From the ‘Rune Poems’ to the ‘Orbis Sensualium Pictus’


Written language generally either denotes a relation between written symbols and speech sounds (‘sound-based writing’) or a relation between the written symbols and meaning (‘ideographic’ or ‘meaning-based writing’).[1] Over time, alphabets generally develop “either from icon to symbol, or from icon to phoneticism or both.”[2] The fuþark alphabet, used for writing in Old English and medieval Scandinavian languages, displays sound-based and meaning-based characteristics and can therefore be typified as a mixture of both. The fuþark alphabet letters represent both a sound as well as a rune name. The (modern) Latin alphabet is entirely phonetic and the individual letters exclusively refer to sounds and are not connected to letter names.

This paper proposes that the function of rune names is comparable to that of letter names. The Rune Poems are a pedagogical tool dating back to Antiquity. Modern literacy pedagogy is usually traced back to the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (‘Illustrated World of the Senses’) by Jan Amos Comenius, first published in 1658, which was widely translated and greatly influenced literacy teaching up to the early twentieth century.[3] The Orbis Sensualium Pictus features an illustrated Latin primer in which the letters of the alphabet are linked to man-made and animal-made sounds. This paper shall explore the unique hybrid nature of the medieval Rune Poems and the early modern Orbis Sensualium Pictus and demonstrate that both texts are illustrative of how the history of literacy pedagogy is linked to the general movement from iconic to phoneticism in alphabet history.

The Runic Writing System and its Historical Context

Written language, particularly in modern times, is commonly regarded as a phonemic representation of spoken language.[4] In general, written language either denotes a relation between written symbols and speech sounds (‘sound-based writing’) or a relation between the written symbols and meaning (‘ideographic’ or ‘meaning-based writing’).[5] In practice, these two systems are not absolute opposites: most written languages today are a mixture of sound-based and meaning-based elements.[6] The term ‘logograph’ is used to describe written symbols displaying “meaningful units.”[7] In pictographic (meaning-based) languages, a logograph can have two different meanings: one similar to the icon, the other relating to a similar-sounding word in spoken language. This phenomenon is known as the ‘rebus-principle.’[8] Over time, logographs often change their form. This form change develops “either from icon to symbol, or from icon to phoneticism or both.”[9] The Runic alphabet displays sound-based and meaning-based characteristics and can therefore be typified as a mixture of both. The ‘rebus-principle’ is also found in the runes and rune names. The Runic alphabet was predominantly used in Scandinavia, the Netherlands (Frisia), Germany, and Anglo-Saxon England.[10] Each runic alphabet was adapted to fit the local dialect.[11] The oldest alphabet is the Germanic Fuþark, also known as the Elder Fuþark, which consists of twenty-four runes.[12]

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚨ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ ᚹ ᚺ ᚾ ᛁ ᛃ ᛈ ᛇ ᛣ ᛊ ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛜ ᛞ ᛟ
f u þ a r k g w h n i j p ï ʀ s t b e m l ŋ d o

Inscriptions in the Older Fuþark commonly do not adhere to any rules regarding the direction of writing, which may go from left to right, from right to left, from top to bottom, from bottom to top, or in a combination of different writing directions. Moreover, individual runes are sometimes reversed.[13] Since word spacing and the doubling of consonants were commonly not applied either, runic inscriptions in the Elder Fuþark are often very difficult to read and interpret.[14]

The Old English Fuþorc alphabet features an expansion of the Elder Fuþark to accommodate for particular sounds in the Old English language.[15] The ᚪ (āc) and ᚨ (æsc) runes were added, representing the Old English vowels ā and æ. Further additions are the ᚸ (ḡār), ᛣ (calc), and ᚴ (s, also known as ‘bookhand S’[16]) runes. It must be noted, however, that the latter three runes are only found in manuscripts.[17] The Old English Fuþorc is the largest of the known runic alphabets, counting thirty-three runes when including the three variant runes only found in manuscripts.

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚩ ᚱ ᚳ ᚷ ᚹ
f u þ o r c g w

ᚻ ᚾ ᛁ ᛡ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛋ
h n i j z p x s

ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛝ ᛞ ᛟ
t b e m l ŋ d oe

ᚪ ᚨ ᚣ ᛠ ᚸ ᛣ ᛤ  ᛢ
A æ y eâ ḡ k k’ st

In the Old English runic corpus the inscriptions usually run from left to right. In the cases where different writing directions are used, such as the Franks Casket, this is purposely done for aesthetic or practical reasons (i.e. to fill the entire space available for writing).[18] This feature distinguishes the Old English Fuþorc from the Elder Fuþark.

Scandinavian runic inscriptions can be divided in Old West Norse runes (used for Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic) and Old East Norse runes (used for Old Swedish and Old Danish).[19] Starting at the end of the eighth century, the Elder Fuþark alphabet in Scandinavia underwent several changes.[20] Not only were the rune symbols changed and the number of runes reduced, but word spacing and punctuation marks were also introduced around the tenth century, which made the runic inscriptions much easier to read.[21] It is still a matter of debate whether these alphabet changes result from natural linguistic developments or that these changes are the result of a kind of reform, perhaps under the influence of the Christian Church.[22] This reformed alphabet, known as the Younger Fuþark, is divided into a ‘Danish’ and a ‘Swedish/Norwegian’ Fuþark and consists of sixteen characters.[23]

Swedish/Norwegian ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚫ ᚱ ᚴ ᚽ ᚾ ᛁ ᛅ ᛋ ᛐ ᛓ ᛉ ᛚ ᛌ
Danish ᚠ ᚳ ᚦ ᚫ ᚱ ᚴ ᛡ ᚿ ᛁ ᛆ ᛌ ᛏ ᛒ ᛙ ᛚ ᛣ
f u þ ą r k h n i a s t b m l R

Three characteristics are unique to the runic fuþark alphabet. The first characteristic is that the runic symbols not only represent a letter but also a word (the rune names).[24] The first letter of the rune name corresponds with the sound of the rune letter it represents, which is known as the acrophonic principle.[25] Rune names have mostly been encountered in manuscripts, the five surviving Rune Poems being the most important sources; inscriptions of rune names are very rare.[26] Some scholars have observed that the rune names of the Elder Fuþark can be divided into connected groups:[27] antromorphic dieties and beings, theriomorphic gods, nature, weather phenomena, ill-bringing and uncontrollable powers, and a miscellaneous group.[28] This grouping of rune names bears similarities to early medieval encyclopaedic ordering, inspired by Isidore’s Etymologies and Pliny’s Natural History, which is encountered in various Old English riddle collections.

The second unique characteristic of the runic fuþark alphabet is the ordering of the letters (fuþark instead of abcdef), to which the runic alphabet owes its name. Karl Schneider observes that the order of the runes, which is related to the third characteristic, the grouping of runes, is unmistakenly visible and meaningful in the Elder Fuþark.[29] Schneider links this feature to the alphabet’s religious use. This feature has disappeared in the Younger Fuþark alphabet, which Schneider considers to be the result of a transition to a more practical and abstract use of the alphabet.[30] The third unique characteristic of the fuþark alphabet is the ordering of the runes in three evenly numbered groups, known as ætts, derived from Icelandic átta, ‘groups of eight,’[31] which is observed on the inscriptions of the Vadstena and Grumpan bracteates.[32] The Vadstena Bracteate (depicted in Image 1) dates from the fifth century and has been found in Östergötland, Sweden.[33

Runes on the Vadstena bracteate. Wikimedia Commons.
Image 1Vadstena bracteate. Wikimedia Commons.

The reason for this division in rune rows is not known,[34] but it may be related to the use of runes for magical purposes.[35] Amulets with runic inscriptions have been found that bear the name of a god (initially pagan, later also Christian) and a short text that does not appear to have any meaning. These inscriptions are considered to be magical charms.[36] It has been noted that not only the Elder Fuþark features the division into rune rows, but the Younger Fuþark as well. As the Younger Fuþark had less runes (sixteen instead of the Elder Fuþark’s twenty-four), the Younger Fuþark is split into one row of six runes and two rows of five runes.[37] The division of the Older Fuþark alphabet into three aett divisions are marked with : in the inscription, as shown in Image 2, and is transliterated as follows:

f u þ a r k g w

h n I j ė p z(R) s

t b e m l ng(ŋ) d o[38]

Runes. Close-up of the runic inscription on the Vadstena bracteate
Image 2. Inscription on the Vadstena bracteate.

The ordering of the runes, the rune names, and the division in rune rows are three defining features of the fuþark alphabet which sets the alphabet apart from the Roman and Greek alphabet. From the aforegoing discussion it must be concluded that the runic alphabet served no singular purpose, although both the reason for the peculiar ordering of the runes as well as the exact function of the rune names are not yet identified.

The Five Surviving ‘Rune Poems’ and Their Manuscript Context

The oldest of the poems is the Old Saxon Rune Poem, which is preserved in the Abecedarium nordmannicum poem on page 321 of a miscellany, MS 878, currently held in the Stiftsbibliothek in St Gall, Switzerland.[39] The hand is identified as that of Walahfrid Strabo (c. 808-849), thus the manuscript is believed to date from the ninth century.[40] The poem follows a series of extracts on grammatical topics from Isidore’s Etymologiae and is followed by the Old English and Danish runic alphabets.[41] Alan Griffiths remarks that the manuscript “seems to have served as a form of Vademecum,”[42] a handbook for studying different (runic) alphabets. As different runic alphabets are compared to the Danish runic alphabet, scholars believe that the Abecedarium normannicum may have been compiled during the (unsuccessful) attempt to Christianize Denmark in the eighth century.[43]  The Old Saxon Rune Poem consists of eleven lines, divided over four stanzas, containing all sixteen runes of the Younger Fuþark alphabet.

The Old English Rune Poem was found on fol. 165v of the Cotton Otho B X manuscript at the Ashburnham House.[44] The Ashburnham House burnt down on 23 October 1731, but thankfully the poem has been preserved via a facsimile on page 135 of George Hickes’ Thesaurus, published in 1705, which in turn was based on a transcription made by Humfrey Wanley in the same year.[45] Even though the folio containing the Old English Rune Poem has been lost in the fire, about fifty leaves from the original manuscript survive and are currently held in the British Library in London.[46] The texts in this manuscript are predominantly hagiographic and the original order has been reconstructed, since the surviving the texts are nowadays ordered randomly.[47] The Old English Rune Poem is the longest of all surviving Rune Poems, consisting of ninety-four lines, divided into twenty-nine stanzas. The poem is predominantly written in the late West Saxon dialect[48] and contains twenty-nine of the thirty-three runes from the Old-English Fuþorc, each stanza is dedicated to one rune. The runes that are not part of the Rune Poem (ᚸ, ᛣ, ᛤ, and ᛢ) are excluded as these either do not occur word-initially (and therefore have no rune name), or are variants only encountered in (other) manuscripts (as discussed above).  Commonly encountered Anglo-Saxon poetic devices such as alliteration, the use of kennings, and half-lines (caesura) are present in the Old English Rune Poem as well.

The Old Norse Rune Poem, originally part of a legal manuscript at the University Library of Copenhagen, Denmark, dating from the thirteenth century at the earliest, has also been lost in a fire, in 1728.[49] The text of the Old Norse Rune Poem has been preserved in copies made in the seventeenth century.[50] The Old Norse Rune Poem consists of thirty-two lines divided over sixteen stanzas, containing sixteen runes from the Younger Fuþark. Margaret Clunies Ros observes that each of the poem’s stanzas contains “a six-syllable rhyming couplet, linked by alliteration in the manner of chief skaldic measure, dróttkvætt, or ‘court measure.’”[51] The Old Norse Rune Poem thus clearly adheres to the Old Norse poetic tradition.

The Old Icelandic Rune Poem is found in four different manuscripts, the two oldest of which, manuscript AM687d 4° (c. 1500) and AM461 12° (1539-58), are both held by the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar in Reykjavík, Iceland.[52] The oldest manuscript has been treated with chemicals that render it virtually illegible, but the younger manuscript is a rather small (c. 150 x 85 mm) miscellany which, apart from the Icelandic Rune Poem, contains “computistical material, names, memorial rhymes, formulae, etc., followed by legal and religious texts.”[53] The Icelandic Rune Poem consists of forty-eight lines divided over sixteen stanzas, featuring all sixteen runes of the Younger Fuþark. Each stanza consists of three lines, the first two alliterating and the last line without alliteration,[54] followed by a heiti, or ‘king line.’ Raymond Page points out that it should be noted that these heiti only occur in one manuscript of the Icelandic Rune Poem.[55] Contrary to the other Rune Poems, the Icelandic Rune Poem does not list the runic characters but lists the rune name.[56]   The rune names bear many similarities to those in the Old Norse Rune Poem.

The youngest runic poem is the Old Swedish Rune Poem, which has been preserved in a letter dated 12 February 1600 from the Swedish scholar Nicolaus Andreæ Granius (1569-1631) to Classics Professor Bonaventura Vulcanius (1538-1614) at Leiden University.[57] The letter, written in Latin, is currently part of the Special Collections of the Leiden University Library. Granius writes that he spoke to elderly farm people (senibus rusticis), who taught him the rune names and the poem.[58] However, it is believed that the Swedish Rune Poem has not been recorded by Granius himself, but rather copied from a transcription by the hand of runic scholar Johannes Bureus (1568-1652), Granius’ long-time friend. In the letter to Vulcanius, Granius refers to a trusted friend with whom he discussed ‘rune things.’ This friend is not referred to by name, but scholars believe this to be Bureus.[59]  The Swedish Rune Poem is written continuously, dividing the poem’s lines with commas. The poem consists of fourteen lines, each line referring to one rune from the Younger Fuþark. The only exception is line 11, which refers to two runes (Tÿr and Tÿva). Remarkably, the rune names in the Swedish Rune Poem are similar to those in the Old-Saxon Rune Poem, despite the large age gap between the two poems.[60] As the poem does not contain all letters of the Younger Fuþark, it is considered to be incomplete.

The first general observation that can be made based on the manuscript context of the five surviving Rune Poems is that they are all part of a miscellany containing a variety of texts that appear to be unrelated. The Swedish Rune Poem, included in a letter, is the sole exception. Unfortunately, the original manuscript of both the Old English and the Old Norse Rune Poem has been lost in a fire. This makes the poems more difficult to study, as it is often difficult to discriminate between the parts originally included in the text and the parts added later by a different scribe. Through careful reconstruction, however, much important information has been recovered. In the case of the Old English Rune Poem, for example, it has been established that the Otho B text has been copied by (at least) three different hands, which have all been included in Hickes’ facsimile.[61] The columns containing the rune names and equivalents derive from Domitian IX, “a runic page in another Cottonian manuscript.”[62] This kind of information is essential for a correct interpretation of a text, philological or literary. In the case of the five Rune Poems, it appears that the runes were often included, but the rune names were not; these had to be deduced from the stanzas containing riddlic verse. Still, the fact that two of the five original poems have been destroyed by fire makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make any definite claims on the poems’ original form.

Rune Names and Ancient Hebrew Letter Names

Earlier, when discussing the rune names and rune rows, aetts, it was mentioned that the function of both these features of the runic alphabet is unknown. Here it is proposed that the function of rune names can be compared to that of letter-names in other alphabets. In the Greek alphabet, however, the first letter of letter-names corresponds with the letter sound it is linked to. The Greek letter-names do not carry any specific meaning, whereas the rune names do carry meaning and refer to concrete things. Meaningful letter names are encountered in the source alphabet of Ancient Greek: in Ancient Hebrew and Semitic alphabets letter names also carry meaning. These links have already been explored by Alan Griffiths in relation to the Irish Ogam runes.[63] In this section the possible links between Hebrew letter names and rune names are explored, arriving at the theory that rune names have a similar didactic function as the letter-names in Ancient Hebrew and may have been a later invention used for literacy teaching.

The Ancient Hebrew alphabet evolved from Egyptian hieroglyphs, “which were stylized representations of objects (i.e. signs) with names.”[64] The possible links between the rune names of the Fuþark alphabet and the letter-names of the Ancient Hebrew alphabet have not yet been studied in detail. Griffiths observes that in eighth-century continental Europe, predominantly in the Frankish Empire, lists of runes began to appear in codices and manuscripts which were often accompanied by “lists of letters and letter-names from Hebrew, Greek and Latin as well as a number of esoteric alphabets, and are not infrequently associated with tracts on  aspects of grammar.”[65]  This practice could be indicative of the realization that a relationship between these alphabets exists.

As Symons points out, the rune names of the runic alphabet have the same function as letter names.[66] It is worthwhile to note that in Antiquity, both the Hebrew and Semitic alphabet have letter names that are meaningful and predominantly denote concrete things, where “the letter shapes show more or less recognizable similarities with the respective referents.”[67] Karl Schneider notes that the Ancient Greek and its source alphabet also divided the alphabet into three rows of eight letters, similar to the rune rows, ætts, observed in the Fuþark alphabet, which served a magico-religious purpose.[68] The names of alphabet letters served a mnemonic purpose as they refer to concrete things.[69] It is interesting to observe that two of the three features that set the Fuþark alphabet apart from the Greek and Roman alphabet do appear in the (older) Hebrew and Semitic alphabet.

The letter names served as a tool to teach children to read and write. Archeological evidence in the form of a twelfth-century B.C. ostracon inscribed with an abecedary supplemented with some random letters. As the abecedary letters are bigger and more deeply inscribed into the ostracon’s surface as the random letters that follow it, scholars believe that “the letters are the work of the same hand, but with two different implements.”[70] The abecedary is an indication that the author was probably a student learning how to write, and if so, “he was surely a beginner, or a poor student.”[71] Instead of the proper letter-names waw for /w/ and zayin for /z/ “some approximate pseudo-signs” were written and “he left an empty space where he should have placed mēm for /m/.”[72]

Image 3. The ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah,’ dated from the 12th century B.C.

Similarly, a wooden disk found in the Swedish town Sigtuna, dating from c.1010 1030, contains inscriptions on the disk form a runic syllabary, “where the consonant runes in the Viking Age futhark are repeated with different vowels”[73] (shown in Image 4).  The syllabary’s runic inscription reads



Syllabaries were used as a teaching device in Classical Antiquity[75] and the runic disk is considered to have served the same purpose.

Image 4. Runic syllabary disk from the early eleventh century, found in the Swedish town Sigtuna. Image originally printed in H. GUSTAVSON, “Runor på skolschemat: Ett nyfunnet syllabarium från 1000-talets Sigtuna”, Situne Dei (2007), pp. 69-78.

Griffith rightly draws attention to “the ambition of Charlemagne and his successors to extend literacy to the laity, via monastic establishments, in order to provide their governments with a civil service.”[76]  The goal would thus be to “assimilate Germanic runes into the family of alphabets.”[77] From this, it can be theorized that the rune names may have been a later invention by Christian scholars. The rune names could then be used to teach reading and writing in runes, in a similar fashion as the Hebrew letter-names. This theory would explain how the rune names can be seen as part of a literate culture, whereas the runic alphabet itself, being much older, is considered to be rooted in an oral culture. If the rune names have indeed been invented in scriptoria, then it is decidedly a Christian creation. Christian elements are clearly visible in the Old English rune names, but much less in the Scandinavian rune names. As Scandinavia converted to Christianity much later than England, the Scandinavians clearly adapted their rune names to their own culture. This would explain why the Old Norse and Icelandic rune names feature more pagan elements. Some scholars claim the opposite, that the Old English rune names were adapted and ‘Christianised.’ This adheres to the theory that the rune names and the runic alphabet were created simultaneously. This is not very likely to be the case. As Alan Griffiths asserts, the origins of the rune names is not pagan, but rather an invention “to match the tradition of Hebrew letter-names and were interpreted in the same way that Jerome, Ambrose and all those that followed interpreted the letter names, partly to support their Christian message and partly to display the interpreter’s erudition.”[78] This practice befits the medieval tradition to interpret, or re-interpret, sources from a Christian perspective and match them up with Biblical allegories.

The ‘Rune Poems’ as an Abecedarium

A different angle, which has only been cursorily explored to date, is to read the Rune Poems as an abecedarium, a type of Primer for literacy acquisition. Although the similarities between abecedaria and the Old English and Old Norse Rune Poems have been previously noted,[79] little research has been done as abecedaria are commonly associated with (contemporary) nursery rhymes.[80] There is a consensus that the Old English Rune Poem, in particular, was not only composed for the purpose of teaching and memorizing the runic alphabet, but to convey some nuggets of wisdom as well, particularly on concepts such as memento mori and dom.[81] The poem would equip a student with another context for using these concepts. To a certain extent, similar observations have been made in the analyses of the Old Norse and Old Icelandic Rune Poem.[82] Victoria Symons typifies the Old Saxon Rune Poem as a mnemonic aid,[83] the Old Norse, and Icelandic Rune Poems have been attributed to primarily serve an educational function,[84] whereas the Old English Rune Poem is classified as a literary text.[85] Furthermore, she links the Old English Rune Poem to alphabet psalms in the Bible,[86] which fits into the monastery context in which the Old English Rune Poem appears to be composed.[87 Abecedaria predate the earliest evidence for schools,[88] another indication that the use of abecedaria was much broader than merely a learning or instruction tool. Moreover, “[l]iteracy made no distinction between elites and ordinary people.”[89] This is an important detail to keep in mind, as it is generally impossible to determine the owner or user of the abecedaria that have been found. This contrasts with medieval and early modern manuscripts, such as the surviving Rune Poems, which can be connected with certainty to a literate (ecclesiastical) elite.

Two copper plaques known as ‘The Fayum Tablets,’ believed to date from the late ninth century B.C., contain inscriptions of numerous Greek abecedaria.[90] The plaques are believed to originate from the Greek island Samos, “a place with demonstrably strong ties to Egypt,”[91] and constitute a unique and highly interesting artifact:

[T]he scribes who produced the plaques were recording an alphabet, in its variant avatars, of a more archaic type than one used in their own day – preserving a primitive Greek script that had been preserved and transmitted to them in some ritual context – perhaps on ritual implements that have not survived, executed on a perishable medium such as cloth or leather. [92]

The most interesting phenomenon observed in the abecedaria on the copper plaques, however, is “an interweaving of letters,” which “occurs along both a horizontal dimension and a vertical dimension.”[93] Woodard claims this practice to be “a particular Roman pedagogical technique”[94] described by Quintilian. According to Woodard,  the Greek lexicon of weaving has Indo-European origins and the Greek adverb poikilôs (‘in varied woven patterns’) linguistically relates to Persian nipistanaiy (‘to write’), Lithuanian pišti (‘to write, draw’), Old Church Slavic pišƍ (‘to write’) and Old Norse fā (‘to paint’), fā rūnar (‘to cut runes’) and Latin pingō (‘to adorn with colors, to paint’).[95] This ‘weaving’ of letters refers to a Roman pedagogical technique that is also described in Quintilian’s InstOrat. I.1.25 and Jerome’s In Jerem. 25.v.26.[96]  Jerome “describes the interweaving of the letters in terms of the Greek alphabetic tradition, rather than the Latin, and notes that a comparable phenomenon is practiced apud Hebraeos ‘among the Hebrews’.”[97] Woodard concludes that “the interlacing of the halves of the alphabet must date to an early period in the history of archaic Greek literacy; this atbash practice was most likely taken over as a part of the process of the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician consonantal script, perhaps used for pedagogical purposes (or as a cipher?) from the outset of the Greek alphabet’s creation.”[98]

Woordard’s analysis of the two copper plaques reveals that abecedaria, although primarily a basic pedagogical tool to learn the alphabet, appear to have served multiple functions in various settings. William West points out that some abecedaria, particularly those excavated in Israel, not only had a pedagogical but also a “magical significance.”[99] This reminds us of the runic alphabet carved onto the Vadstena bracteate, depicted in Image 1, which is also believed to have served a magical purpose. Examination of the oldest abecedaria featuring the Ugarit, Aramaic, ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek alphabets, have led to the conclusion that in several places (particularly in Qumran in Israel, and Narce, Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy) it was customary to teach and perhaps also write the alphabet in two rows. This custom “may reflect a Semitic pedagogical practice continued in the West.”[100] Similar to the abecedaria on the Greek copper plates discussed by Roger Woodard, these alphabets were divided in two rows. As new letters were generally added to the back of the source alphabet when creating a secondary alphabet, “[i]n all of the alphabets with the exception of Arabic the letter l is approximately the center of the alphabet, if the additional signs at the end of the alphabet in each language are not included.”[101] Similarly to the alphabet rows encountered in ancient Greek and Hebrew abacedaria, I propose that the aetts observed in inscriptions or abecedaria of the runic alphabet may have served a pedagogical function, in addition to the previously observed magical function.

Woordard classifies the ‘letter weaving’ practice as a “reflected image of the phenomenon of orality, of composition in performance – the production of written ‘speech’ – even written poetic ‘speech’.”[102] Testimony to this ceremonial and performative aspect of ‘letter weaving,’ and writing in general, are the inscribed sherds that have been found at Mount Hymettos, which were used as a sacrifice.[103] The god Zeus, in particular, is associated with writing: “In the epic poem The Shield of Heracles, attributed to Hesiod, Zeus is theôn sệmantôr pantôn ‘sệmantôr of all the gods’.”[104] The rune carvers worshipped the god Odin, who is similarly credited with teaching man the (runic) alphabet.[105] These parallels may be indicative of a shared tradition stemming from the same Indo-European cultural source.

From the preceding discussion it becomes clear that both the alphabet and the written word were of high importance, both in ancient Greek and in Anglo-Saxon society. In this light, Symons’ observation that the opening stanza of the Old English Rune Poem presents the reader with “the benefits of runic letters to mankind”[106] only emphasizes this importance. According to Symons, this “echoes Jerome’s description of the alphabet psalms as ‘moral in nature,’ containing ‘instructions for our life’ because they include all the letters of the alphabet, by which other texts can be read.”[107] Taking this theory one step further, I argue that the Rune Poems not only contain all the letters of the alphabet and moralistic and gnomic themes, but also convey an encyclopaedic mappa mundi, linking the rune names as well as the concepts discussed in the poems’ stanzas to other (didactic) texts discussing the same concepts in different contexts. The repetition of concepts in different contexts in different texts, especially within miscellanies, is a known medieval pedagogical technique called ‘polytextual reading.’ This reading method would render texts a “springboard for the recollection and reconsideration of many others.”[108] This includes allegorical exegesis and can be found back in glosses, marginal annotations containing passages from other texts, and compendia such as the Ovide moralisé.[109] Following the monastic tradition of lectiomeditatio, and oratio, reading was regarded as a “necessary foundation for all further spiritual progress.”[110] In keeping with this philosophy, a medieval book was not only designed as a compilation of different texts, but of different visual parts as well: the miniatures, marginal illustrations, and initials have allegorical as well as meditative qualities. In other words, medieval books contain both a textual and a visual narration.[111] This is very different from modern books, which are designed for “continuous, cover-to-cover reading.”[112] The Rune Poems, I argue, can also be regarded as a ‘springboard,’ as the concepts or gnomic wisdom in the stanzas cannot only be connected to the rune names, but are also encountered in other medieval texts that convey the same concepts or gnomic wisdom. Students trained in ‘polytextual reading’ would have no trouble recognising these similarities.

The ‘Rune Poems’ as Pedagogical Tools

The Old English Rune Poem has thus far received the biggest share of scholarly attention,[113] the Old Norse and Icelandic Rune Poem much less so.[114] The Icelandic Rune Poem, in particular, is considered to be less accurate, due to its relatively young age and some mistakes in the runes and rune names.[115] The Old Saxon Rune Poem has been studied by philologists in the late nineteenth century[116] but has received little attention since.[117] Scholars perceive the Old Saxon Rune Poem to be much less sophisticated than the roughly contemporary Old English Rune Poem. The Swedish Rune Poem, thus far only discussed by Arend Quak[118] and Alessia Bauer,[119] shares its short stanzas with the Old Saxon Rune Poem, and also does not make use of kennings in the way the Old English and Old Norse Rune Poems do.

Modern literacy pedagogy is usually traced back to the seventeenth-century humanist movement. Particularly the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Illustrated World of the Senses) by Jan Amos Comenius, first published in Nuremburg in 1658, was widely translated and greatly influenced literacy teaching up to the early twentieth century.[120] The Orbis Sensualium Pictus features an illustrated alphabet in which the letters of the alphabet are linked to man-made and animal-made sounds (depicted in Image 6).

Comenius’ influential didactic book not only strives to teach the (Latin) alphabet. Created shortly after the devastations of the Thirty Years’ War, the book is ordered encyclopedically[121] and hailed as a “panpedagogical work with a religious, social and pedagogical purpose to rebuild humanity society.”[122] In the medieval period, encyclopaedias were designed as “a mirror of the world, an image of earthly creation, ‘speculum’ or ‘imago mundi.’[123] The term ‘encyclopedia’ is derived from the Greek “enkyklios paideia, ‘general education.’”[124] The creation of new encyclopaedias is usually prompted by

a risk that knowledge may be lost (such as in the Early Middle Ages), for the purposes of collection and consolidation (as in the twelfth century), or when there has been a great rise in knowledge which requires viewing and securing (as in the thirteenth century, the high point of encyclopaedic publications in the Middle Ages).[125]

A very well-known and influential example of an encyclopaedia serving as a ‘mirror of the world’ is Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis. A unique property of Historia naturalis is its “unitary and unifying theme, […] following the traditional Aristotelian scala naturae through the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, with the addition of human interaction with nature at every level.”[126] Scholars have observed that the natural world and human’s relation with nature is an important theme in the Rune Poems as well. Parallels between the methods for structuring knowledge in encyclopaedias, particularly Isidore’s Etymologiae, and the Exeter Book have been noted by scholarship.[127] Encylopaedias, such as Pliny’s Historia naturalis and Isidore’s Etymologiae, “constituted a successful reference book […] instrumental in the development of early medieval riddling.”[128] Several parallels have been observed between the Old English Rune Poem and riddles and poems in the Exeter Book, which has been demonstrated to be ordered encyclopedically.[129] The cosmological features encountered in Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus are also encountered in the Old English Rune Poem.[130] As reiterated earlier, the Carolingian Renaissance, which roughly dates back to the Rune Poems’ oldest manuscript, saw a sharp rise literacy teaching. Influences of two highly important encyclopaedic works, Naturalis Historia and Etymologiae, have been found in the Old English Rune Poem.[131] These parallels suggest that the surviving Rune Poems may be part of a literacy teaching tradition that bears many resemblances to the Renaissance and humanist traditions.

Moreover, the rune names of the surviving Rune Poems range from the cosmos (heavenly bodies such as the sun and the planet Mars), weather phenomena (snow, hail), nature (oak, birch, river mouth, horse) to man (ulcer, man). Taken together, they form a microcosmos that represents the macrocosmos, in a similar fashion as Comenius’ encyclopaedic Orbis Sensualium Pictus attempts to capture the entire universe in book-form,[132] and the early modern Kunst– and Wunderkammer were designed to capture and study the universe and man’s place within it.[133] These similarities, which hitherto have not been studied in relation to the runic alphabet and the Rune Poems, certainly warrant further investigation. 

What makes the Rune Poems and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus unique is their ‘hybridity,’ as they appear to have been created during a transition period from one didactic method to another. In the development of alphabets over time, alphabets commonly transition from pictorial to phoneticism. At some point during this transition, alphabets lose their letter names as these are a pictorial feature that is no longer needed in phoneticism. Alphabets at or near the end of the transition to phoneticism will adopt the use of short words containing the most common consonant-vowel combinations in the language as a literacy acquisition tool. This is the most common modern pedagogy technique, as encountered for example in the Dutch ‘leesplankje’ (Image 7).

Image 7. The Dutch ‘leesplankje’ featuring short words that contain the most common consonant-vowel combinations. Reprinted from

This change appears to resonate in the Rune Poems and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus. The Rune Poems are ‘hybrids’ in the sense that although the runic alphabet has moved from pictorial to phoneticism (the runes denote an individual sound), rune names are used in the same manner as letter-names of pictorial alphabets. The Latin primer in Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus is a ‘hybrid’ as it assigns letter-names to the letters of the alphabet, but these letter-names all denote a manmade or animal sound. This can be considered a precursor of the modern literacy acquisition method that uses short words with common consonant-vowel combinations. It appears that the gradual shift from pictorial to phoneticism in alphabet history is mirrored in the shift from the use of pictorial-based letter-names to a more phoneticism-based approach (consonant-vowel combinations) in the history of literacy pedagogy. The Rune Poems and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus are interesting examples of a mixing of these two approaches.


[1] Vivian Cook, The English Writing System (Routledge, 2014), 9-10.

[2]  John S. Robertson, “The Possibility and Actuality of Writing,” The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process (Cambridge University Press, 2004) 34.

[3] “[T]his book went through 21 editions in the seventeenth century, 43 in the eighteenth, 33 in the nineteenth and 9 in the twentieth It was translated into at least 12 European and 7 Asiatic languages (Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.” Jeong-Gil Woo, “Revisiting Orbis Sensualium Pictus: An Iconographical Reading in Light of the Pampaedia of J.A. Comenius,” Studies in Philosophy and Education (2016): 215.

[4] Robertson, “The Possibility and Actuality of Writing,” 36.

[5] Cook, The English Writing System, 9-10.

[6]Ibid., 15.

[7]  Ibid., 10.

[8]Ibid., 23.

[9] Robertson, “The Possibility and Actuality of Writing,” 34.

[10] Tineke Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Brill, 2003) 11-18.

[11] Henrik Williams, “Runes,” The Viking World (Routledge, 2008), 285.

[12] R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes (Methuen, 1973), 43.

[13]Ibid., 42.

[14] Williams, “Runes,” 283.

[15] René Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (De Tempel, 1954), xx.

[16] Looijenga, The Oldest Runic Inscriptions, 6.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] Page, English Runes, 42; Looijenga, The Oldest Runic Inscriptions, 111.

[19] Kristel Zilmer, “Epigraphic Literacy and the Communication of Christian Culture,” Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity: Modes of Written Discourse in the Newly Christian European North (Brepols, 2012), 7.

[20] Zilmer, “Epigraphic Literacy,” 7; Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, xix.

[21] Williams, “Runes,” 283.

[22] Magnus Källström, “Clerical or Lay Literacy in Late Viking Age Uppland? The Evidence of Local Rune Carvers and Their Work,” Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity: Modes of Written Discourse in the Newly Christian European North (Brepols, 2012), 34-35; John S. Robertson, “How the Germanic Futhark Came from the Roman Alphabet,” Futhark 2 (2011):18-20.

[23] Derolez Runica Manuscripta, xix.

[24] Page, English Runes, 72.

[25] Michael P. Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (The Boydell Press, 2012), 157.

[26] “There is some epigraphic evidence for rune names, direct and indirect. On one or two objects from medieval Norway personal names are written with the relevant rune names taking the place of the runes themselves, as ár sól maðr úr nauð Týr reið for Ásmundr on a stick from Bergen (undated, since the find information is lost).” Barnes, Runes, 161.

[27] Ralph W.V. Elliott, Runes: An Introduction (Manchester University Press, 1959), 60; Wolfgang Krause, Runen (Walter de Gruyter, 1970), 30.

[28] Krause, Runen, 30-31.

[29] Karl Schneider, Die Germanischen Runennamen: Versuch einer Gesamtdeutung. Ein Betrag zur Idg./Germ. Kultur- und Religionsgeschichte (Verlag Anton Hain KG, 1956): 466.


[31] Page, English Runes, 62.

[32] Helmut Arntz, Handbuch der Runenkunde (Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1935), 95; Bruce Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples (Cambridge University Press, 1915), 2. Bauer, Runengedichte, 53-54; Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, xviii.

[33] Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. ‘Vadstena Bracteate.’

[34] Bauer, Runengedichte, 53-57; Williams, “Runes,” 281-282; Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, xvii- xviii; Krause, Runen, 31.

[35] Arntz, Handbuch, 96.

[36] Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2014): 48.

[37] Krause, Runen, 31.

[38] Arntz, Handbuch, 96.

[39] Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, 34.


[41] Ibid.

[42] Alan Griffiths, A Family of Names: Rune-Names and Ogam-Names and Their Relation to Alphabet Letter-Names, PhD Thesis, Leiden University (2013), 14.


[44] Bauer, Runengedichte, 78.

[45] H. Wanley, Librorum vett. Septentrionalium, qui in Angliæ bibliothecis extant… (Oxford, 1705): 192 cited in R.I. Page, “Anglo-Saxon Texts in Early Modern Transcripts: 1. The Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem” in Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes (The Boydell Press, 1995), 201 n6.

[46] Bauer, Runengedichte, 79.

[47] Ibid., 80.

[48] Angel Millar, “The Old English Rune Poem: Semantics, Structure and Symmetry.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies 34 (2006):  419.

[49] Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, 35.


[51] Clunies Ross, “The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems,” 31.

[52] Page, “The Icelandic Rune-Poem,” 1.

[53]Ibid.,” 10-11.

[54] Clunies Ross, “The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems,” 35.

[55] Page, “The Icelandic Rune-Poem,” 34 n. 39.

[56]  Ibid, 5.

[57] Bauer, Runengedichte, 209.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 209-210.

[60] Ibid., 211.

[61] Page, “Anglo-Saxon Texts in Early Modern Transcripts,” 200.


[63] Griffiths, A Family of Names.

[64]  Ibid., 4.

[65]Ibid., 11.

[66] “These [rune] names are often nouns and, in almost all instances, they begin with the sound value represented by the associated letter. This is by no means a quality unique to runes: names are also attached to each letter of the Hebraic, Greek, and Ogham writing systems, for example.” Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 7.

[67] Andreas Willi, “Cows, Houses, Hooks: The Graeco-Semitic Letter Names as a Chapter in the History of the Alphabet,” Classical Quarterly 58 (2008): 408.

[68] Schneider, Die Germanischen Runennamen, 467.

[69] B.L. Ullman, Ancient Writing and Its Influence (Cooper Square Publishers, 1963), 167.

[70] Joseph Naveh, “Some Considerations on the Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah’,” Israel Exploration Journal 28 (1978):  32.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Willi, “Cows, Houses, Hooks,” 411.

[73] Magnus Källström, “Clerical or Lay Literacy,” 40.

[74] “As can be seen, the consonants are taken in the same order as in the futhark: f – þ – r – k etc., but s and R are for some reason not included. The use of a syllabary derives from teaching methods originally developed in the Mediterranean during the Classical Antiquity, but still practised in the Middle Ages for learning the Roman script.” Källström, “Clerical or Lay Literacy,” 41.

[75] Källström, Clerical or Lay Literacy,” 41.


[77]Ibid., 15.

[78] Griffiths, A Family of Names, 113.

[79] Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 157-158.

[80] Paul Acker, Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse (Garland, 1998) 36 cited in Thomas Birkett, Ráð Rétt Rúnar: Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry (PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2011) 166, 173.

[81] Bradley, “The Old English Rune Poem,” 3.

[82] Clunies Ross, “The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems,” 26.

[83] Victoria Symons, Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 165.

[84] Ibid., 173.

[85] “[T]he poet of the [Old EnglishRune Poem seems to have been free to compose the verse as they saw fit, providing us with a literary meditation on the runic letters of the late Anglo-Saxon fuþorc that is both unique and highly valuable.” Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 184.

[86] {T]he conventional order of the final two runic letters, ᛠ ea and ᚼ io, appears to have been reversed in the Rune Poem. […] This rearranging of the fuþorc for the purposes of increasing the literary significance of the poem is paralleled to some extent by the omission of the wāw verse in Psalms 25 and 34 in order to place the letter lamed and its corresponding verse at the heart of the poems. A similar concern – the literary merit over alphabetic accuracy –governs the composition of both the alphabet psalms and the Old English Rune Poem.” Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 183. As we shall see later, however, placing the letter l in the middle of the alphabet is a feature often encountered in abecedaria as well.

[87] “Each stanza [of the Old English Rune Poem] starts with a runic letter on the left side of the margin and ends with a punctuation flourish consisting of three triangular dots on the right. […] [T]his form of punctuation to mark out discrete entries in a list or catalogue [is] ‘characteristic’ of a certain late tenth-century Winchester hand. In the Winchester manuscripts, this ornate punctuation is always used to indicate the end of a section or subsection, which suggests that each verse of the Rune Poem was similarly envisaged as a discrete unit within the composition.” Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 160.

[88] William C. West, “Learning the Alphabet: Abecedaria and the Early Schools in Greece,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 55 (2015): 55.

[89] West, “Abecedaria and the Early Schools in Greece,” 64.

[90] Roger D. Woodard, The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge University Press, 2014) 1-2.

[91] Woodard, The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet, 3.

[92] Ibid., 4.

[93] Ibid., 235.

[94] Ibid., 238.

[95] Ibid., 242-243.

[96] Ibid., 236

[97] Ibid., 248.

[98] Ibid., 253-254.

[99] West, “Abecedaria and the Early Schools in Greece,” 59.

[100] Michael David Coogan, “Alphabets and Elements,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 216 (1974): 62.

[101] Coogan, “Alphabets and Elements,” 62.

[102] Woodard, The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet, 264. Emphasis in the original.

[103] Ibid., 265-266.

[104] Woodard, The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet, 272.

[105] The Old Norse Hávamál, a collection of epic poems, contains the myth of how “Odin acquired the magical power of the runes.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, s.v. ‘Hávamál.’

[106] Symons, Runes and Roman Letters, 186.

[107] Ibid., 187.

[108] Sylvia Huot, “Polytextual Reading: The Meditative Reading of Real and Metaphorical Books” in Orality and Literacy in the Middle Ages: Essays on a Conjunction and its Consequences in Honour of D.H. Green (Brepols, 2005): 203.

[109] Ibid., 203-204.

[110] Ibid., 204.

[111] Ibid., 214.

[112] Ibid., 213.

[113] Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem; Bauer, Runengedichte; Daniel J. Bradley, “The Old English Rune Poem: Elements of Mnemonics and Psychoneurological Beliefs,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 69 (1989): 3-8; Griffith, “A Possible Use of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis”; Hall, “Perspective and Wordplay”; Angel Millar, “The Old English Rune Poem”; Osborn, “Hleotan”; Marijane Osborn, “Tir as Mars in the Old English Rune Poem.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 16 (2003): 3-13; Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning; Paul Sorrell, “Oaks, Ships, Riddles and the Old English Rune Poem.” Anglo-Saxon England 19 (1990): 103-116; Mae Kilker, “The Rune Poem and the Anglo-Saxon Ecosemiosphere: Identifying the Eolh-Secg in Manand Plant,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017): 310-329.

[114] Bauer, Runengedichte; Page, “The Icelandic Rune-Poem”; Clunies Ross, “The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems.

[115] Page, “The Icelandic Rune-Poem.”

[116] Dietrich Müllenhoff, “Über das Abecedarium Nordmannicum,” Zeitschrift für Deutsches Alterthum 14 (1869): 123-133; Richard M. Meyer, “Die Altgermanischen Runengedichte,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache und Literatur (PBB) 32 (1907): 67-84; Dickens, Runic and Heroic Poems.

[117] Derolez, Runica Manuscripta; Bauer, Runengedichte; Rolf Bergmann (Ed.), Althochdeutsche und Säxische Literatur (Walter De Gruyter, 2013), 1-3.

[118] Arend Quak, “Zum Altschwedischen Runengedicht,” Skandinavistik 17 (1987): 81-92 cited in Bauer, Runengedichte.

[119] Bauer, Runengedichte, 209-233.

[120] “[T]his book went through 21 editions in the seventeenth century, 43 in the eighteenth, 33 in the nineteenth and 9 in the twentieth It was translated into at least 12 European and 7 Asiatic languages (Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.” Jeong-Gil Woo, “Revisiting Orbis Sensualium Pictus: An Iconographical Reading in Light of the Pampaedia of J.A. Comenius,” Studies in Philosophy and Education (2016): 215.

[121] Raschke, Alper, and Eggers, “Recalling Alphabet Letter Names,” 215-233.

[122] Woo, “Revisiting Orbis Sensualium Pictus,” 217.

[123] Christel Meier, “Encyclopaedias,” Transforming the Medieval World: Uses of Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages (Brepols Publishers, 2006) 152.

[124] Jason König and Greg Woolf, “Introduction,” in Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 1.

[125] Meier, “Encyclopaedias,” 153-154.

[126] Mary Beagon, “Labores pro Bono Publico: The Burdensome Mission of Pliny’s Natural History” in Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 2013): 86.

[127] Salvador-Bello, Isidorean Perceptions of Order; Lisa Weston, Cosmic Pattern and Poetic Order: Structure in Nine Old English Didactic Poems (PhD Thesis, University of California, 1982).

[128] Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Enigmata (West Virginia University Press, 2015): 448.

[129] Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata (West Virginia University Press, 2015).

[130] Weston, Cosmic Pattern and Poetic Order, 43-44.

[131] Sorrell, “Oaks, Ships, Riddles,” 103-116; Griffith, “A Possible Use of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis

[132] Hillary Thompson, “From Orbis Pictus to Topophilia: The World in a Book,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 19-4 (1994): 179; Aguirre Lora, “Teaching Through Texts and Pictures: A Contribution of Jan Amos Comenius to Education,” Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa 3-1 (2001): 8.

[133] Horst Bredekamp, Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben: Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte (Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1993) 70; Arthur MacGregor, Curiosity and Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 2007) 56; Dagmar Motycka Weston, “‘Worlds in Miniature’: Some Reflections on Scale and the Microcosmic Meaning of Cabinets of Curiosities,” Theory 13-1 (2009): 43.