Runic Scripts: A History of the Writing System Used by Northern Germanic Peoples

Runic scripts were writing systems used by Germanic tribal groups living in Northern and Central Europe between the 1st to the 13th centuries CE. The runic alphabet, known as the futhark, was used to write varieties of early Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. This article will explore the origins and evolution of runic scripts from their emergence in Scandinavia to their decline and replacement by the Latin alphabet.

Origins and Development

The earliest runic inscriptions date to around 150-200 CE and were written right to left. Scholars believe that runic scripts emerged from the elder futhark, the alphabet of 24 runic characters used by the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia, Denmark, and northern Germany in the Migration Period and Viking Age. Individual characters were known as "runes", each of which had an alphabetic value based on the first sound of the character's name.

By the 5th century CE, the elder futhark had differentiated into regional dialects with localized forms of some runes. Around 800 CE, the younger futhark, with only 16 characters emerged as the dominant runic alphabet. This streamlining of runes made them easier to carve and reduced wear on frequently used stones and tools. By 1100 CE, divergent runic alphabets developed in separate locations and genres of writing.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart: Runic Version 13.0
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
Official Unicode Consortium code chart: Old Italic Version 13.0
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1030x 𐌀 𐌁 𐌂 𐌃 𐌄 𐌅 𐌆 𐌇 𐌈 𐌉 𐌊 𐌋 𐌌 𐌍 𐌎 𐌏
U+1031x 𐌐 𐌑 𐌒 𐌓 𐌔 𐌕 𐌖 𐌗 𐌘 𐌙 𐌚 𐌛 𐌜 𐌝 𐌞 𐌟
U+1032x 𐌠 𐌡 𐌢 𐌣 𐌭 𐌮 𐌯


Elder Futhark
Younger Futhark

In Scandinavia

The runic scripts were widely used for inscriptions on memorial stones, tools, weapons, and other items throughout Northern Europe during this era. In Scandinavia, runestones from 400-1100 CE provide our main body of runic texts. They were used to memorialize the dead, establish property boundaries, and convey messages. In the Viking period between the 8th-11th centuries, runes were commonly used for graffiti and casual inscriptions alongside the rise of literacy in the Latin alphabet.

Some notable runic texts from Scandinavia include:

  • The Rök stone (8th century CE), one of the oldest and most elaborate runestones featuring over 800 words recounting a divine vision.

  • The Kylver stone (9th century CE), containing a runic calendar spanning three lunar months.

  • Jelling stones erected by King Harald Bluetooth in the 10th century to commemorate the conversion of the Danes to Christianity.

  • U 1161, a runestone commemorating a Viking expedition to North Africa in the 11th century CE.

In England

English runes, known as futhorc, was adapted from the elder futhark no later than the 5th century CE, corresponding with Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain. Important futhorc inscriptions include the 5th century Ruthwell Cross inscriptions which used runes to retell Biblical passage.

The futhorc runic alphabet contained some additional letters to represent sounds specific to Old English. It was used to commemorate the dead and for ownership marking. Many surviving examples are found on runestones and items like the 11th century Alfred Jewel of Wessex containing Christian symbols and runic text. Futhorc was replaced by the Latin alphabet by the 11th century in England.

On the Continent

Outside Scandinavia, runes were used more sparingly by Germanic tribes to mark ownership of goods or for magic and occult purposes. Examples include the 4th century Bergakker finds from the Netherlands; the 5th century Moser amacch Shield designating its owner; and Vimose inscribed sticks that may have conveyed messages.

Continental runic scripts streamlined over time and diverged more from the core elder futhark. For instance, the Anglo-Frisian runes of the coastal regions blended futhorc runes whilst the Italian Runes found in Veneto adapted runes to the local language. However, runic use declined here earlier than Scandinavia with Christianization promoting the Latin alphabet.

Magical and Occult Associations

Runic alphabets were also associated with magic, divination, protection charms and symbolism deriving from Germanic paganism. Some inscriptions seem to have conveyed spells or curses in addition to standard messages. Runes were believed to hold innate powers and served protective functions when carved into goods like amulets.

Surviving examples that demonstrate magical uses of runes include:

  • The 4th century Kylver Stone which uses runes in a calendrical divination text.

  • Numerous amulets and bracteate buttons carved with runes for protection against evil during late antiquity.

  • The 16th century Icelandic book of magic staves called the Håvard's Runes which combines runes with esoteric knowledge.

Decline and Influence

The rise of Christianity weakened the traditional associations of runes with paganism. Localized runic dialects diverged and writing skills declined with the growing preference for Latin. In Denmark and Sweden, runes disappeared entirely by the 13th century as literacy centered around the Latin script.

However, runes left a durable cultural legacy across Northern Europe. They influenced the shapes of early Latin letters and continue to see modern occult and neopagan uses in religious symbolism. Their distinctive angular character also features prominently in Nordic symbols of cultural heritage into the modern day.


Runic scripts were the primary mode of literacy for Northern European Germanic peoples from their origins through Late Antiquity and the Viking Age. They left behind a wealth of inscriptions that provide insight into society, culture, and beliefs of this era. While ultimately replaced by the Latin alphabet with Christianization, the runes represent a crucial chapter in the early development of Germanic languages and their writing systems. Their mystique and symbolic power resonates even now.

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