Runes have been used in Britain since the Dark Ages. When the Romans abandoned Britain around 450AD, waves of immigrants from Europe came and settled in this green and pleasant land. The Friesians from the Netherlands, the Angles and Saxons from Germany, then the Jutes and Norsemen (Vikings) from Scandinavia.
They brought with them their set of ancient symbols known as the runes. Originally there were 24 runes and they are collectively known as “the Futhark”.
People used runes for writing messages, inscriptions and epitaphs; as amulets and charms; as an oracle for use in divination; and for rituals, magic and spells.
No-one knows exactly how old the runes are. Rune-like symbols appear as cave markings as early as the late Bronze Age (circa 1300 BC), and they are mentioned in the Bible, but their use in ritual and as an Oracle for consultation must certainly pre-date their use as a system of writing.
Eminent scientific runologist Dr R. I. Page of Cambridge University (An Introduction to English Runes 1973,1999 and Reading the Past – Runes 1987) notes that the runic forms were well established and gave the appearance of having been in use for some centuries before the time of the earliest written language inscriptions.
The fact that the runes were each given meaningful names confirms that they had some magical or religious significance to their users long before they emerged as an alphabet for records and messages.
The word rune itself comes from the old Norse word Runa meaning a secret or mystery, and it seems likely that the early runemasters and runemistresses were considered to have some magic or mystic power in their understanding of the runes.
The runes represent objects, gods, people, animals, concepts and occurrences. They were known by names from which their alphabetic and phonetic values were taken, but it must be remembered that the early Germanic and Norse tribes who developed them did so long before they had any need for writing messages.
It was not until about AD200, when the runemal (i.e. the art of runic interpretation) was wide-spread in Northern Europe that the runic alphabet emerged. This alphabet became known as the Futhark or Futhorc, after the names of the first 6 runes (Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raido, Kauno) and it is these 24 symbols that now comprise the rune set. Some modern diviners also use a blank to represent Odin, fate or destiny – but it is probably more useful as a spare in case of loss. A blank cannot rightfully be called a “rune” because there is no symbol on it. And in any case, the rune Ansuz is generally accepted to represent Odin by the majority of experienced rune users.
There are very few surviving runic inscriptions and most of them are on stone or metal – the most durable of materials. Only a handful of inscriptions carved on wood have ever been found, and none of these is from Britain.
There is sufficient evidence to show that the Ancient Pagan or Anglo-Saxon runes (known to runologists as the Anglo-Friesian runes from their geographical occurrence) are the same 24 basic runes with variations in their form due to usage over the centuries.
For example, the Hagalaz of the Norse resembled an angled H but the Anglo-Saxons added a second cross-bar.
Variations in pronunciation can also occur. For instance, the Norsemen pronounced W as a V, but Anglo-Saxons had adapted this to the modern W sound by 600AD.
There are those who suggest that many of the rune forms are copied from Roman script – the system of letters on which modern Western writing is based.
Such examples as Mannaz (M), Fehu (F), Berkanan (B), Raido (R) are obviously very similar, but it seems more likely to me that the rune symbols (although not then used as letters) are earlier in development. Or at least, they were developed from the same source as the Roman script.
Consider the technology and equipment that was necessary to undertake Roman writing. Parchment or paper with all the processing that requires – such as blanching chemicals and drying processes; the formulation of durable ink and its mass production; and not forgetting the development of a complex writing implement such as the quill pen. A civilization is hardly likely to undertake all these developments unless a suitable format for writing already existed.
Look now at the needs of the runemaster or runemistress, what did they require? Nothing more than a stick of wood and a sharp knife to incise the runes. Both of these requisites have been available to Man from the very earliest times. That runes were initially cut in wood there is no doubt. The very shape of the runes confirm this by the avoidance of the horizontal or curved line.
If you experiment with a flat wood surface you will find that it is very easy to cut straight lines across the grain. It is much more difficult to cut a curve with a straight knife blade. And it is almost impossible to cut a line horizontally along the grain – the cut closes up as the wood dries, and the line thus disappears.
The early runemasters and runemistresses therefore developed a system of writing from their existing fund of mystic or religious symbols which would endure on wood. The symbols were composed of vertical and angled straight lines that could easily be cut or burned in wood.
The later Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (58-120AD) records a Germanic tribal Runemal in some detail in Chapter 10 of his ethnographical work Germania from about 97AD when he was Consul to the region:
To divination they pay much attention. Their method is a simple one: they cut a branch from a fruit-bearing tree and divide it into small pieces which they mark with certain distinctive signs and scatter at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the community (if it is done publicly) or the father of the family (if it is done privately) after invoking the gods and with eyes raised to heaven, picks up three pieces one at a time and interprets them in accordance with the signs previously marked on them.
When the high chieftains and lawgivers of Anglo-Saxon England met in secret, their assemblies were known as The Runes: and a 4th Century translation of the Bible uses the word Runa for “mystery” or “secret proceedings”.
The ancient Norse prose tales of the Edda have Odin hung on the World Tree when he spies the runes and seizes them up to gain wisdom and well-being. The Edda also mentions Bragi, master of the skalds (minstrels) and a great storyteller who reputedly had runes tattooed on his tongue – a reference to his magical gift as a raconteur.
The slightly later poem Erik the Red describes a Runemistress in full regalia.
Coming to modern references, the traditional lore of Finland as recorded in the Kalevala by Lönnrot in 1835 describes a confrontation of wizards where runic songs were used to cause fire and devastation.
Some modern experts allege that stones were commonly used for the Runemal, but I have found no evidence of this despite extensive research. The indications, whether from runology, known Pagan religious beliefs, or Saxon witchcraft ritual, all point to the use of wood, particularly from fruit-bearing trees.
A lot have been said on the origin of the runes. And despite this, not much is certain about the actual truth of their origin. A main reason for this problem, might be that we are simply looking for the answers in the wrong places, or otherwise in periods of time too close to our present day in history.
Basically, the runes never left the scene. Despite the attempts by the Christian church to ban their use at several points of time in history, and despite and the introduction of an alternative alien writing system that came to dominate Europe. Instead they were in use from their very distant past, all into our present day. Some attempts were made for example in Sweden during the early 17′th century – mainly due to the efforts of Johannes Bureus – to revitalize them into a writing system for common everyday use, by publishing a sort of runic alphabet book called Runa ABC.
Others advocated their use as sinnbilder (icons/symbols) of various meaning. In particular the later use, as symbols, had quite some success in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s in Germany and Scandinavia, during the Völkisch and Göticism movements. And indeed, even in present day Sweden (and elsewhere, of course) the runes live on as rather mundane symbols on for example road signs, and for branding of eggs to mention a few. The bindrune of Bluetooth (as in Harald Bluetooth) is another fine example of this.
Actually, a rather modern set of runes – the Dalecarlian Runes – were very much alive and in everyday use as a writing system in Dalarna/Sweden, as late as in the 20′th century.Murarmärken/Stenhuggarmärken (mason’s marks) and Bomärken (house marks) often have undeniable runic origins, and have pretty much been in continuous use in northern Europe from times immemorial until present day.
Elder and Younger FUTHARK
The Elder Futhark of 24 runes seems to appear around 100-200 c.e., first and foremost on (today, rather in) Scandinavian soil. Around 600-700 c.e. this rune row is gradually replaced by the Younger Futhark of 16 runes. According to some less academically oriented people , the Younger Futhark lacks the potent properties of the Elder Futhark for interacting with and causing changes in the Wyrd (i.e. they are not useful as “magical tools”).
Speaking of magical tools, Tacitus wrote in his Germania that Germanic tribes “cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips, these they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth”, for a divinatory tool as early as year 9 c.e. Nothing is said of how old this practice was at that particular time, but it might very well fall back as far as to the very beginning of what we consider enlightened spiritual humans, and probably does.
When talking of preserved runic material though, it’s very important to remember that a mere fraction of all runes where made in materials that don’t degrade into dirt within few decades (such as stone or metal). The majority were made in degradable materials that disappear rather quickly, unless the conditions are in favor for preserving bio material, such as in certain soil, swamps and bogs etc.
The modern Swedish word bok (and German Buch) means book, but is also the word for beech (Fagus sylvatica), and even the word for letter is bokstav (beech stick/stave). This is because prior to writing on parchment, vellum or paper, they carved runes onto sticks or plates made of beech primarily. As an example, the daughter of Egill Skallagrímsson(Thorgerd Egilsdóttir) carved onto a stick the lay of Egill later known as Sonatorrek, “on the fly” as he sung it for the first time.
Origin of the Runes
The origins of the runes are lost in distant Proto-Indo-European history but can be traced to the Audhumbla of Indo-European writing itself.
Some of the earliest known writing systems of Indo-European descent, such as the recently discovered Romanian (Tărtăria) scripts, the Vinča, Phoenician, Archaic Greek, pre-Sanskrit and Indus symbols/(proto-)writing systems – stretching as far back in history as to the 6′th millennium b.c.e. or even more – there is a resemblance to modern runes.
In her book Plato Prehistorian: 10,000 to 5000 B.C. Myth, Religion, Archaeology, the author Mary Settegast claims to show evidence of pre-runic scriptures not only in Bronze Age rock carvings, but as far back as in Magdalenian cave paintings dating as far back as at least 17 000 – 12 000 years ago. And indeed, just looking at Scandinavian Bronze Age rock carvings, reveals that there are runic symbols appearing over and over again. Alongside the usual petroglyphs, Fylfot and Triskelion variations, you occasionally find single runes of the Elder Futhark such as Algiz, Tiwaz, Sowilo, Dagaz and Othala in various forms.
As there are more clear likeness between some of these archaic symbols and the Elder Futhark, than there is between them and the Roman alphabet – the claim that they are “inspired by Roman letters”, might not be correct, a far older proto-Indo-European connection could be the answer.
The Germanic runes of the Elder Futhark might not have been used as a complete writing system until around 150 c.e., as is rightfully claimed by mainstream authorities in the field of history. And indeed, perhaps actually writing with runes might have come into being due to inspiration from other tribes and groups of people, such as the Romans. But the runes themselves may originate from a far more distant past than that, used as sinnbilder for ritual/ceremonial purposes, as means to interact with the Wyrd (magic), and likely as a form of early heraldry (with all likeliness, many traditional heraldic elements have runic roots, among them the Wolfsangel).