Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Runes and Manuscripts > Runes in Scandinavian and Old English Literature
  The National Germanic Alphabet The Ruthwell Cross  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts.

§ 2. Runes in Scandinavian and Old English Literature.


There is considerable uncertainty as to the earliest purpose of the runes, whether they were originally used as real characters of writing, or, as the name suggests, as mystical signs, bearers of potent magic. But, since the power and force of the spoken word easily pass into the symbol for which it stands, it is not improbable that the latter meaning is secondary, the spell becoming, so to speak, materialised in the graven letter, and, even in this form, retaining all its original power for good or evil. For the earliest Germanici literature abounds in proofs of the magic nature of runes; from the Edda poems down to the latest folk-songs of the present day there is continuous evidence of their mystic influence over mankind. Runes could raise the dead from their graves; they could preserve life or take it, they could heal the sick or bring on lingering disease; they could call forth the soft rain or the violent hailstorm; they could break chains and shackles or bind more closely than bonds or fetters; they could make the warrior invincible and cause his sword to inflict none but mortal wounds; they could produce frenzy and madness or defend from the deceit of a false friend. Their origin was, moreover, believed to be divine, since Odin is represented in the Edda as sacrificing himself in order to learn their use and hidden wisdom. Odin was also the greatest “runemaster” of the ancient Germanic world, and Saxo relates 2  how the god sometimes stooped to use them for purposes of personal revenge. A cold-hearted maiden who rejected his suit he touched with a piece of bark, whereon spells were written. This made her mad; but according to Saxo, it was “a gentle revenge to take for all the insults he had received.” Saxo also relates 3  a gruesome tale how, by means of spells engraved on wood, and placed under the tongue of a dead man, he was forced to utter strains terrible to hear, and to reveal the no less terrible secrets of the future. In the Icelandic Sagas, references to the supernatural power of the runes are equally explicit. In the Saga of Egill Skallagrìmsson, who lived in the tenth century, it is told how a maiden’s illness had been increased because the would-be healer, through ignorance, cut the wrong runes, and thus endangered her life. Egill destroys the spell by cutting off the runes and buring the shavings in the fire; he then slips under the maiden’s pillow the staff whereon he had cut the true healing runes. Immediately the maiden recovers.   4
  Side by side with the early magic use of runes there is also clear evidence that, at an earlier period, they served as a means of communication, secret or otherwise. Saxo relates, in this respect, 4  how Amlethus (Hamlet) travelled to England accompanied by two retainers, to whom was entrusted a secret letter graven on wood, which, as Saxo remarks, was a kind of writing-material frequently used in olden times. In the Egilssaga mentioned above, Egill Skallagrmìsson’s daughter Thorger[char]r is reported to have engraved on the rùnakefli or “runic staff” the beautiful poem Sunatorrek, in which her aged father laments the death of his son, the last of his race.   5
  These few instances, taken from amongst a great number, prove that runes played an important part in the thoughts and lives of the various Germanic tribes. The greater number of runic inscriptions which have come down to our times, and by far the most important, are those engraved on stone monuments. Some of these merely bear the name of a fallen warrior, while others commemorate his exploits, his death, or his life as a whole. These inscriptions on stones and rocks occur only in England and Scandinavia, from which fact we may, perhaps, infer that this use of runes was a comparatively late development. Some of the very earliest extant inscriptions may be regarded as English, since they are found either within Angeln, the ancient home of the nation—for instance, those of Torsbjaerg,—or not far from that district.   6
  From what has been said, it is clear that the English, on their arrival in this island, must have been conversant with their national alphabet, and the various uses thereof. It may be worth while to examine somewhat more closely its original form and the changes which it underwent after the migration. In its early Germanic form the runic alphabet consisted of twenty-four signs, usually arranged in three sets of eight which, from their respective initial letters, bore in Old Norse the names of Freyr, Hagall and T&ygrave;r. The alphabet itself is generally known as the fupark from the first six of its letters. Each rune had a name of its own, and a well-defined place in the alphabet. The order is specifically Germanic, and can be ascertained from old alphabets found on a gold coin at Vadstena in Sweden, and on a silver-gilt clasp dug up at Charnay in Burgundy. After the migration and subsequent isolation of the English, it became necessary, in course of time, to modify the early alphabet and to make it more conformable with the changing sounds of the language. Four new signs were added, and some of the older ones modified in order to represent the altered value of the sounds. Thus there arose a specifically Old English alphabet, of which not less than three specimens have been preserved. One of these is on a small sword found in the Thames and now in the British Museum; another is contained in the Salzburg manuscript 140 of the tenth century, now at Vienna; the third occurs in an Old English runic song. The last two, moreover, present the names of the runes in their Old English form. Apart from the standard English type found in the above-mentioned three alphabets, a local Norwegian variety, of a far simpler character, was current in the Isle of Man, as appears from certain Norse inscriptions there, dating from the latter half of the eleventh century.   7
  It is, however, difficult to determine in what manner and to what extent runes were used by the English settlers, for here the evidence is by no means as abundant and explicit as in the far north. Christianity was introduced into England at an early period, centuries before it was brought to distant Scandinavia, and the new religion laboured, and laboured successfully, to eradicate all traces of practices and beliefs that smacked of the devil, with which potentate the heathen gods soon came to be identified. Nevertheless, we have some evidence, which, despite its scantiness, speaks eloquently of the tenacity of old beliefs, and the slow lingering of superstition. Bede furnishes us with a striking proof that the English, at a comparatively late date, believed in the magic properties of runes. In his Historia Ecclesiastica (IV, 22) he relates the fate of a nobleman called Imma, who was made a prisoner in the battle between Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, and Aethelred, king of Mercia, A.D. 679, and whose fetters fell off whenever his brother, who thought him dead, celebrated mass for the release of his soul. His captor, however, who knew nothing about the prayers, wondered greatly, and inquired whether the prisoner had on him litterae solutoriae, that is, letters which had the power of loosening bonds. 5  Again, in Beowulf (1. 59I), a person who broached a theme of contention is said to “unbind the runes of war.” In the poem called Daniel (1. 74I), the mysterious and terrible writing on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace is described as a rune. In the Dialogue of Salomon and Saturn 6  there is a curious travesty of an old heathen spell. In treating of the powers and virtues of the Pater Noster, the poet gradually inserts all the runes that serve to make up the prayer, each, however, being accompanied by the corresponding Latin capital letter. Thereupon he advises every man to sing the Pater Noster before drawing his sword against a hostile band of men, and also to put the fiends to flight by means of God’s word; otherwise they will stay his hand when he has to defend his life, and bewitch his weapon by cutting on it fatal letters and death signs. We could scarcely wish for a better illustration of the way in which Christianity combated the old beliefs, substituting the Pater Noster for the ancient heathen war-spell, reading a new meaning into the old rites and shifting to fiends and devils the power of making runes of victory or of death, a power formerly in the hands of pagan gods.   8
  When used as ordinary writing characters, without any taint of magic, runes appear to have met with more tolerant treatment. The earliest inscriptions extant in this country consist mainly of proper names, in most cases those of the owners of the engraved article. The Thames sword, for instance, bears, in addition to the runic alphabet, the name of its owner, Beagnop. Again, Beowulf is represented as finding in Grendel’s cave a sword of ancient workmanship, with rune-staves on the hilt, giving the name of the warrior for whom the sword had first been made. Similarly, an eighth century ring bears, partly in runic, partly in Roman, characters, the legend “Æ[char]ed owns me, Eanred engraved me.” There are also references in Old English literature to the use of runes as a means of communication. We are reminded of the rùna-kefli of the Icelandic sagas on reading the little poem called The Husband’s Message (see p. 42), where a staff, inscribed with runes, is supposed to convey to a wife the message of her lord, bidding her cross the sea in search of the distant country where he had found gold and land.   9

Note 2. Ed. Holder, p. 79. [ back ]
Note 3. Ed. Holder, p. 22. [ back ]
Note 4. Ed. Holder, p. 92. [ back ]
Note 5. The Old English version renders this by alysendlecan rúne, “loosening runes.” [ back ]
Note 6. Ed. Kemble, pp. 14 and 99. [ back ]

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  The National Germanic Alphabet The Ruthwell Cross  
 
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