Rune Lore

                 Rune Lore

There are a great deal of controversies as to exactly what runelore is. For the sake of clarity, it is helpful to try to establish early on exactly what is not runelore.

Now if the word lore/lawr usually refers to acquired knowledge or wisdom on a subject such as local traditions, handed down by word of mouth and usually in the form of stories or historical anecdotes. In this context, perhaps runelore must the collective sum of all the orally transmitted rune knowledge throughout the ages. Now the only problem with this notion is that the Northern European tribes once used the runes as a living tradition was abruptly ended when the Christian Church decided to outlaw them in Iceland CE 1639.

For example, consider what the kantele meant to the Finnish people? The kantele manifests itself in three separate ways.  First, it is a musical instrument, a type of zither which has been known among the Finns and neighbouring cultures for hundreds of years.  Second, the kantele is a significant motif of Finnish folklore.  It is portrayed as having a supernatural beginning and as an object of magic and power, but it is also referred to as an object in normal reality.

Third, the kantele is a symbol of Finnish identity which evokes feelings of pride and solidarity among Finns.  These three different ways of viewing the kantele are closely interrelated and together they comprise a concept of what kantele means to the Finnish people. 

Ref:  Chapter 1:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland  by Carl Rahkonen Submitted to the Graduate School in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Folklore and Ethnomusicology Folklore Institute, Indiana University. Bloomington, Indiana December 1989

In his classic, “Runes and Their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere,” Erik Moltke considers all the contending theories of the original model for the runes and settles on the Latin alphabet by a process of elimination.  After carefully reviewing the history and characteristics of the various scripts (pp. 38-60), Moltke quickly dismisses the Greek and Phoenician options, narrowing the plausible candidates to Latin and the North Italic variants of Etruscan.  Among the problems Moltke identifies that lead him to reject the Etruscan/North Italic theory: 

1.  The Etruscan alphabet itself -- like many other ancient alphabets -- bears only a superficial resemblance to the runes.  As Etruria was absorbed by Roman Empire, its script was progressively displaced by Latin.  Much of the Etruscan alphabet was adapted for use by a number of Alpine tribes at about this time, and these North Italic scripts bear a closer correspondence to the runes -- but only because they also incorporated several Latin characters into their alphabets.  Even so, taking all variants of these alphabets together, only 10 of the 24 runes in the futhark conform both in appearance and sound value to characters used in Etruscan or North Italic inscriptions. 

2.  There was no single "North Italic" script.  Rather, there were four main written languages (and some variants) among the Alpine tribes, each with its own alphabet: Raitic, Lepontic, Venetic, and Noric.  Not one of these individual languages, however, contained all 10 of the "Etruscan" characters that correspond to particular runes.  In fact, the originator of the futhark would have had to be conversant with inscriptions in five different regional languages, combining a few characters of each of them, to arrive at a composite "North Italic/Etruscan" script which could then be used as the foundation of yet another, runic, alphabet.  Such a procedure is unprecedented in the history of alphabet development. 

3.  The futhark was apparently created far away from any Etruscan sphere of influence, at a time when the practice of writing in Etruscan had almost completely disappeared. 

4.  The original advocate of the Etruscan theory, Carl Marstrander (1928), based his claim on an awl found at Maria-Saalerberg, Austria, dated to the 2nd century BCE, which had been identified as bearing an Etruscan inscription.  Marstrander identified the inscribed characters as runes, which he interpreted as "Nefo carved me."  Unfortunately, the awl was subsequently established as a modern forgery -- its inscription was neither Etruscan, nor runic, nor 2000 years old.  Yet Marstrander's advocacy of the Etruscan theory is still cited in its support down to the present day even though the basis of his argument has been shown to be a hoax. 

Moltke nets all this out rather concisely during the discussion of his paper, "The Origins of the Runes," in the Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Runes & Runic Inscriptions (1981), p. 16:

"Regarding the mention of Mediterranean alphabets, Moltke dismissed the Etruscan theory as 'stupid,' pointing out that its first support was sought in the false inscription from Maria Saaler Berg and that in order to create the runes from Etruscan letters the inventor would have had to wander from one Alpine tribe to another, borrowing one rune here and another one there."

Also in his work, "The Runic System as a Reinterpretation of Classical Influences and as an Expression of Scandinavian Cultural Affiliation" Carl Edlund Anderson states: 

"The creation of the runic system almost certainly owes something to interaction between Roman and Germanic culture, though the mechanisms at work are subject to much debate. Debate over the runic system’s origins has produced an enormous body of scholarship. 

1. The oldest commonly accepted runic inscription is found on a spearhead from Øvre Stabu (Illerup, Norway) and is dated to about CE 175. 

2. There is a fibula from Meldorf (in Ditmarschen) dated to around CE 50 that contains what may be a runic inscription, though this is not universally agreed upon. 

3. It is often assumed that a system of writing must have been forming for at least a century or so before the earliest surviving examples, so it might be concluded that the runic system was formulated at some point between the beginning of the RIA (c. BCE 50 ) and the time of the Øvre Stabu inscription. It is clear that the runic characters were inspired in part by Mediterranean writing systems—Roman, Greek, North Italic, or possibly some combination of these—but there has been no firm consensus on this point. 

4. Certainly it seems likely that the Roman script was the writing system best known to the Germanic peoples during the period when the runic system was developed. Accompanying discussions of the runic system’s graphical origins are arguments concerning its geographical origins Von Friesen’s theory  that runes derived from Greek characters looked east to the Gothic territories, while scholars arguing for North Italic origins have pointed towards the Alps. Moltke, who looked to a largely Latin source for the runic characters, suggested a runic origin in Denmark. His argument may not have been wholly uninformed by patriotism, but is lent considerable weight by the fact that virtually all runic inscriptions pre-dating CE 400 are Scandinavian, with only few inscriptions found in northern Germany and the Gothic regions of eastern Europe. 

5.  Plausible though a southern Scandinavian origin during the ERIA is, it seems unlikely that questions regarding the time and place of the runic system’s origins will ever be universally agreed upon. There is a fair amount of graphic variation in the characters of the Older Fu†ark, yet it must be conceded that they exhibit remarkable uniformity over time considering the evident lack of any institution enforcing the maintenance of orthographic standards in the early Germanic world. When other features, such as the number and ordering of the characters, become discernible, they are also surprisingly uniform. Although the earliest surviving inscription containing the entire fu†ark dates to c. CE 400, similarities between the number and ordering of the characters in later fu†ark inscriptions suggests these elements may be of considerable antiquity. 

6. That such uniformity existed in the runic system has led some scholars to propose a point-origin for the Older Fu†ark in some creative individual, 

7. or development by a particular group over some period of time; 

8. in this context, if the Meldorf inscription were not truly runic, it might nevertheless represent a use of Roman characters in the early stages of development into runic characters. 

9. Yet it seems likely that whatever process created the runic system was essentially complete by the time of the earliest inscriptions, c. CE 200. 

Many scholars have attempted to identify a setting in which runes were initially developed. Erik Moltke suggested Danish merchants, while Otto Höfler suggested bands of élite warriors. It is, in fact, most common for a culture’s script to have some kind of magico-religious function alongside its primary secular, utilitarian function. The runic system is unlikely to have been an exception. Much has been made of the word erilaz/erila® which appears on a number of Older Fu†ark  inscriptions. The word apparently designated some kind of office, perhaps even that of runemaster. Some have suggested a connection with the Eruli tribe (or tribes), implying that they were famous for their runic skills, or that they had invented runes. 

The inscriptions bearing the word erila® date no earlier than c. CE300 , however, and any such identification based on these inscriptions must be exceedingly tenuous. Moreover, no classical source attributes such literary skills to the Eruli



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