The Art of Reading Runes cover

The Art of Reading Runes

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Many students in today’s globalized world learn more than one script in order to prepare for the future. However, not too many immerse themselves in writing systems of the past. Things were different for 19th-century school children in Sweden.
Library of Congress Blog: 4 Corners of the World International Collection
(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)


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The Art of Reading Runes

Many students in today’s globalized world learn more than one script in order to prepare for the future. However, not too many immerse themselves in writing systems of the past. Things were different for 19th-century school children in Sweden.

Claës Johan Ljungström’s “Rúna-list, eller Konsten att läsa runor” (Rune list, or the art of reading runes), encouraged a wide range of Swedish students, and others, to understand their past by learning to read runes. This call to recognize the value of the country’s “precious memories” received a good response, not surprising given the numerous — approximately 2,500 — runic inscriptions found in Sweden, more than in any other country.

Claës Johan Ljungström’s “Rúna-list, eller Konsten att läsa runor” (Rune list, or the art of reading runes), Lund, F. Berlings boktryckeri, 1875.

Runes were the script of ancient Northern European tribes and were employed for communication, memorial inscriptions, and religious or magical purposes, such as the use of charms. Runes have been found on wood, metal, and stone, as well as in manuscript form.

It is currently thought that the runic script was derived from the alphabet of the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization of Italy and was used between approximately the 3rd century and the 16th or 17th centuries. Runes were therefore used for a long time concurrently with the Latin alphabet.

The runic script varied over time and from region to region, from Iceland to Germany and Britain to Russia. However, Ljungström’s 1875 booklet managed to simplify the teaching of runes and made them interesting to learn by using easy examples. The following table shows a runic character, its vocal equivalent, and its name. The runic “alphabet” is often called the futhark, after the first seven characters.

Ljungström, p. 1. The Þ character is pronounced like the “th”-sound in “thing,” and the ð character is pronounced like the “th”-sound in “thus.”

Modified characters indicate changes in a sound, as in the above.

Some of the names of the runic characters are easily understood by English speakers, given the linguistic proximity of the Northern European languages and English. For instance, “hagl” is hail, “nauð” is need, “ís” is ice, “ár” is year, “sól” is sun, etc.

Ljungström cautioned the reader that the Swedish language spoken at the time of rune writing resembled 19th century Icelandic more than it did Swedish. Also, the words were often shortened, and the writers took liberties with spelling, or occasionally even wrote from right to left rather than left to right. That being said, it was just a matter of practice to be a fluent rune-reader!

Ljungström, Appendix 1.

Some of Ljungström’s learning exercises provide images of actual rune-stones.

Karar och Kali reste sten denne efter Veurth, fader sin, mycket god kämpe.

[Karar and Kali raised this stone for Veurth, their father, a very good warrior.]

Ljungström, Appendix 2.

Kuli reste sten denne efter sin hustrus bröder Esburn och Juli, mycket goda kämpar, men de vordo döda i landet öster-ut.

[Kuli raised this stone for his wife’s brothers Esburn and Juli, very good fighters, but they were slain in the country to the east.]

Ljungström, Appendix 3.

Seüt satte sten efter Üstin. Gud hjelpe själ hans och Gods moder, helig Krist i himmelriket.

[Seüt placed the stone for Üstin. God help his soul and God’s mother, holy Christ in heaven.]

Ljungström, Appendix 4.

Uthakrim satte sten denne efter Oskil, son…

[Uthakrim placed this stone for Oskil, son…]

There you have it. No need to worry about learning to read runes — any schoolchild can do it!