Runes were developed at much the same time as the Northern countries were first being exposed to the Latin alphabet, and were perhaps a way of developing a writing system that coped with phonemes that the Latinate alphabet did a bad job of. Contrary to still-current opinion, extensive archeological evidence indicates that not only were many Norse literate, but also that they used runes for everyday communication and notes. (A carved stick found in a trash midden in Oslo, along with several thousand other like ones, basically read "take this to my husband at the pub and tell him to come home now.") The use of runes was not innately magical, and there was no intrinsic POWER in runes.
Many current discussions of runes focus on their purported magic attributes, but their originators and users had no such misconceptions. They actually felt that writing, itself, was a thing of magic, no matter what the system in which one wrote, and often inscribed their weapons or tools with phrases (in Latin or runes) that invoked permanence or strength. It was the ability to write that Odin gained, when he let himself be crucified on the Tree of Life, and that it was in runes was incidental to the process.
Runes were intended to be incised, typically into the grain of wood, across the grain, and that dictates their shape. Almost all the runes, in the different varieties, have vertical staffs from which angular ascenders or descenders branch. This works well for both incused letters on wood, and for scratching on rock with a steel tool.
The ordered set of letters, what we call the alphabet, was referred to as the futhark, or futhorc, or other like names, depending on the language and the current letter set. The classical Anglo-Saxon alphabet had thirty one letters, with no provision for 'q' or 'x' but including the letter 'th' (which is why the English language, as we speak it, has such an incredibly high occurence of the 'th' phoneme) and similarly the letters 'ng', 'oe', and 'ae.'
Other varieties had as few as sixteen letters, in one briefly used version of the Old Norse futhorc, which required some pretty creative spelling on the part of the scribes who used it.
One point to note is that in the more durable runes, as seen in the Anglo-Saxon and traditional Germanic futhorcs, each letter was unique and could be inscribed as is, upside-down, or mirror-image without confusing what the letter was. Many rune writers habitually reversed the 's' rune, for instance.
Inscriptions also use, occasionally, a sort of shorthand, wherein they delete repeated letters. They might write the phrase, "The gold is with the spear" as "Th gold is withe sper."
I first encountered runes through the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and learned the Angerthas, his Anglo-Saxon-based rune system, because the person who sat beside me in physics took all his notes from MY notes, rather than the chalkboard, and that annoyed me, so I learned how to take notes in runes and stopped that little bit of frustration. I later learned Anglo-Saxon and can read and write a little of the language, as well as the alphabet.
References for runes include: Bright's Old English Reader and R. I. Page's books, "Reading The Past: Runes," and "An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Runes" which are scholarly and well-informed books, and "Norse Medieval Cryptography in Runic Carvings," by Alf Monge' and O G Landsverk, which, if you can find it, is certainly entertaining, if nothing else.
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