The Shapes of the Runes
Les Formes des Runes
Die Formen der Runen
The following is a discussion of the shapes of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark. If we assume that the runes are symbols, their shapes can tell us something about their meaning.
This text is the result of a cooperation between Freya Kä and Eilthireach. We have looked at the runes, meditated on their forms and deeply discussed possible interpretations between us. We hope that our cooperation will show that the runes are universal and can be meaningful for us no matter where we live and what our background is.
With us being located on different continents, it may also be considered as an expression of the OBOD being indeed „An cairdeas mor shaoghal nan Druid“ – a worldwide fellowship of Druids.
The following interpretations reflect our personal viewpoints. We expect that other runesters will come up with different interpretations that are meaningful to them and based on their experience.
„I say to each man and woman, "You are unique and sovereign, the centre of an universe. However right I may be in thinking as I do, you may be equally right in thinking otherwise.“ (The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, chapter 83)
The shape of Fehu reminds us of a stalk of wheat with two ears pointing to the right.
It could also be a symbol for cattle, with two horns pointing right. The name Fehu reminds us of the German word „Vieh“, meaning „cattle“.
In agricultural societies both interpretations amounted to the same meaning: the riches of the land which enable survival, freedom and maybe even a life in relative wealth and happiness. Both grain and animals served as bartering goods and were therefore as good as money, which is why the meaning of Fehu is generally given as „wealth“.
Uruz : Hump/Horns
Uruz reminds us either of the long horns of an aurochs, or of the pronounced hump that this animal has, similar to that of the North American bison. The aurochs has its head lower than its shoulder area. Likewise, Uruz is lower in the front (=right) than in the back (=left).
Zoologists have carried out re-breeding programs for the aurochs, claiming that their animals come very close to their extinct ancestors. This is why we can tell what an aurochs looks like.
The aurochs gives this rune its meaning: pure, raw force and the will of survival.
Thurisaz : Hammer/Thorn
The form of Thurisaz looks like a hammer. Early war hammers had a rather thorn-like appearance for hacking into armour. Since Thurisaz is associated with Thor, the rune is also widely accepted to symbolize Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir.
The shape of this rune could also be interpreted as a thorn, especially as the thorn of a rose sitting on the stem.
Both interpretations symbolize protection: Thor uses Mjöllnir to protect Midgard from the giants, the rose protects itself with its thorns.
Both interpretations also contain several aspects of duality. The rose is a very tender and yet strongly protected flower. It is beautiful, but if we get our hands too close, we get hurt. Thor is usually very kind, but can throw himself into a battle rage when he goes to war against the giants. And if he does, we have order, protection and strength on one side and chaos and uncontrolled forces on the other. Mjöllnir is very strong to a point that it can kill the strongest of giants and then it can shrink to be attached to the neck of Asatruars wearing it for protection and as a symbol of their path.
This duality is also expressed in the shape of the rune, because it has two symmetrical sides.
Ansuz : Odin
Ansuz represents Odin, who among many other things is the god of air, storm, magic, wisdom, initiation, poetry and ecstasy. While Thor battles the giants who represent chaos, Odin personificates the knowledge of the order of the world, the way how the worlds are organized and working.
The form of Ansuz reminds us of Odin with his hair (upper stave) and cloak (lower stave) floating in the wind.
Raido : Wheel
In French, „wheel“ means „roue“, reminding of Raido. The German word „Rad“ points into the same direction.
The invention of the wheel is directly linked to the evolution of mankind. Raido represents travel, progress, adaption, control, and the freedom to go where we want.
The shape of Raido reminds us of a wheel (= the upper half of the rune) and the two „legs“ standing out are the traction bars to which tow animals (horses, oxen, etc.) are attached. The wheel is not round because there are no round forms with the runes to facilitate their carving into hard materials.
Kenaz : Torch
The form of Kenaz reminds us of a blazing torch or fire.
Kenaz shines in the darkness, it symbolizes the torch of the leader, the first of a group to step into the darkness of a tunnel, the torch of a priest who is lighting a ritual fire (a leader on the spiritual planes), the working flame/fire of a craftsman who is inventing a new tool. Kenaz represents the fires of humanity on its quest to improve its knowledge of this world and the others.
Gebo : Exchange/Gift
The shape of Gebo symbolizes perfect balance to each side, with a meeting point in the middle to enable exchange.
In Germanic cultures, gifts were often means to maintain peace: I give a gift and you give a gift back. We are even. There is balance in the way we are treating each other, and this brings peace between us.
The same „system“ works in relation with the gods. We give worship, reference, sacrifice (of study time, for example), the gods give their blessing, insight, protection and guidance. This is why two arms of Gebo point upwards, to the gods, to Asgard, while the other two arms point downwards to Midgard. It is a two-way road, up and down and here and there.
We need to achieve balance in the ways we are dealing with the gods. We cannot always ask for favours, we need to return something in order to keep the balance. Gebo reminds us that we cannot receive without giving.
Gebo can be used to symbolize the four quarters in a ritual. A bindrune of Gebo together with Fehu or Ansuz („Gibu Auja“) works for good luck and prosperity.
Wunjo : A person climbing on a tree
The shape of this rune reminds us of a person climbing on a tree to see what lies further ahead. Wunjo tells us not to take anything for granted. What we hold to be reality today, can quickly become an illusion tomorrow.
Wunjo is a symbol for joy and happiness, it promises a good ending and the realisation of one’s wishes. At the same time, it does not mean happiness forever, but reminds us to be aware of the tasks that lie ahead of us. It also teaches us to be realistic in defining our goals and not to run after foolish dreams.
Another explanation for the shape of Raido is a person lying on his/her back with the legs bent at the knees, ready to receive a lover, defining joy in a rather „physical“ way.
Hagalaz : Ladder
Hagalaz is shaped like a ladder, a bridge or a rail track. Since Hagalaz is connected to Hel, this brings us to a port or pathway between the worlds of Midgard (our world) and Helheim (world of the dead), underlined by the middle stave pointing downwards.
Hagalaz consists of two vertical and one diagonal lines, it can also express the attempt to create a balance between
two aspects. Since Hagalaz is also the rune of the past, it can further be seen as symbol for the passage from past to present and of problems from the past which we haven’t been able to get rid of.
In a wider sense, Hagalaz could stand for a road that brings us from one state of mind to another, from a wordly consciousness to a deeper understanding.
There is another form of Hagalaz formed like a star (*) or a grain of hail, reminding us that the traditional meaning of Hagalaz is „hail“
Hagalaz is the ninth rune in the Elder Futhark. Considering the sacredness of the number nine in all Germanic traditions, this position is especially meaningful. The authors of this text have different opinions on the argumentation of some authors who therefore put Hagalaz in the place of a „mother rune“.
Nauthiz : Fire Making Tool
The word Nauthiz resembles the old German „Noth“ meaning „need“. One variant of Nauthiz is „Nyd“, which is close to the English „need“.
The form of Nauthiz reminds us of two wooden sticks being rubbed against each other so that the friction will create a spark to light a fire, an ancient fire making tool. For the Northern peoples, fire was a life necessity and an important tool for survival.
After Hagalaz representing the past, Nauthiz symbolizes the future. The future is not yet determined, but will be shaped by our decisions that we take under the influence of Nauthiz, of need.
Nauthiz invites us to ask ourselves if we really need something. Are our wishes legitimate or just follies?
Isa : Ice
In Northern countries we sometimes experience a weather phenomenon that is called „ice rain“, when rain falls on a very cold environment and immediately freezes to clear, solid ice. The branches of trees are then coated with ice and this is the image that Isa wants to give us: solid ice.
Ice has a double effect, it preserves and prevents from decay, but it also makes new development and growth impossible. Ice presents a formidable obstacle, whoever has tried to cross a street under ice rain knows that!
In building plans, walls are sometimes drawn as lines and this is another interpretation of Isa: a wall, preventing movement and keeping things in confined spaces. Isa is stagnant, fixed and unchangeable. Isa is the present.
Jera : Wheel of the Year
Jera consists of two Kenaz facing each other and connecting to a wheel. The symbol is very dynamic, making it obvious that the wheel is moving.
The name Jera shows similarities to the English „year“ and the German „Jahr“, therefore the wheel of the year is the main interpretation of Jera. It is a turning wheel where one element pushes another and thus keeps the whole wheel moving. All things in nature are interconnected and work together and the result of this work is permanent change and evolvement, just as one season follows another and the end of the old year brings the beginning of the new. Jera also represents the agricultural cycle and the constant change of our environment and ourselves.
Eihwaz : Yew/SpinalColumn
The name of Eihwaz resembles the German „Eibe“ meaning „yew“ and referring to the Germanic world tree Yggdrasil which is nowadays thought to be a yew tree.
The shape of Eihwaz could symbolize the trunk of a tree with stylized branches (above) and roots (below).
We could also think of Eihwaz representing the human spine. It is no coincidence that Yggdrasil is sometimes referred to as the „cosmic spine“. Just as the world tree allows us to travel between the nine worlds along its trunk, our body uses the nerves along our spine to enable communication between different regions. Therefore, Eihwaz is a rune of spiritual travel and connection.
Pertho : Cauldron
Pertho is often considered a „rune of secrets“, but we were able to make out a very clear symbolism.
If we turn the rune 90° to the left, we have a cauldron standing upright.
Pertho is a symbol for the cauldron of creation, which is the womb of the Earth Mother, from which all things are created and to which all things return. It can also be seen as a symbol of the Well of Mimir, linking the cauldron to the Norns and the weaving of the Web of Wyrd.
The image of the cauldron, along the lines that the famous Gundestrup cauldron seems to suggest, symbolizes the eternal cylce of life, death and rebirth, touching one of the central mysteries of the Old Ways, whatever pagan tradition we may follow. Pertho is another symbol of the Web of Life. In their explorations, both authors found this rune to be especially meaningful.
In the Druidic tradition the cauldron is known as the Cauldron of Annwn.
Another interpretation says that Pertho is a pouch that contains all other Runes, making it a kind of „mother rune“.
Algiz : Tree/Prayer
The shape of this rune instantly reminds us of a tree or a hand, both ancient symbols for protection, which is the traditional meaning of Algiz. One of the older variants of this rune signified „sanctuary“ and reminds us of the myth of how a human couple hides among the roots of Yggdrasil to survive Ragnarök, thus ensuring the survival of the human race.
Another idea would be that of a person praying with both arms raised to the sky. The left and right staves are the arms, the middle one is the head. Some authors refer to Algiz as the „priest rune“. The result of this prayer could be protection. In this case this would also be a two-way rune. The prayer is going up, the blessing coming down. It is all going out from and coming back to the person who is praying. This rune has a concentrating and focussing effect that can be seen from its shape. This rune is collecting, binding, bringing together.
Sowulo : Sun
The traditional meaning of Sowulo is sun. In French, „Soleil“ means sun. Considering this, the form of the rune seems to hint at an effect that you sometimes see out in nature. When a branch or other part of a growing plant hits an obstacle like a wall or such, it will try to grow around. It makes a detour until it is able to grow in the original direction again. The direction in which a plant grows is always towards the sun.
In a wider sense it could also mean: No matter if the sky is grey one day, the sun will always return.
The sun inspires and warms us, she is a source of life. She reminds us that we are meant to rest at night, when she is not visible: we need to be aware of our limits.
Teiwaz : Lance/Arrow
Teiwaz is shaped like a lance or an arrow. It is the rune of Tyr, the god of honour, justice and war.
The form of Teiwaz is totally upright, symbolizing the honourable stance of a person who is committed to fulfill a promise or a treaty, just like Tyr who placed his hand in the mouth of the Fenriswolf to stand to his promise.
Its symmetry is equally balanced towards both sides, symbolizing justice and the missing of prejudice.
Teiwaz speaks to us of honour, justice and bravery. It is also a symbol of masculinity.
Berkana : Breasts
Berkana is associated with the birch, a tree of fertility (German „Birke“), and with Berchta, goddess of the fruitful earth and mother of the land. The meaning also encompasses gestation, creation, growth and birth, including the birth of children.
Considering the meaning of Berkana, the interpretation of the shape of this rune is clear. After Teiwaz as a symbol of men, Berkana symbolizes women.
Ehwaz : Sleipnir/Horse
The shape of Ehwaz reminds us of a horse, or of Sleipnir, the eight legged horse of Odin. Horses were sacred animals in the Germanic tradition.
From another viewpoint, if cut in half in the middle, Ehwaz consists of two Laguz facing each other, thus standing for the connection between two people, like in a professional partnership or in marriage. Ehwaz is able to attract one’s soul mate.
Analogue to this opinion, one could also see in Ehwaz the combination of two wills (man and horse) towards one common good (to get from A to B together).
Ehwaz is the rune of instinct and intuition and symbolizes the ability to deal with diverse situations.
Mannaz : Man
Mannaz is Ehwaz developed, the animal that acquires consciousness of the self and becomes man. Mannaz is not an individual rune, but a rune of group, of society. Its form suggests a couple holding themselves at the waist, advancing in the same rhythm, with the same values, towards the same goal. Mannaz teaches us how to integrate into a group and how to choose well the people whom we trust.
Another interpretation of the shape of Mannaz is based on the stadha of this rune. Mannaz is enacted by crossing both arms in front of you so that your fingers touch your shoulders. This is a very natural and very ancient form of greeting the gods, going back to Egypt. For some authors, Mannaz therefore symbolizes the quest for knowledge or „perfected man“.
Laguz is often associated with the keywords love and life. Its form reminds us of rain falling down, or of a waterfall, water being the source providing both life and love. Laguz stands for our emotions influencing our behaviour.
Another interpretation says that Laguz symbolizes the prow of the famous Viking dragonboat, standing for a journey across the agitated ocean of our emotions, trying to keep the balance.
Ingwaz : DNA/Nucleus
The name of this rune reminds us of Ing (Freyr Ingwi), god of fertility and the land.
Ingwaz is a rune of fertility and genetics, its form resembles one element in a DNA chain. This rune represents all that is stored in our genes, all that we have inherited from our ancestors and are passing on to our descendants. Ingwaz stands for fertility and creativity in a wider sense, including the realms of spirituality and art, for example.
Another interpretation of the shape of Ingwaz says that it looks like a nucleus, a grain, a seed, in which all the information necessary for later growth is already present and stored for a long time, if necessary. There is a saying „in a seed of grain there is the wisdom of the whole universe“, reminding us that the wonder of creation is visible even in the most confined space.
Ingwaz teaches us that sometimes we have to wait until we are able to bring our talents and efforts to fruition.
Dagaz : Loop
Dagaz looks like the number 8 lying on the side, the symbol for „infinite“. Similar to Gebo, Dagaz has a balanced shape with more prominently formed counterweights which meet in the middle.
Dagaz represents beginning and end of all things. One can compare Dagaz to sunrise and sunset, when day and night are in transition and yet in balance. In this sense, Dagaz represents also the union of opposites (day and night) to a whole (life) and thus a very particular kind of equilibrium, an eternal balance of extremes that complement each other.
Othila : Heritage
There is a type of farm building in Denmark with a triangular roof reaching down to the ground that reminds us of the shape of Othila. Othila speaks to us about heritage. After Ingwaz referring to our genetic inheritance, Othila symbolizes our ancestral lands and possessions.
The oriental concept of karma has its equivalent in the Germanic Wyrd, with the difference that Wyrd is influenced also by one’s family and tribe. If the Futhark is an expression of Wyrd, Ingwaz and Othila symbolize how our present and future acts are influenced by acts of the past.
Another opinion is based on a close examination of the shape of Othila: in the upper half, we reckognize Ingwaz, the nucleus. In Othila, this means the treasure of our cultural and spiritual heritage, preserved like in a seed or kernel. This aspect of Othila means preservation, hoard, nemeton, fortress, that which gathers and preserves.
In the lower half of Othila we meet again Gebo, the rune of exchange between people, in a wider sense between different cultures and between gods and mankind.
If we take both concepts together, Ingwaz and Gebo, this could mean that we should strive for a middle path between preservation of the ancient knowledge of our culture and exchange with other cultures and further development of our ways.
According to this interpretation, Othala speaks also of nobility and honour, of the nobility one achieves if one is rooted, at home and sheltered in one’s tradition and the honour that it brings when one is acting accordingly.
We thank you, our readers, for the gift of your attention and wish you all the best for your own exploration of the secrets of the runes!
Eilthireach would like to say a special "Thank you!" to Freya Kä for coming up with the original idea for this project and for providing the rune gifs.
„Runes shalt thou find, and fateful signs,
That the king of singers coloured,
And the mighty gods have made;“
(Hávamál 145, Bellows transl.)
February 16, 2006
Freya Kä & Eilthireach