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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.

Timeline of Rune History

This is only a brief timeline of the runes. I will be adding more as this site continues to grow so please be sure to check back often.

5th century B.C.E.
In the Alpine region the ‘alphabets’ known as North Etruscan, North Italic or Alpine come into existence. Later these ‘alphabets’ will play an important role in the development of the runes.

4th century B.C.E.
The Alpengermanen are thought to have come into contact with Alpine (or North Italic or North Etruscan) ‘alphabets’ and made use of them.

3rd century B.C.E.
There is a fusion between the Alpine alphabets and the pre-systemized runes forming the 24 staves of the Germanic or Elder runes. A bronze helmet found at Negau in Steiermark that was dated to possibly the 3rd century B.C.E. was inscribed in a Germanic language with Alpine lettering.

2nd century B.C.E.
Rome conquered Etruria and brings in the Roman alphabet. However the letters of the Etruscan alphabet may have advanced north through traders.

Near the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. Germanic survivors of the battles of Vercellae (the Cimbri) and Aquae Sextiac (the Teutons) stay in the area. The Cimbri, before crossing the Alps back towards Germany, may possibly have learned the runes and passed them on the Suevi.

1st century B.C.E.
The Cimbri, Suevi or possibly the Teutons advance the runes northwards down the Rhine river. At this same time the Marcomanni move the runes eastward. A goblet found at Vehlingen with a runic formula is dated to the 1st century B.C.E.

1st century C.E.
The Roman author Tacitus writes his “Germania 10” in which he gives an account of the divinatory methods of the ancient Germanic people. Also in this work it is presented that although men carried out the rituals Tacitus may have witnessed, women were held in high regard for their holiness and gifts of prophecy.

200 C.E.
A lance tip carved with runes is found at ØvreStabu in Norway and is said to date to this time.

400 C.E.
Around this time Rome is looted by people who are familiar with the runes. These people may have taken some Roman letters and incorporated them into rune lore. Also the Kylver stone, a Gothic grave slab in Gotland, shows us the first f-u-þ-a-r-k (f-u-th-a-r-k) order.

550 C.E.
A gold medallion found in Vadstena Sweden shows the three families of runes separated by double dots.

800 C.E.
Earliest date of a purely Norse rune-stave inscription.

1000 C.E.
Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem is written.

3rd century C.E.
By this time the runes have made their way to Denmark, Jutland, and Scandinavia by traveling along North Sea costal routes consisting of the Frisian Islands, Heligoland Bay as well as across Schleswig-Holstein.

6th century C.E.
Saxons bring to England the 28 rune-staves of the futhork that was developed in Friesland.

9th century C.E.
Development of the 33 rune-staves in Northumbria.

Early in the 9th century the use of the Germanic Futhark comes to an end. However, after a short transition an entire Scandinavian rune-row comes into existence mainly based on the Germanic runes.

11th century C.E.
Icelandic rune poem is written.

13th century C.E.
Norwegian rune poem is written.

16th century C.E.
Runic inscriptions in Gotland date to as late as the 16th century.

17th century C.E.
Runic inscriptions in Iceland date to as late as the 17th century.