The Decline of the Tradition

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

The Decline of the Tradition

(900—1500 CE)

To understand the life and characteristics of a cultural feature that later undergoes a reawakening or revival, it is generally useful to know how it declined and became moribund. As we have seen, the runic tradition never fully died out everywhere. But in many of the cultures where it had once thrived, it did completely disappear, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Despite its spotty survival in certain areas of Sweden and in Iceland, it must also be acknowledged that the runic tradition had probably once been an important feature of the symbolic culture of the social elite of Germania in the early centuries of its tradition (from about 150 BCE to 400 CE).

The transition from the Older to the Younger Futhark should not really be seen as a sign of the decline of the tradition as such. Instead it was a reorganization of that tradition signifying a rebirth or reformation, which provided new vigor to the tradition. Although the use of the Younger Futhark was more limited in terms of its geographical coverage, the intensity of that use seems to have far exceeded what took place in the older period.

As we noted in the previous chapter, the rune rows that evolved from the Older Futhark developed quite differently in Scandinavia as compared with what took place in the North Sea region with the Anglo-Frisian runes. In Scandinavia, the reduction of the inventory of available graphemes to represent a language that was actually producing more phonological variation runs counter to the natural and expected process found in the history of other writing systems. In the Anglo- Frisian system of runes, by contrast, we see the normal and expected progression with new runes being invented and added to the inventory to account for sound variations. Moreover, in the Anglo-Saxon sphere it is also evident that a number of these new runes were treated in the spirit of the ancient tradition—endowed with names, and four of them were even given runic stanzas (see the Old English Rune Poem).

The Scandinavian reformation of the runic tradition began as a piecemeal alteration of older runes in what is called the transition period between the older and younger systems. This transition period was historically brief, and then, rather suddenly and thoroughly, a new system was codified and established in a manner that strongly suggests there was some sort of organized effort behind it. The reformation brought with it a heightened level of activity among runecarvers, which seems to have culminated in a gildlike organization behind the industrious production of memorial stones in Sweden from the tenth to the twelfth centuries.

The newly reformed system also made runic texts more difficult to read, with single runes being made to stand for a variety of sounds. One might logically ask: Why was this obfuscation deemed necessary? Since the phenomenon did occur, and because it runs contrary to the normal and expected development of a writing system, we must assume that it was the result of a conscious plan. Here the simplest answer is probably the right one: The system was made more difficult so that it could not be casually learned by those outside the gild of runecarvers. Thus, the meaning of the runes was effectively hidden from those who might be attempting to learn to write outside the professional class of carvers. The latter group was probably adjunct to the school of court poets of Viking Age Scandinavia, and this reform would have helped preserve their exclusive status.

This picture is a familiar one in the history of writing. Most of the great writing systems of antiquity, from the cuneiform of the Sumerians to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, were invented by and for a professional organization of scribes. The scribes had nearly exclusive control over those systems, which outsiders could not learn without years of study. (Today we see the same trend among the “IT guys” who keep things complex and ever-changing to ensure future employment.) It was the Greeks who departed from this model for the first time, creating a writing system that could be easily learned by any clever fellow. Now certainly, we cannot believe that the ancient scribes of Mesopotamia or Egypt were too stupid to invent a simple system; rather, they developed the complexity of their systems as a safeguard on their institutional power. All that is being suggested here is that the reform from the Older Futhark to the Younger, and the reduction of signs to make the system more difficult to read, was most likely motivated by needs akin to those we see elsewhere in the history of writing.

We might now ask: What had been the characteristics of the runeusing culture in the times when it was flourishing? The answer to this question is multileveled.

1. It was a male-only profession or activity. We know this because self-references to the runecarvers in early times are exclusively in the masculine gender. This was probably because runes were used in conjunction with other male-only activities such as trading, poetic performance, and membership in war bands. We can also see that when women do begin to be referred to as runecarvers—for example, in a German inscription from Neudingen/Baar circa 600 CE—this occurs in a place that was being Christianized and thus in a time when the old traditional institutions must have been in flux and/or demise.

2. The culture seems to have been one patronized or “sponsored” by the god *Wōðanaz (whose name becomes Óðinn in Old Norse). This god was seen as the discoverer of the runes, the originator of the runic system, and the agent by which the runes and their usage were transmitted to human practitioners.

3. The runes and runic inscriptions served the interests of what we would today call practical religious functions: they memorialized the dead (thus perpetuating their spiritual existences in the memory of men), manipulated the essences of named persons or things as to their location or activity, and acted as signs for communication between the realm of the living and dead, between gods and men, and between men and their environment.

4. The runes maintained their traditional order (f, u, þ, a, r, k, etc.), which is indicative of an indigenous organizational principle inherent within, and particular to, a special cultural group.

Each of these factors broke down as the tradition began to go into decline. Women began to carve in runes, which only indicates that the knowledge had lost its special “trade-secret” status. Certainly, as the Germanic world was slowly Christianized, the sponsorship of the high god of the Germans had to be called seriously into question. In the transition from the traditional indigenous religion of the ancient Germanic peoples to that of Christianity, there is no direct and incontrovertible evidence for the idea that Christ became a new sponsor for runic knowledge, but there is some circumstantial evidence for this syncretic process. Runes and runic use appear at first to have been not only undiminished by the coming of Christianity but also actually increased in its intensity. The runes appear to have lost some of their special status as signs for practical religious communication as the Latin alphabet was being introduced and literacy spread in a more general way in Germanic-speaking areas. Finally, the special indigenous organizing principles of the runic tradition gave way to that of the Latin alphabet, which is indicative of the loss of some of the special identity of the system.

The traditional transmission of runic knowledge fell into decline in different regions of the Germanic world at different times. In Germany, this occurred about 700 CE, after which time no more inscriptions were being made in the region we now know as Germany itself. However, runic knowledge was kept alive there in clerical settings; that is, in learned works being produced in monasteries, often due to Anglo- Saxon influence. This influence from England was the result of monks coming to monasteries in Germany in the eighth century. In England itself the demise of runic usage came in the wake of the Norman Conquest (1066), such that after 1100 runic inscriptions were no longer being made there. The greatest early native German exponent of runic knowledge is thought to have been the Frankish monk Hrabanus Maurus (780—856), to whom the treatise De inventione litterarum (On the Invention of Letters) has been traditionally ascribed.

Runic use in Scandinavia persisted for a very long time. In more remote areas, such as the island of Iceland, the province of Dalarna in Sweden, and the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, runes continued to be used in a fairly lively way into modern times. Runes were found in agricultural contexts among farmers, and so on, as well as among the learned and literate writers of manuscripts. In Iceland, these manuscripts were often concerned with magic.

During the Middle Ages a system was developed whereby the Younger Futhark runes were expanded into an alphabetic system. Here a runic character was assigned to each of the Latin letters as they were used to write the Scandinavian languages (and Latin) at the time. This was accomplished in part by adding points or dots to the existing runes or by inventing new characters. At first this was done in an unsystematic way during the eleventh century, as certain runes were “pointed” to indicate more precise phonetic information; for example, ᚴ, ᛁ, ᛏ, and ᛒ were pointed as ᚵ, ᛂ, ᛛ, and ᛔ, respectively, to indicate the sounds g, e, d, and p. By time of the reign of Valdemar the Conqueror (1202—1241) the system was finally codified as a fully developed runic alphabet, which generally replaced the Younger Futhark for most actual runic inscriptions. The runic alphabet was altogether easier to read, but nevertheless the lore surrounding the sixteen runes of the Younger Futhark also continued to be cultivated and preserved for another two centuries. Eventually this knowledge, too, fell into disuse. (See table 2.1, p. 40.)

As the culture that supported and promoted the runic craft underwent profound changes, the use of runes changed and then fell into decline. The aristocratic warrior class was transformed by religious and political developments. These changes were especially profound during the fifteenth century in Scandinavia, the last bastion of runic culture. As evidenced by inscriptions as early as the sixth century in Germany and in Old Norse literature written in the thirteenth century and after, women began to carve runes. This practice had previously been reserved to an all-male domain. With the official conversion of the populace to Christianity, the longtime patronage of the runic craft by the god Óðinn was largely lost, although awareness of his role in the runic endeavor was retained in poetic circles. It must be recognized that in Germania, as elsewhere in the world, religions did not change suddenly. Instead, there was a syncretic period of “mixed faith,” if you will, that lasted for several centuries. Knowledge of the old gods and their power died only slowly and at different rates in various regions throughout the Middle Ages. But by 1500 the old gods and goddesses were in a deep slumber.

The Christianization process did not at first interfere with the use of runes, nor did the medieval introduction of Latin as a “sacred language.” There are even medieval Latin inscriptions written in runes, mostly of a religious or magical nature. This body of evidence bears witness to the fact that the runes continued to be considered somehow powerful as a medium for the conveyance of messages of a magical character, despite the fact that the culture in which they originated had been overcome by the Latinate world of the church. The fact that Roman letters never seemed to be considered as anything but a practical tool, in contrast to the reputation of the runes, can also be taken as evidence for the attitude of the Scandinavians in particular toward the original nature of the runic script.


The general loss of the order of the runic system in the indigenous futhark sequence and its rearrangement in the alphabetic order was one of the most significant aspects of the runic decline. Nevertheless, it is clear that awareness of the old order remained in some circles, as evidenced by the survival of the rune poems into the fourteenth century. These retained the order and number of runes inherited from the Younger Futhark.

The runes themselves can be seen as a sign of authentic, integral, traditional culture. As factors developed—or were introduced—that compromised the traditional culture in general, the runes naturally fell into decline as they increasingly lost their mythic support. It is interesting to note that although the runes were replaced by the Latin alphabet as a consequence of a new religion being introduced, the new letters themselves do not seem to have been interpreted as having any special or awesome powers. Yet—as the use of runes to write Latin prayers or Mediterranean magical formulas indicates—the runes retained their status as a sacred script even into the Christian period.

We can see how all sorts of archaic Germanic cultural features, including the runes, were reconfigured to conform to new outer forms, which then entered into the historical record as “folklore.” Symbolic motifs were reduced to mere decorative or ornamental features, with their original significance becoming lost. The German Romantics would later refer to this type of material as versunkenes Kulturgut, “submerged cultural features.” In the first half of the twentieth century especially, much folkloric research would be pursued regarding allegedly ancient motifs that had found their way into common objects through various expressions of folk art including pastry shapes, architectural features, house marks, and masons’ signs. It must be remembered, however, that any possible “runic” connection to such features could have only come about if the specific crafts and customs themselves were rooted in times so archaic that they were shaped when the runes were in more widespread use. Runic speculations regarding folk arts and customs may therefore be entirely modern interpretations or projections onto forms that only coincidentally resemble runes. In these cases, then, what we are dealing with is a fanciful or wishful reinterpretation, whereby the unconscious mind has projected runic significance onto shapes that were never consciously intended to be related to runes. We will have more to say about this phenomenon in chapters 7 and 8.

Another dimension of runic demise lies in their displacement from the most elite ranks of society and the centers of cultural and economic power to fringe areas—both socially and geographically. But evidence shows that this transition was in no way sudden, nor was it violent or extreme.

Finally, it can be said that by the year 1500 runic knowledge had become almost entirely isolated and repressed by the unrelenting effects of the transformation of society and culture from a traditional basis to one shaped and reshaped according to the values and cultural norms of the Roman Catholic Church and its ideas about politics and religion. For all intents and purposes, the runes were now a moribund cultural feature. It is only after this point that we can begin to speak of a true runic revival.