1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Runes, Runic Language and Inscriptions
RUNES, RUNIC LANGUAGE AND INSCRIPTIONS. The art of writing with an alphabet appears to have been introduced into Germanic Europe in the Iron Age. Something hieratic and mysterious was involved in the idea of letters as used to convey thought, and from the earliest recorded times they were called runes, from the Gothic runa (rún, in Icelandic), which originally means a secret thing, a mystery, and was later used to describe a letter of the ancient language (see Alphabet and Scandinavian Languages). The Iron Age is supposed to have existed from circa 200 to circa 650, and it is to the close of this epoch that the beginning of the writing on Scandinavian memorials is attributed. There are runes which have been discovered in England, and some also on the Germanic mainland of Europe, but it is in the Scandinavian peninsula that the vast majority of inscribed monuments have been discovered. The custom of erecting runic monuments, i.e. stones engraved with more or less literary statements, over the bodies of the dead, was practised first, there can be no doubt, in Norway and Sweden, then spread to Denmark and over the whole North of Europe. It is remarkable, however, that two of the three runic alphabets from which our knowledge of the whole range of rune-literature is founded, were discovered outside Scandinavia. These three alphabets exist, the first on a thin gold bractea found in 1774 at Vadstena, in Sweden; the second on a bracelet, dug up at Charnoy, in Burgundy; the third on a knife, found in the Thames in 1857, and now in the British Museum. There are two principal runic alphabets, the older consisting of 24 letters, and beginning with f; the later of 16 letters. During the last century before the introduction of Christianity, the larger alphabet was increased by 3 letters.
The oldest runes which have been examined are those found on the Thorsbjerg Shield-buckle, which is at present in the Kiel Museum; here the writing, which runs from right to left in straight lines, is of the fourth or fifth century. Other invaluable sources of runic knowledge are the diadem of Straarur, the Vimose comb and the brooch of Himlingöje, which was found in the Vier Fen. Still greater importance has the Golden Horn, discovered at Gellehuus, near Tondern, in 1734; this monument was stolen by thieves and melted down, but fortunately not until a careful copy of it had been made, which is now in the Museum at Copenhagen. It is not until the 6th century that the runic stones begin. The most ancient are believed to be those of Einang, of Tune, of Strand, of Varnum, of Tanum and of Berga. . Perhaps a little later are the stones at Vaanga, Skärkind, Skaaäng, Torvik, Bö and others, too numerous to mention, but all, as seems likely, erected between 550 and 600. On the famous Tune-stone, the name of the author of the inscription is preserved, “I Wiwar made these runes,” and this is not an isolated instance. The original direction of the runic writing was from left to right, like Latin, but quite early the reverse method was introduced. A union of these forms produced more complicated systems, in which much was left to the individual taste.
From the earliest times uninscribed memorial stones in Scandinavia, bautasteinar, were raised to preserve the memory of the dead, and these certainly partook of a more or less religious and sacrificial character. It is evident that, during the Iron Age, stones continued to be erected which had no inscriptions, after the runic alphabets had been invented, and that at first the runes were added only in cases of great importance or solemnity. These runic stones were as a rule posed on the top, of the grave, or by the side of it, on mounds, of which only one example survives, that of the stone of Einang, in Norway. But runic stones were not infrequently placed in the grave itself. These were smaller than those erected outside the grave, and they did not lend themselves to lengthy or elaborate inscriptions. The majority of graves containing such small rune stones, bearing merely the name of the deceased or a magical sentence, have been found in Norway. But the antiquity of most of these is questioned, that of Vatn, which is the oldest, being now placed no earlier than the 8th century. The very important stone of Valdby, which is the oldest Norwegian monument employing the shorter alphabet, is attributed by Wimmer to heathen times, indeed, but to, adate no earlier than the second half of the 9th century. It is supposed that the most ancient of the runic stones of Sweden, those respectively of Vånga, Skärkind and Kinnevad, must have come from the interior of graves, but there is no certain proof of this. The latest criticism tends to the belief that when runes were first inscribed on Scandinavian monuments, they were placed both upon and inside graves, but that after the runic letters had been used for about a century, the latter custom tended to exclude the former. About the year 800 both customs began to invade Denmark, the practice of placing the rune-stones inside, however, soon getting the upper hand. It is a curious fact that in Iceland not a single rune-stone which can be referred back to heathen times is known to exist; the Icelandic rune-stones all date from a period well advanced in the middle ages. It was the old theory that the ancient stones had mouldered away under stress of weather, but that is abandoned, and it is now supposed that the aristocratic exiles from Norway, who settled in Iceland, had not yet adopted in their old home the practice of inscribed monuments to their dead. There were bautasteinar in Iceland, as we know, but there is no evidence that these bore runes upon them.
It is in Denmark that the runic inscriptions exist which possess the highest literary interest. These are all attributed to the beginning of the 9th century. The Kallerup Stone was discovered in 1826 at the village of Höjetostrup, a Danish mile E. of Roskilde; it has been lifted and placed in its original position. This monument contains a statement in old Danish, to the effect that it marks the grave of Hornbora, son of Swidi. The Stone of Snoldelev was discovered in 1768, not far from the spot where the Kallerup Stone was found; it is now in the Archaeological Museum at Copenhagen; this has a long and important inscription in a form of old Scandinavian, allied to the classical Icelandic. The Stone of Helnaes was found on the islet of that name in 1860, and is now at Copenhagen. The other most famous runic monuments are those of Flemlöse, Örja, Nörrenaerå, Glarendrup, Fryggevaelde and Rönninge, of all of which Wimmer has published full analytical descriptions.
These inscriptions are of remarkable value as historical documents, from a period of which no other definite records remain in existence. From a literary point of view, they represent what Germanic language was up to the point at which Ulfilas created a new alphabet for his version of the Bible, by adapting to the runic alphabets a number of Greek letters. It was an error, now exploded, to suppose that the notae impressae, which Tacitus describes in his Germania, were written runes; these were simply signs, or mystic marks, which had no linguistic significance. These are described in the staves of the Edda as having been revealed to mankind by the god Odin, and they were of a hieratic character. The suggestion is that the written runes were introduced from the south of Europe by a Phoenician agency, and that they were copied from Greek or Roman coins which had found their way to Scandinavia. In several of the sagas it is recorded that runes were inscribed on round pieces of wood, called kefli, or runic sticks. It has been suggested that the Eddaic poems were preserved in this way, but the only authority for this is that the Sonatorrek is said to have been taken down on a kefli. In Christian times runes came to be regarded as an archaic curiosity, and were engraved on sticks, chairs and spoons; a loto stick with runes on it is preserved in the Bodleian library. In the Fornsögur runes are mentioned as carved on the blade of an oar. Even cases occur in which the normal Latin alphabet was called rúnamál or a language of Runes. A runic letter was called a rúnastafr in Icelandic.
Authorities.—Ludwig F. A. Wimmer, Runeskriftens oprindelse og udvikling i Norden (Copenhagen, 1874); L. F. A. Wimmer, Die Runenschrift (Berlin, 1887); J. Taylor, Greeks and Goths: a Study on the Runes (London, 1879); G. Stephens, The Old-Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England (Copenhagen, 1879); Bugge, Tolkning af runeindskriften på Rökstenen i Östergötland (Stockholm, 1878); Cleasby and Vigfussen, Icelandic-English Dictionary (Oxford, 1874); Wilhelm Grimm, Ueber deutsche Runen (Göttingen, 1821); Olsen, Runerne i den oldislandske Literatur (Christiania, 1891). (E. G.)