Having recently had fairly major surgery on my knee, I’ve been laid up in bed typing up the handwritten articles my late Grandad wrote for ‘Signpost – the journal of the Forty-Plus Cycling Club’. Born in 1913, he cycled his entire life. He experienced Army life in the Second World War and was an avid reader of encyclopaedias. The myriad subjects he wrote about in his rambling prose ranged from his overseas service to the etymology of pub names.
This has inspired me to do something similar, both as a constructive enterprise and to stave off the boredom that overcomes me when the opiates in my blood start to run thin. I have always had a fascination with both History and Language. When I wish to know more about something I invariably look at its origins. Hence etymology, the history of words, has always been a focal point of mine. I’d like this blog to focus on language and its usage, mainly in the past. I’d also like to touch on History and Archaeology a bit.
I intend on this being a regular blog as I still have a few weeks of inactivity ahead of me, though whether it will be daily or weekly I have no idea. I doubt very much that I will stick to this brief, but hopefully this and the upcoming entries will be both informative and, possibly, entertaining.
OK, let’s talk about runes.
Everyone knows a bit about runes; they were Norse letters, imbued with mysticism and magic. Each one not only had a corresponding sound, but also a meaning. This meaning was used for divination, by throwing rune tablets or stones onto the ground and noting the positions in which they landed. Runic alphabets, however, were not purely a ‘Viking’ phenomenon.
There are several variations which are known as Futharks, Futhorks, Futhorcs or Futharcs, the name being based on the first six runes in the alphabet (much as the word alphabet itself is based on the first two letters of the greek alphabet, α and β). Runes (the word comes from an Indo-European word meaning ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’ and is related to Moden Welsh ‘rhin’ meaning the same thing) first appeared in the 2nd Century AD among Germanic tribes.
Mainly they were used to commemorate dead people, as on headstones, or to denote the maker or owner of an important object, such as a sword or knife. This was the Elder Futhark, used by people mainly in the area of Northern Germany/ Denmark/ Southern Scandinavia speaking a language we now know of as Proto Germanic, the ancestor of all Germanic languages today, including English. Old English, the first form of English, spoken in Britain from the time the first Anglo-Saxons came here (in about 400AD) up until after the Norman Conquest (about 1150AD), had its own form of runes – the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. These seem to have been used for wider purposes than the older Elder Futhark’s letters. People actually used them to convey messages and to write poems and riddles.
After the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Christianised in the 6th Century people continued to use them despite the growing use of Latin script in the new monasteries. Runes in England after this period, up until their demise after the fall of Anglo-Saxon society in 1066, were more the script of the ‘everyman’. They were increasingly shunned by the Church for their heathen roots but were still commonly used to record names on precious objects. There is also evidence, based on certain poems and other texts, that people continued to use them for their original purpose of divination.
The Anglo- Saxon method was slightly different to the Norse one: a short hazel stave would be taken and a message would be carved onto it. The stave would then either be carried or placed somewhere to fulfil its purpose. Runes are designed to be carved. They contain no horizontal lines which would split the wood, and obviously no curves.
As I have already mentioned, each rune had a different meaning, much like with, for instance, Japanese or Chinese scripts. For example, the first rune was ‘Feoh’, which meant cattle, or wealth. It’s the origin of our word ‘fee’. ‘Cen’, meant torch. ‘Eh’ meant ‘horse’. ‘Gifu’ meant ‘gift’. These would be arranged together in the way the runecaster wanted in order to show or decipher meaning. [I did originally put the actual runes in here, but wordpress won’t let me show them… ]
There’s not much more we know about the use of runes in England. Norse runes have a much larger presence in archaeology, hence why people tend to hear about them more. What’s really interesting is that they were used right up until the early 20th Century in parts of rural Sweden (the Dalecarlian Runes).
Runes for me are interesting because they represent the melding of language and the spiritual belief system (and hence the culture) of the Anglo-Saxons and their forbears. Presumably, each individual rune meant more to people back then than our Latin letters do to us today. Each one represented a part of their culture and system of beliefs and cutting them into wood or bone would have been a very meaningful activity. I believe that learning about the language of a society is imperative to understanding that culture.
Runes were the way in which the Anglo-Saxons expressed their language and hence, by proxy, the way they thought and what they believed.
Thanks for getting this far! I’ll be writing more soon…