(copyright Jeremy Baer)
Origin of the Futhorc Runes
For some time, the Germanic peoples had traded and raided amongst their literate Mediterranean neighbors. In the first century Before the Common Era, the earliest known attempt of Germanic literacy transpired in the Alpine region. The Negau Helmet, whose inscribed text dates to c. 55 BCE, was written in a North Italic script with the name “Harigast.” It has been interpreted variously as an unknown Germanic god to whom the helmet was presumably dedicated, or else the owner of said helmet (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 105-107). This experiment with literacy in a North italic script ultimately did not yield further products, as far as archaeology is concerned. But it proves that Germanic soldiers within the Roman cultural sphere were experimenting with a writing system.
The Meldorf Fibula, c. 50 CE is an interesting find. Its inscription could be runes, or could be some type of Latin (Barnes 9). Possibly it was an early experiment with runes (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 72) , a prototype, so to speak.
The earliest undisputed runic artifact bearing bona fide runes is the Vimose comb, c. 150-180 CE. It bears the name of “harja” which has been interpreted as “warrior” or (since it’s written on a comb) as a derivative of “hair” (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 110).
With this is mind, runes developed sometime between 50 CE and 180 CE. It serves to point out that these first two centuries of the Common Era were the height of the Roman Empire, a cultural influence surely not lost on the Germanic tribesmen. In fact, runes developed in Germanic areas having significant military and economic links to the Roman Empire (Barnes 9-10). The runes, it must be said, betray an obvious influence from Latin (Barnes 12).
The immediate impetus does seem to have been Roman influence. In particular, Germanic tribesmen had been serving with the Roman legions. Some level of literacy existed among the legions, especially as one ascended the ranks (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 384). The most likely explanation is that the runes were developed by Germanic politico-military elites who were extremely familiar with Roman culture, especially through the medium of legionary service. The first two centuries of the Common Era were marked by the Batavian Rebellion (69 CE) and the Macromannic Wars (166-180 CE), a time when Germanic tribesmen were falling under the Roman shadow, but forcefully reacting to it where they could (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 84-86).
The Basics of Runes
The runes were a writing system which had purposes both prosaic and esoteric (Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore 35). The extent of esoteric purposes is hotly contested among scholars – many of whom, it must be said, find it safer to avoid the subject altogether in the interests of academic respectability (MacLeod 12). There are the “skeptical runologists” who see the runes as a writing system only sporadically used for magic, while “imaginative runologists” see it as more holistic system readily employed for magic (Barnes 7-8), (Flowers, Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition xv – xvi). The debate on the esoteric nature of the runes is beyond the scope of this article; it suffices to say the runes were used for magic by at least some people in certain times and certain places (MacLeod 12).
The term rune itself, traced from Old English run, means mystery, secret, hidden knowledge (Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore 10). Some have used this as evidence that the runes were developed as a secret repository of magic and esoteric wisdom (Thorsson 6-7). A more prosaic explanation is that the Germanic political-military elites who developed it used it as a kind of secret script that could not be read by Roman authorities (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 253-255).
Runes were meant to be scratched onto hard surfaces like wood, metal, bone and antler, and are thus angular in shape (and runic messages are often matters of brevity) (Barnes 2). Individual characters are called staves. Every stave stood for a sound, but could also be used rarely as an ideogram (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 286).
As the term “alphabet” derives from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and beta – so too does the term for the runic alphabet derive from the first six of its staves. F-U-TH-A-R-K. We thus call runic alphabets “futharks” (Barnes 17).
Futharks are further divided into rows, or aetts (after the Old Norse term aettir, or family). In the early archaeological record, these rows are often separated within inscriptions by dots (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 112-113). The grid-like arrangement of the aetts possibly derives from the grid-like signals intelligence of the Roman cohorts (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 255-256).
It cannot be proven conclusively, but some circumstantial evidence suggests the runes developed under a centralized authority. The spread of runes seems to coincide with the rise of political-military elites and their retainers who gathered in halls, in contrast to a previous era where religious worship has been conducted outside. To the degree these mead hall elites were thought to honor *Wodanaz (Anglo-Saxon: Woden, Norse: Othinn), one might surmise the early “runemasters” were connected to an Odinic cult (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 221). In any case, later Norse poetry would mythologically assign the discovery of runes to this god of magic and poetry (“I know I hung on a windswept tree, nine long nights …”) (Larrington 34).
The earliest runic alphabet, the Common Germanic Futhark or Elder Futhark, consisted of three aetts of eight staves each, totaling 24 characters. There are about 400 known surviving inscriptions (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 107). Inscriptions are found in Scandinavia and Germany (especially the southwest). Scandinavian artifacts are comprised mostly of military equipment, stones and bracteates (medallion-like objects based on Roman models). In southwest Germany, the runic finds are largely on adornments found in grave goods, including female grave goods (Barnes 33).
Languages are in a constant state of flux; new sounds develop, old sounds drop off. The people of Frisia (the parts of Denmark and northern Germany that hug the North Sea) crafted an offshoot of the Elder Futhark, called the Anglo-Frisian runes (Barnes 37). The Anglo-Frisian runes adorn bracteates, as well as the now famous Gallehus Horn (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 138, 156-157) . For our purposes, though, the Anglo-Frisian runes exist as a precursor the Anglo-Saxon runes (Elliott 42).
Tribesmen of the Frisian area invaded sub-Roman Britain, bringing with them the Anglo-Frisian runes, which eventually evolved into the Anglo-Saxon runes. Owing to changes in languages, the F-U-TH-A-R-K staves had changed to F-U-TH-O-R-C (Findell 24). Thus, the Anglo-Saxon runes are often referred to by modern Heathens as the Futhorc runes, to differentiate it from the Elder Futhark. There were 29 commonly used Futhorc runes, and a further 4 rarely used, bringing it to a total of 33. More will be said of the Futhorc later.
In Scandinavia the runes were simplified to a mere sixteen, facilitating the spread of runic writing, at least among the upper classes. Two versions of this Younger Futhark existed – the Long Branch and the Short Branch. Many runestones can be found in Scandinavia raised by noble families on behalf of their deceased relatives (Barnes 71).
Whether on the Continent, England or Scandinavia, the runes increasingly died out with the spread of Christianity. They were a relic of a Heathen past, and the clergy much preferred the Roman alphabet and its extant literature. There was an exception, however, as some antiquarian minded monks doodled runes in manuscripts seemingly out of sheer amusement (Elliott 56-57).
Despite Christian influence, some survivals of runes took hold. In Iceland, there developed a bizarre amalgamation of Christian and Heathen magic, where Odin and the old gods were invoked alongside Satan and Lucifer. Within this milieu, stylized runes called galdrastafir were employed for sigil magic (Flowers, The Galdrabok: An Icelandic Grimoire 78). Meanwhile, in some Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic towns (such as Bergen, Norway) a type of “dotted” or “staveless” runes were employed by commercial classes, and increasingly written on strips of wood (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 215) . These “runesticks” include everything from magic spells to bawdy love letters.
Runes became a part of the modern occult in the late 19th century when magician and nationalist Guido von List claimed to have had a vision of 18 runes, now called the Armanen runes (Greer 35, 276). The Nazi SS would also employ runes to a limited degree, thus tainting their reputation for at least a generation after World War II (Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore 80).
It was the imagination of JRR Tolkien, however, which truly rekindled the runes for the modern era. In his tales, the runes were used by the dwarves (Barnes 190). There is a significant degree of overlap between modern paganism and fantasy literature, and so the stage was set for a runic reintroduction to the Western mind.
Futhorc Runes – Historical
The 24 runes of the Elder Futhark were retained, though modified in places. A further 9 runes were developed, though of these 9 only 5 have surviving rune poems and are used with any regularity.
Below follow some notable examples of Anglo-Saxon runes.
The Undley Bracteate may have been made in the Frisian region, but was found in England. It bears the Roman motif of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf. The inscription has been interpreted as “kinsmen reward” suggesting it was a status gift. There are also curious bind runes which some have translated as “howler” – referring, no doubt, to the she-wolf (Findell 28-29).
Another early example is the Astragalus. It is an ankle bone of a roe-deer. Its runic inscription means either roe-deer, or a man’s name. It was found in an urn with various other ankle-bones, and may be a gaming piece (Findell 34).
Chessel Down Scabbard Mount
At the richest male grave in the Chessel Down cemetery, the back of a sword scabbard shows a runic inscription, which bears the new “Os” rune from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The text has not been satisfactorily deciphered. The sword may have been imported from Scandinavia, but the text was written in England at the time of burial. It may have been intended to be “read” not by outsiders, but by the occupant of the grave (Pollington, Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age 156).
Seax Of Beagnoth
The seax (short sword) discovered near Thames has 28 runes of the Futhorc. It also contains the name “Beagnoth” which may be its owner (Findell 37)
The Franks Casket
This magnificent piece depicts Christian, classical and secular scenes. For summary of the runic texts, go to http://www.babelstone.co.uk/Fonts/FranksCasket.html
29 of the 33 Anglo-Saxon runes have a rune poem. The poems survive now only in George Hickes’s Thesaurus, written in 1705. The texts were based off a manuscript c. 1000 CE, which has now been lost to a fire. While scholars deem the poems to be genuinely Anglo-Saxon, there seems to have been some interpolation from extraneous material (Barnes 159).
Rune poems exist in Iceland and Norway of the Younger Futhark, but are outside the scope of this essay.
Poems with Runes
The poet “Cynewulf” inserted runes into his poems. The runes he inserted spell his name, and this seems to have been a deliberate attempt to achieve lasting fame after his death (Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore 56).
Futhorc – modern
The Elder Futhark is the most common futhark used by modern Heathens (and paganism in general). This seems to be for no other reason than the New Age press concerning runes concentrates on the Elder Futhark, in a “tradition” that began with Ralph Blum and Edred Thorsson/Stephen Flowers (see below).
However, others have pointed out that modern Asatru is more inspired by the Viking Age than the Migration Era of the Continent. Thus, the runes of the Viking Age, the Younger Futhark, would better service modern Asatru groups than the Elder Futhark, if one wanted to be historical about things. While some modern authors have written on the Younger Futhark, in common usage they still take a backseat to the Elder Futhark.
Finally, within Heathen esoteric circles, there is significant interest in Icelandic galdrastafir magic. Two of its well-known symbols, the Aegishjalmur (Helm of Awe) and the Vegvesir (Wayfinder) are ubiquitous in modern Heathenry.
Anglo-Saxon runes are rarely used in modern Heathenry by anyone aside from the few Anglo-Saxon Heathen groups in operation. GVK proudly uses the Futhorc in the interests of historical rectification with its Anglo-Saxon ancestors. (Although it employs those runes for the ahistorical use of divination. GVK is an interesting mix of the old and the new).
Aside from historical interests, on a practical level the addition of the five runes that have surviving runes poems expands the tool set available to the runic seer. The Futhorc is capable of a wider expanse of expression than the Futhark, and it has served us well these many years.
Runes for Divination
Runes could be used for a variety of esoteric purposes. There is little evidence they were ever used in divination. The closest evidence is a passage from Tacitus stating that lots were cut from branches from fruit bearing tress and then cast onto a white cloth (Tacitus). It does not say that runes were used for the symbols on those lots.
The era of runic divination seems to have begun with the publication of Ralph Blum’s now infamous book back in the early 1980s. His theory of runic divination seems to have been inspired by the Chinese I-Ching, and he treats the runes as “oracles” of reflection and self-development (Blum). Eddred Thorsson, founder of the Rune Gild, published various books on runes and runic divination which became extremely influential. He was, at least initially, inspired by the Armanen tradition (Thorsson x).
Some Heathens revile the ahistoric use of runes for divination. Other Heathens, and plenty of modern pagans and occultists, have found the runes to be an excellent divinatory tool. Runes, quite simply, work, at least within the hands of those who know what they are doing.
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Findell, Martin. Runes. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014. Print.
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Tacitus. Medieval Sourcebook: Tacitus: Germania. n.d. 1 July 2017. <https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/tacitus1.html>.
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