Language Experts: Correct use of a rune

I want to use the Anglo Saxon rune “cen”, shown here (top row, 4th from the right):

correctly (or at least reasonably correctly) in a small(ish) graphic design for possible use as a tattoo.

I want the meaning of the rune(s) to be “light” or “illuminated” but not in the sense of being lit up, but rather in the sense of knowledge, reason, or understanding, or the search for those things.

Looking around I find lots of websites that say that the cen (or ken) rune means things like “illumination, wisdom, enlightenment” (among other things), but these all look like new agey post-interpretation to me. Although I do know the word “ken” has “to understand” as one of its meanings.

So my question is how would I use runes as they may have been used by the medieval anglo-saxons to convey the concept of knowledge or the search for knowledge, and prominently include the “cen” rune, and hopefully be short and sweet so as to facilitate use in a tattoo? Could the single cen rune by itself have conveyed that meaning to someone in England in the sixth or seventh century?

And a kind of related question: is cen pronounced with a “hard” c as in ken, or “soft” like sen?

Clark Hall’s dictionary, abbreviations / conventions expanded, says:

cên, masculine noun. (Poetic texts only) pine-torch; pine: name of the rune for c. [cognate: German kien].

The ê should have a macron, not a circumflex, but I can’t type that here.

German “kien” is “pine” or “resinous wood.”

ETA: I believe the OE pronunciation of this word would be more like mod. Eng. “chain.”

So does this mean that the rune could be used by itself to mean torch? Or was that the name of the rune? My tiny bit of understanding seems to indicate that runes were used as letters which in turn stood for various sounds, just like our letters. And while I could put a K in a design and say that it stood for knowledge, I wouldn’t expect that anyone would make the connection before I explained it.

But would someone from that time and place look at a lone cên rune and think “torch” or even “knowledge”? Or even if they didn’t think it automatically, would they have thought it was a reasonable use if the intended meaning was explained?

Cool, thanks!

Right, the runes were (basically) letters, but those letters had names. So instead of ay, bee, cee, dee, ee, ef, you had aligator, bronchitis, calendar, distaff, elephant, fettucini. Or whatever.

When looking at the rune cên, you were probably only slightly more likely to think “pine tree” than you are to think “sea” when you look at a C. I say “slightly more” because we know they did make use of the names in a metaphorical fashion, but I’m well out of my depth trying to provide any facts on that score. (Hey, you say “language experts,” not “runemasters.”)

It’s a testament to my ignorance here that I thought a runemaster would be a language expert (at least of some nature)! :wink:

However, that does make it little clearer to me, thanks very much!

I guess my answer lies in that metaphorical use you mention, then. So okay, runemasters, what’s the story? Would using a cên rune in medieval England and saying it stood for enlightenment or knowledge have gotten you an understanding nod or just :rolleyes:?

A little bump for the morning crowd.

Sorry for my denseness here, but, as has been said, doesn’t the word mean “pine” or “pine torch”? So where are you getting enlightenment (of other than the physical kind) or knowledge out of it? Is that really a connection the early medieval English would have made?

Well, if my understanding is correct, it isn’t exactly a word, it’s more like a letter, and the name of the letter is something like “torch” or “pine torch”. But it would normally be used in conjunction with other runes to spell out full words, just like using the letters A, C, and T to spell out “cat”, and those words wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with torches.

As to the enlightenment or knowledge connection, that actually relies on recognizing the rune as its name, and not as an individual letter. It wouldn’t be too farfetched for someone who is involved in seeking enlightenment to adopt as a symbol something that gives off light. In the time frame these runes were in use, that pretty much limits you to a torch or other kind of fire.

In fact, if you look around the web, you’ll find lots of sites that attribute various meanings to different runes when used alone as single symbols instead of as part of spelled out words. And those sites all seem to say the “cen” or “ken” rune has (among others) the meaning of enlightenment, wisdom, knowledge, etc. But I’m highly dubious of these sites, as they seem strong on new agey stuff, and short on facts.

My question exactly! Actually two questions.

First, would someone in fifth century England see a design using a single cen rune and think torch or fire? Or at least would they think it was a legitimate use after an explanation even if they didn’t make the connection themselves?

Second, would the same person think that was a legitimate metaphor for knowledge? (If the first is true, IMHO this part is quite plausible.)

Or would the whole thing cause our hypothetical early Englander’s eyes to roll completely to the back of their head?

Some of the Icelandic sagas describe runes being used for magic, e.g. you’d write some runes on something and hide the thing somewhere. So their use in magic, and whatever “syntax” might have been involved, may have been very different from their use in other writing. That’s all I know about it, though.

Interesting, as that’s not too far off my intended use, except I don’t expect any magic qualities. A rune (or two or three maybe) in a simple design intended to symbolize something.

I wonder what examples there might be of runes used in a symbolic fashion.

Well, it’s both. The word “cen” is Old English for “pine”. The rune “cen” is the first letter in the word “cen”. It’s like if I were spelling out “cat” in the radio phonetic alphabet…I’d spell it Charlie-Alpha-Tango.

Looks much too muck like a lambda for my taste. People would almost certainly come to a conclusion you do not intend.

Huh, never thought of that. Although I suppose what else I include in the design would also influence that.

However, for my intended purpose, I must use that particular rune. So if I do it, I may just have to be ready to explain. Although it’s unlikely anyone outside my immediate family or friends would ever see it.

And this brings up a related question: Why did they use the name of objects or other complex concepts to name their letters? Is this related to early writing being pictographs (is that the right word)? So for example is it that the symbol for some object is something that resembles the object in some way, and then that symbol gets associated with one of the sounds in the word for that object?

And are you aware of any instances where single runes were used to stand for the object after which they were named?

The idea of using single runes to express a whole word or abstract concept like “enlightenment” seems strange to me. Where have you got these alleged meanings from? Most runic inscriptions seems to be short messages of a much more down-to-earth nature like “Leif raised this stone in memory of his brother Olaf” or “Sven wrote this”.

I found this site with a database of inscriptions where you can search for a word in english, maye you will have some luck there:

The scandinavian version of the “ken”-rune seems to stand for the letter K.

…appreciation of radiation/nuclear physics? Enjoyment of the immensely popular game series? :confused:

I guess I should have read the whole thread and seen that you all agree that cen is the name of the letter and that the question was if it had a meaning as well.

And to answer my own question from last post the name apparently comes from something called the Anglo-Saxon rune poem

The word/Greek letter lambda is used as a symbol of homosexuality, as in the Lambda Literary Awards and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.


It’s not original to me, by any means. A quick search on the web for runes will turn up any number of sites that have the “meaning” of various runes, and a bunch that sell jewelry of various kinds with runes on them. For example, see:

And “alleged” is a perfect description. What I’m trying to find out is if runes were actually used in this fashion.

I found that site earlier, but it has only runes from the “younger futhark” set, which does not include the rune I need to use.

Possibly. It’s still being debated. The term is acrophony, btw, and futhark isn’t the only alphabet that’s like that. Ogham is, Greek is, Hebrew is, etc.

I don’t think it would have been done commonly…u r looking for the old German version of internet chat talk. (See what I did there?) I think you do sometimes find inscriptions in Latin where the rune is put in as shorthand for the item it’s named after. What you did find is poems designed to teach the runes. Here’s an Anglo-Saxon rune poem:

There’s a modern English translation at the bottom. But you see, the name of each rune is followed by a description of the item the rune is named after.