The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, or alphabet, is a set of runes which were used as a writing system before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. The characters are formed from straight lines to make them easier to carve into wood, or occasionally metal or stone; ink and parchment were not generally used for writing before the arrival of the Christian Church.
The futhorc, named after the first six letters of the sequence, differs from the Futhark of the Norse. There were different runic alphabets in use around northern Europe, including versions used by the Northern Germanic peoples. Each character in the series had its own meaning, and as a result could condense messages or charms into few characters. In general the characters represent quite simple, day-to-day objects, such as trees, weather or animals. It is suggested that the names are more likely describing the shape of the character to help memorise it.
The word “rūn” (meaning “rune”) referred to both the characters and also meant “secret”, and the related verb “rūnian” means “to whisper”. Runes could be used for charms and spells but were also probably mostly used for more mundane purposes such as brief messages, memorials or records. Although there is an idea that they were related to magic and divination, in fact this is not particularly supported in the Anglo-Saxon evidence, and runes are most widely attested in Christian sources which implies such a link was not explicit at the time; runes could be used to write charms, but not all writing in runes was magical.
Surviving runic inscriptions
The earliest runes in England have been found on a cremation urn in Norfolk and dated to the 4th-5th centuries. When coins later began to be produced runic lettering was used on some of them. Later still runes were used more widely in commemorations such as the memorial stones from Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, on stone crosses and even St Cuthbert’s coffin.
The Frank’s Casket is an early 8th century whalebone chest with carved panels on the sides and lid depicting stories from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. It has inscriptions in Old English and Latin using both Latin and runic characters, including an entire riddle.
The Ruthwell Cross, standing at 6m high, is an important Northumbrian sculpture, also dating to the 8th century. It has four extracts from the early Christian poem “The Dream of the Rood” carved on its sides in runes and linked to the images on the panels depicting key scenes from the Crucifixion. It is not unique in having runes inscribed on it, as runes also appear on the Bewcastle Cross for example; however, the lengthy extracts from a poem are unique in this context.
A particularly unusual find was a 10th century scramseax, or long –knife, found in the Thames and referred to as “Beagnoth’s seax”. The blade has Beagnoth’s name and a copy of the futhorc inscribed along it.
Runes also occur in various manuscripts as shorthand for whole words; they also are used in Cynewulf’s poems. Cynewulf is one of the few named poets (we also know of Caedmon) from the Anglo-Saxon period and we know his name because he left his signature in runes among some of his poems. He wrote verses so that he was able include the words represented by the futhorc characters which spelled his name. He may have done this in order for his name to be remembered so that later people would pray for his soul. Four poems have been identified as his, and they are known by the modern names of: The Fates of the Apostles; Elene; Christ II; and Juliana.
Another poem, The First Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn, also includes runes but here they are used more to represent letters rather than words.
Finally, some of the riddles from the Exeter Book also use runes as clues to help the audience solve them. However, it is fair to say that debate continues as to many of the solutions to the riddles – and perhaps they were never intended to have a single answer.
You can read more about the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem to find out what the individual characters represented.