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Updated on September 4, 2009

Runes are the characters used in an ancient Germanic system of writing found mainly in Scandinavia and England. The name comes from an Old English word meaning secret or mystery. The original runic alphabet had 24 letters, consisting mostly of straight lines arranged in various patterns. It was especially suitable for carving on wood. The runic alphabet was often called futhark or futhorc, after its first 6 letters, which are f, u, th, a (or o), r, and fe (or c). It was increased to 33 letters in England, but was decreased to 16 letters in Scandinavia. Runic inscriptions have been found not only on stones, but also on many everyday objects, including arms, coins, and pieces of jewelry.


Runes were in existence by the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. They were probably developed by Teutonic peoples from a version of the Etruscan alphabet used in the eastern Alps. The form of the letters of the runic alphabet was influenced by the handwritten forms of the Greek and Latin alphabets. The oldest surviving runic inscriptions were found in Denmark and date from the middle of the 3d century A.D. The Goths were using runes by the beginning of the 4th century A.D. The runic alphabet spread rapidly throughout western Europe, and runic manuscripts have been found in both England and Scandinavia. Runes were believed to possess magical powers. According to an old Norse legend, the god Odin rejuvenated himself by lifting stones containing runic inscriptions. Because of its magical connotations the runic system of writing was opposed by Christian missionaries, who regarded it as a mark of paganism. It had generally disappeared from use by the end of the Middle Ages, although some areas in rural Sweden continued to employ it almost until modern times.


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