Did the Celts Use Runes?


Runestones, or runes, are an ancient alphabet used by Germanic, Nordic, and Anglo-Saxon tribes. They were inscribed on objects or monuments, and scholars have found them as far afield as Turkey and North America. Did the Celtic people use runes, or did they have a different writing system?

There is speculation that the Celts used runes, but no concrete evidence exists to support this claim. There is, however, a runic inscription on the Isle of Man; it’s the lone example of a runic inscription linked to the Celts. Some people also believe the Book of Kells contains runes.

This article will explain precisely what runes are and which groups of ancient people used them. It will also dive more deeply into the various written languages of the Celts, including their most famous language, Ogham.  

Celtic runes
What are runes? See below

What Are Runes?

Runes are a set of ancient symbols that were used for writing, divination, and magical purposes. Each rune has a name and meaning, which can be found in various books about the subject. Some people believe that runes have the power to help them make important decisions or see the future.

In the Viking era, people saw runes as powerful and magical. [1] The meaning behind a rune – and the inscription of the rune itself – held great significance for Vikings. Not only did runes help people make decisions and predict the future, as mentioned above, but they also did so much more. 

People also believed they could use the runes to cast spells or protect themselves from malicious magical attacks. They thought inscribing runes onto something protected that object and perhaps even gave it mystical powers, much like the runes on Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. They even believed they could use the runes to heal the sick and dying.

However, as evidenced by the inscription on the Vimose Comb (discussed in the next section), people also used runes for more ordinary purposes. [2] Eventually, people would use them for more mundane communication pursuits, especially in the Medieval period. 

Today, scholars and historians still value them. Additionally, people looking to connect with their Viking heritage often study them. However, most modern people primarily use runes for tattoos. They sometimes appear in pop culture, as well. They no longer serve any practical purpose, however.  

rune stones
What people groups used runes? See below

What People Groups Used Runes?

Runes were used by Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon tribes, though the Nordic and Scandinavian people are probably most famous for using them. According to Norse legends and beliefs, even their gods used runes. 

Runes were central to the Scandinavian countries’ (Vikings’) written language. The Vikings used runes in the Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark scripts from 160 AD to about 1100 AD. Runes also appear in the Medieval Futhork. 

People in England used runes, as well. Their scripts were known as the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. However, they stopped using them around the 11th century AD,  long before the Scandinavians gave them up. 

That’s one of the reasons the runes are most closely related to the Vikings and Scandinavian cultures today.  

Also, it’s interesting to note that the oldest surviving runic inscription dates back to 160 AD. (It’s the runic word harja, which scholars believe either means “warrior” or “comb,” inscribed on the Vimose Comb.) However, according to these same scholars, the rune is written: “so confidently and maturely that scholars feel it must result from at least a hundred years’ experience in writing in runes.” [3]

That means the Scandinavians were probably using runes long before that.

At some point in history, people used runes in the following areas: 

  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • England
  • Germany

The origin of runes is still heavily debated, but many scholars agree that they came from a form of the Greek written alphabet, as the characters are most similar to Greek characters.

However, if one were to believe the Norse legends, the runes came from the Norn’s Well of Urd, and Odin brought them to man. [4] According to legend, Odin learned the secret of the runes after hanging himself on Yggdrasil for nine days. He sacrificed himself in exchange for knowledge of many things, the most important of which was learning to read and understand the runes. 

Odin’s sacrifice and subsequent mastery of the runes made him the most powerful of all the Norse gods. 

Norse people, in turn, believed that the runes would give them power and help them see the future. They thought “casting the runes” and reading them correctly would provide them with insight into what was going on in their lives and what the gods had in store for them.

runes
What written language did the Celts have? See below

What Written Language Did the Celts Have?

The written language of the Celts was known as Ogham, also called the “Celtic Tree Alphabet.” However, before developing their own written language, the Celts used various other languages, including several Gaulish and Old Italic languages. They’re best known for Ogham, though.

Ogham is widely associated with Celtic people as a whole. [5] However, it’s unlikely that early Celts or Celts outside the Irish region used it. Still, it was the only language the Celts used that was truly theirs. 

Ogham featured 20 letters, most of which also corresponded with the names of trees in the region. (Hence the term “Celtic tree alphabet.”) 

Scholars know about Ogham mainly from surviving inscriptions on tree bark tablets, stones, and sticks. It probably originated in either the 3rd or 4th century AD and remained in use until the 17th century. 

The largest collection of Ogham survives on large stones scattered throughout Ireland and around the Irish Sea. The Book of Kells also contains some Ogham, though some of its inscriptions are in the Roman alphabet, too. 

Eventually, the Celts also turned their spoken language, Gaulish, into a written language. It used various alphabets for its inscriptions, including Greek, Latin, and Old Italic. 

Celts in Italy also wrote in Old Italic.

Conclusion

Some people believe the Celts may have had a runic alphabet, but unfortunately, evidence supporting that is lacking. Instead, the Celts wrote primarily in Ogham.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source

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