Runes, also known as the runic alphabets, are a group of alphabets that are closely related. The alphabets originated in the Germanic tongue of Scandinavia and the British Isles, and were used until shortly after Christianization of these areas.
There are three main variants of runes. In Scandinavia, the “Futhark” rune alphabet is the most common, with the name derived from the first six letters of the alphabet. The Futhark alphabet is divided into Elder Futhark (150-800 AD) and Younger Futhark (800-1100 AD). The Younger Futhark is further divided into sub-categories – long-branch, short-twig, and staveless runes, as well as Marcomannic, Medieval, and Dalecarlian runes. An Anglo-Saxon variant known as “Futhorc” was used between 400-1100 AD. While still named after the first six letters of the alphabet, the influence of the Old English language changed the pronunciation of those letters.
The earliest known runic inscriptions were created around 150A.D As Christianity spread to Central Europe (700 A.D.) and Scandinavia (1100 A.D.), runes were replaced by the Latin alphabet. However, the use of runes continued for certain purposes. In fact, rural Sweden relied on runes into the 20th century.
Runes were most commonly carved into wood, although they were also carved into stone and even written on paper. Interestingly, unlike many alphabets, the runic alphabet has no horizontal lines. Each letter is angular, not curved. This is logical when you consider the difficulty of carving runes into a piece of wood. Horizontal lines are difficult — they run with the grain of the wood, making them hard to see. Carving a curved line into wood is a challenge. The simpler runes allowed for clear communication.
Early inscriptions were simple markings on items like combs, coins, amulets, and more. In some cases, the runes provided the name of the craftsman or owner. At other times, the symbols were a mystery. Given the absence of any lengthy texts, it is now believed that these runes were used for divination. In fact, the word “rune” means something hidden or secret – an indication that the rooms were esoteric knowledge restricted to a chosen few.
Runes have been inscribed on monuments, honoring the heroes and the dead. For this reason, it was long believed that runes were used only for monuments. However, a series of inscribed runes were discovered in the 1950s. Over 600 inscriptions on wood and bone contained inscriptions for prayers, name tags, business letters, personal messages, and even bawdy and profane texts. Clearly, the Runic alphabets were more widespread and common than once believed.
|Text – Native|
|Proto-Norse : <niuha>borumz <niuha>gestumz Haþuwulfz gaf j[ar], Hariwulfz … … haidiz runono, felh eka hedra niu habrumz, niu hangistumz Haþuwulfz gaf j[ar], Hariwulfz … … haidiz runono, felh eka hedra ginnurunoz. Hermalausaz argiu, Weladauþs, sa þat briutiþ.|
|Text – English|
|(To the) <niuha>dwellers (and) <niuha>guests Haþuwulfar gave ful year, Hariwulfar … … I, master of the runes(?) conceal here nine bucks, nine stallions, Haþuwulfar gave fruitful year, Hariwulfar … … I, master of the runes(?) conceal here runes of power. Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who this breaks.|