Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


26.12.06
  Runes

I'm not a specialist on runes; I've only taken the basic courses. Thus, what I will do here is to give some general information that is acknowledged in research, and leave most of the problems out.

The etymology of the word 'rune' derives from Old Germanic rúna and means something in the way of 'secret'. There is a number of theories about the origin of the runic letters but none of these theories have so far been universally acknowledged or give a sufficiently founded explanation (1). In Viking times it was believed that the runes were given to mankind by the god Odin who in his turn received them in a dream after a long period of fasting (Edda: Hávamál, 138).

The Letters

The oldest monuments (engraved on stones) are located in southern Sweden and Danmark and date from 250 AD onwards. Some of them display the entire alphabet containing 24 letters (sometimes grouped 8 x 3). The first six letters: f u þ a r k gave the the runic alphabets, or rune rows, as Düwel prefers to call them, the denomination futhark.

The system of 3 x 8 runes of the Older Futhark is proven by several inscriptions (2). This system could be used for a sort of encoding in secret runes, when not the actual letter was given but its position within the rune row. Occasionally, runes are written from the right to the left, and often they have one stave in common. So there are a lot of puzzles.

About 750 AD the alphabet changed and the number of letters was reduced. From 800 - 1150, the so called Viking period, we have the Younger Futhark with only 16 letters.

Imagine the deciphering problems of inscriptions with 16 letters to cover a range of 26 sounds. No wonder there are wars going on among the academics.

In the Younger Futhark some of the runes stand for several sounds:

u - u, y, o, ö, w
i - i, e, æ, j
a - a, æ
þ - þ, ð
k - k, g, ng
t - t, d
b - b, p
R - r, in Old Norse y
Some writers tried to solve the problem by using dotted runes, that is, they added a dot to distinguish f.e e from i. In the Mediaeval Ages (12th century onwards) the runes often were treated accordingly to the Latin alphabet and put into the same order.

Whereas the inscriptions of the Older Futhark show one form of language (Ancient Germanic) without dialectal differenciations, the Germanic language in the Viking time began to develop into different dialects and later into languages in their own right. (3). That influencd also the pronounciation of several runes. The rune that is transcribed R in the North- and West Germanic languages is a sound between r and z and changes to r proper, whereas in the South Germanic (including today's German) language it is transcribed by z and changes into s sharp. The rune for ei came out of use rather soon because of a process called monophthongization. The rune for j changes into an velar å because the word jâra changes into âr(a). The old a-rune has changed to o (*ansuz > ós). And in Old Norse the R stands for ý (ýr).

The Anglo-Saxon runes, on the other side, did not reduce the number of letters, but rather, added 4 more to the 24-Futhark to cover the additional vowels.

Rune Names

Because of their mythical origin of the runes they were in the Mediaeval Ages believed to have magical powers. The most well-known standardized list of reconstructed Ancient Germanic rune names is the following:

f - *fehu - livestock
u - *ûruz - aurochs
þ - *þurisaz - giant
a - *ansuz - Ase (old god)
r - *raidô - wagon, ride
k - *kaunan - ulcer, disease
g - *gebô - gift
w - *wunjô - pleasure
h - *haglaz - hail (destruction)
n - *naudiz - power of destiny
i - *îsaz - ice
j - *jêran - year
ei - *iwaz - yew
p - *perþô - (fruit bearing) tree
z / R - *algiz - moose
s - *sôwilô - sun
t - *tîwaz - Týr
b - *berkanan - birch tree
e - *ehwaz - horse
m - *mannaz - man
l - *laukaz - leek
ng - *ingwaz - god (of fertility ?)
d - *dagaz - day
o - *ôþalan - inherited property

There is no sufficient explanation for the rune names, and some of them remain unsure. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they belong to the realm of cult like gods, animals, plants, powers of nature. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether the magical rune name or the letter value are meant. In case there is a single rune we can be sure that it had the magical component of the name, but otherwise there had been a tendency in pre-war research to stress the magical component whereas nowadays it is rather attempted to find a literal explanation of doubtful inscriptions.

Geographical Distribution

Runes can be found on various artefacts which can be engraved, such as weapons, jewellery, bracelets, caskets and others. Those written on perishable materials like wood or bone are mostly lost forever.

The majority of runic inscriptions are made on stones. They can consist of a single word, a short notice, but also encompass entire poems and stories (4). The largest number of findings dates from the Viking time. The art of writing runes was distributed with the Viking expansion from Russia in the East to Ireland in the West, from Piräus/Athens in the South to Greenland in the North. In total we have about 5000 runic memorials. In Sweden there are about 3000, in Norway 1100, in Danemark 700, in Iceland and in England 60 each, and we find 30 in Germany as well as on the Orkneys or the Isle of Man: and still new ones are discovered.

Widespread are memorial stones. They usually begin with a formula "this stone was made by X in memory of Y", often including some additional information about Y. Since X and Y in a number of instances are historical persons, we can glimpse some useful information (5).

There is a 11th century memorial stone, made by one Tola in honour of her son, Harald, brother of Ingvar (who was the leader of a great expedition to the East). Part of the inscription is in poetic language, so called fornyrðislag, and reads (the translation is mine):

"þæiR foru drængiliga
fiarri at gulli
ok austarla
ærni gafu,
dou sunnarla
a Særklandi"

Like bold men they traveled
Far to get gold,
They fed the eagle
In the East,
They died in the South
Under Africas sun. (6)

In the early 1960ies diggings took place near the Tyska Bryggen in Bergen / Norway where an amazing find of ca 600 mostly wooden pieces with runic inscriptions was discovered, which had long been conserved in a favourable climate. They date back to the 12th - 14th centuries, and most of them have a very mundane character untypical for most of the runic engravings: business letters, bills, and love poems (7). Knowledge of the runes, in the beginings reduced to a small group of specialists, spread further, and in the 14th century, as the Bergen-findings show, had become quite common. Nevertheless, shortly after this time the use of runes fell into a final decline.


Literature
Klaus Düwel. Runenkunde. Stuttgart (Metzler), 2nd edition 1983
Wolfgang Kuhn. Runen. Berlin (de Gruyter), 1970
Additionally, I have used the papers and my notes of the "4th International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions" which was held in August 1995 in Göttingen.

Notes
(1) There is no Basque origin; that language is "the universal solution for all unsolved language problems", as one of my professors ironically put it. There is no connection to Ogham, either.
(2) The groups are represented on the bracteats of Vadstena and Motala, the oldest undistinguished row ist to be found on the stone of Kylver / Sweden.
(3) The Germanic languages - which form a part of a greater superfamily, the so-called Indoeuropean languages - are divided into three families, North Germanic (Icelandic, Norvegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroean), West Germanic (Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Lower Saxon, Bavarian, Alemannic, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian) and East Germanic (Gothic, Burgundian).
(4) Short notes were often something like: "X made", "Y owns me", or formulas invoking heathen magic. The longest example, the famous stone of Rök, contains 750 runes. Longer inscriptions are written in Younger Futhark.
(5) One example is the great stone of Jellinge / Danemark (late 10th century): the inscription reads "haraltr kunukR baþ kaurua kubl þausi aft kurm faþur sin auk aft þaurui muþur sina sa haraltr ias saR uan tanmaurk ala auk nuruiak auk tani karþi kristna". Translation: "Harald ordered this memorial to be made after (= in memory of) Gorm, his father, and Thyre, his mother; the same Harald who conquered all Danemark and Norway, and made the Danes Christians." (Düwel, p. 60)
(6) My translation. The exact meaning of "Serkland" is not clear: It can mean the land of the Saracens, but also "land of silk", which would encompass the Muslim area round the Caspian Sea (Düwel, p. 66). I decided for Africa because of the alliteration.
(7) About this recently: Edith Marold. Bergen als literarischer Umschlagplatz. in: F. Paul (ed.) Arbeiten zur Skandinavistik - 13. Arbeitstagung der deutschsprachigen Skandinavistik 1997 in Oslo. Frankfurt (Lang) 2000, p. 189-201. She proves the continental influence on these poems. Amazingly, some were written in Latin language, but with runes.
 
Comments:
What an interesting post, Gabriele! Thank you. And especially thank you for the Tyska Bryggen reference - I was telling someone about that the other day, arguing that runes could be used as a prosaic alphabet and weren't invariably magic, and looking up the reference and the date was on my To Do list.
 
Very interesting.
The Runes have been adopted in simple form by many New Agers and their opponents.
Some "anti-cultists" are convinced the last "R" of the Younger Futhark is a broken cross, ie. an anti-Christian and satanic symbol.
Some Asatru followers see it as a "death" rune.
 
Carla,
I doubt the quotations from the Carmina Burana have anything to do with magic. Nor do remarks like 'X fucks well.' :)

Bernita,
the runes are the exotic version of Tarot cards for some. A pseudo-pagan revival of something that is never fully explained in the old sources. Take the Egils saga where this young chap think he has carved a Love rune but instead got a Disease one, and Egil has to sort that out - is it a Christian author showing the danger of pagan practics by exaggeration, is it genuine practics documented, or black Icelandic humour?

I wonder if those neo-Celts and neo-Germanics would like to be hanged form a tree or thrown into a bog as human sacrifice.
 
Gabriele, that was alarmingly complete - completely interesting. I'm frightened of you now. :)
It's also interesting how ancient cultures are dismissed as having no 'class' so to speak, then you read about something like this and start thinking these people had depths we're not even aware of yet.

Thanks for the education. Can you speculate from your studies why the runes were no longer used?
 
Constance,
I suppose it was the dominance of Latin and the Latin alphabet in literacy. Those who got an education, got a Latin-based one, and they often were the elite that some generations earlier would have been the ones to learn the runes (and hold the family priesthood). Looks like some still learned them, but the magic was gone with the change of religion, and the runes became just an alphabet, less easy to write than Latin.
 
That's what I was afraid of. Rome-Latin-Christianity seems to be the cause of the downfall of a lot of things. Seems like a sound speculation, Gabriele, thanks.
 
Thanks for this interesting post, Gabriele. And best wishes for the new year.
 
Thank you, Marie. Best wishes to you as well.
 
i'm just wondering if you have any pictures of death runes as i'm doing an assignment on death for skool n i need a symbol for it and immediately, runes came to my head but the school system won't let me thru. My email address is tammi-kaerulz@hotmail.com and if you could get back 2 me ASAP, that would be great.
 
I want to use runes for an inscription on a bowl I have made, and in my research on google your essay was the most helpful in making it clear why it is so difficult to decide on which version of runes to use. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your research.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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