The North Etruscan Thesis of the Origin of the Runes

The North Etruscan thesis has its foundation in a seminal article included
by Carl Marstrander in the first issue of his Norsk tidskrift for sprogvidenskap. Earlier authors including Karl Müllenhoff, Karl Weinhold,
Sophus Bugge, Hugo Gering, George Hempl and Sigmund Feist had already promoted similar origins for the runes, but it was the Norwegian Marstrander whose name has come to be linked most prominently with this thesis in runology. The Finno-Swedish classicist Magnus Hammarström critiqued and refined the thesis of Marstrander
and contributed further orthographic evidence to the graphemic similarities noted by the Norwegian. Yet he also sought to pare this theory somewhat of the emphasis on Celtic orthography promoted by Marstrander. Marstrander in part echoing similar observations made by Holger Pedersen some years before found im portant connections
between runic and Celtic writing practice especially as continued in the Irish Ogham tradition. (This tradition is described in In LeborOgaim, a tract on Ogham writing preserved in the Book of BaUymote, a new edition of which had appeared in 1917.)1

From the time of Johannes Magnus, Scandinavian antiquarians influenced
by the Gothic ethnogenesis recorded by Jordanes promoted Biblical figures such as Magog or Gomer, the sons of Japheth, as the originators of the runic script.2 Wilhelm Grimm in his otherwise groundbreaking study expressed only an ambivalent position, and so it was his contemporary Jakob Bredsdorff who first made explicit the
empirical connection between the Germanic and the Mediterranean scripts. And although some nineteenth century grammarians and alphabet historians were still to promote a Semitic origin for the runes, Bredsdorff’s judgement represented the point of departure for most subsequent assessments of from which orthographical tradition
the runes derive.3 Now although Adolf Kirchoff had come to a similar conclusion some years earlier, the name of Ludvig Wimmer has become connected with the first formal derivation of the runic script from the Latin alphabet. He was later supported by Theodor von Grienberger, Pedersen and for a time by Gustav Neckel.4 Yet Wim ­
mer’s Latin thesis was to be undermined by the successful arguments  of Bugge (who had initially entertained a North Etruscan thesis) and Otto von Friesen who resurrected the case for a Greek origin first propounded by Erik Benzelius the younger. Bugge and von Friesen prom oted a third century borrowing of a classical Greek script by the
Goths in southeastern Europe rejecting the contemporary contention of Wilhelm Luft who preferred a Gaulish use of Greek characters as a prototype for the runes. Bugge adduced that the near correspondence of an Armenian word (p’ut’a-tark’ ‘cursive writing’) to the name of the runic script was evidence for a southeastern connection, and even chose to bring a Georgian character and letter name into his derivation.5
The thesis of Marstrander and Hammarström seemed to represent an advancement upon the Latin or Greek theses that had preceded it. The new thesis appeared in its most developed form in the second edition of Helm ut A rntz’s Handbuch der Runenkunde, prepared by the German runologist while serving with occupying axis forces in the early 1940s.6
This thesis as represented by Hammarström after Marstrander had gained widespread acceptance in Germany. Yet in Sweden von Friesen continued to promote the Greek cursive thesis he had developed from suggestions made by the archaeologist Bernhard Salin. Owing to articles he contributed to influential works such as Johannes Hoops’
Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, the Enciclopedia italiana,
the revised Salmonsens Konversations-lexikon and the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, some scholars from related disciplines still upheld his Greek cursive thesis well into the 1950s.7 Now von Friesen’s thesis had arrived just as the flaws in W im m er’s derivation of the runes from Latin were gaining widespread notice. The American
philologist Hempl had written a scathing attack on W im m er’s theory published in a collection of papers dedicated to Eduard Sievers in 1896, and had himself put forward new evidence in favour of the theory of the English alphabet historian and contemporary of Wimmer’s,Isaac Taylor. O f course W im m er’s derivation had enjoyed almost unanimous acceptance among the philologists of his own generation,
and Sievers himself had used W im m er’s derivation in his entry on runes that he contributed to Hermann Paul’s Grundriß der germanischen Phiblogie. Yet Taylor had sought an origin for the runes in a variant archaic Greek tradition, and despite an acquaintance with the thesis of W immer had included his own theory in his history of
the world’s scripts. The American developed it further, showing that some staves seemed to derive from archaic characters that had been lost to Latin from an early date. The classicist G otthold Gundermann agreed with Hempl, and together their arguments cleared the way for the rejection of the thesis of W immer by Bugge, and with the appearance of Salin’s study of Greek influences on Gothic material culture,
the appearance of the cursive Greek theory of von Friesen.8
Von Friesen had clearly been influenced, not just by Bugge and Salin, but also by theories prom oted for the origin of Wulfila’s Gothic script. Ever since Grimm theorised that evidence for a continental runic tradition could be seen in Wulfila’s script (36 years before runic inscriptions were first found on the Continent), the authors of most Gothic grammars have accepted that although most seem to be best derived from Greek, Gothic letters such as (o) and (u) must have been modelled upon runic staves. Thus if Wulfila had derived his Gothic from a Greek prototype, with some intrusions from runic and perhaps Latin, might not the runes themselves have come about from a similar
admixture? Von Friesen, as had Bugge and Bredsdorff before him, in direct contradiction to W im m er’s claim that an origin for the runic script must be sought only in one Mediterranean forebear, chose a  basis of (cursive) Greek, in his opinion the script most similar to runic,and supplemented it with some Latin signs. Indeed a number of the
derivations proposed by earlier authors for individual Gothic letters appear in a somewhat transformed manner in von Friesen’s thesis on the origin of the runes. Most importantly, however, this classical Greek theory seemed to be supported by the archaeological evidence gathered by Salin and the distribution of finds from southeastern Europe to Scandinavia. This theory of admixture was also adopted by
Marstrander and Hammarström, though only after indicating that a penetration of Latin letters into otherwise orthographically North Etruscan inscriptions does seem apparent in those that clearly stem from the last centuries B.C.9



1.K. W einhold , A ltnordisches Leben, Berlin 1856, pp. 4 0 7 -8 = 2nd ed., Stuttgart 1938,
pp. 280-81; S. Bugge, ‘Om runeskriftens oprind else’, Christian ia Videnskabs Selskabet,Forhandlingar 1873 (m onograph, C hristiania 1873), p. 485; H . G ering, ‘D ie germanische Runenschrift’, Mitteilungen des Anthropologischen Vereins in Schleswig-H olstein 16, 1903,pp. 9 -2 2 (monograph, Kiel 1903); G . H em p l, ‘T h e Linguistic and E thnografie Status of the Burgundians’, Transactions and Proceedings o f the American Philological Association39, ig o8 , pp. 105-19; K. Müllen h off, Brief an Adolf KirchhoflF (12. Feb. 1852), Anzeiger für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Littera tur 33, 1909, p. 110; S. Feist, ‘Eineneu e T heorie über die Herkunft der deutsch en R u n en d en k m äler’, Zeitschrift für den deutchen Unterricht 24, 1910, pp. 246-49; idem , ‘Z u m Ursprung der germ anisch en R u nenschrift’,A cta philologica scan dinam ca 4, 1929, pp. 1-25; G . C alder (ed .), A u ra icep t na n-Éces, The Scholars’ Primer, Edinburgh 1917; H . Pedersen, ‘L ’O rigin e des runes’, M émoires d e la Société Royale des Antiquités du Nord , Copenh ague 1920-24, pp. 88-136 = idem ,‘Runernes oprind else’, Aarbøger fo r nordisk O ldkyn digh ed og H istorie 13, 1923, pp. 37-82;C. J. S. M arstrander, ‘O m runene og runenavn en es o p rin d else’, Norsk tidskrift for sprogvidenskap 1, 1928, pp. 85-188; idem , ‘Sm å bem erkinger i ru n estrid en ’, Norsk tidskrift for sprogvidenskap 3, 1929, pp. 264-68; M . H am m arström , ‘Om runeskriftens  härkom st’, Stu dier i nordisk filologi 20, 1929 (1930), pp. 1-65.

2 Josephus, A n t. lu d . i, 6, 1; Jordanes, G et. 1, 9; 3, 16-4, 25; Isidor, G oth. lau d. 66;
idem , E tym . 9, 2, 27 & 89; J. M agnus (S tore), H istoria … de om nibus G oth oru m
Sueonum que regibus, R om e 1554, 1, 7; J. C och laeu s (D o b n ec k ) w ith J. F. Peringskiöld,Vita Theoderici, regis qu on dam O strogothorum et Italiae, 2nd ed., Stockholm 1699, p.355; J. Göransson, Is A tlinga, Stockholm 1747, §7.
3 O.Worm , flD H L , SeuD an ica L iteratu ra antiqvissim a, 2nd ed ., Hafnia 1651; W .
G rim m , U eber deutsche Runen, G öttin gen 1821, pp. 11, 25-26; idem , review of Bredsdorff,O m R uneskriftens O prindelse, G öttingische gelehrte A nzeigen 2, 103, 1824, p p . 1017-32 [= idem , K leinere Schriften, ed. G . H inrichs, 4 vols, Berlin and G ü tersloh 1881-87,pp. 324-37]; J. H . Bredsdorff, O m R uneskriftens O prindelse, K jøbenhavn 1822; idem ,‘O m d e saakaldte tyd ske Runer, eller B em æ rkninger ved Hr. W . C. G rim m s Skrift:“U eb er d eu tsch e R u n en ”’, N ordisk T idskrift 2, 1828, p p . 394-403 [b oth con trib u tion s are reprinted in idem , U dvalgte A fhan dlinger inden for Sprogvidenskab og Runologi, ed. J.G lahder, K øbenhavn 1933, pp. 101-19, 121-34]; U . W . D ieterich , Enträthselung des Odinischen PHÞ+IIK durch d a s sem itische A lph abet, Stockholm 1864; E. M . O ld e, Omde sk a n din aviska runornas om edelbara ursprung från d e t ä ld sta feniciska alfabetet, L und 1871; F. L enorm ant, E ssai su r la propagation de l’alph abet phénicien d an s l’ancien m onde,2 vols, Paris 1872-73, I, tab. v & p. 112; J. Peile, ‘A lp h a b e t’, in J. S. B aynes (e d .), Encyclopaedia B ritannica, 24 vols, gth ed., E dinburgh 1875-89, I, p p . 612-13.

4 A . K irchhoff, D a s gothische R unenalphabet, 2nd ed., B erlin 1854, preface; L. F. A .
W im m er, ‘R uneskriftens O prin d else og U d vik lin g i N o r d e n ’, A arbøger fo r nordisk O ld -kyndighed og H istorie 1874, pp. 1-270 (m onograph, K jøbenhavn 1874); idem , D ie R unenschrift,trans. F. H olth au sen , Berlin 1887; T . v. G rienberger, ‘N e u e B eiträge zur R u n en ­ leh re’, Zeitschrift fü r deutsche Philologie 32, 1900, pp. 289-304; G . N e ck el, ‘Z ur E inführung in d ie R u nenforschun g’, Germ anisch-R om anische M onatsschrift 1, 1909, pp. 7 -19, 81-95; Pedersen, art. cit. n. 1.

5 E. B en zeliu s, Periculum runicum , U psala 1724; W . Luft, Studien zu den ältesten
germ anischen A lph abeten , G ü tersloh 1898; S. Bugge, ‘O m runeskriftens Begyndelser’,
Beretning om Forhandlingerne p a a d e t 5. nordiske Filologimøde, K jøbenhavn 1899, pp. 5 -6; idem , Runeskriftens O prindelse og æ ldste H istorie (N orges Indskrifter m ed d e æ ldre Runer. I. Inledning), C hristiania 1905-13; O . v. Friesen, ‘O m R uneskriftens härkom st’,Språkvetenskapliga Sällskapets i U pp sa la förhandlingar 2, 1904-6, pp. 1-55 (monograph,U ppsala 1906).

6 A . N ord lin g, ‘R uneskriftens ursprung’, A N F 53, 1937, pp. 233-84; H . A rntz, H a n d ­
buch der R unenkunde, 2nd ed., H a lle an der Saale 1944, pp. 30-64; idem , ‘R u n en k u n d e’,in W . Stam m ler (ed .), D eutsche Philologie im A u friß, 3 vols, Berlin 1957, III, pp . 1547-50.
7 B. Salin, D ie altgerm anische T h ierom am en tik, trans. J. M estorf, S tock h olm 1904; G .K nudsen, ‘N o g le B em aerkningar i A n led n in g a f O tto v on Friesen “O m runenskrftens  härkom st’”, N o rd isk tidskrift fo r filologi (serie 4) 1, 1912, pp. 97-103; O . v. Friesen,‘R uneskriftens härkom st: e tt svar’, N o rd isk tidskrift for filologi (serie 4) 1, 1913, pp. 161—80 (monograph, U ppsala 1913); idem , ‘T ill frågan o m runskriftens härkom st’, in Minnesskrift  tillägnad A x e l E rdm ann, U p p sala 1913, pp. 231-36; idem , ‘D ie R u nenschrift’, in J.H oop s (ed .), R eallexikon der germ anischen A ltertu m sku n de, 4 vols, Straßburg 1911-19,IV, pp. 5-51; idem , ‘R uner’, in C. B langstrup (ed .), Salm onsens K onversations-lexikon, 26vols, 2nd ed., K øbenh avn 1915-30, X X , pp. 516-529; idem , ‘R u n es’, in W . Y u st (e d .),E ncyclopœ dia B ritannica, 24 vols, 14th ed ., L ondon 1929, X V II, pp. 659-64; idem , ‘D e sen ast fram ställda m eningarna i frågan o m runornas härk om st’, A N F 47, 1931, pp. 8 0 -133; idem , ‘D e germ anska, anglofrisiska o c h tyska runorna’, in idem (ed .), R unorna ([N ordisk kultur VT), S to ck h o lm 1933, p p . 6-15; idem , ‘R u n e’, in G . T reccani (ed .),E n cicbpedia italian a, 35 vols, R om a 1929-1936, X X X , pp. 241-43; G . E kholm ,’R unologi och arkeologi’, Nordisk tidskrift för vetenskap, konst och indu stri 34, 1958, pp.455-62; idem , ‘K ragehulplattan. E tt ob eak tat ru n d o k u m en t’, A N F 57, 1959, pp . 112-14.
8 M . Rieger, ‘Z u m R u n en alp h ab et’, Z eitschrift fu r deutsche Philologie 6, 1875, p p . 3 3 0 -41; I. Taylor, Greeks a n d G oth s, L ondon 1879; idem , The A lph abet, 2 vols, London 1883,II, pp. 210-24; F- Jónsson, review o f W im m er, D ie Runenschrift, Z eitschrift für deutsche Philologie 21, 1889, pp. 492-98; E. Sievers, ‘R unen u n d R u n en in sch riften ’, in H . Paul(ed .), G ru n driß d e r germ anischen Philologie, 2 vols, Straßburg 1891-93, I, pp . 238-51; G .H em p l, ‘W im m ers R u n en leh re’, in O . Schrader (ed .), Philologische Studien, Festgabe fü r E du ard Sievers, H alle an der Saale 1896, pp. 12-20; idem , ‘T h e O rigin o f th e R u n es’,Journal o f G erm an ic Philology 2, 1898-99, p p . 370-74; idem , ‘T he V ariant R unes o n th e Franks C ask et’, T ransactions a n d Proceedings o f the A m erican Philological A ssociation 32,1901, pp. 186-95; idem , ‘T h e R unes and th e G erm anic S h ift’, Journal o f G erm an ic Philology 4, 1902, pp. 70-75; G . G un derm ann, [ ‘Ü ber d ie E n tsteh u n g des R unenalphab e ts ’], L iteratu rblatt fü r germ anische u n d rom anische Philologie 18, 1897, pp. 4 2 9 -3 0 .

9 Grimm , op. cit., pp. 38-47; O . von Friesen, ‘G o tisc h e S ch rift’, in J. H o o p s (ed .),
R eallexikon d er germ anischen A ltertu m sku n de, 4 vols, Straßburg 1911-19, II, pp. 3 0 6 -1 0 .


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