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Gothic Rune Set

The Gothic rune set, while lacking its own rune poem, does have some very interesting meanings known to us. The reason for this is due to a bishop from the middle of the fourth century named Ulfila. Bishop Ulfila set out to construct a new alphabet that was largely based on the Gothic runes as well as Hellenic Greek and Arian and Gnostic Christian sources. While his alphabet failed for its purpose it did do a few positive things for the runes. Ulfila’s meanings for his magical alphabet found their way back into the meanings for the Gothic runes. Some would say that this is not a benefit for the runes because Ulfila’s own meanings may have replaced the older meanings for the runes. However, since we no longer have much idea what those meanings are, we do have at least one version of meanings for the runes. Of course, being a bishop, we do tend to see a sort of “Christian flavor” to the meanings, which can be looked on as either a good or a bad thing – all depending on your view.

When Christianity started to rise among the Goths they gave up their use of the runes, but they did replace their rune use with the use of Bishop Ulfila’s alphabet. The use of the new alphabet may in fact have kept us from forgetting about the Gothic runes and their meanings. Even though the true meanings may be lost, we do see at least one set of meanings for these runes thanks to the bishop. Also, I find it hard to believe that while creating meanings for his own alphabet that Ulfila completely ignored the original meanings for the Gothic runes. So there is still a possibility that the newer, “more Christianized” meanings have hints of the original meanings in them.

Another reason we know a little more about the Gothic runes, despite it not having a rune poem, is thanks to Otto von Friesen. This Swedish researcher, in 1928, published Runorn i Sverige in which he reconstructed the Gothic runes, their meanings as well as assigned genders to each rune. An excellent work that allows us more insight to the runes and their meanings on a whole new level.

Four Theories on Rune Creation

As far as how the runes were created and how they traveled from one place to the next is unclear to us. They may have been an adaptation of previous alphabets or could have been the result of original work. To get a better understanding of where the runes may have come from we will look at the four major historical history theories on the runes. After each theory we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each to get a better idea of why the theory may or may not be the correct one.

The four theories that we will cover are as follows:

  1. The Roman (or Latin) Theory
  2. The Indigenous Theory
  3. The Greek Theory
  4. The North-Italic (or Etruscan) Theory

The Roman Theory

This theory was first presented in 1874 by L.F.A. Wimmer and states that the runes are a result of the adaptation of the Roman (or Latin) alphabet. It is assumed that the ancient Germanic people, who came into contact with Roman culture through the invasion of the Teutones and Cimbri, were familiarized with the Roman written alphabet as early as the 2nd century B.C.E. They then adapted the Roman alphabet into the runes and put it to use, spreading it by the means of trading routes into Scandinavian countries and then eastward from there.

The one thing that we need to watch in this theory is the fact that there is little evidence of the runes near Roman lands at such a time. However, the spread of the runes into Scandinavian countries and from there eastward may mean that the adaptation of the Roman alphabet wasn’t complete until the runes had begun to spread northward.

The Indigenous Theory

First put forward in 1896 by R.M. Meyer and popularized by National Socialist Germany, this theory states that the runes were an original “alphabet.” Not only were they said to be original but they were also said to have been the groundwork on which the Greek and Phoenician alphabets were created.

This theory no longer holds much value to it due to the fact that the earliest Phoenician writings can be dated back to around the 13th or 12th century B.C.E., while the earliest runic inscription dates back to the 1st century C.E.

The Greek Theory

This theory was first stated in 1899 by Sophus Bugge and talks about how the ancient Germanic people adapted the Greek alphabet to create the runes. The theory goes that the Goths had come into contact with a cursive form of the Greek alphabet. The Goths then adapted the cursive form of that alphabet for their own use allowing the new alphabet to spread with them as they traveled.

There are problems with this theory, which have led it to be abandoned by many people. Again we see a fault in the times for this theory. The earliest the Goths would have been able to adapt such an alphabet is around 200 C.E. and the earliest runic inscription would have been earlier than that.

The North-Italic Theory

This theory by C.J.S. Marstrander in 1928 was strengthened in 1937 by Wolfgang Krause. The theory goes that the Germanic people living in the Alps came into contact with the North-Italic (or Etruscan) alphabet and adapted it. Then the Cimbri come into contact with the “new” alphabet and pass it on to the Suevi who carry the runes up the Rhine river to the North Sea, Jutland and beyond.

The only real “problem” with this scenario is that the encounter would have taken place two to three hundred before any runic inscriptions that are already dated. But this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have happened. Items made of wood may have been carved with the runes and may have long since decayed.