The Runic Alphabet — Saga And Historical Fact
Runic is an alphabet, a means of communication, and a set of symbols carved onto objects for magical
Nobody is totally certain where runes originated, or what the word ‘rune’ means. Whilst most
runemasters suggest that the name means ‘mystery’ or ‘holy secret’, it is also worth considering that it
may come from the German raunen, a word which has a variety of meanings, including ‘to cut or
carve’. Runes were most probably cut or carved and not written by the Norse who used them in
ancient times. Other students of language suggest a link with the Anglo-Saxon word secgan, ‘to say’,
and the Latin secare, ‘to cut’, whilst others suggest a link with the Old Nordic run, the Gothic runa and
the Icelandic runar, all of which mean ‘whisper’.
What is obvious from looking at the runes is that they are a series of straight lines with no curves or
ellipses, which could obviously fit in with the idea of something carved by early man with basic
implements. It is worth remembering that only educated people were taught to write or carve, and
therefore those who could understand runes or carve them were people with extreme power.
There are several schools of thought on the origin of runes. Folklore suggests that they are older than
the New Testament, and link with the one-eyed Norse god Odin (sometimes also called Woden the
Wise). Odin was also called ‘the shape-shifter’ and had many guises. He sometimes hid the fact that he
had one eye by wearing a large hat with the brim lowered. It is said that he gave his eye in exchange
for being allowed to drink from the Well of Wisdom, hence his abundant knowledge. He is usually
depicted with hat, blue cloak and staff, accompanied by two ravens, known as Hugin (Mind) and
Munin (Memory), who kept him informed of what was happening.
Odin, a word which comes from the old Norse od, meaning ‘spirit’, is the Norse equivalent of the
Roman Mercury, the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. It is also interesting to note that spirit
tracks (identified as ley lines in modem times) were considered sacred to Odin, so these, too, would
seem to have a strong runic connection.
The story goes that Odin, wanting to understand life and death and needing to obtain wisdom,
wounded himself with his own sword, with which he then impaled himself on a tree known as
Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World or World Ash. He stayed there for nine days and nine nights without
food, water or aid. Eventually he found enlightenment, fell, saw the runes and seized them. Later he
wrote the Poetic Edda or Elder Edda, comprising 39 poems, in their honour. It is interesting to
compare this story with the illustration on the Tarot card ‘The Hanged Man’.
There are three main runic poems, Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian and Icelandic, mainly from the thirteenth
and fifteenth centuries, and the Norse sagas contain many references to runes, their magic and power.
The runic poems are important to the meanings of the runes, and all poems will be quoted as we
Other versions of the origin of the runes are more historical, and are often favoured by those who
merely look at the runes as a history of language. The runes commonly used now contain 24
characters, plus a blank rune, fitting in with the Greek alphabet. It is said by many that the runic script
was chiefly adapted from the Latin alphabet, but again this cannot be proven, and the characters used
have not always numbered 24.
During the last Ice Age a tribe known as Volsungr, who were wanderers, used a system of wisdom
known as Ur-Runes, which was said to give them certain powers. Moving down from the far north
into Sweden, using a pathway called ‘White Wyrm’, they left behind examples of Ur-Runes in the
Hallristningar rock carvings, dated between the second Iron Age and Bronze Age. Most runic
inscriptions at that time were carved into rock, but this eventually changed as smaller stones, slivers of
wood or bone as well as clay and metal were inscribed with runic characters. Unfortunately, few
wooden runic crosses have survived.
Tribes moving further south carried runic knowledge towards what is now known as Austria, and in
the fifth century BC, new alphabets were formulated, known now as North Etruscan, Alpine or North
Italic. The Heruli warrior tribe became strongly identified with the runes and the name Herulian or
Erilar became a common term for runemaster, long after the tribe had ceased to exist.
The Ur-Rune alphabet and the new Alpine alphabets at this point seem to merge. We are now at
around 3 BC. Evidence of this exists in the Alpine text inscribed on a bronze helmet found at Negau,
south of the Danube and dated at 3 BC.
The path of the runes then moved northwards down the Rhine, and there is evidence to suggest that
the journey had reached the lower Rhine by around 1 BC. A first-century goblet on which runic
symbols are etched has been found in the lower Rhine area. The journey continued along to the
Friesian Islands (when possibly a further four new runes were added) then northwards into Denmark
and Jutland and into Norway around AD 3, moving further north during the eighth and ninth
centuries. The inscription on a fibula in Norway which has been dated AD 800, gives evidence that
the Norse runic alphabet was being used at that time. There is evidence to suggest that the Futhark
order of runes existed at this time but that the 24-character alphabet was not fixed.
When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to Britain, the alphabet increased to 29 runes, increasing in
Northumbria during the early part of the ninth century to 33, possibly because more characters were
needed to cope with the English phonetic system (as also in Germany), whilst in Denmark at the same
time, 16 were used. A later progression saw 25 runes used in Scandinavia. The Northumbrian and
Anglo-Saxon runes seemed to disappear for a time, but they reappeared in a 16-rune form during the
time of the Norse and Danish invasions.
Examples of runic script in England can be found on the Bewcastle, Leek and Ruthwell crosses. The
inscription on the Ruthwell Cross is the longest in the UK, and is located in the church in Ruthwell,
Dumfriesshire. There are other runic inscriptions on a cross fragment in Lancaster and on a fragment
at Thornhill in West Yorkshire. Runic was also used on some coins, as examples have survived with
the names of kings written in runes. A visit to the British Museum to see Frank’s Casket is well worth
while, as it is probably the best-known of England’s runic objects and the most studied. The runic
script ceased to be commonplace in England following the arrival of Christian missionaries from
Ireland, who introduced the Roman alphabet to the masses. For a time, the runic script was still used
for reference marks and as ornamental capitals, but this was fairly short-lived.
In the Middle Ages, a system comprising 25 runes was used in Sweden, and this is the system often
found on Swedish runestones or standing stones.
As we have seen, the Vikings travelled far and wide and it has been suggested that there were even
examples of eleventh-century Norse runestones as far away as the USA. This, however, has been
disproven. The so-called Kensington Stone which can be found in Alexandria, Minnesota has been the
subject of much discussion since its discovery in 1898. Current thought is that it is a fake, since the
inscriptions on it seem to be a mixture of modern Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and English.
It was hoped by the North Americans that the Vinland of the Norse sagas, actual location unknown,
was somewhere on the North American coast. That may still be proven, but what is clear is that the
Kensington Stone is really nothing to do with the Vikings or genuine runic artefacts, and that most
North American runic connections are still to be authenticated by archaeologists. It is possible in some
cases that the objects found may be Eskimo in origin.
As suggested earlier, runes were probably not written down, but carved or etched on wood, metal,
bone or stone. Only those who understood them learnt of their powers, and those who could decipher
them were few and far between. As such, these people were often figures of authority who seemed to
the masses to possess magical powers, being on a social level well above those unable to understand
the symbols. Later on, the art of writing was reserved for the priesthood, for those connected with
political matters, and for the nobility. Runes represented not only a method of communication or
mnemonics but also symbols of knowledge.
During the seventeenth century there were serious attempts to ban the use of runes in Iceland, as the
Church felt that there was a strong connection between runic writing, witchcraft and paganism.
Records indicate that people were burnt to death in Iceland for merely possessing rune-staves.
Likewise a ban was placed on the Bobileth tree writing, where every letter was named after a tree.
Runic lettering had its supporters, however, one being Johannes Bureus, who sought to have the runes
adopted as the official alphabet of Sweden in 1611, and runic calendars were still in use in some of the
less populated areas of Sweden as late as the nineteenth century.
There are strong links between the runic alphabet and the Ogham alphabet of Wales and Ireland
(discussed in depth later), and the Ogham script was one form of communication which was banned
around the seventeenth century.
An interest in runes during the nineteenth century saw the creation of a new German system, known
as the Armanen, which has 18 characters. This was the ‘brainchild’ of Guido von List,
and formed the basis of Nazi runelore. However, most runemasters used the 24 runes known as the
Elder Futhark (also seen as futhorc or fupark), so called because of the order of the first six letters f, u,
th, o, r and c.