How Did Norse Rune Magic Work?

The Vikings believed that Norse runes were not just an alphabet; they were also capable of magic. But how did Viking rune magic work?

Jun 4, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

rune magic galdrastafir


The Vikings were not prolific writers and left no extended prose in their runic alphabet, known as Younger Futhark. But writing was considered sacred in the Viking world. They believed that Norse runes were given to them by Odin and that in addition to being able to describe the world, the runes had the power to shape the world through magic.


Many of the great Viking heroes of the Norse sagas were also runemasters who used runes to heal the sick and trick their enemies. Mixed with other magical traditions, runic staves known as Galdrastafir were developed in Iceland in the post-Viking period. The most famous magical runic staves include the Helm of Awe and the Norse Compass.


Mythological Origins of the Norse Runes

Odin’s Self-Sacrifice, illustration by W.G. Collingwood, in Elder or Poetic Edda: Commonly Known as Sæmund’s Edda, translated by Olive Bray, 1908, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


According to Norse mythology, Odin saw the Norns (the Norse fates) at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, using runes to write destiny. Covetous of this knowledge he was determined to learn the secrets of the runes for himself. Run means “secret” or “mysterious” in Old Norse.


Odin willingly hung himself from Yggdrasil pierced by his own spear. He stayed there for nine days and nights, staring into the Well of Destiny. He emerged with knowledge of the runes as both an alphabet for explaining the world, and a magical toolkit that could be used to pull on the strings of fate and shape the world. He shared this knowledge with mankind.

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In another story, it is the god Heimdall, in the guise of the wanderer Rigr, who teaches humanity about the runes. After creating the Viking social order of serfs, craftsmen, and warriors, Heimdall adopted the first warrior as his son. He teaches him many secrets, including knowledge of the runes.


Linguistic Evolution of the Runes

Klyver Stone from Gotland, Sweden showing the complete Elder Futhark alphabet, c. 400 CE, Source: Historiska Museet, Sweden


Linguists have determined that the runic alphabet used by the Vikings was developed from early Italic alphabets. The first Germanic runes were already in use in the first century CE, and the Roman author Tacitus observed their use among Germanic people.


In Scandinavia, a runic alphabet known as Elder Futhark can be dated back to at least 400 CE. A full set of 24 runes is inscribed on the Kylver stone, from Gotland in Sweden, which dates to the early 5th century.


By around 800 CE, Elder Futhark had evolved to better suit the Nordic languages. A new 16-symbol alphabet known as Younger Futhark emerged. It was slightly different in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. While the Vikings were not prolific writers compared to people like the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, around 6,000 runic inscriptions survive from Scandinavia from between 800 and 1200 CE.


By around 1200 CE, due to the spread of Christianity, the runes were displaced by the Latin alphabet. In the 13th century, the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson — who wrote extensively about Norse mythology and Viking history — was using a transliterated Latin script.


Viking Rune Magic

Egill Skallegrimsson, illustration in Icelandic Manuscript AM428 Folio, 2v, 1670-1682, Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland


The Viking belief that the runes could be used to work magic seems to be an old one. Tacitus observed rune divination among the Germanic people, describing runic symbols carved onto sticks and thrown onto the ground to form patterns that could then be read. One Viking poem suggests a similar practice in Scandinavia. It describes wood chips carved with runes being tossed into blood for divination purposes.


But despite the early association with divination and the mythological association with the Norns, the Vikings seem to have used the runes less for prophecy and more for spell casting. Furthermore, rune magic was not associated with the female Seidr witches often called on to divine the future, but rather with learned male warriors.


Runic symbols from Icelandic manuscript LBS 2413 8vo, p. 17v, 1780-1820, Source: National Library of Iceland


Probably the most famous example of rune magic that survives in the sagas comes from the Saga of Egil. Our protagonist Egil meets a farmer whose daughter is very sick. Egil investigates and finds a whalebone with a crudely carved runic symbol in her bed. It turns out that a local boy had placed it there to try and help her, but because the rune was not quite right, it was making her worse. As a runemaster, Egil was able to destroy the rune and replace it with a proper rune to facilitate healing. This story emphasizes not only the power that runemasters were thought to have but also the danger of using runes if you don’t know what you are doing.


Other episodes from the Norse sagas refer to victory runes carved onto weapons, wave runes carved onto the sides of ships and oars, birth runes to assist during childbirth, and life runes to treat wounds and illnesses. But, while these references are evidence for belief in rune magic in the Viking Age, we know very little about what the practice actually looked like.


Icelandic Magical Grimoires

Galdrastafir runes in the Huld Manuscript, IB 383 4to, 25r., Iceland, 1860, Source: The National Library of Iceland


We know much more about the form of rune magic practiced in Iceland in the early modern age. Several grimoires survive and depict magical runic staves, known as Galdrastafir, which stack various runes together to create magical symbols. The manuscripts record the purpose of the symbols — such as killing an enemy’s cattle or guidance through bad weather — and instructions on how to use them.


While the Galdrastafir are often referred to as “Viking” magical symbols, it is important to recognize that these grimoires date from the 15th to the 19th century. They reflect practices 500 years after the end of the Viking age and after the widespread conversion to Christianity.


While there is evidence of old Norse influence in these grimoires, they also clearly borrow from Renaissance Christian occult texts. Norse gods and Christian saints are often mentioned in the same sentence.


Nonetheless, the practice of stacking runes to create Galdrastafir is probably based on earlier Viking practices. There is some evidence from the Scandinavian Migration period, around 400-750 CE, of rune stacking. For example, the Tiwaz rune, associated with the god Tyr, is often seen inscribed repeatedly for no apparent reason. It is possible that the repeated invocation was meant as some kind of spell.


The runic inscription “ALU” also appears often in proto-Viking inscriptions. Many scholars believe that this was not a word per se, but rather a runic combination for protection. So, while none of the surviving Galdrastafir can be linked to the Viking age, the practice of creating them may reflect, in part, magical traditions from the time of the Vikings.


The Famous Galdrastafir

Aegishjalmur and Vegvisir in the Huld Manuscript, IB 383 4to, 26v., Iceland, 1860, Source: The National Library of Iceland


Hundreds of magical runic staves are recorded in the Icelandic grimoires, but some have gained more popularity than others. Probably the most famous runic stave is Aegishjalmur, also known as the “Helm of Awe.” According to the grimoires, it was meant to protect warriors in battle by giving them courage and strength to ensure victory. The manuscript says that the warrior should draw the symbol on their forehead, between their eyes, before going into battle.


Aegishjalmur may be related to older Berserker warrior magic. The berserkers were members of a religious group that communed with the spirit of the bear before battle to take on its strength and ferocity. Many believed that berserkers could not be killed while in their wild state.


The next most famous Galdrastafir is Vegvisir, also known as the Norse Compass. The name of the symbol translates directly as “that which shows the way.” The grimoire says that the user will never lose their way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.


Galdrastafir in the Huld Manuscript, IB 383 4to, 26v. Iceland, 1860, Source: The National Library of Iceland


Draumstafir is a dream rune that promises a person will dream of their greatest desire. This wasn’t just for a good night’s sleep. Dreams were believed to be prophetic, so this was a form of divination. If you can take control of your dream, you may also be able to take control of your destiny. One manuscript says that the symbol should be drawn on silver or white leather on St John’s Night, the Christian name for Midsummer’s Eve, and placed under your pillow while sleeping.


The Holastafur rune is said to open hills. This was probably used for communication with the dead since the Norse believed that the dead moved under a hill. The Nabrokarstafur rune also has a necromantic connection. It was used to make nabrok, which are pants made from the skin of a dead man, capable of producing unlimited money. Lukkastafir were runes for luck and Ottastafur were used to strike fear in the hearts of one’s enemies. Lasabrjotur could break locks, and the Dreprun rune was for killing.


Interestingly, there are few runic staves for healing. One grimoire from around 1800 contains 187 spells, and only two refer to healing, and neither uses a runic symbol. This may relate to Viking ideas about fate and death. They seem to have believed that death was the one destiny that was set in stone.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica holds a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.