Runes (Old Norse, rúnir, secret signs, mysteries), an ancient graphic system employed chiefly by the Teutonic races of northern Europe, though traces of its use are found also in France and Spain. These characters originally served for divination and secret purposes, but it is not known at what time their use began. Specimens of runic writing have been found at Thorsbjerg and Nydarn dating from the 2d or 3d century; and though they were gradually superseded by the Roman alphabet, the runes remained partially in use in out-of-the-way districts of Scandinavia till the close of the last century. There are several varieties of runic writing, classed as the Anglo-Saxon, the German, and the Norse. The last is thought to represent the oldest form, from which the others were developed. It has an alphabet of only 15 or 16 letters, while that of the Anglo-Saxons finally numbered as many as 40. Among the variations, sometimes stands for 0, for N, for S, for T, for D, and for E. These variations in the forms of the letters, and the fact that they are sometimes read from left to right, sometimes from right to left, and sometimes alternately from the right and left, greatly increase the difficulty of deciphering them; but as 61 runic alphabets, or futhorcs, as they are called from the first six letters, have been gathered, it is possible to read any well preserved inscription with tolerable certainty. There is no evidence that runes were ever employed in the composition of books, or that they were used as familiarly and generally as other graphic systems. They were confined to inscriptions or carvings on rocks, stones, household utensils, weapons, and ornaments. They were also cut on smooth sticks, called rûn-stafas, or mysterious staves, generally of beech (Ger. Buche, whence Buchstab, letter), used for divination. It was even believed that a mysterious power resided in the runes, and some of them were considered as special safeguards of ships, others as capable of healing wounds, etc.
The use of the runes, thus associated in popular belief with sorcery, was discouraged by Christian missionaries. - Whatever valuable statements in regard to the nature of runes are to be found in the manuscripts of the middle ages have been gathered in Brynjulffsen's Perico-lum Runologicum (1823). See also Grimm, Weber deutsche Runen (1821) and Zur Litera-tur der Runen (1828); and Stephens, "Old Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England" (3 vols., London, 1867-'74).