Younger Futhark inscription on the Rök Stone
The Runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes, formerly used to write Germanic languages, mainly in Scandinavia, and the British Isles. In all their varieties, they may be considered an ancient writing system of Northern Europe. The Scandinavian version is also known as Futhark (from the first six letters, ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲ), and the Anglo-Saxon version as Futhorc. The earliest runic inscriptions date from ca. 150, and the alphabet was generally replaced by the Latin alphabet with Christianisation, by ca. 700 in central Europe, and by ca. 1200 in Scandinavia. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes, mainly in Scandinavia, in rural Sweden until the early 20th century (used mainly for decoration as Dalecarlian runes, and on Runic calendars).
The three best known runic alphabets are:
The Younger Futhark is further divided into:
- the Danish futhark script
- the Swedish-Norwegian runic script (also: Short-twig or Rök Runes)
- the Hälsinge Runes (staveless runes)
- the latinised Dalecarlian futhark script (ca. 1500–1910)
The most likely candidates for the origins of runic scripts are the 5th to 1st century BC Northern Italic alphabets, Lepontic, Rhaetic and Venetic, all closely related to each other and themselves descended from the Old Italic alphabet. These scripts bear a remarkable resemblance to the Futhark in many regards.
The runes were introduced to, or invented by, the Germanic peoples in roughly the 2nd century. While at this time the Germanic language was certainly not at the Proto-Germanic stage any longer, it may still have been a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries, viz. North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic. Most of the early runes from the Scandinavian countries are assumed to be in the Old Norse language, the common ancestor language of the modern North Germanic languages. No distinction is made in surviving runic inscriptions between long and short vowels, although such a distinction was certainly present phonologically in the spoken languages of the time. As Proto-Germanic evolved into its later language groups, the words assigned to the runes and the sounds represented by the runes themselves began to diverge somewhat, and each culture would either create new runes, rename or rearrange its rune names slightly, or even stop using obsolete runes completely, to accommodate these changes. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc has several runes peculiar unto itself to represent diphthongs unique to (or at least prevalent in) the Anglo-Saxon dialect. However, the fact that the younger Futhark has sixteen runes, while the Elder Futhark has twenty four, is not fully explained by the some six hundred years of sound changes that had occured in the North Germanic language group. The development here might seem rather astonishing, since the younger form of the alphabet came to use the same few runes to express an unusually great number of different phonemes that the older version had distinguished clearly. For example, voiced and unvoiced consonants merged in script, and so did many vowels. Later, this disadvantage was partly eliminated in the dotted runes of Dalecarlia (see below).
The name given to the signs, contrasting them with Latin or Greek letters, is first attested on a 6th century alamannic runestaff as runa. The name is from a root run- (Gothic runa) meaning "secret" (c.f. also the chapters of the Kalevala, called runo, plural runot, a loan from North Germanic).
In Norse mythology, the invention of runes is attributed to Odin: The Havamal (stanzas 138, 139) describes how Odin receives the rune through his self-sacrifice. The text (in New Icelandic and in English translation) is as follows:
|Veit eg að eg hékk vindgameiði á ||I know that I hung on a windy tree |
|nætur allar níu, ||nine long nights, |
|geiri undaður og gefinn Óðni, ||wounded with a spear dedicated to Odin, |
|sjálfur sjálfum mér, ||myself to myself, |
|á þeim meiði er manngi veit hvers af rótum renn. ||on a tree of which no man knows from where its foots stem |
|Við hleifi mig sældu né við horni-gi. ||No bread did they give me nor a tree from a horn, |
|Nýsta eg niður, ||downwards I peered, |
|nam eg upp rúnar, ||I took up the runes, |
|æpandi nam, ||screaming I took them, |
|féll eg aftur þaðan. ||then I fell back from there |
The runes developed comparatively late, centuries after the Central European alphabets from which they are probably descended. There are some similarities to alphabets of Phoenician origin (Latin, Greek, Italic) that cannot possibly all be due to chance: ᚠ - F, ᚢ - V, ᚱ - R , ᚺ - H, ᛁ - I, ᛊ - S, ᛏ - T, ᛒ - B, ᛗ - M, ᛚ - Λ, ᛞ - Δ, ᛟ - Ω. However, other letters seem to be independent. The Northern Italic alphabet is usually quoted as a candidate for the origin of the runes. Their angular shapes are generally interpreted as an adaptation to the practice of carving in wood (rather than writing with a reed or a brush).
Another theory is that the runes originated directly from the Middle East, and are related to the Nabataean alphabet, a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. The introduction of runes is in this scenario ascribed to the Roman legions, which left Syria Palaestina during the 2nd century. This theory is based on discovery of early runes on weapons, such as longbows, and arrow heads, characteristically belonging to these soldiers. (The historical Nabataean kingdom, spanning Jordan, Sinai, and South Israel, corresponds to early Arabia.)
The "West Germanic hypothesis" assumes an introduction by West Germanic tribes. This hypothesis is based on the earliest inscriptions of ca. 200, found in bogs and graves around Jutland, which exhibit West Germanic name forms, e. g. wagnija, niþijo, and harija, possibly names of tribes located in the Rhineland. However, some tribes of Jutland (Angles and Jutes) appear to have been speaking West Germanic rather than North Germanic dialects at this time, something that can still be traced in local dialects of Danish.
Runes are a popular field for scientific speculation, and many other theories have been advanced, e. g. a claim by Olaus Rudbeck Sr in Atlantica that all writing system orginate from proto-runic scripts.
In the later Middle Ages, runes were mostly used in the Clog almanacs (sometimes called Runic staff, Prim or Scandinavian calendar) that became standard equipment within Northern Europe with the introduction of Christianity. The authenticity of some monuments bearing Runic inscriptions found in Northern America is disputed, but most of them date from modern times.
The earliest runic inscriptions were certainly not coherent texts of any length, but simple markings on artefacts (e.g. bracteates, combs, etc.), giving the name of either the craftsman or the proprietor, or, sometimes, remaining a linguistic mystery. Because of this, it is possible that the early runes were not so much used as a simple writing system, but rather as magical signs to be used for charms, or for divination. The name rune itself, taken to mean "secret, something hidden", seems to indicate that knowledge of the runes was originally considered esoteric, or restricted to an elite. However, it has proved difficult to find unambiguous traces of such runic "oracles": Although Norse literature is full of references to runes, it nowhere contains specific instructions on divination or magic. There are two sources on divination with rather vague descriptions that may or may not refer to runes. The first is Tacitus' Germania, which describes "signs" chosen in groups of three. The second appears in Rimbert's Vita Ansgari, which describes how a renegade Swedish king Anund Uppsale first brings a Danish fleet to Birka, but then changes his mind and asks the Danes to draw lots. This drawing of lots is quite informative, telling them that attacking Birka would bring bad luck and that they should attack a Slavic town.
There are some inscriptions suggesting a medieval belief in the magical significance of runes, such as the Franks Casket (AD 700) panel.
This lack of knowledge has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the runes' reconstructed names. Perhaps the most popular of these is Ralph Blum, whose Book of Runes comes with a set of runes on ceramic tiles, that are loosely based on the runes of the Elder Futhark. Another author is Edred Thorsson, whose best known books are Futhark, Runelore and Runecaster's Handbook (originally published as At The Well of Wyrd).
Later runic finds are mainly monuments (rune stones) and often contain solemn inscriptions about people who died or performed great deeds. For a long time it was assumed that this kind of grand inscription was the primary use of runes, and that their use was associated with a certain societal class of rune-carvers.
However, in the middle of the 1950s, about 600 inscriptions known as the Bryggen inscriptions were found in Bergen. These inscriptions were made on wood and bone and contained several phrases of a profane and sometimes even vulgar nature. Following this find, it is nowadays commonly assumed that at least in late use, Runic was a widespread and common writing system.
Theories of the existence of Gothic runes have been advanced, even identifying them as the original alphabet from which the Futhark were derived, but these have little support in actual findings. If there ever were genuinely Gothic runes, they were soon replaced by the Gothic alphabet. The letters of the Gothic alphabet, however, as given by the Alcuin manuscript (9th century), are obviously related to the names of the Futhark. The names are clearly Gothic, but it is impossible to say whether they are as old as, or even older than, the letters themselves.
main article: Elder Futhark.
The Elder Futhark, sometimes also called proto-Nordic (urnordiska), consist of twenty-four runes, often arranged in three rows of eight. The earliest known full sequential listing of the alphabet dates from ca. 400 and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland.
- ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ ᚹ
- ᚺ ᚾ ᛁ ᛃ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛊ
- ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛜ ᛞ ᛟ
The letter values, and their common transliteration are: ᚠ [f], ᚢ [u], ᚦ [þ], ᚨ [a], ᚱ [r], ᚲ [k], ᚺ [h], ᚾ [n], ᛁ [i], ᛃ [j]; ᛇ [ï] ([ei]), ᛈ [p], ᛉ [R], ᛊ [s], ᛏ [t], ᛒ [b], ᛖ [e], ᛗ [m], ᛚ [l], ᛜ [ŋ], ᛞ [d], ᛟ [o].
Each rune most probably had a name, chosen to represent the sound of the rune itself. The names are, however, not directly attested for the Elder Futhark themselves. Reconstructed names in Proto-Germanic have been suggested for them, based on the names given for runes of the later alphabets in the rune poems and the names of the letters of the Gothic alphabet.
ᚠ fehu "wealth, cattle", ᚢ ûruz "aurochs" (or ûram "water / slag"?), ᚦ thurisaz "giant", ᚨ ansuz "oe of the Aesir" (or ahsam "ear (of corn)"?), ᚱ raidô "ride, journey", ᚲ kaunan "ulcer, illness", ᚷ gebô "gift", ᚹ wunjô "joy",
ᚺ haglaz "hail", ᚾ naudiz "need", ᛁ îsaz "ice", ᛃ jera "year", ᛇ îgwaz / eihwaz "yew", ᛈ perþô? "pear"?, ᛉ algiz "elk"?, ᛊ sôwilô "Sun",
ᛏ tîwaz (a god), ᛒ berkanan "birch", ᛖ ehwaz "horse", ᛗ mannaz "man", ᛚ laukaz "lake", ᛜ ingwaz (a god), ᛞ dagaz "day", ᛟ ôþalan "estate, inheritance"
Frisian and Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc
The Futhorc are an extended alphabet, consisting of 29, and later even 33 characters. It was used probably from the 5th century and onward, having been developed in Frisia and later spread to England. Futhorc inscriptions are found e. g. on the Thames scramasax, in the Vienna Codex, in Cotton MS Otho B (†) and on the Ruthwell Cross.
The Anglo-Saxon rune poem has: ᚠ feoh, ᚢ ur, ᚦ thorn, ᚩ os, ᚱ rad, ᚳ cen, ᚷ gyfu, ᚹ wynn, ᚻ haegl, ᚾ nyd, ᛁ is, ᛄ ger, ᛇ eoh, ᛈ peordh, ᛉ eolh, ᛋ sigel, ᛏ tir, ᛒ beorc, ᛖ eh, ᛗ mann, ᛚ lagu, ᛝ ing, ᛟ ethel, ᛞ daeg, ᚪ ac, ᚫ aesc, ᚣ yr, ᛡ ior, ᛠ ear.
The expanded alphabet has the additional letters ᛢ cweorth, ᛣ calc, ᛤ cealc and ᛥ stan.
Feoh, þorn, and sigel stood for [f], [þ], and [s] in most environments, but voiced to [v], [ð], and [z] between vowels or voiced consonants. Gyfu and wynn stood for the letters yogh and wynn which became [g] and [w] in Middle English.
The Younger Fuþark, also called Scandinavian Fuþark, are a reduced form of the Elder Futhark, consisting of only 16 characters. They are found in Scandinavia and Viking Age settlements abroad, probably in use from the 9th century onward.
Danish Fuþąrk (long-branch runes)
the Younger Futhark (long-branch runes)
The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems have 16 runes,
- ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚬ ᚱ ᚴ ᚼ ᚾ ᛁ ᛅ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ ᛘ ᛚ ᛦ
with the letter names ᚠ fe ("wealth"), ᚢ ur ("iron"/"rain"), ᚦ Thurs, ᚬ As/Oss, ᚱ reidh ("ride"), ᚴ kaun ("ulcer"), ᚼ hagall ("hail"), ᚾ naudhr/naud ("need"), ᛁ is/iss ("ice"), ᛅ ar ("plenty"), ᛋ sol ("sun"), ᛏ Tyr, ᛒ bjarkan/bjarken ("birch"), ᛘ madhr/madr ("man"), ᛚ logr/lög ("water"), ᛦ yr ("yew").
Swedish-Norwegian Fuþąrk (short-twig runes)
The short-twig runes (or Rök runes) are clearly a simplified version of the long-branch runes, consisting of the following sixteen signs:
- ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚭ ᚱ ᚴ ᚽ ᚿ ᛁ ᛆ ᛌ ᛐ ᛓ ᛙ ᛚ ᛧ
Hälsinge Runes (staveless runes)
Hälsinge runes are found in the Hälsingland region of Sweden, used between the 10th and 12th centuries. The runes seem to be a simplification of the Swedish–Norwegian runes and lack vertical strokes, hence the name 'staveless.' They cover the same set of letters as the other Younger Futhark alphabets. This variant has no assigned Unicode range (as of Unicode 4.0).
Dalecarlian Runic script
Named after the Swedish province Dalecarlia (see Dalecarlian language), the Dalecarlian runic script is an alphabetic script influenced by both long-branch and short-twig runes. It introduces dotted variants of voiceless signs to denote the corresponding voiced consonants, or vice versa, voiceless variants of voiced consonants. It came into use in the late Middle Ages (or in the early 16th century) and remained in some use up to the 20th century. Its inventory is suitable for transcribing modern Swedish:
ᛆ a, ᛒ b, ᛍ c, ᛑ d, ᚦ þ, ᚧ ð, ᛂ e, ᚠ f, ᚵ g, ᚼ h, ᛁ i, ᚴ k, ᛚ l, ᛘ m, ᚿ n, ᚮ o, ᛔ p, ᚱ r, ᛌ s, ᛐ t, ᚢ u, ᚡ v, ᛦ y, ᛎ z, ᛅ æ, ᚯ ø
There are other varieties of the Younger Futhark, in particular the Edward-script which can be considered as a variant of the Dalecarlian runes (see Image of Edward-script). In total, about 380 objects dating from 1500–1910 have been found in the provinces of Dalecarlia, Gestricia and Herdalia. The Edward-script was in use until the 1910s in Älvdalen, Dalecarlia, and also appears on the Kensington runestone, which to most researchers indicates its status as a hoax.
In addition to the above-mentioned extrapolations from their supposed use in ancient divination, runes have been used in fascist symbolism by Nazism and neo-Nazi groups that associate themselves with Scandinavian traditions. An example is the use of the Odal rune (see Odalism). See also Thor Steinar.
Runes are used for divination and ritual in varying ways in occultism and neo-paganism (e.g. Ásatrú, Wicca). Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to draw a precise boundary line between these and Nazi mysticism, but the mere use of runes should not be construed as sufficient proof of any connection to fascist ideas.
J. R. R. Tolkien popularized runes by his use of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc in The Hobbit, and he also invented his own fictional runic aphabet, the Cirth. In Tolkien's wake, runes appear frequently in Fantasy literature.
In role-playing games, paper- or computer-based (such as the online game Runescape), runes are often used to cast magic spells. There are typically many kinds (Air, Mind, Water, Earth, Fire, Body, Cosmic, Chaos, Nature, Death, Law, Blood, Soul) and sophisticated magical effects may often be achieved by combining them during the casting or enchantment.
Runic alphabets are assigned Unicode range 16A0–16FF. This block is intended to encode all shapes of runic letters. Each letter is encoded only once, regardless of the number of alphabets in which it occurrs.
The block contains 81 symbols: 75 runic letters (16A0–16EA), three punctuation marks (Runic Single Punctuation 16EB ᛫, Runic Multiple Punctuation 16EC ᛬ and Runic Cross Punctuation 16ED ᛭), and three runic symbols that are used in mediaeval calendar staves ("Golden number Runes", Runic Arlaug Symbol 16EE ᛮ, Runic Tvimadur Symbol 16EF ᛯ and Runic Belgthor Symbol 16F0 ᛰ). Characters 16F1–16FF are presently (as of Unicode Version 4.0) unassigned.
Table of runic letters (U+16A0–U+16EA):
|16A0 ||ᚠ ||fehu feoh fe f ||16B0 ||ᚰ ||on ||16C0 ||ᛀ ||dotted-n ||16D0 ||ᛐ ||short-twig-tyr t ||16E0 ||ᛠ ||ear |
|16A1 ||ᚡ ||v ||16B1 ||ᚱ ||raido rad reid r ||16C1 ||ᛁ ||isaz is iss i ||16D1 ||ᛑ ||d ||16E1 ||ᛡ ||ior |
|16A2 ||ᚢ ||uruz ur u ||16B2 ||ᚲ ||kauna ||16C2 ||ᛂ ||e ||16D2 ||ᛒ ||berkanan beorc bjarkan b ||16E2 ||ᛢ ||cweorth |
|16A3 ||ᚣ ||yr ||16B3 ||ᚳ ||cen ||16C3 ||ᛃ ||jeran j ||16D3 ||ᛓ ||short-twig-bjarkan b ||16E3 ||ᛣ ||calc |
|16A4 ||ᚤ ||y ||16B4 ||ᚴ ||kaun k ||16C4 ||ᛄ ||ger ||16D4 ||ᛔ ||dotted-p ||16E4 ||ᛤ ||cealc |
|16A5 ||ᚥ ||w ||16B5 ||ᚵ ||g ||16C5 ||ᛅ ||long-branch-ar ae ||16D5 ||ᛕ ||open-p ||16E5 ||ᛥ ||stan |
|16A6 ||ᚦ ||thurisaz thurs thorn ||16B6 ||ᚶ ||eng ||16C6 ||ᛆ ||short-twig-ar a ||16D6 ||ᛖ ||ehwaz eh e ||16E6 ||ᛦ ||long-branch-yr |
|16A7 ||ᚧ ||eth ||16B7 ||ᚷ ||gebo gyfu g ||16C7 ||ᛇ ||iwaz eoh ||16D7 ||ᛗ ||mannaz man m ||16E7 ||ᛧ ||short-twig-yr |
|16A8 ||ᚨ ||ansuz a ||16B8 ||ᚸ ||gar ||16C8 ||ᛈ ||pertho peorth p ||16D8 ||ᛘ ||long-branch-madr m ||16E8 ||ᛨ ||icelandic-yr |
|16A9 ||ᚩ ||os o ||16B9 ||ᚹ ||wunjo wynn w ||16C9 ||ᛉ ||algiz eolhx ||16D9 ||ᛙ ||short-twig-madr m ||16E9 ||ᛩ ||q |
|16AA ||ᚪ ||ac a ||16BA ||ᚺ ||haglaz h ||16CA ||ᛊ ||sowilo s ||16DA ||ᛚ ||laukaz lagu logr l ||16EA ||ᛪ ||x |
|16AB ||ᚫ ||aesc ||16BB ||ᚻ ||haegl h ||16CB ||ᛋ ||sigel long-branch-sol s ||16DB ||ᛛ ||dotted-l |
|16AC ||ᚬ ||long-branch-oss o ||16BC ||ᚼ ||long-branch-hagall h ||16CC ||ᛌ ||short-twig-sol s ||16DC ||ᛜ ||ingwaz |
|16AD ||ᚭ ||short-twig-oss o ||16BD ||ᚽ ||short-twig-hagall h ||16CD ||ᛍ ||c ||16DD ||ᛝ ||ing |
|16AE ||ᚮ ||o ||16BE ||ᚾ ||naudiz nyd naud n ||16CE ||ᛎ ||z ||16DE ||ᛞ ||dagaz daeg d |
|16AF ||ᚯ ||oe ||16BF ||ᚿ ||short-twig-naud n ||16CF ||ᛏ ||tiwaz tir tyr t ||16DF ||ᛟ ||othalan ethel o |
Other Alphabets Sometimes Called "Runes"
- Erik Brate: Sveriges runinskrifter, 1922 (online text (http://www.runor.se/) in Swedish)
- Orrin W. Robinson Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0804714541
- the Futhark (http://ancientscripts.com/futhark.html) (ancientscripts.com)
- Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700 (http://www.ub.rug.nl/eldoc/dis/arts/j.h.looijenga/) by J. H. Looijenga (dissertation, Groningen University)
- "Code2000.ttf (http://home.att.net/~jameskass/)" - a font containing nearly 35,000 glyphs (shareware) by James Kass
- Unicode Code Chart (PDF) (http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U16A0.pdf)