The Meaning of the Runes
Writing was introduced to the European continent by the Phoenicians in the Bronze Age. The ancient Mycenaeans, Minoans, and Greeks developed their own alphabets from the Phoenician system.
Writing spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean. The letters devised by the Romans are still used in most of Europe today.
Like many developments, however, writing took longer to reach the people of Northern Europe. When it did, the Germanic people created their own form of writing.
The runes were created in the Roman era to write the earliest forms of the Germanic language. They were eventually used by the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, and Germans.
For over a thousand years, the runes evolved into writing styles that fit the needs of contemporary Germanic culture. The secrets of reading and writing were also believed to hold deeper secrets.
The runes were closely associated with magic. Whether used on charms or invoked by gods, the Norse and other Germanic people believed that the runes were connected to divine powers.
This connection has not entirely been lost in the modern era. After hundreds of years of practical use, runes are once again being written in charms, spells, and prayers.
By the 2nd century AD, the use of writing had spread throughout much of Europe. Originally introduced by Phoenicians in the Bronze Age, it had been adopted and adapted by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans.
A system of writing had not yet been devised in Northern Europe, however. The Germanic tribes had no way of recording their own history and mythology.
Most scholars believe that this changed after these cultures came into contact with the Romans. A few, however, think that Germanic writing was more closely inspired by the pre-Latin writing systems of Northern Italy.
There is evidence of Etruscan writing that documented Germanic names as early as 200 BC, but no writing from the Germanic tribes themselves has been found that dates earlier than 150 AD.
The runes were, like other early writing systems, designed to be easily inscribed on wood and stone.
They consisted mostly of straight lines, although a few sounds were represented by circular shapes.
Most often, these lines ran diagonally and vertically rather than horizontally. This was so that they did not run with the grain of the wood when carved, which would make them less legible and risk splitting the wood.
These lines were often straightened when carved in stone or written on parchment. Thus, runic letters could look different depending on the medium on which they were carved.
These features are common in European writing systems. Early Latin, for example, also used diagonal lines for the same reason, but these were straightened in most of the upper case letters we use today.
When the first Germanic runes were developed, the language family was much more unified than it is today.
Germanic languages today are split into two families: North Germanic, which includes the languages of Scandinavia, and West Germanic, which includes German and English. A third group, the East Germanic family of the Goths and Vandals, is now extinct.
In the 1st and 2nd century AD, however, these divisions were only just beginning to form. The Germanic languages were much more closely related than they would be even a few hundred years later.
Because of how closely related the languages were, the use of runes was able to spread quickly and almost seamlessly between the different Germanic groups.
Thus, runes spread across Northern and Central Europe very quickly. Although none have been found from before 150 AD, by 200 AD there is evidence of their use in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.
The earliest known runic alphabet, known as the Elder Futhark, was not entirely standardized. Some letters had a great deal of variation even in relatively close proximity.
Some letters also fell in and out of favor. As Germanic languages became more diverse, letters were changed and added to reflect a wider variety of sounds.
Interestingly, however, this did not always mean there were more letters in later versions of the writing system. Letters took on multiple uses and distinction was not made between long and short vowels, so later runic alphabets often had fewer letters than the Elder Futhark.
The runes were a practical way to write in Germanic languages, but by the time of the Norse people they were thought of in far more magical terms.
There is evidence in Norse writing that the runes themselves were thought of as symbols of magic.
The word “rune” comes from an ancient Germanic word meaning “hidden” or “secret.” While this may have implied that only certain people were taught to read and write, this meaning eventually led to the belief that the runes themselves had hidden meanings.
This belief was likely widespread throughout the cultures that used runes, but it is especially well attested in Norse poetry and inscriptions.
Many early runic inscriptions do seem to be magical in nature. Words that are associated with charms or protection occur often.
One of these is the early Norse word alu. Scholars do not agree on the word’s exact translation, but many suggest that it is related to the later word alh, or “amulet.”
Other inscriptions contain rhymes that appear to have no direct translation. Some historians interpret these as written chants with a magical, rather than literal, meaning.
One Swedish runestone dating from the 6th or 7th century AD may provide an example of a written charm more clearly. It reads “Haþwulfar placed three staves” followed by three letters that equate to the Latin letter f.
The f is generally interpreted as an abbreviation for a word meaning “wealth.” The repetition of this word could indicate that the runestone was made as a charm to bring wealth to Haþwulfar or his descendants.
Many modern readers believe that runes were used in divination, but existing Norse writings do not make this clear. Although runes are mentioned often in Norse writing, no clear instruction is given as to their magical use.
Later poets, however, made it clear that there was some link between the runes and magical knowledge.
In mythology, Odin famously sacrificed himself by hanging for nine days on the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. At the end of his ordeal, he learned the runes.
Odin’s sacrifice, and the knowledge he obtained, is usually interpreted as a shamanic ritual. None of the sources, however, specify what type of magical power the runes represented.
One poem in the Poetic Edda, told in Odin’s voice, does include the runes in the god’s use of magic. To raise a man from the dead, Odin says he uses a song he learned from Mímir as well as runes.
I know a twelfth one
if I see up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
and talks with me.
-Poetic Edda, Hávamál (trans. Larrington)
From these sources, the extent to which the runes were used in magic is unclear. In both written myths and archaeological evidence, it seems as if the words written in runes, rather than the letters themselves, were believed to have a connection to the hidden secrets of seidr magic.
While the runes are most closely associated with Viking Age Scandinavia by many modern people, they were in use for hundreds of years throughout much of Europe. And like other writing systems, they evolved over time.
The earliest known runic system is called the Elder Futhark. Like the Greek alphabet or the QWERTY keyboard, the Futhark gets its name from the first letters in its sequence that correspond to the letters f, u, þ, a, r, and k.
The first complete set of Elder Futhark letters, dating from roughly 400 AD, contains 24 individual symbols. While a few individual runes had local variations, the Futhark as a whole can be seen throughout Northern Europe.
The Elder Futhark was in use from the 2nd century AD to the 8th century. This means that the earliest Viking Age raiders may have used this form of writing, but it did not last throughout the era.
In all, at least six known runic alphabets are known to have been used over the course of over 1,500 years. Evidence of at least one additional form, used by the Goths, has been found but is not complete enough to be defined as a completely separate alphabet.
In addition to the Elder Futhark, the runic alphabets included:
- The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc – Named for the variation in vowel sounds that occurred in the local language, the futhorc was used in England and Frisia from the 5th to 11th centuries. Early versions contained 29 letters, but it later expanded to 33.
- Carolingian Runes – Also called the Marcomannic Runes, these letters were used in parts of Germany in the 8th and 9th centuries. The mixture of Elder Futhark and Anglo-Saxon runes seems to have been devised by Carolingian scholars to accurately reflect the sounds of the Latin alphabet.
- The Younger Futhark – Used in Scandinavia from the 9th to 11th centuries, this was the written language of the Viking Age Norse. It contained only 16 letters. Differences existed in the Danish and Norwegian versions of the Younger Futhark, but scholars are divided on whether this is due to regional differences or the different mediums on which it was written.
- Medieval Runes – From the 12th to 15th centuries, a form of runic writing was used in Scandinavia. They were not only used to write in the local languages, but also to write Latin in the Germanic alphabet.
- Dalecarlian Runes – Until the late 19th or early 20th century, runes were still in limited use in parts of Sweden. Used in a local dialect of the Dalarna region, this alphabet combined traditional runic forms with the more wide-used Latin letters.
Runes of various forms were in constant, or almost constant, use for over 1,800 years. Although their use largely died out with the introduction of Latin by the Christian Church, they remained in local use in some areas nearly into the modern era.
Even as the use of runes in everyday life faded, however, interest grew in reviving them. In some modern contexts, this revival is linked to the ancient belief in the magic of runes.
Many modern runic writings are based on the works of 20th century German and Austrian mystics.
From as early as the 18th century, German mysticism and nationalism had combined in the study of pre-Christian Germanic culture. This interest had grown until the early 20th century when runic magic was revived.
Austrian occultist Guido von List published a new runic alphabet in 1908. He claimed that, like Odin, the secrets of ancient magic had been revealed to him when he was temporarily blinded in 1902.
List’s 18 “Armanen runes” combined Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc forms and sounds. It also added two runes that List devised himself, which he said were divinely inspired.
Three decades later, Karl Maria Wiligut claimed to base another new system on the runic philosophy he had learned from his grandfather years earlier. Although he rejected List’s rune rows, Wiligut’s bore striking similarities.
Wiligut devised 24 runes that were closely based on the Elder Futhark. Like List, he added some new letters as well.
List and Wiligut were both involved in the völkisch movement, which used old Germanic culture to promote modern nationalistic identity. Their runes, and some of the mysticism associated with them, were adopted into Nazi-era symbolism.
After World War II, the völkisch movement lost popularity but interest in ancient Germanic culture remained. List and Wiligut’s reimagined runes remained popular in growing New Age occultist and neopagan beliefs.
These modern runes are not generally included in lists of historic runic alphabets because they are not used as functional writing systems. Instead, they have been adopted by modern practitioners of what they believe to be an ancient form of magic.
Since the 1980s, several books have been published that detail who to use runes, most often from one of these two newer alphabets, in divination and spell casting. A growing number of contemporary neopagans have looked to this ancient writing system and its possible use in magic for inspiration in their own religious practices.
In addition to their use in Germanic culture, runes have found their way into more wide-spread popular culture as well.
The fantasy genre was popularized by English academic J.R.R. Tolkien in the mid-20th century. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth, however, were not entirely created in his own imagination.
Tolkien was a professor of philology, or oral and written language. He was particularly interested in how the English language developed over time.
Because of this academic focus, Tolkien read several works in older Germanic languages. He was highly interested in folklore and, according to some accounts, learned Old Norse specifically so that he could read the Poetic Edda in its original language.
Tolkien began to create his own languages based on what he had learned of the historical writings of Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. The languages he invented found their way into his fantasy novels as the languages of the elves, dwarves, and men of Middle Earth.
Tolkien’s languages were incredibly detailed. In addition to full grammar rules and a broad vocabulary, he also developed a writing system for each.
In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first writing was created by the elves. Like real-world alphabets they evolved over time both in their own culture and in those of the other groups that adopted them.
This writing system was largely based on Anglo-Saxon runes. Tolkien actually used these historically-accurate letters in early drafts of The Lord of the Rings before replacing them in publication.
Even when replaced by the alphabet he called the Cirth, these letters are still recognizable as runes, however. This is especially true in the imagery of the dwarves.
Tolkien’s dwarves were based on both Old Norse mythology and Germanic folklore. They lived primarily in vast underground mines.
Like the early Germanic developers of the Elder Futhark, therefore, Tolkien’s dwarves designed their letters to be carved in stone rather than written on parchment or paper.
The result was a writing system that, like the Elder Futhark, was made almost entirely of straight lines. While Middle Earth’s elves and humans added ore curves and embellishment to their letters, dwarven writing remained closer to its Anglo-Saxon origins.
The writings of Tolkien’s imaginary elves look almost identical to inscriptions dating from early medieval Britain and Scandinavia.
Because Tolkien’s works were among the first popular and highly-developed in the fantasy genre, they heavily influenced later works. The ways in which he portrayed the cultures of his fantasy world, including their languages and writing systems, have been the standard for the genre for nearly a century.
As a result, fantasy books, films, and games continue to use Germanic-inspired imagery for dwarves. 21st century video game franchises, tabletop games, feature films, and television shows almost universally depict dwarves as using a writing system that is almost identical to that of 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxons.
The runes were a writing system developed by early Germanic people, likely inspired by the alphabets of Rome and Italy. Before the Germanic languages diverged into distinct branches, the runes spread as a practical writing system through many related cultures.
The first runes, the Elder Futhark, were developed by 150 AD. Over the next 1,500 years, several new runic systems were created to meet the needs of subsequent cultures and languages.
Archaeological and written evidence suggests that there was a link between the runes and the practice of magic, particularly in Norse culture. Some inscriptions appear to be charms and the runes were sometimes said to have been given from the gods.
In one well-known myth, Odin sacrifices himself by hanging on Yggdrasil to learn the secrets of runes. While the magic he discovered is never specified, he is shown in some poems using runes in conjunction with songs and spells.
The belief in the magic of the runes was lost through the Christian era. Although runes continued to be used in some areas, they were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet favored by the Church.
In the early 20th century, however, runes were reimagined by those interested in both mysticism and German national identity. While their nationalistic connotations faded after use in World War II, interest in ancient Germanic and Norse religion and magic only increased.
Today, runic magic is invoked by contemporary neopagans who pray to traditional Germanic gods. Belief in runic magic has expanded despite a lack of clear historical record regarding its use.
Runes are also used in fantasy settings. Because of the linguistic work of J.R.R. Tolkien, runes are the common writing system of dwarves and other fantasy races in many books, games, and films.