The Elder Futhark (or Elder Fuþark, Older Futhark, Old Futhark) is the oldest form of the runic alphabet, used by Germanic tribes for Proto-Norse and other Migration period Germanic dialects of the 2nd to 8th centuries for inscriptions on artifacts (jewellery, amulets, tools, weapons) and runestones. In Scandinavia, the script was simplified to the Younger Futhark from the late 8th century, while the Anglo-Saxons and Frisians extended the Futhark which eventually became the Anglo-Saxon futhorc after Proto-English /a/ developed to /o/ in nasal environments.
Unlike the younger futhark which remained in use until modern times, the knowledge of how to read the Elder Futhark was forgotten, and it was not until 1865 that the Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge managed to decipher it.
þ corresponds to IPA [θ]. ï is also transcribed as æ, and may have been either a diphthong, or a vowel near [ɪ] or [æ]. z was Proto-Germanic [z], and evolved into Proto-Norse [ɹ], and is also transliterated as R. The remaining transliterations correspond to the IPA symbol of their approximate value.
To type rune letters onto your computer you need to install a keyboard utility. A free utility currently available with all the Elder Futhark keys already installed is called the Elder Futhark keyboard for Microsoft Windows — (QWERTY version) This is available as a free download. This keyboard is free and non-commercial and will work with Junicode, FreeMono and FreeRuneCode True Type fonts.
The Elder Futhark runes are commonly believed to originate in the Old Italic alphabets: either a North Italic variant (Etruscan or Raetic alphabets), or the Latin alphabet itself. Derivation from the Greek alphabet via Gothic contact to Byzantine Greek culture was popular in the 19th century, but has been ruled out since the dating of the Vimose inscriptions to the 2nd century (while the Goths had been in contact with Greek culture only from the early 3rd century). Conversely, the Greek-derived 4th century Gothic alphabet does have two letters derived from runes, (from Jera) and (from Uruz).
The angular shapes of the runes, presumably an adaptation to the incision in wood or metal, are not a Germanic innovation, but a property that is shared with other early alphabets, including the Old Italic ones (compare, for example, the Duenos inscription). The 1st century BC Negau helmet inscription features a Germanic name, Hariagastiz, in a North Etruscan alphabet, and may be a testimony of the earliest contact of Germanic speakers with alphabetic writing. Similarly, the Meldorf inscription of ca. AD 50 may qualify as "proto-runic" use of the Latin alphabet by Germanic speakers. The Raetic "alphabet of Bolzano" in particular seems to fit the letter shapes well The spearhead of Kovel, dated to ca. AD 200, sometimes advanced as evidence of a peculiar Gothic variant of the runic alphabet, bears an inscription tilarids that may in fact be in an Old Italic rather than a runic alphabet, running right to left with a T and a D closer to the Latin or Etruscan than to the Bolzano or runic alphabets.
The f, a, g, i, t, m and l runes show no variation, and are generally accepted as identical to Old Italic or Latin F, A, X, I, T, M and L. There is also wide agreement that the u, r, k, h, s, b and o runes correspond directly to V, R, C, H, S, B and O.
The runes of uncertain derivation may either be original innovations, or adoptions of otherwise unneeded Latin letters. Odenstedt (1990:163) suggests that all 22 Latin letters of the classical Latin alphabet (1st century, ignoring marginalized K) were adopted (þ from D, z from Y, ŋ from Q, w from P, j from G, ï from Z), with two runes (p and d) left over as original Germanic innovations, but there are conflicting scholarly opinions regarding the e (from E?), n (from N?), þ (D or Raetic Θ?), w (Q or P?), , ï and z (both from either Z or Latin Y?), ŋ (Q?) and d runes.
Of the 24 runes in the classical futhark row attested from ca. AD 400 (Kylver stone), ï, p and ŋ are unattested in the earliest inscriptions of ca. AD 175 to 400, while e in this early period mostly takes a Π-shape, its M-shape gaining prevalence only from the 5th century. Similarly, the s rune may have either three or four strokes (and more rarely five or more), and only from the 5th century does the variant with three strokes become prevalent.
Note that the "mature" runes of the 6th to 8th centuries tend to have only three directions of strokes, the vertical and two diagonal directions. Early inscriptions also show horizontal strokes: in the case of e mentioned above, but also in t, l, ŋ and h.
Other scholars are content to assume a findless period of a few decades, pushing the date into the early 2nd century (Askeberg 1944:77, c.f. Odenstedt 1990:168). Pedersen (and with him Odenstedt) suggests a period of development of about a century to account for their assumed derivation of the shapes of þ and j from Latin D and G.
The invention of the script has been ascribed to a single person (Moltke 1976:53) or a group of people who had come into contact with Roman culture, maybe as mercenaries in the Roman army, or as merchants. The script was clearly designed for epigraphic purposes, but opinions differ in stressing either magical, practical or simply playful (graffiti) aspects. Bæksted (1952:134) concludes that in its earliest stage, the runic script was an "artificial, playful, not really needed imitation of the Roman script", much like the Germanic bracteates were directly influenced by Roman currency, a view that is accepted by Odenstedt (1990:171) in the light of the very primitive nature of the earliest (2nd to 4th century) inscription corpus.
The rune names stood for their rune because of the first phoneme in the name (the principle of acrophony), with the exception of Ingwaz and Algiz: the Proto-Germanic z sound of the Algiz rune, never occurred in a word-initial position. The phoneme acquired an r-like quality in Proto-Norse, usually transcribed with R, and finally merged with r in Icelandic, rendering the rune superfluous as a letter. Similarly, the ng-sound of the Ingwaz rune does not occur word-initially.
Most names, in spite of being reconstructions, can be assumed with a fair degree of certainty for the Old Futhark because of the concurrence of Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic names. The names come from the vocabulary of daily life and mythology, some trivial, some beneficent and some inauspicious:
It has been argued that such a distribution of meanings support the use of the runes for purposes of divination. On the other hand, however, the NATO phonetic alphabet, although hardly ever used for divination, shows a similar distribution of inherited names (Charlie, Juliet), unremarkable basic vocabulary (Hotel, Uniform) and concepts very much in vogue at the time of its invention (Radar, X-Ray, Foxtrot, Tango). A similar acrophonic principle is found in the names of the Ogham letters given in the 14th century Auraicept na n-Éces.
Old Futhark inscriptions were found on artefacts scattered between the Carpathians and Lappland, with the highest concentration in Denmark. They are usually short inscriptions on jewellery (bracteates, fibulae, belt buckles), utensils (combs, spinning whorls) or weapons (lance tips, seaxes) and were mostly found in graves or bogs.
Words frequently appearing in inscriptions on bracteates with possibly magical significance are alu, laþu and laukaz. Their meaning is unclear, although alu has been associated with "ale, intoxicating drink", in a context of ritual drinking, and laukaz with "leek, garlic", in a context of fertility and growth. An example of a longer early inscription is on a 4th century axe-handle found in Nydam, Jutland: wagagastiz / alu:??hgusikijaz:aiþalataz (wagagaztiz "wave-guest" could be a personal name, the rest has been read as alu:wihgu sikijaz:aiþalataz with a putative meaning "wave/flame-guest, from a bog, alu, I, oath-sayer consecrate/fight". The obscurity even of emended readings is typical for runic inscriptions that go beyond simple personal names). A term frequently found in early inscriptions is Erilaz, apparently describing a person with knowledge of runes.
The oldest known runic inscription dates to ca. 160 AD and is found on a comb discovered in the bog of Vimose, Funen. The inscription reads harja, either a personal name or an epithet, viz. Proto-Germanic *harjaz (PIE ) "warrior", or simply the word for "comb" (*hārjaz). Another early inscription is found on the Thorsberg chape (ca. 200), probably containing the theonym Ullr.
The typically Scandinavian runestones begin to show the transition to Younger Futhark from the 6th century, with transitional examples like the Björketorp or Stentoften stones. In the early 9th century, both the older and the younger futhark were known and used, which is shown on the Rök Runestone where the runemaster used both.
The longest known inscription in Older Futhark, and one of the youngest, consists of some 200 characters and is found on the early 8th century Eggjum stone, and may even contain a stanza of Old Norse poetry.
The Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus reading raihan "deer" is notable as the oldest inscription of the British Isles, dating to ca. AD 400, the very end of Roman Britain and just predating the modifications leading to futhorc.
In this early period, there is no specifically West Germanic runic tradition. This changes from the early 6th century, and for about one century (520s to 620s), an Alamannic "runic province" (Martin 2004) emerges, with examples on fibulae, weapon parts and belt buckles. As in the East Germanic case, use of runes subsides with Christianization, in the case of the Alamanni in the course of the 7th century.
Elder Futhark inscriptions were rare, with very few active literati, in relation to the total population, at any time, so that knowledge of the runes was probably an actual "secret" throughout the Migration period. Of 366 lances excavated at Illerup, only 2 bore inscriptions. A similar ratio is estimated for Alemannia, with an estimated 170 excavated graves to every inscription found (Lüthi 2004:323)
Estimates of the total number of inscriptions produced are based on the "minimal runological estimate" of 40,000 (ten individuals making ten inscriptions per year for four centuries). The actual number was probably considerably higher. The ca. 80 known Southern inscriptions are from some 100,000 known graves. With an estimated total of 50,000,000 graves (based on population density estimates), some 80,000 inscriptions would have been produced in total in the Merovingian South alone (and maybe close to 400,000 in total, so that of the order of 0.1% of the corpus has come down to us), and Fischer (2004:281) estimates a population of several hundred active literati throughout the period, with as many as 1,600 during the Alamannic "runic boom" of the 6th century.