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Ancient Runes is a language course in Harry Potter. Hermione started taking Ancient Runes in her third year, and Professor Dumbledore appeared very fluent in it.

I looked on the Internet for the alphabet of Ancient Runes and found many different images of runes from other sources. The letters/symbols/drawings made me wonder which language the Ancient Runes alphabet of Harry Potter was based on.

My Question:

What language are the symbols/letters/drawings of the Ancient Rune alphabet based on? If not based on, which language is closest to (if applicable)?

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  • A lot of comments (mostly related to the images that were not from Harry Potter and have now been edited out of the question) have been moved to chat for posterity.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 7:27

5 Answers 5

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We see an Ancient Runes class taking place in Harry Potter: Magic Awakened.

On the chalkboards are various Futhark runes.

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The professor is holding a book marked

ANCIENT RUNES
     MADE EASY

which has a Celtic cross on the cover and various runes (inside) that don't appear in the futhark 'alphabet'.

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The pupils also play with some of these runes and other symbols.

"We've got some runes right here"

enter image description here

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    Just to clarify in case anyone is unaware, Magic Awakened is a licensed mobile game. Something most people probably would not consider canon. Still a good find though. +1
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 4:07
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Ancient Runes in Harry Potter seem to be more like pictograms than futhark letters.

Let's summarize everything we know about Ancient Runes. (Some of these have multiple canon quotes that support them, but I've just picked a single example for each.)

  • Ancient Runes involves "dictionaries".

    ‘Why don’t you just drop a couple of subjects?’ Harry asked, watching her lifting books as she searched for her Rune dictionary.
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Chapter 12 "The Patronus"

  • Ancient Runes involves "translating" stuff.

    ‘That’s the trouble with Quidditch,’ said Hermione absent-mindedly, once again bent over her Runes translation, ‘it creates all this bad feeling and tension between the houses.’
    She looked up to find her copy of Spellman’s Syllabary, and caught Fred, George and Harry all staring at her with expressions of mingled disgust and incredulity on their faces.
    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Chapter 26 "Seen and Unforeseen"

  • The word ehwaz translates to 'partnership', and the word eihwaz translates to 'defence'. (Out-of-universe these are the names of futhark letters 'E' and 'I', but note that Hermione refers to this as a translation, and that it really wouldn't make sense for Hermione to reach her OWLs without being able to tell apart two letters.)

    ‘How were the Runes?’ said Ron, yawning and stretching.

    ‘I mis-translated ehwaz,’ said Hermione furiously. ‘It means partnership, not defence; I mixed it up with eihwaz.’
    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Chapter 31 "O.W.L.s"

  • The pensieve has "runes and symbols" engraved on it. (Though these are never specified to be "Ancient Runes".)

    A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge; runes and symbols that Harry did not recognise.
    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Chapter 30 "The Pensieve"

  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard was written in Ancient Runes

    Its binding was stained and peeling in places. Hermione took it from Scrimgeour without a word. She held the book in her lap and gazed at it. Harry saw that the title was in runes; he had never learned to read them. As he looked, a tear splashed on to the embossed symbols.
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Chapter 7 "The Will of Albus Dumbledore"

  • The Deathly Hallows symbol looks like a rune. And although it is not a rune. Harry assumed it was one, and Dumbledore seems to have assumed the Ministry would assume this as well, and Hermione tried looking it up in her Rune dictionary.

    Krum cracked his knuckles menacingly and glowered at Xenophilius. Harry felt perplexed. It seemed incredibly unlikely that Luna’s father was a supporter of the Dark Arts, and nobody else in the tent seemed to have recognised the triangular, rune-like shape.
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Chapter 8 "The Wedding"

    Apparently she had not been listening to him. She leaned forwards and held out The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

    ‘Look at that symbol,’ she said, pointing to the top of a page. Above what Harry assumed was the title of the story (being unable to read runes, he could not be sure), there was a picture of what looked like a triangular eye, its pupil crossed with a vertical line.

    ‘I never took Ancient Runes, Hermione.’

    ‘I know that, but it isn’t a rune and it’s not in the syllabary, either. All along I thought it was a picture of an eye, but I don’t think it is! It’s been inked in, look, somebody’s drawn it there, it isn’t really part of the book. Think, have you ever seen it before?’
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Chapter 16 "Godric's Hollow"

Departing a bit from the books, we also see two projects Rowling seems to have at least personally liked, and may have even been involved in which show some runes.

  • One of the puzzles from jkrowling's first interactive flash website involved opening up an ancient runes book to see a chart of 10 numeric runes, and then using that chart to read a code number written in runes. The runes shown here were pictograms.

    The content featured on this site was officially all written from by her, though it's unclear exactly how far that extends when it comes to the puzzles. Nevertheless she seems to have been very closely involved in the decision making for the website.

  • In 2014 and 2015, for a few months Rowling featured a prop replica of Beedle the Bard she owned in her twitter header. While this still looks clearly like an alphabet, the runes are more in line with pictograms than with futhark

    enter image description here

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    Spectacular answer for a question totally based on a false premise!
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 16:52
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    A couple more things. (1) A "syllabary" has no business to be involved with either pictograms (one character per word) or real-world runes (one character per letter), it's the equivalent of an alphabet for scripts like Japanese hiragana that have one character for each possible syllable (ya, yu, yo, and so on). Possibly just there for the sake of alliteration. (2) Viking runes do have word meanings in a way. In divination by runes (which some people say is a made-up modern system without much historical basis, but anyway), "partnership" and "defence" are in fact among the main (1/2)
    – A. B.
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 6:46
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    symbolic meanings of "ehwaz" and "eihwaz". (One can only assume that Hermione's exam asked about them by name rather than by symbol - they look nothing like each other!) So apparently that statement did have something to it. Also: impressive, and avatar pic checks out :-D (2/2)
    – A. B.
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 6:50
  • FYI, I've edited the question (in response to flags) to remove the pictures that were confusing a lot of people. I felt that this doesn't invalidate any of the answers, but you may want to edit the first section of your answer, before the real bulk of the answer based on quotes and images.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 8:41
  • @Randal'Thor - I'd strongly differ with you about whether that edit invalidated any answers or not, but I agree that it is now a much better and less misleading question. If there doesn't seem to be any motion to revert your edit within the next day or so then I'll adjust my answer to match.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 8:45
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Runes are the letters of several European alphabets used to write Germanic languages prior to the introduction or widespread use of the Latin alphabet during the Medieval period. Germanic languages include the Proto- and Old Norse spoken by the Vikings, Anglo-Saxon and its subsequent forms of English originating in Britain, and of course modern German.

In the case of the Hogwarts Ancient Runes course, the runes used are the Elder Furthark alphabet, used across Northern Europe between the 1st and 8th Centuries CE. Over time, Elder Futhark developed into the Futhorc alphabet used by the Anglo-Saxons and their relatives between the 5th and 11th Centuries CE, across the northern coast of modern-day Germany and the Netherlands and in Britain. The runes themselves are quite similar for both alphabets, and for the most part have identical meanings, as each rune represented both a letter value and a word itself, but their names changed during the development of the later Futhorc alphabet.

Elder Futhark: The Elder Futhark alphabet along with the common transliterations

Hermione specifically mentions confusing Ehwaz (E, or "horse") and Eihwaz (I, or "yew tree"), so we can surmise that Hogwarts teaches Elder Futhark rather than Futhorc as Ehwaz became shortened to Eh in the latter alphabet and Eihwaz became Ih.

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  • Thank you for also adding in "ehwaz" and "eihwaz". :) Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 1:01
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    The actual quote is I mis-translated ehwaz,’ said Hermione furiously. ‘It means partnership, not defence; I mixed it up with eihwaz.. Note that Hermione 1) refers to this as a "translation", 2) uses meanings very different from the ones in Futhorc, and 3) is happening during her OWL exam, after three years of taking the subject. Based on the context it doesn't seem like this could mean she's confusing the two Futhorc letters, and it really seems like Rowling's use of those words was just an out-of-universe reference.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 14:03
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I would imagine that "Ancient Runes" as a course would not be a language course so much as a magical writing systems course that would focus on various types of pictograms, alphabets etc. and their use in creating magical effects, objects, wards, etc.

Ron mentions that his brother Bill had to take Ancient Runes and Arithmancy because he wanted to be a curse breaker and he (Bill) ends up working in ancient Egyptian tombs so one would imagine Egyptian hieroglyphics featured somewhere (used to write ancient Egyptian languages). Hermione talks about confusing ehwaz with eihwaz which are names of Elder Futhark runes (used in writing ancient Norse and Germanic languages). Harry thinks the symbol of the deathly hallows looks "rune-like" and it sort of looks as if it would be at home in a Greek alchemical text.

So that leads me to believe that Ancient runes covers more than one writing system and language.

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    Overall I think you might be onto something here, but I'm not sure if it's ever said that Bill took AR because of Egypt. We only presume he took AR because we know that he had 12 OWLs. And when Harry looks at the career pamphlet in OotP he only points out that it requires Arithmancy, not AR.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 16:59
  • They don't say Bill took AR and because of Egypt, only that he took AR and Arithmancy because he wanted to become a curse breaker. The rest is just my speculation.
    – Gwyn
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 15:13
  • Do you have a source for that though? I couldn't even find anything specifying that Bill took those subjects.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 22:27
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Runes are a real ancient script used in old Germanic languages that was common in many northern European countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, England and Wales. As Roman influence and Christianity spread throughout Europe, the Latin alphabet became the common writing script for these languages. Most seem to have stopped using runes anywhere between 700-1400 CE depending on the country.

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Wikipedia, Runic Alphabet

Vikingeskibsmuseet, Viking Runes

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    While these are indeed ancient runes, can you offer any evidence that these are the ancient runes that Rowling was referring to?
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 14:45
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    "You're a viking Harry"
    – shanu
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 4:29

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