The Origin of the Elder Futhark

Table of Contents:

  1. Mythological Beginnings in the Viking Age
  2. Historical Context in Ancient Germania and Scandinavia
  3. The Runes of The Elder Futhark
  4. Mediterranean Origins
    1. The Latin Thesis
    2. The North Etruscan Thesis
    3. The Phoenician Thesis
  5. Conclusion and Outlook

Note: All translations from German in this text, including quotes, are the authors.

Mythological Beginnings in the Viking Age

I know that I hung on that windy tree, 
spear-wounded, nine full nights, 
given to Odin, myself to myself, 
on that tree that rose from roots 
that no man ever knows.

Elder Edda, Hávamál, 138.

Such was the creation of the runes, the mythical signs of the Vikings, according to their very own legends, documented in 13th century Iceland in form of the Elder or Poetic Edda, as Klaus Duewel and many others have noted before (cf. Duewel4 2016, p. 1). This shows that the people writing the runes themselves believed in a “divine origin” (ibid., p. 3) of these ancient signs. In contemporary historical research, however, no consensus in regards to their actual origin has been able to be established yet (cf. ibid.).

Picture of the Icelandic Codex Regius, one of the sources of the Poetic Edda.
Picture of the Icelandic Codex Regius, one of the “original” copies of the Poetic Edda.

The Runes are the oldest form of writing in Northern Europe (cf. Spurkland 2010, p. 65). This article is to deal specifically with the origin of its oldest form, the so-called Elder Futhark, and to present, compare and criticize the arguments of two prominent and one rather controversial, yet intriguing, theory in regards to its origin in detail.

Traditionally, a comparison has often been made between the Latin, North Etruscan and Greek thesis, mostly in this order from the most probable to the most improbable (cf. Duewel 42016, p. 3). Since the Greek thesis has lost many of its supporters to the Latin and North Etruscan variants (cf. ibid.), I would instead like to include the Phoenician hypothesis, which has mainly been represented by Theo Vennemann in the recent past. This particular theory is not necessarily more plausible than the Greek one, and it’s struggling with some of the same problems, such as centuries of virtually no archaeological proof between the proposed time of origin and actual archaeological finds, but it is able to answer many of the questions that the previously put forward theories could not.

To begin with, I will briefly introduce the reader to the relevant historical context and mark out the time frame in which the Elder Futhark could have been created, whereupon I present an overview of the runes themselves. Then the theses described above and their arguments are put forward and criticized individually, and finally the current state of research is summarized and an outlook on future research opportunities is given to solve the problem of the origin of the runes.

As a basis for this work, mainly scientific introductory books on runology, as well as essays in runological, historical and scriptural journals and specialist books were used.

Historical Context in Ancient Germania and Scandinavia

Viking Armor and Helmets

As in regards to the place of origin of the runes it is generally assumed today that they originated somewhere in or around the Danish Isles, as this is where the oldest inscriptions have been found (cf. Duewel 4 2016, p. 3).

The ethnicity of the people which employed the runes seems rather obvious as well, since the inscriptions in the Elder Futhark were primarily written in a language termed “Nordic-West Germanic Language Unit” or “Early Runic” and the speakers were therefore Germanic or at least able to speak this Proto-Germanic dialect. Later on, after the separation of the Proto-language into several daughter-languages or dialects, distinguishable inscriptions in East and South/West Germanic languages were found as well (cf. ibid., P. 14).

Whilst the location of the place of origin and the rough ethno-linguistic classification of the writers of the first runes are relatively easy to determine, depending on the preferred theory, another point in time for the creation of the runes must be assumed: In the case of Theo Vennemann’s Phoenician thesis, the earliest runes would’ve already been created “between about 525 and 201 BC.” (cf. Vennemann 2006, p. 374), in the case of the North Etruscan theory at the “end of the second century BC” (cf. Mees 2015, p. 38), and in the case of the Latin thesis at the time of intensive Germano-Roman contact, so not prior to the 1st century BC and probably only in the course of the first and early second centuries AD. Roughly, this results in a time frame of approximately 700 years, i.e. during the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age in Northern Europe.

According to Barry Cunliffe, this was “a time of immense social upheaval and readjustment.” (cf. Cunliffe 2008, p. 317). This relates to the migration and expansion of the Celtic tribes (cf. ibid.) and subsequently to the “rise of Rome as an imperial power ”( cf. ibid., p. 364). This expansion led, among other things, to the collision of the Romans with another expansion from the north, namely that of the Germanic tribes: First the track of the Cimbri and Teutones (cf. Krause 2005, p. 27 ff.), then the start of the Gallic War with the battle between Caesar and the Suebi under Ariovistus (cf. ibid., p. 61 ff.) and finally the “Germanic Wars under Augustus” (cf. ibid. p. 80).

For our endeavour, the Celtic Expansion doesn’t play a role in the context of the origin of The Elder Futhark, since the Celts themselves had no known script at the time (cf. Krause 2007, preface), which could have served as a template alphabet for the runes. The Roman expansion and, in its context, the spread of the Latin script, on the other hand, is of paramount importance for the Latin hypothesis of the formation of the runes. Many Germanic tribesmen served in the Roman army relatively early (cf. Spurkland 2010, p. 71) or traded with the civilian population of Roman provinces that bordered Germania Magna (cf. ibid., P. 69) and thus under these circumstances could’ve learned the Roman script (cf. ibid., p. 68), which in turn possibly inspired the Germanic tribes to design an alphabet of their own (cf. ibid., p. 65).

The migration of the Cimbri and Teutones is also associated with a possible origin of the Elder Futhark (cf. Mees 2015, p. 38), since these two tribes came through areas during their migration to the south (cf. Krause 2005, p. 29 ff.), in which North Etruscan alphabets were still in use (cf. Mees 2015, p. 38). In this context, the Negau helmet B needs to be mentioned, whose inscription was written in a Germanic language, but not in runes; Instead a North Etruscan alphabet was employed (cf. ibid. P. 44). For this reason, the helmet is often used as an example of Germanic peoples who were able to use a North Etruscan script to reinforce the claim of the North Etruscan thesis (cf. Mees 2015, p. 45).

Map showing the migration of the Cimbri and Teutones.
The Migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutons, with their victories (green) and defeats (red) against the Romans. By TcfkaPanairjdde – Versione italiana di Image:Cimbrians and Teutons.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Finally, the historical context of Theo Vennemann’s Phoenician hypothesis should be explained briefly, since this thesis represents an extreme among the theories presented here: According to Vennemann, “Germania in its prehistory was under Carthaginian-Phoenician supremacy” (Vennemann 2006, p. 374), an assumption, which he based on a supposed semitic superstrate in Proto-Germanic, in this case potentially Punic. At the time, Carthage had scouted and secured trading routes and trading posts in the North Atlantic (cf. ibid.). Vennemann speaks of a real “colonization”, which we will take a closer look at in the chapter regarding the Phoenician thesis. For the sake of clarification, Vennemann postulates this colonization to have happened somewhere between the beginning of the 2nd century BC and as early as the end of the 6th century BC, so up to 400 years prior to the migration of the Cimbri and Teutones (!).

This leaves us with a time frame of about 700 years for most of which we have very little historical information about the area that the Romans would later call Germania, especially about its northern parts, which is why our only sources are archaeological ones. In the 6th century BC the Jastorf culture had developed in northern Germany (cf. Willroth 2006, p. 193), which was characterized by a fairly simple life in ‘Wohnstallhäusern‘, that is, houses with integrated stables and the use of “agriculture and cattle raising for a living” (cf. ibid., P 193 f., authors italics). Apart from the rural settlements in the north, there were “numerous fortifications on the edge of the Mittelgebirge [the comparatively low mountain ranges typical of central and southern Germany], the layout of which may go back to southern models” (ibid., P. 197 authors italics), by which the famous Celtic hillforts called oppida are meant. The iron that gives this age its name was first imported from the Celtic south before it was mined by the people of the Jastorf culture themselves (cf. ibid.), which, however, did not lead to an excess of raw materials: on the contrary, the armament of the locals indicates for a lack of iron (cf. ibid., p. 201 f.). Luxury goods seem to have been absent apart from some items imported from the south (cf. ibid., p. 207 f.).

Whether the people within the distribution area of ​​the Jastorf culture can be linked “with the early Germanic peoples” is “largely rejected today” (ibid., P. 208.) Perhaps they were a population indigenous to the region before the first Indo-European Germanic speakers arrived.

The Runes of The Elder Futhark

Elder Futhark as depicted on the Kylver Rune Stone.
Futhark on the stone slab at KYLVER (after Liestol 1981, p. 247). In: Duewel: Runenkunde, p. 2.

As previously mentioned, the Elder Futhark is the oldest form of runic writing known to us, named after its first five characters (th is one character in the runic alphabet, more on this later). The English word “rune” itself is an “academic new formation of the 17th century, modelled on Scandinavian. In ancient times it occurs in all Germanic languages: Gothic Runa, Old Saxon and Old High German Runa, Old English run, Old Norse run, Middle High German Rune with the basic meaning ‘secret’. (cf. Duewel 2016. p. 1).

This runic alphabet consists of 24 characters (Kawasaki 2017, p. 36), which in turn are composed of “stick, branch and hook” (Duewel 2016, p. 5). This particular structure gives the runes their typical angular appearance, which is especially suitable for inscribing them into natural materials such as wood and stone (cf. Arntz 2009, Chapter XII). Tacitus also reports of the practice of early Germanic peoples to carve signs into wood (cf. Tacitus 32009, p. 51) and Venantius confirms this again in the 6th century AD (cf. Arntz 2009, chap. XI) Archaeological finds also prove that the runes were written “on solid material” (cf. Duewel 42016, p. 4), whereby a distinction is made between loose objects, such as “weapons, jewelery, amulets, coins, various everyday objects” and the famous rune stones (cf. ibid). The signs of the Elder Futhark can be divided into three groups of eight runes, according to two individual finds (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 9). These groups are called “aett”, which means either gender or figure of eight in Old Norse. However, the term itself does not occur during the time in which the Elder Futhark remained in use (cf. ibid.).

The runes had been utilised since at least 200 AD (cf. ibid., p. 3), although the oldest documented find, which is undisputedly written in runes, dates back to around 160 AD, a comb found in the bog of Vimose (cf. ibid., p. 24). Also of interest in connection with the dating of the origin of the first runes is the Meldorf fibula, which inscription is either Proto-Runic or Latin, dated to the first half of the first century AD (cf. ibid. p. 23 f.). According to Andersen, “it is often assumed that a system of writing must have been forming for at least a century or so before the earliest surviving examples, so it might be concluded that the runic system was formulated at some point between the beginning of the RIA (c. 50 BC) and the time of the Øvre Stabu inscription. ” (Andersen 2005, p. 1). The Øvre Stabu inscription was the oldest known runic inscription at the time of Andersen’s work, dated to around AD 175 (cf. ibid.). Although the first potential runic finds date back to the first century, we only encounter the first complete series of runes on the stone slab of Kylver in the 5th century AD (cf. Arntz 2009., Chapter XII.).

As mentioned above, the name of the Futhark itself, just as the Latin ABC or the Greek alphabet, is composed of the phonetic values of the first five letters: F (Fehu), U (Uruz), Th (Thurisaz), A (Ansuz), R (Raido) and K (kaunan). In contrast to the Latin alphabet, each rune has an individual name which corresponds to the respective phonetic value of the rune to which it refers. In this respect, the Elder Futhark is similar to the Greek alphabet, which characters obviously have their own individual names as well. In contrast to the Greek alphabet, however, the names of the runes are not just mere representations of the individual letters, but words with a fixed meaning. Thus Fehu means “Cattle”, Uruz “Auerochs”, Thurisaz “Giant”, Ansuz “Aesir”, raido “Ride” and kaunan “Ulcer, disease”. The first three terms are metaphorical for movable property, the “male power” and the “uncanny damaging power”, in that order (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 197 ff.). For the sake of clarification, it should be mentioned here briefly that the Aesir corresponding to the Ansuz rune are a Nordic-Germanic god family (cf. Golther 2013, foreword). The meaning of Raido and Kaunan is self-explanatory (see Duewel 2016, p. 197 ff.). These names as well as their meaning and pronunciation cannot, however, be regarded as secure for the Elder Futhark. They have only been attested since the 9th century, i.e. at a time when the Elder Futhark was already out of use (cf. Williams 2004, p. 263).

Arntz mentions that since the invention of the runes, their specific order could have differed from the one found on the Kylver stone slab (cf. Arntz 2009, Chapter XII). However, an older origin of this particular order appears to make sense, if one takes into account that the other depictions of the runes found a little later were identical in their order or at least very similar (Vennemann 2006, p. 385). A certain uniformity can also be determined in the form of the individual characters, although there are also slight deviations (cf. Anderson 2005, p. 2). If one takes these two indications together, everything points to a “point origin” of the Elder Futhark, that is, an origin in either a single individual or a group of individuals from which the script spread throughout the Germanic world (cf. ibid.).

The runes were particularly widespread and remained in use for the longest in Scandinavia but were also popular in Germany, England, Iceland and other Germanic areas (see Duewel 4 2016, p. 3). According to Looijenga, the Futhark was originally used primarily by a social elite or “craftsmen” who were part of the retinue of that elite. The runes could have found such widespread use in a relatively short time due to these ‘wandering’ retinues (cf. Looijenga 1997, p. 14 f.). According to Looijenga’s assumption, the ability to write was considered more of a status symbol than a means of mere communication. “Mystification through inscribing letters” may also have played a role (cf. ibid.). While some runologists have spoken in the past of a mystical, religious or “magical” use of runes (cf. Williams 2004, p. 269 f.), the proportion of experts who assume a more practical motivation to create this writing system now predominates (cf. Rausing 1992, p. 202). Easier than to determine the runes exact purpose, is to record what the runes were not used for: “cult, administration, literature, law and so on” (cf. Williams 2004, p. 270).

Unlike in the Latin script, the runes were not only written from left to righ, but also from right to left, and in the so-called “plow turning form” (Arntz 2009, Kap.V), i.e. alternating from one side to the other and then vice versa (for example from left to right and then from right to left in the next line). The runic alphabet resembles archaic alphabets in this respect, such as the early Greek or Semitic writing systems (cf. Mees 2005, p. 68).

The Elder Futhark remained in use in Scandinavia until around 700 AD, whereupon it was replaced by the younger Futhark (cf. Duewel 4 2016, p. 2), where the addition “Elder” comes from. In England, the Anglo-Saxon Futhark developed out of the Elder Futhark, which it eventually also replaced (cf. ibid. P. 71). In Germany the runes were pretty much confined to the far north and the south-west and came out of use with the beginning of Christianisation in the 5th and 6th centuries. Whether there is a connection is debated but offers an interesting perspective.

Mediterranean Origins

Wilhelm Grimm already knew in 1821 that the runes could not have been an independent Germanic invention, but that there must have been something they were modeled on (cf. Grimm 1821, p. 125).

Portrait of Wilhelm Grimm.
Wilhelm Grimm, today known for his collection of fairy tales, was one of the most important German linguists of the 19th century.

In the following, we will deal with three different theories on the origin of the Elder Futhark: The Latin, North Etruscan and Phoenician theses, in that order. As already mentioned, the actual origin of the runes remains a mystery, in part because we still lack finds from a possible “transitional alphabet” (with the exception of the aforementioned Meldorf fibula, which, however, has not yet led to any scientific consensus regarding its translation).

According to Duewel, all theories about the formation of the first runes have three basic similarities: the runes do not arise “out of nothing or out of purely Germanic Requirements” (Duewel 42016, p. 175), the template was a Mediterranean alphabet (cf. ibid.) and “The starting point for all considerations must be the space and time of the oldest rune tradition.” (Ibid.). Additionally, it should be mentioned that the uniformity of the runes across the large area of their occurrence suggests one, and not several, independent origins (cf. Andersen 2005, p. 2).

Apart from the three theories that are to be compared and criticized in the following, Duewels requirements are also fulfilled by the Greek thesis, which is no longer represented by a particularly large number of experts (cf. Duewel 42016, p. 3), which is why it won’t be incorporated here. Since the North Etruscan and especially the Latin theses are still popular (cf. ibid.) they will be compared to the Phoenician thesis which has been advocated by Theo Vennemann.

The Latin Thesis

The majority of experts currently believe that the Elder Futhark developed during the first century BC under strong influence of the Latin alphabet, although it is still being debated whether the capital letters found on monuments or cursive handwriting served as a model (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 176). This thesis was first put forward by Adolf Kirchhoff and Ludvig. F. A. Wimmer, in whose opinion a “rune master” created the Elder Futhark on the basis of the Latin alphabet of the 3rd century AD (see Arntz, Chapter V).
Duewel puts forward the original “distribution area of ​​the runic finds” (Duewel 42016, p. 176), the strong cultural influence of Rome and the correspondence of runes with Latin characters as arguments for the Latin thesis (cf. ibid). Arntz also refers to the great similarity of some runes with the Latin letters, e.g. the symbols for F, B, I, H, T and S (see Arntz 2009, Chapter IV). The deviating signs can be explained by a “conscious Germanic desire” (Williams 2004, p. 272) to create something of their own (cf. ibid.). Troeng has stated that the cursive Latin letters for a, h, n, s, l and o provide a better explanation of the appearance of the runes than the corresponding capital symbols (cf. Troeng 2003, p. 292).

In addition to the morphological similarities, many Germanics were able to write in Latin, as evidenced by texts from the 1st century AD, which makes the adoption and adaptation of this alphabet likely (see Mees 2006, p. 204). Rausing argues that soldiers in Roman service, regardless of their origin, although they could read the capital script, were considerably more familiar with the cursive handwriting, which perhaps make it a more likely candidate for the model alphabet. Germanic tribesmen from the Danish or southern Scandinavian region who had served in the Roman army are said to have modified them into runes (cf. Rausing 1992, p. 201).

Spurkland, on the other hand, argues for an origin on the continent, from which the runes or their predecessor alphabet spread to the north. He speaks of the “umbilical cord”, i.e. the metaphorical umbilical cord that connected the runes in the north with the literary sources in the south. After the expansion of the runes to the north the connection seems to have severed. Spurkland however doesn’t give an in depth explanation for this separation (cf. Spurkland 2010, p. 77). According to him, the erection of rune stones also goes back to a Roman practice, in this case that of “stone inscriptions”, which peaked around AD 150, shortly before the time of the oldest rune inscriptions. He argues that the fact that many runic inscriptions mention their author speaks in favour of this particular part of his theory (cf. ibid., P. 79).

According to Rausing, the Romans were in open conflict with the southern tribes on the Limes, but maintained better relations with the northern inhabitants of Germania Magna, who also served in the Roman army. In this way, the runes and their original alphabet, in this case the Latin capital and/or cursive, are supposed to have reached the Danish Isles (see Rausing 1992, p. 201). “Manufacturers’ marks” on products from the Roman Empire may have served as inspiration, as is the case with three different lances with the incised word “wagnijo” (cf. Imer 2010, p. 53 ff.). The aforementioned Meldorf fibula could be an example of the transition from Latin to Runic characters (cf. Andersen 2005, p. 2).

While Rausing assumed in 1992 that the runes were brought into the area around the Danish Isles by former Germanic soldiers in the Roman army, Looijenga wrote in 1997 that there were no traces of Germanic auxiliary troops from the far north: “Nearly all Germanic soldiers were recruted from areas near the limes; we find attestations of alae and cohortes Ubiorum, Batavorum, Canninefatum, Frisiavonum, Breucorum etc. “(Looijenga 1997, p. 41), i.e. auxilary troops recruited from the tribes of the Ubii, Batavii, Cananefatii, Frisii, Breukii, etc. Instead, Looijenga assumes that there was a lively exchange of “merchants and craftsmen” (ibid.) between “North and South” (ibid.) and thus literacy found its way into Scandinavia. What is meant by the north is the area of ​​the oldest runic finds and by the south specifically “Germania Inferior” (ibid.), that is the part of Germania occupied by the Romans at the time of the formation of the runes in the area around the Lower Rhine and the home of the aforementioned tribes. Mees also confirms that Germanic tribes in the Roman army were recruited from tribes further south, in particular the Frisii and the Batavii and adds the Marcomanii to the list of auxiliaries. Therefore, he also considers it unlikely that the script was brought to Scandinavia by former Germanic soldiers who served in the Roman army (see Mees 2015, p. 57).

Arntz continued to point out “that the Latin script has solely been right-handed since ancient times, while other southern European writings show left-handedness and the shape of the plow as the runes; furthermore, the number of runes is greater than ever the number of letters in the Latin alphabet. ”(Arntz 2009, Kap.V) The Elder Futhark is thus more similar to other, more archaic alphabets than Latin (cf. Mees 2015, p. 68).

Vennemann criticized the, in his opinion, relatively short period from Romano-Germanic cultural contact to the first runic finds as possibly too short to develop a completely new script from the Latin ABC (cf. Vennemann 2006, p. 376). He also notes that the oldest finds would be more likely to be found further south on the border to the Roman Empire (cf. ibid., P. 381).

Last but not least, the Latin thesis cannot explain all the forms that the runes take. In this regard, reference is briefly made to the example of Williams: “the rune […] looks like a Latin <P> but actually represents / w /, whereas the rune for / p /, […], does not look like any Latin letter.” (Williams 2004, p. 265). This is the case for at least seven other characters in the Elder Futhark as well (cf. ibid., P. 267).

Roman Colosseum
The Latin script is one of the symbols of Roman Civilization, such as the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome.

The North Etruscan Thesis

While Arntz admitted the resemblance of some Latin letters with a few runic characters, he was nevertheless not a supporter of the thesis of a Latin origin of the runes (cf. Arntz 2009, Chapter V). On the contrary, he was one of the best-known advocates of the North Etruscan thesis, which was generally quite popular at the time of his work in the first half of the 20th century (cf. ibid.). Duewel defines the North Etruscan alphabets as “regional alphabets in the northern Italian Alps (the Raetian Alphabet from Bozen, Magré and Sondrio, the Leptonic Script from Lugano) and the Venetian plane (the Venetian Script from Este). They are based directly or indirectly on the Etruscan alphabet, which in turn derives from the Greek letters (Rix 1992, p. 417ff.).” (Duewel 42016, p. 177).

The correspondence of the sound system of the Germanic and Etruscan languages ​​speaks for the origin of the runes in a North Etruscan alphabet: “They are most clearly at l, u, o; but w and a are also very characteristic. ”(ibid.). The shape also shows great similarity, especially in the Venetian alphabet (cf. ibid.). Arntz assumes the 2nd century BC for the period of transition between North Etruscan and Runic. There are also individual Latin characters in the North Etruscan alphabets, such as F, r and b, which could explain the similarity of the corresponding runes to these Latin letters (cf. ibid.). Duewel also takes up this idea in his work (cf. Duewel 42016, p. 177). All aforementioned alphabets were replaced by Latin by the beginning of the first century BC, which is why a later takeover of the script is impossible (see Arntz 2009, Chapter V).

The Negau helmet B, mentioned previously, would also fit this theory, since it at least proves that a Germanic-speaking person had knowledge of North Etruscan writing (see Mees 2015, p. 45). The Negau helmet A could provide information about the ethnicity of the writer: C (enturia) Erul (i), a member of the Eruli tribe native to the Danish Isles (cf. 4Duewel 2016, p. 180).
So far, however, there has been no evidence of North Etruscan alphabets north of the Alps, until in the 1950s “North Etruscan inscriptions” (see Mees 2015, p. 45) were found in Magdalensberg in Carinthia, “that clearly can only date to the early decades AD ” (ibid.). With this, and with the” North Etruscan graffiti ”(Mees 2015, p. 46), which was found at Manching in Bavaria in the 1970s, there was now “evidence for a transalpine use of North Etruscan letters suggested by the discovery of rock inscriptions at Steinberg in Northern Tyrolia in 1957. ” (ibid.).

The North Etruscan theory takes the place of origin of the runes to an area in southern Germania or possibly even further to the south. Under certain circumstances it was the Cimbri or the Marcomanni who created the runes themselves through their contact with peoples who used a North Etruscan script (cf. Arntz 2009, Chapter V). This could have been done by Germanic soldiers in the service of the populations using these scripts (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 179) Others also assumed that the so-called Alpine Germans were the possible creators of the runes, but their ethnic affiliation has not yet been clearly established (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 179). According to Looijenga, the takeover could have taken place during the Germanic Wars in northern Italy or Raetia. Mercenaries from the tribes of the “Chauci, Batavi and other Germani served as Cohortes Germanorum in Germanicus’ army in 15, 16 and 69 AD (Bang 1906: 58, with ref.).” and could have come into contact with the North Etruscan Alphabets (cf.Looijenga 1997, p. 45).

The biggest point of criticism of the North Etruscan thesis is the centuries-long gap between the last North Etruscan alphabets in use and the first runes, which extends over 200 years (see Mees 2015, p. 45). Furthermore, Duewel considers it unlikely that the Cimbri could be the originator of the runes. You would “have other worries than rune writing” (cf. Duewel 42016, p. 179) while you were involved in various fights in search of new land.

Map showing the distribution of the Etruscan Civilization.
The Etruscan Civilization, corresponding roughly to areas where North Etruscan Alphabets were used. By NormanEinstein – Based on a map from The National Geographic Magazine Vol.173 No.6 June 1988., CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Phoenician Thesis

Last but not least, we now want to turn to the Phoenician thesis, also called Phoenician-Punic or Phoenician-Carthaginian thesis (Punic and Carthaginian are synonyms that both refer to the originally Phoenician colony of Carthage and/or its empire). Even though a direct Phoenician origin instead of an origin through “detours” via one of the other Mediterranean alphabets was already considered at the beginning of research into the origin of the runes (cf. Kawasaki 2017, p. 38), this has been particularly important in the past two decades. Theo Vennemann (see Duewel 42016, p. 181), who has long postulated a linguistic and cultural connection between Semitic and Germanic (see Vennemann 2012, p. 1 ff.) is a strong supporter of this thesis and brought fresh air in the debate about the origin of the runes.

Vennemann based his theory put forward in 2006 mainly on the names and the order of the runes in the Elder Futhark (see Duewel 2016, p. 181), for which the alternatives could not offer a plausible explanation, since the Latin, Greek and North Etruscan scripts started with the sounds for A,B and C instead of F, U and TH as in the Futhark. Only the Greek alphabet has actual names for its letters, which go beyond the simple reproduction of the corresponding sounds: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc. But other than the runes in the Futhark the names of the Greek letters have no inherent meaning; they merely refer to the letters themselves.

Now the Carthaginian-Punic alphabet, which is of course Phoenician or Semitic in origin, also begins with letters for the sounds A, B and C, and has its own names for the individual letters but they actually had an inherent meaning and still bear this meaning in Hebrew today. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “Alef”, related to the Phoenician “Aleph”, which means cattle. As stated earlier, the first letter of the rune series means “fehu”, which also translates to cattle. Vennemann hereby establishes a connection between the acrophonic principle of the Futhark and the Punic alphabet and then also connects further names of individual runes with the first letters or their name in the Punic alphabet and thus gives a possible explanation for the names of the individual characters and the order of the same in the older Futhark (cf. Vennemann 2006, p. 381 ff.).

To give another, more abstract example: The Uruz rune, which Vennemann derives from the Phoenician letter for G, “Gimel”. Gimel means camel and since the Germanic tribes did not know this animal, the next best known native living creature was used as a substitute: the aurox or Ur, Uruz in the theoretical Proto-Germanic language (cf. Vennemann 2012, p. 10).

In a previous chapter we had already addressed the different possible temporal and local origins of the runes. According to Vennemann, there is a time frame of 525 BC to 201 BC for the Phoenician thesis. The most likely time frame for the transfer of the Punic alphabet to the north is between the Carthaginian admiral Himilco’s expedition, which was aimed at exploring and securing new trade routes and trading places in the North Sea area, and the end of the Second Punic War, through which Carthage lost its European colonies (Cf. ibid., P. 374). Vennemann specifies the place of origin, like the representatives of the Latin thesis, because of the high density of finds and the oldest runic finds, as Denmark and the North Sea region. He embeds the theory of the formation of runes in his theory of a strong Semitic influence on early Germanic society and even speaks of “colonization”. As a reason for the Carthaginian presence in Northern Europe, Vennemann mainly gives perishable raw materials such as “(a) agricultural products, (b) products of the collecting industry, […], (c) people, […], (d) salt.” (ibid., p. 379 f.).

After the end of the Second Punic War and Carthage’s loss of its colonies, some of the Carthaginian settlers are said to have remained on the North Sea coast of Germania. These settlers learned the language of the locals (Proto-Germanic) and adapted the imported Punic alphabet to it. Over time, this gave rise to the Elder Futhark, which was ultimately only used for Proto-Germanic and not for the imported Punic language anymore (cf. Vennemann 2012, p. 25).

Before Vennemann, Bang (cf. Bang 1997, p. 2 ff.) and Troeng had also considered a Semitic origin of at least a few signs of the Elder Futhark, but the latter did not think the Phoenicians or their descendants, the Carthaginians, were the source but Nabataean auxiliary troops stationed at the Limes. It is Troeng’s opinion that the majority of the runes was derived from the Latin alphabet, but he saw a Semitic origin for at least five characters. Due to a worsening of the climate, a potential outbreak of the plague and a lack of supplies from the Roman Empire, the Nabataeans were forced to raid far into the north of Germania. These auxiliary troops would then have settled in Denmark and participated in the redesign of Danish society around 200 AD and, among other things, also spread their alphabet among the locals, or at least amongst the elite (cf. Troeng 2003, p. 292 ff.) .

According to Bang, the runes came from an unspecified Semitic script between the Nile and Tigris, which is said to be older than the Greek and even Phoenician alphabet, which, in his opinion, explains the archaic characteristics of the Elder Futhark. He sees “kinship-similarities between the Runes and Greek and Latin” but “clear generation differences”. For this reason, the Futhark is clearly related to the other classic written forms, but comes “from a different line of descent” (cf. Bang 1996, p. 2ff.).

The Phoenician thesis, especially the one put forward by Vennemann, offers not only a possible explanation for the order of the older Futhark and its acrophonic principle, but also for its place of origin between the North and Baltic Seas instead of further south on the border to the Roman Empire, where one would have suspected this due to the more intensive intercultural contact between Romans and Germans (cf. Kawasaki 2017, p. 39).

Here too, just as with the North Etruscan and Greek theses, the centuries-long gap between the assumed transfer of the Punic script and the first runic finds as well as the lack of archaeological evidence of Punic-Carthaginian style on the coasts of the North Sea remain the major weaknesses of this thesis (see Duewel 2016, p. 181).

In turn, Vennemann criticized Bang’s theory for the unspecified origin, as well as the lack of explanation regarding the mediation of Egypt to Germania (cf.Vennemann 2016, p. 371 f.).

Kawaski, although not averse to the Phoenician thesis, admits in his work published in 2017 that so far there is no evidence of contact between Carthaginians and the North Sea Germans, although he considers a connection to be possible and refers to an alleged crossing of the Phoenicians to Brazil by the Atlantic (cf. Kawasaki 2017, p. 38 f.)

Conclusion and Outlook

“If it walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” (Williams 2004, p. 267). With this shortened version of the well-known English proverb, Williams summarized his opinion on the original alphabet of the Elder Futhark. According to this, the morphological similarities between it and the Latin alphabet were clear (cf. ibid.).

That it isn’t quite that easy is shown by the missing part of the proverb: “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” (Ibid.) Williams refrained from this part of the quotation since many runes look very similar to Latin letters, but their emphasis differs from the supposed counterpart: “If we return to our runic P we find that it does indeed walk like a duck, that is, it looks like a Roman, but it does not talk like a duck since it does not have a phonemic value / p /. “(ibid.) While for Williams the mere appearance of the runes is proof enough to accept the Latin ABC as the model alphabet, this article has shown that even 15 years after the publication of William’s work, a general scientific consensus has not been reached yet.

According to Duewel, the theses on the origin of the older Futhark can be assessed according to two principles:
a. The greater the distance between the place and the time of the rune’s creation and the centre of runic finds (both in space and time), the more unlikely is the assumed place and time of the creation.
b. The assumption, the rune’s creator(s) have used more than just one model alphabet has to be reflected upon critically, as this tends to lead to arbitrariness. (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 175).

According to the first of the two principles, the North Etruscan and especially the Phoenician thesis would be unlikely, but all three of the theses presented in this text are still represented by experts today and all three are struggling with their own weaknesses. While the Latin thesis represents the closest alphabet to the Elder Futhark in terms of time and place that can explain the morphology of the runes to a certain degree, the appearance of the Germanic characters is more in line with the North Etruscan, specifically the Venetian alphabet. However, neither of the two theses can explain the order or the names of the individual runes, as does the Phoenician one. The strongest argument against this thesis, however, is the centuries-long lack of finds between the fall of the Punic Empire and the supposed colonization of Germania, as well as the lack of archaeological evidence of a connection between these two cultures, which are geographically and temporally very far apart from one another.

The lack of finds is attempted to be explained by the fact that the earliest runic inscriptions were written on perishable materials which vanished over time. Duewel, on the other hand, argues that the oldest existing finds with runic inscriptions were also written on perishable materials and there is, therefore, no reason why there should not be any older relics unless the runes were only starting to be written in the 1st century AD (cf. Duewel 2016, p. 178). Arntz also agrees and continues to argue that runes were not solely written on wood and that even if this were the case at their earliest level, no early finds of wood are known (cf. Arntz 2009, Chapter IV).

The fact that Duewel’s second criterion for assessing the theses on the formation of the runes, the acceptance of several model alphabets – as is the case with some variants of the North Etruscan theory – leads to arbitrariness is agreeable, but there is nevertheless a realistic possibility that the Elder Futhark was derived from more than just one alphabet.

Whether the question of the origin of the runes can ultimately be clarified depends on whether and to what extent archaeological finds from the 1st century AD, such as the often-mentioned fibula from Meldorf or the ceramic shard from Osterroenfeld (cf. Mees 2006, p. 205), or finds from even the first centuries BC will still be made in the future and in which language and script they are written. The discovery of a “hybrid alphabet” would be sensational in this context.

References to potential Carthaginian settlements would be of great interest in connection with Theo Venemann’s Phoenician thesis, even if it remains to be doubted whether there was a connection between Carthage and northern Germany/southern Scandinavia. If this had been the case and the number of settlers was significant enough to influence the writing system, the language and the society of the early Germanic Tribes in the North Sea region, as postulated by Vennemann, then these people could also have left behind slight traces in the genes of today’s population in this region. This was also the case with the migrations of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, which simultaneously spread their genes and the Indo-European languages ​​across large parts of Eurasia (cf. Haak 2015, p. 207 ff.) And an investigation of this kind could at least theoretically provide information about whether there has ever been a significant number of Punic settlers in this region. Falsifying or verifying Vennemann’s theory is probably not possible by employing this method alone, but it would at least indicate how probable the thesis really is.

It remains to be seen whether appropriate archaeological finds will be made or archaeogenetic results achieved. Before that, the debate about the origin of the Elder Futhark and the runes, in general, will probably not be resolved clearly and generally satisfactorily.


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12 thoughts on “The Origin of the Elder Futhark

  1. Pingback: The Runes – Knot Magick

  2. Pingback: Origins and Culture of the Ancient Germanic Tribes – European Origins

  3. Pingback: The History of the Indo-European Language Family | European Origins

  4. Pingback: The Origin of the Elder Futhark — European Origins | Vermont Folk Troth

  5. Will do.

    For reference: American oddities;

    Spirit Pond Runestone – Maine

    Gokstad Coin – Maine

    Mystery Hill Ogham – New Hampshire

    Kensington Runestone – Kentucky

    I think there are others. That’s what I remember though.

    I’ve seen the coin, the Spirit Pond Stone, and the American Stonehenge.

    I can’t afford to go to Kentucky.

    Someday I want to go North to L’Anse Aux Meadow and see the Vinland settlement, the indisputable Norse origin makes the other finds a dite more intriguing. I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Me too.

    Do you know about the U.S. Runestones and have an opinion? They’re labelled forgeries of course, but my thinking is even a forgery is curious. To forge such things require intimate knowledge and suggests transmission of knowledge.

    I’m currently working on a handbook for my fellow Pagang Gangers in a group I’m in. More of an esoteric thing, than yours, but I try to balance observable fact with cultural intuition.

    Wish me luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful work.

    I’ve read many books on Runes now, always hoping for a final answer.

    Like you I think there is no clear answer.

    The sense of connection between Runes and Rome is fascinating. I’m hesitant to ascribe a totality of unnovelty to our ancestors. I believe the Runes evolved from organic concepts, in that their traditions and exoteric and esoteric understanding echoes a deep understanding of several European mindsets. I like to think they evolved in a like fashion to the other written languages, with probable connection to and influence by but independence from surrounding languages.

    I also note in my own studies that the glottal shifts play a part, like Fehu to Latin Pecus. The parallels between early Rome and Germania are pronounced, if you suspend your initial biases. Took me years to do that, for a long time I was anti-Imperialist and anti-Roman.


    I enjoyed reading this greatly, and hope my comment isn’t too cumbersome.

    Liked by 1 person

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