Runology is the study of the Runic alphabets and inscriptions. It was initiated by Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) who was very interested in the linguistics of the Geatish language (Götiska språket), i.e. Old Norse. Rune Origins and their theories is today a volatile area of discussion amongst runologist has and will always be a hotly debated subject. 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. Consider that lack of proof absolute does not necessarily equate to a consensus of verification to the contrary. There are four general theories as to the origins of the runes and they all have their own sets of flaws.
1. The Roman (or Latin) Theory
2. The Indeginous Theory
3. The Greek Theory
4. The North-Italic (or Etruscan) Theory
The Roman Theory
This theory was first presented in 1874 by L.F.A. Wimmer and states that the runes are a result of the adaptation of the Roman alphabet. It is assumed that the ancient Germanic people, who came into contact with Roman culture through the invasion of the Teutones and Cimbri, were familiarized with the Roman written alphabet as early as the 2nd century B.C.E. They then adapted the Roman alphabet into the runes and put it to use, spreading it by the means of trading routes into Scandinavian countries and then eastward from there. The one thing that we need to watch in this theory is the fact that there is little evidence of the runes near Roman lands at such a time. However the spread of the runes into Scandinavian countries and from there eastward may mean that the adaptation of the Roman alphabet wasn't complete until the runes had begun
to spread northward.
The Indigenous Theory
First put forward in 1896 by R.M. Meyer and popularised by National Socialist Germany, this theory states that the runes were an original "alphabet." Not only were they said to be original but they were also said to have been the groundwork on which the Greek and Phoenician alphabets were created. This theory no longer holds much value to it due to the fact that the earliest Phoenician writings can be dated back to around the 13th or 12th century B.C.E., while the earliest runic inscription dates back to the 1st century C.E.
Perhaps a better indigenous theory lies here:
Who could read and write runes in an almost illiterate society is subject of an often recurring debate. If one abandons the idea of a purely symbolical, magical or religious purpose of adding runes to objects, the answer is that at least the former mercenaries had learned to read and write, especially the officers. On the other hand there must have been literate people, more specifically craftsmen, among the
foederati. The literate officers and soldiers must have constituted a small group. This would tie in very well with the observance that runic objects are sparse and emerge from widely separate places. Runic writing may have started as a soldier’s and/or craftsmen’s skill. This might explain the curious meaning of the word “rune” secret, something hidden from outsiders. The runic legend shows very simple information, but it may be that the art of writing was sort of “secretive”, the prerogative of a specific group only, and not necessarily linked to magic or religion
The Greek Theory
This theory was first stated in 1899 by Sophus Bugge and talks about how the ancient Germanic people adapted the Greek alphabet to create the runes. The theory goes that the Goths had come into contact with a cursive form of the Greek alphabet. The Goths then adapted the cursive form of that alphabet for their own use allowing the new alphabet to spread with them as they traveled. There are problems with this theory, which have led it to be abandoned by many people. Again we see a fault in the times for this theory. The earliest the Goths would have been able to adapt such an alphabet is around 200 C.E. and the earliest runic inscription would have been earlier than that.
The North-Italic Theory
This theory by C.J.S. Marstrander in 1928 was strengthened in 1937 by Wolfgang Krause. The theory goes that the Germanic people living in the Alps came into contact with the North-Italic (or Etruscan) alphabet and adapted it. Then the Cimbri come into contact with the "new" alphabet and pass it on to the Suevi who carry the runes up the Rhine river to the North Sea, Jutland and beyond. The only real "problem" with this scenario is that the encounter would have taken place two to three hundred before any runic inscriptions that are already dated. But this doesn't mean that it couldn't have happened. Items made of wood may have been carved with the runes and may have long since decayed. Obviously, simply asserting that the runes derived from the Etruscan alphabet can hardly be taken as evidence a "vast Etruscan trading network," when there is otherwise no sign that such a network existed anywhere close in time to the development of the runes. If such a network *had* existed, of course, the Etruscan theory would seem much stronger. The Etruscans, who occupied much of north-central Italy in the first millennium B.C., traded far and wide in the Mediterranean. Their prosperity and taste for luxury supported a long trading chain leading north to the Baltic Sea for prized amber. That, some experts speculate, may account for the migration of a common Etruscan man's name, Lars, to Scandinavia.
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 Fuþark, 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 fuþark dates to c. CE 400, similarities between the number and ordering of the characters in later fuþark 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 Fuþark 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 Fuþark 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
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.
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
The magic of runes
"The possible limited reserve of the runes to a small section of society would have in effect removed their 'correct' interpretation and use from amongst the respective society in general thereby creating an aspect of mystery if they are associated with practitioners of divining or healing. Their use as transmitters / receivers of information to a small, specialized, section of society may permit such speculation that they may have been carved on wood and used for example, for divination".
Wolfgang Krause in his work “Die Sprache der urnordischen Runeninschriften" favoured magical explanations for rune inscriptions that seemed undecipherable.
Quite the case, for example Galdr derives from the same stem as gala “to crow” and galen “mad” and was performed in a shrill voice, which must have acted suggestively. Moreover, the galdr had its own metre called galdralag, the metre of spells. Two types of galdr have survived in a manuscript of Merseburg. The first tells of women, who watch the battles and who are able to tie or loose the feared war-fetter. This charm could have been recited before battle, with a view to invoking these powers to decide the outcome of the struggle. It alludes to a recurrent topic in a martial situation, magic fetters, suddenly being thought to chain the warrior invisibly to the spot, so that he would easily fall victim to his enemies. The force of this magic fetter is demonstrated expressively in Hár›ar saga ok Hólmverja, (where Hár is trying to escape from his enemies when he is hit by the war-fetter and paralysed:
The ‘war fetter’ came upon Hár, but he cut himself free once and a second time. The ‘war fetter’ came upon him for the third time. Then the men managed to hem him in, and surrounded him with a ring of enemies, but he fought his way out of the ring and slew three men in so doing.
The fourth time the “war fetter” falls over him, he is overwhelmed and killed, uttering the word, “a mighty troll decides in this”.
We should not think that fear, but a feeling of immobility, not unlike the kind we may experience in nightmares, when we want to run away but cannot move, caused this kind of paralysis. The galdr ends with the words: “Dash out of the fetters! Run from the enemies!” in order to cure the paralysis. The second galdr is more related to the healing hands combined with the magic spells, although the patient in this case is a horse:
Phol and Wodan went to the forest
Then Baldr’s (or the lord’s) horse sprained its foot.
The invocation goes to the goddesses and the gods:
then Sinhtgunt, the sister of Sunna charmed it,
then Frija, the sister of Volla charmed it.
then Wodan charmed it, as he was well able to do.
According to Hávamál he once learnt nine wise songs and he masters eighteen spells, corresponding to the secret wisdom as earlier mentioned, which was special for the kings.
It is probably Wodan who utters the very essence of the galdr:
Be it sprain of the bone,
be it sprain of blood,
be it sprain of the limb:
bone to bone,
blood to blood
sinew to sinew
limb to limb,
thus be they fitted together.
These lines are most interesting and scholars have earlier drawn attention to the fact that they appear in several charms in Old Irish stories and moreover in Kalevala, where Lemminkäinens mother joined her son’s severed limbs together, restoring him to life, a formula derived from the Finnish neighbours. The oldest known expression goes back to the Vedic poem Atarva-Veda and it as a medium in the healing process as far as we know from Sigrdrifumál. This galdr is considered to have its roots in an Indo-European tradition of healing. It survived in folklore with the change to Christ’s horse broken, and there are many variants of the charms in this version. We do not know what kind of galdr Oddrún sang to ease Borgny’s pains, but after the change of religion in the North the women in labour invoked the Virgin Mary. She had the certain key to lock up their loins, as these spells say literally. Holy relics were also used to deliver the baby, but there was a striking difference between the Old Norse customs and the Christian. The pain should not be eased, since this was a result of Eve’s sin, but the help still was there to bring the child into this world and to holy baptism. To ease the pain resulted, according to folk belief, in the birth of a were-wolf or a mare. Oddrún’s bitter, strong galdr therefore might continue as a secret.
It has been suggested that the word rúna suggests “secret” and the letters were thought as originating from the gods to special persons, who were said to ráda rúnom “to rule and to master the secret letters". The word ráda thus implies a special knowledge, which means that the runes had to be understood by the magician or the healer. One famous example of this occurs in Egils saga Skalla-grimsonar.
Ref: Healing hands and magical spells by Britt-Mari Nasstrom
11th International Saga Conference