Before the Germanic peoples of ancient Western Europe possessed a true alphabet, they used pictorial symbols to carve into stones their ideas and thoughts. Pre-runic symbols, or hällristningar, have been found in various Bronze Age rock carvings, primarily in Sweden. Some of these symbols are readily identifiable in the later alphabets, while others represent ideas and concepts that were incorporated into the names of the runes (sun, horse, etc.) The earliest known examples of these pictorial writings date from about 1300 BCE and may have been linked to Sun and Fertility cults. Among the signs were parts of the human body, weapons, animals and variations on the circle, square, and swastika (or fylfot), a stylized spinning sun.
While the modern world may have lost the exact meanings of all these petroglyphs, it is almost certain that they had their roots in primitive symbolic Magick, and contributed, in no small part, to the Magickal nature of the later Futharks.
These pictoglyphs later evolved into the more abstract glyphs composed of lines resembling no particular objects. That there was great power endowed to those who were adept at the use of these glyphs is indicated by the name given to the glyphs themselves. These glyphs were called Runes, from the Gothic Runa, meaning “a secret thing, a mystery.” The Runic letter or Runastafr was used to foretell the future by Runemal, or the casting of the Runes. The Runes were inscribed into tools, weapons, rocks, altars, and other personal items. Runes were also used by the clergy as an alternate to the Latin alphabet. There are almost as many theories on the actual evolution and development of the Runes as there are writers on the subject.
The Ancient Vikings believed that the Runes were the gift of Ódhinn, who discovered them after hanging nine days on Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, as a voluntary sacrifice. Some legends say that Ódhinn received the Runes in a vision, others that he was given the Runes by his uncle, the Giant, Mimir, or by Freyya, his wife. (This latter may stem from the fact that the Vikings believed that magic was essentially a feminine gift, and that its use made men effeminate.)
A later (and possibly corrupted) myth contends that Ódhinn drank from the cauldron of wisdom, and learned the Runes as a result.
This confusion of myths may derive from the fact that the term "Runes” was often used interchangeably to indicate not only the individual characters, but also magical songs, poems, incantations, etc. Thus, combining the two, we would interpret the meaning to indicate that the Runic characters came to Ódhinn on the tree, but that their magical uses came later, after drinking from the cauldron of wisdom. Some believe the Runes were a purely Germanic invention, indigenous to the early Northern European progenitors of the Vikings and other Germanic cultures.
R.M. Mayer even went so far as to say that the Runes were the foundation upon which the Greek and Phoenician alphabets were built. This theory, revived and espoused by the Nazis in the 1940’s, has fallen into disrepute, especially considering the fact that the earliest known examples of Phoenician writing are more than a thousand years older than the earliest known Runic inscriptions, which date from before the first century CE, and possibly from as early as 200 BCE. Most modern researchers, however, feel that there is compelling historical and archaeological evidence that the Runes (as an alphabet) were derived from a northern Etruscan alphabet used among Italic tribes in the Eastern Alps, probably by people living in the area of what is now referred to as Bohemia.
The fact that some of the runic characters are similar in shape to characters from other alphabets representing the same sounds points to (but does not necessarily prove) a common origin.
Perhaps the most likely theory is one combining elements of both. The use of pictographs by the early Germanic peoples dates back thousands of years. This method of communication is almost as old as the human race, and was known to virtually every race and culture. Pictographs, which may be thought of as primitive artistic expressions, had close connection to religion and magic.
Early representations of animals being hunted may have been sympathetic magic efforts to bring luck to the hunters.
The evolution from pictographs (characters representing creatures or other concrete objects) to ideographs (symbols representing abstract ideas) is a natural step in the evolution of art as a tool of communication. The next step, however, to symbols representing specific sounds, was not made by all cultures.
For those which did develop a phonetic alphabet, however, it was common to be able to trace the letter back to a pictograph or ideograph representing an object or idea whose name began with the sound represented by the letter.
In Hebrew, for example, “Beth”, the letter representing the “B” sound, evolved from the symbol for “house,” or “Beth." The runic character Fehu evolved from the pictograph representing livestock, indicating that it could very well be a spontaneous development of the Germanic peoples, even though it has some resemblance to the Roman letter “F.” It is even possible that the Roman “F” might actually have been copied from the Rune, rather than vice versa, and certainly the Jera Rune bears little resemblance to the Roman “J”, the closest in sound of the Roman letters to the sound of Jera.
It clearly derives from the spiral pictograph representing the wheel of the year (the meaning of Jera in Old Norse), and is actually the word from which the English “Year” is derived. On the other hand, some of the Runes from the Elder Futhark, the oldest of the runic alphabets, bear a strong resemblance to characters with the same sound from other alphabets. Berkano looks a little like the Greek “b” (Beta) or the Roman letter “B.” There is a strong possibility, then, that this character may have evolved from a common ancestor with the other two.
The same may be true of the Rune Raidho, which resembles and sounds like the Roman and English “R.” From the beginning, Runes were used for the casting of lots, for divination and to evoke higher powers that might influence the 'luck' of man. In most early societies, pictographs were often drawn as part of rituals involving sympathetic magic, especially to encourage luck in the hunt, or in bringing bountiful crops. The ancestors of the Vikings were no exception to this rule. There were characters used for a variety of magical purposes.
There were Runes that influenced the weather, the harvest, curses, the tides, love, and healing.
The Practitioners of Runemal (Rune Magic) were easily recognizable by the very clothing they wore.
The 13th century author of the 'Saga of Erik the Red' described a female Rune magician, saying: "She wore a cloak set with stones along the hem. Around her neck and covering her head she wore a hood lined with white cat skins. In one hand she carried a staff with a knob on the end and her belt, holding together her long dress, hung a charm pouch."
The male Rune Master, or Rune Magician, called a Vitki, wore red trousers, blue shirt and cape, and a white headband with the Runes embroidered in red. He too would have worn a belt and charm pouch.
Both the men and women who were blessed with the wisdom of the Runes were valued and prized by their peoples, given reverence and respect. Kings and warriors sought their advice to help rule and to plan military campaigns.
They also were often used as judges to determine guilt or innocence of accused criminals, or to act as mediators in civil disputes.
Use of the Runes for inscriptions actually continued through the 17th Century CE, until the Latin alphabet (progenitor of today’s English alphabet) had overshadowed other systems of communication throughout the Western world. A number of these Runic inscriptions have been found in North America, with the “Kensington Stone” being the most famous and best documented.
This stone, discovered over a hundred years ago, in Minnesota, bears an inscription reading: “Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on a journey of exploration from Vinland very far west. We had camp by two rocky islands one day's journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgin Mary) save from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our ships fourteen days' journey from this island. Year 1362”
This is the reason that one of Ódhinn’s kennings (or nickname/titles) was “Gelding.” (Back)
Mayer, R.M., "Runenstudien," Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 21 (1896): P.162-184. (Back)
Most Asian cultures, for example, with high levels of civilization and highly-developed languages, never evolved a phonetic alphabet, even though they did develop a rich literary tradition. (Back)
Marstrander, C.J.S., "Om runene og runenavenes oprindelse," Nordisk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskab 1 (1928): P.1-67. (Back)