Contrary to popular believe, the Germanic people were not illiterate until they became Christian. For centuries they had used their own mode of writing, using an ‘alphabet’ of characters called runes. Each rune had its own name (for example: the f was called fehu, meaning money, wealth, and the u was called uruz, wild ox). Twenty-four of these runes up the Germanic runic alphabet, called futhark, after the first six characters.
Although the oldest runic object (160 AD) is found at Vimose, Funen, it is not clear whether or not modern day Denmark is the place of origin1. What is clear is that runes have spread throughout the old Germanic world. The most in Scandinavia, but also in Germany, the British isles and as far as Rumania, recording early stages of for example Gothic, Swedish, and Frisian.
As the earliest form ‘writing’ happened to be inscribing runes, it becomes clear why the Old English equivalent for the word writing, writan, means to inscribe, engrave. Similarly, the verb reading, in Old English rædan, means to interpret. It seems to derive directly from the time runes were inscribed and interpreted. Reading and writing runes was not something everyone learned, according to the Greenlandic Poem of Atli (Atlamal), where Kostbera tries to warn her husband Hogni, not to go to the court of Atli:
You intend to leave home, Hogni, listen to advice! Few are very learned in runes - go some other time! I interpreted the runes which your sister cut: the radiant lady hasn't summoned you this time.
The word ‘rune’ itself is known in different languages, meaning secret conversation, secret meeting or whispering. In fact, before it became associated with the inscribed characters, the word was used to describe secrecy, whispering and enchantment.
The word rune is still in use in the Frisian language as the verb reauntsje. This verb - although it may have become archaic and not many Frisian will even be aware of it existence - still means softly whispering and softly rustling (2). Runes have been in use throughout the first millennium and in some regions even beyond that. It is often thought that with the introduction of Christianity, the use of runes was forbidden. The coincidence is certainly there, but there is no evidence though, that the church actively tried to ban runes.
1 for more on the origins of runes, see Looijenga, 1997
2 “....gezegd van het ‘geheimzinning ruisen van de wind in de bladeren der bomen’ en het ‘geheimzinnig influisteren van iets’ (Buma, 1957)