and their meanings are retro-fitted from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem. I provide a quick summary for the Elder Futhark system, which will be fully discussed in its separate article.

Elder Futhark Mini Oracle Deck Overview, Cards
Elder Futhark Mini Oracle Deck available from

When the Elder Futhark was still in use (150-800 AD), we see that arrival of the expanded Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400-1100 AD). The Futhark has become a Futhorc due to the linguistic and pronunciation changes between Proto-Norse and Anglo-Saxon. Before we move on, I provide a similar summary picture for the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.

Anglo Saxon Futhorc Mini Oracle Deck Overview Cards
Anglo Saxon Futhorc Mini Oracle Deck available from

These two systems co-existed for some time and later when Proto-Norse becomes Old-Norse we see the Elder Futhark being replaced by a reduced Younger Futhark (technically it should be an Younger Futhork by linguistic standards…). Now, the Younger Futhark co-exists with the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc as well. One can almost view the Elder Futhark runes as the ‘older sister’ system of the Anglo-Saxon runes, whereas the Younger Futhark is the ‘daughter system’ of the Elder Futhark (i.e., replacing the previous version). Furthermore, we see the Younger Futhark split-off into 3 different variants over the centuries, hence the reason for 2 different Younger Futhark rune poems! This is where things get messy, real messy! Before we move on, I provide a similar summary picture for the Younger Futhark, the more widely used Danish/Icelandic version.

Younger Futhark Mini Oracle Deck Overview, Cards
Younger Futhark Mini Oracle Deck available from

Because of the centuries-long overlap between the three systems, there was a lot of mixing-and-matching going on. Combinations of the three systems are known as the Macromannic Runes. The Younger Futhark was easier to piece together as it was generally left alone. However, the Anglo-Saxon runes experienced even more expansion due to the influence from religious missionaries and other scholars who tried to correlate the Runic alphabet with the Roman one. So you see all kinds of fanciful things on carvings and in recorded scriptures during this time, not to mention the catastrophic loss of ancient books in library fires, which may have held the key to solving this massive runic mix-up! We also see some potential influence on the runes from the Ogham (or Celtic Script 400-1000 AD)? The Ogham is a whole different research project on its own!

Phew! My head was practically spinning at this stage, but with some tables (which will be provided in the next series of articles) I managed to elucidate a potential standardised set of runes for each of the Elder Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhark, which have subsequently been made into Mini-Oracle decks. Anyways, moving on in the runic evolutionary ladder…

Macromannic Runes, Combination, Elder, Younger, Futhark, Anglo-Saxon, Futhorc

The Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc fell out of use at round-about the same time. Then we see another set of Runes arise, derived from an expanded Younger Futhark system, known as the Medieval Runes (1100-1500 AD, also a Futhork by linguistic accounts). These very much retain that mixy-matchy feeling of the runic alphabet evolution during this time, with several influences from the Roman, Celtic and maybe even Gothic systems. The runes are slowly being replaced by the more prominent and well-developed Greek and Roman systems. A final ‘speciation’ event of the runes occurred with the development of the Dalecarlian Runes (1500-1800 AD). You would notice a very strong influence from the Roman alphabet as the Runic alphabet tries to stubbornly hold on, but slowly gives way to the ‘superior’ of the two systems. Although, some variants of these runes are still in use today it has mostly become an extinct system of writing.

Medieval, Dalecarlian, Runes, Dates, Letter Numbers

That concludes the evolutionary journey into the ancient past of the Runic Alphabets. As mentioned before I will discuss each of the Rune systems (Elder Futhark, Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon) in a separate article along with their potential use in divination and metaphysical connotations. In the mean-time, the Mini-Oracle decks are available on my MakePlayingCards Online Shop to kick-off you divinatory adventure with one of the oldest writing systems known today!

Related Articles:

Reference List:

  1. Page, R., I. (1987) Reading The Past: Runes. University of California Press.
  2. McKinnell, J., Simek R. and Düwel K. (2004) Runes, Magic and Religion: a Sourcebook. Wien: Fassbaender
  3. Page, R. I. (2005) Runes, The British Museum Press, ISBN 0-7141-8065-3.
  4. Oswald, B. (2008) Discovering Runes. Chartwell Books Inc.
  5. Robertson, J. S. (2012) How the Germanic Futhark Came from the Roman Alphabet Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies 2: 7-25.
  6. Van Renterghem, A. (2014) The Anglo-Saxon runic poem: a critical reassessment. Masters Dissertation, University of Glasgow. pp. 113
  7. Daniels, B. (2015) Runes: Notes on Orthography and Pronunciation, as well as Some Thoughts on Using Runes to Write Modern English.
  8. Schulte, M. (2015) Runology and historical sociolinguistics: On runic writing and its social history in the first millennium. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics. 1(1): 87-110.
  9. Barnes, Michael P. (1998). “The Transitional Inscriptions”. In Beck, Heinrich; Düwel, Klaus. Runeninschriften als Quellen Interdisziplinärer Forschung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 448–61. ISBN 3-11-015455-2. p. 451.
  10. Werner, C. G. (2004). The allrunes Font and Package. The Comprehensive Tex Archive Network.

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