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A Brief History of Runes

Updated on June 23, 2012
An early runestone found in Sweden
An early runestone found in Sweden | Source

Introduction to Runes

If you have ever watched a fantasy-genre movie or played an RPG, you have probably seen runes - but do you know what they are, or what their purpose is?

As with most histories, the beginnings are blurry. Historians and language experts debate over the origin of runes, some claiming they date back to 200 B.C. while others claim 1st century A.D. Likewise, cases have been made that they were derived from Greek, Latin and Northern Italic. The truth undoubtedly hides somewhere in the middle.

What we know for sure is that by 5th century A.D., runes were in common use in Germany, Sweden, Norway and Denmark (among other places) as both magical symbols and letters of an alphabet. Indeed, the name given to them, "futhark", was created by using the first few runes in the same way the word "alphabet" uses the first 2 Latin letters. They have been found carved into stones, the handles of swords, pendants, doors, and countless other places, implying that a major part of their magical purpose was protection and guidance.

An ancient manuscript written in runic
An ancient manuscript written in runic

The Runic Alphabet

If there is one thing that really stands out about the runic alphabet, it is that every "letter" is also a "word". The first letter of the futhark, fehu, means cattle. This gives each letter great significance, making the act of writing much more than a means of communication with other human beings.

The story of the runic alphabet seems to begin with hllristningar, pre-runic symbols found on Bronze Age rock carvings in Sweden and surrounding areas. Many runes are obviously derived from hllristningar, while others are very similar to Roman letters, implying that runes are a system created by combining the two forms of writing.

This original alphabet was called the Elder Futhark, and consisted of 24 letters. These are the runes that were used in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany. Most of the oldest runic inscriptions use the Elder Futhark.

In 5th century a.d., the Anglo-Saxon invaded the northern parts of the Netherlands and Germany, and with their arrival came many changes to the runes they used. The appearance of several runes changed and 9 new runes were added. This runic system is now known as the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.

Scandinavia continued using the Elder Futhark until sometime in the 8th century a.d., when the Old Norse language began changing at a rapid pace. Rather than add runes, however, the Norse actually reduced the number of runes from 24 to 16 and gave each rune more than one sound. This system spread to Norway and Sweden, and also to Iceland and Greenland. It is now known as the Younger Futhark, and has several branches of its own.

Runes were used up until the 1600's, when they were officially banned as part of an effort to rid Europe of all non-Christian symbolism. It would be over 300 years before they would regain popularity, but mainly as a divinatory tool. The runic alphabet is, sadly, a thing of the past.

The Magic of Runes

Runes have been used as magical symbols just as long as they have been used as an alphabet. In fact, early runic inscriptions indicate that they were originally used as both an alphabet and magic symbols simultaneously, making each word, or string of runes, magically significant.

For example, Norse runic inscriptions often end with "____ wrote this". The reasoning was that the act of writing out one's name in runes infuses it with magic -- in this case, connecting the written with the writer.

Truly, the act of writing in runes was believed to be the act of performing a spell in and of itself.

Probably the most readily available example of this would be the runic talisman or amulet. These are created when one carves the relevant rune(s) into a piece of wood, stone, clay or other (preferably natural) material and strings it so that it can be worn around the neck or wrist. There are countless reasons one would do this, but prime examples would be someone who wants a child creating a fertility/health amulet, or someone who is preparing for battle creating a protection/strength talisman.

There were 2 main ways to create a written rune spell. The first was the rune script - writing all the relevant runes in a row. The second was the bind rune - creating a unique symbol by combining 2 or more individual runes. Pure preference determined which would be used.

The spells were cast in any number of ways, but the most common was to scratch the rune(s) onto something that could be burned afterwards - a piece of tree bark, for instance. A modern version of this is to carve them into a candle, lighting the candle and letting it burn down.

While no longer very common or popular, there are still people who use runes today, and they will tell you that, however you decide to cast your spells, the purpose should be pure, and the aim clear. They believe that when one casts a rune spell, they are sending a message out into the universe, and waiting on a response.


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  • Imogen French profile image

    Imogen French 5 years ago from Southwest England

    very interesting - I have seen rune stones, but didn't know much about runes, so have learnt something new here

  • Ariana Phillips profile image

    Ariana Phillips 5 years ago from Utah

    Interesting article. It is amazing how different writing systems came to be. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about this one.