According to the Eddas, the poetic saga of the Norse Gods, the Runic alphabet was a gift from Odin. The word 'rune' means 'wisper,' or 'secret wisdom.' A selection from the Eddas tells of their discovery. Odin hangs for nine nights upon the world tree, wounded, without food or water; finally, he sees the reflection of the runes in the water:
"Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows For nine long nights, Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odhinn, Offered, myself to myself The wisest know not from whence spring The roots of that ancient rood. They gave me no bread, They gave me no mead, I looked down; with a loud cry I took up runes; from that tree I fell."
The runes originated around 200 B.C.E., as magical symbols engraved in stone; they were developed into the first Rune alphabet, the "elder" Futhark ('futhark' being a transliteration of the first six letters), an alphabet of twenty four characters. Many permutations and revisions over the years produced several variants, including the 'elder' and 'younger' futhark, and the Danish "short twig" script. Eventually, the sixteen character alphabet became the most commonly used. An epic "Rune poem," written in Old English around 1000 C.E., outlined the metaphorical and divinatory meanings of the characters, which at that time numbered at thirty three.