The word rune originates from the Old Germanic word “runa” meaning to whisper. They were once used for divination, fortune-telling, magic and even to bless or curse people while today runes are used for personal use in meditation as well as for daily guidance. With an almost 2000 year history, runes continue to fascinate and mystify people today.
Elder Futhark are the oldest form of runic scripts, first appearing in the 2nd century. The name is derived from the first six runes in the 24 character alphabet – F, U, TH, A, R and K It is believed, however nobody can be certain, the Elder Futhark were created by the Goths and other Germanic Tribes who resided in the northern lands off the Black Sea. As these tribes migrated throughout Europe, they brought their sacred writing system with them. Evidence of runes can be found all across the continent and not only in Scandinavia – the Saxons used them in the west while we see the Frisian people using them in the south although it is in Scandinavia where we see the highest and most continuous usage due to it’s location, being out of the influence of the Latin and Greek alphabet systems and furthermore the expansion of Christianity. The belief is that because parchment and ink were rare and expensive therefore it was far easier to carve the straight lines into objects such as wood, bones and rock. The runes are all in uppercase and the direction of the text while it tends to vary in the earlier inscriptions, later became standardized, running from left to right.
As with all languages and writing; the runes began to evolve, sometime around the 8th century; to correspond with the changes in the Old Norse language. We call these runes the Younger Futhark. Through a phonetic shift in the spoken language, 8 runes became obsolete reducing the number of characters from 24 to 16. This is the period that we would commonly refer to as – the beginning of the Viking Age; if you have ever seen a Viking Sword in a museum, engraved with symbols, this will have been the Younger Futhark script. The Younger Futhark runes were in use throughout Scandinavia until the 12th century until the expansion of Christianity finally brought the Latin alphabet, resulting in runes being used far less.
The medieval runes evolved from the Younger Futhark after the introduction of dotted runes increasing the numbers of characters in the alphabet to 27. These particular runes we in full use by the 13th century; at the end of the Viking Age. We see that in this period, the medieval runes were in use alongside their Latin counterparts; runes were used by the individual while Latin was being used by the clergy and within teachings. Runes stayed popular, even with the invention of the printing press and reduced cost of ink and parchment, surviving all the way to the 20th century in Sweden.
In the 16th Century we see the final incarnation of the alphabetical runes. The Dalecarlian runes; derived from the medieval runes are named after their discovery in the Swedish Province, Dalarna, which has consequently now been dubbed “the last stronghold of the Germanic script”. They came into circulation around the sixteenth century and compromised a combination of the old runic lettering along with their Latin counterpart. By the end of the 16th Century the alphabetic was exclusively runic however as the years progressed, slowly the Latin alphabet began slowly replacing the corresponding runes. The Dalecarlian runes remained in use up to the 20th century however by now their main purpose was merely for decoration and on calendars.