Runes – separating fact from fiction

Runes - A Handbook CoverThe author of The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney and The Norn language of Orkney and Shetland has released a new book that aims to separate the fact from fiction regarding viking runes.

Professor Michael P. Barnes is Emeritus Professor of Scandinavian Studies at University College London, and his new book, Runes: A Handbook, is a general introduction to runes and runic writing.

Runes, often considered magical symbols of mystery and power, are in fact an alphabetic form of writing. Derived from one or more Mediterranean prototypes, they were used by Germanic peoples to write different kinds of Germanic language, principally Anglo-Saxon and the various Scandinavian idioms, and were carved into stone, wood, bone, metal, and other hard surfaces.
Types of inscription range from memorials to the dead, through Christian prayers and everyday messages to crude graffiti.

First reliably attested in the second century AD, runes were supplanted by the Roman alphabet, though in Anglo-Saxon England they continued in use until the early eleventh century, and in Scandinavia until the fifteenth (and later still in one or two outlying areas).

The book aims to provide an accessible, general account of runes and runic writing from their inception to their final demise. It also covers modern uses of runes, and deals with such topics as encoded texts, rune names, how runic inscriptions were made, runological method, and the history of runic research.

Within the book is a discussion of the Maeshowe inscriptions in several places. The author also comments on what he calls the “heightened awareness” of runes in Orkney and the runic industry this awareness has spawned.

In addition, there is a detailed discussion of the Birsay inscription, found by Hugh Marwick in 1921, in a chapter devoted to an explanation of how runologists set about reading and interpreting inscriptions.

Runes: A Handbook, by Michael P. Barnes, is published by Boydell Press (ISBN 9781843837787) and costs £45.