Rune means "Secret knowledge and wisdom". Odin himself was regarded as "Father of the Runes". Among the illiterate Vikings the rune-masters were held in high regard.
Where did the runes come from?
The runic alphabet was known from the first century AD among all Germanic tribes around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The oldest version of the runic alphabet had 24 runes. It was used for writing on wood, bone and stone and was regarded as sacred.
The Vikings and Runes
The Viking word for alphabet was "futhark" named after the first 6 letters in their runic alphabet. The Viking rune-masters used only 16 letters in their futhark They used the runes in connection with trade, on weapons to give them more power, on jewellery to bring luck and happiness, and on gravestones to ease the passage for the dead on their way to Valhall.
More runes needed
Towards the end of the Viking Age the rune-masters felt the need for more runes in their "futhark" and included some new ones. The knowledge of runes also became more widespread because in many places everyday messages from ordinary people and "Viking graffitti" have been found written on wood or bone.
Some were rather wistful like this one,
or, this one perhaps sent to a husband who had dallied too long in the pub,
On top of the marble balustrade in the South Gallery in Hagia Sophia in
Istanbul you can still make out part of what a Viking wrote in runic letters a
1000 years ago, probably:
Runes were used in Scandinavia well into the 14th century. If you want to know more, the Norwegian Computing Centre for the Humanities has more information about runes.