The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark (or fuþark, derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant as futhorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the same six letters).
The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 AD, and the alphabet was generally replaced by the Latin alphabet with Christianization by around 700 AD in central Europe and by around 1100 AD in Scandinavia; however, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in Scandinavia, longest in rural Sweden until the early twentieth century (used mainly for decoration as runes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars).
The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150 to 800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon runes (400 to 1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100). The Younger Futhark is further divided into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden), short-twig or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark), and the Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Marcomannic runes, the Medieval runes (1100 AD to 1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500 to 1800 AD).
The origins of the runic alphabet are uncertain. Many characters of the Elder Futhark bear a close resemblance to characters from the Latin alphabet. Other candidates are the 5th to 1st century BC Northern Italic alphabets: Lepontic, Rhaetic and Venetic, all of which are closely related to each other and descend from the Old Italic alphabet.
The runes were introduced to the Germanic peoples in the 1st or 2nd century AD. (The oldest known runic inscription dates to around 150 AD and is found on a comb discovered in the bog of Vimose, Funen, Denmark. The inscription reads harja; a disputed candidate for a 1st century inscription is on the Meldorf fibula in southern Jutland). This period may correspond to the late Proto-Germanic or Common Germanic stage linguistically, with a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries; North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic.
No distinction is made in surviving runic inscriptions between long and short vowels, although such a distinction was certainly present phonologically in the spoken languages of the time. Similarly, there are no signs for labiovelars in the Elder Futhark (such signs were introduced in both the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Gothic alphabet as variants of p; see peorð.)
The name given to the signs, contrasting them with Latin or Greek letters, is attested on a 6th century Alammanic runestaff as runa, and possibly as runo on the 4th century Einang stone. The name is from a root run- (Gothic runa), meaning "secret" or "whisper" (In Finnish, the term runo was loaned to mean "poem" wink .
In Norse mythology, the runic alphabet is attested to a divine origin (Old Norse: reginkunnr). This is attested as early as on the Noleby Runestone from around 600 CE that reads Runo fahi raginakundo toj[e'k]a..., meaning "I prepare the suitable divine rune ..." and in an attestation from the 9th century on the Sparlösa Runestone which reads Ok rað runaR þaR rægi[n]kundu, meaning "And interpret the runes of divine origin". More notably, in the Poetic Edda poem Hávamál, Stanza 80, the runes are also described as reginkunnr:
Þat er þá reynt,
er þú að rúnum spyrr
þeim er gerðu ginnregin
ok fáði fimbulþulr,
þá hefir hann bazt, ef hann þegir.
That is now proved,
what you asked of the runes,
of the potent famous ones,
which the great gods made,
and the mighty sage stained,
that it is best for him if he stays silent.
The poem Hávamál explains that the originator of the runes was the major god Odin. Stanza 138 describes how Odin received the runes through self-sacrifice:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
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.
In stanza 139, Odin continues:
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
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.
In the Poetic Edda poem Rígsþula another origin is related of how the runic alphabet became known to man. The poem relates how Ríg, identified as Heimdall in the introduction, sired three sons (Thrall (slave), Churl (freeman) and Jarl (noble)) on human women. These sons became the ancestors of the three classes of men indicated by their names. When Jarl reached an age when he began to handle weapons and show other signs of nobility, Rig returned and, having claimed him as a son, taught him the runes. In 1555, the exiled Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus recorded a tradition that a man named Kettil Runske had stolen three rune staffs from Odin and learned the runes and their magic.
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