Type ‘runes’ into Google and see how superstitious we’ve become – either that or how fanciful about the middle ages we’ve become.
Runes are phonetic characters in a family of writing systems from early northwest Europe and it’s a feature of our gothic fascination with our past.
We like to think that to the medievals, these characters were magic. There’s no evidence of that. In fact, the medievals would be astonished to hear how we talked about their letters and rune magic, almost entirely, is a 20th-century invention.
But what an invention! You’ll be glad to know that runes are useful aids these days. They can be used in astral projection, in having better sex, in being ‘powerful’,
and in being a feminist. The books proliferate faster all the time. Your author’s favorite among them is one that shows how to use ‘Viking runes’ like a fortune-telling oracle, unaware that the runes in all the illustrations actually went out of use before the Viking age began.
No, the Vikings didn’t invent runes. Some of us of a certain vintage can remember the Led Zeppelin ‘runes’, those record-jacket symbols sort of trademarked by the band guys.
‘Rune’ in occult bombast has a secondary meaning of any symbol that’s secret, magical, and vaguely sinister. We looked for it in other bands. We dug when Geddy Lee sang to us about rolling the bones.
We knew that dice-throwing descended from casting runes that were carved onto the vertebrae of our enemies or something like that.
Our vintage can almost remember an older time when people derived political meaning from certain runes and also got it all wrong.
The SS ‘lightning sign’ was supposed to be a victory symbol, for example, though the meaning of that rune as far back as we can follow it is ‘sun’. That generation also thought the Swastika itself was a rune. It wasn't.
Our grandfathers could almost remember the 19th century was the commercial application of runes starts. The characters were first carved for tourists in Denmark then in Iceland. (One of these turned up in Illinois in the 1950s, and was taken for proof of Nordic settlement in America.)
Pretend runes are all over the place now. Some saw on sweaters and candy wrappers from Orkney recently. They were nonsensical jumbles that said nothing but they did look pretty bitchin’.
So runes are well entrenched in popular culture. The Victorian horror writer M.R. James wrote about a sinister gentleman, Karswell, who cast the runes to do people harm.
The idea got redone tediously in Night of the Demon, a potboiler movie from the fifties that opened with images of Stonehenge for some reason and a voiceover that says that ancient runic symbols can be used to summon dark powers.
Tolkien, who knew better, invented a runic script he called Dwarvish, based on real ones. The Lord of the Rings ‘Cirth’ ones is made up and so on.. You find runic characters on every third black t-shirt that goes by. Usually, they transliterate as ‘midgeard’.
We’ll tell you why in a different post, on Old Norse, the language.
What runes really were
Runes were phonetic symbols. We speak of the runic alphabet as the ‘futhark’, or ‘futhorc’ sometimes, an acronym of the first 5 characters – the way we derive ‘alphabet’ from alpha and beta, the first two Greco-Roman characters in our own writing system.
There is an ‘older futhark’, in use between about 100 and 700.
There is an ‘Anglo-Frisian futhorc’ from which the Anglo-Saxon futhorc is derived.
There is a simplified ‘younger futhark’, in use by the 8th century, which is where most of your t-shirt characters come from.
And in Scandinavia, long after the Viking period, there was an expanded ‘medieval futhark’ which is the younger one with extra diacriticals and other devices that accounts for all its known variations.
The characters varied a lot. There were regional orthographic traditions and some carvers used personal favorites. By the 11th century, particularly in Sweden, the characters simplified to ‘staveless’ runes, runes that no longer looked like runes.
They look like scrapes and dots. It’s a big mystery, by the way, why the Scandinavian runic system simplified and reduced.In the Germanic world, they were doing the opposite as languages intermarried,
transformed, and expanded. Runes are not rare.
They’re all over the place. In spite of that, we don’t know exactly when or where, or by whom, or why runes arose.They’re probably from the 1st century, invented by people in southern Scandinavia of Germanic origin who were aware of Latin.
Some Germanic phonemes aren’t found in Latin and maybe that’s why northern tribesmen saw fit to devise letters of their own. The shape of the runes themselves may possibly owe something to a precursor Latin language called Etruscan, and also, conceivably, to Greek.
Medieval Scandinavia was a two-script civilization. Roman writing was for education, the law, church doctrine, and history. Runic inscriptions (and later, inked runes on paper) were for informal, oral tradition such as memorials, prayers, proverbs, musings, declarations of love, and jokes (sometimes filthy ones).
We know what some of the runes were called, though we don’t know when the practice of naming them started. We’ve had to piece together the name list from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources.
Nobody can show that the names had any special meaning, anymore than ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ do.
Most of the names denote the sound value, and so maybe the names were there to help schoolboys remember their sound.
Certainly, nobody has yet to show that the names derived from any sort of Germanic religious system. Some of the runes survive. The English used a few of them into the 11th century while Icelandic uses several of them still. Early runes before the 8th century, are mostly on stones, raised as memorials.
Where you find runes (and is that a clue about how they were used?)
Early runes, before the 18th century, there are mostly on stones raised as memorials.There are 5th-century ‘bracteates’ with runes on them too. These were metal discs worn on the breast in imitation of ones the Romans had worn. Runes appear on weapons, tools, boxes, combs, silverware, furniture, tools, and houses. They’re people’s names, typically, usually, the carvers’.
A lot of runic inscriptions are plain old graffiti. That’s the case with other languages too like Latin. The medieval world is absolutely full of these. They’re religious, they’re profane, they’re even stupid. You find them in churches a lot. They’re blessings, mostly, on unnamed people or on anyone who reads these letters.
Some inscriptions are gibberish. We have no idea what they say. They may say nothing or they might be practice. We have lots of practice pieces on paper from the middle ages so it’s possible.
And does where you find them make them magic?
Some of them are incantations. Is that the same as magic? And if they’re written in runes, does that mean runes are magic?
One such scratched into a stick from the 14th century that looks like it’s supposed to disrupt someone’s cooking. “Out warmth! In cold!” goes the punchline.
We can’t tell much from this about the nature and function of magic. Does the magic work because it’s written down? Because it’s spoken? Because its victim touches the stick?
There’s a ‘healing stick’ in Ribe, in Denmark. It has an invocation of heaven and heaven, the Virgin Mary, God, and an amen. Its purpose was to cast out sickness. Is this a magic formula?
Is it sorcery baptized with religious language? That was common enough. The Benedictines adapted liturgy to something close to spells; these were spoken of as maledictions. But is this magic?
There’s actually no more justification than this for thinking that Vikings thought that runes were magic. Sometimes, rune carvers wrote abbreviations or codes.
Modern rune fans like to call these ‘cryptic’ runes. It’s an easy step from cryptic to words like ‘mysterious’
and ‘esoteric’, full of meaning that’s hidden or coded and probably magic if you want it to be. It’s not impossible for a runic cryptogram to be used for magic. It’s also possible in any other form of writing and for that matter, Html code.
It’s circular reasoning to decide that the Vikings used runes for magic and then because of that, to see magic applications everywhere. (If you want to see that done, and overdone, hilariously, have a look at David Macaulay’s 1979 spoof on archeological misinterpretation, Motel of the Mysteries.)
Did the Vikings talk about runes?
Not really. But later Nordic literary references to runes do. They’re 13th century (so they’re not Viking, strictly speaking). The Havamál, a teaching compilation on the words of Odin, implies that writing and reading runes are vaguely like worshipping the Gods because it’s from the gods that we received the runes.
The sagas, by the way, are the Nordic western movies that do a lot of romanticizing about the past. There’s evidence that later medieval runic inscriptions were made to look much earlier. This is Viking romance or antiquarianism anyway.
Egil Skallagrímsson carves runes onto his drinking horn and smears them with his own blood, and it’s not clear why.He carves a runic curse on a pole that he raises to insult Erik Bloodaxe, though it’s not clear why. He does, however, cure one person of illness by carving runes onto whalebones beneath her bed and then burning them ceremonially.Maybe that’s magic!
Imagined several centuries after the Vikings. In Grettir Ásmundarson there’s an old witch who carves runes onto a tree stump and uses it (it’s a long story) to kill a villain hiding out on an island. In the Sigrdrifumál, we catch allusions to things like victory runes (you scratched them onto your sword), helping runes (for things like childbirth), and speech runes (to assist in court cases).
There are quite a few of these and they’re the closest we come – long, long after the Viking period. Remember, to runes as magic. We don’t have any idea how any of it worked or how well known it was.
We don’t even know where the supernatural part comes from. Runes were given to mankind by Odin. Did they have special powers? On grammatical grounds? we can’t even tell whether the gods’ gift was the letters or the meaning of the letters.
We’ve convinced ourselves that the early medievals thought of runes as magical symbols or thought they had magical powers or thought they could be used in telling the future – three different things and we have no direct evidence in support of any of them.
It’s not impossible that people who knew runes could believe any of these things or all of them, but there is no indication that they did in the mainstream.
The Vikings absolutely did not use runes to astral-project or be feminists. We can see because so much runic writing exists that the purpose of runes was to record things. Is it possible, theoretically, that Vikings used them at least to write down spells? Sure.
The Anglo-Saxons wrote charms all the time. We’re not sure how seriously they took them. But in any case, writing magical things is possible with any letters, and that doesn’t make the letters themselves magic.