by Darryl Fraser

copyright 2000

Runes are an ancient form of writing found primarily in northern European countries. The OED defines a rune as "any of the letters of the earliest Germanic alphabet used by Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons from about the 3rd century and formed by modifying Roman or Greek characters to suit carving." Pin pointing the exact origin of runes leads to much speculation about how the Greek language arrived in northern Europe to be modified, perhaps through merchants and coins. Some theorists posit a connection to the Etruscan language which originated in what is now northern Italy. The main reason for the difficulty in dating runes is due to their construction on wood and weapons which can decompose as well as burn. The reconstruction of alphabets of runes occurs with some scholarship and three main groups have been noted: the Germanic Futhark, the Anglo-Saxon Futhark and the Scandinavian Futhark. These alphabets or futharks contain 24, 28 and 16 symbols respectively.

Primarily of concern for the Old English student is that runes are generally Germanic, the ancestor of Old English and other West and North Germanic languages. Since runes are found before the Roman Alphabet, hence before Christianity, their pagan roots cannot be ignored. The integration of runes into the Roman Alphabet, for example, "thorn" and "wynn" demonstrates the appropriation of not only the meaning but the sound of the rune into Old English language. Since the runes were usually carved into wood, metal, stones, as inscriptions, or in the form of poetry, their method of communication differs from our conception of language. According to R.K. Page, the scholarship concerning runes recognizes the multiple meanings inherent in their symbolism. The runes of the Anglo-Saxon Futhark are taken from poems and inscriptions which describe each of the runes. As a mainly symbolic language where each rune can represent a word as well as a sound, runes should not be thought of as just letters in an alphabet. Page articulates two extremes of the issue, magic or script. The use of runes by early Germanic people has been influenced by the Old English word "run" which implies a 'mystery, secret' (Page, 12). Thus a mist of mythology, magic, surrounds the runes where the art of reading runes involves an interpretation and meditation upon the relationship of the runes to each other. Readings involve spreading runes out in a certain pattern, then reading through the pattern to develop a meaning. Although the readings might sound arbitrary, each symbol possesses certain characteristics which are generally agreed upon. Some scholars see a script or alphabet which seems to ignore a fundamental part of the use of runes. In connection with Old English, the rune "thorn" contains a sense of the powerful and protective as well a sense of fate. Although one might be tempted to simply use a single rune as a touchstone, the beauty of the runes occurs through their interaction.

For Further Reading:

Cornell University Library. Catalogue of Runic literature, forming a part of the Icelandic collection bequeathed by Willard Fiske. London, Milford, 1918.

Elliott, Ralph. Runes : an Introduction. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Stephens, George. Handbook of the old-Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England. London, Williams, 1884.

Svensson, Horik. The Runes. Italy: Carlton Books, 1997.

Page, R.K. An Introduction to English Runes: 2nd Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999.

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