Runes – ᚱᚢᚾᛟ

Runes – ᚱᚢᚾᛟ

Runes (Proto-Norse: ᚱᚢᚾᛟ (runo), Old Norse: rún) are the letters in a set of related alphabets known as runic alphabets, which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialised purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark or fuþark (derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the names of those six letters).

Children being taught a runic alphabet (1555), from Olaus Magnus’s Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

Runology is the study of the runic alphabets, runic inscriptions, runestones, and their history. Runology forms a specialised branch of Germanic linguistics.

The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 AD. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianisation, by approximately 700 AD in central Europe and 1100 AD in northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in northern Europe. Until the early 20th century, runes were used in rural Sweden for decorative purposes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars.

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD). The Younger Futhark is divided further into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden); short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark); and the stavlösa or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Medieval runes (1100–1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500–1800 AD).

Historically, the runic alphabet is a derivation of the Old Italic scripts of antiquity, with the addition of some innovations. Which variant of the Old Italic family in particular gave rise to the runes is uncertain. Suggestions include Raetic, Venetic, Etruscan, or Old Latin as candidates. At the time, all of these scripts had the same angular letter shapes suited for epigraphy, which would become characteristic of the runes.

The process of transmission of the script is unknown. The oldest inscriptions are found in Denmark and northern Germany, not near Italy. A “West Germanic hypothesis” suggests transmission via Elbe Germanic groups, while a “Gothic hypothesis” presumes transmission via East Germanic expansion.

An inscription using cipher runes, the Elder Futhark, and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th-century Rök Runestone in Sweden

History and use

The runes were in use among the Germanic peoples from the 1st or 2nd century AD. This period corresponds to the late Common Germanic stage linguistically, with a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries: North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic.

No distinction is made in surviving runic inscriptions between long and short vowels, although such a distinction was certainly present phonologically in the spoken languages of the time. Similarly, there are no signs for labiovelars in the Elder Futhark (such signs were introduced in both the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Gothic alphabet as variants of p; see peorð.)

The term runes is used to distinguish these symbols from Latin and Greek letters. It is attested on a 6th-century Alamannic runestaff as runa and possibly as runo on the 4th-century Einang stone. The name comes from the Germanic root run- (Gothic runa), meaning “secret” or “whisper”. In Old Irish Gaelic, the word rún means “mystery,” “secret,” “intention” or “affectionate love.” Similarly in Welsh and Old English, the word rhin and rūn respectively means “mystery”, “secret”, “secret writing”, or sometimes in the extreme sense of the word, “miracle” (gwyrth). Ogham is a Celtic script, similarly carved in the Norse manner. The root run- can also be found in the Baltic languages, meaning “speech”. In Lithuanian, runoti means both “to cut (with a knife)” and “to speak”. According to another theory, the Germanic root comes from the Indoeuropean root *reuə- “dig”. The Finnish term for rune, riimukirjain, means “scratched letter”. The Finnish word runo means “poem” and comes from the same source as the English word “rune”; it is a very old loan of the Proto-Germanic *rūnō (“letter, literature, secret”).

A Younger Futhark inscription on the 12th-century Vaksala Runestone in Sweden


Early inscriptions

Runic inscriptions from the 400-year period 150 to 550 AD are described as “Period I”. These inscriptions are generally in Elder Futhark, but the set of letter shapes and bindrunes employed is far from standardized. Notably the j, s, and ŋ runes undergo considerable modifications, while others, such as p and ï, remain unattested altogether prior to the first full futhark row on the Kylver Stone (c. 400 AD).

Artifacts such as spear heads or shield mounts have been found that bear runic marking that may be dated to 200 AD, as evidenced by artifacts found across northern Europe in Schleswig (North Germany), Fyn, Sjælland, Jylland (Denmark), and Skåne (Sweden). Earlier – but less reliable – artifacts have been found in Meldorf, Süderdithmarschen, northern Germany; these include brooches and combs found in graves, most notably the Meldorf fibula, and are supposed to have the earliest markings resembling runic inscriptions.

Theories of the existence of separate Gothic runes have been advanced, even identifying them as the original alphabet from which the Futhark were derived, but these have little support in archaeological findings (mainly the spearhead of Kovel, with its right-to-left inscription, its T-shaped tiwaz, and its rectangular dagaz). If there ever were genuinely Gothic runes, they were soon replaced by the Gothic alphabet. The letters of the Gothic alphabet, however, as given by the Alcuin manuscript (9th century), are obviously related to the names of the Futhark. The names are clearly Gothic, but it is impossible to say whether they are as old as the letters themselves. A handful of Elder Futhark inscriptions were found in Gothic territory, such as the 3rd- to 5th-century Ring of Pietroassa.

The Encyclopædia Britannica even suggests the original development of the runes may have been due to the Goths.

A bracteate (G 205) from approximately AD 400 that features the charm word alu with a depiction of a stylized male head, a horse, and a swastika, a common motif on bracteates

Magical or divinatory use

Main article: Runic magic

The stanza 157 of Hávamál attribute to runes the power to bring that which is dead back to life. In this stanza, Odin recounts a spell:

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.

The earliest runic inscriptions found on artifacts give the name of either the craftsman or the proprietor, or sometimes, remain a linguistic mystery. Due to this, it is possible that the early runes were not used so much as a simple writing system, but rather as magical signs to be used for charms. Although some say the runes were used for divination, there is no direct evidence to suggest they were ever used in this way. The name rune itself, taken to mean “secret, something hidden”, seems to indicate that knowledge of the runes was originally considered esoteric, or restricted to an elite. The 6th-century Björketorp Runestone warns in Proto-Norse using the word rune in both senses:

Haidzruno runu, falahak haidera, ginnarunaz. Arageu haeramalausz uti az. Weladaude, sa’z þat barutz. Uþarba spa.

I, master of the runes(?) conceal here runes of power. Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who breaks this (monument). I prophesy destruction / prophecy of destruction.

The same curse and use of the word, rune, also is found on the Stentoften Runestone. There also are some inscriptions suggesting a medieval belief in the magical significance of runes, such as the Franks Casket (AD 700) panel.

Charm words, such as auja, laþu, laukaʀ, and most commonly, alu, appear on a number of Migration period Elder Futhark inscriptions as well as variants and abbreviations of them. Much speculation and study has been produced on the potential meaning of these inscriptions. Rhyming groups appear on some early bracteates that also may be magical in purpose, such as salusalu and luwatuwa. Further, an inscription on the Gummarp Runestone (500-700 AD) gives a cryptic inscription describing the use of three runic letters followed by the Elder Futhark f-rune written three times in succession.

Nevertheless, it has proven difficult to find unambiguous traces of runic “oracles”: although Norse literature is full of references to runes, it nowhere contains specific instructions on divination. There are at least three sources on divination with rather vague descriptions that may, or may not, refer to runes: Tacitus’s 1st-century Germania, Snorri Sturluson‘s 13th-century Ynglinga saga, and Rimbert’s 9th-century Vita Ansgari.

The first source, Tacitus’s Germania, describes “signs” chosen in groups of three and cut from “a nut-bearing tree,” although the runes do not seem to have been in use at the time of Tacitus’ writings. A second source is the Ynglinga saga, where Granmar, the king of Södermanland, goes to Uppsala for the blót. There, the “chips” fell in a way that said that he would not live long (Féll honum þá svo spánn sem hann mundi eigi lengi lifa). These “chips,” however, are easily explainable as a blótspánn (sacrificial chip), which was “marked, possibly with sacrificial blood, shaken, and thrown down like dice, and their positive or negative significance then decided.”

The third source is Rimbert’s Vita Ansgari, where there are three accounts of what some believe to be the use of runes for divination, but Rimbert calls it “drawing lots”. One of these accounts is the description of how a renegade Swedish king, Anund Uppsale, first brings a Danish fleet to Birka, but then changes his mind and asks the Danes to “draw lots”. According to the story, this “drawing of lots” was quite informative, telling them that attacking Birka would bring bad luck and that they should attack a Slavic town instead. The tool in the “drawing of lots,” however, is easily explainable as a hlautlein (lot-twig), which according to Foote and Wilson would be used in the same manner as a blótspánn.

The lack of extensive knowledge on historical use of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the reconstructed names of the runes and additional outside influence.

A recent study of runic magic suggests that runes were used to create magical objects such as amulets, but not in a way that would indicate that runic writing was any more inherently magical, than were other writing systems such as Latin or Greek.

An illustration of the Gummarp Runestone (500-700 AD) from Blekinge, Sweden
Closeup of the runic inscription found on the 6th- or 7th-century Björketorp Runestone located in Blekinge, Sweden

Runes in Eddic lore

In Norse Religion, the runic alphabet is attested to a divine origin (Old Norse: reginkunnr). This is attested as early as on the Noleby Runestone from approximately 600 AD that reads Runo fahi raginakundo toj[e’k]a…, meaning “I prepare the suitable divine rune…” and in an attestation from the 9th century on the Sparlösa Runestone, which reads Ok rað runaʀ þaʀ rægi[n]kundu, meaning “And interpret the runes of divine origin”. More notably, in the Poetic Edda poem Hávamál, Stanza 80, the runes also are described as reginkunnr:

Þat er þá reynt,
er þú að rúnum spyrr
inum reginkunnum,
þeim er gerðu ginnregin
ok fáði fimbulþulr,
þá hefir hann bazt, ef hann þegir.

That is now proved,
what you asked of the runes,
of the potent famous ones,
which the great gods made,
and the mighty sage stained,
that it is best for him if he stays silent.

The poem Hávamál explains that the originator of the runes was the major deity, Odin. Stanza 138 describes how Odin received the runes through self-sacrifice:

Veit ek at ek hekk vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr ok gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.

In stanza 139, Odin continues:

Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ek niþr,
nam ek vp rvnar,
opandi nam,
fell ek aptr þaðan.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.

This passage has been interpreted as a mythical representation of shamanic initial rituals in which the initiate must undergo a physical trial in order to receive mystic wisdom.

In the Poetic Edda poem Rígsþula another origin is related of how the runic alphabet became known to humans. The poem relates how Ríg, identified as Heimdall in the introduction, sired three sons (Thrall (slave), Churl (freeman), and Jarl (noble)) by human women. These sons became the ancestors of the three classes of humans indicated by their names. When Jarl reached an age when he began to handle weapons and show other signs of nobility, Rig returned and, having claimed him as a son, taught him the runes. In 1555, the exiled Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus recorded a tradition that a man named Kettil Runske had stolen three rune staffs from Odin and learned the runes and their magic..

Runic alphabets

Elder Futhark (2nd to 8th centuries

Main article: Elder Futhark

Detail of the Elder Futhark inscription on a replica of one of the 5th-century AD Golden Horns of Gallehus found in Denmark

The Elder Futhark, used for writing Proto-Norse, consists of 24 runes that often are arranged in three groups of eight; each group is referred to as an Ætt. The earliest known sequential listing of the full set of 24 runes dates to approximately CE 400 and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland, Sweden.

Most probably each rune had a name, chosen to represent the sound of the rune itself. The names are, however, not directly attested for the Elder Futhark themselves. Reconstructed names in Proto-Germanic have been produced, based on the names given for the runes in the later alphabets attested in the rune poems and the linked names of the letters of the Gothic alphabet. The letter /a/ was named from the runic letter Runic letter ansuz.svg called Ansuz. An asterisk before the rune names means that they are unattested reconstructions. The 24 Elder Futhark runes are:

Rune Transliteration Proto-Germanic name Meaning
f f /f/ *fehu “wealth, cattle”
u u /u(ː)/ ?*ūruz “aurochs” (or *ûram “water/slag”?)
th,þ þ /θ/, /ð/ ?*þurisaz “the god Thor, giant
a a /a(ː)/ *ansuz “one of the Æsir (gods)”
r r /r/ *raidō “ride, journey”
k k (c) /k/ ?*kaunan “ulcer”? (or *kenaz “torch”?)
g g /ɡ/ *gebō “gift”
w w /w/ *wunjō “joy”
h h ᚺ ᚻ h /h/ *hagalaz “hail” (the precipitation)
n n /n/ *naudiz “need”
i i /i(ː)/ *īsaz “ice”
j j /j/ *jēra- “year, good year, harvest”
ï,ei ï (æ) /æː/(?) *ī(h)waz/*ei(h)waz “yew-tree”
p p /p/ ?*perþ- meaning unclear, perhaps “pear-tree”.
z z /z/ ?*algiz unclear, possibly “elk”.
s s ᛊ ᛋ s /s/ *sōwilō “Sun”
t t /t/ *tīwaz/*teiwaz “the god Tiwaz
b b /b/ *berkanan “birch”
e e /e(ː)/ *ehwaz “horse”
m m /m/ *mannaz “Man”
l l /l/ *laguz “water, lake” (or possibly *laukaz “leek”)
ŋ ŋ ŋ ᛜ ᛝ ŋ /ŋ/ *ingwaz “the god Ingwaz
o o /o(ː)/ *ōþila-/*ōþala- “heritage, estate, possession”
d d /d/ *dagaz “day”

Anglo-Saxon runes (5th to 11th centuries)

The Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc

The futhorc are an extended alphabet, consisting of 29, and later, even 33 characters. It probably was used from the 5th century onward. There are competing theories as to the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc. One theory proposes that it was developed in Frisia and later spread to England. Another holds that runes were introduced by Scandinavians to England where the fuþorc was modified and exported to Frisia. Futhorc inscriptions are found e.g. on the Thames scramasax, in the Vienna Codex, in Cotton Otho B.x (Anglo-Saxon rune poem) and on the Ruthwell Cross.

The Anglo-Saxon rune poem gives the following characters and names: feoh, ur, thorn, os, rad, cen, gyfu, wynn, haegl, nyd, is, ger, eoh, peordh, eolh, sigel, tir, beorc, eh, mann, lagu, ing, ethel, daeg, ac, aesc, yr, ior, ear.

The expanded alphabet features the additional letters cweorth, calc, cealc, and stan. These additional letters have only been found in manuscripts. Feoh, þorn, and sigel stood for [f], [þ], and [s] in most environments, but voiced to [v], [ð], and [z] between vowels or voiced consonants. Gyfu and wynn stood for the letters yogh and wynn, which became [g] and [w] in Middle English.

Younger Futhark (9th to 11th centuries)

While also featuring a runic inscription detailing the erection of a bridge for a loved one, the 11th-century Ramsung carving is a Sigurd stone that depicts the legend of Sigurd.

The Younger Futhark, also called Scandinavian Futhark, is a reduced form of the Elder Futhark, consisting of only 16 characters. The reduction correlates with phonetic changes when Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse. They are found in Scandinavia and Viking Age settlements abroad, probably in use from the 9th century onward. They are divided into long-branch (Danish) and short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) runes. The difference between the two versions is a matter of controversy. A general opinion is that the difference between them was functional (i.e., the long-branch runes were used for documentation on stone, whereas the short-branch runes were in everyday use for private or official messages on wood).

The Younger Futhark: long-branch runes and short-twig runes

See also