Anglo-Saxon runes

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Anglo-Saxon Futhorc
LanguagesOld English and Old Frisian, sometimes Latin
Parent systems
Sister systems
Younger Futhark
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Anglo-Saxon Futhorc
LanguagesOld English and Old Frisian, sometimes Latin
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.

The Anglo-Saxon runes (also Anglo-Frisian), also known as futhorc (or fuþorc), is a runic alphabet, extended from the Elder Futhark from 24 to between 26 and 33 characters. They were used probably from the 5th century onward, recording Old English and Old Frisian.

They remained in use in Anglo-Saxon England throughout the 6th to 10th centuries, although runic script became increasingly confined to manuscript tradition as a topic of antiquarian interest after the 9th century, and it disappeared even as a learned curiosity soon after the Norman conquest.


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 for 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, although the futhorc was still sometimes used up to 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 the 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, and/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.[1]


The futhorc.

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

Rune ImageUCSOld English nameName meaningTransliterationIPA
Rune-Feoh.pngfeoh"wealth"f[f], [v]
Rune-Ur.pngūr"aurochs"u[u], [uː]
Rune-Thorn.pngþorn"thorn"þ, ð[θ], [ð]
Runic letter os.svgōs"[a] god"o[o], [oː]
Rune-Cen.pngcēn"torch"c[k], [kʲ], [tʃ]
Rune-Gyfu.pnggyfu"gift"g[ɡ], [ɣ], [j]
Rune-Hægl.pnghægl"hail (precipitation)"h[h], [x], [ç]
Rune-Nyd.pngnȳd"need, angst"n[n]
Rune-Is.pngīs"ice"i[i], [iː]
Runic letter ger.svggēr"year, harvest"j[j]
Rune-Eoh.pngēoh"yew"eo[ç], ([eo], [eːo])?
Rune-Sigel.pngsigel"sun"s[s], [z]
Rune-Tir.pngTīr"Tiw (a god)"t[t]
Rune-Eh.pngeh"horse"e[e], [eː]
Rune-Ing.pngIng"Ing (a hero)"ŋ[ŋg], [ŋ]
Rune-Eðel.pngēðel"ethel (estate)"œ
Runic letter ac.svgāc"oak"a[ɑ], [ɑː]
Runic letter ansuz.svgæsc"ash-tree"æ[æ], [æː]
Rune-Yr.pngȳr"bow"y[y], [yː]
Rune-Ior.pngīor"eel"ia, io
Rune-Ear.pngēar"grave"ea[æɑ], [æːɑ]

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

Thorn and Wynn were introduced into the Latin English alphabet to represent [θ] and [w], but then they were replaced with th and w in Middle English.

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 edhel 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 has also 28 letters; the Ruthwell Cross inscription has 31 letters; Cotton Domitian A.ix (11th century) has another four additional runes:

30. Rune-Cweorð.png cweorð kw, a modification of peorð
31. Rune-calc.png calc "chalice" k (when doubled appearing as Rune-DoubleCalc.png kk)
32. Rune-Stan.png Rune-Stan2.png stan "stone" st
33. Runic letter gar.svg gar "spear" g (as opposed to palatalized Rune-Gyfu.png 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 mis-labelled as eþel. Apart from ing and ear, all rune names are due to the later scribe, identified as Robert Talbot (died 1558).

feohurþornosraðcengifuwenhegelneaðincgeu{a}rsigelpeorðᛋ sig
tirberceþeldeglagumannᛙ proacælcyr

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[edit]

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,[clarification needed] 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 Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions include:



Related manuscript texts[edit]


  1. ^ 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 .
  2. ^ Flickr (photograms), Yahoo! 
  3. ^ "Silver knife mount with runic inscription", British Museum .
  4. ^ Page, Raymond Ian (1999), An introduction to English runes (2nd ed.), Woodbridge: Boydell, p. 182 .
  5. ^ Bammesberger, Alfred (2002), The Brandon Antler Runic Inscription, Neophilologus (Ingenta connect) 86: 129–31 .

See also[edit]


External links[edit]