People often think that runes were used only by the Vikings, but Germanic tribes used them as well. It also has been suggested that the runic alphabet originated with the Etruscans and other tribes living in Italy, although this is still being debated. In any case, runes were used to write many languages other than old Norse.
The earliest runes are dated from the middle of the 2nd century. This was long before the legendary Viking voyage to Lindisfarne monastery in the year of 793, an event that started the Viking Age and has been popularized in the TV series, Vikings.
Runes and runestones are two different subjects. Runes were first carved on softer materials, trees and bones, and then later into stones to give the messages longevity.
The Nordic languages, like many other languages, have different geographic dialects. Runes, an alphabetical system, also have several varieties. The three best-known are: Elder Futhark, used roughly in the period 100 to 800 AD; Younger Futhark used in the period 800 to 1100; and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc used in the period of 400-1100 AD. Elder Futhark, used in Northern Europe, was later replaced by Younger Futhark. Anglo-Saxon Futhorc came to Britain with the migration of the Jutes, the Frisian, the Saxons and the Angles. The word “Futhark” is derived from the first six letter of the alphabet.
Normally, runes were written to tell of voyages. Usually they include information about people who died during the voyage; therefore, runestones are normally made in the memory of someone. It is also common for the writer to include himself in the texts. Modern technology shows that the carvings are often a group project with three, or four, people doing the work.
Associated with the pagan period, runes are often mistaken to be mystical with esoteric meanings and magical powers. The word “rune” actually means secret or whisper. It is a common mistake to interpret runes as having symbolic meanings. In fact, they are read alphabetically and not like hieroglyphs.
As Christianity spread through Northern Europe, people started to add crosses to rune carvings; however, along with Christianity came the Latin alphabet and paper. Runes were eventually replaced by the ease with which messages could be recorded using paper and pen.
Although runes are most commonly associated with Scandinavia, some 6000 runic writings have been found throughout Europe. 4000 are in Sweden.