Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Rediscovering Runes

From the mysterious to the mundane, runes have a long and fascinating history of use…

Another exciting discovery which has come from research on George Hickes’ book (see last week's blog post) is a wealth of material dealing with Runes. These were used throughout the Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and were best suited to short messages carved on stone, wood and metal.
Hickes includes a copperplate image of the Old English ‘Rune Poem’. This text is critical to our knowledge of early England, as it preserves the memory of a time before Christianisation and subsequent adoption of Latin letters. Written down in around the 10th century but probably composed in the 8th or 9th century, it lists and names the 29 characters of the English runic script, along with a short poem in Old English to help the reader remember the name. For example:

“Þ Þorn (Thorn) is very sharp · for every thane

Who grabs it, it is evil · and immeasurably cruel

For every man · that with it rests”

The original manuscript containing the Rune Poem was destroyed by fire in 1731, but thankfully a copy had been made by the scholar Humfrey Wanley and reproduced by Hickes, making this the most original and accurate source in existence.

Runes were used more commonly and for a longer time in Scandinavia. One of the most common places runes are found are on monumental stones, often erected at land boundaries or beside roads and bridges. This was to ensure they were read by many people. The earliest rune stones may bear only the name of the man who carved them, but over time this was elaborated into memorial messages with artistic decoration. These later stones were generally commissioned by a wealthy individual to commemorate his family and achievements. Hickes includes this example from Iceland:

Picture of rune stones from Hickes' From Thesaurus Grammatico Criticus & Archaeologicus. Image copyright of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral, U.K. (2014.)
“Thorstein had these words made in memory of Svein his father and in memory of Thor his brother. They are away in Greece. And in memory of Ingithu his mother. Carved by Ubir”

It is very helpful of Hickes to have reproduced this image, as rune stones are often in exposed places, meaning that their inscriptions become worn away and less legible over time.

One of Hickes’ most ambitious ideas was to chart the development of runic characters.

Photo of rune family trees from Hickes' Thesaurus Grammatico Criticus & Archaeologicus. Image copyright of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral, U.K. (2014.)

 In their earliest forms they often appear similar to Latin letters, which Western European troops may have seen whilst serving as mercenaries in the Roman army (perhaps this is what Thorstein’s brother and father are doing?), but some later became very complex, as Hickes shows. In the British Isles, the alphabet was expanded into 29 characters as seen in the poem above. In Scandinavia however this was reduced to 16, with some characters representing more than one sound, which must have been very confusing!

Joanna Perks

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