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Lesson 2) The Elder Futhark - History and Runes

Today's Topics 
Welcome back, everyone. I trust you are finding your way a little easier to the Room of Runes by now. Be on the lookout for Peeves; he likes to switch the entrance door on occasion. I was delighted to notice several of you perusing the books after class last week, and I hope to see more of you taking advantage of this beautiful space to study and explore the runes. Feel free to use the tables to work on assignments, but keep the noise to a minimum.

This week, we will take a closer look at the writing system we will be studying this year: the Elder Futhark. I will tell you a little about the history of this alphabet, and then we will begin learning the shapes of these runes and their phonetic equivalents in our own Latin alphabet. Your assignment for today will consist of a quiz on the history of the Elder Futhark.

Brief History of the Elder Futhark
The Elder Futhark is the oldest of all Germanic runic scripts (though not the oldest magical writing system we will be tackling throughout this course). It was used from the 2nd through 8th centuries CE primarily by Germanic tribes. After the 8th century, the script was modified into other runic scripts - the Younger Futhark and the Anglo-Saxon Futhork, which we will be studying next year. While knowledge of the Elder Futhark was passed on in the magical community to our modern period, the Muggle world lost the knowledge of how to read the Elder Futhark until it was effectively translated by the Norwegian Muggle scholar, Sophus Bugge.

The script is believed to have originated from the Old Italic scripts, quite possibly Etruscan or Raetic, with fairly strong Roman influences. Runes as used by the Germanic tribes in this period were contrived because human memory failed in the increasingly complex task of keeping up with trade, travel, and power. They were also found inscribed in bits of jewelry and amulets as well as on “rune stones” - longer pieces of writing that were typically memorials dedicated to fallen heroes.

In recent years, the Muggle world has seen a revival in Norse mythology and the runes in particular. It is not uncommon for Muggles to have a set of runes in their possession, or be familiar with their meanings. However, each rune is infused with a meaning, a word, and power greater than anyone in the Muggle world could predict. For this we have Sofia Schreiber to thank, and the runes as the Wizarding World understands them are known as Schreiber’s corrections.

The magical world recognizes the power that lies within the old runic scripts. Today you can find them etched into many magical devices, equipment, doorways, and books. Here at Hogwarts, we also have the few written manuscripts of runic magic transcribed by the Norse priests of old. The Viking tribes began to convert to Christianity in the 8th century, and by 1,000 CE, the priests were forced into hiding. At this point in time, their tomes of magic, life, warfare, and death were given to Rowena Ravenclaw and placed in the library at Hogwarts to be kept safe. These tomes are present here in the Room of Runes, and witches and wizards from around the world come here to safely peruse their secrets. Be mindful of the sacrifice each of these books symbolizes.

The Elder Futhark is a phonetic script, with ᚠᚢᚦᚫᚱᚲ being the first six sounds of the script, which literally spell out “futhark”. Every symbol stands for a sound (just as in our own Latin alphabet), although there are some particular curiosities of runic inscriptions that make deciphering them more difficult. These difficulties include no set direction for writing, double letters being represented with just one rune, lack of spaces between words, the combination of the last letter of one word with the first letter of the next, and more. As we continue to work with runes in this course, you will have the opportunity to deal with these complexities yourself.

Aside from being phonetic, runes are also ideograms. That is, there are meanings ascribed to a rune that are not phonetic, but indicate an idea or concept. For example: ᚦ, called Thurisaz (which makes the ‘th’ sound), is translated into Old Norse as Thor – and often the single rune ascribed to a particular word would be written in place of a full word to save time and space, thus making the rune represent not just a sound (th) but an idea (Thor).While it is debated by Muggle runologists as to whether or not the words associated with individual runes are inherently magical, wizarding runologists know better. The ideographic meanings are just as important as the phonetic aspect of the runes -- if not more -- and we will study these once we move beyond basic rune transcriptions and focus on these meanings often throughout the years in this course.

Elder Futhark Handout
I am now handing out a copy of the Elder Futhark sheet along with each rune’s basic information. Keep this sheet as a handy reference throughout the course. Schreiber’s corrections, which are provided on this sheet, will be discussed in the coming weeks when we cover each rune individually.

Note that the rune names in the second column are all reconstructions, and that you may well encounter variations of these names in the literature on runes, such as your textbook or on the internet. We will look at the reasons for this in more detail next year when we study the Younger Futhark and the Anglo-Saxon Futhork. For now, the reconstructions in the second column will be the official names we use in this course, so make careful note of them.



 As you can see from this table, the runes all consist of straight lines that are joined together at angles, with the angles usually at roughly 45°-55° or 90°. This is because runes were usually carved into either wood or stone with a knife or chisel, which did not lend itself to curved shapes as much as liquid ink applied to parchment or paper with a brush or quill.

Names and Meanings
You can see that all the runes are associated with a sound, as well as a name. The names give the runes meaning beyond the sounds they represent. However, the names are also connected to the sounds of the runes. If you look more closely at the table, you will notice that most of the rune names start with the sound that the rune represents. This is a deliberate connection. Scholars and runologists are still debating whether the runes were first associated with the names and then came to represent the sound, or if it was the other way round, but the connection between the two is undeniable.

You will also notice that not all rune names begin with the sound they represent. This is because certain sounds cannot stand at the beginning of words in the languages that first developed the runic writing system. We will be talking about the phonetic values of the runes in more detail next week.

As you can see from the table, some of the runes can be found in several forms or shapes. We will go into variants more closely in the coming weeks when we discuss the individual runes, but for now, please keep in mind that there are variations for some runes. If you do not identify a rune immediately, but it looks familiar, this might be one of the reasons.

One other possibility for an unfamiliar-looking rune is that it is a ligature. Ligatures are combinations of runes, where the two runes are combined into a single symbol with characteristics from each of its components. Ligatures are rarer than variants, but you may well come across them in your studies or further reading and we will be talking about them more in detail next year.

With that, we have come to the end of today’s lesson. For your assignment today, you will have a quiz on the history of the Elder Futhark. I hope to see you all back next week.

Futhark: The runic equivalent of the word “alphabet”, derived from the sounds of its first six letters.
Ideogram: A symbol that represents an idea or concept.
Ligature: A combination of several runes that looks like a single letter, constructed from parts of all the components.
Phonetic script: A writing system that is based on the sounds of speech/language, representing each sound with a specific symbol.
Reconstructions (linguistic): Words that have been reconstructed back to their probable original forms based on later versions of the language.
Runic script/Runes: Marks or letters of mysterious or magical significance. This year we will be focusing on those developed in the Northern Germanic cultures around the 2nd century CE
Schreiber’s corrections: The standardised magical meanings of the runes based on Sofia Schreiber’s work.
Variants: Symbols that are similar to the standard symbol for the rune that you might come in contact with while reading. While these symbols have the exact same meaning at the standard rune, small aesthetic or stylistic changes may be present.

Original lesson created by Professor Genesis Starfight
Image credits:
Table: (with corrections)

Have you ever come across strange markings in old, worn books and wondered what they said? Do you have a love for languages and writing? Would you like to learn some of the world’s oldest magic? The study of Ancient Runes is a course concerning itself with ancient magical scripts from around the world, their history, their linguistics, and the spells they were used to compose. This year, prepare to enter the world of the Nords, the councils of the magi, and the halls of Valhalla.
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