Modern typography has developed almost entirely around the Roman alphabet; most Western designers take it for granted that they’ll never have to bother deciphering the machinations of another language, let alone a whole new set of typographic characters. But for Icelandic designer Siggi Odds, the Old Norse characters known as Elder Futhark have become a preoccupation in his personal explorations of late, and he’s embarked on Rúnamerki (Runemarks), a project slated for exhibition during Design March, to bring the long lost language into the modern age.
“The idea for the project came when I was researching runes and experimenting with creating some of my own with letterforms from existing typefaces,” says Odds. “It occurred to me that it was really odd that neither I, nor anyone I know, could read or write runes. Futhark runes were used in Iceland from the first century AD until Christianity took over in Scandinavia, and with it came the Roman alphabet. Runes lingered in some small form until the 19th century—ornamental mainly—but after that they fell almost entirely out of use.”
Odds’ relationship with Futhark began a decade ago. After graduating from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts he went to Istanbul, where he stumbled across an unusual set of marks in the Hagia Sophia. “There is a famous inscription on the upper balcony that says something to the effect of ‘Halfdan was here’ or ‘Halfdan wrote this.’ It’s from the 9th century, around the time Iceland was settled. Halfdan is a Norse name, and seeing this graffiti halfway around the world left an impression on me, but I also felt lame not knowing how to read it.”
Archeologists debate the message and origins of this graffiti, but it’s thought to have been carved by one of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of Viking and Anglo Saxon members of the Byzantine army who served as personal bodyguards to the emperors. Their alphabet, the Elder Futhark, is the oldest of the runic alphabets.
“It all comes back to the first century AD,” says Odds, “which is when all of these alphabets came about. The Roman alphabet, Cyrillic, and Greek all come from this runic background; they all look pretty much the same and have this runic form. But then they went in different directions, and of course Latin became ubiquitous because of Christianity.”
Conversely, Futhark was an inherently pagan language, inextricably bound to Norse mythology, with certain letters corresponding directly to the gods. Týr, for example, is a rune that roughly equates to the Latin T, but is also the name of a one-armed god associated with wisdom and heroic glory—the son of either Odin or Hymir—to whom mead, meat, and blood was traditionally sacrificed. He’s also the deity after which Tuesday is originally named.
It wasn’t just the Viking tales and Norse mythology that led Odds to experiment with Elder Futhark. The alphabet correlates relatively well with its Roman Icelandic counterpart, with 24 instead of 26 letters. “I thought of the project as educational in a sense,” says Odds, “first just for me to learn how to write and create functional runes, and then to be able to present them to people in a way that they understand the meaning.”
To this end Odds has taken some of Iceland’s most recognizable brands and translated their logos into Elder Futhark, turning these ancient letterforms into modern typographic styles so that viewers (Icelandic ones at least) will immediately understand their meaning. The national airline, best budget supermarket, and even the thriving cod liver oil industry have all been given the runic treatment.
“Presenting them as some of the most well-known logos in the history of Iceland is a way to both give people a chance to easily decipher the runes, and to present a kind of alternate reality,” says Odds, “a sort of unlikely instance in the multiverse where we never stopped using runes, but everything else stayed the same.”
Is this thousand-year backward step in Icelandic linguistic history some kind of politically motivated move?
“No, no, no,” says Odds. “I don’t want to be political. This is just a ‘what-if’ project for me. What if this was still in general knowledge and use? It doesn’t have any political significance for me, but rather just part of our national history. If I were to call it political it could be misread as nationalistic. Totally not my agenda. It’s just a piece of design archaeology, and for me it was just fun learning about the genealogy of type.”