The word rune comes from the Norse rún which means mystery. No one knows exactly when, where or by whom the runes were invented. The only thing archaeologists can confirm is that the oldest runic inscriptions we know of are about 1700 years old found in Denmark and Norway.
The runic alphabet was used within Germanic languages – but primarily in the Nordic countries. It was a writing system where each character marked a certain sound. The alphabet is called Futhark after the first six runes. (An observant reader count seven letters in the name: The reason is that th is a diphthong – the same sound as the English sound th in thing). The original name is spelled fuþark.
Runes could be written in both directions from right to left or left to right. The runes could also be inverted or upside down.
The elder Futhark was used until 600 AD and consisted of 24 characters.
Scientists have found examples in Norway on various changes in Futhark during the 7th century. In the early 700 AD, a shorter runic alphabet consisting of 16 characters was dominating. These changes were connected with what is called the Syncopation Years (ca 500-700 AD), where the Nordic language underwent major changes. The words were shortened (syncopated), and some runes got new sounds. The word jára (year) was shortened to ár. The letter á eventually developed into the letter å in today’s Nordic alphabet.
It is difficult to tell how common runes were for people from lower social classes. However, archaeologists have seen some changes within the inscriptions after the year 1000 AD. The findings from this period indicate that it was not only professionals who were writing: So-called exercise sticks show two text lines – one written by a professional with straight letters and one with crooked letters, most likely a student. This shows that writing courses were common.
Rune sticks were also used to deliver everyday messages and notes. Even naughty messages were carved into wood. Several findings from Bergen and Oslo confirm that sex was a popular theme: Ek kann gilja (I can seduce, sleep with girls) and Smiðr sarð Vigdísi (The blacksmith slept with Vigdis).
In the 11th century, Christianity and the Latin alphabet arrived in Norway, but it would take a few hundred years before people started using the new alphabet. The main reason was the writing tools: The advantage of the runic alphabet was they were cheap and easily available. If you had a knife and a piece of wood or bone, you could start writing. The Latin alphabet, however, had a form that was difficult to carve into hard materials and it was best suited on parchment. This was both expensive and impractical for poor Norwegian farmers.
After the Middle Ages, runes slowly went out of use and the Latin alphabet became dominant.
Runic inscriptions dated back to the Middle Ages in Bergen: Top: -u mik man ek þik. Below: -b þþþ * –. English translation: “… … … you me, I love you. “
Text by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews
Source: Typisk Norsk. Dinamo Forlag, 2005
Photos: Arild Hauge