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What Are Runes?

Feb 11, 2016

Little is known about the origins of the Runic alphabet, which is traditionally known as futhark after the first six letters. In Old Norse the word rune means 'letter', 'text' or 'inscription'. The word also means 'mystery' or 'secret' in Old Germanic languages and runes had a important role in ritual and magic.

The runic alphabet was known from the first century AD among all Germanic tribes around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The oldest version of the runic alphabet had 24 runes. It was used for writing on wood, bone and stone and was regarded as sacred.

The Elder Futhark, used for writing Proto-Norse, consists of 24 runes that often are arranged in three groups of eight; each group is referred to as an Ætt. The earliest known sequential listing of the full set of 24 runes dates to approximately CE 400 and is found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland, Sweden.

While manu argue over the details of the origins of runic writing, there is widespread agreement on a general outline. The runes are thought to have been derived from one of the many Old Italic alphabets in use among the Mediterranean peoples of the first century CE, who lived to the south of the Germanic tribes. Earlier Germanic sacred symbols, such as those found in northern European petroglyphs, were also likely an influence in their development.

The earliest possibly runic inscription found is on the Meldorf brooch, which was created in the north of modern-day Germany around 50 AD. Scholars are divided over whether its letters are runic or Roman. The earliest clearly identifiable runic inscriptions are found on the Vimose comb from Vimose, Denmark and the Øvre Stabu spearhead from southern Norway, both of which date to approximately 160 AD. The earliest known carving of the entire futhark, in order, is that on the Kylver stone from Gotland, Sweden, which dates to roughly 400 AD .

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