The Younger Futhark - The Runic Tradition—An Overview

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

The Younger Futhark
The Runic Tradition—An Overview

The system of twenty-four runes, as seen in table 1.1, was used in ancient times from the dim beginnings of the runic tradition to about 750 CE in both Scandinavia and Germany. At that time, there was a smooth and regular transition to the sixteen-rune system of the Younger Futhark in Scandinavia. In this table, as in those for all the other systems, the numerical value, name, phonetic value, shape, the exoteric meaning (the literal translation of the name), and the esoteric meaning (the underlying significance of that name in the runic context) are given.

The sixteen-rune system of the Younger Futhark was historically in use throughout the Viking Age, which lasted from about 800 to 1100 CE. Some knowledge of this system was preserved in secret throughout the Christianized medieval period, even though cultural forces attempted to destroy the runic tradition in its true form. The Younger Futhark is an unusual and conscious reformation of the Older Futhark system. It is highly unusual that at a time when the Scandinavian dialects were becoming linguistically more complex and developing more sounds, the writing system used to represent this language was simplified by reducing the number of signs available to represent those sounds. This is almost unheard of in the history of alphabets. What made this possible was the fact that the runes were not being reformed by or for those who were interested in maintaining a utilitarian script. The rune-row was reformed by men who were more akin to priests (the runemasters) than to scribes or grammarians. The signs were reduced in number, according to an orderly method in which the symbolic and phonological values of the runes that were eliminated were absorbed by the remaining ones. Thus, a streamlined system was created.

The ætt-system of internal divisions in the futhark became even more vigorously represented in the Viking Age. For example, the use of rune-codes based on the ættir was widespread during this period. It should be noted, however, that each Younger Futhark ætt begins with the same stave as in the older period. This is evidence for the importance of the system to the runemasters. It was imperative to maintain the tripartite division of the futhark, and that each of the ættir began with the same rune as they had in the older period.


The motives behind the systematic and sweeping reform of the runic system remain a matter of scholarly controversy. Some believe it was done to shield runic literacy from unqualified readers; that is, the inscriptions were becoming too legible to the uninitiated, so a new system was devised that would further obfuscate the inscriptions. This reformed futhark of runestaves would have then functioned as a kind of code unto itself, serving to preserve and promote the profession of runecarving. If this was the motive, it seems to have been effective in the sense that runic inscriptions became more prevalent in Scandinavia than they ever had been before—at least on large and permanent monuments. Any theory involving linguistic factors appears to be wishful thinking, since the reform runs entirely counter to linguistic utility. The Norse dialects were becoming more phonetically complex at the time, so the reduction of signs would have been counterproductive if there had been a goal to better represent these sounds.