While runologists argue over many of the details of the historical origins of runic writing, there is widespread agreement on a general outline. The runes are presumed to have been derived from one of the many Old Italic alphabets in use among the Mediterranean peoples of the first century CE, who lived to the south of the Germanic tribes. Earlier Germanic sacred symbols, such as those preserved in northern European rock carvings, were also likely influential in the development of the script.
The earliest possibly runic inscription that we know of is found on the Meldorf brooch, which was manufactured in the north of modern-day Germany around 50 CE. The inscription is highly ambiguous, however, and scholars are divided over whether its letters are runic or Roman. The earliest unambiguous runic inscriptions are found on the Vimose comb from Vimose, Denmark and the Øvre Stabu spearhead from southern Norway, both of which date to approximately 160 CE. The earliest known carving of the entire futhark (alphabet), in order, is that on the Kylver stone from Gotland, Sweden, which dates to roughly 400 CE.
The transmission of writing from southern Europe to northern Europe likely took place via Germanic warbands, the dominant northern European military institution of the period, who would have encountered Italic writing firsthand during campaigns amongst their southerly neighbors. This hypothesis is supported by the association that runes have always had with the god Odin, who, in the Proto-Germanic period, under his original name *Woðanaz, was the divine model of the human warband leader and the invisible patron of the warband’s activities. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Odin (“Mercury” in the interpretatio romana) was already established as the dominant god in the pantheons of many of the Germanic tribes by the first century. Whether the runes and the cult of Odin arose together, or whether the latter predated the former, is of little consequence for our purposes here. As esteemed Indo-European scholar Georges Dumézil notes:
If Odin was first and always the highest magician, we realize that the runes, however recent they may be, would have fallen under his sway. New and particularly effective implements for magic works, they would become by definition and without contest a part of his domain. … Odin could have been the patron, the possessor par excellence of this redoubtable power of secrecy and secret knowledge, before the name of that knowledge became the technical name of signs both phonetic and magic which came from the Alps or elsewhere, but did not lose its former, larger sense.
From the perspective of the ancient Germanic peoples themselves, however, the runes came from no source as mundane as an Old Italic alphabet. The runes were never “invented,” but are instead eternal, pre-existent forces that Odin himself discovered by undergoing a tremendous ordeal. This tale has come down to us in the Old Norse poem Hávamál (“The Sayings of the High One”):
I know that I hung
On the wind-blasted tree
All of nights nine,
Pierced by my spear
And given to Odin,
Myself sacrificed to myself
On that pole
Of which none know
Where its roots run.
No aid I received,
Not even a sip from the horn.
I took up the runes –
Screaming I grasped them –
Then I fell back from there.
The tree from which Odin hangs himself is surely none other than Yggdrasil, the world-tree at the center of the Germanic cosmos whose branches and roots hold the Nine Worlds. Directly below the world-tree is the Well of Urd, a source of incredible wisdom. The runes themselves seem to have their native dwelling-place in its waters. This is also suggested by another Old Norse poem, the Völuspá (“Insight of the Seeress”):
There stands an ash called Yggdrasil,
A mighty tree showered in white hail.
From there come the dews that fall in the valleys.
It stands evergreen above Urd’s Well.
From there come maidens, very wise,
Three from the lake that stands beneath the pole.
One is called Urd, another Verdandi,
Skuld the third; they carve into the tree
The lives and fates of children.
These “three maidens” are the Norns, and their carvings surely consist of runes. We therefore have a clear association between the Well of Urd, the runes, and magic – in this case, the ability of the Norns to carve the fates of all beings.
Presumably, then, after Odin discovered the runes by ritually sacrificing himself to himself and fasting for nine days while staring into the waters of the Well of Urd, it was he who imparted the runes to the first human runemasters. His paradigmatic sacrifice was likely symbolically imitated in initiation ceremonies during which the candidate learned the lore of the runes, but, unfortunately, no concrete evidence of such a practice has survived into our times.