May 11, 2010

Metal History: Runes

Metal History, Writing Runes

Continuing Folk Metal week into it’s second week (thus making it Folk Metal Fortnight – ah, aliteration), I thought I’d talk about those stick letters adorning the cover of every folk metal album – runes.

Prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet – along with everything else Christian – in around AD 700 – the Germanic tribes in what is now Germany, Scandinavia and other areas of Europe wrote with runic alphabets.


Rune Stone

The runes were in use by Germanic peoples from the first century AD. Historically, runes derive from the Old Italic alphabet. Germanic tribes often served in the Roman army as mercenaries, and no one can deny Rome spent far too much time trying to pacify the area, so cultural exchange definitely took place. This seems to account for some of the simularities between some runes and latin letters. Scholars suggest many other <> for the origin of the letters – – but cannot agree. The debate is long and full of big words and I won’t repeat it here.

Each rune is made of two or more straight lines – normally a long vertical line and other lines at angles to it. The runes don’t make use of horizontal lines. The lack of curves is normal for alphabets at the time – as straight lines are easier to carve into wood or stone.


One of the rune stones in Jelling, Denmark

There are three main runic alphabets:

Eldar Futhark: these runes were in use from 150-800 AD, and consisted of 24 signs representing sounds in the Germanic language.

Angle-Saxon Futhark: from 400-1100 AD, the various speakers of proto-germanic language split into their various cultural groups, and the runes evolved with them. Symbols were added to represent sounds unique to Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxon futhark contains 29 or 33 characters, and is the rune script commonly found in England and Ireland.

Younger Futhark: developed in Scandinavia between 800-1100 AD, and is a reduced form of Elder Futhark, usually with 16 characters. This reduction correlates with phonetic changes in the language of the area at this time – proto-norse evolving into Old Norse.

Later, two new alphabets emerged:

Medieval Runes: 1100-1500 AD. In the Middle Ages, the Younger Futhark were expanded again to include one character for each phonetic sound of the Old Norse language. Most Norwegian runes found today are Medieval runes. It was originally thought runes were used only for monumental inscriptions (much like the Egyptians and their heiroglyphs). But an incredible cache of over 600 artifacts inscribed with runes – but what was unusual was the nature of these artifacts – carved sticks of wood or bone – and the content of the inscriptions – which weren’t monumental in nature but everyday writing – personal messages, business letters, bawdy poems, prayers (some in Latin). From this find arcaeologists now know that in this late period, runes were a common and widespread everyday written language.

Dalecarlian Runes: 1500-1800 AD: Unique to Dalarna – an isolated province in Sweden. Dalecarlian runes were used between 16-20th centuries – mainly to transcribe Elfdalian text.

Runes in Mythology

In Norse mythology, runes have divine origin. The Poetic Edda poem Hávamál , Odin undergoes an ordeal to learn the secret of the runes:

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.

Another origin myth – from the Poetic Edda poem Rígsþula – recounts the tale of Rig, who sired three sons – Thrall (slave), Churl (freeman) and Jarl (noble) – to mortel women. These sons were the ancestors of the three classes of men. But Rig – like most men – buggered off again to attend to his Godly duties. When Jarl came of age he began to handle weapons. Rig saw this and returned, and he taught Jarl the secret of the runes.

Runes and Magic

I know a twelfth one if I see,
up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and color the runes,
that the man walks
And talks with me

Odin recounting a spell in the Hávamál

The earliest runic inscriptions were simple words carved on objects. Some are clearly the name of the object’s craftsmen or owner, while others remain a linguistic mystery. These suggest the original use of the runes was for magic charms and amulets, rather than monumental inscription. A recent study (MacLeod and Mees 2006) shows how runes were used to create magical objects, but suggests the runes were – in and of themselves – no more magical than any other alphabet of the time.


modern rune stones - used for divination in new age and wiccan religions

The word rune itself comes from a root word meaning “secret / hidden”. This suggests the knowledge of the runes was limited to an elite, or considered an esoteric practice.

Many believe the runes were used for divination – as they are in modern new age religions – but there’s no sufficient archaeological or historical evidence this was the case. The three texts which refer to Germanic divination – Tacitus, Rimbert and Snorri Sturluson – give vague descriptions and never refer to runes specifically.

Modern Uses of the Runes

Perhaps the most important figure in modern Germanic esotericism is Guido von List. His book Das Geheimnis der Runen (“The Secret of the Runes”) – published in 1908 – revealed an alphabet of 18 runic symbols. His so-called “Armamen Runes” were based on the Younger Furthark, with new runes invented by List, supposedly revealed to him in a state of blindness after he’d had cateracts removed in 1902.

The Nazis (and neo-Nazi groups) associated themselves with Germanic traditions, and favoured the use of runes. Hitler was fascinated by the work of Guido von List, however his runic alphabet was later replaced by a new alphabet – the Wiligut runes – created by the appointed Nazi runologist – Karl Maria Wiligut. Four runes – Sig, Hagal, Swastika and double rune – were cast into the outside band of the SS Totemkopf Ring – worn by SS members. It’s these runes that are seen as deeply offensive in Europe today.

SS-totenkopf ring

SS Totenkopf ring - an honor ring. You can just see two of the runic symbols on either side of the skull.

JRR Tolkien – a great lover of the runic alphabet – used Anglo-Saxon runes on the map in The Hobbit to emphasize its connection to the dwarves. He also used the runes in early drafts of Lord of the Rings, but later replaced them with the Cirth alphabet he invented. Following Tolkien’s lead, runes have become extremely popular in fantasy literature, video games, movies and TV shows.

Further Reading

Things you can do with runes

  • Write curses to your enemies
  • Predict the time of Ragorak
  • Send secret messages to your friends
  • Turn any word into a folk metal band logo
  • Give your sword, guitar, or tandard a suitebly metal name
  • Design your own tattoo
  • Translate the linear notes to Manowar’s “Gods of War”
  • Create a personalised number plate for your “Viking-mobile”
  • Write a great poetic saga about your band’s epic journey to defeat the dragon, pillage the villages, steal the princess and drink your way across Europe.

Raise your Horns! \m/
Steff Metal

2 Comments on “Metal History: Runes

May 15, 2010 at 11:15 am

Wow! Once again, I’m amazed at the depth of your learning! I thought for sure, at the end, there’d be a video of “Runes To My Memory.” :)

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