The history of the Runes

What are Runes?

Runes are a kind of writing character that was used a long time ago for the same purpose as we use today’s letters, to convey sounds in writing in different ways. Paper and pen were not available, so they were most commonly carved in wood, but also on bone, iron and stone.

Who created the Runes?

It was probably merchants from the Nordic countries who were on trade trips to the Roman Empire and there they saw how messages were sent to each other around the Mediterranean in the form of letters. The letters used were from the Latin alphabet and then the creation of a separate script for the Nordic languages – the runes – slowly began. Some of the runes have a similar shape to the capital letters of the Latin alphabet.

How old are the Runes?

About 2000 years ago, at the time of the birth of Christ, it is believed that the runes were created. The oldest finds of runic inscriptions are from the 200th century AD.

The Rune systems

The rune row is called Futhark after the first six runes.

There are a few different rune systems that are important to learn for those who want to immerse themselves in the world of runes.

In the Nordic-speaking countries, there are three different rune systems:
The Elder Futhark (Old Norse), the Younger Futhark (Viking age) and the Medieval runes.

The Anglo-Frisian runes or Anglo-Saxon Futhorc are most represented in Great Britain.

The Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark (Old Norse) consists of 24 runes and was used from about year 0 into the 800th century. Inscriptions with the Elder rune row have been found on weapons, jewelry and about 20 runestones.

The Kylverstone

The most famous find of a complete Elder Futhark is the Kylverstone and that rune row was found engraved on a part of a tombstone in Gotland, Sweden and has been dated to the time of the migration age – 400 AD. But even on some gold bracteates, which are a form of pendants, the entire Elder Futhark has been found.

The Kylverstone can be seen today at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Younger Futhark

The Younger Futhark (Viking age) consists of 16 runes and was used from the 8th century to the beginning of the 12th century. The need to change the runes comes from the fact that the language spoken now had developed so that some sounds had disappeared and that new sounds had been created. Among the new sounds are now also y, ä and ö. The 16 runes are not enough to reproduce all sounds, so it was solved that some runes got several sound values by adding a dot to the rune and these are called ”dotted runes”.

Examples of dotted runes

It is with the Younger Futhark that most runestones are carved with.

Runestone Sö 111 in Eskilstuna, Sweden. One of the few runestones carved with Thors hammer.

The location of the runestone with the church in the background reminds us of the struggle that took place 1000 years ago between Heathens and Christians.

The runes tells us: ”Helgi and Freygeirr and Þorgautr raised the rune-decorated landmarks in memory of Þjóðmundr, their father.”

This runestone is dated to the Viking age, year 1010 – 1050 AD.

Long-branch and short-twig Runes

The Younger Futhark could be carved with two variants; long-branch and short-twig runes. The long-branch runes are also called normal runes.

Generally during the 9th – 10th century, almost exclusively short twig runes were used, while from the 11th century, mostly long-branch runes are used on the runestones. Of course, there are variations on the use of these.

The Medieval Runes

The medieval runes contain about 27 runes. In practice, it consists of long-branched and short-branched runes with dots and should be seen as a compilation of different rune variants that were used during the Middle Ages in the Nordic countries when the churches introduced the Latin script. The scholars and priests knew Latin but not the people, they were still deeply rooted in the sign of the runic script.

Anglo-Saxon Runes

The Anglo-Saxon rune row is called Futhorc and contained 26 – 28 runes and then expanded to 31 – 33 runes during the 10th century. According to various sources, it is connected to both Frisia (Holland) and Britain (England).

A common mistake

We know that many people confuse the placement of some runes in the Old Norse Elder Futhark (24 runes) with the English Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (26-33 runes).

Part of the Elder Futhark showing the correct order for Perthro - Eihwaz and Dagaz - Othala
Part of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc showing the correct order for Eihwaz - Perthro and Othala - Dagaz

It is the runes Perthro/Eihwaz and Dagaz/Othala that we usually get questions about. In the English Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, the location of these runes is Eihwaz/Perthro and Othala/Dagaz, which differs from the Elder Futhark. In the Old Norse Elder Futhark, the correct location is Perthro/Eihwaz and Dagaz/Othala, which the Kylverstone also shows. This can lead to misunderstandings for those who are not familiar with the different futharks that exist.

Runestone Sö 91 in Eskilstuna, Sweden.

The runestone was found just below the ground during a road work of a new cycle path in 2018.
This runestone has been missing for almost 350 years and we know this because the researcher Johan Peringskiöld documented the runestone in 1686 when it was still standing. Without his documentation of the runestone, we would never have known it existed.

The runes tells us: ”Ingulfr and Véseti raised this stone in memory of Buggi and Sigsteinn. May God help their souls.”

This runestone is dated to the Viking age, year 1010 – 1050 AD.

This runestone, Sö 88 in Eskilstuna, Sweden has been moved from its original location to this castle park at Stora Sundby. About 300 years ago, it was common for castles and large estates to decorate their parks with memorabilia like runstones, it would show more status for the landowners.

Stora Sundby Castle begins its history in the 13th century and is rebuilt over the centuries. In 1848, the castle was completed as it looks today, a fairytale castle that represents the seasons. Four large towers symbolizing the seasons, twelve smaller towers for the months, 52 rooms for the weeks of the year and 365 windows for all the days of the calendar.

The runes tells us: ”Steinn, Fastulfr (and) Herjulfr raised this stone in memory of Gelfr, their father, and in memory of Ulfviðr, Gelfr’s brother. Holmlaug’s able sons made the monument.”

This runestone is dated to the Viking age, year 1010 – 1050 AD.