The runic alphabet
For many, runes and runic writing are indelibly associated with Vikings and the Viking Age. However, this alphabet, and the uses to which it was put, have a much wider chronological and geographical range than that, and are therefore of much broader interest.
Runes are the letters of an alphabet devised at some point in the first or second century AD. The letters of this alphabet show clear influence from the Roman alphabet, in the form of some of the individual letters and in the size of the alphabet which originally consisted of 24 characters. The idea that the characters of the alphabet had a fixed order in what we call the ‘futhark’, is also derived from classical alphabets. Just as the word ‘alphabet’ is named after alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, similarly, the ‘futhark’ is named after its first six characters (with the ‘th’ sound represented by just one character). The runic alphabet was devised for the Germanic-speaking parts of Europe which had not previously used writing, but which had been exposed to contact with the Roman empire and had thus got the idea that writing could be a useful thing. Rather than just borrow the Roman alphabet, and write their own language with it, the inventors of runes fashioned an alphabet more suited to the sounds of the Germanic languages. An important difference from classical alphabets at that time, which influenced the shapes of the runic characters, is that those who devised the alphabet did not anticipate its use on thin, flat writing surfaces such as papyrus or parchment. Rather, runes were devised to be carved, scratched or incised in a variety of materials, but particularly wood, bone, metal and stone.
In the first and second century AD, the languages that formed the Germanic family were spoken across a wide area of northern and western Europe, including the countries we now know as Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia, and some neighbouring regions. The runic alphabet was most likely devised in southern Scandinavia, and that is where most of our earliest inscriptions are from. Later on, as people moved about and the languages developed, the runic alphabet followed suit. Runic inscriptions are in fact some of our most important evidence for the Germanic languages before their speakers were introduced to Christianity and, as a result of that, the habit of writing with pen and ink on parchment.
The earliest inscriptions
A substantial number of inscriptions have been found in Danish bogs, at places like Vimose and Illerup Ådal, the majority placed there in the second or third centuries AD. Large numbers of weapons and other military accoutrements were deposited in the bogs, presumably after a battle, though whether these were the weapons of the winners or the losers, or where they came from, is not always clear. A number of these weapons bear short, often ambiguous inscriptions which seem to refer either to the names of the weapons or their owners or makers, or to some characteristic of the weapons. So one of the oldest inscriptions, a lance-head, reads simply ‘Black’ and this may have been the owner’s name or nickname. A mount for a shield-grip reads ‘Ny made’, which suggests that the silversmith who made it was literate as well as skilled in his craft.
Further south, and a bit later, mainly in the sixth and seventh centuries, runes are found on jewellery or other personal items deposited with the dead, mainly female, in their graves in what is now southern and western Germany and neighbouring regions. While many of these short inscriptions are difficult to interpret, again they often seem to represent names, of owners, makers or recipients of the jewellery.
In the meantime, the geographical extent of runic usage had been extended when the people we know as Anglo-Saxons populated England in the fifth century. Coming largely from roughly the area where modern Germany, the Low Countries and Denmark meet, they would have known the original form of the runic alphabet, but soon developed a distinctive version in which the original 24 characters of the older futhark were extended with some new characters, forming a variant of the alphabet which had 31 distinct characters. In Anglo-Saxon England, runes continued in use until the eleventh century, inscribed on a variety of objects, including stone memorials and sculpture as well as on jewellery and fancy objects like the Franks casket, made of whalebone around 700.
The Anglo-Saxons also devised new uses for runes, such as for the names of the issuing kings and moneyers on coins. With the advent of manuscript literacy, runes soon migrated to manuscripts. Anglo-Saxon manuscripts used letters deriving from the runic characters for ‘th’ and ‘w’ to represent sounds not found in the Roman alphabet that their manuscripts were otherwise written in.
The largest number of surviving runic inscriptions (over 6000) come from Scandinavia and, later on, from those parts of the world the Scandinavians settled in during the Viking Age (here understood quite broadly as c. 750-1100 AD). This number grows every year, as more are regularly found. The Scandinavian inscriptions cover the full range of inscription types, on weapons, personal objects, memorial stones and manuscripts. There is also considerable evidence from Scandinavia for the informal and ephemeral use of runes on disposable items, simple sticks of wood or cattle-bones remaining after a good dinner, and for graffiti on various kinds of buildings, including churches. Not all types of inscription or inscribed object appear throughout the period, as the surviving material is subject to both the vagaries of preservation and the fashions of the time. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that runes were in continuous use, somewhere in the Scandinavian world, from around 160 AD to at least 1500. It is also an important characteristic of Scandinavian runes, especially in the later period, that they could be used to write other languages. While most runic inscriptions were written in the Scandinavian vernacular, there are also considerable numbers of inscriptions in which Scandinavian runes were used to write texts in the Latin language, and even one or two instances of the runes used to write English, such as on the twelfth-century font from Bridekirk in Cumbria.
During this long period of use, the runic alphabet also changed and developed. The original 24-character futhark was in Scandinavia reduced to a 16-character alphabet around the beginning of the Viking Age, and various versions of this alphabet were then in use throughout that period. Towards the end of the Viking Age, the alphabet was expanded, with the variant rune forms used for different sounds, or diacritic marks added to runes to represent a more detailed analysis of the sounds behind the writing. The introduction and popularity of manuscript writing in Scandinavia from the eleventh or twelfth century onwards undoubtedly influenced these runic developments. For much of the period from 1100-1500, literate individuals in Scandinavia had the choice of writing in runes or Roman, on objects or in manuscripts, and in Old Norse or Latin, or all possible combinations of these.
Runes in the Viking diaspora
In the Viking Age, large numbers of Scandinavians settled in various parts of Britain and Ireland, as well as across the islands of the North Atlantic. Once again, the immigrants brought their special form of writing with them, though the distribution of Scandinavian runic inscriptions in Britain and Ireland is quite unusual, in both space and time. There are, for example, relatively few inscriptions from the Danelaw and none as yet known from the important Viking town of York. At the most recent count, there were nineteen Scandinavian inscriptions in England, fifteen in mainland Scotland and the Hebrides, 55 in Orkney, seven in Shetland, sixteen in Ireland, and 35 in the Isle of Man. Not all of these are however the writings of those who came here in the Viking Age. In England, six of the nineteen, in Orkney 37 of the 55, in Scotland eight of the fifteen inscriptions are dated to after the Viking Age. In all of these cases, such late inscriptions attest to contacts between the inhabitants of those parts of Britain heavily settled by Scandinavians in the Viking Age and their ancestral homelands.
Mobility did not end with the end of the Viking Age. Particularly in the Northern Isles, which remained Scandinavian until the middle of the fifteenth century, contact back and forth across the North Sea remained frequent. For example, 33 of the post-Viking Age inscriptions in Orkney come from a collection of graffiti written on the inside of the famous Neolithic burial chamber known as Maeshowe. These can be dated to a fairly precise time and historical context: the mid-twelfth century following Earl Rognvald’s crusade to the Holy Land.
The magic of runes
There is nothing about runes that is magic in itself, they are simply an alphabet. However, just as we can use the Roman alphabet to write ‘abracadabra’, so the runic alphabet could be used to write charms and spells that the writer, or the wearer or user, of a particular object might think would have a magical effect. In the times before science as we understand it today, people used whatever means they could to influence the course of events, and this could involve writing runes on small copper alloy amulets for instance. One example from Skänninge in Sweden, from the late eleventh or early twelfth century, simply says ‘Healing runes I cut, runes of help’. How exactly the runes were supposed to help, and what they were supposed to help with we will never know, though other similar formulas suggest that such charms were used in some way in treating the sick and injured.
The real magic of runes lies in the value of the inscriptions in increasing our understanding of the people of the past. Runic writings provide direct insight into the people, practices and ponderings of the inhabitants of Northern Europe throughout one and a half millennia. They help us to trace the migrations of people such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, they demonstrate the introduction of the new religion of Christianity, and they suggest both what kings and chieftains got up to, and the everyday life of ordinary people. Unlike archaeological evidence, runic inscriptions actually speak to us – we know the names of the people who made and owned the objects on which they were inscribed, and something about their lives, their worries and their feelings. Unlike more expansive manuscript texts, these short messages from the past survive in their original form, written by the same person who had the thought, a person who was just as likely to have come from lower echelons of society as from the literate elite who commissioned and consumed manuscripts. While runology, the study of runic inscriptions, may seem quite a specialised area of study, the inscriptions themselves, when carefully interpreted, speak directly to all.
Barnes, Michael P. Runes. A handbook. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012.
Barnes, Michael P. and R. I. Page, The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2006.
Findell, Martin, Runes. London: British Museum Press, 2014.
Jesch, Judith, The Viking Diaspora. London: Routledge, 2015.
As noted above, runes have their own alphabet order, known as the ‘futhark’ or ‘futhork’ (in the later Viking Age) and we sometimes speak of ‘rune-rows’ rather than alphabets (because sometimes runes could be presented in ‘a,b,c’ form too). In the millennium and a half during which they were used, both the rune-rows and the forms of the individual runic letters could change – there is no one ‘runic alphabet’.
Runes are like handwriting (and indeed they were always produced by hand), so individuals using them rarely stuck rigidly to certain forms or rune-rows. Nevertheless, it is very useful when learning about runes to have idealised abstractions of the rune-rows, and we present three such abstractions here, two most commonly used in the Viking Age and one reflecting some of the changes that started to be introduced into runic writing in the eleventh century. All three are based on the 16-character rune-row that developed in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age. But do remember that many inscriptions have a mixture of forms and that the geographical designations of the rune-rows below are not absolute.
You can download an example of each rune-row by clicking on the heading.
You can also try your hand at reading runes through two activity sheets based on the two inscriptions from Lincoln:
Runic activity B (Lincoln bone)
Also known as ‘Danish’, or ‘normal’ or ‘long-branch’ runes. These are the most easily recognisable Viking Age runes and are fairly clearly found on the Lincoln comb-case. The runes on the Saltfleetby spindle whorl are also predominantly from this rune-row, however the o-, a– and n-runes in that inscription look like they might have been intended to have the forms they have in Rune-row B.
Also known as ‘Swedo-Norwegian’ or ‘short-twig’ runes. As the name suggests, the earliest examples of these runes are found in Sweden and they are also common in Norway. They are called ‘short-twig’ because some of the letter forms (notably h, n, s, t, b and m) are reduced compared to Rune-row A. However, if you look carefully, you will see that some of the runes are actually the same as in Rune-row A. This means that if an inscription does not contain the diagnostic runes (the ones that differ between the two rune-rows), then it is not always possible to determine which rune-row was intended. It was also quite common for inscriptions to have some short-twig forms but not all of them. The fragmentary bone inscription from Lincoln has, for example, short-twig forms of n, s and t, but a long-branch form of h.
As noted above, people in Scandinavia began to find the 16-character rune-row restrictive and felt the need to make further distinctions between sounds. For example, Rune-rows A and B have a rune for /i/ but not for /e/. Since these sounds are closely related, it was easy to devise a new rune for the latter by adding a dot to the i-rune. There are several examples of this new e-rune in the Saltfleetby inscription. The same method could also turn t into d, k into g and so on. Another change was that some of the sound-values of the runes changed. Thus the short-twig a-rune was kept for that sound, while its long-branch version came to denote the higher vowel /æ/. As noted above, these changes were influenced by growing familiarity with the Roman alphabet and manuscript writing in Scandinavia.
Quite a few runic fonts are available on the internet, should you want to write things with runes. Particularly useful for Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian runes is the font known as Gullskoen, available for free download from the University of Bergen, Norway. Some further links to useful fonts can be found on the Uppsala runforum website.