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.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda (Penguin Classics) (p. 35). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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 has previously noted (cf. Duewel 4 2016, p. 1). This shows that the people writing the runes themselves believed in a “divine origin” (ibid., p. 3) of these ancient characters. 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 sources 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 three prominent theories 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4033347

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 ‘Wohnstallhausern’, that is, houses with integrated stables and the use of “agriculture and cattle raising for a living” (cf. ibid., P 193 f.). Apart from the rural settlements in the north, there were “numerous fortifications on the edge of the low mountain range, the layout of which may go back to southern models” (ibid., P. 197), by which the famous Celtic hillforts are meant. The iron that give 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 4 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 4 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, jewelry, 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 right to left, but also from left to right, 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, 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.

10 thoughts on “The Origin of the Elder Futhark

  1. 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.

    Anyway.

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

    Liked by 1 person

      1. 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

      2. 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

      3. I’ve obviously heard about the Vinland settlements but have never looked into this particular part of viking history, although it is certainly one of the more fascinating parts of it.

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: