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Cychwyn arni

Futhorc

The futhorc

The Early English runic system. This page is primarily concerned with this system although it also seeks to show development from the elder futhark and examines the development of its characters’ names from their Indo-European roots. It is not a resource for the younger (Norse) futhark – there are plenty of other pages for that. Note that ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowel markers are not used on this page for either Old English / Anglo-Saxon or Germanic. Standard orthography is used for Indo-European. What is never used is the reconstruction indicator, ‘*’.

  1. Derivation from the elder futhark
  2. The rediscovery of the futhark
  3. Elder futhark inscriptions & their problems
  4. North Italic origins of the futhark & Negau B
  5. Progress into Anglo-Saxon runes
  6. Full list of Anglo-Saxon runes: the futhorc
  7. The elder futhark’s real names
  8. Proto-Indo-European and the Germanic languages
  9. An example: the Franks Casket

1 Derivation from the elder futhark

The elder futhark was used by North West Germanic peoples from perhaps around 200 AD to 700 AD although the dates are hazy and considerable development took place over this time. Slightly mysteriously, it seems to have been drawn from a North Italic writing system, perhaps Rhaetic – used in the Tyrol, during a period of contact. Alternatively, it may have been an interpretation of the Latin alphabet through mercenary or mercantile contact.

Each rune had an essentially acrophonic name and the names of some deities Ansuz, Tiwaz and Ingwaz were included. These appear sometimes to have been used as invocations in sequences.

2 The rediscovery of the futhark

A millennium went by before anyone took any real interest in the futhark again. But by the end of the Renaissance there was renewed scholarship from people such as Johannes Bureus (died 1652). He viewed runes through the tradition of kabbalistic magic and his influence probably remains today. In the early eighteenth century, the cause was taken up by the Swedish inventor of the Centigrade temperature metric, Anders Celsius.

But it was the nineteenth century which saw the real explosion in Germanic philology, particularly through the studies of one of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1755-1863), polymath, lawyer, collector of linguistic materials and folk traditions. Grimm is especially known for identifying the basic patterns in chain shifts between proto-Indo-European (PIE) and proto-Germanic of stops, fricatives and stop consonants, building on existing work by Rasmus Rask and Friedrich von Schlegel.

3 Elder futhark inscriptions and their problems

The elder futhark. Note here that the last two characters are usually presented in the reverse order to that of the futhorc.

The elder futhark has 3 lines of 8 runes – 24 characters in all, which remained a significant number even once new runes were added. Whilst many of the characters are identical, some are completely different. However, this must have taken place as a gradual process. In East Anglia alone we can see several separate phases of development.

Early runic inscriptions are concentrated in Denmark and northern Germany. Their biggest issue is that, despite all the claims, they are often essentially incomprehensible. They are a mix of assumed personal names, charms – alongside ALU and strings of Ansuz and Ingwaz runes, the mysterious ‘GA-GA-GA’.

4 North Italic origins and Negau B

a North Italic origins, A.L.U. and the Os deity

Closer analysis shows some very awkward and unexpected interconnections.

Firstly, it appears that the basic alphabet system is not some local Germanic invention at all. It seems to be derived from some Etruscan-based alphabet system, most likely one used in Rhaetia in the Tyrol. The Etruscan language looks to be pre-Indo-European although a million arguments still surround the origins of this once important language.

Rhaetic was either derived from it or strongly influenced by it and adopted a similar writing system. Contact with Germanic peoples must have been quite late.

Although all these scripts can, ultimately, be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet, North Italic script systems are clearly sourced to the western / Euboean Greek route (which, for example, lacked the familiar letter OMEGA) in contrast to the ‘eastern’ Doric / Corinthian model. It was probably transmitted to the Italian peninsula through settlements such as Cumae, now adjacent to the modern Italian urban area of Naples.

From about 600 BCE, there were notable changes as the alphabet was modified to better suit the (unrelated) Etruscan language. About 150 BCE, the alphabet began to come under the influence of its Latin equivalent. The shift in Central Italic hegemony towards Rome was so swift that shortly after, the Etruscan language disappeared almost without trace. Rome was evidently at least partly responsible, but movements of Celtic and Germanic peoples may also have played their part. These Germanic movements are now lost but must have taken place around 100 AD?

The writing system was not the only cultural exchange. There is also the strange case of the A.L.U. invocation. In theory, this should simply mean ‘ale’.

This invocation is evident alongside early elder futhark inscriptions and at the Norfolk site at Spong Hill, accompanied by the urn-lid in the form of an early version of Rodin’s Thinker. Nothing like him has ever been found from the period.

But stamped backwards on the urn is the invocation A.L.U.

Communicating with the Past: Anglo-Saxons, Runes and Ale | Saxon, Anglo  saxon history, Saxon history
Note that it is designed to be read from above!

Meanwhile in the Alps the same invocation letter combination has been found.

The third similarity is a little more circumspect and – to the best of my knowledge, has received little or no attention. The ‘Ansuz’ rune is transcribed into Anglo-Saxon as OS. It is the base for the names of all those kings (especially, of Northumbria): Oswald, Oswiu, Oswine, Osred, Oswulf, Osberht etc. But the word on its own seems to have been detested by Christian writers. On its own, it should simply imply ‘a god’ but seems to be strongly connected with the Woden association.

In the Etruscan faith, a god was called ais (later eis), which in the plural is aisar. Recall that in the Nordic interpretation of the Germanic tradition the family of the gods was called Aesir. It is surely more than an extraordinary co-incidence?

b The Negau B inscription

Found in what is now the Slovenian village of Ženjak (which has never been properly excavated), the find was an Etruscan vetulonic (Vetulonia was an ancient Etruscan city) helmet dating from around 400 BCE but not buried until around 50 BCE. The inscription was first thought to be in runes but is actually an Etruscan or North Etruscan alphabet. The critical thing is when the inscription was added.

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Negau B helmet (with the name HARIGASTI) ; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna User:Peter1936F

5 Progress to Anglo-Saxon runes.

Whether we call the languages of the north-west Germanic speaking area, Ingvaeonic or, simply, Anglo-Frisian (and the position of the Old Saxon language would be relevant to such a distinction), areal changes were already taking place in relative unison from Germanic. In many dialects, there were new words, nasal spirants, the loss of person distinction in plural verbs and a shift towards -(o)s noun plurals. This meant that by the time of the emergence of Anglo-Saxon runes there were new vowel sounds to cover and, in particular, the Ansuz rune fractured into three distinct vowels, named after trees then common in ‘England’.

Germanic dialects ca. AD 1.png
Above: The distribution of the primary dialect groups in Europe in around AD 0-100:   North Germanic (IN BLUE) Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic IN RED), Weser-Rhine Germanic, (Istvaeonic), Elbe Germanic (Irminonic), East Germanic.
AKAKIOS – Based on Germanic Groups ca. 0CE.jpg by Varoon Arya (source used is König, Werner (2001). dtv-Atlas Deutsche Sprache. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag 2001. ISBN: 3-423-03025-9; pp. 46, 52.) and The Indo-European Languages, A G Ramat, P Ramat. Taylor & Francis, 1998. ISBN 041506449X. A Culture Cycle from the Early and Middle Bronze Age. Jan Dobrowski. Archaeologia Polonia. XVI, 1975.
Below: The Undley bracteate, found near Lakenheath in East Anglia.

The next blog post (on the historicity of Beowulf) will mention both the Cotton Library fire of 1731 and George Hickes. Both could be mentioned in a discussion of the Old English Rune Poem, Lost in the fire of Ashburnham House, we are lucky that it was transcribed by Humfrey Wanley and passed on to Hickes. The poem will not play a major part in this post but will be mentioned occasionally.

The incomprehensibility issue continues in East Anglia, where we glimpse a transitional phase between the elder futhark and the English futhorc. On the Undley bracteate (found near Lakenheath, Suffolk) we see the earliest discovered shift of the O vowel sound in GAEGOGAE, presented here as bind runes with side twigs. [Bind runes are two runes joined into one by a ligature.] Did ᚷᚨ originally imply ‘Woden’s gift’? And, if so, did the oak and the ash tree become guilty of association with the deity?

Both the oak and the ash tree are associated with specific deities in other Indo-European cultures. For example, for Ancient Greece, the oak was sacred to Zeus (ultimately cognate with Tiw(az), suggesting a greater role for this deity in the lost past) whilst the ash was Poseidon’s tree.

A relatively clear case in Leicestershire suggests that the oak was sacred to Thunor (better known now as ‘Thor’). But the ash also had a literary use as ‘spear’ as in the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’.

Ash would have had a proto-Germanic root, ASKAZ or ASKIZ from the PIE Heh₃s-. Originally, this might have implied quite a broad grouping of trees or else the precise meaning of the word might have changed in diverse environments. Cognates in other languages sometimes relate to other species: the beech in Albanian and Greek, the wild mountain ash in Latin. Later, Norse thinking suggests that the ash was some kind of ‘axis mundi’, Odin’s crucifix.

The Old English Rune Poem transcribes OS as Latin ‘mouth’ to avoid mentioning the god. Similarly Tiw / Tyr (the Scandinavian form) is mutated to TIR (victory / glory).

A further development from [the certainly out-of-date] Germanic was the incorporation of what is known as apocope (the loss of an unstressed syllable, in this case at the end of a word, for example LUPUS to LOUP in French or WIROS in proto-Italic and proto-Celtic to FER in Old Irish and VIR in Latin). FEHU ceased to have a U ending, URUZ dropped its -UZ etc.

6 Full list of Anglo-Saxon runes: the futhorc

FEOHFEHU Fee but also cattle / property. The cattle connection goes right back to PIE, péku as in pecuniary cf. pecora in Italian (sheep).

URURUZProbably ‘aurochs’. PIE root is complicated, possibly connected with redness,(H)us-r-(en-) or maybe with being wet. These two concepts might once have been linked. An additional complication is that URUZ might earlier have been URO.
THORN[THURISAZ]Thorn means what it says.
But the elder futhark equivalent meant ‘giant’. ‘Thunder’ and ‘Thor’ are unlikely to be unconnected with the Norse rune being called Thurs. Why would this change have taken place?
OSANSUZ
WODINAZ (Woden). Names such as Oswald preserved this representation of Woden. PIE h₂émsus. Notice the sound change in the Anglo-Frisian version. The old ANSUZ rune was transferred to AESC.
RADRAIDORide in the sense of ‘journey’. Raido is also the source of the words ‘road’ and ‘raid’. From PIE root reydʰ-.
CEN[KAUNAN]
Cen means ‘torch’ but the elder futhark equivalent may well have meant ‘ulcer’ (the meaning of the younger futhark derivative). Proto-West Germanic kiʀn may have been relatively late. You will see kaunan written more correctly as Kauną.
GYFUGEBOGift. Ultimately from PIE gʰebʰ-. This rune cannot have derived from the Etruscan alphabet systems as the symbol had a completely different sound association. It is posited that it derives from Latin with X as in REX / REGIS beginning to sound like a G.
WYNNWUNJOJoy. Linked on a PIE root, ultimately wenh₁- (desire, wish, love, lust), is the Latin deity VENUS.
Like THORN it survived the transfer into the Latin alphabet as Ƿ in competition with ‘UU’.
HAEGLHAGALAZ

H sound.
kagʰlos in PIE may well have meant ‘pebble’.
NYDNAUDIZNeed – but also distress / coercion. The modern English is the merger of two roots.
ISISAZIce – but may originally have meant something closer to ‘frost’ or ‘hoarfrost’.
The Germanic root might be better given as ISAN (Isą).
From PIE h₁eyH-.
GER*JERA
The PIE root (yeh₁-ro-) may well have started as ‘spring’. ‘Hour’ is ultimately from the same root. The Germanic root might be better as JERAN.
EOHIHWAZYew. h₁eyHweh₂ (PIE). IHWAZ is a masculine variant of IHWO.
PEORTH(?) PERTHAZNobody really as a clue about this one!
It is the letter representing the P sound. It has no equivalent in the [Norse] Younger Futhark. It might mean something like ‘pear tree’, ‘fruit tree’ or ‘wood of pear’.
EOLHXALGIZ
Cladium mariscus.jpeg
The letter combination KS. Originally thought to be Elk. h₁élḱis (PIE – although there are other possibilities).
This may not be the name of the elder futhark letter at all, reliant as it is on EZEC in the Gothic system. The rune cannot be acrophonically named and even the Anglo-Saxon rune is probably a misunderstanding for elk-sedge, a material useful for thatching but which cuts fingers easily – fitting nicely with the Old English rune poem.
SIGEL[SOWILO]
Sail. It could have started by meaning ‘sun’ – which is what sowilo meant and what is implied in the Old English Rune Poem. Note that there is an alternative ‘bookhand’ script variant (hence the different stone type!).
TIWTIWAZThe god, Tiw (Tyr in Norse). PIE deywós (god), presumably implying something that shines. Note that the Greek, theos, is a false cognate here but Zeus is not.
BEORCBEKANANBirch. bʰerHǵós in PIE. But there is something slightly odd about the proto-Germanic furhark name here. Should it not really just be BERKO?
EHEHWAZHorse / steed. Just in case you wondered what happened to the ‘equus’ root, h₁éḱwos, in English.
MANNMANNAZMan / human. Mon- (PIE) may be connected with spiritual activity.
LAGULAGUZLake / body of water / sea.
INGINGWAZ
The god, Ing / Freyr.
“ᛝ Ing was first amidst the East Danes
so seen, until he went eastward
over the sea. His wagon ran after.
Thus the Heardings named that hero.”
ETHELOPILA
(ablaut variant)
Homeland – later the elite of a territory, the nobility – tied in with many Anglo-Saxon royal names such as Aethelstan, Aethelred.
DAEGDAGAZDay. PIE dʰogʷʰ-o-s may be connected with burning but the connection would not follow established rules. Latin ‘dies’ is supposedly a false cognate. Ultimately, this sits alone in the Germanic languages.
AClarge_o2New rune in the fifth or sixth century connected with sound changes. Given that long and short markers are not used here, it needs pointing out that this A is almost like that in SALT (but that too will depend upon from whence you hail).
AESCAsh tree. You will note that this is the old Ansuz rune with a new sound. The name may also have had royal associations in Kent.
[?] YRThis is a variant on UR but is likely to sound different. Perhaps Y? Possibly, ‘bow’.
EARA late introduction to the English rune set but cannot postdate the 800s. It is present on the Seax of Beagnoth, found in the Thames at Battersea in 1857.
Iron seax
It may mean ‘earth’ or ‘grave earth’.
CWEORTHProbably Sword. Its precise sound value is unclear although usually given as KW. Bear in mind that this sound remains common in English although is now written QU-.
CALCK – sound. Perhaps Chalice or Chalk? The symbol appears on the Ruthwell Cross although the texts may have been added as late as the tenth century.
GAR Spear. GE or YE. Almost certainly a modified form of GYFU.
* Manuscripts also record an IOR rune related to the GER rune with the shape of ᛡ, but its authenticity is questionable.

On the right hand side above are given (where possible) reconstructed Indo-European roots. This helps us recognise that this is a very long-term process of word transition.

7 The elder futhark’s real names

Proto-Germanic was just a ‘phase’. To some extent this is true of all languages, which change all the time. But the proto-Germanic variants may have been around for a thousand years, perhaps beginning around 500 BCE.

The names for the elder futhark runes are all based on a reconstructed proto-Germanic. As such they are unlikely to be the sounds present circa 200 AD to 700 AD. By the time of the development of the West Germanic dialects, GEBO had become GEBU and in Old Saxon was GEVA. ANSUZ may have gone through phases such as ANSU and AS, RAIDO through RAIDU, DAGAZ through DAG, perhaps even through DAI, EHWAZ through EHW, LAGUZ through LAGU, WUNJO through WUNNJU and so forth.

8 Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and the Germanic languages

Excuse a bit of a digression here…

a A piece of PIE

I should say up front here that I am taking a ‘revised Pontic Steppe’ approach here simply as it forms the basis of a current consensus. Renfrew’s Anatolian Hypothesis would probably leave us with over 4000 years between ‘Northwest Indo-European’ and the emergence of the Germanic dialects.

PIE cannot be younger than its oldest offspring (although there is room for the possibility of coexistence). However, there are specific problems with the Anatolian ‘branch’ which had relatively few languages but these included Hittite and Luwian, important from the perspective of Near Eastern archaeology. They may have separated about 3400 BCE before an eastward movement of the ‘language’, essentially evolving from a ‘pre-proto-IE’. These languages are, therefore, more like distant aunts and uncles rather than Indo-European siblings.

Proto-Greek and proto-Indic seem to have separated by 2400 BCE. Whilst they might be the oldest offspring to survive in inscriptions, branches such as Celto-Italic probably separated much earlier. Riger, Warnow and Taylor suggest that pre-PIE might have been spoken as early as 4500 BCE with PIE beginning around 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE the language had evolved into a dialect continuum with the last branches separating about 2500 BCE. Germanic is thought to have separated about 3300 BCE. All this, of course, changes every few years!

But since Common Germanic is rarely dated to before 500 BCE, that leaves a long time for such dialects to develop.

b The possible relevance of the Corded Ware Culture

Corded Ware is an archaeological horizon, seemingly closely related to the posited Urheimat of Indo-European, the Yamnaya horizon. Corded Ware formed a huge area from the Rhine to the Volga (although was never a unified culture) and covered the period from around 3000 BCE to 2300 BCE – an immense span of time going from the Neolithic to the early Bronze Age. The earlier belief that the Corded Ware people were indigenous to the area has been overturned by an abrupt shift in DNA now obvious thanks to advances in archaeogenetics.

By File:Corded Ware culture.png : User:Dbachmann (2005)File:Europe laea location map.svg : User:Alexrk2derivative work : User:Sir Henry – File:Corded Ware culture.pngFile:Europe laea location map.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26206705

Mallory argued that this area was important in the generation and spread, not only of what were to become Germanic dialects, but also the Balto-Slavic languages (i.e. Slavic languages which would eventually become Russian, Polish and Bulgarian as well as Baltic languages such as Lithuanian and Old Prussian) and the Celtic languages (not just Welsh and Gaelic but also lost languages such as Gaulish and Lepontic). Anthony has suggested that the Germanic dialects might have been nurtured by the Usatovo Culture, between the Vistula and the Dniestr around 3000 BCE. From here they may have travelled up-river to Central Europe. Manco has suggested an alternative along the Danube.

c The intermediary period (1) – Single Graves and Beakers

In Western Europe, the Beaker Culture interacted and coexisted with the western areas of the Corded Ware culture. The Beaker culture had probably ‘originated’ in Spain although some argue for completely different courses of development. Manco has argued that the Bell-Beaker society was ancestral to the Italo-Celtic groupings. Over broadly the same period, northern Germany and Jutland were under the ‘Single Grave’ culture – a local variant of Corded Ware.

d The intermediary period (2) – The Nordic Bronze Age

Closely related to the Corded Ware culture was the Nordic Bronze Age, evidently an advanced trading culture with links across Central Europe all the way down to the Mycenaean culture and to Sardinia. Vast quantities of copper, tin and gold were imported, seemingly in exchange for amber.

e Iron Age Jutland and Tacitus’ account of the region

In the Iron Age, northern Germany and Jutland were the home of the Jastorf Culture, named after a village in Lower Saxony. Over the period from about 500 BC to 1 AD we see relatively modest grave goods.

Tacitus (approx. 56 AD – 120 AD) was responsible for the major Roman ethnographic work on the Teutonic tribes, although he very probably did not go to the region and definitely used a lot of secondary sources – including Pliny. Notably, there still do not appear to be any runes in the region at this time. He describes the Germanic tribes as separated into three – the three sons of Mannus. Mannus was purportedly a figure in the creation myths of the Germanic tribes but Tacitus is the only source of these myths. Mannus was supposedly progenitor of the three Germanic tribes: Ingvaeones, Herminones and Istvaeones.

Caesar was actually responsible for classing the Cimbri and Suevian peoples as Germanic, although ‘German’ as a term might originally have been designed to describe the Gauls! Indeed, much of southern and western Germany was part of the La Tène culture.

Tacitus is also probably responsible for the first literary mention of the Angles. He describes the Anglii living in a remote corner (no pun intended), alongside the Langobardi and the Semnones. He grouped the Angles with several other tribes in that region, the Reudigni, Aviones, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini, and Nuitones. Alongside several other tribes, he claimed that they worshipped a goddess called ‘Nerthus’, who dwelt on an island.

The approximate positions of some Germanic peoples reported by Graeco-Roman authors in the 1st century. Suevian peoples in red, and other Irminones in purple.
Author: Andrew Lancaster (June 2020)

It is perhaps also worth mentioning here the Nordwestblock theory, coined by philologist, Hans Kuhn. He argued that during the Bronze and Iron Ages, the northwest of Europe still hosted a non-Indo-European culture tied to Neolithic farmers in the Mediterranean. Gysseling suspected an intermediate Belgian language between Germanic and Celtic, that might have been affiliated to the Italic group. One other theory is that the mystery language was some sort of Rhaetic outpost. All these theories are based on some inexplicable names in areas surrounding the Netherlands.

An example of English runes: the Franks Casket

(British Museum & Bargello Museum, Florence)

Webster – British Museum publication, Objects in Focus – The Franks Casket
British Museum – own photo (2019). Note the switch of the top right of the image.

a Background

Use of runes in England continued for several centuries. The Franks Casket (named after the collector, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, not the people) probably dates from between 650 AD and 750 AD [The British Museum places it in the latter half of this and suggests that it might have been made in Northumbria around 700, drawing on a whole new medium of expression brought about by the arrival of Christianity – see Webster.] Whilst there are no direct comparators, there are similarities with religious manuscripts in terms of motifs from the seventh and eighth centuries.

Franks gave it to the British Museum after becoming Keeper for the British & Mediaeval Antiquities Department. It is mainly in runes but shifts into the Latin alphabet at one point. It appears to be in a very early English dialect – but, as we will see later, there is a complication. It seems likely that the creator knew quite a lot about Roman reliquary caskets. But even Kendrick in the twentieth century considered this work to be ‘crude and incompetent’.

It certainly needs some context as there is nothing like it (so far discovered) in either England or anywhere else in the Germanic world. But there are similar objects from Northern Italy and Istria now housed in Venice.

b Front Panel

The scenes show the Christian imagery of the Adoration of the Magi awkwardly juxtaposed with the legend of Wayland the Smith, although Webster argues that all the scenes are intended to be read as pairs. The text here is not a narrative; rather it is a play on the whalebone material. Now pale, it was originally somewhat more garish. The owner may well have found it every bit as challenging as we do. But even the whale plays its part – indeed, whale flesh may have been reserved for royals – with the focus on kingship and exile. Jonah knew this.

On the left hand side of the panel, Wayland the Smith takes revenge of the children of his captor after his brutal laming by Nithhad.

It is here we see the famous ‘Fisc flodu’ line. That is where most people stop because, whilst the U on the end of FLOD is a little archaic, it is still essentially comprehensible – even from Modern English. The rest is very odd.

Fisc : Flodu

ᚠᛁᛋᚳ.ᚠᛚᚩᛞᚢ.ᚪᚻᚩᚠᚩᚾᚠᛖᚱᚷ | ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ | ᚹᚪᚱᚦᚷᚪ:ᛋᚱᛁᚳᚷᚱᚩᚱᚾᚦᚫᚱᚻᛖᚩᚾᚷᚱᛖᚢᛏᚷᛁᛋᚹᚩᛗ | ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚫᛋᛒᚪᚾ

Right from the start, we have to deal with something unexpected and an analysis by Becker. We are dealing with magic by both word use and numerology. Let us go back to our original futhark. There are 24 letters and they are written in three lines of eight – in fact, each line is called an aett. The logic of this 24 character set retained its psychological hold even when new runes were added. The numbers three and eight retained some special significance as well as their ‘products’ (i.e. the results of multiplications).

3 x 8 = 24

24 x 3 = 72

Even the separators / lack of separators come in to play. This panel has 68 runic characters … and four dots, totalling 72. If the first rune (the wealth rune) is given the value 1, the second, 2 etc., then the runes on this panel sum to 720.

And we get here because this is not a dialect, it is a deliberate choice of awkward words and strange spellings. Even the first, oft-quoted, word is a strange choice. It defies usual word order; it is not the subject of the sentence. And this should not be played down as it is probably the very earliest piece of poetry in the English language.

And what of the Magi? They are not as simple as they look either. Remember that the Greek word, magos, means ‘magician’ from a couple of hapaxes in Old Iranian. Becker also points out that the word that appears above them, M[AE]GI, means, ‘they can’ – not actually quite, but perhaps never mind! They are beneath a rosette, symbol for the moon, with 13 rays (lunar months?).

On the Valknut, the Swastika, and Your Moral Obligation to Punch Nazis –  Rhydnara the Viking
A Valknut

The depiction of the Virgin and child could be almost any mother deity it is so stylistic. The runes beneath her are operating backwards, unique for this panel! The third king seems to be accompanied by a Valknut. And forget angels or anything, they appear to have come with a what looks like a goose! But is the birds an echo of those on the other part of the panel, being plucked for Wayland’s eventual escape. Indeed, is this all a play on the theme of salvation?

Adoration of the Magi

Becker has also suggested that this is a play of the F and G runes. We are dealing with a feohgift. Regardless of the intervening centuries, feohgift still almost makes sense.

c Left panel

This one features the story of Romulus & Remus, the tweogen gibrothaer who founded Rome-caester! It might be telling that the image has been used elsewhere in East Anglian art. Alternatively, there might be a parallel with the Hengest & Horsa story (and it really is only a story linked to an Indo-European deific tradition), perhaps connecting the item with the kingdom of Kent, although most commentators have argued that it is Northumbrian, a few East Anglian and I might even throw in the ‘lost’ kingdom of Lindsey. Both Hengest & Horsa (lit. ‘Horse’ and ‘Horse’) and Castor & Pollux are the Dioscuri, associated with horsemanship, in keeping with their origin as the Indo-European horse twins.

Webster – British Museum publication, Objects in Focus – The Franks Casket.
The left panel: Romulus & Remus

But, in this version of the Roman foundation story, the she-wolf’s mate is also given some attention. And this time, some of the Runic signs are carved upside down as though (as at Spong) they should be read from above, or by something above. Both of these ‘upside’ sections refer to Rome. is this an emphasis on the shifts of time and the new religion’s focus on Rome?

d Rear panel

This one depicts scenes from the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73 AD). This panel is a bizarre mix of Old English and Latin and of the Latin and runic futhorc. The Latin text on the right hand side even wanders between the two. Why this revolt? Is there even a parallel with that of the Iceni as early Anglo-Saxons took on pre-existing territorial boundaries?

Or is this really about the replacement of an old religion (in this case, Judaism) by a new one, Christianity? That could play into the duality of Christian and Germanic reliefs. At the heart of this scene is the Holy of Holies including the Ark of the Covenant. So, the play is that one gets replaced by the other – but they are never entirely separate. In the top right of the panel it should be obvious that the text switches alphabets. It does so when it mentions Rome. But when it turns a right angle, it continues in Latin but in Germanic runes (AFITATORES). The abrupt shifts of alphabet may signify the decline of an old order and the emergence of a new one.

Webster – British Museum publication, Objects in Focus – The Franks Casket.
The Ark of the Covenant

Meanwhile, down in the bottom right corner is the word, GISL (hostage) in the singular. It has been suggested that this might be some play on a personal name.

e Lid (part lost):

The lid probably consisted of three separate plates slotted into edging trips. One of the two surviving plates may well be a later replacement. It is the only panel which lacks a surviving frame inscription.

It may feature either a lost legend of Egil or, perhaps the Trojan War and Achilles [Aegili or Egli]. Egil was the brother of Wayland and an archer. Maybe they are not even considered to be separated, quietly fused into one?

f Right panel

Webster – British Museum publication, Objects in Focus – The Franks Casket.
The right panel.

This stumps everyone. Was it always the hardest to interpret? It is described by the British Museum as an unidentified scene from a Germanic legend.

Here the runes are run together without separators in a most archaic style. Usual runic vowels are now dropped and replaced with a cipher. Whilst some are easy to decipher, the A versus Aesc becomes almost impossible to fathom. Does this tell us anything about the date? Is it possible that this panel slightly predates all the others? Probably not – more likely, it is another game.

Take a look at the hybrid beast on the left hand side. It is confronted by a warrior whose helmet might imply that he is of relatively high status. But we can know nothing now. It is not even possible to work out whether the script relates to the side with the hybrid beast or the right hand side of the panel with the woman with either a baby or a goblet.

Becker has even suggested that the casket really refers to the gap between lunar years and sidereal years, the 8 year corrective and the 19 year corrective known as the Metonic Cycle. However, this is in part reliant on his interpretation of the bookhand sigel, ᚴ, alongside his understanding of the panels themselves.
Tomruen – Own work
A simulated timelapse of the full moon appearing on or near Christmas day from 1711-2300 CE, with one frame for every 19th year according to the periodicity of the Metonic cycle. The embedded graph shows the shifting timing of full moon with December 25 in the middle, December 24 below, and December 26 above in a secular drift due to the fact that the 19-year period approximating the Metonic cycle is not exact.

So, whose casket was it?

Not to put too fine a point on it, we don’t know. Webster obviously does not know either but throws around a couple of Northumbrian royal names: the scholarly Aldfrith (685 – 704) and Eadberht (737 – 758) with his triple knot themed coinage.

However, if it turned out to be East Anglian, then there are so many confused periods that we would simply go back to square one.

Hysbysebu
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