Nothing is what it seems when it comes to runes. According to Nordic myth, the god Odin is the creator of these symbols, and he uses them for magic. But archeology tells a different, or at least additional, tale. The use of runes appears to have been a tradition that was rich and exclusive at the same time. The earliest known inscriptions are often on objects that can be carried around. Some of these objects are humble, but many were definitely owned by the elite. The myths were written down centuries after the earliest runes were made. Equally, one has to question how representative the finds of ancient runes, that have been made by archeologists and historians, are for the complete corpus. Nowadays, anyone who has affinity with the written word, with magic and symbolism, can use runes in multiple ways, as is done often and enthusiastically.
The purpose of runes
The use of runes may have been a means of communication, but it seems to have been a status symbol even more. Germanic culture was an oral culture, which means that the use of the written word was far from common – most people couldn’t even read or write. Many early rune inscriptions appear to be ‘autographs’ by smiths, set in the artifacts they created. It’s not for nothing that the runes are often associated with the forgery.
Early rune inscriptions often consist of names – not just of the maker of certain object, but often of the supposed owners of those objects, or dedications to other persons.
There may be religious and/or ritual functions: amulets, grave gifts and treasuries that are buried or found in moors (and often thought to be gifts to the gods) can all have runic inscriptions. A typical inscription of such objects consists of ‘I concecrate’ followed by ‘the runes’. This points to the use of text within a ritual (remember, Germanic culture was oral), perhaps even the ritual use of runes themselves.
A special case are bracteates, thin gold or silver medaillons that were usually worn as jewellery. Some of them have runes inscribed on them. They may be compared with Roman amulets, worn for protection.
The spreading of runes through Northwest Europe
Runes originate from Scandinavia. From the different known Runic alphabets, the Elder Futhark is the oldest, dating from ca. 400 CE. This system of 24 runes was used to write Proto-Norse. Within Scandinavia, it developed into the Younger Futhark. I will not delve into a broader description of the Futhark for now, since so much about it can already be found on other websites and in other books.
Instead, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which was the version of the rune alphabet used mostly within the parts of Northwest Europe that don’t involve Scandinavia. The Futhorc is made up of the following symbols (though how many of them were used, differs from area to area):
(Wikimedia Commons) Click to enlarge
There was an interaction between the rune scripts of Jutland, North-Germany, Friesland and England. It’s not strange therefore, that there are major similarities between Frisian and Anglo-Saxon runes – often they are put within the same runic system.
Runes in the Netherlands
Runes appear in the Netherlands from the early 5th century CE. They have been found mainly in the terpen-area of Friesland, but also in the Betuwe. Even so, the runes should be considered mainly a Frisian tradition within the Netherlands. In Friesland, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc was used. However, many changes and additions occured in later periods. Runes disappeared from Friesland around 800, which might have something to do with the conquests by the Franks of Frisia and other parts of the Netherlands.
From the 18th century on, 17 runic objects have been found in Groningen en Friesland*. These runes were found in the early medieval area called Greater Frisia, which also contained Utrecht and Dorestad. All runes were found in terps, except for two grave-finds. Unfortunately, not much is known about the circumstances in which the runic objects were found, which leaves us with a lot of questions about them that will probably never be answered.
A broad range of runic objects have been found in the Netherlands. So-called rune coins from Friesland can be compared to those found in England. Other objects are: a golden pendant, a chest for a comb, combs, objects of yew-wood, ceremonial swords, an ivory plate, a whale bone, a horse bone, and antlers.
It does appear that the runes or runic objects found in Groningen and Friesland often weren’t created there. The Frisians had contacts with Southeast England, South-Norway, Southwest Sweden and the German Weser-area. The early Old Frisian language (also known as Runic Frisian) resembles Old English and Old Saxon. Because of strong connections with the English area, the Frisian runes are often called Anglo-Frisian. Still, the Frisian runes seem to be a unique mix of Anglo-Saxon an Danish, blended with runes that aren’t found anywhere else, and they seem quite ornamental. Especially Britsum and Westeremden B are unique and puzzling.
Linguistically speaking, there are only three purely Old Frisian inscriptions:
- Westeremden A: adujislu me[Þ] jisuhidu
- A coin with the legend: skanumodu
- Hanwic: katæ
Examples of possible magical and/or ritual runic objects from the Netherlands are:
In 1895 a miniature sword made of yew wood was found in Arum, Friesland. It dates from the late 8th century. The runes in the blade can be written down as edæ:boda, which means as much as ‘oath bringer’. People often swore on their swords in name of the law.
A wooden wand, now known as Westeremden B, was found in Westeremden. It has a runic text on it. Some of the runes are unique and can’t be translated, but some runes are from the Younger Futhark, which means the wand was created after c. 750. Based on the translation, the function of this wand may have been as an offering for a building:
op hœ mu givëda æmluÞ / iwi ok upduna / (a)le wimôv æh Þusë
In the stead fortune resides / may it also grow with the yew on the terp / Wemœd owns this
Another, smaller, wooden yew branch was found in 1906 in Britsum, Friesland. The text is mainly in runes, but ends with Latin. Although it is hard to translate, the text seems to point towards the function of an amulet.
bæn i a beret dud / in bæræt me : LID
Warriors/soldiers always carry / this yew stick : (with the) ship/retinue
Wijnaldum A is a piece of antler, found in 1914. It’s not dated. One side has crosses, squares and triangles carved in it, the other side shows runes that end in ornament. The inscriptions are damaged, and some runes are written double or upside down. Looijenga thinks they might read
z w f u w i z w or z ng z u ng i z ng.
The second interpretation, read from right to left, may spell out ?ngz inguz ngz , which could be the name ‘Inguz’ repeated three times.
A particular object with a runic inscription found in the Netherlands was a silver gilt sheath in Bergakker (Betuwe). It was found in 1996 and is dated in the early 5th century. The same spot holds a sanctuary to the goddess Hurstrga. The sheath may be put in the grounds as part of a large offering to her. But it could also simply be owned by a local smith, since the runes read as follows:
HaleÞewas kesjam / logens [logens is written under kesjam]
Property of HaleÞewas he gives a sword/swords to the wordfighters
The style of this sheath is comparable with late-Roman finds in Limburg. The runes are Old Futhark, not Frisian – the Betuwe was a Roman area. This is the only found runic object in the Netherlands outside the Frisian area. That southern parts of the Netherlands were Roman might be the main reason why no runes have been found there.
Runes in Germany
In 1948, a solidus (decorative coin) was found in Schweindorf with two figures on it, and a runic inscription that reads as Þeladu or Wela(n)du. This might be a reference to the mythical smith Weland, who is named in several Norse and German sources. The solidus dates from 575 – 625 CE.
* This information comes from Looijenga’s 1997 thesis and the number if runic objects may therefore have changed.
Looijenga, Jantina Helena. Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD150 – 700; texts & contexts. Proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit van Groningen. 1997.