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Medieval Germanic Runes

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A rune is a letter of one of the ancient Germanic alphabets of the countries of Northern Europe, including Iceland and Greenland. A runic alphabet is called a futhark (also futhorc or futhork), from the first six letters: F - U - Þ - A - R - K1. This is analogous to the derivation of the word 'alphabet' from aleph, bet and alpha, beta.

The use of runes spread from the Scandinavian countries:

  • Westward with the Vikings, as far as Greenland.

  • Eastward with the Rus, to Russia and the Ukraine.

  • Southeast to Constantinople, with the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor.

Runes became established wherever the Norse people settled for a substantial length of time, including on the Isle of Man. The Anglo-Saxon runes came to England in a wave of migration earlier than that of the great Norse expansions.

A futhark consists of runes made up principally of straight lines in various combinations. Many of them resemble letters of the Roman or Greek alphabets, from which the runes may have been derived2. The different futharks had different numbers of characters, ranging from 24 characters in the Elder Futhark to more than 30 in that of the Anglo-Saxons. The number of characters depended in part on the number of phonemes (units of sound) in the language being inscribed. The runes seem to have been developed as a means of recording brief texts by scratching them onto stone or wood3.

Each rune's name was an actual word in the language using a particular futhark. These names varied from language to language, and even from dialect to dialect within a language, and also from one time period to another. In Anglo-Saxon scholarship there is incomplete agreement on the set of names that should go with the Anglo-Saxon futhark, since in poetic use some runes clearly have different names in different contexts. It is therefore impracticable to provide a definitive list of rune names.

The Historic Uses of Runes

The uses of runes were specialized, and most of the inscriptions fall into clearly-defined conventional types. The most varied and interesting are those cut for magical effect... An event might be brought to pass if it were cut in runes which were inlaid with blood while charms were recited. There is a description in Egils saga of how Egil detected poison with runes: he cut them on the drinking horn, reddened them with his blood, and recited a verse (quoted in the saga). Thereupon the horn burst asunder.
- EV Gordon, Introduction to Old Norse, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p183.

The use of runes in Old Norse Saga is paralleled in the Anglo-Saxon charms that have come down to us, but in Old English the Latin letters (and often the Latin language) were used for the magical inscriptions. In a primarily illiterate world it is the communicative power of writing that is the spiritual mystery, rather than any magic of the particular characters. Anglo-Saxon run, as well as meaning a letter in the runic alphabet, can also mean 'mystery', 'secret', 'counsel' or 'secret council'. In Old Norse, runar, as well as meaning 'runes', also means 'secret', 'hidden lore', 'wisdom' and, 'magical characters or signs'. In both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon the primary meaning of the word was not the letters, but rather the mystery element.

In the Sigdrifumal, a portion of the Elder Edda4, there is a list of the types of runes a man should know, including:

  • Gamanrúna - Game runes, (having to do with songs)
  • Sigrúnar - Victory runes (for warfare)
  • Ölrúnar - Ale runes (against poison)
  • Bjargrúnar - Birth runes (to aid in childbirth)
  • Brimrúnar - Sea runes (for luck in sailing)
  • Limrúnar - Limb runes (for healers)
  • Málrúnar - Speech runes (for help in courts of law)
  • Hugrúnar - Thought runes (for wisdom)
  • Bókrúnar - Beech runes (unspecified), and
  • Mætar meginrúnar - Mighty magic runes (unspecified).

All types which have any specificity seem to be runes which might be inscribed on objects or tools, or perhaps amulets, for luck in specific situations.

In later times, as well as being carved on objects, runes show up in manuscripts. Here they are generally not used for continuous texts, but rather as clever devices for signatures, or in a way similar to that in which smileys are sometimes used on the Internet. Each rune had a name, different in different languages (as mentioned above), which had a real meaning (as one might argue the letter 'T' has in English, whether as a beverage or a piece of golf equipment.) The names of the runes were worked into texts as actual words, while the phonetic value of the letters spelled out something else, such as the name of the author. Some idea of the working of runic signatures may be had by considering an imaginary free-verse poet named 'Ric Purty' who decided to sign his poem in the manner of the real poet Cynewulf. Such a poem might look like this:

I'm in the garden at sunrise.
Dust is rising from the parched soil.
The motes R in my I,
and tears. We cannot C.
The P and bean U picked
for me from the starving
garden R good with T.
you ask?

It is poor poetry, but the fictitious poet's name, Ric Purty, is worked into the poem in the way used by Cynewulf. Here is an example of Cynewulf's runic signature from a much better Anglo-Saxon poem, Cynewulf's Juliana:

          ... ... ... ... ... ... ...Geomor hweorfeð
'C', 'Y' ond 'N'.Cyning biþ reþe,
sigora syllend,þonne synnum fah
'E', 'W' ond 'U'acle bidað
hwæt him æfter dædumdeman wille
lifes to leane.'L', 'F' beofað,
seomað sorgcearig. ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

You can see how the runes look in the Anglo-Saxon text at Cynewulf's Juliana - scroll down to lines 703 - 709.

Here is a translation of this extract. (The names suggested here are by no means definitive - they are just one possible understanding of the text.)

Mournful turns the 'pine' [C, cen]
the 'horn' [Y, yr] and 'need' [N, nyd]. King is enraged,
giver of victories
when, marked with sin, the 'horse' [E, eoh], the 'joy' [W, wynn]
and 'auroch' [U, ur] wait, frightened,
what will be judged to them for deeds
as gift for life they've led,
'ocean' [L, lagu] and 'herd' [F, feoh] tremble and rest
in sorrow.

Runes were in use from around the third century AD until the late Middle Ages, and developed into different forms for different tribal, national, geographic or linguistic groups.

The Modern Revival

The use of runes was revived in the 20th Century. The fashion was driven by the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany, then in the middle of the century the popularity of the works of JRR Tolkien created a very different kind of interest in runes, although Tolkien's runes (apart from those in The Hobbit) are a newly-invented script. Towards the end of the century the development of both runic divination and neo-Nazism created a contrasting interest in runes.

The Historical Basis Claimed for Runic Divination

In the late 20th Century, apparently through the efforts of Ralph Blum5, the runes developed a new use, not historically based, as a means of divination, like Tarot cards, sheep livers or tea leaves. This development seems to be part of an attempt to revive ancient Germanic paganism or 'Heathenry', also known as Asatru. The Ealdriht, a group dedicated to reviving and following this religion, has this to say about the historicity of the movement:

Modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry is not and cannot claim to be an authentic reconstruction of the ancient religion. The myths of its Gods it owes in a large part to the Norse Eddas and the Dane Saxo. Other beliefs have been reconstructed from comparison to the Icelandic sagas, and many of its traditions are drawn from later English folklore. Modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry is therefore a synthesis of many Germanic traditions and beliefs that have been interpreted using the best scholarship in modern Germanic Heathenry. Despite this, it never can or will be the ancient religion.

It has been argued, on the basis of a passage from Tacitus, that runes were used for divination in ancient times:

To the use of lots and auguries they are most observant. Their custom of casting lots is simple. From a fruit-bearing tree they cut a green twig, and divide it into slips and they distinguish them with certain marks and, onto a white garment, blindly and by fortune, they cast them.
- Tacitus, Germania

Tacitus makes no mention of what kind of marks are used. Nothing he says indicates that they are runes rather than simple tally marks, letters in a Mediterranean script, or some type of notation unknown and unknowable to us. He also provides nothing that would give a reader any indication of the meanings of the marks. The procedure actually seems more like the yarrow stalk method of consulting the I Ching than it does a description of Germanic runes.

While many runes have a magical purpose (showing a desire to influence objects or events by supernatural means), no surviving runic text is of a divinatory nature (showing a desire or ability to predict future events).

Related Links

  • Arild Hauge's Runes provides a wonderful overview of the various rune futharks as well as samples of inscriptions and texts.

1There were two Old English letters that have now been superseded by 'th': thorn (Þ, þ) and eth (Ð, ð).2There have also been suggestions that the runes are derived from Etruscan or Phoenician scripts.3Or, in one case, a means of carving one's name into a balustrade in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul: grafitti courtesy of a member of the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian Guard.4The Elder Edda is sometimes called the Poetic Edda, or Saemund's Edda (after a famous Icelander). It is a collection of many different poems, put together by an anonymous person probably around 1250 AD.5In The Book of Runes - A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle: The Viking Runes, (1983), Blum reconstructs a method of 'runecasting' which he admits is largely a fabrication for the modern world's use, with only a certain degree of connection to historical uses. He includes Gaelic poetry, although the Gaelic-speaking Celts never used runes. He misleadingly conflates the period from Tacitus to the Anglo-Saxon Christian missionaries as though it were historically brief and a simple continuum. He translates Old Icelandic runastafr as 'rune-stick' when it means 'runic character', and runmal as 'rune-casting' when it actually means 'secret or mysterious speech'. But Blum, to his credit, never claims great historicity for his divination method.

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