Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Symbolic Meanings of the “Rune Poems”

Symbolic Meanings of the “Rune Poems”

John Anderson

The word “rune” describes the letters of a variety of related Germanic alphabets, including the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Viking-Age “younger futhark.” Such letters have a reputation for playing a magical, divinatory, or at least symbolic role in these cultures. One of the best-known sources of symbolic information on runes are the Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian, and Icelandic “Rune Poems,” dating from the eighth to fifteenth centuries. To what extent do these poems represent traditional, pre-Christian beliefs about runes? This paper uses ethnopoetic analysis in the tradition of Dell Hymes and Joel Sherzer to understand the cultural context of the Rune Poems, and employs the comparative method to compare the Rune Poems to each other and to older related texts, such as the mythological poems of the Elder Edda. Similarities found in this way suggest that there was a set of common traditions that the rune poets drew from, rather than an original rune poem that inspired all three, which attributed sets of commonly agreed meanings to each of the runes individually. The practice of making rune poems likely began as an instructional tool for teaching beginners the sounds, shapes, names, or symbolism of the runes. Future research into this topic may inquire after the meanings of the symbols, riddles, and proverbs contained in the individual stanzas of the Rune Poems.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This topic is fascinating, and your abstract is very well written- it made me wonder if pre-Christian traditions also believed runes to have magical / divinatory powers? Or if they were simply a tradition-based alphabet? Also, do you draw your hypothesis that rune poems likely came from instructional settings based upon their common traditional roots? I would guess that making a poem with encoded proverbs or riddles would require a strong grasp of both writing runes and their implied symbolism.

    Comment by Kelsey Jorgensen | April 6, 2017 | Reply

  2. This is super cool, I’m definitely interested in checking out your paper whenever you feel satisfied with it. The indoctrination of Christianity in the Nordic regions is something I’m fascinated by, and your use of an ethnopoetic analysis sounds crazy interesting.

    Also, I’ve got a book that has some runic kennings & their meanings and I’d love to share them with you and get your thoughts.

    Comment by Travis Kruso | April 8, 2017 | Reply

  3. Hey John! Your paper sounds super fascinating. I wonder if Rune poems have any parallels to other religious or symbolic writings from the bible, as well as other sources such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Do they share myth stories, such as that of a flood, or the end of time? Also, how cool that the letters themselves and not just the combinations of letters (words) have symbolic meanings.

    Comment by Stacy Markel | April 8, 2017 | Reply

  4. This paper topic sounds incredibly interesting. As someone who is not familiar with “Rune Poems” or rune alphabets, I’m wondering if it would be possible to have a brief sentence summarizing what is already known about these poems from Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian, and Icelandic traditions in terms of their representation of traditional, pre-Christian beliefs about runes? It would be nice to know if any previous scholarship has approached this topic or similar topics. On a related note, your abstract is very clear and easy to understand for those who do not have previous knowledge of this subject. Great Job, John!

    Comment by Kailey McAlpin | April 17, 2017 | Reply

  5. Very cool stuff John, I’d love to read it when you’re done with it! Just curious, but have you ever heard of a musical group by the name of Wardruna? They’re Norwegian and super interesting because the main lyricist and composer, Einar Selvik, is a self professed “Rune Nerd” who spent 7 years writing his first album. Every composition and its respective poetic lyric represents a different Rune. They even use traditional instruments! (supposedly)

    Anyways, in your comparative analysis, did you find any surprising similarities or differences between the Norwegian, Anglo-Saxon, or Icelandic variations?

    Comment by Luke Pickrahn | April 27, 2017 | Reply

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