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The Simple Truth About Runes

Teachers Notes

Futhark or Futhork.

The Common Source of the Runes.

“Magic” and the Runes.

How the Runes were used.

Loss of Evidence.

 

There are literally hundreds of books about Runes and hundreds more that have a section dealing with the subject. Why do we need more information? Regrettably I can count on less than ten fingers the ones I have read that convey any real understanding of them.

Why the confusion? The problem is that the Runic script (for want of a better name) was in use for over a thousand years and during this time it evolved and changed with the languages of the people that used it

There are basically three types of book out there that examine the runes.

1. Academic studies, these books have most of the information in the right order but can be heavy reading unless you have an interest in the subject.

2. General books about the Vikings and Saxons, these often distil some of the information from the academic studies but often over simplify.

3. “New Age” almanacs, books about magic and divination with the runes, I have no problem with divination and such beliefs but I do wish the authors of these books would leave history out of it.

Let’s deal with the magic side of things first. In the Havamal there is a reference to Odin learning the runes and performing magic with them and in Egil’s Saga the hero is described performing a charm using runes. There is also a reference from Tacitus that mentions “notae” marked on sticks being used by the “Germani” for divination, these could be runes or they could be any other kind of mark used for identification. There is however no continuous tradition surviving that passes such arcane knowledge down to us today. All the books I have seen that say they have such information are making it up from some early learning poems designed to teach the pronunciation of the rune sounds.

In a superstitious world there is little doubt that runes would have been used in the performance of “magic” and charms but the same can equally be said of Latin, Greek and a host of other scripts too numerous to mention. A rune is no more magical in it’s self than the letters on this screen. Now, you might think these letters are pretty magical and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, isn’t technology marvellous, but there lies the point. The ability to write in a largely illiterate society must have seemed magical and when the runes first started to be used that is how they may have appeared.

As far as we can tell the runes were first used around 200CE and took the form of what is now called the “Elder Futhark” of 24 runes.

It is important to understand that each rune represents a sound and for convenience we usually represent that sound with a “Latin” letter. We arrange our letters in an order that we call the alphabet named after the first two “Greek” letters, Alpha and Beta. In the same way there seems to be a traditional order that the Runes were placed in and we call that the Futhark or later the Futhork after the first 6 sounds of this order. The quick thinking among you may have noticed I just wrote 6 sounds but Futhork is 7 letters, that is because “th” represents the sound of just one rune.

The people using the runes in the second century were the people the Roman, Tacitus referred to as Germani. These are the common ancestors of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes,  Vikings and  Normans. In 200 CE they all spoke a language that was similar but the dialects were very different across the region.

As time progressed these dialects became more pronounced and with the separation of the Anglo-Saxons in England and the Northern peoples who would become the Vikings the languages become quite separate in sound.

With these different sounding languages it is not surprising that the use of the runes changed as well. The Anglo-Saxon tongue developed towards the language we now call English with it’s wide variations of the way we pronounce our vowels. The “Anglo-Saxon Futhorc” had many extra vowel sounds added to accommodate this change creating a set of 31 runes but it can still be seen to have derived from the same source.

In Northern Europe the language changed in other ways and certain runes fell out of regular use until there were just 16 runes remaining. The runes used by the Vikings is this later or “Younger Futhork” which remained in use with variations in some regions through out the “Middle Ages” and into “Early Modern” times.

Runes were a simple script designed for the simplest of tools and materials. At a time when virtually everyone carried a knife the only other thing you needed was a piece of wood.

Each rune is carved with a combination of vertical and angled strokes, never horizontal. The reason for this comes from their origin being scratched on wood. If you take a stick and shave along it’s length to make a flat surface with a knife, you reveal a pattern of lines or grain running up the stick. By carving your runes across and at an angle to the stick none of the lines you cut can be confused with the grain of the stick.

If you need a quick note or marker to say something like “Snorri owns this bag of wheat”, then this is ideal. Just cut your stick, shave it, carve it and poke it into the bag or tie it on. what could be easier?

However, if you want to write something like “The Lord of the Rings” then you are going to need a small forest and a fleet of ships to take it anywhere.

Runes were not the best option for writing in quantity. To make a book you need vellum or later paper and the things needed to write on these were best suited to curved flowing lines such as we have in our modern letters.

The cost of these writing materials though and the church’s virtual monopoly on Latin, the language used in most books of the time meant that for most common people runes remained a practical script for centuries.

Runes were also used on stone monuments meant to be seen by these common people so it is likely that there was a sizeable population able to read and write at the time.

Possibly one reason so few runic inscriptions are found today is not just the fact that wood does not survive well in the earth, but the simple fact that a stick with an inscription on it that you have read is now just a useful bit of firewood.

 

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Lore-and-Saga Living history services and resources for schools, museums and heritage sites. Viking and Roman in school sessions and craft demonstrations. teachers notes and worksheets. Vikings, Saxons, Romans, national curriculum, invaders and settlers, key stage 2, history, teachers information, living history interpreter, in school sessions, storytelling, Roman resources, educational presentations, Viking lore, runes, Roman lore, Viking saga, living history interpretation, Viking resources, Odin, Viking crafts demonstrations, Roman cookery display, Viking silverwork, Roman games, chronology, Viking games, Roman school visits, Viking runes, national curriculum history key stage two, Viking school visits
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