By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today, NativLang & I are exploring ancient Germanic Runes. After you’ve learned about the word ‘rune’ and how runes are intertwined into the modern world, head over to NativLang to find out about the development of the runic writing system, from Vikings scratching graffiti on a church in Constantinople to tales of Odin and magical words.
The runic system, that was used in Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia before the arrival of Christian missionaries, was rarely employed for writing extended texts, mainly just inscriptions and such like. Once the missionaries arrived, though, it didn’t take long for the new converts to come up with the idea of using the the Latin alphabet for writing down not just Latin but also their own language. Just one problem, or maybe a couple actually — there were some sounds in the various Germanic languages that just didn’t exist in Latin, so there were no letters to use to write them down. For instance the /th/ sound—both the voiced -th- as in Modern English either and the voiceless -th- as in ether—didn’t exist in Latin (though a similar sound from ancient Greek was represented as <th> in Latin contexts). In early Old English manuscripts the sound was represented as the digraph (that’s two letters together making one sound) <th>, or simply as the letter <d>, but eventually a diacritic stroke was added to that letter <d> to differentiate it from a regular letter <d> to make a symbol we now refer to as eth. And a little later another solution to the missing sound also began to be used, one of those Old runic characters, the thorn, as it was called in Anglo-Saxon England, or thurs meaning “giant, ogre” in Old Norse. You see, though the runic writing system is an alphabet representing sounds not an ideographic system, the characters have meaningful names. These two characters, eth and the runic thorn, could be used for either the voiced -th- and voiceless -th-. Old Norse manuscripts followed suit with first the thorn and a little later the eth, with the added twist that thorn came to be used only as the initial letter in words and eth in other positions in words, whereas in Old English the letters were used interchangeably.
Another runic character was pressed into service as well, the wynn meaning “joy” to represent the /w/ sound — in Latin the letter <u> was used for both the vowel /u/ sound and the consonant /w/ sound. Actually in the earlier Old English manuscripts the letter <u> was used for the /w/ sound, but eventually to avoid confusion between the vowel <u> and the consonant <u> the runic wynn was adopted. Of course to our modern eyes that runic wynn looks an awful lot like a letter <p>, so modern printed editions of Old English texts replace all the wynns with our modern w, a character that came about a little later by the joining up of two <v>s or two <u>s, (the double-u). But if you’re reading actual manuscripts from the period, you have mind your P’s and… well… wynns.
Actually, we’re kind of prone to mixing up those runic characters and roman letters. That’s kind of what happened with those “Ye Olde Shoppe” signs in fact. You see, the thorn hung around for a while after the Old English period, gradually becoming less and less common, and as it did so the form of the character became less and less distinct, with the ascender, that perpendicular line on the side, becoming shorter, so the thorn look more like the wynn, which by 14th century had disappeared, and like the <p> — confusing! And by the 15th century, it looked a lot like a letter <y>, so that when the printing press came along printers would often use the <y> in place of the thorn, though by that point the <th> digraph had mostly replaced it, with the thorn only being used in common words like the, often represented in text as <y> standing in for thorn with a superscript <e>. So what looks like <ye>, “ye”, was actually “the”, so it should really be pronounced “The Olde Shoppe”. But that’s not nearly so picturesque! (quaint?)
One last way that runes were worked into English, back in those Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, was as a type of secret key — a few individual rune signs were dropped into the otherwise Latin script, which could be put together to spell out the answer to a riddle or the name of the author, as in this poem by Cynewulf.
It’s no coincidence that runes were used in this secretive way, since the word rune itself is not only Old English for ‘runic character’ but also meant “secret, mystery” and “council, consultation”. It comes via Proto-Germanic probably from an Indo-European root meaning “roar, murmur” which also gives us the words rumour, riot, and raucous. The word mostly faded from the language along with the runes themselves after the Anglo-Saxon period, only to be added back in later by scholars in the 17th century and later who were studying those old runes. But there is at least one hidden remnant of the word in the placename Runnymede. You see Runnymede in Surrey was where Anglo-Saxon kings held council meetings with their various nobles, ealdormen, thegns, and so forth — remember the council meaning of rune — the so-called witenagemot, literally meeting of the wise men, which by the way inspired JK Rowling’s council of wizards the Wizengamot. So Runnymede literally means “rune island meadow”. And it’s therefore appropriate that in the year 1215 the feudal barons of England, who were, I suppose, raucous and ready to riot, buttonholed King John and forced him to accept the Magna Carta, which limited the powers of the tyrannical king. Not that he kept to his agreement, but rescinded it shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Magna Carta marks an important milestone in constitutional history.
Getting back to runes themselves, for the most part their use faded with the middle ages, but they were later revived along with gothicism and the interest in the ancient Germanic past of the 18th and 19th century. This was a factor in the growing nationalism ofGerman Romanticism, which celebrated, and to some degree fabricated, a romanticized version of Germanic history, of which the runes were a part. Furthermore the runes fed into the esoteric and occultist fascination of figures such as Austrian mysticist Guido von List, who developed the Armanen runes, and inspired by them Karl Maria Wiligut, who developed his own version of the runes in the 20th century. And that’s the next link in our chain. Because this was exactly the sort of thing that caught the interest of the Nazi occultists, particularly Heinrich Himmler who incorporated these runes into various Nazi insignia, most famously the insignia of the Schutzstaffel, the so-called SS. Another script-related thing the Nazis were into, at least at first, was the old Blackletter or Fraktur typeface, which had developed from the gothic manuscript hands of the later middle ages, and which by the 19th century had become particularly associated with Germanic culture and language. The Nazis eventually decided to dump the Fraktur typeface in favour of the Roman script, claiming (mendaciously) antisemitic reasons, but actually because it made practical sense to use the same typeface that the rest of the Latin-alphabet-using world used.
The Nazis weren’t the only ones to favour the Frakture typeface. Many writers in the 19th and early 20th century expressed a similar attachment to the script for German nationalist reasons, such as German type designer Rodolf Koch. In addition to typefaces Koch was also interested in other graphic symbols, such as the old Germanic runes, and published a book on various old symbols, monograms, and runes called The Book of Signs. This book brought many of these old symbols and runes to popculture notice, including to the attention of rock band Led Zeppelin, who used a couple of symbols from the book on the album cover of their fourth album, which were meant to represent the band members. The one that drummer John Bonham selected was three circles, meant to symbolize two parents and a child. It also happens to be similar (though flipped upside down) to the company logo of the 400 year old German industrial Krupp family dynasty, known for steel works, and for, believe it or not, a German heavy metal band called Die Krupps who called themselves after this old German family name. The company logo is actually based on the seamless railway wheels the company manufactured, but lest you think this is all a bit of a tangential connection, the Krupp company ties into our story in another way. You see, the company manufactured weapons for WWII (for which they got into some trouble due to their forced labour practices) as well as for WWI, during which they built the heavy gun called the Big Bertha, named after, if you’ll believe it, Krupp family member and heiress Bertha Krupp. Actually there’s a long history of giving guns women’s names, including it seems the very first gun, so to speak — at least that’s where the word gun comes from, a particular 14th century cannon at Windsor Castle called Domina Gunilde, or Lady Gunhilde. The name Gunhilde is an old Scandinavian name, the two parts Gunnr and Hildr both meaning “battle” and both names of Valkyries, the warrior goddesses who collect the souls of the slain warriors from the battlefield in Norse mythology. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, there weren’t any notable women in England at that time by that name, so likely the use of the name for large munitions (before gunpowder and cannons they’d be ballistas or other large siege weapons) goes back to Scandinavian times. Such as when Gunhilde daughter of Harald Bluetooth was married to Pallig Tokesen ealdorman of Devonshire. She and her husband were apparently killed in the St Brice’s Day Massacre on November 13th, 1002, when all the Danes in England were ordered killed by King Æthelred the Unready, in retaliation for which her brother Sweyn Forkbeard retook England, which Harald Bluetooth had held before Æthelred, bringing it back under Scandinavian control. And speaking of Harald Bluetooth, that’s where we get the term for the wireless short range communication technology that you probably have on your smartphone. You see Harald was also known for uniting the warring Danish tribes into a single unified kingdom—in fact, the Jellings runestone I’ve used as the background for this video was raised by Harald to commemorate his unification of Denmark and Norway—and on that basis Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson picked the name for a technology that was intended to unify the, at the time, disorganized communications protocols, uniting them into one standard. Oh, and the symbol for that unifying technology? — it’s based on the runic symbols for the initials of Harald Bluetooth.
Now that you’ve seen the later history of runes—a continuous process of dividing and unifying—head over to NativLang to have their early history filled in — from the Viking sack of Seville to the mysteries of Elder and Younger Futhark! Click here to see that video—and check out his other videos on the history of writing systems while you’re there!
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