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Rune Origins

                  Rune Origins


Rune Origins

The Vinland Map purports to be a 15th century map depicting Viking exploration of North America centuries before Columbus.

This volatile area of discussion amongst runologist has and will always be a hotly debated subject area. Amongst rune scholars the origins of runes will continue to remain a mystery due to the scant availability of evidence both in archaeology or the written text. However it must be said that similarities exists of runes being like the Latin and Greek alphabets systems and therefore given rise to theories that the runes must have come from these alphabets. More information is coming to pass to suggest that the age of the runes must have been older then previously believed. At this point they are being connected to some of the earliest writing systems. I must point out that the following information is not new and actually already known but ignored for some time by academics. This begs the question of why? I shall therefore attempt only to stimulate the reader with some qualifying recent although not new thoughts on the subject. I leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. It really depends on whose theories you choose to believe.

The Golden horns of Gallehus were two golden horns, one shorter than the other, discovered in North Slesvig, or Schleswig, in Denmark. The horns were believed to date to the fifth century (Germanic Iron Age). The horns were made of solid gold and constructed from rings, each covered with figures soldered onto the rings, with yet more figures carved into the rings between the larger figures. These figures probably depict some actual events or Norse saga which is now unknown to us. The most probable theory is that the illustrations comes from Celtic mythology rather than Norse: the horns portray a man with horns and a necklace, very similar in appearance to the Celtic god Cernunnos (especially compared to the Cernunnos portrait on the Gundestrup cauldron, also found in Denmark), and several iconographic elements such as a he-goat, snakes and deer, commonly associated with Cernunnos. Several other archaeological findings from southern Scandinavia also show influence from Celtic religion.

                                        ek hlewagastiR holtijaR         horna tawidô
                                          I, Hlegest of Holt         [the] horn made [did].


This inscription dates from as far back as the 4th century, yet we can still see four major stressed syllables, connected by alliteration. The half-lines appear to be both of type A, the most common. Clearly, by the time the first lines of verse in English, German, and Norse arrive on the scene, the Germanic poetic tradition was already ancient.

The first horn (the long, intact one) was 75,8 centimeter measured on the outer perimeter, the opening diameter was 10,4 centimeter, and weighed 3,2 kg. This horn was discovered on July 20 1639 by a peasant girl named Kirsten Svendsdatter in the village of Gallehus, near Møgeltønder when she saw it protrude above the ground. She wrote a letter to the Danish king Christian IV of Denmark who retrieved it and in turn gave it to the Danish prince (also named Christian), who refurbished it into a drinking horn. The Danish antiquarian Olaus Wormius wrote a treatise named De aureo cornu on the first Golden horn in 1641. The first preserved sketch of the horn comes from this treatise. In 1678 it was described in the scientific journal Journal de Savants.

Odenstedt argues for a theory based on A. Baeksted's book "Målruner > og troldruner, 1952. He writes:

"It has been claimed that the reason why none of the supposed runic letters, list of customers, etc., have been preserved is that they were written on wood and have all rotted away. But against this it may be objected (as Baeksted did) that it is not feasible to postulate that what has been lost had an entirely different character from what has been preserved. Germanic spiritual culture was traditionally oral. The art of writing was a luxury which Germanic people had seen Romans practice and which they no doubt envied and tried to imitate, with very limited success."

Ref: Odenstedt, Bengt. On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1990

I think older runologists was interested in a pointless question -- which alphabet was the prototype and the pattern for the runic script? There is, in my opinion, no clear influence of any specific alphabet. The runic script could have been constructed by chance, by anyone familiar only with the idea of classical alphabets. More interesting than the graphic form is for instance the order of the runes, the number of the runes (24), the aettir and the rune names. Odenstedt's (and Baeksted's) point is that there was no practical need for runic script, and that "the runic script was created as an artificial, playful, not really needed imitation of the Roman script."

If this is so, then we have to explain why the rune tradition in the first centuries when this is a fact, is so solid, homogeneous and redundant. I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'redundant' . One possible explanation is that the runic script is connected to an older oral rune row (ramsa, räkneramsa, thulur).We know that the Greek and other alphabets was used as numbers, normally 1-9, but also 1-24. There are also some counting rows (1 to 24) known from classical tradition. Does anyone know more about this and/or counting systems in Norse, classical and general ethnographical traditions?

Has any attempt been made to read numeric information out any of the older runic inscriptions? Another explanation (speculation) is a consequence of Odenstedt's (or Baeksted's) generation theory, combined with Håkon Melberg's expansion theory. The runic script originated within one well organised tribe that had been in service with- or in close contact with the Romans. This tribe migrated northwards around the first century, and during the next four centuries they obtained a dominating role in Denmark and Scandinavia. By examining examples of various alphabets of the world we can begin to see the influences which may have led to development of the Germanic/Norse rune alphabets. It is commonly thought that the Etruscan and Latin alphabets were sources, but as you will see below, there may have been others.

First, let's look at the major runic alphabets (called "futharks" based upon the first six symbols). There are many other variants, but the Elder, Anglo-Saxon, and Younger Futharks are the most well-known. Runes were used to write many languages including, Gothic, German, Frisian, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Lithuanian, Russian, Hebrew and other Semitic languages possibly due to trade relations with the Khazars, a Semitic tribe of traders of the Silk Road.

An interesting new idea is by T A Markey "A Tale of Two Helmets: The Negau A and B Inscriptions" in Journal of Indo-European Studies 29/1 Spring 2001. Markey argues the case for a range of alphabetic scripts having been developed in the Alpine regions, and the Camunic as the most likely original of the runic. Few scholars these days argue for a North Italic origin for the futhark, so this is an interesting read.

Starting with the Negau helmets, Markey discusses the circumstances of their discovery - a hoard of 26 5th c. BC Etruscoid bronze helms unearthed in a Slovenian orchard in 1881. Nos. 1 and 22 have intelligible inscriptions ('A' and 'B' respectively), 9 others have unidentified graffiti. Only 23 are still known to exist (1 destroyed in discovery, 2 probably stolen). All are Vetulonian format helmets with a central ridge and projecting rim. 3 of 4 inscriptions on Helmet A are recognisably Celtic.

Negau Helmet Runic Inscriptions

Markey gives a handy tabulation of an array of Alpine alphabets in use prior to being swept away in the process of Romanisation: Camunic (Val Camonica), Golaseccan, Lugano, Bolzano, Magre, Venetic, Marsilian, etc. The Negau B characters are then set out beside these.

One factor of all northern Etruscan writing systems (whether recording Etruscan or not) is that they suppress homorganic nasals e.g. Lepontic seTuPoKios (= setubogios) = Sentubogios (pers.name) or Rheto-Celtic vixamulaxe = vitamulate = Windamolatos 'having splendid warriors'.  He then goes onto discuss 6 stages in adoption of alphabetic writing

  1. both form and values are borrowed
  2. forms are borrowed but values are partly invented
  3. forms and values are partly borrowed, partly invented
  4. forms are borrowed but values are freely invented
  5. signs are partly borrowed, partly invented and values are freely invented (e.g. Cherokee)
  6. both form and value are invented (e.g. Ogam)

All but (6) are a form of derivation. He urges caution in distinguishing between piecemeal congruity and systemic identity. He then gives repros of the 4 Negau A inscriptions and analyses them in terms of Etruscan and Celtic. As an aside he suggests Runic 'alu' < Rhetic 'alu' < Etruscan 'ala' (dedicate) noting that early 'alu' always stands outside the grammar of the texts where it occurs and may have been borrowed as a talismanic cipher. Turning to Negau B - the famous hargasti teiwa text - Markey narrows down the possible source scripts by exclusion e.g. initial h- in Venetic was lost before c.300 BC so that cannot have been the writer's source. The best fit between character forms, systemic features and sound values is Camunic, he feels, although only one other inscription in that script is a very close match.

25 pages of notes 21 pages of bibliography conclude the article.

I would recommend tracking the article down because Markey is a very well-respected authority in the field of Germanic linguistics, and his reading of the origin of the futhark is different from the usual suspects today. I would add as a personal footnote that I still think that for Etruscan/Alpine alphabets to be the model for the runes this must have happened before c.100 BC as c.50 BC Roman script swept away all the local traditions of the southern and western Alps. This pushes runic origins back maybe 150 years beyond the earliest inscriptions unless the Meldorf fibula is indeed runic."

The runes might be read from left to right or from right to left, even on the same artifact. Translation of runic inscriptions is therefore extremely difficult, and complicated by the fact that rune masters sometimes wrote cryptic puzzles or in secret script.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

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."


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