History of runes
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History of runes History of runes


                         History of runic alphabets

                                     Fulfilled by the second year student of

                                         Rostov State Pedagogical University
                                                      Translation Department
                                                             Neustroev Cyril

                                                                  Checked by



   From ancient times mankind was appealed by unknown writings: half-
forgotten antique languages, Egypt hieroglyphs, Indian inscriptions The
fate of runes was much happy  their sense wasnt lost in the course of
time, even when Latin alphabet became dominating one in Europe. For
instance, runes were used in calendars till the end of the 18-th c.

   Modern linguists think that runes posses another kind of meaning, which
we cannot find in ideograms, hieroglyphs or in modern exotic alphabets 
this meaning exists in subconsciousness level. Runes were the
personification of the surrounding world, essence of outlook. With the help
of special links between runes a man could express nearly everything,
compiling them (so called combined runes). In different times runes could
change their meaning, so we can say this adjusting system created dozens of
meanings of one and the same symbol. (Linguists find   confirmation of this
theory in the following example  every rune in different languages had
separate and original meaning, which didnt fully coincide with another one
in the second language.
   Like all others components of language, runes endured numerous changes:
in form, style of writing, system of sounds and letters, which expressed
them. We can say, that these alphabets took wide spreading not only among
Scandinavian and German tribes, but we can also trace its penetration in
Celtic and Slavonic languages. Now runes keep their main original meaning -
in the beginning they were the symbols of fortunetelling lore with sacred
sense and mystic signs (The general matter why they didnt get wide
diffusion before AD). Even the word rune corresponds as secret (compare
old Celtic run, middle welsh rown, modern German raunen). The last
1000 years in Iceland runes have been used for divination. In Anglo-Saxon
England the hours of king council were called runes.
   The most important sources about runic history are ancient texts of
Scandinavian pagan religion  Old Edda by Brynolf Swesson and Lesser Edda
by Snorri Sturlusson. They were two missionaries who discovered these
manuscripts in the time of Christian expansion. Another documents
containing the information about runes origin are Northern king sagas Red
leather and Icelandic kin chronicles. Tombstones, altars, pagan pillars
called runic stones played quite catholic role in scientific researches -
usually they are found dappled with miscellaneous writings (Gothland,
Upland, Norway). The most famous is Cilwer stone, which dates from the 5-th
c. So we can find a lot of writings on jewels and weapon, for barbarians
believed things had to posses their own names (breakteats).
   German and Slavonic runic writing was the letter system of peculiar
look, accounted by the writing technique on bone, wood and metal. Nowadays
we have the main runic alphabet, consisting of 24 signs, may be more, but
another ones are regarded as variants or combined runes. Letters of any
language can have several sources of origin, for a taste Greek language,
which gave the birth to North Italian writing, had a good many of meaning
for every sign. This tradition was inherited by Etruscan alphabet and later
by runic one. However, Christian chronicles of 9-12c, known as songs,
revealed information about rune names and their meanings. Every rune in it
conforms to one strophe, which begins with this rune and its name. In its
turn, the name begins with its sound. The whole system is divided into 2
parts  futarks (arises from the first symbols  F, U, Th, A, R, K: Old
futark (runes of Old German origin  o.f.) and Late futark (modifications
of o.f. in Northumbrian, Frisian and Anglo-Saxon alphabets). 24 signs
traditionally gradate into 3 groups of 8 symbols called atts (part of land
 or kin compare Scot. "airt, Ireland aird).


         Comparing scheme of different futarks and their development


                             Anglo-Saxon futark

   The origin of futark remains the matter of severe debates between
historians, linguists and philologists. There are two main theories: 1)
Runic writing appeared on the basis of Latin alphabet; 2) cradles of these
signs are in transalpine and North Italian scripts. Scientists have a lot
of historical facts, approving that Etruscan merchants used this system.
Probably they brought it to the North (6-th c. B.C.). However some
researchers think that runes cropped up in German tribes from ancient Rome
Latin writing. Comparing 3 letter types we have: 10 runic letters in
Etruscan language, which absolutely coincide each other; 5 coinciding runic
letters and 8 resembling ones in Latin. Latin, Etruscan and some symbols
from Greek originate from Akhiram alphabet (10c. B.C.). But the
construction of runic alphabet (RA) different from others  for example,
order of the first letters.  The main period of development is one, when
occult signs, used in Alpine region and in the North, became combine sole
system. Many runic symbols were used as icons, showing various things and
animals. Some runologists suppose that even in the most developed variant
they are close to pictures: rune Fehu f symbolizes cattle, Thurisaz q l,
 thorn, Wunjo w  weathercock, Algiz z  elk, Zin xxs lightning, Yr u 
bow, Edhwaz m  horse.
   The top of development and complete formation of RA system was in 1-2 c.
   The number of runes in alphabet varied in the course of time. 28 sings
appeared in the middle of the 6-th c. In Britain where German runes
penetrated in the 5-th c. with Anglo-Saxon invasion, Frisian futark was
improved by the some additions and changes (mostly combined runes) and
numbered 29 units. In Northumberland 33 rune system existed already, with
the mixture of Celtic runes. Whilst on the Continent o.f. went through the
number of another changes. In the middle of the 7-th c. the tendency to
simplification appeared  some runes changed in inscription, some were
lost. To the middle of the 10-th c. the number of runes decreased to 16
units and late futark formed. It was purely writing system, which wasnt
used for fortune telling. It got wide spreading not only on the territory
of German Empire, but in the North too, for example in Denmark and Swiss.
The difference between them was in writing technology  Swiss ones were
simpler, with short branches. Apparently it can be explained that it gained
everyday using. This system, if not take notice of its disadvantages, was
in circulation till 12-th c.
   The next step in development of RA took place in the middle of the 12-th
c. by adding dots to 16 sign system (dotted alphabet). It was used along
with Latin one till the 16-th c. We can find its variants in Slavonic
manuscripts. Hipped and branchy RA werent alike to dotted one.
   Combined (constrained) runes. They attract attention by their unusual
form  it is too difficult to regard it as ordinary symbol. Their use is
quite miscellaneous: in amulets, braketeats, and everywhere when difficult
magic formulas were necessary. Runes are bind on the strength of common
line            .

   We cannot leave unnoticed such important stage of RA development as
Ulfila`s Gothic alphabet. It has got nothing in common with gothic
variants of Romanticism period. The real Gothic writing system was used by
the Goths on Gothland Island and later on the territory of Poland,
Lithuania and even North Black Sea coast. In the 6-th c. gothic bishop
Ulfila invented parallel variant of gothic alphabet. Creating it, Ulfila
took the range of common Greek letters and perfected some runic sings,
which existed already, with the aim to paint them with brush. During 5
following centuries it was used by west Goths in Spain and in the South of
France. But in 1018 Toledian counsel decreed to prohibit all runic
alphabets as vane and pagan ones. It is clear from letter names and their
order that UA is younger than other RA. So we can trace Greek and Latin
influence in the system. For example, futark structure was changed by
adding 2 symbols to the first att. So UA contains 12 signs, which do not
have analogs in Old Gothic: Q, D, A, B, G, E, X, K, L, N, P, T.


    Comparing scheme of Gothic alphabet (upper rows) and Gothic runes
(lower rows).

   But, knowing all these peculiarities, we still cant answer to the
question, from where runes came. So, a few scientists suppose that German
and Slavonic RA had the same roots and originated from a same proto-
language, for Etruscan theory is rather imperfect  Scandinavians couldnt
borrow it, because Etruscan writings were used too far away from the North
and in quite small territory. The following theory is closely connected
with national migrations and mythology. One of the legendary Scandinavian
tribes  vanes or veneds  came to the North from the East, where they set
up Slavonic tribe  Vyatichi. We havent got any historical confirmations,
that Slavonic people didnt have writing systems before Cyril and Mefodius
coming, so hypothetically we can believe that such system existed.
Moreover, archeological researches showed that there were some traces of RA
on the territory of ancient Russia. It differs from Scandinavian ones and
looks like as Latin and Greek letters:
   but in common it coincides with o.f.  So we can say that when Slavonic
tribes divided into non-relative kins, RA went through changes of different
kind. In the end of the 1-st millennium BC veneds were vanished by Germanic
barbarian hordes and proto runic system spread rapidly on the territory
from the Black sea to Gaul. As it is follow from archeological discoveries
RA can be found on the Slavonic jewels dated from 10-th c. AD, but it is
difficult to say if they were originally Russian or Scandinavian ones 
perhaps, runes on the jewelries were regarded as the part of design and in
was copied blindly.

   Different Slavonic variants of Scandinavian runes

Old futark old Norway German runes

Anglo Saxon runes Northumbrian futark

Late futark Norway runes

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