Somehow I have ended up hosting a discussion panel on Runes, there relevance to dark age culture, what the Victorians did with them and the difference between New Age pseudo-mythology and actual historical facts and ancient cultures… This is fascinating stuff.
I personally have, an occasionally purple, beard that is long enough and scraggly enough to require some care and maintenance at times so I have some silver beads with runes on them. Beard runes… that is my level of expertise, runes on beads you put in your beard… Luckily my ‘Guests’ know a little more than me, by which I mean a lot more…
All this came about because I read, enjoyed and reviewed Kieth Hearings fascinating book Wyrd a week or so ago, and as is my want I put links to the blog up in a few places. It was at this point my friend and fellow writer Mat McCall piped up with a few thoughts of his own on the subject…
So welcome to my guest panel post on Runes…
Just an addition for those interested in Runes…. By Mat McCall
Just an addition for those interested in Runes…. Okay, let’s put my cards on the table first. As anyone who has read my book The Goddess of Sorrows will be aware, I have a lifelong interest in mythology, religion, and magical systems of the ancient Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Proto-Norse and Norse societies. My background is early British Medieval Archaeology and History, and I spent a long time teaching the history, social structures, religions, and mythologies of those cultures, to groups from community education to University level.
So, of course, the Futharks – to call them ‘Runic alphabets’ is like calling an iPad a ‘calculator’ – of peoples like the Vendel culture of Sweden right through the Ogham script of the western Celtic peoples, have been of great interest to me, both academically and spiritually.
I find myself rolling up my sleeves at this point.
In truth there was never one Futhark nor was it ever really used as an extensive writing system. To massively simplify; there is as modern scholars identify, the Elder Futhark and the various versions of the Younger Futhark, plus a lot of nonsense perpetrated by the ‘Melody Goldtwinkles’ of pop cod New Age pseudo-mythology.
The Elder Futhark, (EF) as a kind of alphabet, is not as old as you might think. EF has its earliest roots in the migration period, with some examples on stone carvings, from the 2nd Century. Ogham is almost as old. Making it less than two thousand years old. Of course, that would make it relatively young compared to Greek or Roman Latin, and a stripling babe compared to Sanskrit or Cuneiform. And it was not a ‘written language’ as you might imagine by reading this. One thing is that although current scholars list 24 runes in the EF, the use of some or all of them across the whole plethora of archaeological evidence of the period suggests that often some were highly limited in use. This suggests that some may have been local variations or additions and not all were widely used or accepted. Simply there was no ‘Dr Johnson’ of the EF. Not only was the use of the runes then open to local, cultural, and individual interpretation but so would have been their ‘supernatural,’ for want of a better word, use and meaning.
To imagine every early North-western Germanic could read or write in the Runic script is as ridiculous as suggesting that because Caxton invented the modern printing press every peasant in Europe could not only read but print. The existence of EF does not mean that those cultures were literate in a way we could comprehend by today’s standards. There are no books in EF, no love letters, no letters from sons to mothers thanking her for the cake and asking if she can send him some socks.
Imagine how difficult it would be to learn EF? Imagine that not only did every letter of what you are reading have its own vowel or consonant sound, and the changes it has when in conjunction with other letters, but each letter had complex spiritual and esoteric meanings, again both singularly and in conjunction with other letters. Dear God! Speaking as a dyslexic, English is hard enough to manage.
Now, this Elder Futhark would change over time, and diversify, somewhere in the 8th C into what some scholars call the Younger Futhark (YF) of the Scandinavians. But that too is a misnomer.
There were no such peoples as the ‘Scandinavians,’ like there were no such peoples as the Celts or Anglo-Saxons, they are ‘lump’ categories, modern broad generalisations and labels for people who shared some geographic and cultural similarities. It’s a shorthand that on close examination is meaningless and certainly utterly meaningless to the people themselves at the time. If you could pop back and ask Penda himself if he knew what an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was, he would not even accept the concept let alone understand the term. Once you took the time to explain it, he probably would find it rather insulting.
So, no ‘Scandinavians’ then no Scandinavian shared Futhark. Here’s where things truly get diverse, even our modern ideas of Sweden, Norway, Denmark etc, were meaningless (and most had not even been conceived of) to the peoples of the age. Each culture, even regional group would have evolved a slightly different version and use of the so-called (YF), just as they evolved different regional accents and eventually different languages.
Then of course we have the so-called Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Well now, there’s a lot of wishful thinking here. Firstly, its origins are massively confused. The suggestion that it originates from Frisia (That’s the Netherlands to you) is questionable, as there were numerous larger groups in the Anglo-Saxon model and their cultural dispersal and intermixture in the British isles is really hard to differentiate clearly. Remember Raedwald of the Wuffingas, Bretwalda and King of the East Angles (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, a smattering of Franks, other Germanics and Romano-Celtic peoples,*), the guy with the cool helmet at Sutton Hoo, his family were probably of Swedish origin and that helm is Vendel culture.
Also, by the time this Futhorc was in extremely limited use from its archaeological examples, (I know I’ve actually seen and held most of them) the process of both Christianisation and Latinisation was well underway. Most of the wealthy and the powerful, like Raedwald, were nominally Christian and could read and write in Latin – the ‘lingua franca’ of the political and clerical ruling class.
There is a clear argument that what has been labelled by ‘scholars’ as a distinct subset of the YF, this ‘Futhorc,’ is not in reality anything more than a random collection of diverse examples originating from all over North-western Europe. As someone who studied and taught Anglo-Saxon and Norse history in these islands, I believe there was an Anglo-Saxon Futhorc in limited use, possibly by traditionalists trying to hang on to vestiges of their old cultures or by those who saw their Runic system as having far more potent power (especially mystical) than the Latin alphabet.
However, by that time it may have fallen into the position of little more than decoration, the kind of thing where we see young people with Chinese characters tattooed on themselves. They tell you it means “Health, Wealth and Prosperity” and in fact it reads “No.23, with dumplings.”
Yes, I know, before anyone screams, I have deliberately left out Iceland. That is another story.
*Angles from the area of Germany just below Denmark. Saxons from central Germany. Jutes from Denmark. Frisians from the Netherlands. Franks from France and Germany. Swedes. Romano Celtics being culturally Roman peoples (origins from all over the late Roman Empire) and Indigenous Latinised Celtic peoples. And lots of others. The predominate language of these people was some form of Germanic lingua franca and the predominate written form, for the few who were literate, would have been Latin, not runic.
I agree completely with everything By Kieth Healing
I agree completely with everything you have said. What I tried to do was write a simple little book that described, in very basic terms, what runes are and the importance of trying to look at original sources as much as possible. Many books follow on from Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes which introduced the Blank rune and ignored the traditional meanings as written in the rune poems.
Now, the poems themselves are not, of course, contemporary with the development of the futhark(s), but they give the best interpretation without having to try and understand them by learning ancient Scandinavian languages.
I make it clear that the runes are absolutely open to interpretation and are a fascinating way in to a spirituality that is sorely overlooked, what with the amount of books dedicated to “Celtic” ideas which were largely invented by the Victorians.
I actually spend most of the book discussing Wyrd and trying to get a sense of it.
Thank you to both Mat and Kieth for that wonderfully informed discussion, though frankly begining your reply with ‘I completely agree with everything you have said,’ lacks something in the good argument department…
As a side note from me, Annis: The Goddess of Sorrows is a marvellous proto-iron age mythological fantasy I reviewed at the back end of last year after my annual books of the year post, so it wasn’t listed in my books of the year in the year I reviewed it. Currently it is a strong contender for book of the year for this year and is certainly in the list. But don’t tell Mat that, it will go to his head.
Anyway read their books I have reviewed all of them previously, and of course read mine, because some people like them…
It is solely from a historical archaeological perspective. Although I have ‘dabbled’ in their other uses, divination, warding etc I am no expert in their esoteric use.
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