The Power And Mystery Of The Runes
CULTURE | December 31, 2019
Franks casket. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)
J.R.R. Tolkien readers are familiar with runes, the mysteriously shaped letters that exert mystical power on things like secret maps or hidden doors. But Tolkien’s runes were based on the historic runes developed by Germanic peoples in the 1st or 2nd centuries A.D. Runes have exerted their alluring pull on people ever since.
Runes were first developed by northern Germanic people who had been exposed to the alphabet of southern Europe such as Greek and Latin. The first runic alphabet is called futhark which is named after its first six letters: f, u, þ, a, r, and k. There are two variations of futhark, the Elder which had twenty-four characters and the Younger which possessed sixteen. The Elder Futhark was supplanted by the Younger variation in the 700s and is more familiar to people since this system was the set used by the Scandanavian raiders commonly referred to like the Vikings. Younger Futhark was used throughout the so-called Viking Age until approximately 1100. Two other systems of runes were used, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc until the year 1000 and Medieval Futhork until about the 13th century. There are other minor variations as well.
Runes are generally made of vertical lines with branches emanating from them. Rune shapes varied from region to region. There was no standardization. Runes were written in all directions and could be inverted depending on the position of the object they were written on. Each runic character had major and minor variants and was phonic — that is that each represented a sound. Each rune had a name that started with the same sound except for one in which the sound was last.
Some systems of runes are more difficult to read than others. For example, in Younger Futhark some of the runes had shared sounds. In most cases, there was no space between words. Of the various runic systems, Younger Futhark is the most prevalent with almost 3,000 known inscriptions as compared to Elder Futhark’s 400.
Runes were used primarily for inscription purposes. The earliest confirmed runic inscription is found on the Vimose comb from Denmark dated to 160 A.D. although there is some debate about the nature of inscriptions from the prior century. Runes tell of Norse mythology, memorializing the dead political events, war, and ownership.
The most commonplace that people would inscribe runes were on runestones, boulders that were covered with inscriptions usually to commemorate the dead. The most well-known runestone is the Kjula Runestone which commemorates in a poem the warring of a man named “Spear.”
Runes were traditionally associated with the Norse war god, Odin (or Woðanaz in his original name). This is logical since warbands who worshiped brought knowledge of Roman and Greek alphabets to the north. What is more, Odin being the chief magician of the gods, made the runes have mystical properties. Runes were the carriers of secret knowledge and power.
In the Norse Poetic Edda, there is the Hávamál which is the sayings of Odin the High One. One poem tells of how he was jealous of the power of the Fates called the Norns and how he hung himself on Yggdrasil the World Tree to gain their knowledge through the runes. It reads in part:
I know that I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.
None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence.
Runes were thus believed to contain magic powers. They might foretell the future, could be used to curse people, provide magical protection, or cast spells. One such means was the throw wood or bones with runes on them and depending on the order could be interpreted to tell the future. They were carved into objects to imbue it with power and luck.
One story tells of how Egil uses runes to cure a girl who had been cursed by “false runes.” In the story, Egil carves new runes, puts them under the girl’s pillow, and is miraculously healed.
Even though the use of runes died out by the end of the Middle Ages, the history of runes curiously extends to the 20th century. The Nazis whose ideology supposed Germanic superiority insisted that runes were the first alphabet despite all the evidence the contrary. The Nazis adopted a modified rune form as a result. The s-rune, or sun-rune was converted to the Siegrune (victory) rune and was most notoriously used by the German Schutzstaffel, the SS. As a result, runes have been somewhat linked to the Nazis and are indeed used by neo-Nazi groups today. Germany’s constitution has banned the use of Nazi symbols. But runes in general are more likely to be used in benign ways such as national symbols and in popular fantasy such as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
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Joseph A. Williams