Runes were characters in an early Germanic alphabet, evident in use from about the 3rd century C.E. to beyond the Middle Ages. They are characterized by straight lines that could be carved into rock or wood more easily than curved symbols.
Although runes are often associated with the Vikings, their use appears to have spread beyond Scandinavia before the Viking age, and runic inscriptions have been found throughout Europe, including France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine as well as Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and several islands off the coast of Britain and Scandinavia.
Scholars have not yet determined the exact origin of the runic alphabet. In the entire history of writing, the runic script appeared comparatively late, and most agree it is derived from one of the alphabets that were used in the Mediterranean area. Yet, the angular letters of runes and the fact that early inscriptions were written from right to left suggest a more ancient connection.
One theory maintains that the runic alphabet was developed by a Germanic people, possibly the Goths, from the Etruscan alphabet. Two inscriptions from the first and second century B.C. support this idea: the Negau inscription and the later Maria Saalerberg inscription were written in an Etruscan script in a Germanic language. These inscriptions also seem to have been influenced by the Latin alphabet. More evidence is necessary, however, for most scholars to completely endorse this theory.
Runic script can be divided into three primary categories:
- Early (or Common) Germanic; also known as Teutonic. This was used in northern Europe before the 9th century C.E. The Early Germanic script had 24 letters that were divided into three groups of eight letters each. This script is also known as futhark because the first six letters were, in order, f, u, th, a, r, and k.
- Anglo-Saxon or Anglian. This could be found in 5th century Britain, and was used up to the 12th century C.E. Representing as it did the Old English language, the Anglo-Saxon script was lacking symbols for certain sounds; so letters were added to represent those sounds. This script had 28 letters until the turn of the tenth century or so; by then it had acquired five more. Not only did Anglo-Saxon script differ in the number of letters, some of the runes were shaped differently than those of Early Germanic.
- Nordic or Scandinavian. This was used in Scandinavia and Iceland from about the 8th century C.E. to the 12th or 13th century. Like Old English, the Scandinavian languages had sounds that could not be represented by the Early Germanic script; in fact, they had an even larger variety of sounds. However, instead of adding letters to the common script to represent all those sounds, users of the Nordic script compounded letters, allowing individual symbols to stand for more than one sound. A reader could then glean the intended sound from the context of the symbols. The compounding of letter values resulted in a smaller alphabet; eventually, the Nordic version of the runic alphabet had only 16 symbols.
Several further variations of runic script were derived from the Nordic version. These include the Manx Runes, the stungnar runir or “dotted runes,” and the Hälsinge Runes. This last script dates mainly from the 10th to the 12th century and was found primarily in the Hälsingland region of Sweden. Shortened noticeably from other futhark alphabets, Hälsinge script has no vertical strokes.
As the Latin alphabet gained in popularity across Europe, the use of the runic alphabet declined for manuscripts and stone inscriptions. However, runes were still used by some for charms and magical divination, a practice that may be more popular today than it was in medieval times.