Rune poem

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Rune poems are poems that list the letters of runic alphabets while providing an explanatory poetic stanza for each letter. Three different poems have been preserved: the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, the Norwegian Rune Poem, and the Icelandic Rune Poem.

The Icelandic and Norwegian poems list 16 Younger Futhark runes, while the Anglo Saxon Rune Poem lists 29 Anglo-Saxon runes.[citation needed] Each poem differs in poetic verse, but they contain numerous parallels between one another. Further, the poems provide references to figures from Norse paganism and Anglo-Saxon paganism, the latter included alongside Christian references. A list of rune names is also recorded in the Abecedarium Nordmannicum, a 9th-century manuscript, but whether this can be called a poem or not is a matter of some debate.

The rune poems have been theorized as having been mnemonic devices that allowed the user to remember the order and names of each letter of the alphabet and may have been a catalog of important cultural information, memorably arranged; comparable with the Old English sayings, Gnomic poetry, and Old Norse poetry of wisdom and learning.[1]

Rune poems[edit]


The Old English Rune Poem as recorded was likely composed in the 7th century[2] and was preserved in the 10th-century manuscript Cotton Otho B.x, fol. 165a – 165b, housed at the Cotton library in London, England. In 1731, the manuscript was lost with numerous other manuscripts in a fire at the Cotton library.[3] However, the poem had been copied by George Hickes in 1705 and his copy has formed the basis of all later editions of the poems.[3]

George Hickes' record of the poem may deviate from the original manuscript.[3] Hickes recorded the poem in prose, divided the prose into 29 stanzas, and placed a copper plate engraved with runic characters on the left-hand margin so that each rune stands immediately in front of the stanza where it belongs.[3] For five of the runes (wen, hægl, nyd, eoh, and Ing) Hickes gives variant forms and two more runes are given at the foot of the column; cweorð and an unnamed rune (calc) which are not handled in the poem itself.[3] A second copper plate appears across the foot of the page and contains two more runes: stan and gar.[3]

Van Kirk Dobbie states that this apparatus is not likely to have been present in the original text of the Cotton manuscript and states that it's possible that the original Anglo-Saxon rune poem manuscript would have appeared similar in arrangement of runes and texts to that of the Norwegian and Icelandic rune poems.[3]


The Norwegian Rune Poem was preserved in a 17th-century copy of a destroyed 13th-century manuscript.[4] The Norwegian Rune Poem is preserved in skaldic metre, featuring the first line exhibiting a "(rune name)(copula) X" pattern, followed by a second rhyming line providing information somehow relating to its subject.[5]


The Icelandic Rune Poem is recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, the oldest of the four dating from the late 15th century.[4] The Icelandic Rune Poem has been called the most systemized of the rune poems (including the Abecedarium Nordmannicum) and has been compared to the ljóðaháttr verse form.[5][6]

Example (Icelandic Rune Poem)[edit]

Here is an example of a rune poem with English translation side-by-side from Dickins:[7]

# rune name Old Icelandic English

Fé er frænda róg
  ok flæðar viti
  ok grafseiðs gata

Wealth = source of discord among kinsmen
  and fire of the sea
  and path of the serpent.

2 Úr

Úr er skýja grátr
  ok skára þverrir
  ok hirðis hatr.

Shower = lamentation of the clouds
  and ruin of the hay-harvest
  and abomination of the shepherd.

3 Þurs

Þurs er kvenna kvöl
  ok kletta búi
  ok varðrúnar verr.

Giant = torture of women
  and cliff-dweller
  and husband of a giantess.

4 Óss

Óss er algingautr
  ok ásgarðs jöfurr,
  ok valhallar vísi.

God = aged Gautr
  and prince of Ásgarðr
  and lord of Vallhalla.

5 Reið

Reið er sitjandi sæla
  ok snúðig ferð
  ok jórs erfiði.

Riding = joy of the horsemen
  and speedy journey
  and toil of the steed.

6 Kaun

Kaun er barna böl
  ok bardaga [för]
  ok holdfúa hús.

Ulcer = disease fatal to children
  and painful spot
  and abode of mortification.

7 Hagall

Hagall er kaldakorn
  ok krapadrífa
  ok snáka sótt.

Hail = cold grain
  and shower of sleet
  and sickness of serpents.

8 Nauð

Nauð er Þýjar þrá
  ok þungr kostr
  ok vássamlig verk.

Constraint = grief of the bond-maid
  and state of oppression
  and toilsome work.

9 Íss

Íss er árbörkr
  ok unnar þak
  ok feigra manna fár.

Ice = bark of rivers
  and roof of the wave
  and destruction of the doomed.

10 Ár

Ár er gumna góði
  ok gott sumar
  algróinn akr.

Plenty = boon to men
  and good summer
  and thriving crops.

11 Sól

Sól er skýja skjöldr
  ok skínandi röðull
  ok ísa aldrtregi.

Sun = shield of the clouds
  and shining ray
  and destroyer of ice.

12 Týr

Týr er einhendr áss
  ok ulfs leifar
  ok hofa hilmir.

Týr = god with one hand
  and leavings of the wolf
  and prince of temples.

13 Bjarkan

Bjarkan er laufgat lim
  ok lítit tré
  ok ungsamligr viðr.

Birch = leafy twig
  and little tree
  and fresh young shrub.

14 Maðr

Maðr er manns gaman
  ok moldar auki
  ok skipa skreytir.

Man = delight of man
  and augmentation of the earth
  and adorner of ships.

15 Lögr

Lögr er vellanda vatn
  ok viðr ketill
  ok glömmungr grund.

Water = eddying stream
  and broad geysir
  and land of the fish.

16 Ýr

Ýr er bendr bogi
  ok brotgjarnt járn
  ok fífu fárbauti.

Yew = bent bow
  and brittle iron
  and giant of the arrow.

Abecedarium Nordmannicum[edit]

Recorded in the 9th century, the Abecedarium Nordmannicum is the earliest known catalog of Norse rune names, though it does not contain definitions, is partly in Continental Germanic and also contains an amount of distinctive Anglo-Saxon rune types.[8] The text is recorded in Codex Sangallensis 878,[5] kept in the St. Gallen abbey, and may originate from Fulda, Germany.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lapidge (2007:25–26).
  2. ^ Van Kirk Dobbie (1965:XLIX).
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Van Kirk Dobbie (1965:XLVI).
  4. ^ a b Lapidge (2007:25).
  5. ^ a b c Acker (1998:52–53).
  6. ^ Nordic Medieval Runes
  7. ^ Dickins (1915:28–33)
  8. ^ Page (1999:660).


  • Acker, Paul (1998). Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. Routledge. ISBN 0-8153-3102-9
  • Dickins, Bruce (1915). Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples. Cambridge University Press. (Internet Archive)
  • Lapidge, Michael (Editor) (2007). Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-03843-X
  • Page, Raymond Ian (1999). An Introduction to English Runes. Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-946-X
  • Van Kirk Dobbie, Elliott (1942). The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. Columbia University Press ISBN 0-231-08770-5
  • The Rune Poem (Old English), ed. and tr. T.A. Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English. Cambridge, 1976: 80–5.
  • Foys, Martin et al. (eds.) Old English Poetry in Facsimile Project, (Madison, WI: Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, 2019-). Online edition annotated and linked to digital facsimile, with a modern translation.

External links[edit]

  • Rune Poems from "Runic and Heroic Poems" by Bruce Dickins