Words of Power – Writing.

Elder Futhark

In almost every “civilized” culture across the ages, one of the first tests to tell a barbarian from a civilized man is nicely depicted by a dialogue from a popular movie “13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas:
Bulvaj (the Norse jarl speaks to the Arab “Ebn”): Can you draw sounds?
Ebn: Draw sounds? You mean, to write?

The movie, however quite nice to watch, is full of historical lies and rubbish, including the one above, but shows the problem – the truth is Norse and Slavs could write. Moreover, the writing was very important and words were presumed to have magical or even godly power.

Nordic and Anglo-Saxon cultures are known for usage of the most popular “forgotten” alphabet today – runes. It’s visible quite often these days -used it contemporary books (J.R.R. Tolkien is the best example), games and movies. The word “rune” or “runo” mean “to whisper”, “to speak” or, in some Baltic Eesti/Borussian languages (like Lithuanian) it meant “to carve”. The origin of the runes is quite simple – Germanic peoples learned it somehow from Italic peoples (e.g. Etruscans) and modified for their own needs.The three best-known runic alphabets are :

  1. the Elder Futhark(around AD 150–800, named after the first letters in the alphabet),
  2. the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (AD 400–1100, it’s not a misspelling – in this version O replaces A due to some pronounciation changes in Anglo-Saxon speech),
  3. the Younger Futhark (AD 800–1100). The Younger Futhark isdivided further into:
  • the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they also were used in Norway and Sweden)
  • short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they also were used in Denmark)
  • stavesyle or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes).


As said, Norse believed that written words have power. “Havamal” poem from “Poetic Edda” shows Odin saying:

Þat kann ek it tolfta,
ef ek sé á tré uppi
váfa virgilná,:
svá ek ríst ok í rúnum fák,
at sá gengr gumi
ok mælir við mik.

I know a twelfth one if I see,
up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
And talks with me.

Every rune was to have it’s own power and combined in words they produced spells in beliefs of the Norse.

Brynhild, the valkyrie from Sigrdrífumál and Volsungasaga, apart from being a shieldmaiden, is a mistress of the lore and runes. She tells of various runes:

  • “victory runes” to be carved on the sword – “some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice.”,
  • ølrunar “Ale-runes” – a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife;naudiz is to be marked on one’s fingernails, and laukaz on the cup
  • biargrunar “birth-runes”  a spell to facilitate childbirth,
  • brimrunar “wave-runes”  a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder,
  • limrunar “branch-runes”  a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees “with boughs to the eastward bent”,
  • malrunar “speech-runes” the stanza is corrupt, but apparently referred to a spell to improve one’s rhetorical ability at the thing,
  • hugrunar “thought-runes” the stanza is incomplete, but clearly discussed a spell to improve one’s wit

Biór fori ec þer /brynþings apaldr!
magni blandinn / oc megintíri;
fullr er hann lioþa / oc licnstafa,
godra galdra / oc gamanruna.

“Beer I bring thee, tree of battle,
Mingled of strength and mighty fame;
Charms it holds and healing signs,
Spells full good, and gladness-runes.”

There’s a number of runic stones found in areas inhabited by the Norse. The stone  runes have various purpose: spells (like the love spell from Bergen: “Love me as you love yourself!”, “My love, kiss me!”), tell of the important events, or, like on the walls of Roman cities, are …graffitis (“Smidur made love with Vigdis of the Snældubeinar”) .

What about Slavs? Well, they had they own alphabet too, but much younger than runes. The very first alphabet – Glagolitic (glagolъ – “a word” , “a letter”) alphabet is attributed to Saints Ciril and Methodius, Byzantine missionaries to Slavs, who created a transcription for  Old Church Slavonic speech, though some scholars say it was developed on basis of the earlier Slavonic alphabet, which is partially confirmed by analysis of bishop Thietmar’s chronicle and description of a pagan slavonic temple. It was created to spread the word of God, so the very creation and the very purpose of the alphabet had the sacred power in it, as the Bible has in eyes of fresh converts – Slavs taught the Glagolica were often taught the laws and obligations of the new faith at the same time, so the words had divine power indeed.

There are various artifacts of the transcript found on stone tablets and wooden planks.

Croatian glagolitic stone tablet.

Głagolica (Glagolitic alphabet)