[From The Runic and other Remains, 1857]



The name "Runic" has been given to an alphabet in use amongst the Teutonic nations, consisting almost entirely of straight lines of very simple combination, and very well adapted for engraving upon rocks, stones, and metal.

The word " runer" or" runes," which we often find on the Manx monuments, is derived from the Gothic "runa," which signifies the same as the Welsh " rhîn" and the Irish "rûn," a secret. Runes were supposed to be endowed with certain mystic properties, and are said by some to have been made use of in heathen charms and incantations, and on this account probably fell into disuse amongst our Saxon forefathers upon their conversion to Christianity. A doubt, however, has been expressed by some eminent modern antiquaries as to the occurrence of any really heathen monuments inscribed with runes. The use of runes lingered long amongst the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, and we have Scandinavian MSS. as late as the fifteenth century written in this character.

It should be distinctly understood that the term " Runic" belongs to a peculiar alphabet, and not to a language; various languages and dialects being written in Runic letters.

With a general resemblance, there are several varieties in the forms of many of the Runic letters, and hence Runic writings have been divided into three great classes, the Scandinavian, the Germanic, and the Saxon. Of these the Scandinavian appears to be the oldest, after which the Germanic, and then the Saxon. The Manx runes belong to the oldest or true Scandinavian type, yet varying from those in ordinary use as respects six of the letters, as will be seen by inspection of the accompanying table of comparison. We observe also two varieties of the Manx runes, which Professor Munch has ascribed to an earlier and later date. Those of a later date approach nearer in form to the runes in ordinary use, and a doubt may be expressed as to whether they are so truly Scandinavian as the former, for it is remarkable that on the only two crosses on which they have yet been found, the names in the inscriptions appear to be altogether Gaelic, though the words are all ancient Norse. I do not deem it improbable that both these forms of the Runic Alphabet may have been in use in the Isle of Man at the same time. See Plate XI. figs. 28 and 29.

With regard to the origin of the characters of the Runic alphabet, considerable variety of opinion is known to exist. They have been derived from the Roman, the Celtiberian, the Etruscan, and the Greek. Schiegel expresses his belief that they were introduced amongst the inhabitants of the shores of the Baltic by Phoenician merchants. I am more inclined to attribute their introduction into the North overland, and to derive them from Asia Minor.

Those who believe in the personality of Odin or Woden, the great warrior and deified hero of the Northern nations, from whom we derive the name of the fourth day of the week, say that he led a tribe of Asiatic Goths from the shores of the Caspian into the north of Europe, driving before him the aboriginal inhabitants of Northern Germany and Scandinavia. This occurred a few years before the Christian era. I think it highly probable that at that time was introduced into the North the Asiatic form of the Greek alphabet. I am not aware that it has been previously noticed that the Runic alphabet approaches closer to the Constantinopolitan (as seen in the Ekean inscription) and Lycian than to any other with which we are well acquainted. In the accompanying table I have placed alongside of it the Constantinopolitan, and also the Lycian as copied from the book of Travels in Lycia, &c. by the late Rev. E. T. Daniell, the late Professor E. Forbes, and Lieutenant T. A. B. Spratt.

Comparing the Manx Runic alphabets with these two, it is somewhat singular that in the two letters, the symbols for b and o, in which the Manx alphabets both differ from the ordinary runes, the Constantinopolitan and Lycian alphabets both differ from the ordinary Greek. The Lycian symbol for o is the ordinary Greek letter beta (b) and the Manx symbol for o is also the ordinary Runic symbol for b. I am thus led to the conclusion, perhaps somewhat hasty, that the Manx older Runic character was that originally introduced into the North.

On the other hand it is right to state that what appear to be abbreviated forms of Runic letters are by many scholars looked upon as indicating a later age. If this be the case, then the Manx alphabet which Professor Munch terms the newer should in reality be ranked as the older. In the symbols for a, t, n, and s, the old Manx alphabet has the more abbreviated form. In the rune for s it will be seen that the newer Manx, whilst differing from the older, also differs from other Runic alphabets; the symbol, in fact, appears to be reversed.


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