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Viking Rune Names Origins

The names of Viking Age runes, derived from the Younger Futhark alphabet, have their origins in ancient Germanic traditions and were recorded in Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems. These 16 rune names, such as "fé" (wealth) and "úr" (rain), often reflected concepts important to Norse culture and mythology.

Origins of the Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark, the oldest runic script, likely emerged in the 1st or 2nd century CE through contact between Germanic peoples and Mediterranean cultures. Its exact origins are debated, but it was likely influenced by existing alphabets, particularly the Latin alphabet, due to cultural diffusion during the Migration Period (100-500 CE). Other possible influences include North Etruscan and Phoenician scripts. The uniformity of early runic inscriptions suggests a single point of origin. Despite uncertainties, the Elder Futhark's creation reflects the complex cultural exchanges in late antiquity, as Germanic peoples adapted writing systems to their languages and needs.

The Evolution of Younger Futhark

The Younger Futhark evolved from the Elder Futhark around the 8th century CE, reducing the number of runes from 24 to 16, despite the Old Norse language developing more phonemes. This gradual change, occurring between 650 and 800 CE, saw both systems used concurrently. The Younger Futhark became widespread during the Viking Age, appearing on numerous runestones and artifacts. It was divided into long-branch (Danish) and short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) variants, with a 'staveless' version emerging in the 10th century. This evolution reflected changes in Norse language and culture, making the script more accessible and widely used throughout Scandinavia and Viking settlements abroad.

Younger Futhark Rune List

The Younger Futhark, used during the Viking Age, consists of 16 runes. Here is a concise list of these runes along with their names:

  • ᚠ Fehu ("wealth")
  • ᚢ Ur (""rain")
  • ᚦ Thurs ("giant")
  • ᚬ Ansuz ("god")
  • ᚱ Raido ("ride")
  • ᚴ Kaunan ("ulcer")
  • ᚼ Hagalaz ("hail")
  • ᚾ Naudiz("need")
  • ᛁ Isaz ("ice")
  • ᛅ Jera("year")
  • ᛋ Sowilo("sun")
  • ᛏ Tiwaz(the god Týr)
  • ᛒ Berkanan ("birch")
  • ᛘ Mannaz("man")
  • ᛚ Laguz("leek")
  • ᛦ Algiz("yew")

These rune names are recorded in Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems, providing insights into their meanings and cultural significance in Norse society.

Rune Name Sources

We know the names of Viking Age runes primarily from preserved rune poems in Icelandic, Old Norwegian, and Anglo-Saxon traditions. These poems, similar to modern alphabet songs, were mnemonic devices used to remember the runes and their associated meanings. 

Rune poems are poetic compositions that list the runes of a particular runic alphabet, often accompanied by a verse that explains the meaning or significance of each rune. They were written during the Viking Age and the early medieval period, with notable examples being the Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems that record the names of the 16 runes in the Younger Futhark. 

Scholars have also compared these names with Anglo-Saxon and Gothic letter names to confirm their continuity from the Elder Futhark. While most rune names directly continue from earlier traditions, some exceptions exist, such as "yr" and "thurs," where Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Gothic traditions diverge. This knowledge has been further supplemented by medieval Scandinavian manuscripts and early modern studies on runes, including works by Icelandic and Danish scholars in the 17th century.

Rune Poem Origins

Rune poems are alliterative compositions that list the letters of runic alphabets while providing explanatory poetic stanzas for each rune. Four main rune poems have been preserved from before the mid-20th century: the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, the Norwegian Rune Poem, the Icelandic Rune Poem, and the Swedish Rune Poem.

  • The Icelandic Rune Poems considered the most systematized, are recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, with the oldest dating from the late 15th century.
  • The Norwegian Rune Poem is believed to be older, likely composed in the 13th century.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem is thought to date from the 8th or 9th century.
  • The Swedish Rune Poem, possibly the youngest, was first recorded in a letter published in 1908.

These poems served as mnemonic devices to help memorize and transmit runic lore, listing the names and associations of the runes. They provide valuable insights into the cultural significance and meanings attributed to each rune in Norse and Anglo-Saxon societies, often referencing figures from Norse and Anglo-Saxon paganism alongside Christian elements.

Younger Futhark Name Sources

The names of the Younger Futhark runes are primarily known from several key sources. Here's a concise overview of the main sources for Younger Futhark rune names:

  • Icelandic Rune Poem: A 15th-century manuscript that lists the names and meanings of the 16 Younger Futhark runes.
  • Norwegian Rune Poem: Another important source that records the names of the Younger Futhark runes.
  • Runestones and inscriptions: Many Viking Age artifacts feature runic inscriptions that have helped confirm rune names and usage.
  • Medieval Scandinavian manuscripts: These contain information about rune names and their meanings.
  • Comparative analysis: Scholars have compared Younger Futhark names with those from Elder Futhark and Anglo-Saxon traditions to establish continuity and changes.

These sources have allowed researchers to reconstruct the names and meanings of the Younger Futhark runes, providing valuable insights into their use and significance in Norse culture during the Viking Age.

Elder Futhark Name Sources

The names of the Elder Futhark runes are primarily known from several key sources. Here's a brief overview of the main sources for Elder Futhark rune names:

  • Old English Rune Poem: Compiled in the 7th century, it preserves the names of all 24 Elder Futhark runes, along with five additional Anglo-Saxon runes.
  • Medieval Scandinavian records: These contain names of the 16 Younger Futhark runes, which largely correspond to Elder Futhark names.
  • Gothic alphabet: Recorded by Alcuin in the 9th century, it provides some corroborating evidence for rune names.
  • Magical inscriptions: Early runic artifacts like the Lindholm amulet (3rd or 4th century) suggest some runes had names associated with deities.
  • Comparative linguistics: Scholars have reconstructed Common Germanic names for most runes based on these sources.

Anglo-Saxon and Gothic traditions: These provide alternative names for some runes, like the þ-rune, showing regional variations.

While exact dating is challenging, it's believed that at least some runes had established names by the 5th century, with the full set of 24 names likely completed by the end of the 4th century.

Conclusion - Runic Legacy and Impact

The study of Viking runes reveals a rich and complex writing system that evolved over centuries, reflecting changes in Norse language, culture, and society. From their origins in the Elder Futhark, likely adapted from Mediterranean alphabets to the streamlined Younger Futhark of the Viking Age, runes served multiple purposes beyond mere writing.

Runes were used for memorial inscriptions, and everyday communication, and were believed to possess magical properties. The transition from the 24-character Elder Futhark to the 16-character Younger Futhark around the 8th century CE marked a significant shift in runic writing, coinciding with the Viking expansion.

Our understanding of rune names and meanings comes primarily from preserved rune poems, particularly the Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems, which served as mnemonic devices. These poems, along with runestones, artifacts, and comparative linguistic analysis, have allowed scholars to reconstruct the names and meanings of both Elder and Younger Futhark runes.

The runes' significance extended beyond their practical use as a writing system. In Norse mythology, they were associated with divine wisdom, particularly with Odin, who was said to have discovered them through great sacrifice. This mythological connection underscores the cultural importance of runes in Viking society.

Today, Viking runes continue to fascinate scholars and enthusiasts alike, offering valuable insights into Norse culture, language, and beliefs. Their legacy is evident not only in historical and archaeological studies but also in their influence on modern popular culture and literature.

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