Definition Essay - Runes

The alphabet is a facet of life that we would not be able to do without. It pervades our everyday existence as much as, perhaps, oxygen does. Without it, it would be impossible to function. Even cultures that do not use letters, but symbols, interact with letters in one form or another. For example, the influence of fast-food chains on the world makes it nearly impossible to escape the glowing yellow arches of the McDonald’s "M," no matter where you go. The profound impact that the alphabet has had on society does not begin merely with the use of the Latin alphabet. Before the "A, B, C's," there were "thorns," "yoghs" and "wyns." These were part of the runic alphabet -- orginally a "pictographic" (History of the Runes) system of writing that evolved into a more complex system in order to serve the purposes of both the sacred and the secular. Although the complete evolution of the runic alphabet (into a script form, for example) was hindered by the growing prominence of the Latin alphabet and the Church, its influence on both academia and lore far surpasses that of any alphabet, before and after. For this reason, the runic alphabet was, and still is, one of the most significant points in writing’s history. The value of studying and appreciating runes can be found their history, which implies originality and mystery. Runic inscriptions were found on everything from sacred coffins to coins. Runes remain prominent and influential even today.

The very roots of the runic alphabet – henceforward to be referred to as the runic fuțark for the first six characters, much like the majority of its history, are shrouded in mystery. The first engravings of runes, or "pre-runes," (History of the Runes) date back to Sweden's Bronze Age. However, when runes began to take the form of an alphabet, their history became even more garbled. Scholars argue for both Greek and Latin derivation, but by far the most convincing argument for their source is Northern Italy. The approximate origination dates match well and runic engravings were found in the Alps. The Germanic Cimbri tribes at war in Italy were a quintessential factor in the expansion of fuțark, but they did not originate it, as is believed by a number of scholars. This has been credited to the “Alpengermanen” (Elliott), a Germanic tribe of the Northwest Alps. The Alpengermanen absorbed the pre-runic writing of Northern Italy, processed it, made it their own, and passed it along to the Cimbri who, in their conquests, allowed fuțark to expand outward from the Alps. The Alpengermanen are as mysterious as the language they supposedly crafted, and one of the only things known about them is that they were usually on the move and were often involved in some kind of warfare. The uncertainty surrounding the origins of runes is enough to baffle the most determined of scholars, “and these gaps cannot be filled from the inscriptional material at present available” (Buck), meaning that the gaps in the origin of runes are still far from filled, even with evidence such as that found in the Alps. However, it is that very air of mystery that makes runes such a worthwhile and interesting area of study.

The function of runes varied drastically. Fuțark was considered to be, first and foremost, for the purposes of magic and divination. “When you write a word in runes, it empowers that word” (History of the Runes), so runic inscriptions have a magical nature. Because of this, runes were etched into things according to the purpose the rune would serve on the object! For example, one might find “↑ t,” or Tęr (victory), on a sword or shield (Elliott). Recitation of the runes incised on a weapon or separate incantations would increase the alleged positive effects. Even though the magical effects of runes are more prominent, fuțark had its secular uses as well. Fuțark became “communicative” (Elliott) with its secular use, meaning it took on the role of telling people something, rather than just granting magical ability. It was inscribed on tombs, for example as a way of naming who lay beneath. Also, runes were quite useful in writing riddles – the combination of two fuțark figures into a single word could make for a kenning. Last, runes were, and still are, used decoratively. For example, the Ruthwell Cross displays carved with runic lettering “The Dream of the Rood,” and Vikings often decorated metal, wood, and leather with runic inscriptions – which is evidence that the magical connotations of runes seemed to live quite harmoniously with their decorative nature. Runic fuțark is a writing system that, unlike our Latin alphabet, holds far more depth than the letter’s face. This is another reason why runes are easily appreciated.

Due to the various uses of the runic alphabet, its influence is prevalent even today. Because of their association with magic and empowerment, many people use runes for magical purposes. For example, creating a “rune row” of relevant characters could encourage psychic ability: “laguz/water (relating to the subconscious and mysteries), perth/dice-cup (for divination and magic), ansuz/Odin (the God of the runes), and kenaz/torch (for inspiration)” (History of the Runes). A combination of these runes might be believed to bestow various strengths, which would benefit the user, speaker, or even reader of them. More popular, however, is the use of Bindrunes, or combinations of runes. A Bindrune of the above rune row would be condensed, but granted the same meaning. The practice of rune magic through these methods is quite popular, even though the process (ideally, carving out the runes into wood, burning the wood to send your message, articulating the runes for added strength, and then offering some kind of drink) can be arduous. Those who use runes are undoubtedly aware of their significance: they surpass the purpose of merely “spelling out” a word. One of the people most aware of this fact is the famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien. The maps he drew in The Hobbit consist of runic letters, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy contains runes, although only in his initial drafts. From Tolkien’s work, there have been various off-shoots of a similar nature, all consistently referring back to rune-like lettering in their made-up languages (for example, Eragon by Christopher Paolini).

In conclusion, the importance of the runic alphabet is often underappreciated by those who study languages and writing systems. Its significance is very much evident in its elusive history and varied uses which continue to today. Etched mainly into materials that have faded with time, such as wood, the runic alphabet mysterious, a system that scholars have failed to grasp and give a definitive explanation to. This, however, is where runes derive their power. Runes are worth studying because nothing about them is definite. The urge to know more about runes still drives scholars to research their origins, and the common person to draw upon their power for strength. This is the very reason why runes are here to stay, frustrating as they may be, like a thorn in your side.

Works Cited

Buck, Carl D. "An ABC Inscribed in Old English Runes." Modern Philology 17.4 (1919): 219-224. JSTOR. Henry Birnbaum Library (Pace NYC), New York. 29 Jan. 2008.

Elliott, R.W.V. Runes. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1959.

Smith, Jennifer. "History and Origin of the Runes." The Runic Journey. 6 Jan. 1996. 29 Jan. 2008 .

"Ruthwell Cross." Historic Scotland. The Scottish Government. 2 Apr. 2008

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