An English Dictionary of Runic Inscriptions in the Younger Futhark
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Runes and Runic Inscriptions FAQs

What are runes?

'Runes' are the individual characters of the runic alphabet, which is usually known as the futhark.

What does futhark/fuŝark/fuŝorc mean?

Like the word 'alphabet', derived from the first two letters (alpha and beta) of the Greek alphabet, the term fuŝark or fuŝorc is the name given to the rune-row, or runic alphabet, from its first six characters. Fuŝark is the Scandinavian version, fuŝorc the Anglo-Saxon version of this name, and these are sometimes spelled futhark or futhorc, with the 'th' representing the third rune 'ŝ', pronounced as in Modern English 'thorn'.

What are the different versions of the runic alphabet?

Like most alphabets, the runic alphabet has had a number of variant forms, at different times and in different places. Many of these various rune-rows are recorded in fuŝark-inscriptions, which show that there was a fixed order for the characters that is quite different from the ABC order of the roman and related alphabets.

Runic inscriptions from the European continent, and the oldest runic inscriptions in Scandinavia, are in what is known as the 'older' or 'common Germanic fuŝark', which has 24 characters, and which was in use from around the second century A.D.

Around, or just before, the beginning of the Viking Age, the Scandinavians reduced the number of runic characters to 16. This 'younger fuŝark' was in use from the eighth century onwards, in Scandinavia, and in those parts of the world settled by Scandinavians during the Viking Age. The younger fuŝark has a number of variants, including a shorthand version. This 16-character fuŝark was expanded again with further characters towards the end of and after the Viking Age, under the influence of writing in the roman alphabet which was introduced to Scandinavia about then. In the Scandinavian Middle Ages, the rune-row was sometimes written in ABC or 'alphabet' order.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon inscriptions are based on the 24-character runic alphabet, but from the seventh century some distinctively Anglo-Saxon runes appear, forming a fuŝorc of 28 characters, although further runes are sometimes used, particularly in manuscripts.

What are the earliest runic inscriptions?

There is no scholarly consensus about exactly when and where the runic alphabet originated, or even whether it was invented all at once, or evolved from other writing systems. But it is clear that runic writing arose from the contact the Germanic-speaking peoples had with the cultures of the Mediterranean, where the idea of alphabetic writing came about, and that some of the runic characters, though not the order of the alphabet, demonstrate the influence of Mediterranean writing.

The earliest undoubtedly runic inscriptions currently known are the short texts (mostly single words which might be names) scratched in the metal of weapons and other gear excavated from the bogs of Illerup and Vimose, in Denmark. These have been dated by archaeologists to around 200 A.D., although a comb found at Vimose may be about half a century earlier.

When and where were runes used?

In Scandinavia, runes were regularly known and used from around the second century A.D. until about the sixteenth, though the intensity and kind of use varied at different times and in different places during this long period. During the Viking Age (800-1100), Scandinavians took their knowledge and use of runes with them in their expansions both east and west. Inscriptions in Scandinavian language and/or runes can be found in the British Isles (England, Scotland, Isle of Man) and Ireland, in the North Atlantic colonies (Faroe, Iceland, Greenland), in Russia, and sporadically elsewhere. The earliest inscription found in Iceland is from around 1000 A.D., and an idiosyncratic runic tradition, plus an antiquarian interest in runes, developed there from around the thirteenth century. In Iceland, as in some other parts of Scandinavia, scripts and signs derived from or related to runes continued to be used up to around 1900.

Anglo-Saxon immigrants brought a knowledge of runes with them to England in the fifth century A.D., and runes were used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond, though later their use was often antiquarian or esoteric. Anglo-Saxon runes can also be found on the European continent, in manuscripts, or as graffiti left behind by pilgrims to southern Italy.

Apart from such Anglo-Saxon imports, runic inscriptions found on the European continent are mainly from the sixth and seventh centuries A.D., and are concentrated in what is now southern Germany, though there are isolated examples from as early as around 200, and found in places like Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Romania, as well as northern Germany. There is also a distinct Frisian runic tradition, which has close connections with Anglo-Saxon runes, though these connections are not fully understood.

Since at least the nineteenth century, there are modern runic inscriptions more or less imitating earlier inscriptions, particularly in Scandinavia and in North America. Some of these are deliberate forgeries, intended to deceive the unwary runologist, others simply make use of a variety of runic or rune-like characters to write modern texts, for diversion or decoration. Runes are nowadays also used rather eclectically by various New Age movements, e.g. for divination, and decoratively on souvenirs from areas with runic traditions, e.g. sweaters from Orkney.

What were runes used for?

Runes are an alphabet, and can be used for any purpose that requires alphabetic writing (including magic, nonsense and decoration). Runes were used to inscribe names, owner's and maker's formulas, or charms, on jewellery such as amulets and brooches, on personal items such as combs, or on weapons. Runes were also used to commemorate the dead on memorial or grave-stones. Their simple angular forms meant that runes were particularly suited to cutting ephemeral messages in wood, whether as graffiti on church walls or for quick messages on rune-sticks. Runes could also be used for official purposes, e.g. on coins, and for many other reasons. What is characteristic of most runic inscriptions is that they are relatively short. Although there are a substantial number of runic inscriptions recording verse, runes were not generally used for literature as we know it.

Like other alphabets, runes could, in theory, be used to write a number of different languages. In practice, runic inscriptions are mainly in one of the Germanic family of languages, which comprise the ancestors of the modern Scandinavian languages, and of modern English, Dutch and German. The earliest inscriptions are in what is called 'Common Germanic', before the different branches of this language family became distinct. Runes were also occasionally used for texts in the Latin language, particularly in medieval (i.e. post-Viking Age) Scandinavia.

The earliest users of runes did not have the technology of writing with pen and ink on parchment, but cut runes with sharp implements on stone, metal, wood, bone or other suitable surfaces. Some inscriptions were carefully produced by skilled and literate craftsmen, others have the character of graffiti, and some runes or rune-like marks show that people could copy runes without necessarily being willing or able to write comprehensible texts. Runes were also occasionally used in manuscripts by scribes trained in writing in the roman alphabet, though there are very few such texts that are completely in runes. Anglo-Saxon scribes (and Scandinavian scribes following their example) borrowed some runic characters to reproduce sounds not easily represented by the roman alphabet, such as the third rune, 'ŝ', for the sound we currently spell 'th'.

What are cryptic runes?

Some runic inscriptions are in a code based on the fixed sequence of the rune-row (whether 24- or 16-character). The characters are divided into three groups of 5-8, and the code indicates both which group a rune is in, and its position within that group. Such codes commonly involve branching symbols, with the number of lines either side indicating the number of the group (1-3) and the number of the rune (1-8) in the group.

How do I found out more about runes?

The absolute beginner should start with a good introductory book like:

  • R.I. Page, Runes, London 1987.

More detailed surveys in English are:

  • Katherine Holman, Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions in the British Isles, Trondheim 1996.
  • S.B.F. Jansson, Runes in Sweden, Stockholm 1987 [excellent colour illustrations].
  • Erik Moltke, Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere, Copenhagen 1985.
  • R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, Woodbridge 1999.
  • David N. Parsons, Recasting the Runes, Uppsala 1999.
  • Terje Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Woodbridge 2005.

Serious students of Scandinavian runic inscriptions will need to use the major corpus editions, available in good research libraries, most of which are still in progress or being revised:

  • Danmarks runeindskrifter
  • Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer
  • Sveriges runinskrifter

However, the texts of the inscriptions, in transliterated and normalised form, and translated into English, can be found, along with some information about the inscriptions, in the Scandinavian runic database. Since 2004, this database has been available in an English version.

The Scandinavian inscriptions of Britain and Ireland are being published in a number of separate volumes:

  • Michael P. Barnes, The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney, Uppsala 1994.
  • Michael P. Barnes, Jan Ragnar Hagland and R.I. Page, The Runic Inscriptions of Viking Age Dublin, Dublin 1997.
  • A further volume by Barnes and Page publishing the Scandinavian inscriptions found in England and Scotland is imminent.

Many inscriptions in the older fuŝark can be traced in:

  • Wolfgang Krause, Die Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark, Göttingen 1966.

Much information is now available electronically, for details see the links section of this website. For a comprehensive bibliography of writings about runes since 1985, see the periodical Nytt om runer, available in print and on the web, though the web version of the bibliography is only complete back to 1995.


Page last updated:
5 May 2006

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