Historical Overview

  Runes" is the name of the symbols that have been used by the Germanic tribes throughout Europe. The word "rune" is Danish and has been borrowed to label those symbols. Rune however isn't a new word as it has been used for centuries in numerous languages. Rune can be translated as mystery or secret.

The three best known runic alphabets are:

  • the Elder Futhark (ca. 150500)
  • the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (4001100)
  • the Younger Futhark (8001910)

The Younger Futhark is further divided into:

  • the Danish Futhark script
  • the Swedish-Norwegian runic script (Short-twig or Rök Runes)
  • the Hälsinge Runes (staveless runes)
  • the Latinised Dalecarlian Futhark script (ca. 15001910)

The users of the Futhark usually called a rune a stave.

Originally it was assumed that the Teutons created the runes themselves. The prime source for this was Tacitus' Germania in which he described in Chapter 10 how the Teutons used staves with signs for divination. These signs it was assumed were runes.

The Teutonic tribes didn't invent the runes, it is very likely that they copied them from a different alphabet. At this time it is not certain what alphabet the source could have been, nor where or when it was copied. Historians now think it most likely that the Latin alphabet inspired the runes, especially as Fehu, Berkana, Raidho, Isa and Mannaz look similar to their Roman counterparts F, B, R, I and M.Tukholma

The problem with this theory is that the runes can be written both ways, left to right and right to left, which the Latin alphabet lost long before the 1st century. Additionally the sequence differs immensely.

It's feasible that Denmark is the origin of the runes as we know them today. Denmark had a relatively stable civilisation and traded with the Roman Empire. The early findings of weapons and jewellery also points to this theory. The items were decorated with inscribed names which was a common custom in the Empire. So historians conclude that the Danes took the Roman alphabet and created their own script.

Their name "Futhark" stems from the first 6 letters in the script (th is one letter). During the emigration of nations the Futhark was introduced all over Europe.

With the coming of the Christians and their Latin script the runes dwindled. In the 6th and 7th century they almost completely disappeared from continental Europe, only in England, Scandinavia and Iceland they continued to prosper for a time. There the church used them to write in the respective local language. Only when the Normans conquered Britain and brought French influence the runes were discontinued in England.

Concerning the number of runes in the script, the systems vary, the Elder Futhark was reduced to 16 letters, Runestonecalled the Younger Futhark. Also their form was simplified. In the 10th and 11th century, they were extended again to 19 runes. While the Anglo-Saxon or old English Futhark went up to 33 runes. As the Latin script became more important around 1200 in Scandinavia the runes were expanded so the general texts could be written.

Up until the 30 year War the runes have been used in official and semi-official texts in Sweden, eg in the reports of General Gustav Adolf.  The last huge runic monument from this tradition is the Anthyr song dating from 1617. After that the runes were forgotten for a time.

In the late 19th and early 20th century German mages have started using the runes again. Among them are F.B. Marby, S.A. Kummer, Guido von List and Karl Spiesberg. All of them relied heavily on the Havamal, the words of the wise. The Havamal is part of the Elder Edda which is one of the primary sources for Norse mythology. It describes how Odin took up the runes and of the 18 charms. Those German mages thought that the 18 charms from the Havamal correspond with the runes and that Odin originally took up 18 of them which makes it the original Futhark. As the Younger Futhark lacks two runes, they dug up the Elder Futhark and picked two runes that they thought would suit the remaining two stanzas.

With the Nationalism in Germany came a bad time for runes. And long after the events of the War, people shunned them and all things German and Teutonic. Karl Spiesberger tried in Germany to restore the reputation of the runes and brought many outside influences into his system. The true second dawn of rune magick came in the US when Edred Thorsson published his books on runes.

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