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Vestvågøy Theme - 6
Runes - the Futhark script

Long before Latin letters came to Norway, a north-European script was developed among Germanic people. From around the second or third century AD, a lettering system appears which is thought to have been worked out by Germanic (including Norse) traders who encountered Mediterranean writing systems - Greek, Latin and Italo-Celtic.

The letters, as they appear here with their Latin equivalents, are formed of rather twiggy arrangements of straight lines. This would help in their production, for they were mostly carved on wood and sometimes on stone, where it is hard to make curved lines, unlike writing on parchment with a pen and ink. Any man with a knife at his belt (probably most men at the time) would have been able to carve them in a piece of wood. This alphabet is one version of the futhark script, which varied from time to time, and from place to place.

As a script for writing on wood or stone, futhark resembles the ancient Irish writing-system of ogham, also with a Latin inspiration but very different to look at.

The name of the script - futhark - comes from the first six letters of the alphabet above, but it is also called 'runic script' or 'runes'. This word appears to mean 'secret knowledge', and must reflect its impact on a generally illiterate society. When people first saw the power of such writing, they must have imagined that it was some almost divine and mystical thing. In fact, a legend about the runes describes the god Odin hanging dying on a tree:

I know I hung
on the windswept Tree,
for nine days and nights.
I was stuck with a spear ...
I peered downward
and I took up the runes.
Screaming, I took them -
then I fell back.

Here the power of literacy has become mythically associated with a divine struggle. Odin is suffering in order to gain the secrets of literacy - the runic script. In fact there was nothing particularly magical or religious in the origins of the runes or futhark, though some people (including many Nazis in the 1930s) have wanted to find some profound mystical Teutonic meaning in them. In fact the script developed in perfectly normal everyday communication, in trade, merchants' labels, marking personal property and graves. It is unlikely to have been used originally for lengthy passages of writing, but for shorter inscriptions of this sort.

It provides a link to Scotland and Ireland, too, since Vikings brought their script to the Orkney islands and elsewhere. The chambered cairn at Maeshowe contains several runic inscriptions. The concerns of the graffiti artists can be guessed from the translation of the runes:

"Ingibjorg, the fair widow: many a woman has gone stooping in here."

"It is said that treasure is hidden here well enough."

"Treasure was carried off three nights before they broke this mound."

And very high up on one wall a joker called Eyjólfr has written: "Ejjólfr Kolbeinssonr carved these runes very high up."

 

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