Essay Part II - History

Link to essay part I
Link to Essay part III


Some of the Scandinavian rune stones have been dated to 1300 BC, this is the earliest date proven for the artefacts, although some authors of modern texts have stated that they may be as old as 2500 BC, although evidence for this is inconclusive.

The next major date in the timeline is approx. 400BC. This is the date that the Negau Helmet has been dated to. The Negau Helmet was named after Negau, near the Austro - Yugoslav border, where it was found and is the earliest use of runes on an object other than stone. (See Appendix 5 for illustration of inscription) It was discovered in 1812 AD, along with a group of other helmets, it being defined by an inscription in a mixture of Latin letters and runes. This has been translated as being dedicated to a war god of the period. So from this, the runes where in use as a common written text among certain tribes in 400 BC in Europe.

From this period to 98AD, the history of the runes remains quiet. In the first century, Tacitus, author of 'Germania', chronicled the use of a lot casting system in use in Britain. He noted that: -

"… To the casting of lots they pay attention beyond any other people.. Their method…. is a simple one: they cut a branch from a fruit bearing tree and divide it into pieces which they then mark with distinctive signs. Then the priest of the community, if the lots are consulted publicly, or the father of the family, if the lots are consulted privately…Picks up three pieces one at a time and interprets them according to the signs previously marked upon them…"

Apart from a few discussions over the exact translations of words from this quote, 'fruit bearing' could be 'nut bearing' and 'signs' could also be 'symbols' or 'letters' (Latin word: Notae) the basic meaning of this quote remains the same. This essentially tells us that the system of casting lots was widely used in Britain at this time. The account also states that not only, do the religious caste use this system but also the heads of family units. This suggests a widely accepted system of assisting with important decision making.

Between this and the 6th Century AD, runes where in common use in Scandinavia and the first runic objects where dated in Britain. The 6th Century was the date for an Anglo-Saxon cremation burial in Caistor-by- Norwich, Norfolk. This seems unremarkable until the grave goods are examined. Among the goods where 30 sheep anklebones, one of them marked with six runes. Was this an example of the first British runic object surviving?

The bone amulet of Lindholm, Sweden was dated to the 6th Century. This is the earliest example of the runes being used on a small object, which was possibly used as a charm or protection symbol. This bears the words "ek erilaR sa WilagaR hateka', translating as :- 'I am a Herulian, I am called the cunning one'. The Herulian kingdom had been destroyed by this point, although the name seems to be synonymous with rune usage.

Another clear example of the power and respect given to the runes comes from an essay on the Germanic world: -

"…In the Mid - 9th Century, the Swedish king Arund was exiled and asked the Danes for help, offering to support them with his fleet of eleven ships on a raid in the east Swedish town of Birka. They found Birka unprotected with only the 'praefectus' Herigar in charge. The townspeople and himself took refuge in the town of Sigtuna. Herigar met Arund and handed over 100lbs of silver in ransom. The Danes, however, stayed, feeling they could get more from the rich town. Arund proposed to the Danes that they should cast lots to discover the will of the gods on wether they should plunder the town or not.

It continues: - As his words where in accord with their custom they could not refuse to adopt his suggestion. Accordingly they sought to discover the will of the gods by casting lots and they ascertained that it would be impossible to accomplish their purpose without endangering their own welfare and that God would not permit this place to be ravaged by them. They asked further where they should go in order to obtain money for themselves so that they might not have to return home without having gained that for which they had hoped. They ascertained by the casting of lots that they ought to go to a certain town, which was situated at a distance on the borders of the lands bordering to the Slavonians. The Danes, then, believing that this order had come from heaven, retired from this place and hastened to go by direct route to that town…"

The earliest rune poem, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem was also dated to this period. There are four surviving rune poems, each one acting as a mnemonic aid to help with remembering order, meaning and uses of each separate rune. Usually each rune has an individual verse to itself, although one poem only details the order of the runes. The Norwegian and Icelandic rune poems where dated to the 13th and 15th Centuries respectively, although this does not indicate date of composition but rather when the poem underwent major language changes.

Although useful, the earliest of these poems was written at least 200 years after the runes may have gone out of common usage. This means that they may not have been a direct representation of the rune meanings and nuances.

Also in the 13th Century, the Saga of Erik the Red was written. The author of this wrote: -

"…She wore a cloak set with stones along the hem. Around her neck and covering her head she wore a hood lined with white catskins. In one hand she carried a staff with a knob on the end and at her belt, holding together her long dress, hung a charm pouch. She wore calfskin shoes and catskin mittens to cover her hands at all times…"

Apart from the translation of ‘catskin’, which can be interpreted as being ‘ermine’ instead, this is a very specific description. Even if this woman cannot conclusively be called a rune user, she is obviously very wealthy and different from the ordinary woman. So, something special is indicated here. If this woman is a rune caster, then society holds her in high regard. The quality and length of her clothing is a straight indication of this. Associated evidence from Caesar states that among the Germanic people lot casting is entrusted to the older women and that the people would not go to war if the gods disfavoured it, however strong their position.

In 1639 AD, the Icelandic Government banned the use of runes by law. They made it illegal to draw, carve or posses anything to do with runecraft. Presumably this is because the entire Government was sensitive to the needs of the Christian Church and bowed to pressure from them.

Fifty years after this amazing occurrence, Olaf Rudbeck chronicled the use of Runestocks in Sweden. These, according to his description, where a small square wand of wood, carved with runes on each of the four sides. These where used by those who where unable to read to assist with the changing seasons, with coded instructions of what to plant, when to dig, when to harvest and when the frosts would come. (See Appendix 6 (I) and (II) for examples.) He seems quite amazed about their continued usage by the working class people, so by this a assumption can be made as to the fact that runic objects had 'gone underground' and where still used by the few at this time.

In 1705 in Britain, a man called George Hickes published his thesaurus. In it he included a copy of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem as an example of an 'ancient alphabet'. He took it as a 'curio' and included it, perhaps without realising exactly what it was. He had copied it from a manuscript he had found in a library in a bundle of old papers. The manuscript had originally come from a monastery, although, frustratingly, which one is not known. Even more frustrating is the fact that the original manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1731, leaving the only surviving copy of the poem in Hickes thesaurus.

Over a century later, in 1852 the only complete British runic memorial gravestone was found when builders extended St Paul's Cathedral. This is, perhaps ironic, as the Christian church attempted to pervert the use of the runes to associate them with witchcraft.

In 1902, a man called Guido von List, 'discovered' the Armenian rune system during a period of temporary blindness. This eventually became the basis for the use of Nazi rune lore during their reign in Germany thirty years later. The Nazi's used certain runic symbols to portray their intent to the German people. It is perhaps ironic (or deliberate) that they chose the rune for 'sun'(meaning life, energy and wholeness), doubled it and used it to represent the 'SS', the most feared of all the Nazi's.

At this point, discussions had come to a head over where the runes had originated. In 1944 a theory was suggested that they had developed from a mix of Latin and Etruscan. Of the three main theories of its development, the Northern Italic theory helps to explain its creation the best: -

"…In some Germanic tribe someone had the time and sense to create the Futhark from an Etruscan and Latin mix somewhere between c. 250 - 150 BC. Rune writing was not it's common usage so it's other use of lot casting or divination by chance is more likely to have been the reason for it's creation. This theory receives evidence from Caesar, Livy, Tacitus and Plutarch who all underline the importance of such rituals with the Germanic people…"

The runic history takes a rest there, with their existence only known by scholars. However, in the 1970's, JRR Tolkien, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, published his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These held many elements of Germanic lore, including runes, used to label the maps in the inside covers of the books.

From this time it was not long until the New Age Boom of the 1980's. This saw a huge influx and interest generated in all things different. Exciting foreign techniques where studied overnight, with centres of excellence trying to outdo each other in the number of qualifications each held. The runes enjoyed a brief respite here, but never really took off, unlike Feng Shui, the Bach techniques and acupuncture. These along with general subjects such as massage and meditation became the staple diet of the typical 'New Ager'.

This, now 20 years ago, was the last major development in the history of the runes. They seem now to have drifted back into obscurity. Although I have personally been studying them since 1992, my total knowledge of the system seems insignificant to their total history.