Viking runes are not, as you might expect, the equivalent of our alphabet. In fact, they differ from most forms of writing, both ancient and modern, as we shall see in this Viking Runes Homeschool Lesson.
Odin (known also as Woden), one of the principal gods of Norse lore, was essentially a god of war and a protector of heroes. The Vikings portrayed him as an old man with a flowing beard, one eye and a floppy hat (see below). The main reason I include him here is that the Norse people generally associated him with runes. Myth has it that he impaled himself in the heart on the eternal green ash tree, Yggdrasil. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was a giant ash which supported the whole universe. It’s trunk pokes through the centre of the Norse spiritual cosmos. In hanging himself from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, Odin hoped to discover the real meaning of the runes:
Sacredness of the Viking Runes
You would be forgiven for assuming that runes were simply another type of old alphabet, a means of writing and communicating. However, they are so much more than mere letters. Odin believed the runes held a sacred meaning. The Viking people believed that the rune symbols sprang from the Well of Urd. The Well of Urd, according to legend, was the source of all fate. The Norns used these runes to carry the fate to Yggdrasil, to the nine worlds held within its branches. In making this sacrifice, at great risk to himself, Odin hoped to learn of the deep meanings hidden within the runes. This knowledge, he felt, would give him immense wisdom and power.
In view of this, runes were therefore not letters as we would understand but symbols which contained hidden virtues of great potency within themselves of an ethereal and magical nature.
Viking Runes and their Names
The table below shows the rune symbols and their names:
The Vikings passed most of their culture down by word of mouth. However, the Norse peoples and their Germanic relatives had written with runes since before the first century. However, they did not use runes in the same way we use our alphabet, ie for general writing activities. No, runes conveyed so much more than one single letter or word. This meant that runes were, on the whole, used for inscriptions of great importance. Even so, there is evidence that the Norse may have used runes for marking property and even for buying or selling goods. Otherwise, there is no evidence to support them using runes for pleasure writing.
Resources for a Viking Runes Homeschool Lesson
Norse Mythology for Kids contains lots of stories about the Yggdrasil tree as well as the myth of Odin hanging from it. The Trace and Learn Viking Runes book is just a fun addition to your studies, likewise the Viking Designs book.
Viking Rune Notepages
Summing up what we had learnt so far, I wrote some key words on a spider diagram up on the board for the children to use to write a paragraph about runes. This has undeniably been the most successful way to help my son process his thoughts onto paper. I also photocopied some pictures for them to stick on their pages. They also did a bit of Rune deciphering:
Activities for a Viking Runes Homeschool Lesson
The frame the Vikings used to create the sharp, straight lines of the runes is called a stave. The frame is designed in such a way that every letter may be formed using it. The children practiced, just to make sure this was actually the case:
How to Make Your Own Viking Rune Stones
As Odin sought for the inherent meaning within the runes, others used them to initiate communication between the natural and supernatural. The Vikings also used them for spells with the hope of obtaining protection or success in some endeavour. Runes were not penned but were carved into wood, bone or stone. Sometimes the Norse people carved them onto sticks, casting them and deciphering them in an attempt to predict the future. In light of this, we decided to make some lovely round pepples which we painted white and etched some runes on them:
How to Make a Pouch for the Rune stones
We also made some draw string bags to place them in. We made these from a shammy cloth you buy to clean windows. I had wanted to get real leather ones but they were costly so I bought some fake ones from a discount store for 99p each. I devided one into four and the children made holes and threaded the wool. The Vikings would have carried them on a belt.
In the same vein, I brought out the wooden spoons they had attached around their belt for the Anglo- Saxon presentation and, knowing we would be reusing them as part of their Viking presentation, I asked them to monogram them as a way of showing ownership. This is something the Vikings seemed to do with their personal posessions:
Here is a quick look at the Viking costumes we put together which include the rune pouch and the initialed wooden spoon hanging at the belt:
Viking Runes on Tomb Stones
Runes were used for inscriptions which were of great importance such as runestones (memorial stones) to remember ancestors and to mark the graves of local heroes.
Linking this to our Beowulf study, I asked them to write Beowulf’s name in runes and choose a kenning to describe Beowulf and write that down in runes. After they had done this, much to their delight, I plopped down a lump of air drying clay and asked them to make a rune memorial stone for Beowulf using the runes they had written on their paper. Only Thomas remembered that runes read right to left:
Viking Monogram in Runes
I also asked them to write their own Viking monogram (initials). Viking monograms were written above and below each other rather than side to side as they are today. I asked them to write them big. We cut them out and stuck them on a piece of card. They looked at designs from the Viking Designs book (below) and chose some to decorate their monogram with. I had bought some tracing paper and they were excited to learn a new skill as they traced the outlines of their chosen design and then scribbled on the back to transfer it onto paper. They coloured these in and we cut them out and stuck them with their monogram:
Rune Treasure Hunt
Lastly I made a rune treasure hunt. We were at the end of this study and at this time had the plasterers in, so I kept it very simple and only wrote two words. I had managed to get hold of some commercially made rune stones, so this was the treasure. Each child was given a sheet of runes to translate. The first to do so would likely be the first to find the treasure:
I hope you have enjoyed this Viking Runes Homeschool Lesson. Please do share on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. I have many posts on my website about the Vikings which are all contained in this Viking Unit Study bumper post.