Runes are an ancient form of writing that was used widely for thousands of years in
northern Europe around the 3rd century BC by the Teutonic, or Germanic peoples. Their
name is derived from the word runa meaning secret or mystery. According to Viking
tradition, the word “rune” means a whispered secret. Although their precise origins
are uncertain, and mystery surrounds their uses, they come from the Norse culture and
were formed by modifying Roman or Greek characters to suit carving purposes. According
to mythology, they were discovered by the Norse god Odin, to whom they remain sacred,
and hence may be used for divinatory purposes.
The Germanic alphabet was called “futhark” after the first six letters (F-U-TH-A-R-K).
The Germanic Futhark – also referred to as the Elder Futhark – consisted of 24 letters
or symbols, and is the oldest and the one from which all the others derive. An extra,
twenty-fifth blank rune represents the unknowable and divine which permeate every part
Historically the runes have varied between 16 and 33 with different societies having
different needs and therefore adapting the runes as they saw fit. The variations on
the script include the 33 character Saxon Futhark and the 16 rune Norse Younger Futhark.
The Elder Futhark, however, is the oldest true runic alphabet, and the one which most
people mean when they refer to the runes.