Spelling it out in Viking Times

VisbyChristina here. I’m on holiday at the moment, so I’ve dug up a post that previously appeared on my friend and fellow author Anna Belfrage’s blog. Hope you don’t mind the recycling!

The word ”runes” is very evocative, isn’t it? It immediately conjures up images of fearsome Vikings, picture stones adorned with slithering snakes and dragons, as well as mysterious fortune-tellers or seeresses. Because runes weren’t just used for writing – they were also talismans against evil, part of secret rituals and carved into bits of wood or bark as protection. Magical!

Runes CopenhagenThe great thing about runes is that they are not that difficult to learn because they were loosely based on alphabets similar to our present one, and therefore use more or less the same principle. Although actually, that depends which runic alphabet you utilise of course – the older so called futhark (named after the first six letters f, u, þ, a, r, k) is the easiest one for us since it had a corresponding rune for almost all of our present-day letters (24 altogether). It can be roughly adapted to write modern words, which makes it fun. This elder futhark dates from the 2nd to 8th centuries AD, so had been phased out by the time my Runes series takes place (in the 870s), but I decided to stick with it anyway as it was easier for me – artistic licence! From the late 8th century the younger futhark took over, but this was a simplified version with only 16 runes which I believe requires you to speak Old Norse in order to know which one to use.

CombVikings never wrote any books with runes – although in theory they could have done if they’d stolen enough vellum from some poor Anglo-Saxon monastery. Instead, in terms of writing, they seem to have only used them to either mark objects like combs, bracelets and swords with the name of its owner or maker. They also carved inscriptions on rune stones to honour a person for some reason, and sometimes added graffiti in inappropriate places the way people still do nowadays. Laws, history and epic tales were instead passed down orally through the generations, usually in the form of story-telling or epic poems recited by the skald (poet/bard).

Bracelet Galloway
ToothThe other main use was for magic, and possibly divination and fortune-telling, although that has never been proven. Runes were definitely thought to have power and could be charms against things like evil, illness, bad luck etc, as well as curses. The word “rune” supposedly means something “secret” and perhaps the people who first used them were seen as special or powerful. Certainly, the vōlvas (seeresses) who performed ceremonies called seiðr might have used runes to create amulets (like this bear's tooth found in Orkney). These days lots of people “cast the runes” to tell fortunes or predict the future, but that may be a modern invention.

Runes in MaeshoweReading old runic inscriptions can be fun, especially the graffiti which can be found in the most unlikely of places. There are even a couple in the mosque of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, which are basically of the type “Halfdan was here” – so nothing changes! As I mentioned in a previous post, at Maeshowe, a Neolithic burial mound in Orkney, there are no less than twenty-nine runic inscriptions thought to have been cut some time in the mid-12th century. The place may have been used for shelter and the Vikings who overwintered there must have been exceedingly bored! A lot of the inscriptions are just names, but some are more informative, hinting at buried treasure or religion, while others contain sexual innuendos. Absolutely fascinating and I loved seeing them when I visited last year!

Runes BorreEven a beautiful stone lion statue now located in Venice, Italy, was defaced by Norsemen. The so-called Piraeus Lion is one of four, and originally during Viking times it stood in the port of Athens. Vikings serving in the Varangian Guard (a special elite unit of Scandinavians in the Byzantine Emperor’s army) would have come across it there. The lion has two long runic inscriptions on its flank and shoulders. This carving wasn’t just any old graffiti though, it’s been elaborately done in the way a rune stone would have been decorated, with the writing enclosed in inside a snake-like scroll.

Runes DenmarkSome of the most famous rune stones mention Vikings who travelled to faraway lands – Garðaríki (Russia), Grikkland (Greece/Byzantium) and Serkland (the Middle East), for example – but they didn’t go there as tourists or sunseekers. If they had stones raised in their memory, it was usually because they didn’t come back. (Although some did and a couple of stones claim that a man “took his share of gold” and returned). From Sweden lots of Norsemen travelled the incredibly long and arduous route through Russia down to the Black Sea and on to Istanbul (Byzantium in those days, although the Vikings called it Miklagarðr). The majority went as merchants, hoping to make rich profits – and they did, if they actually managed to make it back in one piece! But some stayed for a while and joined the Byzantine Emperor’s army as mercenaries in the Varangian Guard. They were known for their fierceness and for being tall and fair-haired.

Runes StockholmI couldn’t resist having a rune stone in my first story, Echoes of the Runes, and a character has one raised in memory of her father. The inscription goes something like this: “Jorun let ræisa stein þenna æfter faður sin …” If you are Scandinavian, you can easily understand this even though it is written in Old Norse, and that, for me, is part of the fascination. The runes may never have been used to write fat tomes on the history of the people who invented them, but nevertheless they give us tiny, important and fascinating snippets. Little insights into the minds of the Vikings that are truly precious! I, for one, am very grateful to them.

Have you ever seen a rune stone or runes written on an object? And are you ever tempted to mark your possessions the way the Vikings did? I used to always write my name in books I owned but nowadays I've stopped doing that in case I don't want to keep them.

10 thoughts on “Spelling it out in Viking Times”

  1. So cool, Christina! My knowledge of runes is pretty much none-existent so this is a good start, but they’re evocative of Scandinavia, which I’ve loved visiting, and they have an innate elegance. Thanks for the explanation!

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  2. Fascinating post, Christina! I’ve only seen rune stones in a museum – the same way I’ve seen the Rosetta Stone, which came to mind as I read your post. I’ve also seen the Pictish Rodney Stone and Maiden Stone in Scotland, quite up close. The urge to record our lives, beliefs, fears, and adventures is an ongoing human condition, isn’t it? Hope you have a lovely holiday!

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  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Viking runes. I love the ones with the coiled snake designs, so beautiful and sophisticated!

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  4. Thank you Constance! I’ve seen the Rosetta Stone too but not the others you mentioned. Fascinating aren’t they!

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  5. It is quite evident that there were very talented artists within the Viking communities. Apparently all people want to tell their stories and share with others.
    Thanks for this lovely post.

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  6. Thank you for an informative post, Christina. I’ve only encountered the occasional items with runes including some of those fortune telling runes you mentioned.
    I used to emboss my name in books with a small embosser, but I haven’t done that in years. Now you have me wondering if I still have that embosser!

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