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Anonymous - History of Nordic Runes p2

Anonymous - History of Nordic Runes p2

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Published by Bjorn Aasgard

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Published by: Bjorn Aasgard on Sep 21, 2012
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In Denmark and Germany runes mainly occur on brooches and weapon(part)s, in Frisia mainly on coins,
combs, pieces of wood and bone; in Anglo-Saxon England mainly on coins, brooches, weapon(part)s, pots and urns.
1. Introduction
1.1. Runes and rune-carrying objects cannot be studied without giving them their proper placewithin the society that produced them. Establishing the outlines of this context forms animportant part of the present study.Artifacts exhibiting runes are recorded from the second century AD onwards. About 400 oddartifacts (including nearly 200 runic bracteates), inscribed with runes from the older
,produced over the period of 
150 - 650, are recorded. From around the year 200, wealready know some 25 attestations, found in an astonishingly large area: from Scandinaviaand North Germany to Eastern Europe. The earliest attestations are mostly found on preciousand portable objects. Whether these surviving items are representative for all runic script fromthe oldest, or archaïc, period, is questionable. It is not clear when, where and for what reasonsGermanic people developed their own writing system. A combination of philology, archaeo-logy and history may be helpful in detecting the origin of runic writing and in understandingmore about the society that used runes. Objects with runes generally emerge as a result of ar-chaeological activities, hence in many cases a context is available. In recent years, quite a lotof new finds have produced a
of articles, mostly focusing on the new find and itsimmediate connections only. Therefore an in-depth comparison with older finds is necessary,followed by an update.1.2. Through migration and acculturation, runic writing spread to large parts of Europe, alongwith members of the social and political upper classes and also with craftsmen, who travelledeither in the retinue of their lords or as individuals. The propagation of runic knowledge mayhave been favoured by the custom of exchanging prestige-goods among the Germanic elite of North-, West- and Central Europe. Indigenous runic traditions emerged in Scandinavia,Germany, The Netherlands and England, each more or less distinct from the others. This isillustrated partly by the sort of objects found in a distinct area and the way of depositing
these objects, but especially by the language of the texts and the use of typical runic forms.The Goths in the Black Sea-region may have practised runic writing, although as yet very fewremains of this activity have been found. It remains uncertain whether in this part of Europeever existed an indigenous runic tradition.On the other hand, the various runic traditions had many features in common, which wouldimply that runes were
en vogue
among people who had something in common and who livedin a similar
. The German archaeologist Roth points out that among certain families itwas customary to make runic inscriptions, especially on metal. These families probablyformed a small elite, a ‘middle-class’ or ‘upper middle-class', according to Roth (1994:310f.).His findings concerned South Germanic runic writing, but the situation may have been similarin other regions where runic writing was practised during roughly the same period. It was thesupposition that one or more specific groups were concerned, that provided the stimulus toinvestigate the character of such groups. It appears that these groups emerged in a society
with small power centres, as members of an elite controlling each other by way of a gift-exchange policy. They could afford to employ craftsmen, such as weaponsmiths and jewel-lers, who may have qualified to be among the first to possess runic knowledge.Some of the oldest runic inscriptions are signatures of weaponsmiths, who, by signing theirproducts, imitated a Roman practice. In a largely oral culture, such as that of the Germanicpeoples, writing was not primarily a means of communication, but rather a status symbol,because the addition of runes to an object increased its value. An attempt at mystificationthrough inscribing letters on the object may also have played a role.Later on, runographers can be located among bracteate-designers, although Moltke (1985:80,114) considered metal-workers illiterate, especially because of the many faulty and corruptrunes on bracteates. This, however, does not prove that all smiths were unable to write anyt-hing meaningful in runes. Artisans qualify as runewriters because of the so-called ‘makers’formulae that have been found on all sorts of objects. They could easily pass their knowledgeon to others, since some of them may have travelled in the retinue of some high-placed per-son, or they may have gone from market to market in a group of merchants and other craft-smen. This would explain why the practice of rune writing spread so quickly over a largearea.1.3. During the entire runic period up to the High Middle Ages, runes were used to formulateall sorts of texts, but in the early texts especially personal names are found. We find expressi-ons of ownership, signatures of makers and writers; dedications from one person to another,and also the names of the objects themselves. Runes were supposedly also used within a ritualcontext, as sometimes appears to be the case with amulets, gravegifts and objects deposited inbogs or hoards. Whether this required specialized rune writers, such as priests, is unknown.Any evidence of religion in early runic texts is ambiguous (perhaps apart from certain texts onbracteates, e.g.
‘I consecrate', sometimes followed by ‘the runes'). One may wonder aboutthe possible function of the consecration of runes, but apparently this referred to the use of certain, possibly formulaic, texts, in connection with a hitherto unknown ritual. The Stentof-ten rune stone from (assumingly) the 7th century bears a text that clearly refers to an act of offering: ‘with nine steeds, with nine he-goats, Haþuwulf gave
’ (Santesson 1989). If 
repre-sents its rune-name *
‘good year, harvest’ this may be interpreted as an instance of asymbolic use of runes, pointing to a function of runes in a context of a fertility ritual.1.4. In scholarly works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the runographers of the pastare often referred to as
. This suggests a highly skilled and extraordinary profes-sional, who would have performed in a cultic or religious setting, as a kind of ‘priest'.However, from the first centuries of recorded runic writing, evidence of priests propagatingrunes is lacking. I prefer to refer to the runographers in more neutral terms. Wulf (1994:31-44) states that there is no proof of any religious or magical connotation of runemasters’ namesin runic inscriptions. He presumes that many of those names are just ordinary personal names.1.5. The practice of offering and depositing war-booty in bogs suggests the involvement of some official religious ceremony. Especially weapons and bracteates were used for ritualdeposition, so if the religious character may be inadequately expressed by the texts, this mayhave been symbolized by or integrated in the act of offering. Even if it may not always bepossible to reconstruct the character of any cult, a sacred motive for the writing of runes at
certain occasions cannot be excluded. It may very well be that the very act of writing had afunction as a means of communication with the gods or the supernatural. Since only a few of the hundreds of deposited objects bear runes, these may have had a
 pars pro toto
function.Some words like
, alu
‘invitation’ on bracteates may point to the useof intoxicating herbs and drinks, possibly in connection with a cult.
2. From the pre-Roman Iron Age to the late-Germanic Iron Age
2.1. In the pre-Roman Iron Age (500-100 BC), Northern Europe is characterized by unpre-tentious cremation graves with gravegifts such as simple fibulae and girdle buckles, remarka-ble only in their uniformity (Parker Pierson 1989:199). There is evidence of offering practicesin which a special, priviliged caste may have been involved. Offerings in bogs and lakescontinued through the centuries. It was not just agricultural items such as wooden ploughsthat were deposited, but pots, iron and bronze arm- and neckrings and human beings as well.2.2. At around 200-150 BC, a remarkable development in burial practices took place in theNorth German Plain, in Denmark and in Southern Scandinavia (Parker Pearson 1989:202). Incertain cremation graves, situated at some distance from other graves, Celtic metalworkappears: brooches and swords, together with wagons, Roman cauldrons and drinking vessels.The area of these rich graves is the same as the places where later (first century AD) princelygraves are found. A ruling class seems to have emerged, distinguished by the possession of large farms and rich gravegifts such as weapons for the men and silver objects for the women,imported earthenware and Celtic items. This process continued throughout the beginning of this era and is especially noticeable in Jutland and on Funen. The first historical contacts withthe Romans took place during this period. The journey of the Cimbri and Teutons fromJutland, at the end of the second century BC, possibly resulted from different motives: e.g.internal struggles for power, overpopulation, climatic changes and long-distance trade, whichincluded the import of prestige goods. The pre-Roman Iron Age Germanic society hardlyknew any private property (perhaps apart from cattle), and certainly no privately owned land,since this was common property (Hedeager 1992:245). The agriculture of the celtic field-
system could not expand much and an increase of agricultural production was not possible,which put a strain on society. The first four centuries AD saw a reorganisation of the villages,the redistribution of land, improved tools and a larger produce of the fields. Hedeager(1992:245) conjectures that the early weapon deposits, and perhaps also the bog offerings of 
people in the north of Jutland, bear witness of internal conflicts. The differentiation processthat may have started at around 150 BC continued till the development of royal power centrescenturies later (Hedeager 1992:244ff.).
With the increase of the number of landowners (and private property), new tensions and con-flicts could originate within the community. The accumulation of property produced a newelite. Social status became important, which was expressed by the possession of prestigegoods (Hedeager 1988:137ff.). Literacy, used for spiritual or profane purposes, may be
expected to have developed among high-placed persons or privileged groups.The fact that the oldest known runic inscriptions were carved on weapons and on jewellery,and overwhelmingly bear names that can be interpreted as an expression of a ruling class can

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