Futhark: Mysterious Ancient Runic Alphabet of Northern Europe
The word rune comes from the Norse rún which means mystery or secret . Little is known about the origins of the Runic alphabet and no one knows exactly when, where or who invented it.
Runes are the characters of the earliest written alphabet used by the Germanic peoples of Europe called Futhark. The runic alphabet was used within Germanic languages but primarily in Nordic countries. Inscriptions have been found throughout northern Europe from the Balkans to Germany, Scandinavia, the British Isles and Iceland, and were in use from about 100 to 1600 AD. Runic inscriptions have even been found in North America, supporting claims that the Vikings arrived in the Americas long before Columbus. These days English and other Northern European languages are written using Latin letters, but they used to be written using “Runestaves.”
The oldest known runic inscription dates to 160 AD and is found on the Vimose Comb reading simply “HARJA”.
A comb made of antler from around 150 to 200 CE and was found in Vimose on the island of Funen, Denmark. The Elder Futhark inscription reads "Harja", a male name. This is the oldest known runic inscription. The comb is housed at the National Museum of Denmark. Wikimedia Commons
More than 4,000 runic inscriptions and several runic manuscripts have been found with approximately 2,500 of these coming from Sweden. Many date from the 800's to the 1000's, during the period of the Vikings. Runic texts are found on hard surfaces such as rock, wood, and metal. The characters were also scratched on coins, jewelry, monuments, and slabs of stone.
This runic inscription has been carved into bone. Found in Sweden. Wikimedia Commons
The Runic alphabet is known as Futhark after the first six runes, namely f,u,th,a,r and k. It consisted of 24 letters, 18 consonants and 6 vowels, and was a writing system where each character marked a certain sound. Runes could be written in both directions and could also be inverted or upside down. The earliest runes consisted almost entirely of straight lines, arranged singly or in combinations of two or more. Later runes took on more complex forms and some even resemble modern day letters of the English alphabet.
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Because of the resemblance to Mediterranean writing, it is thought that Futhark was adapted from either the Greek or Etruscan alphabet and its origin begins further back than the pre-history of Northern Europe. The earliest Futhark inscriptions don’t have a fixed writing direction, but instead were written left-to-right or right-to-left, which was a feature of very archaic Greek or Etruscan alphabets before the third century BC. One theory is that the runic alphabet was developed by the Goths, a Germanic people. Two inscriptions, the Negau and the Maria Saalerberg inscriptions, written in Etruscan script in a Germanic language and dating from the second and first centuries BC, give credence to the theory of Etruscan origins.
A sample of Etruscan text carved into the Cippus Perusinus - a stone tablet discovered on the hill of San Marco, Italy, in 1822. Circa third/second century BC. Wikimedia Commons
Elder Futhark – the oldest runic script
Elder Futhark is thought to be the oldest version of the runic script, and was used in the parts of Europe that were home to Germanic peoples, including Scandinavia. It consisted of 24 letters, and was used mostly before the ninth century AD. This was the ancestor language of English, Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic. As languages changed and more Germanic groups adopted it, Futhark changed to suit the language that it came to write. An early offshoot of Futhark was employed by Goths known as Gothic Runes, which was used until 500 AD before it was replaced by the Greek-based Gothic alphabet. Elder Futhark was used until 550 AD around the Baltic and North Seas to write the language described by Antonson as ‘North-west Germanic’. Unlike other forms of runes, the skill of reading Elder Futhark was lost overtime until it was rediscovered with its decipherment in 1865 by the Norwegian Sophus Bugge.
Younger Futhark or "Normal Runes" evolved from Elder Futhark over a period of many years and stabilized by about 800 AD, the beginning of the Viking Age. Instead of 24 letters, the Scandinavian "Younger" Futhark had 16, as nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped. The Younger Futhark is divided into two types, short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) and long-branch (Danish). It was the main alphabet in Norway, Sweden and Denmark throughout the Viking Age, and largely (though not completely) replaced by the Latin alphabet by about 1200 AD, which was a result of the conversion of most of Scandinavia to Christianity. Futhark continued to be used in Scandinavia for centuries, but by 1600 AD, it had become little more than a curiosity among scholars.