Runes are generally accepted to have been in use about the year 300 BC. Their origin is unknown, but it is likely that they derive from two main sources. Firstly from magical symbols already in use, and secondly borrowings from alphabets to which the northern peoples had contact. The runes Cen, Rad and Is clearly fall into this second category. The rune figures were designed for cutting into wood; using a sharp knife, the straight lines cut easily across the grain. The message would be read along the length of the wood. To do otherwise would mean cutting with the grain, and so risk losing some of the clarity. Stone inscriptions came later and show evidence of a rounding of the individual forms, this medium not presenting the same limitations as wood.

The runes were used for a variety of purposes, from talismanic inscriptions to name tags for marking ones purchases at the market until they could be collected. That they were used in some way for divination cannot be doubted, but in precisely what fashion we do not know. However it would be incorrect to assume that the use of runes was feared or suppressed by the Church, as ecclesiastical inscriptions using a mixture of Roman script and runes, at times within the same word, are extant. Also it seems that the carvers of many inscriptions were equally at home with either form. The runic alphabet, called a futhark or futhork (after the first six letters), changed many times in its period of use, alternative forms existing simultaneously. As knowledge of the runes passed from place to place, its general form would be adjusted to suit the local differences in pronunciation. Tribes having fewer sound elements in their language or dialect would dispense with the runes they did not require, while a tribe with a greater number of sound elements would invent new runes to coyer them. Also some sounds would with time pass out of use, thus rendering the corresponding rune obsolete. This explains the variety of futharks and also suggests that no single futhark should be considered as ‘more correct than any other.

The Nordic myths link the origin of runes with the discovery of speech, attributing both to Odin. He was, as the Romans understood him to be, the equivalent of their own Mercury, the god of knowledge and communication.