If you saw “Lord of the Rings” you saw approximations of runes. Aragorn’s sword is practically covered in them. They gave the impression of mystery and ancient power. There is something about the look of runes that is intriguing and somewhat mysterious. But what are runes? Where did they come from? Where did they go?

Originally runes were a very old Germanic writing system. In other words, they were actually a real alphabet with symbols representing sounds, much like our alphabet today. The runic alphabets were called Futharks. These alphabets were used in Scandinavia, Iceland, Northern Europe and even what is now the United Kingdom. Runes were used as a writing system in these areas from probably before 100 BC until possibly as late as 1600 AD.

However, runes were not just used to write in those days. They had connections to magic and worship- in fact, the word rune means, in essence, mystery. The Norse shamans used runes in their rituals, due to the underlying meaning that the symbols had. The fact is that runes had two roles. One was to simply represent a sound, or a phoneme. So they were phonetic. The other role that runes had was that each one had a rather ethereal or mystical meaning. This meaning was often connected to the Norse gods, hence the use of runes in shamans’ rituals.

What happened to runes? Why don’t we use them anymore? The answer is actually surprisingly simple. Just like many languages and writing systems, runes evolved over the hundreds of years, adding more symbols and dividing into several different systems. But in the mid-seventeenth century, the Church decided it had to get the devil’s influence and trappings out of Europe and all of the rest of its domain. Since runes had a very strong connection to magic and mysticism- even common people used them to ‘cast spells’- the Church banned their use and display. This was more or less the death of runes for a time, although their surreptitious use continued.

Today, just like in the old days, runes are often used in divination and magic. There are no languages today that still use runes as their primary writing system, but many scholars, both professional and amateur, are breathing new life and interest in this ancient alphabet. Tolkien, of course, was one of them. Given that he was a professor of linguistics, he studied runes enough that he could create his own if he needed. What’s more, the runes in Lord of the Rings are not just random symbols; Tolkien created an entirely new language to be used by his elves!