Nordic Magic Healing:
runes, charms, incantations, and galdr


Where does rune come from?

Disclaimer! This is not meant to be any authority or completed work, all comments, suggestions and additions are welcome.

The meaning of rune
What rune (OE run) means is debatable. There is a long-standing tradition which attributes to it such senses as 'whisper'; 'mystery'; and 'secret', suggesting that the symbols were originally used for magical or mystical rituals. Such associations were certainly present in the way the pagan Vikings (and possibly the Continental Germans) used the corresponding words, but there is no evidence that they were present in Old English.

Modern English rune is not even a survival of the Old English word, but a later borrowing from Norse via Latin.

For the modern, magical sense of rune we are therefore indebted to the Scandinavian and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

taken from p. 9, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
David Crystal, 1995


We can trace its roots back to a Proto-Indo-European echoic base, *reu- 'to give hoarse cries, mutter'

PIE *reu- then gave Proto-Germanic *runo

which gave Old Norse ru:n and Old English run which didn't survive, and Middle Dutch rune, Old High German runa, and Gothic runa.

Old Norse ru:n is the source for some borrowings: rune in modern English (via runic in Latin) and Finnish runo 'poem', 'canto'.

The English development of the word rune is nonetheless interesting. We find that the first recorded instances of the borrowed form of rune (i.e. runic) occur around 1662. Following its earliest developments we find:

about 725, OE ru:ne, ru:n, 'counsel', 'consultation'
about 899 and before, OE ru:ne, ru:n, 'a runic letter'
about 950, OE ru:ne, ru:n, 'a secret' or 'mystery'
about 1175, ME rune, roune, 'utterance', 'whisper', 'murmur', 'message'
about 1200, ME rune, roune, 'song', 'poem'.

PIE *reu- also gave raucus 'hoarse' which we have still in modern English and Latin rumor which then gave through Old French the Middle English rumour. In Old English we also find the cognates reon 'to lament' and reotan 'to complain'.

PIE *reu- is also said to have given Welsh rhin meaning 'secret'. Old Irish also has rhin meaning 'secret', but it isn't clear whether this happened through original relationship or borrowing (what can be said is that rune is not attested as a name of the Celtic characters).

And we find from *reus- to 'to dig ', Old Church Slavic ryti 'to dig'., with expansion lithuanian ruobti 'to incise', with a more developed meaning in Middle Dutch 'cut stallion', and in High German (col.) 'to cut down'.

Although I am not stating that there is an etymological link between rune and rovás, I would like to offer what I was able to find on it for interest's sake.

- = carve, engrave; notch; rovásirás = runic writing (irás = writing) (Magyar - According to MÉK, of F-U origin) // rogőm = cut out, etc. (Kanty) / roe, rue- = chop, cut (with an axe, etc.), hew (Mari) // [? hur = outline, scratch; draw, inscribe, sketch (Sumerian)] (COL)
note that a more exact translation for rovásirás might be 'engraved writing'.



the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
David Crystal, 1995

the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology
Robert Barnhart, 1995

Webster's NewWorld Dictionary
Third College Edition

Etymologisches Wörterbuch
Friedrich Kluge, 1989

Peter Chong's Ural Altaic Etymology Dictionary words referenced by Hungarian root words


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