Monday, September 5, 2011

Runes 101 - Runes in History

There are many facets to the Runes.  Through this Runes 101 series, I have focused on the Runes in Mythology and, even within that, there arise questions about how humans came to have the Runes.  Odin's acquisition of the Runes is a popular myth, the way he hung on the Yggdrasil tree in sacrifice to himself and looking into the depths, spied the Runes, reached down, grabbed them and fell back.  However, according to Rigsthula, Heimdall teaches the Runes to his human son, Jarl.

Shifting gears from Norse mythology to human history, Runes of some form, date back to as early as the introduction of Christianity.  Sadly, because Runes were carved largely into items such as wood, bone and antlers, the earliest examples of Runes in history are not found until around 200 AD.  Additionally, although the runic alphabets share many similarities with each other, their form (or shape) varies from country to country and their numbers do as well.  Runic alphabets have been found in Scandinavia, England and Germany, and in eastern Europe (Russia, Poland and Hungary).  There is an original runic alphabet referred to as the Elder Futhark, based on the first six letters in it - F-U-th-A-R-K.  It consists of twenty-four letters, but through time and across geographical separations, the number of Runes changed.  For example, in Scandinavia around the time of the Viking Age, the inhabitants there had narrowed the number to sixteen, while in England, the Anglo-Saxons expanded it to thirty-three.  Call it regional variations.

These are but a couple of the complications around discerning the meanings and uses of Runes in history.  The truth is we really don't know how Runes were used, who exactly used them or what they may have meant from a "magical" perspective.  Even in writing, aside from the differences in shapes and numbers, inscriptions could be written left to right or right to left.  As RI Page (Reading the Past, 1987) points out, sometimes "they could even be boustrophedon", which means that the written lines would alternate directions - the first one would read left to right, but the second one would read right to left and so on.

These are some of the challenges involved with trying to understand the Runes from an historical perspective.  There is more to come, so I hope you will stayed tuned to the Runes 101 series (and my regular posts).  If you have additional insight to offer, please leave a comment or send me an email.  I want to make sure that the information I am presenting is as accurate as possible, despite the challenges.

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