Meanings of Anglo-Saxon Runes

March 30, 2010

All the variants of Germanic runic writing are basically kindred and go back to the Common Germanic Elder Futhark. One may be certain that these ancient runes had names. Alas, no rune-master of the Common Germanic period either left us a list of names for the Elder Futhark or explained what these names meant. Therefore modern expositions of the original rune-names and rune-meanings are more or less daring reconstructions. There are several sources that allow us to speculate about the Common Germanic names of runes:

  • Anglo-Saxon runica manuscripta (the earliest late 8th century)
  • Abecedarium Nordmannicum (9th century)
  • Letter-names of the Gothic alphabet (recorded in the 10th century)
  • Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem (end of the 10th century)
  • Norwegian Rune Poem (late 12th century)
  • Icelandic Rune Poem (15th century)

As one may see, the sources are rather late. Each of them is a witness of the contemporary runic tradition as it existed in a certain locality with respect to the number of runes, their meanings and names. Runica mansucripta are insular and continental manuscripts containing listings of Anglo-Saxon runes with more or less accurate roman equivalents and sometimes rune-names. One should remember that the manuscript tradition is somewhat different from the epigraphical one (whether or not they should be treated separately or combined as supplementary is not certain). Abecedarium Nordmannicum is a list of runes with short explanatory notes found in the Codex Sangallensis 878 that probably comes from Fulda. It is written in Old Saxon with traces of Anglo-Saxon influence. Names of Gothic letters are known from ms 795 from Vienna, National Library. The language of these letter-names is notoriously different from that of Ulfila’s translation of the Bible. Many researchers doubt whether this material may be relied upon. Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem from British Library MS Cotton Otho B.x has 29 stanzas of alliterative verse and is a very detailed account of the names and meanings of runes. Its Norwegian and Icelandic counterparts are shorter since they describe the 16-runes Younger Futhark and were recorded considerably later.
Below is the list of Anglo-Saxon runes with brief notes as for their relation to other runic traditions. Each rune is accompanied by a verse from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem in 1915 translation by B. Dickins.

Anglo-Saxon Feoh Rune feoh, ‘wealth’. Both Norwegian and Icelandic Poems give fé, ‘wealth’. Gothic letter-name is fe.
Wealth is a comfort to all men;
yet must every man bestow it freely,
if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.
Anglo-Saxon Ur Rune ur, ‘aurochs’. Norwegian Poem has úr, probably ‘slag’, Icelandic has úr translated by Dickins as ‘shower’. Which Germanic form gave all these attested names is not certain, since some or all of them altered the original meaning of this rune-name. Name of the Gothic letter is uraz.
The aurochs is proud and has great horns;
it is a very savage beast and fights with its horns;
a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.
Anglo-Saxon Thorn Rune ðorn, ‘thorn’. Norwegian and Icelandic Poems have þurs, ‘giant’. Gothic letter-name is thyth. The name was probably changed due to Christian influence.
The thorn is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.
Anglo-Saxon Os Rune os, ‘god’, probably Woden (ON Óðinn), who, according to Norse tradition, was skilled in speech and poetry. Dickins prefers to interpret os in the Runic Poem as the Latin word for ‘mouth,’ which could be a late introduction.
The mouth is the source of all language,
a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise men,
a blessing and a joy to every knight.
Anglo-Saxon Rad Rune rad, probably ‘horse-riding’. Latin glosses for this name are equitatio and iter. Relation with ON reiði, ‘equipment’ is also possible.
Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors
and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads
on the back of a stout horse.
Anglo-Saxon Cen Rune cen. This word is not known in OE beside the listings of runes. Probably means ‘torch’ or specifically ‘torch of pine-wood’ (cf. OHG chien, chen, ken). Latin gloss is facula. In Norwegian and Icelandic tradition this rune is called kaun, ‘ulcer, sore’. Abecedarium Nordmannicum gives chaon. Gothic letter-name is chozma.
The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame;
it always burns where princes sit within.
Anglo-Saxon Gyfu Rune gyfu, ‘gift’. Gothic letter-name is geuua. In Younger Futhark there is no such rune, so Scandinavian Rune Poems have no corresponding name.
Generosity brings credit and honour, which support one’s dignity;
it furnishes help and subsistence
to all broken men who are devoid of aught else.
Anglo-Saxon Wynn Rune wynn, ‘joy’. Gothic letter-name is uuinne. No Scandinavian name.
Bliss he enjoys who knows not suffering, sorrow nor anxiety,
and has prosperity and happiness and a good enough house.
Anglo-Saxon Haegl Rune hægl, ‘hail’. Gothic letter-name is haal. Scandinavian name is hagall.
Hail is the whitest of grain;
it is whirled from the vault of heaven
and is tossed about by gusts of wind
and then it melts into water.
Anglo-Saxon Nyd Rune nyd, ‘need, oppression, affliction’. Corresponding Gothic letter has a strange name nooicz. Scandinavian tradition gives nauðr, ‘constraint’.
Trouble is oppressive to the heart;
yet often it proves a source of help and salvation
to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it betimes.
Anglo-Saxon Is Rune is, ‘ice’. Scandinavian ís, Gothic iiz.
Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.
Anglo-Saxon Ger Rune ger, ‘year’. Scandinavian ár, Gothic gaar.
Summer is a joy to men, when God, the holy King of Heaven,
suffers the earth to bring forth shining fruits
for rich and poor alike.
Anglo-Saxon Eoh Rune eoh, also ih, ‘yew-tree’. There is no such rune in the Younger Futhark, but the R-rune has the cognate name ýr.
The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.
Anglo-Saxon Peorth Rune peorð, meaning unclear. The context of the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem is the only basis for interpretations.
Peorth is a source of recreation and amusement to the great,
where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.
Anglo-Saxon Eolhx Rune eolhx, also iolx, ilx, ilcs, ilix, meaning unclear. In the Anglo-saxon Futhorc this rune was used as the equivalent of the roman x, since OE did not have the sound designated by eolhx in the Elder Futhark. Usually associated with Goth. alhs, ‘sanctuary’, supposed Common Germanic form is *algiz, ‘protection’.
The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
Anglo-Saxon Sigel Rune sigel, ‘sun’. Scandinavian sol, Gothic sugil.
The sun is ever a joy in the hopes of seafarers
when they journey away over the fishes’ bath,
until the courser of the deep bears them to land.
Anglo-Saxon Tir Rune tir, ‘Tiw’. In Common Germanic it was the name of a god, in the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem it is probably a name of a star or constellation named after the god.
Tiw is a guiding star; well does it keep faith with princes;
it is ever on its course over the mists of night and never fails.
Anglo-Saxon Beorc Rune beorc, ‘birch-tree’. Gothic letter-name is bercna. Dickins prefers to translate poplar since Latin populus occasionally glosses beorc.
The poplar bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers,
for it is generated from its leaves.
Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies.
Anglo-Saxon Eh Rune eh, ‘horse’. No Scandinavian name, Gothic eyz.
The horse is a joy to princes in the presence of warriors.
A steed in the pride of its hoofs,
when rich men on horseback bandy words about it;
and it is ever a source of comfort to the restless.
Anglo-Saxon Man Rune man, ‘man’. Scandinavian maðr, Gothic manna.
The joyous man is dear to his kinsmen;
yet every man is doomed to fail his fellow,
since the Lord by his decree will commit the vile carrion to the earth.
Anglo-Saxon Lagu Rune lagu, ‘water’. Scandinavian lögr, Gothic laaz.
The ocean seems interminable to men,
if they venture on the rolling bark
and the waves of the sea terrify them
and the courser of the deep heed not its bridle.
Anglo-Saxon Ing Rune Ing, ‘the hero Ing’. No Scandinavian name. Gothic enguz.
Ing was first seen by men among the East-Danes,
till, followed by his chariot,
he departed eastwards over the waves.
So the Heardingas named the hero.
Anglo-Saxon Ethel Rune eþel, ‘land, landed property’. No Scandinavian name. Gothic utal.
An estate is very dear to every man,
if he can enjoy there in his house
whatever is right and proper in constant prosperity.
Anglo-Saxon Daeg Rune dæg, ‘day’. No Scandinavian name. Gothic daaz.
Day, the glorious light of the Creator, is sent by the Lord;
it is beloved of men, a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor,
and of service to all.
Anglo-Saxon Ac Rune ac, ‘oak-tree’.
The oak fattens the flesh of pigs for the children of men.
Often it traverses the gannet’s bath,
and the ocean proves whether the oak keeps faith
in honourable fashion.
Anglo-Saxon Aesc Rune æsc, ‘ash-tree’.
The ash is exceedingly high and precious to men.
With its sturdy trunk it offers a stubborn resistance,
though attacked by many a man.
Anglo-Saxon Yr Rune yr, meaning unclear.
Yr is a source of joy and honour to every prince and knight;
it looks well on a horse and is a reliable equipment for a journey.
Anglo-Saxon Iar Rune iar, also ior, meaning unclear.
Iar is a river fish and yet it always feeds on land;
it has a fair abode encompassed by water, where it lives in happiness.
Anglo-Saxon Ear Rune ear, probably ‘grave’.
The grave is horrible to every knight,
when the corpse quickly begins to cool
and is laid in the bosom of the dark earth.
Prosperity declines, happiness passes away
and covenants are broken.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz Vine May 24, 2011 at 8:57 am

Are there any runes for numbers?

Reply

Beagnoth September 19, 2011 at 8:06 am

Hi Liz,

As far as I know, Germanic runes did not have numeric meanings attached to them.

Reply

laura January 10, 2014 at 10:01 am

it might be worth a mention that in hebrew the letters are interchangeable with numbers. i am told by an israeli friend that you can ask for “aleph oranges” in a shop and they will understand you want one in number as it is the first letter of the hebrew alphabet. Hence, Feoh would be number 1 and Ur number 2 etc. it has always worked for me anyway.

Reply

TAO June 25, 2011 at 8:18 am

What is the mening when beorc falls reversed and all the others fall blank? Thus my reading this morning.

Reply

donald November 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

Anglo saxon runes have no reversed meanings. They are read the same either way. Alaric Albertson, a very well read and knowledgeable man, also a practicing AS Heathen for over 30 years, has explained why. I cannot remember, but his wisdom is not in question in my eyes. If he or the scholarly world do not know, he says so straight up.

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