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Runes: The Alphabet of Odin

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on November 29, 2009 at 12:40:06 am

Origins and Historical Use


     Runes first appeared in literature in the text of the Havamal where Odin discovers them while hanging from Yggdrasil, the World Tree. These symbols that he learned were reputed to be charged with magical powers which, if cast or marked out correctly, could enact powerful spells which could do anything from making a warrior impervious to damage, to allowing a dead man to speak with the living. This amazing power symbolizes the very power of Odin as the Father of All, and it is no wonder that these runes have captured the attention of so many over the course of history. The purpose of this page will be to describe the role of Runes in Proto-Germanic (read Viking) society, as well as their archelogical origins, the meaning of each of the runes, and their uses in modern society among Neo-pagan faiths.


     The first group of runes to be found on the archeological record (150 BCE) belong to the aptly named Elder Futhark, named thus for the phonetic sound of the first six letters (f, u, th, a, r, k). Below is an image of the elder futhark which gives the phonetic value of each of the runes. 


     The elder futhark was used from its appearance in the archeological record through until approxmiately the 8th century. At this time, a newer alphabet of runes seems to have either been developed or have simply evolved from the original twenty-four. This newer system of runes (pictured below) is aptly referred to as the Younger futhark.



     As can be seen above, both the younger and elder futharks contain enough letters that they could be used for writing after a fashion; however items which have runic inscriptions on them more commonly use the more expansive alphabet of the elder in place of the younger. And though we do find instances of large groups of runes being carved in certain places, usually in the form of large runestones (see below), for the most part it seems that they were only rarely used to write with, usually to claim ownership of an item or to boast about the workmanship involved in creating the item. This use of runes can be seen having been employed either way in the image of the antler comb which dates from between 150 and 200 CE  with the engraving "Harja" on its handle.



     This practice of labeling items by either the maker or the owner of the object continued throughout at least the first half of the 1st millenia AD, as can be seen on the fibula or brooch seen below, which dates from sometime in the third century according to the National Museum of Denmark. The inscription on the piece reads "alugod".


Other Theorized Uses


     As stated in the Havamal when Odin gains mastery of the runes at the end of his self-imposed crucifiction he learns "Nine mighty spells" (line 140, Havamal). These spells were to be cast using the runes to guide their form, thus giving another side to runes and another use which they might have been put to, an arcane use. Below is a slideshow which gives the mystical meanings of each of the runes in the Elder Futhark, those which Odin himself gained power and mastery over, these meanings are just a few of those that are accepted, taking those which appear commonly throughout multiple sources.




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