As a writer, language has always been a bit of a fascination. A simple word can change feelings, ideas and beliefs. A word can bring about reconciliation, or retribution. Human history is littered with examples. Adolf Hitler’s speeches would set in motion events that would lead the world to war. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke words that inspired great changes in society and the civil rights movement. Words have power, and the depth and variety of our language is one of the things that make us human.
Spoken language has been with humanity for a long, long time, and it could be said that unspoken language has been around for even longer. Language is not solely a human trait, as many animals communicate in some form of language. Writing is a whole different case however. Humanity is the only species on the planet that can claim literacy. Sure, we have tried to teach it to others (primates, ect), but only humans have mastered the craft.
Writing brought about great changes in learning and knowledge, in poetry and art, and yes, even religion. Many cultures across time have claimed that writing was the gift of the gods. In Norse mythology, writing is the gift of Odin in the form of runes. Many writers have elaborated upon the magical nature of written language. However, I do not think written magic was the reason writing came into being. It had a much more practical value, and was later adopted into a wider range of social functions, from creative to religious.
In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian civilization is the first known invention of writing. Sumerian society was complex culturally, politically and economically during the years 3000-2350 B.C.E, a period known archaeologically as the Early Dynastic Period. In the book Patterns of Prehistory the authors have this to say; “The role of writing in early Mesopotamian societies seems largely economic. Simple pictographs and spoken language cannot efficiently meet the requirements of a society that has surpluses to be stored and redistributed, water to allocated, lands rights to adjudicated, ritual prayers to be said, and all other tasks we find in complex cultures.” (Wenke, Pg 350) This quote illustrated why writing was needed and invented, to effectively run a complex society. Now, I will point out that ritual and religion was a large part of Sumerian society, and the various writings that have survived do attest to this. However, the point that must be emphasized is the economic nature of most writing from the time.
But what about runes? Runes as much as Latin or Greek, represent an alphabet, a series of symbols that represent single phonetic sounds, instead of whole words or ideas. Runes are often mentioned for their magical or religious nature, but like that of Sumeria the runes were first of economic importance and then adopted to religious functions. Now, by the time the Germanic people forged and used the runes, writing had long been in existence. It is thought by some that runes were created with inspiration from southern alphabets such as Latin and Greek.
Runes came into existence sometime around the second century C.E, and perhaps a little sooner. The question is why did they come into existence? Erik Moltke has this to say; “All talk about the priesthood needing writing for secret, magical purposes is nonsense, partly because we know nothing about a Germanic “priesthood” and partly because application of writing comes into being when it is needed, whether it serves to maintain the complex correspondences and accounts of state administration or to help a merchant keep track of his clients and stock at home and abroad.” (Moltke, Pg 69) It is important to note at this point that runes, the Germanic system of writing, came into being during the time of Imperial Rome. Roman goods and culture were consistently traded in Germany and Scandinavia, which is at least one reason a writing system would be needed. Terje Spurkland supports this line of thought by saying; “Today, most scholars agree that the script (runes) came about as a result of a compelling need for a means of written communication due to an expanding economy and growing administrative structure. When administration, management, trade and travel become so complex that human memory is no longer equal to the task, administrators and traders need a way to record their transactions. It is in this context we must seek the origin of runic writing. There is every reason to believe that some time around the the first century AD, trade and cultural contacts between northern Europe and the Roman Empire began to grow. This gave the Germanic peoples a practical, everyday need for written communication. ” (Spurkland, pgs 3-4.)
Now it seems we have a plausible reason for the invention of the runes. A practical need for written communication. I have hinted briefly upon the magical nature of language and the runes, but to detail such a complex cultural system would be another post entirely. And who knows, it just might be.
Spurkland, Terje. Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. 2005
Moltke, Erik. Runes and Their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere. 1985
Wenke, Robert and Olszewski, Deborah. Patterns In Prehistory. 2007