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What are Runes?

Updated on May 1, 2011

Runes are the characters used in writing by the Teutonic tribes of northwestern Europe in early times. Three classes of runes are recognized, Anglo-Saxon, German and Scandinavian, but the differences of form which distinguished them are no wider than the differences between the alphabets employed in very ancient times by various Greek peoples—between the Old Athenian alphabet, for example, and the Old Corinthian, or between the earliest Phoenician and the earliest Hebrew. The name Rune is significant of the use to which this manner of writing was first applied. In Anglo-Saxon run means secret, and runa magician; and the knowledge of runes was confined to a small class—priests or sorcerers. For this reason, upon the introduction of the Christian religion the use of the runes was condemned as connected with heathenish superstitions. A poet of the 6th century, Venantius Fortunatus, tells of runes being written on tablets or slabs of ash (fraxineis tabellis), but there are extant numerous runes inscribed on memorial stones, personal ornaments, rings, and coins, which have been found in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Iceland, and in Britain within the limits of the ancient kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Some examples of runes have been found in Ireland, France, and Rumania. The best British examples are found on a cross in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, Scotland ; on a pillar in Bancastle, Cumberland; and on the Frank's casket in the British Museum. The system of characters called runes gets the name Futhorc from the first six letters, just as the Greek system is called Alphabet from the names of the first two letters, alpha and beta, A and B, or as we call our alphabet the ABC.

The origin of the runes is still a matter of uncertainty. While they are obviously an offshoot of the Helleno-Italic family of alphabets, it is not easy to ascertain at what point they branched out from their ancestral stock. While they have usually been regarded as of a purely Latin origin, the alternative theories have been propounded that they were invented upon a Galatian base, by the Goths soon after their expedition to Asia Minor in 267, and that they are of Euboean origin, through the contact of the Goths with Greek colonies in the Crimea. All these theories depend on a dating of the runes which is itself dependent on that of the Gothic bible of Ulfilas, in which an alphabet is used containing at least two runic characters. The authenticity of the 4th century date usually assigned to Ulfilas, and his bible, has been called into question by the investigations of Leo Wiener, who also explained the order of the runes through their relation to the so-called ogams or tree-runes.

Except in Scandinavia, the runes were always a purely inscriptional alphabet. Scandinavian runic manuscripts exist, but are not older than the 13th century. The Latin alphabet gradually supplanted the runes, though they lingered on in popular use and in calendars until modern times. In England, runes are found between the middle of the 6th and the middle of the 10th centuries. Some Celtic runic inscriptions also exist.


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    • Mr Knowitall profile image

      Mr Knowitall 6 years ago

      They are interesting aren't they. And steeped in history and mystique.

    • Jhangora profile image

      Dinesh Mohan Raturi 6 years ago from Dehradun

      Thanx a lot for a very informative Hub on Runes. I had always been curious to know more about these fascinating pieces of art and history.