11 min read
The runes are an ancient system of writing. The use of runes was an important part of Scandinavian culture. In this guest blog post written by none other than the fantastic Elin Pirso (also known as Mooselady), we will explore the history of the runes and their use by the Vikings.
This is part 1 of Elin's guest blog post about the Runes and the Vikings, part 2 will be published on April 13th. Stay tuned!
Introduction from the author Elin Pirso
Hello everyone! I am happy to have been invited by the lovely folks at Lufolk, and have the honour to write an article for them! A little about me; my name is Elin Pirso, and I am a graduate (now during spring 2023) within cultural heritage studies and archaeology. The reason why I’ve taken a degree within these subjects is my fascination and obsession with history, culture and archaeology. On my social media platforms I take the opportunity to use the knowledge I have and spread that to other history-nerds and anyone else who would like to learn. I am very into the Scandinavian Bronze age and Iron Age, Estonian history and ancient rock carvings. Now after this introduction and some further ways to find me; have a great read!
Where you can find me
Before we get ahead of ourselves; who used the runes?
The very short but accurate answer is “a whole lot of people”. Usually we tend to connect the runes to the Scandinavians living through the famous Viking Age, this is however far from the actual reality. The Viking Age lasted from around the years 800-1050 AD (both a bit before and a bit after), which is only around 200 years. The runes have been proven to be used from around the year 0 up until 1900 AD, which means exactly that “a whole lot of people” have been using them. Their strongest point in time and most culturally used period is during the later part of the Scandinavian Iron Age. Therefore we tend to think of Vikings when we think of runes.
What are runes?
Runes are historical characters, whose purpose is to reproduce and mimic certain sounds. This in order to create words and meanings, so as any other letters they are the carved down documentation of the spoken language of their time. They are in that sense comparable to any other alphabet. The oldest finds of rune carvings date back to the year 0, with the new archaeological find the “Svingerudstone”, made in Norway 2021.
Geographically the runes have been used mostly around Scandinavia, it is also in Scandinavia where most archaeological objects with rune carvings have been found. There are no older sources of texts written in their indigenous language in Europe than the rune carvings (besides of course Latin, Ancient Greek and a ceramic tablet found in ancient Bulgarian).
Even though Scandinavia is the main source of rune-finds, the truth is that the bigger part of Europe using Germanic Languages has used runes in different capacities.
The runes were used during so many different periods that they didn’t stay static, they like any other language went through their own evolution. The first changes we can see in the language through the runes is that the words were shortened down (examples: stainaR → stæin, wulfaR → ulfR, jara → ar). This could be an explanation to why the runes became fewer in number during the viking age. The next big change regarding the Nordic language and the runes came during the Medieval Times. The medieval runes were made to fit the Latin alphabet, so new runes were created to have the same number of runes as Latin letters. All of these different looking runes were not included in the rune row however, so even if the runes expanded in number, the official number of futhark runes kept on being 16, like during the Viking Age.
Before we move on to the futharks and what they are, I’d like to address a very popular and frequently asked question when it comes to runes:
Regarding numbers and having a system for that, as with most things in ancient Scandinavia, there is no such system being written down anywhere as far as we know of. What we do know however is that the Iron Age Scandinavians were successful in selling and trading, which would show that there must indeed have been a system in place to keep track of various tasks. There have been many grave goods directly connected to merchant activities such as weights and scales with origins from Iron Age Scandinavia (in for example the Viking age city of Birka and on the island of Gotland). Other examples of that the Iron Age Scandinavians had some kind of numbering system can be found on a couple of runestones. The “Runestone in Stora Ek”, county of Västergötland, Sweden, is one of these runestones. It tells the story about a father honouring his dead son. The runestone further covers information on what this father is inheriting from his son, which is 3 farmsteads and 30 marks (mark is a former weight system used in ancient Scandinavia, but also used as a currency of coins) to gather from a man named Erik. On this stone the 3 is carved as “þria” and the 30 is carved as “þria tiugu”.
These words are old Norse for three and three and ten.
We do know that the ancient Scandinavians did indeed count, we are just not completely sure exactly in how their system worked. Let’s move on to the futharks!
Let’s talk about futharks!
A futhark is the collection of rune characters from a specific era. It works easily explained as a type of alphabet, where the characters come in a specific order (which can vary here and there). The expression “futhark” is used because of the six first runes of these “alphabets”, they spell out ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲ (or ᚠᚢᚦᛅᚱᚴ) which translates into “futhark”. How we know which order the runes of the futharks are written in comes back to historical finds. Finds such as the Kylver-stone (Sweden), the Vadstena-bracteate (Sweden), and the Grumpa-bracteate (Sweden). On all of these finds the elder futhark is written down in a specific order. The Kylver-stone (4th century) is the oldest find of a fully carved down elder futhark.
The oldest find containing younger futhark runes is quite macabre. It is the skull fragment from Ribe (Denmark), where the younger futhark runes are carved on the inside of a human skull (8th century). The oldest find of the complete younger futhark can however be seen on the Gørlev stone (Denmark), this stone is from the 9th century.
The three main groups of Scandinavian runes are as follows:
Elder Futhark, circa year 0 – 8th century, containing 24 runes.
Younger Futhark, circa 8th – 11th century, containing 16 runes.
Medieval Rune Row, circa 11th – 14th century (and specific locations in Sweden 16th and the beginning of the 20th century), containing 16 - 27+ runes.
Where the runes might have come from
The discussion of where the runes came from originally is a topic that keeps being debated by runologists. There are constantly new discoveries being made and with this there are naturally new theories taking form. The three most discussed theories where the runes originate from are “the Greek theory”, “the Etruscan theory” and “the Latin theory”.
The Greek theory presents a solution where the Goths created the runes. This is based upon Greek cursive writing supplemented by a few Roman cursive letters. And that the runes would have been created when the Goths encountered Greeks and Romans. This theory concludes that the runes would have been created around 250 AD. This theory was presented during the 1930’s, and it falls apart due to that the dating of runic finds has improved. Some of these finds are way older than 250 AD. The Etruscan theory takes another form of the origin with the runes. According to this theory the runes are based on one of the North Italic alphabets being used during the later centuries BC. These alphabets were modelled on the Etruscan alphabet. This theory presents that the runes probably were created in the south of Germany during the last century B.C. This theory falls flat when it comes to archaeological backing in finds. There are no runic finds in southern Germany that are older than the 6th century. The Latin theory is one of the more accepted theories out of all of these three. It centres around the Romans as the inspirational sources for the futhark. Since the Romans were the dominating culture during the beginning of our era. It is a known fact that Germanic people came in close contact with Romans during these times. Since also many runes resemble the Roman alphabetical letters, for example how ᚠ, ᚱ and ᚺ resembles the Roman F, R, H. However, this lacks an explanation to the divergences in sound values and forms of the characters in this theory.
When does borrowing shapes or letters become their own, after being inspired from another source than their own language? Since cultures constantly change and language evolves uncontrollably during many periods of human history, it might seem an impossible task to know where to start with trying to find the origin of the runes.
“Impossible” is however a word enthusiasts and experts never have believed in, luckily.
The tradition of carving runes in Scandinavia
To understand why the runes are not used as the common style of writing (carving) anymore we must understand two things:
- What the runes were mainly used for
- What went on in the society during the 11th and 12th centuries in Scandinavia
Let us start off with a very important fact; it is impossible for us today to know how big part of the population during the Scandinavian Iron Age actually had the ability to read the runes. It is a fact during many other time periods that mainly a society’s elite has had the privilege to read, but who knows during these times. It is important to acknowledge what we do not, and cannot know about these times, and who could and who couldn’t read is one of those things.
During the years 400 to 1100 AD the tradition of raising runestones was alive and well. Runestone carvings was an artform and crafting category with its own professionals and masters. There is also something called “picturestones” in Scandinavia, that usually categorically is placed closely together with the runestone tradition. On the picturestones there is a lack of runes on the carvings, and they are purely illustrational. They are however made during the same era and are sometimes also runestones. Runestones were used to carve down poetry, honouring of deceased loved ones and sometimes to cast curses onto anyone breaking the memorial. They are not gravestones, they are memorials and are usually not found in connection to grave fields, but instead close to ancient roads where people would see them. The bodies of the deceased were often buried in a burial field close by to the family farm. In Scandinavia these grave fields can still easily be spotted, with their grave mounds looking like tiny “hobbit like” hills. The mounds from earlier Iron Age and the Bronze age are much bigger.
Besides runestones, runes were carved on other materials as well. The most common use of runes has probably been on pieces of wood, made by people’s personal knives, which also would provide an explanation to why they are carved the way they are. They seem to be pointing in a direction that wouldn’t break the grain of the wood. Since wood breaks down so easily with time, very few finds have been made in comparison to how many objects that surely existed in ancient Scandinavia. But the finds of carvings of runes in wood shows very interesting patters, one of these patterns is how objects have been “named” in a peculiar way, as it is the object itself that tells you who they belong to. An example is an axe found in Lödöse, Sweden. It says “Petar a mik iohannes risti mik”, which translates into “Peter owns me, Johannes carved me”. Just like it is the axe talking. Since people must have been very tied to their belongings back then, it would make sense that they would gain somewhat of a personality of their own.
Carvings in bone material has been a common practice ever since the Stone Age, and it did not stop there, the runes were of course also carved on horns and bone. As well as metal, such as the bracteates earlier mentioned.
Somewhere during the 10th century and during the 12th century the Scandinavians, in different capacities, stopped burying their loved ones in the burial fields. The dead were instead brought to the cemetery. In a cemetery the deceased elite could be given a runestone-cist slab instead of a raised runestone near a road. The tradition of carving in stone didn’t die out completely with the decline of runestones, since there are different stone objects found in churches that have medieval messages carved on them as well, like baptism fonts.
It took a couple hundreds of years for the Latin alphabet to become the norm in Scandinavia.
When Christianity in Scandinavia became more and more common during the 10th, 11th and 12th century, so did the art of writing the much softer shaped Latin letters on parchment. That type of writing however required additional tools such as pen and ink. Since most common people back then had easy access to knives, it was both easier and cheaper continuing to carve runes on tree sticks. There is absolutely a transition taking place in early medieval Scandinavia, both with how the society was changing in terms of religion, tradition and with the usage of runes. Some finds from these times have a mix of runes written in Latin and not old Norse, but also runes and Latin letters being used together.
Last words from the author
This article was written in 2023, which means that all the information in this article might change. Questions we are one archaeological find away from getting answers to; can be just around the corner.
I will publish all the sources used for writing this article, some of which are in Swedish and not English. The goal with this article is to give a fair and informed image of what the runes are, how they have been used and who the people during the Viking Age in Scandinavia were. I have been transparent with what is known and what is impossible for us to know. All speculations and theories are explained as such, and it should be taken in consideration that these theories might not be the true facts.
About the Viking Age and who the Vikings were
In the next guest blog post from Elin Pirso, we will find out who the Vikings actually were. This upcoming article will provide insights into the Viking Age and the people who lived during that period. You will learn about the economy, social hierarchy, and daily life of the Vikings. The article also dispels some common misconceptions about the Vikings, such as their clothing and the main god they worshiped. The article will be published on April 13th, so stay tuned!
Personal visit to Lödöse Museum
Nordisk runläsebok, Rask, Lars, 1996
Runor, Mästarens handbok, Enoksen ,Lars Magnar, 2015
Vikingarnas egna ord, Enoksen, Lars Magnar, 2003
On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script, Typology and Graphic Variation in the Older Futhark, Odenstedt, Bengt, 1990
Viking Art, Graham-Campbell, 2013
Vikingaliv, Harrisson, Dick, Ekero Eriksson, Kristina, 2007
En svensk historia från vikingatid till nutid, Berggren, Lars, Greiff, Mats, 2013
Arkeologi i Norden 1, Burenhult, Göran, 1999