Viking Age Runes - Historical Lore

The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018

Viking Age Runes
Historical Lore

(800—1100 C.E.)

As with all historical epochs, the Viking Age was not a sudden development but rather the result of a long, continuous process that had begun in the last centuries B.C.E. with the first movements of the Cimbri and Teutones from Scandinavia—that “Womb of Nations,” as the Gothic historian Jordanes called it.

In the years around 800 Scandinavia was undergoing a number of internal changes and taking new directions. Sweden (especially Gotland) had already begun to develop the trade routes to the east among the Slavs, routes that would eventually reach Byzantium, Baghdad, and Persia. In Denmark powerful kings (Godfrid and Horik) were beginning to shape the Danish “nation” by mustering vast armies and mighty retinues. Norway, however, in its isolated and geographically fragmented condition, held to more local institutions and conservative ways. Although part of Sweden (Uppland and Gotland) and certain areas in the Danish archipelago had long been wealthy, the rest of Scandinavia was just beginning to accumulate wealth and to grow in new ways at this time. The first Viking raid was carried out by Norwegians in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne (Northumbria), followed by raids on Monkwearmoth (794) and Iona (795), all of which heralded the dawn of the Viking Age.

Just as the historical Viking Age was the result of a long process, so too was the evolution of the Younger Futhark from the older one. An examination of Elder Futhark inscriptions and alternate forms of elder runes will show that stave forms that were to become standard in the Younger Futhark were already in use from about 600 C.E. The evolution from the elder to the younger tradition took place at a fairly rapid pace during the eighth century, so that by 800 the new, systematically formed Younger Futhark, reduced from twenty-four to sixteen staves, had been completed, institutionalized, and disseminated throughout all of the Scandinavian lands.

The Younger Futhark is a purely Scandinavian cultural phenomenon, although many inscriptions are found outside Scandinavia, mainly in the British Isles and in the east. All of these inscriptions were carved by Nordic runemasters.

It is quite certain that all of this development took place within a traditional cultic framework—otherwise the older alterations and the eventual reformation of the row would not have taken place in such a uniform fashion and be spread with such speed and precision over such a wide expanse. In many ways the history of the younger reformation runs parallel to the original formation of the elder tradition. One of the major contrasts, however, is the way in which staves of the Younger Futhark were quickly altered (in some cases drastically) in certain regions. This may point to an increased fragmentation in the tradition, but the fact that it held on to its internal system of order (number), phonetic values, and aett divisions, as well as to the traditional modes of use (i.e., carving, not writing), testifies to the strength of the deep-level tradition.

We can suppose that the original, reformed “Common Nordic” rune row appeared in the form we see in figure 2.1. However, the final and most standard version of the futhark appeared in the slightly different form that we see in figure 2.2.


Figure 2.1. Common Nordic Futhark.

The development of this futhark was dependent on a combination of linguistic and magical criteria. But in discussing the role of linguistic change in the evolution of the younger row, it must be noted that the evidence shows this to be strictly secondary. The elder row could have been adapted easily (as indeed it has been earlier) to any sound changes that might have occurred in the language. But this was not done. Instead, as the language developed a more complex sound system, it simplified its writing system—an unheard-of event in the history of orthography. This is accounted for by the fact that the reformation took place for extralinguistic, magico-religious reasons.

Before we get into the traditional evolution, it is important to recount some of the major linguistic changes and how they were reflected by the staves, so that a “grammar” of the inscriptions will be clearer. To begin with, the phonetic value of :Image: had always been uncertain, and it rarely appeared except in magical formulaic inscriptions. Also, :Image: alternating with :Image: changed its phonetic value at an early date (ca. 600) in the north because an original initial j was generally lost in Nordic at that time. A neat example of this rule is provided by the rune name itself, where Germanic jēra became Primitive Norse jār, which developed into Old Norse ár : Image:. Hence, the phonetic value of the stave goes from [j] to [a]. In addition, :Image: went from [a] to a nasalized form [ą]. It is also important to notice the new ambiguity of the whole writing system, where many staves now have to represent two or more sounds (see Table 3 in Appendix I.)


Figure 2.2. Standard Nordic Futhark.

The traditional elements indicate the continuity of the two systems, both elder and younger. These elements clearly show that the transition from one system to the other was carried out within a cultic framework and that the developers of the younger row had knowledge of the elder row and its traditions. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that all of this took place in what was essentially a nonliterate society. For although the runes were a form of writing. they had not yet been generally put to the task of simple and profane interpersonal communication. For one human being to be informed about a complex system of any kind (e.g., runelore) he had to be told about it by another human being. In those days the would-be runer could not go to a library and pick up a dusty tome about a long dead tradition and reanimate it.

The first element in this system is the continuity in the linear order of the staves, especially the first six: F-U-TH-A-R-K; otherwise, none of the staves of the Younger Futhark is displaced from its relative position in the elder row. Certain elder staves are dropped, and a new order emerges. The one exception to this rule is :Image: [-R], which is moved to the end of the whole row. This is perhaps due to the fact that it occurred only at the ends of words, but it also may have something to do with a conscious effort to preserve certain elements of the ancient aett system. As we saw with regard to the elder period, the aett system was an integral part of the elder tradition. (See chapter 9 for more esoteric aspects.) The continuity of this unusual feature is more evidence for the conscious manipulations of a cultic institution. The first aett of the younger row is made up of the first six staves of the elder, in an unaltered order. It is also important that the second and third aettir begin with the same two staves as in the elder period, i.e., H—N and T—B, respectively. This, combined with the necessity of a symmetrical division following the mandatory sixfold first aett necessitated the movement of :Image: [-R] to the end; otherwise it would have caused the third aett to begin with :Image:. In any event, the continuation, and indeed strengthening, of the threefold grouping is a truly remarkable characteristic.

Simpler correspondences are nonetheless amazing. The level of continuity of stave forms is noteworthy: eleven forms remained unchanged, and three changed staves actually represent older alternate forms (i.e., :Image:/:Image:,:Image:/:Image:) and the virtually interchangeable :Image:/:Image:, which originally developed from a :Image: form. That leaves only two that pose any problems at all; :Image: became :Image:, and :Image: became :Image:. These are explicable on formal grounds. The younger row generally made all double staves into single ones, so that by moving the head staves together, the new forms :Image: and :Image: would emerge. The :Image: was already an old unaltered form, so the modification :Image: was preferred. This latter form is also explicable on esoteric grounds (see chapter 10).

Another remarkable element is that of the continuity of the rune names and hence their primary phonetic values. Although we do not have any sources for the elder rune names, a combination of the comparative study of the languages in which the names do appear (i.e., OE, Go., and ON and the study of the ideographic use of the elder runes (see, for example, the ring of Pietroassa, on page 15) indicate that the later names are indeed a continuation of an age-old system. The Old Norse tradition preserves the names in rune poems (see chapter 8). The only apparent divergence is in the [-R] : Image : ýr, “yew” (bow), from [-R] : Image : elhaz, “elk.” However, the elder alternate form : Image : has been interpreted as originally having to do with tree symbolism (see the four cosmic harts [ = elks?] in the limbs of Yggdrasill). Also, the second rune, : Image :, has received a secondary meaning, “drizzling rain,” which is explicable on mythical, cosmogonic grounds (see chapter 10).

It seems necessary to assign an original homeland to the Younger Futhark because it would be difficult to account for two simultaneously developing identical systems in both Norway/Sweden and Denmark. Based on the evidence, the most likely location for this phenomenon is extreme southern Norway and the adjacent Swedish region, where runic activity had remained strong through the end of the elder period. The time of this formation would have been the closing decades of the eighth century. From this location it quickly spread to Denmark. There it fell on fertile ground and began to revivify the runic tradition in the Danish archipelago. In Denmark it was slightly modified and became the most influential model for future runic development. This situation sprang from the general growth in Danish cultural and political influence in the region at this time.

All of this leads us to a discussion of the most common forms of the futhark actually codified in Viking Age Scandinavia. Despite the variations in the shapes of individual staves, they maintained a consistent inner structure and organization.


Figure 2.3. Danish Futhark.

From the original codification in and around southern Norway and Sweden, the Younger Futhark spread to Denmark, where the codified forms were generally those found in figure 2.3. This Danish row was to become the most common of all futharks. It lasted from the ninth century to the eleventh and was the model for even later developments.

The Danish Futhark was, however, quickly reformed in some areas on the Scandinavian peninsula. By 850, in southern Norway and in Östergötland, Sweden, a simplified row was developed, which can be seen in figure 2.4.


Figure 2.4. Rök Futhark.


Figure 2.5. Hälsinga Futhark.

This is generally known as the Rök row after the most famous inscription in this futhark, the Rök stone. These particular stave forms lasted only until the latter half of the tenth century, when they were again replaced by the more standard Danish type.

Besides these two main futhark styles in use during the Viking Age in Scandinavia, in Sweden there was the sporadic use of a radically simplified stave system, later called the Hälsinga runes (after the province in which they are found). These are generally formed by removing the head or vertical stave from the form. A futhark of such staves is shown in figure 2.5.

This row is rare in inscriptions, and it has been speculated that it was actually a runic shorthand used in more profane communications and for legal affairs. It might have been in use as early as the tenth century, but the most famous inscriptions date from the middle of the eleventh. Although the Hälsinga runes were never more than a local convention, it is noteworthy that they remained a part of the ancient tradition.

Viking Age Inscriptions

We can, for the most part, find every kind of inscription in the younger period that we found in the elder one, but the type that comes to predominate in the evidence we have is that of the memorial stone. This is due in part to its durable character. However, talismans of various kinds remain an important part of the record as well. To date, around 5,000 younger runic monuments of all types have been found, but this number continues to grow as more Viking Age settlements are excavated.

Runic Memorial Stones

The tradition of carving, first, gravestones (very often found within the grave with a direct magical function), and later, memorial stones with apparent magical import dates back to the elder period. The bauta stones were, of course, closely connected to the grave. The younger tradition seized on this idea and made it a mainstay of its work. In the younger period such stones were not necessarily so closely associated with the grave itself, and therefore they are better referred to as memorials. They were often put in areas where travelers would pass by and where men capable of reading them could see them. This tradition began in Denmark around 800. It should be noted that this new bursting forth of revivified runic practice coincided with the reception of the reformed futhark and historically in connection with the ideological threat from Christianity in the south.

A famous example of an ancient form of gravestone, which actually represents the transition between the bauta- and memorial-stone types, is found on the stone of Snoldelev (see figure 2.6). This stone, which dates from between 800 and 825, was probably originally placed within the grave mound, but its formula bears some resemblances to the later memorials. It is also interesting to note that the stone was used for cultic purposes as early as the Bronze Age (ca. 1500—500 B.C.E.). We know this because a sun-wheel sign is still barely visible (with proper lighting) on its face (see dotted lines on figure 2.6). Its inscription is to be transliterated:


Figure 2.6. Snoldelev stone.

kun uAltstAin sunaR

ruhalts thulaR asalhauku (m) [?]

which can be translated: “Gunvald's stone, the son of Rohald, the thulr [ = cultic speaker in the cult of Odin] at Salhaugen.”

Snoldelev is especially interesting for its testimony concerning an official title within the Odinic cult (the ON thulr and the OE thyle), which has to do with the role of the magician/priest as a cultic reciter of law, incantation, mythic song, and the like—and the powerful holy signs, the three interlocked drinking horns (a symbol of the Odinic cult) and the solar-wheel/swastika. (Note the relationship between the later solar wheel and the older sun-wheel sign.)

A more classic example of the memorial-stone tradition is provided by the great Strö stone from near the village of Strö in southern Sweden (Skåne). The stone dates from about 1000 and was originally part of a grave-mound complex of seven stones (two with runic inscriptions). Although the mound has since fallen in, this was one of the first runic monuments to be described by Ole Worm in 1628.

The staves, which can be read in figure 2.7, are executed within a zigzag, serpentine ribbon.


Figure 2.7. Inscription of Strö.

This inscription would be rendered in Old Danish as Fadhir lét hoggva rúnaR thessi øftiR Azzur bródhur sínn, es norr vardh dødhr í vikingu and translated: “Father had these runes cut after [ = in memory of] his brother Asser, who died up in the north while a-viking.”


Figure 2.8. Gripsholm stone.

The Strö stone clearly shows the memorial characteristics of these monuments. A few technical observations are in order also. Note that often double letters are not indicated by the staves ( Image = hoggva); : Image : can stand for -ng-, as well as other ambiguities in the orthography of the inscription.

This stone shows us how these monuments were carved in memory of Viking raiders who died in foreign lands, which apparently was quite common. It also gives testimony to the fact that (professional?) runemasters were engaged for the carving of the staves.

A possible mytho-magical example of such a memorial stone is magnificently provided by the stone of Gripsholm. This stone commemorates a “brother of Ingvarr” who fell with the mythic hero (Ingvarr) while in the east. The outlines of the Gripsholm stone, which dates from the middle of the eleventh century and measures 6 feet by 4 feet 6 inches, are given in figure 2.8. Its inscription, beginning at the head of the serpent, should be transliterated as follows:

tula: lit: raisa: stain: thinsat: sun: sin: haralt: bruthur: inkvars:

(thaiR) furu: trikila: fiari: at: kuli: auk: a: ustarlar: ni: kafu: tuu:

sunar: la: asirk: lan: ti.

The latter part of the formula is in verse, and the whole may be translated:

Tola had this stone raised for his son Harald. Yngvarr's brother.

[They] fared boldly

far away after gold

and in the east

they gave [food] to the eagle;

they died in the south

in Serkland.

(Note that the double-point dividing signs, which usually indicate the divisions between words, are sometimes used within words. There may be some magical encoding at work here.)

More than thirty stones from this region (around Lake Mälar) and time period refer to men dying in the east with Yngvarr. Here we are probably dealing with a ritualized mythicizing of the deaths of men who fell in Russia and beyond during the later Viking Age. The Yngvarr to which these stones refer is a historical figure who launched a great expedition against the Islamic world in the east—Serkland—around 1040. (“Serkland,” which means either “shirt land” or “silk-land,” is sometimes more narrowly identified with Persia.) His expedition ended with the disappearance of the men off into Central Asia departing inland from the east coast of the Caspian Sea. All of this, coupled with the fact that this Yngvarr (sometimes spelled Ivar) had the same curious nickname (vídhfadhmi [far-traveler, or wide-fathomer]) and the same theater of demise (Serkland) as a semi-mythical Yngvarr (who would have lived in the sixth or seventh century) tend to make us believe that at a certain point all of those slain in the east were ritually said to have “fallen with Yngvarr,” a heroic figure from the mythicized past. The mythical Yngvarr is mentioned in the Heimskringla, and a whole medieval Icelandic saga is devoted to him.

The poetic lines of the inscription are interesting because they testify to an ancient and sacred formula—erni gefa (to give [sacrifice] to the eagle)—as a way of expressing the sacral nature of battle in connection with the Odinic cult.

Talismanic Objects

A wide variety of object types continued to be transformed into talismans in the Viking Age and beyond. Many were pure talismans (see figure 2.11 on page 33), whereas others were utilitarian objects turned into talismanic ones by means of loading them with rune might.

The famous ship burial of Oseberg (late-ninth-century Norway), perhaps the grave of queen Asa, included two runic inscriptions—one on a bucket and one on a round stake (beechwood, about 8 feet long) of uncertain function. It was probably part of the steering mechanism of the ship. The inscription, which is executed in Norwegian/Swedish (Rök) runestaves, can be read in figure 2.9.

This formula requires a good deal of runic knowledge to read. Nevertheless a literal meaning can be extracted:


Litil(l)-víss m(adhr)

The last stave is used ideographically to stand for its name, and the entire text can be translated: “[the] man is little wise,” or “[a] man [who] knows little,” the significance of which is to ward off the uninitiated from the deeper meaning of the inscription.

This deeper meaning is concealed by the common technique of stave scrambling. In this case it hides the famous magical formula mistil, which shares significance with the word mistletoe (ON mistilteinn), the twig of the little mist. Note that the latter part of the mistil formula is repeated twice, as is the other part of the formula, vil ( = ON vél [craft]).


Figure 2.9. Oseberg formula.


Figure 2.10. Lund weaving temple formula.

So the secret inscription would read:

mistil-til-vil-il or simply mistil-vil

In standard Old Norse this would be mistil-vél, the craft of the little mist—the magical powers over life and death. References to this magical mythos can be found in the story of the death of Baldr.

Another talismanic inscription on a utilitarian object is found on the weaving temple of Lund (Sweden), from about 1000 C.E. This interesting runic text gives us a sample of the curious mixture of love and curse magic, and the common blending of the two in Nordic sources. For other examples from the literature, see the “Skírnísmál” (stanzas 25—36) in the Poetic Edda and the confusion between the two forms found in Egil's Saga, chapter 72. The runic text of the temple can be read in figure 2.10.

In more standardized form: Sigvarar Ingimar afa man min grat, which can safely be translated “Sigvör's Ingimarr will have my sorrow,” is then followed by an eightstave magical formula: aallatti. The effect of the inscription is strengthened by the hidden numerical pattern of twenty-four staves in the main formula and eight in the auxiliary rune galdr. The purpose of the inscription is clear: it is to cause the husband (or fiancé?) of Sigvör (who is named Ingimarr) to have the runecarver's lovesickness; that is, he will lose Sigvör in some manner so that the runer can have her.

The final example of a talismanic object from the Viking Age is the copperplate (about 2 inches square) of Kvinneby (Öland), which dates from the late eleventh century. This is a truly remarkable amulet, the complexities of which we cannot fully explore in this space. Its fairly long text (144 staves) is inscribed in nine rows of boustrophedon (as one plows a field; i.e., from left to right and then back from right to left, etc.). This was a continuous practice in runic inscriptions from the elder period. The text is preceded by six magical bind runestaves (the first of which has been obliterated). These bind runes can be seen in figure 2.11. These signs are followed by the runic text itself, which can be translated as follows:


Figure 2.11. Kvinneby bind runes.

Glory to thee I bear,

Bofi. Help me! Who

is wiser than thou? And bear all

in evil from Bofi. May Thor protect

him with that hammer that from

the sea came, (it) flew from evil. Wit

fares not from Bofi. The gods are

under him and over him.

This is followed by a schematic drawing of a fish.

What is important to notice in the surface meaning of this talisman is the use of mythic imagery to shape the magical charge. In this case it is the protective power of Thor —his hammer, Mjöllnir—which always returns from the source of “evil” once it has hit its mark. Also, the image of the gods surrounding the shielded man, above and below, is significant in that it shows the gods present below as well as above. The Old Norse word that is usually translated as “evil” is illr, which keeps to its original primary meanings “ill, oppressive, difficult, mean (things),” and so on, rather than its later Christian meaning that indicates an absolute moral force.

Runic Technology

An often-ignored aspect of runology is that of the materials and techniques used in the actual production of runic objects. This is one area where “experimental archeology” can be of great value, which in turn can lead to a deeper understanding of the inner realms of the runes. Most of what is said here is valid for both the elder and younger periods.

We know certain things about the way in which they were executed by the runemasters from the runic inscriptions themselves. For example, besides the obvious physical evidence, we know from the runic terminology that runestaves were carved into the surfaces of various substances. The most common term in regard to this is Germanic wrītu (I carve), which eventually becomes Primitive Norse ristan (to carve). These terms are related to the English “write.” However, the original sense was that of carving or cutting.

The tools with which these carvings were made are generally unknown to us, so we can only guess at their nature. The famous stone of Eggjum tells us that it was not scored with an iron knife (ni sakse stAin skorin). Therefore, we know that for certain purposes there was probably a prohibition against using iron in cutting runes, but we also know that many objects must have been carved with iron knives. Here we are most certainly dealing with the elemental science of runecraft. The great runestones of the Viking Age were surely carved by means of a hammer and chisel after they had been dressed with a pick and/or ax. Some inscriptions may have even been executed by means of a pick hammer, tapping away at the surface along the lines of the staves. The stone of Snoldelev seems to have been done in this way. Other kinds of tools used in magical inscriptions were knives (see Egil's Saga, chapter 44) and needle-like objects (which must have been used to cut inscriptions such as the Kvinneby amulet). Some of these needles may have been crafted from nonferrous metals (bronze, copper, etc.) or from nonmetallic substances (e.g., bone or stone).

The physical evidence also bears ample witness to the substances into which runes were carved. Furthermore, the epigraphic and literary terminology of runelore gives us clues to the relative frequency with which various materials were employed. Wood was clearly the medium of choice among the runemasters. Terms for the runes themselves generally revolve around wood and not any other runic medium. Very often the word stave, which literally means “stick” or “staff,” is used as a synonym for rune. We get our English word stave from the plural form of staff (ON stafr). This points to the fact that originally the figures representing the mysteries were carved onto small wooden sticks (used in magic and divination) and that a shift in meaning took place in which the most popular mode of representing the rune became a synonym for the concept itself. Although this connection must go back to the era of runic origins, the oldest example of “stave” standing for “rune” is on the now lost stone of Gummarp (ca. 600 C.E.), which reads:





This can be translated as “Hathuwulf set three staves :Image.”

Not only did the “stave” come to stand for the sign of the rune, but it eventually took on all the meanings of the word rune itself, so that in Old Norse we find stafr (more usually in the plural, stafir), meaning not only “staff, stick, post” but also “lore, secret lore, wisdom, magical sign.”

Runic terminology was so well entrenched in the languages that in many dialects the vocabulary of Latin letters was reshaped by it. In Old Norse, written letters are referred to as stafjr, and even the complex magical signs (ON galdrastafir [magical staves]) use this term even though they are sometimes drawn with pen and ink. Old English stæf (letter, writing) and Old High German stab (stave, letter) are also examples of this. Note the modern German word for “letter” Buchstabe vs. Stab (stick, stave, wand).

Another often neglected yet essential aspect of runic technology, which is nevertheless important to modern runecraft, is that of coloring the staves and the objects on which they are carved. Again, the elder inscriptions themselves tell us that the staves were indeed colored, by frequent use of the verb fāhidō (I colored, or painted). The later Old Norse vocabulary continued to use the descendant of this Germanic verb form, , in the same context. Moreover, we know that the most popular color for the runes themselves was red (made with red oxide of lead, minium, or most often, ochre). This was generally a magical substitute for blood (see Egil's Saga, chapter 44). Comparative historical linguistics gives us good evidence for the magical importance of the color red for the Germanic peoples. The Old English teafor is an old term for red ochre, but the word is also found in Old High German as zouber (magic, divination) and in Old Norse as taufr (talismanic magic, talisman). It seems that one of the old ways “to do magic” was “to make red [with ochre]” some symbolic object in conjunction with a transference of magical might. This technique is made very clear in the passage from Egil's Saga cited above.

Other colors that were used, especially on later runestones, were black (made with soot) and white (a lime solution), as well as blue and brown. Traces of some of these have been found on the stones themselves. The Viking Age runestones were not originally the gray objects we might see today but brightly colored blazing beacons on the landscapes of all the worlds.

The coloring was used in a variety of ways. Its original function was undoubtedly magical. However, this was multileveled. The runes were stained a different color from the background (often red on white or black), which made the stave stand out. Furthermore, colors were used to make word divisions, with every other word (or part of speech) in a different color. There is also evidence that some runes were not actually cut into the stone but only painted in place! This opens up the possibility of an enormous number of forever lost runic documents that were just painted on the surfaces of rocks or wooden objects—all long since washed or blown away.

The language of the Viking Age inscriptions is generally referred to as Old Norwegian, Old Swedish, or Old Danish, depending on the dialect area in which it was produced. However, those with a knowledge of the literary forms of Old Norse, coupled with some basic runology, would have little trouble in deciphering runic texts found on Viking Age runestones. This is because the Norse dialect remained quite homogeneous until around 100; then East Norse (Swedish and Danish) and West Norse (Norwegian and Icelandic) began to develop. But even then the changes remained relatively minor through the close of the Viking Age.