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Runic alphabet

The letters of the alphabets of the old Germanic peoples (such as the Angles and Norse), were called runes. They were also used in divination and magic. Unlike the Latin alphabet's letters, they have inherent meanings. The Indo-European roots of the word 'rune' , *Run, means mystery or secret and this is elaborated further in one of its derivatives Raunen meaning to whisper or talk in secret.

Table of contents

Origins of the Runes

The Runic alphabet was created by speakers of Germanic dialects in order to write their languages. Although some scholars claim the runes to be entirely of Greek (Morris in Odenstedt 359) or Latin (Odenstedt 362) origin, most scholars view this alphabet as a script of mixed origin. Seebold5, Krause3, Jensen (571) and Coulmas (1996: 444 ff.) think that the Runic alphabet is a mixture of North Italic/Alpine alphabets with additional Latin influence. This most frequent school of thought is certainly more realistic than the monogenetic explanations provided by Morris and Odenstedt. Some letters are obviously Latin in origin, for example the runes for /f/ and /r/, others are reminiscent--at least on a formal level--of Alpine letters[?], for example the /h/-rune. There are also symbols that could be either Latin or Alpine, for example the /i/-rune. Bernal (36) thinks that there was also some substrate alphabet involved; Miller (62) claims that the origins of the runic alphabet are archaic-Mediterranean. Both fail to detail reasons for their beliefs. In the same work, Miller also writes that the phonetic parameters on which the runic alphabet is based are ultimately clearly Semitic[?] and links them to the scripts of Byblos and Ugarit as well as the Phoenician alphabet. Several different Runic scripts developed over time, including an Anglo-Saxon system that even had different symbols for /k/ and /c/ (modern English /tS/). The latter was symbolized by the old /k/-rune; a new symbol was created for Anglo-Saxon /k/.

Use of Runes

Runes were normally used for inscriptions in wood, metal, or stone. The runes consist mostly of vertical and diagonal marks, with notably fewer horizontal marks or curves (and in some versions of the runes, none at all). It is speculated that runes were designed this way to aid carving in wood. The words would be written along the grain of the wood, meaning all the marks were cut across the grain. This is good because cuts along the grain might cause the wood to split, or might close up if the wood absorbs moisture.

The earliest surviving runes are tentatively dated to about A.D. 200, though it is generally believed that they were invented no later than year 1. These early runes up to about A.D. 650 appear to all use the same "futhark" with about 24 runes. Most of these older inscriptions are very short and cryptic, and in most cases it is hard to translate them or even be sure what language they are.

It appears that runes may actually be much older. The rune for the sound Š, as in sAd, was not used in writing, for at that time the Germanic Languages didn't have that sound. Yet, in every list of characters it always appeared. However, in Proto-West Germanic Š appears to have existed as a full-blown phoneme.

At later dates the runes varied from country to country. The size of the futhark declined to about 16 or 18 runes in Norway and Sweden, where the vast majority of the later runes are found. In England the futhark increased to about 28 runes (plus a few more only used regionally or for foreign proper names).

Almost all runes which have been deciphered were used for writing Germanic languages, such as Old Norse, Norwegian, Swedish, Old English, and in the case of many older runes, languages that appear Germanic but are difficult to identify more precisely. The only use of runes for identified non-Germanic languages is probably a few Latin inscriptions written with English runes, or with a mixture of Latin letters and English runes. Perhaps there are a few other cases, but they would be rare.

While the runes were used for writing works such as the Bible, they were more commonly used for short inscriptions rather than full text.

Runes appear to have fallen into disuse around A.D. 1000 except in Scandinavia where they continued to be used for a few more centuries. Some more isolated regions of Scandinavia continued using the runes up til moderntime. There have been occasional revivals over the centuries, mostly by people wanting to associate with the past in some way. The current wave of enthusiasm seems partly inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien and partly by New Age mysticism. The runes are of important value to followers of the ┴satr˙ religion.

Runes and their mythological and magical associations

In Norse mythology the god Odin hung on the world-tree, Yggdrasil for nine days in self-sacrifice in order to bring the gift of runes to mankind.


1Bernal, Martin, 1990, Cadmean letters. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

2Jensen, Hans, 1970, Sign Symbol and Script. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Translation of Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. 1958, as revised by the author.

3Krause, Wolfgang, 1970, Runen. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

4Miller, D. Gary, 1994, Ancient scripts and phonological knowledge. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

5Seebold, Elmar, 1991, Die Stellung der englischen Runen im Rahmen der ▄berlieferung des ńlteren Fuþark In: Bammesberger S. 439-569.

The Runic alphabet's Unicode coding:

Rune HTML Entity Runic Letter Rune HTML EntityRunic Letter Rune HTML EntityRunic Letter
ᚠ Fehu Feoh Fe F ᚹ Wunjo Wynn W ᛒ Berkanan Beorc Bjarkan B
ᚡ V ᚺ Haglaz H ᛓ Short-Twig-Bjarkan B
ᚢ Uruz Ur U ᚻ Haegl H ᛔ Dotted-P
ᚣ Yr ᚼ Long-Branch-Hagall H ᛕ Open-P
ᚤ Y ᚽ Short-Twig-Hagall H ᛖ Ehwaz Eh E
ᚥ W ᚾ Naudiz Nyd Naud N ᛗ Mannaz Man M
ᚦ Thurisaz Thurs Thorn ᚿ Short-Twig-Naud N ᛘ Long-Branch-Madr M
ᚧ Eth ᛀ Dotted-N ᛙ Short-Twig-Madr M
ᚨ Ansuz A ᛁ Isaz Is Iss I ᛚ Laukaz Lagu Logr L
ᚩ Os O ᛂ E ᛛ Dotted-L
ᚪ Ac A ᛃ Jeran J ᛜ Ingwaz
ᚫ Aesc ᛄ Ger ᛝ Ing
ᚬ Long-Branch-Oss O ᛅ Long-Branch-Ar Ae ᛞ Dagaz Daeg D
ᚭ Short-Twig-Oss O ᛆ Short-Twig-Ar A ᛟ Othalan Ethel O
ᚮ O ᛇ Iwaz Eoh ᛠ Ear
ᚯ Oe ᛈ Pertho Peorth P ᛡ Ior
ᚰ On ᛉ Algiz Eolhx ᛢ Cweorth
ᚱ Raido Rad Reid R ᛊ Sowilo S ᛣ Calc
ᚲ Kauna ᛋ Sigel Long-Branch-Sol S ᛤ Cealc
ᚳ Cen ᛌ Short-Twig-Sol S ᛥ Stan
ᚴ Kaun K ᛍ C ᛦ Long-Branch-Yr
ᚵ G ᛎ Z ᛧ Short-Twig-Yr
ᚶ Eng ᛏ Tiwaz Tir Tyr T ᛨ Icelandic-Yr
ᚷ Gebo Gyfu G ᛐ Short-Twig-Tyr T ᛩ Q
ᚸ Gar ᛑ D ᛪ X
RuneHTML EntityPunctuation
᛫Single Punctuation
᛬Multiple Punctuation
᛭Cross Punctuation
RuneHTML EntityGolden Number
ᛮ Arlaug Symbol (Golden Number 17)
ᛯ Tvimadur Symbol (Golden Number 18)
ᛰ Belgthor Symbol (Golden Number 19)

If your web browser can display runic unicode-characters, then the following will display a line in runic:
᛫ᚹᚱᛁᛏᛁᛝ ᚫᛝᛚᚩ ᚱᚢᚾᛁᚳ ᚢᚾᛁᛣᚩᛞᛖ ᚩᚾ ᚹᛁᛣᛁᛈᚫᛞᛁᚫ᛫
If your web browser cannot display runic unicode-characters, then the above will be garbled. Should you wish to find a unicode runic-font to display the runes on your computer, then consult the Rune fonts link below.

External links:

  • Rune fonts (http://cgm.cs.mcgill.ca/~luc/runes)
  • The Meanings Of The Runes (http://www.megabaud.fi/~karttu/Runes/RunMean)
  • The Rune Poem (http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ascp/a12.htm) (Old English runic version here (http://www.georgetown.edu/labyrinth/library/oe/texts/a12))

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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