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Runes were the written versions of the Germanic languages of medieval Europe. They were later discarded in favour of the latin alphabet around the time that Northern Europe and Scandinavia was christianised, However there is still a large amount of interest in the Runic language today. In Scandinavia the Runic alphabets were known as 'Furthark' which was due to the six letters being F, U, Þ, A, R, and K.
Runeology is the study of the Runic alphabet, inscriptions and Runic history. This is a key skill for historians who wish to study the history of Viking age Europe through its primary sources written by the Vikings themselves.
The earliest records of runic artefacts date back to the 1st Century AD, however the majority of historical finds come from the Viking age during the 8th-11th Centuries. Some historians believe that the Runic alphabet may have developed from the Ancient Greek or Italic alphabets due to certain similarities between the oldest versions of the letters.
The distinctive shapes of runes, with their sharp edges and preference of straight lines, came from the fact that they were often carved onto stones, bones or metal items. This influenced their shape and style giving the runes their distinctive look. Many of the other alphabets of the medieval period contain letters consisting of more curved lines and dots, however runes were rarely written with ink and paper, hence their unique aesthetic.
Elder Further and Younger Furthark Inscriptions on the Rök Runestone in Sweden - Bengt Olof ÅRADSSON CC BY 1.0
One of the earliest historical finds containing runes was the Vimose comb, which was found in Denmark and dated back to the year 160 AD. This was one of the first times that it was clear that runes had been used, in contrast to earlier artefacts where there is still debate between historians as to whether the inscriptions were runic or roman.
The first evidence of a full runic alphabet was discovered on the Kylver rune stone which was made in the 5th Century AD. The stone was found by a Swedish farmer on the Island of Gotland in 1903 and is currently on display in the Swedish national museum in Stockholm. This was the oldest historical source of the full Elder Furthark alphabet of 24 characters, which was thought to have been developed around this time period.
Being the oldest of the Runic alphabets Elder Furthark actually pre-dates the Viking age. The very oldest Rune stones were written in Elder Furthark, which was used mainly between 150AD - 800AD throughout Scandinavia and other Germanic regions.
There were 24 characters in the Elder Furthark alphabet, which was thought to be fully completed around the 4th Century AD. There had been evidence of the existence of runes before this, however it is thought that the alphabet only became fully formed after this point.
This was the runic alphabet which was most commonly used in the Viking age, around 800AD-1100Ad. There were two main types of Younger Furthark; long branch which was used primarily in Denmark, but also in Sweden and Norway, and short branch which were known as Rök runes and were primarily used in Sweden and Norway.
Younger Furthark first begun to diverge from the older version of the runes around the start of the Viking age and eventually completely replaced Elder Furthark as the main method of writing throughout Scandinavia.
The Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, also referred to as 'Futhorc' was used from the 5th Century AD onwards mainly in England. This alphabet originally consisted of 29 characters but later grew to include 33.
It is thought that the knowledge of runes was brought to the British Isles by the migration of Germanic peoples from the continent. One historical find that supports this theory is the thames scramasax which was a traditional germanic seax that was engraved with futhorc runes and was found in London in 1857.
|1. Ansuz - ᚨ - Messanger rune, Signals, Loki's Rune|
|2. Berkana - ᛒ - Rebirth, Growth, Birch trees|
|3. Kano/Kana - ᚲ - Fire, Torch, Opening|
|4. Dagaz - ᛞ - Daytime, Transformation, Breakthrough|
|5. Ehwaz - ᛖ - Horse, Movement, Progress|
|6. Fehu - ᚠ - Property, Wealth, Livestock|
|7. Gebo - ᚷ - Partnership, Gift|
|8. Hagalaz - ᚺ - Forces of Nature, Elemental, Hail|
|9. Isa - ᛁ - Ice, Stagnation|
|10. Jera - ᛡ - Harvest, Reward, Fertility|
|11. Kaun - ᚴ - Ulcer, Pain, Mortality|
|12. Laguz - ᛚ - Flowing Water, Chaos, Formlessness|
|13. Mannaz - ᛗ - Man, The Self, Support|
|14. Nauthis/Naudhiz - ᚾ - Compulsion, Necessity, Desire|
|15. Othila - ᛟ - Separation, Withdrawal, Inheritance|
16. Perth - ᛈ - Initiation, Secrecy
|17. Raidho - ᚱ - Journey, Communication, Growth|
|18. Sowilo - ᛋ - Success, Vitality, Wholeness|
|19. Tiwaz - ᛏ - Victory, Honour|
|20. Uruz - ᚢ - Will Power, Strength, Masculinity|
|21. Wunjo - ᚹ - Joy, Light, Ecstasy|
|22. Algiz - ᛉ - Protection, Defence of Loved One|
|23. Eihwaz - ᛇ - Strength, Stability, Defensive Force|
|24. Thurisaz - ᚦ - Danger, Suffering|
In Norse Mythology runes were often associated with magic and spell casting. In one Saga Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil, the tree of life, and impaled himself with Gungnir (his spear) in order to sacrifice himself to gain the knowledge of runes. According to the story he later gifted this knowledge to mankind.
Odin's spear, the aforementioned Gungnir, also had magical properties tied to its runic engravings. The spear, which was made by two drawvern brothers, had runes engraved along its head which allegedly gave its user the ability to hit their target without fail regardless of their skill or strength.
Each rune had a specific meaning and phonetical sound as previously discussed in the section above, the norsemen believed that runes could be used to make incantations to perform magical tasks such divination. This also tied in to the concept of Seidr in Norse Mythology, where certain practitioners, known as Völva, could see into the future and change the course of destiny.
It is believed by many modern historians that the Vikings thought not only that the runes could be used for magical purposes, but that they were themselves magical. In one saga a travelling Viking named Egil was given hospitality by a farmer during his journey. The farmer made him a meal and as he was eating Egil noticed that the farmers daughter looked unwell. When Egil enquired about her condition the farmer told him that she was terribly ill and asked if he could help. Upon examining her bed Egil found some runes carved into a piece of bone, the farmer said that this inscription had been done by a local boy, who's knowledge of runes was lacking.
Egil was a master of runes and quickly discarded the old engraving and burning the bones he began carving a new phrase. He told the farmer that the runic magic from the old inscription had been the cause of the girls affliction and that the new runes would protect his daughter. Surely enough the young girl quickly made a full recovery.
This saga was one of the many examples of the runes themselves being intrinsically magical rather than just being a tool that the Viking shamans used in order to perform magical acts.
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