Rune: What’s In A Name?

If you’d like to learn about the language of Old Norse, Jackson Crawford is your go-to guy in English. He taught Old Norse at several colleges and now shares his knowledge with a wider audience on YouTube. The quality of his postings are outstanding and I value his objectivity regarding what he teaches.

Einang Stone, Oppland, Norway,

Now on to the subject of the day. What does the word rune mean? First of all, it should be noted that runes are not a language, they are an alphabet much like the Roman alphabet you’re reading right now.

The word rune first appears in several stones including the Einang Stone (4th Century) and the Järsberg Stone (6th Century) and is written in Elder Futhark runes as runo and runos respectively.

The thing that interests me is the usage of the word as it appears in various languages of the time. While Jackson Crawford is very reluctant to make a mystical connection with the runes (and I totally respect that) I have no problem doing so. Here is how the word appears in various languages and the meaning attached to it:

Old Norse— rún (singular) rúnar (plural); later rúnir. It refers to the runic letters but secondary meanings include council or whispers. (i.e. a council is a group of people whose knowledge we seek out. A whisper implies something that is hidden or mysterious.)

Old English — rūna (singular), rūne (plural). It means runic letters.

Old Saxon — rūna (singular). It means council/advisors.

Old High German — rūna (singular). It means whisper or murmur.

Gothic — This is where things get really interesting. The Gothic Bible which was translated from the original Greek by Bishop Wulfila in the 4th Century (or a group of scholars using his name) uses rūna. He uses this word to translate three different Greek words: 1. counsel, i.e. advice or a council, 2. plan, and 3. mystery.

One example of the third translation is Ephesians 6:19—”Pray also for me, so that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery (runa) of the gospel.” [NRSVUE] (There are many more examples of this in his Gothic translation.)

So we can see that the word rune takes on more meaning than simply an alphabet. Yes, this was its primary use but we can see that the usage of the word itself implies that it is also a source of wise counsel that is a bit mysterious/hidden in nature.

This would seem to be in sync with Norse mythology where Óðinn sacrifices himself on the Yggdrasil tree in order to obtain the runes from the three Norns (Urðr, Verðrandi, and Skuld), the powerful female seers who are responsible for shaping the course of human destiny. But that’s another story for another time!

Written by David Taliesin, Much of the information contained in this post is based on the work of Jackson Crawford. Check out his YouTube channel.

About David Taliesin

My name is David Taliesin. I'm an writer, teacher and retreat leader who explores the connections between Christian and Pagan Spirituality. E-mail me with any personal comments you'd like to share and I will do my best to answer them. You can also contact me through my Facebook page
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