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Runes: History and Meaning

Runes are regarded as a writing system (and alternately a system of magic and divination) for the early Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, Britain, Scandinavia and Iceland.

In use from the 2nd century BCE to the 17th century CE, runic writing was probably derived from one of the ancient alphabets of the Mediterranean area. Many scholars theorize that the Goths, a Germanic people, developed Runes from the Etruscan alphabet of Northern Italy and, perhaps too, from the Latin.

As an alphabet system, there are at least three main varieties of runic script: Germanic runes used in northern Europe before 800 CE Anglo-Saxon, used in Britain from the 5th to the 13th century CE and Nordic, used from the 8th to the 17th century CE in Scandinavia and Iceland. Scholars believe that early Germanic tribes used the runes chiefly as a means of communication (such as legal provisions, contracts, genealogies, and poems) and only later for magical purposes.

The origin of the name rune relates to the fact the ancient Germanic peoples, like all primitive peoples, attributed magical powers to the mysterious symbols scratched on armor, jewels, and tombstones. This is given credence by two related Germanic words that mean "mystery, secret, sorcery"; the Old Germanic root ru- and the Gothic runa. The most interesting runic inscriptions - some of which are still extant - are those that were cut for magical purposes or that served as prayers to deities.

The Scandinavians had their own explanation for the appearance of the runes. According to legend, Odin, chief of the Norse gods, speared himself to a tree in an attempt to receive occult knowledge and, through this heroic act, learned the mysteries of the runes, which he imparted to his people. Since the Nordic peoples believed the runic script to be a gift from the mighty Odin, they treated it with great reverence, assuming that the runes possessed divine, magical powers.

Those who could access the magical powers of this ancient script were called the rune masters, experts who were specially trained in the art of divination and rune casting. For the latter, pieces of bark or small stones were inscribed or painted with runic symbols. Much like dice, the objects were then cast or rolled onto the ground, with the rune master divining the meaning of the upturned symbols.

The runes, primarily in their Nordic form (as used by the Scandinavians and Vikings) remained in common use throughout the middle ages and could be found on a variety of mundane items from coins to memorial stones. Their use as charms, spells and memorial inscriptions continued up until the 17th century when, in 1639, the Church officially banned runic writing, as part of a larger attempt to suppress native religious folkways. Those rune masters who escaped execution went underground. As they disappeared so too did their ancient knowledge. But yet, the magical appeal of their ancient script has endured throughout the centuries.

The runic alphabet, or Futhark, gets its name from its first six sounds (f, u, th, a, r, k), much like the word 'alphabet' derives from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. Each rune not only represents a phonetic sound but also has its own distinct meaning often connected with Norse mythology . Scholars believe that early peoples used the runes originally as a means of communication and only later for magical purposes.