The well-known “runes” used by medieval Scandinavians made up a syllabary known as Futhark from its first seven letters. It is composed of phonetic symbols belonging to an all-purpose alphabet, with commemorative, recording, identifying, as well as magical purposes. Runes have been found from Iceland and Greenland to the Isle of Man, Athens, and the Black Sea. Some were carved into the floor of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Cathedral. About a dozen others, far more controversial, appear in North America. Foremost among these is the Kensington Runestone, a long inscription which recounts the early 14th century voyage of Christian Vikings to Minnesota, and Oklahoma’s Heavener Runestone, emblazoned with a single name: Gnomedal, possibly “Valley of the Gnomes,” perhaps a deprecatory reference to local tribal Indians a thousand years ago. Scholars have identified about five hundred runes in Denmark, compared to an estimated seven hundred fifty in Norway. Sweden has the largest collection, with approximately three thousand examples. More than a thousand runes may be found in the province of Uppland alone. Virtually all of these inscriptions date from the late 8th to the mid-13th centuries, mostly commemorating the deeds and deaths of royalty.
To be sure, Futhark suffered modifications under the influences of events in northwestern Italy during the early centuries B.C. As the Etruscans were pushed out of dominance by Rome, some fled north into Germany, coming into contact with the Goths. The names by which the runes are known today—fehu (originally faihu), thurisaz (thauris), wunjo (winja), etc.—are all Gothic words. They competently date Futhark to Rome’s early imperial period, probably less than 2,000 years ago. Over the following centuries, it remained fundamentally unchanged, but underwent local inflections with the reconfiguration of various runes. At the beginning of the Viking Age, circa A.D. 800, the Norse were in possession of what is now known as the Elder Futhark, certainly the most consistently authentic version available today. Subsequent developments, with the growing influence of Christianity, placed greater emphasis on recording historical events and personages at the expense of divination. These later sets included the Anglo-Saxon and Northumbrian runes the “Younger” Futhark. The Gothic and Medieval versions represented a final evolution before the rune practices were outlawed under pain of death.
They were revived during the late 19th Century by the single most influential runeologist, Austria’s Guido von List. Rejecting all the known runic systems, he believed they were distortions of an earlier, authentic, more magical method, part of an actual written language, the first ever used in Old Europe. During his efforts to distance the runes from their mundane function as recorders of vainglorious kings, he created an original arrangement based on eighteen spells found in the Havamal. “The Words of the High One,” a reference to All-Father Odin, the god of wisdom, was a collection of poetic maxims first penned sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries, although obviously rooted in oral traditions far older. Von List’s intention in devising his Armanen set was to recover the lost spiritual connotations of the runes; each one meant, as Pennick wrote, to express “its magical relationship to the cosmos.”
That the Armanen is the preferred runic system in present-day German-speaking countries and many other nations besides implies that von List rightly defined a widespread longing to contact some lost spiritual authenticity implicit in the runes. His belief that they were vestiges of an Old European script pre-dating even the first known written language in Mesopotamia represented an early suggestion among fellow investigators that the runes were originally individual magical signs meant to express particular spiritual energies, and therefore must have been invented long before the appearance of Futhark less than two thousand years ago. But their suspicions were not validated until the research of two outstanding mythologists in the last decades of the 20th century. Marija Gimbutas, Professor of European Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Mary Settegast, (University of California, Berkeley), independently concluded that repeated signs painted on cave walls during the Upper Paleolithic Age appeared to be runic. While neither Gimbutas nor Settegast were sure they actually belonged to a written language, comparisons both made between the seventeen thousand-year-old symbols and the Elder Futhark were unmistakable. They showed that eight were exact duplicates of the medieval runes:
These signs first appeared in southwestern Europe during the so-called “Magdalenian Period,” after a site found at La Madeleine, in the French Dordogne Valley. It was a time of unsurpassed art and mysticism, when the impressive cave paintings at Lascaux, Pair-non-Pair, Teyjat, Les Trois Freres and sixty four other known locations were being executed. They did not depict primitive hunting scenes, but formed a ritual tableau to dramatize the rituals of a mystery cult that put initiates in accord with the spiritual forces driving natural phenomena. It spread across Central Europe deep into Russia, but subterranean illustration was confined to a region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Rhone River. The dynamic realism with which horses, oxen, cows, aurochs, elk and other ungulates were portrayed has never been equaled, attesting to a sophisticated mentality at odds with misconceptions of brutish cavemen. Caricatures of the Magdalenians as nomadic hunter-gatherers are contradicted by contemporary engravings from St. Michel d’Arudy, the Grotte de Marsoulas and La Marche which show that they tamed the horse ten thousand years before other peoples were supposed to have pioneered the same domestication in the Near East.
It was from this first epoch of human cultural richness that the runes emerged. These glyphs are the first written expressions of concepts still viable after one hundred seventy centuries, because they embody spiritual influences that transcend time through their reflection of the human condition, which has not fundamentally changed since man became homo sapiens-sapiens. The unbroken thread of that Upper Paleolithic connection to the runes is found Lascaux’s famous “shaft painting.” It depicts a stick-man with erect phallus sprawled between a rhinoceros, who appears to be departing the scene, and a bison, entrails spilling prodigiously from its genital area. Near the stricken stick-man is the image of a bird surmounting a stick as a kind of baton de commandant, or scepter.
Maria Settegast points out (in Plato Prehistorian) that this “shaft painting” perfectly illustrates the cosmological myth from a Zoroastrian scripture known as the Bundahisn. Although composed as late as the 9th century A.D., it preserves an account of creation and the nature of the universe based on admittedly much older, pre-Persian material. The oldest Iranian version tells of Yima, the earliest king, and a primordial bull, who lived together in deathless happiness until evil appeared for the first time, killing them both. From the body of the bull gushed forth marrow and semen to create the cosmos and the animal kingdom. Yima’s body transformed into all the metals of the earth his seed engendered humanity. Among Upper Paleolithic rock art in Europe and Africa, the rhinoceros embodied the principle of evil. Hence, its depiction at Lascaux, where it appears to have gored the bison (its entrails spilling out) and slain the ithyphallic stick-figure, mirrors the Bundahisn creation myth. Yima lost his command of xvarenah, or the “kingly glory” (i.e., immortality) in the form of a bird, as similarly depicted in the bird-headed scepter laying beside the stick-man illustrated at Lascaux.
Remarkable as the survival of this seventeen thousand-year-old story in Iranian tradition may be, its preservation in Germanic myth implies that both spiritual ideas and contemporary runes or pre-runic forms were inherited from Magdalenian times. Settegast mentions that the Persian Yima is more than philiologically related to the Viking Age Ymir, who likewise lived a timeless existence with a bovine companion until he was killed, and his corpse formed into the cosmos. Nor was he the only Norse deity with Stone Age roots. Fourth Millennium B.C. images of a thunder-god, complete with Thor’s hammer and power-belt, have been found on stone stele at Baia de Cris, in Rumanian Transylvania, Natalivka and Kernosovka, in the Lower Dnieper, and other sites, mostly in southeastern Europe. Contemporary with these engravings was the appearance of the rune associated with Thor.
Toward the close of the Magdalenian Period more rune-forms began to appear in a method that is still popular. About twelve thousand years ago, artists of a spin-off culture known as the Azillian painted them on stone pebbles. As the Old Stone Age shifted into Neolithic times, knowledge and use of these rune-forms was not lost. On the contrary, they grew to include more than half of the Elder Futhark. Core signs of the Old European script, in use from 5300 to 4300 B.C., featured no less than seventeen identical ideograms or their variants. Most likely, they were never used as part of a written language, but regarded as magical and spiritual glyphs symbolizing the mystery cult of the caves.
It was probably much later, around the 1st century B.C., that they additionally began to serve as part of an alphabet under Gothic influence. In other words, the alphabetical runes were adapted from much earlier, individual ideograms that may have had similar phonetic or word values. Gothic, Etruscan, Greek and Latin, any one from which scholars claim the runes directly descended, use adaptations of ABC. Futhark does not, demonstrating its lack of relationship with them, while firmly indicating evolution from a source for glyphs that originally belonged to no syllabary, but stood alone as individual symbols or emblems.
They also survived the passing of Neolithic times, as evidenced by Late Stone Age—Early Bronze Age rock carvings known in Sweden as haellristningar, at Bohuslan. It was during this abrupt cultural transition from Paleolithic to Bronze Age Europe that the final set of twenty-four runes came into being. How they were brought about is part and parcel of the continent’s most radical revolution from a settled, agricultural, peaceful matriarchy of stonemasons that had lasted fourteen thousand years or more to a migrating, cattle-herding, bellicose patriarchy of metalsmiths.
But out of prolonged strife between two cultural opposites, a deep and lasting accord was reached. The spiritual systems of both resident Old Europeans and newly arrived Aryans from the Steppes of central Russia—the Caucasus, from which these prehistoric Caucasians came—were combined, not merged to create two complimentary sets of twelve-member gods and goddesses: the Aryan Aesir-Asynir, and the Old European Vanir.
Reflecting the folkish souls of their patrons, the Aesir were warlike gods of conquest, like Thor, the thunderer, and Odin, whose name indicates someone in a rage. By contrast, the indigenous European Vanir were mostly deities of peace and abundance, like the goddess of spring, Ostara, and Erda, the Earth Mother. These personifications of psycho-spiritual energies are neither entirely Norse nor Germanic, but combinations with far older conceptions, representing a synthesis of Stone Age—Bronze Age—Viking Age gods and goddesses, each one expressing a particular mythic inflection in his or her own rune. Thus, the twenty four ideograms are the union of two twelve-set pantheons resulting from the joining of two different peoples. The Norse themselves recounted that, at the beginning of time, the Aesir and Vanir fought each other for control of the world, but decided upon cooperation as a wiser course. As Gimbutas wrote, “The world of religious myth reflects social reality” (The Living Goddesses, 191).
She concluded that Freyr and Freya, as brother-sister Vanir of peace and love, “clearly stem from the Neolithic or even earlier.” In the Norse creation-story, the Vanir were depicted as autochthonous, literally sprung from the soil, which is how they, as the Upper Paleolithic Europeans, must have seemed to both themselves and the invading Aryans. The same version told how Buri and Bestla, the first gods, came from the ice, just as the Old Europeans emerged from the last Ice Age. Thus, even the most deeply prehistoric memories may be preserved over many thousands of years through the medium of myth. The origins of the runes and the Norse deities they represent seem clearly rooted in the Upper Paleolithic, from which they descended through the Azillian pebble-painters, Neolithic rock artists and Bronze Age invaders to Etruscan intermediaries, Gothic modifiers, Scandinavian users of Futhark, and, ultimately, modern runeologists. Few realize they are the inheritors of a spiritual tradition going back to the early Stone Age with its mystery cult of the cave. During their seventeen thousand-year development, the runes, like the myths themselves, continued to operate simultaneously on esoteric and exoteric levels.
Runes acted and still act as visual clues, universal archetypes, linking consciousness with the inner and outer worlds of perceived and underlying reality. Only this powerfully fundamental connection made by the runes and their Stone Age predecessors can account for such an enduring hold on our fascination after more than seventeen thousand years.