Beowulf for beginners

Anglo Saxon Runes

When the Anglo-Saxons became Christians, they began to use the Roman alphabet for writing (as we still do today). Before that time, they wrote in runes like these:

rune alphabet

Each rune had a name, such as 'joy' joy or 'ash tree' ash tree. The runes were all made of straight lines, which made them easier to carve. Runes were often carved on precious objects - like an ivory box - or on stone monuments. Sometimes runes told the maker's name.

You can see that some of the runes are quite like our capital letters:

similar letters

Some are easier to guess if you turn them upside down,

similar if upside down

although some are not at all what you might expect:

not what you would expect

The word RUNE means secret or mystery. Runes had a religious meaning and were used in religious ceremonies. They were a charm or a spell as well as a way of writing messages.

This is why TO SPELL (meaning to put down the right letters in the right order) and A SPELL (as in a magic spell) are the same word in English. The Anglo-Saxons believed that if you used the right runes in the right order, they could have magical powers. For example, a prisoner could magically release himself by carving certain runes.

Even our words READ and WRITE are connected with runes. The Anglo-Saxon words

writan (= to carve runes) and ridan (= to interpret runes) became our words write and read.

Why not try using runes like a code to write secret messages to your friends? Look at the alphabet of runes again. As you can see, Anglo-Saxon had some sounds (like æ - ) that we don't use any more, but some letters you might need (q for example) are missing.You can make up your own runes for these. Remember to make them out of straight lines.

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