by, Dan Smith
Runic alphabets first appeared among German tribes in central and eastern Europe during Roman times. Many of the Rune letters seem to have been borrowed from other alphabets, such as the Greek, the Etruscan, and the Early Roman alphabets. Some of the runes seem to be unique inventions. The earliest Runic inscriptions on stone are dated to the late 2nd century AD, although it is probable that Runic Alphabets had been in use for some centuries before.
The runes were a very practical alphabet and developed out of necessity. Most adults in Roman-age Europe possessed knives of some sort, and wood carving was often a highly prized skill. So creating an alphabet that could be easily carved with straight lines in wood (and later stone) was a natural development. Most Runic inscriptions simply identified the ownership or burial site of someone or something, and were as distinct as the Rune-Master creating them.
Early in their history, the Runes had very few writing rules or conventions. The Runes could be written right to left, left to right, or Boustrophedon (right to left on one line, left to right on the next, etc.). During Europe's Dark Ages, as the Roman/Latin alphabet become more dominant, the Roman convention of left to right became the rule. Also, early in their history, Rune letters were often reversed. Runes and their mirror images always represented the same phonetic values.
The original Germanic Runic alphabet contained 24 letters. The first six letters of the alphabet spell out the word "FUTHARK", which is often used when referring to the Runes. When the Runes spread north into Scandinavia, some letters were dropped and the alphabet was simplified to only 16 letters. Sometime between 400 and 600 AD, three Germanic tribes (the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes) invaded Britain. They brought the Runes with them. Once in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon Runes were expanded to as many as 32 characters.
By 800 AD the Runes were in use throughout much of western, central, and northern Europe. The Vikings carried the Runes west with them to Iceland and Greenland. Trade in eastern Europe spread the Runes into Hungary, Rumania, Poland, and parts of Russia. In the centuries that followed, as most of Europe adopted the Christian faith, the Runes slowly fell out of favor, replaced by variations of the Roman/Latin alphabet. One version of the Roman/Latin alphabet used in Anglo-Saxon England during the days before the Norman conquest contained some Runic letters, such as "þ" (thorn), based on the third letter of the Runic alphabet. During the Middle-ages, as Christianity came to dominate Europe, fewer and fewer people were able to understood the Runes.
Many non-Christian and pagan groups still continued to use the runes, such as the followers of the Druid religion. They were persecuted by the Christian authorities and their ways were demonized. Unable to read the Runes, church leaders believed them to be magic spells capable of unlocking the powers of evil. Since this time Runes have developed a bad reputation, and are often linked to the Occult and Satanism. Earlier in this century, the Nazis in Germany employed the Runes in their military insignia and propaganda, furthering to promote the sinister reputation of the Runes.
On the bright side, J. R. R. Tolkien one variety of Anglo-Saxon Runes in his fantasy/adventure novel "The Hobbit". Tolkien used the Runes on maps and for assorted graphics on the hard-cover editions of the book. Tolkien used Runes to represent the writings of the Dwarves in his story. The Dwarves actually used a different Runic alphabet (called the Cirth or the Angerthas). Tolkien substituted the Cirth with the more familiar Anglo-Saxon Runes, just as he also substituted English for many of the languages of Middle-earth such as Westron.
Today, most people interested in Runes fall into two categories. Some are Historians studying pre-Christian European cultures and languages. Or they may be medieval or fantasy RPG (Role Playing Game) players engaged in re-creating aspects of pre-Christian European cultures.
"The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkien
"The Return of the King" by J. R. R. Tolkien
"Reading the Runes" by R. I. Page
University of California Press / British Museum
Germanic Futhark Rune Chart
Anglo/Saxon Futhark Rune Chart
J.R.R Tolkien's Anglo/Saxon Dwarf-Rune Chart
J.R.R Tolkien's use of Anglo/Saxon Runes in "The Hobbit"
Runic fonts are available for most personal computer platforms. The Rune font used through-out this Web page is available from the Rune Fonts for Windows page listed below.
Tengwar Fonts for Windows
Rune Fonts for Macintosh
Rune Fonts for TEX
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Last updated: November 2, 1999
Copyright © 1995-1999 Daniel Steven Smith
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