Runes are the characters of the earliest written alphabet used by the Germanic peoples of Europe called Futhark. The runic alphabet was used within Germanic languages but primarily in Nordic countries. The word rune comes from the Norse rún which means mystery or secret. Little is known about the origins of the Runic alphabet and no one knows exactly when, where or who invented it.
Early Runic Inscriptions
Inscriptions have been found throughout northern Europe from the Balkans to Germany, Scandinavia, the British Isles and Iceland, and were in use from about 100 to 1600 AD. Runic inscriptions have even been found in North America, supporting claims that the Vikings arrived in the Americas long before Columbus.
These days English and other Northern European languages are written using Latin letters, but they used to be written using “Runestaves.” The oldest known runic inscription dates to 160 AD and is found on the Vimose Comb simply reading “HARJA”.
A comb made of antler from around 150 to 200 AD and was found in Vimose on the island of Funen, Denmark. The inscription reads “Harja”, a male name. This is the oldest known runic inscription. The comb is housed at the National Museum of Denmark. (Bloodofox/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
More than 4,000 runic inscriptions and several runic manuscripts have been found with approximately 2,500 of these coming from Sweden. Many date from the 800’s to the 1000’s, during the period of the Vikings. Runic texts are found on hard surfaces such as rock, wood, and metal. The characters were also scratched on coins, jewelry, monuments, and slabs of stone.
The Runic alphabet is known as Futhark after the first six runes, namely f, u, th, a, r, and k. It consisted of 24 letters, 18 consonants and 6 vowels, and was a writing system where each character marked a certain sound. Runes could be written in both directions and could also be inverted or upside down. The earliest runes consisted almost entirely of straight lines, arranged singly or in combinations of two or more. Later runes took on more complex forms and some even resemble modern day letters of the English alphabet.
Experts believe the writing of the word ‘futhark’ itself may have been used for ancient Norse magic. For example, an amulet made from the tooth of a brown bear that was found in Orkney in the 1930s containing this word is said to have been used for protective or fertility magic.
The amulet containing the word ‘futhark’ was made from the tooth of a brown bear and was found in Orkney in the 1930s. ( National Museum of Scotland )
Because of the resemblance to Mediterranean writing, it is thought that Futhark was adapted from either the Greek or Etruscan alphabet and its origin begins further back than the pre-history of Northern Europe. The earliest Futhark inscriptions don’t have a fixed writing direction, but instead were written left-to-right or right-to-left, which was a feature of very archaic Greek or Etruscan alphabets before the third century BC.
One theory is that the runic alphabet was developed by the Goths, a Germanic people. Two inscriptions, the Negau and the Maria Saalerberg inscriptions, written in Etruscan script in a Germanic language and dating from the second and first centuries BC, give credence to the theory of Etruscan origins.
The result is that runes can be pretty tricky to decipher, even by ‘experts’, especially when found incomplete or faded – as was the case with a rune inscribed whetstone found in Norway. Experts appealed to the public for assistance in translating the ancient script.
A sample of Etruscan text carved into the Cippus Perusinus – a stone tablet discovered on the hill of San Marco, Italy, in 1822. Circa third/second century BC. (SBAUmbria/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Elder Futhark – The Oldest Runic Script
Elder Futhark is thought to be the oldest version of the runic script, and it was used in parts of Europe that were home to Germanic peoples, including Scandinavia. It consisted of 24 letters, and was mostly used before the ninth century AD. This is the ancestor language of English, Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic.
As languages changed and more Germanic groups adopted it, Futhark changed to suit the language that it came to write. An early offshoot of Futhark was employed by Goths and known as Gothic Runes, which was used until 500 AD, before it was replaced by the Greek-based Gothic alphabet.
Elder Futhark was used until 550 AD around the Baltic and North Seas to write the language described by Antonson as ‘North-west Germanic’. Unlike other forms of runes, the skill of reading Elder Futhark was lost over time, until it was rediscovered with its decipherment in 1865 by the Norwegian Sophus Bugge.
Younger Futhark or “Normal Runes” evolved from Elder Futhark over a period of many years and stabilized by about 800 AD, the beginning of the Viking Age. Instead of 24 letters, the Scandinavian “Younger” Futhark had 16, as nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped. The Younger Futhark is divided into two types, short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) and long-branch (Danish).
It was the main alphabet in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark throughout the Viking Age , and largely (though not completely) replaced by the Latin alphabet by about 1200 AD, which was a result of the conversion of most of Scandinavia to Christianity. Futhark continued to be used in Scandinavia for centuries, but by 1600 AD, it had become little more than a curiosity among scholars.
Description of the Younger Futhark as “Viking Ogham” in the Book of Ballymote (AD 1390). ( Public Domain )
Futhark is Brought to Britain
Between 400 and 600 AD, three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, invaded Britain and brought Futhark from continental Europe with them. They modified it into the 33-letter “Futhorc” to accommodate sound changes that were occurring in Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.
The name “Futhorc” is evidence to a phonological change where the long /a/ vowel in Old English evolved into an /o/ vowel. Even though Futhark thrived as a writing system, it started to decline with the spread of the Latin alphabet here as well. In England, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc began to be replaced by Latin by the ninth century AD, and it did not survive past the Norman Conquest of 1066. By the 1000’s, missionaries had converted the Germanic peoples to Christianity.
A Secret Religious Formula?
As runes date from before the time Northern Europe became Christianized, they have become associated with the “pagan” or non-Christian past, and thus a mystique has been cast upon the runic alphabet.
The many meanings of the word rune have led to a number of theories linking the origin of the runic alphabet to cultic use . When the missionary bishop Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek into Visigothic in the fourth century, he translated the word mysterion to runa. One theory, therefore, is that the oldest Proto-Norse or Proto-Germanic meanings of the word may have been “religious mystery” or “secret religious formula.”
Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes. ( Public Domain )
In popular culture, runes have been seen as possessing mystical or magical properties . Historical and fictional runes commonly appear in modern popular culture, particularly in fantasy literature, video games, and various other forms of media. Many modern Wiccan sects use runes ceremonially and ritualistically as well.
The ‘secret’ of the futhark and the runes that it is comprised of continues to captivate us today.
Top image: Red runes carved from wood on the ground . Source: PhotoChur /Adobe Stock