A runic inscription is an inscription made in one of the various runic alphabets. The body of runic inscriptions falls into the three categories of Elder Futhark (some 350 items, dating to between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD), Anglo-Frisian Futhorc (some 100 items, 5th to 11th centuries) and Younger Futhark (close to 6,000 items, 8th to 12th centuries).
The total 350 known inscriptions in the Elder Futhark script fall into two main geographical categories, North Germanic (Scandinavian, c. 267 items) and Continental or South Germanic ("German" and Gothic, c. 81 items). These inscriptions are on many types of loose objects, but the North Germanic tradition shows a preference for bracteates, while the South Germanic one has a preference for fibulae. The precise figures are debatable because some inscriptions are very short and/or illegible so that it is uncertain whether they qualify as an inscription at all.
The division into Scandinavian, North Sea (Anglo-Frisian), and South Germanic inscription makes sense from the 5th century. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Elder Futhark script is still in its early phase of development, with inscriptions concentrated in what is now Denmark and Northern Germany.
The tradition of runic literacy continues in Scandinavia into the Viking Age, developing into the Younger Futhark script. Close to 6,000 Younger Futhark inscriptions are known, many of them on runestones.
Number of known inscriptions
The following table lists the number of known inscriptions (in any alphabet variant) by geographical region:
|Area||Number of runic inscriptions|
|Continental Europe except Scandinavia and Frisia||80|
|The British Isles except Ireland||> 200|
|Non-Scandinavian total||> 500|
Estimates of total number of inscriptions produced
Elder Futhark inscriptions were rare, with very few active literati, in relation to the total population, at any time, so that knowledge of the runes was probably an actual "secret" throughout the Migration period. Of 366 lances excavated at Illerup, only 2 bore inscriptions. A similar ratio is estimated for Alemannia, with an estimated 170 excavated graves to every inscription found (Lüthi 2004:323) Estimates of the total number of inscriptions produced are based on the "minimal runological estimate" of 40,000 (ten individuals making ten inscriptions per year for four centuries). The actual number was probably considerably higher, maybe close to 400,000 in total, so that of the order of 0.1% of the corpus has come down to us), and Fischer (2004:281) estimates a population of several hundred active literati throughout the period, with as many as 1,600 during the Alamannic "runic boom" of the 6th century.
Types of inscribed objects
Especially the earliest inscriptions are found on all types of everyday objects. Later, a preference for valuable or prestigious objects (jewelry or weapons) seems to develop, inscriptions often indicating ownership.
- bracteates: some 133 Elder Futhark inscriptions, popular during the Scandinavian Germanic Iron Age / Vendel era
- fibulae: some 50 Elder Futhark inscriptions, popular in 6th to 7th century Alemannia
- brooches: Boarley (Kent), Harford (Norfolk) brooch, West Heslerton (North Yorkshire), Wakerley (Northamptonshire), Dover (Kent)
- belt parts (plaques, buckles, strap-ends): Vimose buckle, Pforzen buckle, Heilbronn-Böckingen, Szabadbattyan
- rings: six known Anglo-Saxon runic rings, a few examples from Alemannia (Vörstetten-Schupfholz, Pforzen, Aalen neck-ring)
- amber: Weingarten amber-pearl
- Weapon parts
- seaxes: Thames scramasax, Steindorf, Hailfingen
- spearheads: Vimose, Kovel, Dahmsdorf-Müncheberg, Wurmlingen
- swords and sword-sheaths: Vimose chape, Vimose sheathplate, Thorsberg chape, Schretzheim ring-sword, Ash Gilton (Kent) gilt silver sword pommel, Chessel Down II (Isle of Wight) silver plate (attached to the scabbard mouthpiece of a ring-sword), Sæbø sword
- coins: Skanomody solidus, Harlingen solidus, Schweindorf solidus, Folkestone tremissis, Midlum sceat, Kent II coins (some 30 items), Kent III, IV silver sceattas, Suffolk gold shillings (three items), Upper Thames Valley gold coins (four items)
- boxes or containers: Franks Casket, Schretzheim capsule, Gammertingen case, Ferwerd combcase, Kantens combcase
- runestones: from about AD 400, very popular for Viking Age Younger Futhark inscriptions
- bone: Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus, Rasquert swordhandle (whalebone handle of a symbolic sword), Hantum whalebone plate, Bernsterburen whalebone staff, Hamwick horse knucklebone, Wijnaldum A antler piece
- pieces of wood: Vimose woodplane, Neudingen/Baar, Arum sword (a yew-wood miniature sword), Westeremden yew-stick
- cremation urns: Loveden Hill (Lincolnshire), Spong Hill (Norfolk)
- the Kleines Schulerloch inscription is a singular example of an inscription on a cave wall
- spindle whorls
Early period (2nd to 4th centuries)
The earliest period of Elder Futhark (2nd to 4th centuries) predates the division in regional script variants, and linguistically essentially still reflect the Common Germanic stage. Their distribution is mostly limited to southern Scandinavia, northern Germany and Frisia (the "North Sea Germanic runic Koine"), with stray finds associated with the Goths from Romania and Ukraine. Linguistically, the 3rd and 4th centuries correspond to the formation of Proto-Norse, just predating the separation of West Germanic into Anglo-Frisian, Low German and High German.
- Vimose inscriptions (6 objects, AD 160-300)
- Ovre Stabu spearhead (c. 180), raunijaz
- Thorsberg chape (AD 200)
- Mos spearhead (c. 300), gaois(?)
- Nydam axe-handle (4th century): wagagastiz / alu:??hgusikijaz:aiþalataz
- Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus (AD 400)
- Illerup inscriptions (9 objects)
About 260 items in Elder Futhark, and close to 6,000 items (mostly runestones) in Younger Futhark. The highest concentration of Elder Futhark inscriptions is in Denmark.
A total of 133 known inscriptions on bracteates.
The oldest known runestones date to the early 5th century (Einang stone, Kylver Stone). The longest known inscription in the Elder Futhark, and one of the youngest, consists of some 200 characters and is found on the early 8th-century Eggjum stone, and may even contain a stanza of Old Norse poetry.
The transition to Younger Futhark begins from the 6th century, with transitional examples like the Björketorp or Stentoften stones. In the early 9th century, both the older and the younger futhark were known and used, which is shown on the Rök Runestone. By the 10th century, only Younger Futhark remained in use.
Some 100 items spanning the 5th to 11th centuries. The 5th-century Undley bracteate is considered the earliest known Anglo-Frisian inscription.
The 8th-century Franks Casket, preserved during the Middle Ages in Brioude, central France, exhibits the longest coherent inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon runes by far, including five alliterating long-lines, qualifying as the oldest preserved Anglo-Saxon poetry.
While the Nordic bracteates are jewelry imitating Roman gold coins, there were a number of actual coins (currency) in Anglo-Saxon England inscribed with runes, notably the coins from Kent, inscribed with pada, æpa and epa (early 7th century).
There are a number of Christian inscriptions from the time of Christianization. St. Cuthbert's coffin, dated to 698, even has a runic monogram of Christ, and the Whitby II bone comb (7th century) has a pious plea for God's help, deus meus, god aluwaldo, helpæ Cy… "my God, almighty God, help Cy…". The Ruthwell Cross inscription could also be mentioned, but its authenticity is dubious; it might have been added only in the 10th century.
Unlike the situation on the continent, the tradition of runic writing does not disappear in England after Christianization but continues for a full three centuries, disappearing after the Norman conquest. A type of object unique to Christianized Anglo-Saxon England are the six known Anglo-Saxon runic rings of the 9th to 10th centuries.
Apart from the earliest inscriptions found on the continent along the North Sea coast (the "North Germanic Koine", Martin 2004:173), continental inscriptions can be divided in those of the "Alemannic runic province" (Martin 2004), with a few dozen examples dating to the 6th and 7th centuries, and those associated with the Goths, loosely scattered along the Oder to south-eastern Poland, as far as the Carpathian Mountains (e.g. the ring of Pietroassa in Romania), dating to the 4th and 5th centuries. The cessation of both the Gothic and Alemannic runic tradition coincides with the Christianization of the respective peoples.
Lüthi (2004:321) identifies a total of about 81 continental inscriptions found south of the "North Germanic Koine". Most of these originate in southern Germany (Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria), with a single one found south of the Rhine (Bülach fibula, found in Bülach, Switzerland), and a handful from Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, Ukraine).
A silver-plated copper disk, originally part of a sword-belt, found at Liebenau, Lower Saxony with an early 5th-century runic inscription (mostly illegible, interpreted as possibly reading rauzwih) is classed as the earliest South Germanic (German) inscription known by the RGA (vol. 6, p. 576); the location of Liebenau is close to the boundary of the North Sea and South Germanic zones.
Siglas Poveiras in Povoa de Varzim, Portugal are also a type of writing based on the Viking runes. The siglas were first studied by António de Santos Graça in his book Epopeia dos Humildes ("The Odyssey of the Humble"). Published in 1952, the book contains hundreds of siglas and the history and maritime tragedy of Póvoa. Other works of his are "O Poveiro" (The Poveiro, 1932), "A Crença do Poveiro nas Almas Penadas" (Poveiro Beliefs Regarding Dead Souls, 1933) e "Inscrições Tumulares por Siglas" (Tomb Inscriptions Using Siglas, 1942).
After a visit to the National Museet in Copenhagen, Octávio Lixa Filgueiras, by accident, found objects marked with "home-marks" from Funen in Denmark. Moreover, the complex hereditary mark system of Póvoa de Varzim was also found in Funen.
The Siglas development is at least, partly, attributed to Vikings that settled in the town during the 10th century and 11th century. This form of primitive writing developed within the community of Póvoa de Varzim was kept due to the practice of endogamy. Also, the similarity with the Scandinavian tradition of using specific bomärken ("homestead marks") for signatures and for marking property has also been noted.
Out of about a dozen candidate inscriptions, only three are widely accepted to be of Gothic origin: the gold ring of Pietroassa, bearing a votive inscription, part of a larger treasure found in the Romanian Carpathians, and two spearheads inscribed with what is probably the weapon's name, one found in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and the other in eastern Germany, near the Oder.
The inscription on the spearhead of Kovel, found in Ukraine (now lost) is a special case. Its date is very early (3rd century) and it shows a mixture of runic and Latin letters, reading <TᛁᛚᚨᚱᛁDᛊ> or <TIᛚᚨRIDS> (the i, r and s letters being identical in the Elder Futhark and Latin scripts), and may thus reflect a stage of development before the runes became fixed as a separate script in its own right.
The known inscriptions from Alemannia mostly date to the century between AD 520 and 620. There are some 70 inscriptions in total, about half of them on fibulae. Some are explicitly dedications among lovers, containing leub "beloved", or in the case of the Bülach fibula fridil "lover". Most were found in Germany, in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. A lesser number originates in Hessen and Rheinland-Pfalz, and outside of Germany there is a single example from Switzerland, and a small number of what are likely Burgundian inscriptions from eastern France.
The precise number of inscriptions is debatable, as some proposed inscriptions consist of a single sign, or a row of signs that may also be "rune-like", in imitation of writing, or purely ornamental. For example, a ring found in Bopfingen has been interpreted as being inscribed with a single g, i.e. a simple X-shape that may also be ornamental. Most interpretable inscriptions contain personal names, and only ten inscriptions contain more than one interpretable word. Of these, four translate to "(PN) wrote the runes".
The other six "long" interpretable inscriptions are:
- Pforzen buckle: aigil andi aïlrun / ltahu gasokun ("Aigil and Ailrun fought [at the Ilz River?]")
- Nordendorf I fibula: logaþorewodanwigiþonar (three theonyms, or "Wodan and Wigi-þonar are magicians/sorcerers")
- Schretzheim case: arogisd / alaguþleuba : dedun ("Arogast / Alaguth [and] Leubo (Beloved) made it")
- Schretzheim fibula: siþwagadin leubo ("to the Traveller (Wotan?), [from] Leubo (Beloved)", or perhaps "love to my travel-companion" or similar)
- Osthofen: madali umbada ("Madali, protection")
- Bad Ems fibula: god fura dih deofile ("God for/before you, devil/Theophilus". The inscription is one of the youngest of the Alemannic sphere, dating to between 660 and 690, and clearly reflects a Christianized background).
Other notable inscriptions:
- Bülach fibula: frifridil du aftm
- Wurmlingen spearhead, from an Alemannic grave in Wurmlingen, inscription read as a personal name (i)dorih (Ido-rīh or Dor-rīh)
- Schretzheim ring-sword: the sword blade has four runes arranged so that the staves form a cross. Read as arab by Düwel (1997). Schwab (1998:378) reads abra, interpreting it as abbreviating the magic word Abraxas, suggesting influence of the magic traditions of Late Antiquity, and the Christian practice of arranging monograms on the arms of a cross.
- Kleines Schulerloch inscription, of dubious authenticity and possibly a hoax. Considered an obvious falsification by Looijenga (2003: 223). Reads birg : leub : selbrade.
- the Arguel pebble (considered an obvious falsification by Looijenga): arbitag | wodan | luïgo[?h]aŋzej | kim |
- the Charnay Fibula: fuþarkgwhnijïpʀstbem | ' uþf[?]þai ' id | dan ' (l)iano | ïia | [?]r |
Very few inscriptions can be associated with the Franks, reflecting their early Romanization and Christianization. An important find is the Bergakker inscription, suggested as recording 5th-century Old Frankish. The only other inscription definitely classified as Frankish is the Borgharen buckle, reading bobo (a Frankish personal name).
- not including the inscriptions in medieval runes in Sweden, and the early modern and modern inscriptions in Dalecarlian runes.
- Fischer 2004:281
- Lüthi 2004:321
- "The oldest known runic inscription from Sweden is found on a spearhead, recovered from a grave at Mos in the parish of Stenkyrka in Gotland. The inscription, consisting of only five runes, might be dated to the end of the third century of our era." Sven Birger Fredrik Jansson, The runes of Sweden, Bedminster Press, 1962, pp. iii-iv.
- Karin Lüthi, 'South Germanic runic inscriptions as testimonies of early literacy, in: Marie Stoklund, Michael Lerche Nielsen, Gillian Fellows-Jensen, Bente Holmberg (eds.), Runes and their secrets: studies in runology, Volume 2000, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006, 172f.
- Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, s.v. "Schretzheim".
- Wolfgang Jungandreas, 'God fura dih, deofile †' in: Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 101, 1972, pp. 84-85.
- Looijenga, Tineke. , Two Runic finds from the Netherlands - both with a Frankish connection. In: Essays on the early Franks, ed. Taayke, Ernst. Barkhuis 2003, 231-240.
- Brate, Erik (1922). Sveriges Runinskrifter, (online text in Swedish)
- Fischer, Svante (2004). "Alemannia and the North — Early Runic Contexts Apart (400–800)". In Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. Alemannien und der Norden. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 266–317. ISBN 3-11-017891-5.
- Ilkjær, Jørgen (1996a). "Runeindskrifter fra mosefund i Danmark - kontekst og oprindelse" in Frisian Runes and Neighbouring Traditions. Rodopi
- Jacobsen, Lis; Moltke, Erik (1941–42). Danmarks Runeindskrifter. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaards Forlag.
- Looijenga, Jantina Helena (1997). Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150–700, dissertation, Groningen University.
- Looijenga, Tineke (2004). Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-12396-2.
- Lüthi, Katrin (2004). "Von Þruþhild und Hariso: Alemannische und ältere skandinavische Runenkultur im Vergleich". In Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. Alemannien und der Norden. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 318–339. ISBN 3-11-017891-5.
- MacLeod, Mindy, and Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press: Woodbridge, UK; Rochester, NY, ISBN 1-84383-205-4.
- Martin, Max (2004). "Kontinentalgermanische Runeninschriften und 'Alamannische Runenprovinz'". In Naumann, Hans-Peter; Lanter, Franziska; et al. Alemannien und der Norden. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 165–212. ISBN 3-11-017891-5.
- Nowak, Sean (2003). Schrift auf den Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit, Diss. Göttingen.
- Spurkland, Terje (2005). Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-186-4
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