What Are Runes?
When people talk about runes these days, they are often referring to the small flat wooden discs or stones, decorated with carved or painted symbols. Runes are usually available as a set of divination runes, or as jewellery. But what are these strange symbols and where did they come from?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term rune refers to “any of the characters of any of several alphabets used by the Germanic peoples from about the 3rd to the 13th centuries”.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, there are three main varieties of runic script:
- Early, or Common, Germanic (Teutonic), used in northern Europe before about 800 AD. This alphabet was known as the Futhark alphabet, named from the sound made by the first 6 letters f, u, th, a, r,and k. It consisted of 24 letters, divided into 3 groups known as ættir each group containing 8 letters (see pic on right).
- Anglo-Saxon, or Anglian, used in Britain from the 5th or 6th century to about the 12th century AD consisting of 28 letters (33 letters after 900 AD). The Anglian runic script added letters to the Futhark script to represent sounds of Old English that did not occur the in the languages that had used the Futhark system. This system is referred to as the Anglo-Saxon futhorc alphabet.
- Nordic, or Scandinavian, used from the 8th to about the 12th or 13th century AD in Scandinavia and Iceland. The Scandanavian languages, instead of adding to the Futhark system, actually combined the letter values, e.g. making one letter stand for more than one sound e.g. one letter for both k and g, thus reducing the alphabet to 16 letters (referred to as the Younger Futhark system).
Usage of the runes as an alphabet waned with the increased influence of the Roman Catholic Church, however they were employed until the 16th of 17th century for charms and memorial inscriptions.
Apart from being part of a Runic alphabet, the Runes have always been associated with magic and intrigue and whilst some scholars would have you believe that the runes are simply a communication tool with no links to divination, the etymology of the word Rune may have you believing otherwise. The word Rune, rūn in Old Norse and Old English, translates to mystery, as does rún in Old Irish. In Old High Germanic, the word rune originated from the word rūna meaning secret discussion.
With all of these references to secrecy and mystery, we can start to see that the oversimplification of the runes as being a mere form of communication may not be all there is to the story.
If we look into ancient Europe, we can see many examples of runes being carved into objects, often as a form of memorial, but also as a form of magical protection for example in Sweden the Runic Stone, (Kylver Stone), a limestone slab dating to the 5th century was found in a tomb in Gotland. It has been suggested that the runic inscriptions on the stone, which face towards the coffin were placed as a way to either bind the deceased to the coffin or to protect the grave. In this light, I am pretty certain that the runes were not viewed, as simply a means of communication, at least not only amongst the living.
How did the Runic alphabet develop?
The development of the runic alphabet is as mysterious as the runes themselves. The most plausible origins of the runes, according to scholars is their derivation from a North Etruscan, Alpine alphabet.However it has also been suggested that the runic alphabet derived from the Latin and the Greek alphabets.
Another theory (and a personal favourite of mine) on the origins of the runes derives from Norse mythology where it is suggested that the runes are of divine origin.
It has been said that Odin; the god of war, knowledge, and magic, pursued the wisdom of the runes in his relentless quest for knowledge. After sacrificing his eye for knowledge, Odin was still not satisfied (there is some conjecture as to the chronology of the events relating to Odin's sacrifices). Whilst watching the Norn’s (female beings who create and control fate) weave the strands of fate amongst Yggdrasil’s roots, he sat, longing for the wisdom that the Norn's possessed. In order to gain such wisdom, Odin performed a type of ritual self-sacrifice, stabbing himself with his sword and hanging himself off the tree of life “Yggdrasil”, where he stayed for 9 days and 9 nights until, moments before his death, the runes appeared to him and offered him their wisdom and his life. It is said in Norse mythology that the runes, apart from being merely letters of an alphabet, are magical symbols that can be used to weave powerful spells.
Whatever the actual origins of the runes, they have remained a source of fascination and have been viewed as a powerful tool for insight and divination to this very day.
Tell us, which origin story do you believe is true? Have you heard a different account? We would love to hear from you!