Anglo-Saxon runes

Anglo-Saxon Futhorc
Languages Old English and Old Frisian, sometimes Latin
Time period
5th through 11th centuries
Parent systems
Sister systems
Younger Futhark
The left half of the front panel of the 7th century Franks Casket, depicting the Germanic legend of Weyland Smith and containing a riddle in Anglo-Saxon runes.

Anglo-Saxon runes are runes used by the early Anglo-Saxons as an alphabet in their writing. The characters are known collectively as the futhorc (or fuþorc), from the Old English sound values of the first six runes. The futhorc was a development from the 24-character elder futhark. Since the futhorc runes are thought to have first been used in Frisia before the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, they have also been called Anglo-Frisian runes.[1] They were likely used from the 5th century onward, recording Old English and Old Frisian.

After the 9th century, they were gradually supplanted in Anglo-Saxon England by the Old English Latin alphabets introduced by Irish missionaries. Runes were no longer in common use by the year 1000 and were banned under King Cnut (r. 1016–1036).


There are competing theories as to the origins of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. One theory proposes that it was developed in Frisia and from there spread later to England. Another holds that runes were first introduced to England from Scandinavia where the futhorc was modified and then exported to Frisia. Both theories have their inherent weaknesses, and a definitive answer may come from further archaeological evidence.

The early futhorc was identical to the Elder Futhark, except for the split of a into three variants āc, æsc and ōs, resulting in 26 runes. This was necessary to account for the new phoneme produced by the Ingvaeonic split of allophones of long and short a. The earliest ōs rune is found on the 5th-century Undley bracteate. āc was introduced later, in the 6th century. The double-barred hægl characteristic of continental inscriptions is first attested as late as 698, on St Cuthbert's coffin; before that, the single-barred Scandinavian variant was used.

In England, the futhorc was further extended to 28 and finally to 33 runes, and runic writing in England became closely associated with the Latin scriptoria from the time of Anglo-Saxon Christianization in the 7th century. The futhorc started to be replaced by the Latin alphabet from around the 7th century, but it was still sometimes used up until the 10th or 11th century. In some cases, texts would be written in the Latin alphabet, but runes would be used logographically in place of the word it represented, and þorn and wynn came to be used as extensions of the Latin alphabet. By the Norman Conquest of 1066, it was very rare and disappeared altogether shortly thereafter. From at least five centuries of use, fewer than 200 artifacts bearing futhorc inscriptions have survived.

Several famous English examples mix runes and Roman script, or Old English and Latin, on the same object, including the Franks Casket and St Cuthbert's coffin; in the latter, three of the names of the Four Evangelists are given in Latin written in runes, but "LUKAS" (Saint Luke) is in Roman script. The coffin is also an example of an object created at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon church that uses runes. A leading expert, Raymond Ian Page, rejects the assumption often made in non-scholarly literature that runes were especially associated in post-conversion Anglo-Saxon England with Anglo-Saxon paganism or magic.[2]


The futhorc.

The Anglo-Saxon rune poem (Cotton Otho B.x.165) has the following runes, listed with their Unicode glyphs, their names, their transliterations, and their approximate phonetic values in IPA notation:

Rune Image UCS Old English name Name meaning Transliteration IPA
feoh "wealth" f [f], [v]
ūr "aurochs" u [u], [uː]
þorn "thorn" þ, ð [θ], [ð]
ōs "[a] god", also "mouth" following the Latin o [o], [oː]
rād "ride" r [r]
cēn "torch" c [k], [], []
gyfu "gift" g [ɡ], [ɣ], [j], ([x])?, ([gʲ])?
wynn "mirth" w [w]
hægl "hail (precipitation)" h [h], [x], [ç]
nȳd "need, angst" n [n]
īs "ice" i [i], [iː]
gēr "year, harvest" j [j]
ēoh "yew" eo [ç], ([eo, eːo])?
peorð (unknown) p [p]
eolh "elk-sedge" x [ks], ([x])?
sigel "sun" s [s], [z]
Tīr "glory" t [t]
beorc "birch" b [b]
eh "horse" e [e], [eː]
mann "man" m [m]
lagu "lake" l [l]
Ing "Ing (a hero)" ŋ [ŋg], [ŋ]
ēðel "ethel (estate)" œ ([eː])
dæg "day" d [d]
āc "oak" a [ɑ], [ɑː]
æsc "ash-tree" æ [æ], [æː]
ȳr "bow" y [y], [yː]
īor "eel" ia, io ([jɑ, jo], [jɑː, joː])?
ēar "grave" ea [æɑ], [æːɑ]

The first 24 of these directly continue the Elder Futhark letters, extended by five additional runes, representing additional vowels (á, æ, ý, ia, ea), comparable to the five forfeda of the ogham alphabet.

Thorn and wynn were introduced into the English version of the Latin alphabet to represent /θ/ and /w/, but they were replaced with th and w in the Middle English period.

The letter sequence, and indeed the letter inventory is not fixed. Compared to the letters of the rune poem given above,

f u þ o r c ȝ w h n i j eo p x s t b e m l ŋ œ d a æ y io ea

the Thames scramasax has 28 letters, with a slightly different order, and eðel missing:

f u þ o r c ȝ w h n i io eo p x s t b e ŋ d l m j a æ y ea

The Vienna Codex also has 28 letters; the Ruthwell Cross inscription has 31 letters; Cotton Domitian A.ix (11th century) has 33 letters, with the four following additional runes:

30. cweorð kw, a modification of peorð
31. calc "chalice" k (when doubled appearing as kk)
32. stan "stone" st
33. gar "spear" g (as opposed to palatalized ȝ)

Of these four additional letters, only the cweorð rune fails to appear epigraphically. The stan shape is found on the Westeremden yew-stick, but likely as a Spiegelrune. The calc rune is found on the Bramham Moor Ring, Kingmoor Ring, the Ruthwell Cross, and Bewcastle Cross inscriptions. The gar rune is found on the Bewcastle Cross inscription, along with the doubled calc rune in select locations.

Cotton Domitian A.ix reaches thus a total of 33 letters, according to the transliteration introduced above arranged in the order

f u þ o r c ȝ w h n i j eo p x s t b e m l ŋ d œ a æ y ea io cw k st g

In the manuscript, the runes are arranged in three rows, glossed with Latin equivalents below (in the third row above) and with their names above (in the third row below). The manuscript has traces of corrections by a 16th-century hand, inverting the position of m and d. Eolh is mistakenly labelled as sigel, and in place of sigel, there is a kaun-like letter , corrected to proper sigel above it. Eoh is mislabelled as eþel. Apart from ing and ear, all rune names are due to the later scribe, identified as Robert Talbot (died 1558).

feoh ur þorn os rað cen gifu wen hegel neað inc geu{a}r sigel peorð ᛋ sig
f u ð o r c g uu h n i ge eo p x s
tir berc eþel deg lagu mann ᛙ pro ac ælc yr
t b e m{d} l ing ð{m} œ a æ y ear
ior cweorð calc stan ear

Another futhorc row is found in Cotton Galba A.ii.

The Anglo-Saxon futhorc (abecedarium anguliscum) as presented in Codex Sangallensis 878 (9th century).

The 9th-century Codex Sangallensis 878 (attributed to Walahfrid Strabo) records an abecedarium anguliscum in three lines. The first two lines list the standard 29 runes, i.e. the 24 derived from Elder Futhark, and the five standard additional ones (á, æ, ý, io, ea). The listing order of the final two of the "elder" 24 runes is dæg, éðel. A peculiarity is the "asterisk" shape of eolh. The third line lists gar and kalc(?) before a doodling repetition of other runes.

Inscription corpus

Futhorc series on the Seax of Beagnoth (9th century). The series has 28 runes, omitting io. The shapes of j, s, d, œ and y deviate from the standard forms shown above; eo appears mirrored.

The Old English and Old Frisian Runic Inscriptions database project at the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany aims at collecting the genuine corpus of Old English inscriptions containing more than two runes in its paper edition, while the electronic edition aims at including both genuine and doubtful inscriptions down to single-rune inscriptions.

The corpus of the paper edition encompasses about one hundred objects (including stone slabs, stone crosses, bones, rings, brooches, weapons, urns, a writing tablet, tweezers, a sun-dial, comb, bracteates, caskets, a font, dishes, and graffiti). The database includes, in addition, 16 inscriptions containing a single rune, several runic coins, and 8 cases of dubious runic characters (runelike signs, possible Latin characters, weathered characters). Comprising fewer than 200 inscriptions, the corpus is slightly larger than that of Continental Elder Futhark (about 80 inscriptions, c. 400–700), but slightly smaller than that of the Scandinavian Elder Futhark (about 260 inscriptions, c. 200–800).

Runic finds in England cluster along the east coast with a few finds scattered further inland in Southern England. Frisian finds cluster in West Frisia. Looijenga (1997) lists 23 English (including two 7th-century Christian inscriptions) and 21 Frisian inscriptions predating the 9th century.


The Thames zoomorphic silver-gilt (knife?) mount (late 8th century).

Currently known inscriptions in Anglo-Frisian runes include:



Related manuscript texts

See also


  2. Page, Raymond Ian (1989), "Roman and Runic on St Cuthbert's Coffin", in Bonner, Gerald; Rollason, David; Stancliffe, Clare, St. Cuthbert, his Cult and his Community to AD 1200, Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, pp. 257–63, ISBN 978-0-85115-610-1.
  3. "Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions".
  4. Flickr (photograms), Yahoo!
  5. "Silver knife mount with runic inscription", British Museum.
  6. Page, Raymond Ian (1999), An introduction to English runes (2nd ed.), Woodbridge: Boydell, p. 182.
  7. Bammesberger, Alfred (2002), "The Brandon Antler Runic Inscription", Neophilologus, Ingenta connect, 86: 129–31.


Further reading

External links

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