Many of those reading this will already know what the Runes are, but as many of my friends have recently told me, repeating information isn't a bad thing.
What we know about the origins of the Runes are very little. There are many scholars who believe the runes date back at least to the year 50 A.C.E., if not before. This however can not be proven due to two common practices. The first is inscribe the runes onto wood. The second is scraping the runes off the wood, and burning it after it's use was done. As far as I know the earliest actual carving was found in the second century A.C.E. It is my belief that the runes themselves came from a collection of sacred symbols that had religious significance and was probably used in magic and divination. Then either one genius or a small group of people decided to collect some of the symbols an give them phonic values. There are theories as to what or who influenced the shapes and sounds of the runes, and if you are interested please feel free to explore this. Archaeological Runography is a fascinating subject, but is a little out of the range of this blog. What we can surmise from non-runic sources is a bit more varied. Tacitus, a Roman aristocrat wrote about the world outside the Roman Empire using both first-hand accounts as well as second and third hand accounts. From one of his books “The Agricola and the Germania” we have a reference to the “casting of lots” that many scholars believe reference the Runes. The Sagas of Iceland and the Vikings have many references to the use of Runes. We also have two texts, the Poetic Edda, and the Younger Edda that give some great information on the Runes, if in an indirect manner.
So, the next part of our story of the Runes begins in 400 A.C.E. with an artifact that is commonly called “The Kylver Stone”. This is the oldest artifact we yet know of that shows the Runes in a “Futhark” order. This artifact is also what many runesters and runeologists use as the basis for the “Elder Futhark”. Futhark by the way comes from the phonic values of the first 6 runes, F-U-TH-A-R-K. From here there are Hundreds of cataloged and uncataloged runic and semi-runic inscriptions found throughout most of northern Europe, as far south as Italy, and even (with some scholastic doubt) in America. Stone is the most common material, but wood, metal, bone and horn have also been found. To me, this speaks of many things. The first is the versatility of the runes, the second is to the Norse and Viking's skill at long distance travel. Now since the Norse people liked to travel so much, eventually with the change of culture, the Runes themselves changed. From this we have 3 “classic” rune rows: The Elder Futhark, The Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Frisian Futhork. In modern times we have added to these the “Armanen”, the “Tolkien” and one or two other attempts to modernize the runes to deal with the sounds that are currently used in modern English. We will examine all of these at a later date.
So, even with all of these artifacts, very little direct information has survived on the Runes themselves. Beyond some brilliant Anthropology and Archaeological work on said artifacts, what we do have are some poems copied down by some early Christian monks. The Anglo-Saxon rune Poem, The Norwegian Rune Poem, The Icelandic rune poem, and there is also the “Abecedarium Nordmanicum”. That's it. That's the only direct source we have to date on the actual meanings of each rune.
So, in short, what we know about the Runes today has been pieced together by many brilliant minds from a large number of sources. For now, here are some good places to start dealing with the history and origins of the Runes.
Wiki Runic Alphabet
Wiki Kylver Stone
Wiki Rune Poems