The Kettle rune

In a dentist's waiting room, I was idly scanning a magazine, when I saw the words 'The kettle rune'. The article told me no more but of course I was immediately interested. Bristol Reference Library has five books on runes, but the more I read, the less confidence I had in them because all the books were about the mystical, divinatory use of runes, rather than concentrating on hard historical fact. I asked a question on the mailing list Old Norse Net and was directed to suitable academic reference books. The first one has just arrived on interlibrary loan and this is what I have extracted ...

The earliest runic inscriptions are Germanic, from the late second or early third century AD. Originally it was probably a secret craft if the interpretation of Old Germanic *run- as 'secret, mystery' etc is to have any value. It was never used by many people and it appears that the runic 'alphabet' or fuÞark was based on a careful phonological analysis of Old Germanic sounds, which indicates a single creator or perhaps a small group.

The early runic inscriptions were very short and found on objects such as weapons, jewellery and talismans. The general appearance of runes is usually explained as resulting from being carved on wooden sticks, which would lead automatically to the avoidance of curved or horizontal lines. It is generally assumed that at first runes had no utilitarian purpose, but were used for religion or magic.

Originally the runic fuÞark had twenty four runes and each rune had a name beginning with the sound indicated by the rune. For example the m rune was called *manna- = 'man'. When the use of runes moved to other countries and other times, the name of the rune often, but not always, changed so it again indicated the rune sound in the new language and new phonetics.

Gradually the small number of runes proved to be a handicap and extra runes were added. Eventually, in England there were runes corresponding to all letters of the Latin alphabet and some extra ones as well. Inscriptions use a twenty eight, thirty two or thirty three rune fuÞorc. Suggested dates for these changes are from before 600AD to after 800AD, though there are only 30-40 English runic inscriptions so this is mostly inspired guesswork. Runes were later written in manuscripts, but they tend to be there for some 'special' reason; as an ornamental script, for cryptograms, or as an object of study. The study of runes has been a historical interest since about 1000AD.
Sadly, there is no kettle rune. The nearest I can find is the rune k which is from Old English Calc or Kalc = 'Chalice'. Calc seems to have been an English rune - one of the additional new runes beyond the original twenty four. Variously, it is drawn as a three pronged fork pointing up, a three pronged fork pointing down and the first two strokes of a capital K.

Source: Runica Manuscripta by R Derolez pub De Tempel.
This source book is focussed on the later manuscript runes, so I may be able to find out more about Calc when the next book arrives.


The second book has now arrived: Runes by Ralph W V Elliott pub Manchester University Press which in an introduction to the study of runes in general and English runes in particular. Having read this, I think the 'Kettle rune' is pure fantasy, but I'll summarise the known facts below.

Two runes were worth investigating in detail, the sixth rune of the original fuÞark and the Old English k rune.

The sixth rune

In the earlist common Germanic fuÞarks (c5th century) this rune has the sound value k and is written <. It is invariably smaller than other runes. Unlike Latin script which is always written from left to right, both individual runes and the sentences they compose can be written in any direction, so > and ^ are the same rune. In Scandinavian fuÞarks (6th to 12th century and later) this rune is written First two strokes of capital K and has the sound values k, g and velar voiced spirant (whatever that is). In England from the eight or ninth century, the sixth rune is given the sound value c and is usually written as First and third strokes of capital K There is some confusion or variability in the rune name, Kaunaz = ulcer, kenaz = torch, kano = skiff are Old Germanic, cen is Old English. Other variants are chaon, kauna, kaun, kusma, chosma. Ralph Elliott prefers 'torch' with its symbolism of fire, the sun, security of the torch lit hall, cremation.

The Old English k rune

This is a later English addition due to the final extension of the fuÞorc in Northumbria and is a back-k modification of the c rune, written  /|\ with higher central stroke. The rune name is Calc probably meaning chalice or beaker (from the Latin calix), but possibly sandal, shoe (from the Latin calceus) or cealc (from the Old English chalk.)

In addition, there is a front-k symbol found only on the Ruthwell cross  X with vertical line through
The meaning of 'back-k' and 'front-k' is not explained, but it does not refer to the position of the rune in a word.

Last update
24 December 1998
Kettle Genealogy
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