The Function of the Futhorc Before Christianization and the Introduction of the Roman Alphabet in Old English


Susan Hesemeier


copyright 2005


The Origin and Initial Function of the Runes


The Old English version of the runic alphabet, called the Futhorc and named for its first six letters, is distinguished from its ancestor, the Common Germanic Elder Futhark, by its increase in the number of runes to twenty-eight and sometimes thirty-three, as well as modifying some of the shapes and values of the original twenty-four runes of the elder Futhark (Page, 1973).  The Futhorc came to England with the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century invasions, although runes were at this time also quite widespread in other areas around England such as Norway, Sweden, the Danish isles, and on the Jutland peninsula (Page, 1973).  The runes existed in Scandinavia through another version of the runic alphabet, called the younger Futhark, which reduced the number of runes in the Elder Futhark to fifteen. 


There is some debate concerning the origin of the Elder Futhark and its initial function, as it can be problematic to make specific claims on the runes’ early function when it has been estimated that perhaps less than one percent of runic inscriptions have survived (Derolez, 1990).  Elliot (1959) outlines three main theories that suggest Latin, Northern Italic, or a combination of Greek origin based on the similarity of some runes to letters in these alphabets.  The Northern Italic or Etruscan origin is viewed as most probable, as inscriptions found in the Alps from the fourth to the first century B.C. have revealed several related alphabets with striking parallels to runic symbols.  Theories that propose Latin, cursive Latin, or a combination of Greek origin are not as widely accepted, as they place much reliance on a few exceptional Roman or Latin-runic letters.  There is also the objection that the variable direction of runic writing, which could proceed from left to right, right to left, or sometimes boustrophedon—the writing of alternate lines in opposite direction, “literally ‘as the ox turns’ in plowing” (Robinson 94)—may not have been a likely product of Latin writing which proceeded strictly from left to right, unlike the North Italic scripts.  Conversely, because each rune has its own name, scholars such as Moltke (1985) have contended that runes resemble the letters of the Phoenecian and Greek alphabets.  In any case, Elliot contends that the adoption of runes most likely replaced the predominant symbols of Northern Europe that had already been in existence, mainly iconic signs and pictorial symbols, and that some of the original function and meaning of the runes may be derived from these Stone Age symbols.


The Symbolic Function of Runes and Their Names


Alongside more scholarly explanations for the origin of runes are mythical or magical origins recounted in the names of the runes themselves, and recorded in various rune poems of continental and Anglo-Saxon origin that relay their names and symbolic significance.  Although scholars such as Page (1964) and Derolez (1990) have expressed concern about including discussions of magic in runic studies since much of this information can be speculative, they also acknowledge the theory that runes did have symbolic and religious importance to the Germanic peoples.  Objects that were buried, for example, “may have been inscribed to serve some ritual function, but this is difficult to prove since we do not have any unambiguous text that would confirm such a function” (Looijenga 113).  Indeed, scholars such as Antonsen (2002) have argued that “the myth of the older runes as a means of fixing the dead in the grave is an invention of modern-day runologists without any substance whatsoever” (Antonsen 177). 


Elliot (1959), however, discusses some of the probable magical functions of runes in more detail, and asserts that “it is this ritual and religious function more than anything primarily utilitarian which is the foremost characteristic of runic writing” (Elliot 61), with important functions such as lot-casting or divination.  Flowers (1986) maintains that the runes were probably held by the Germanic peoples to be “of the gods” (Flowers 372), as it was believed that Woden, or the Norse god Odin and god of wisdom, hung from a tree for nine days with a spear below his heart before the runes appeared to him in this state of starvation, pain and suffering (Bremmer, 1991).  This belief in polytheism, and the embodiment of various aspects of the world of the gods, humans, and nature in the naming of the runes, allowed the Germanic peoples to pass down their values and beliefs to subsequent generations through the ‘wisdom of the runes’, and is part of the pagan religion that was practiced by the Germanic peoples until the Christianization of England, which began in 597 with the coming of Augustine.  The runes were intricately related to the concepts they symbolized because, in pagan or magical belief, the law of sympathy states that ‘like attracts like’, and “presupposes a mystical link between things, and most especially between actual things and symbols of them” (Flowers 14).  The sequence of the twenty-four runes of Common Germanic was also thought to have magical significance in itself, and was perhaps determined by the prototype alphabet from which the runes originated. 


The names for each of the runes are believed to be as old as their symbols, and the choice of names to indicate specific runes was therefore quite significant and related to the use of the runes in their socio-cultural context (Polomé, 1991).  Elliot (1959) asserts that although some scholars have argued that rune-names were just mnemonic devices because almost every rune name begins with the same sound that the rune denoted in normal alphabetic usage, a “closer analysis of the names and their meanings suggests a deeper significance; it suggests indeed that of the Germanic world of gods and giants, of men and natural forces and treasured possessions [sic] many of the most conspicuous features were mirrored in the naming of the runes” (Elliot 47).  Germanic (Gc.) *berkana, for instance, literally ‘birch twig’, was connected with fertility cults and symbolized new life and the awakening of nature in spring.  It could be placed in houses and stables to promote fruitfulness, and young men and women could be struck by birch twigs to promote fertility.  Gc. *uruz, standing for the aurochs or enormous wild ox that once roamed the forests of Europe, may have been used for sacrifices to the gods and “may thus in some way have come to be regarded as a sacred animal” (Elliot 50).  The Gc. rune *teiwaz, standing for the god Tiw, could be invoked through the use of the rune in battle as an aid to victory (Elliot, 1959).  The yew tree, symbolized by the rune Gc. *eihwaz, was also closely associated with rune-magic, probably because of its use for bows due to its hard and durable composition, but “also credited with specific avertive powers” (Elliot 56).  The r-rune, or Gc. *raido ‘riding, journey’, may have been associated with the Germanic belief that after death the soul had to take a long journey, and the rune may therefore have functioned as a journey charm both for the living and dead.  Runes could thus be used to “evoke or protect against the power contained in their names: appeals to the gods, ‘prayers’ for fertility, for good harvest, for protection against damaging forces, and so forth” (Elliot 60), and in sum runes functioned as “victory runes, ale-runes [taboo runes], birth runes, surf-runes [for power over the waves], health-runes, speech-runes, thought-runes, fertility and love runes, battle-runes and weather runes” (Elliot 67).


Runes as a Writing System


Although the runes had significant cultural and symbolic functions for the Germanic peoples that can extend far beyond their ability to be used as a writing system, and, according to Elliot (1959), “runic writing did not lend itself readily to the practical uses which we associate with most forms of alphabetic writing; it never developed into a cursive script, but remained epigraphic to the end” (Elliot 62), there is still evidence of its use as a communicative system, often in combination with its symbolic uses, and scholars such as Page (1973) have emphasized this aspect.  Indeed, the alphabet was probably never used for writing long, continuous texts (Millward, 1996), as oral transmission through poetry and ritual were preferred over writing for communicating history and cultural values among the Germanic peoples (Elliot, 1959).  The original symbolic associations of the runes may have been lost or altered over time, and the use of runes for general writing purposes may have developed to create small texts using the letters, or to identify an owner in general rather than for some magical purpose. 


There is evidence of the use of Scandinavian runic inscriptions for recording personal names, which provide some of the earliest records of Germanic personal names (Insley 309), although most early Anglo-Saxon aftefacts do in fact come from cemetery sites which may reflect the site’s preservation abilities rather than the primary usage context of runes in general (Hines, 1991).  The surviving material we do have shows how the runic alphabet was, unlike the Roman alphabet, first used in functions other than to exercise bureaucratic or administrative control, in a way that is more secretive and mysterious than the public and communal manner characteristic of many other writing systems (Hines, 1991).  This can reflect the meaning of the word rune itself as ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’, although the meaning of rune in various contexts has been debated by some scholars (Fell, 1991).  Indeed, many of the materials that runes may have been inscribed on have not survived to the present-day, such as wood, leather, or other materials that were not as durable as stone, bone, and metal objects such as headstones and weapons.  Studying runes within their archaeological (Hills, 1991) and cultural contexts is thus an essential aspect of the study of the function these symbols had for the Germanic peoples, although some uncertainties still remain even after these functional contexts are examined.


For Further Reading


Antonsen, Elmer H. Runes and Germanic Linguistics. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2002.


Bremmer, Rolf H. Jr.  “Hermes-Mercury and Wodin-Oden as Inventors of Alphabets: A Neglected Parallel”. Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 409-419.


Derolez, Rene. “Runic Literacy Among the Anglo-Saxons”. Britain 400-600: Language and History. Bammesberger, A. and Wollmann, A., Eds. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1990. 397-436.


Elliot, Ralph W. V.  Runes: An Introduction. New York: Philosophical Library Inc., 1959.


Fell, Christine E. “Runes and Semantics.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 195-299.


Flowers, Stephen E. Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.


Hills, Catherine. “The Archaeological Context of Runic Finds.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 41-59.


Hines, John. “Some Observations on the Runic Inscriptions of Early Anglo-Saxon England.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 61-83.


Insley, John. “The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of the Older Futhark and Old English Personal Names.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 309-334.


Looijenga, Tineke. Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 2003.


Millward, C. M.  A Biography of the English Language. 2nd Edition. Thomson-Wadsworth, 1996.


Moltke, Erik. Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1985.


Page, R. I. An Introduction to English Runes. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1973.


Page, R. I. “Anglo-Saxon Runes and Magic” (1964). Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes. Ed. David Parsons. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1995.


Polomé, E. “The Names of the Runes”. Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991. 421-438.


Robinson, Orrin W. Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.