Runes 101: An Introduction to Runology and the Interpretation of Runic Inscriptions

To commemorate Grimfrost's 10th anniversary, this is the fourth in the series of 12 monthly blog posts by acknowledged academics about their chosen Viking Age subject. 

About the Author

Henrik Williams is a Professor of Runology at Uppsala University. He received his PhD at Uppsala University in 1990 at the Department of Scandinavian languages. In 1998, Williams served as visiting associate professor at University of California, Berkeley. Williams also held visiting professor position at University College London and University of Central Oklahoma in 2015 and 2017 respectively. He was part of the Swedish team of scientists who in 2020 presented a new interpretation of the Rök runestone, that features the longest known runic inscription in stone. He followed up with a book about the subject that was published in Swedish in 2021. An English translation will be available shortly.


Runes 101: An Introduction to Runology and the Interpretation of Runic Inscriptions

The only indigenous, written and contemporary sources we have from the Viking Age (c. 700–1100) are runic inscriptions. The vast majority of these are on stone monuments, and over 80 % are from present-day Sweden. But runes were used long before then, and long afterwards. The earliest inscriptions we know of are from the second century AD, and runes were used in all Nordic countries during the Middle Ages (c. 1100–1500). Runic writing occurs even in the modern era after 1500, but influenced by learned publications on runes.

All true runic texts within the Germanic tradition are genuine, but only those before 1500 are considered genuine. Rune-like characters are also found in southeastern Europe and western Asia. One such writing system is called the Turkic runes (or Göktürk, Orkhon, or Orkhon-Yenisey script). They just happen to look similar and are not related to authentic runes.

So, what really are runes? There are some common misconceptions about the runic script, one of which is that each runic character is a symbol for something and with a magic property. The truth, however, is that runes are just letters, just like the ones in our alphabet, and used in a similar manner. Sure, runes could be employed to carve magical inscription, just as our letters can, but this is a rare phenomenon. Mostly, runic inscriptions have mundane contents.

 

The Older Runes

If I wanted to write my name Henrik with runes 1500 years ago and in the form the name would have had then, Haimarikijaz, I would have carved:

To make it easier for today’s reader we replace (transliterate) each rune with its corresponding roman letter: haimarikijaz. Transliteration is always made with lower-case, boldface characters and as you can see in this case, there was originally a perfect correspondence between runes and letters. It’s also evident that runes were derived from roman letters as , , and ᚱ are virtually identical (as are  and ). Other runes have changed shape more or less from the roman model and some have even changed sound value.

Since there were no schools in which to learn runic writing and no instructional books, people had to use other means in picking up the skill to carve runes. The first set consisted of 24 runic characters:

Some of the runes need explaining. is used in the same way as English th and as ng. The rune occurs rarely and in a confusing manner, sometimes for i and sometimes for h. Just as we call our alphabet after its first two letters alpha and beta (which were their names in Greek), the first six characters of the runic alphabet are the reason we call it the futhark. As you can see, it is divided into three groups, called ættir (‘families’). These are the basis for various runic cryptograms, but that is a topic for another time.

To remember what speech sound each rune represented they were given individual designations, of referred to as names. The f-rune was called fehu (today’s word fee) because the word started with f, the h-rune hagalaz (hail), the i-rune (ice), and so one. Some runes represented sound that do not occur initially, such as the z-rune algiz and the ŋ-rune ingwaz. To keep track of the order of the futhark, the rune designations were perhaps incorporated in a simple poem. At least, we know that was done in later times.

The inscriptions in the older futhark are rare, no more than 500 or so before the eighth century. They are usually short and at first were inscribed on various objects such as clasps and spear points but also combs and wooden artifacts. After some time, inscriptions on stone and in due course proper runestones start occurring, beginning in Norway.

In the middle of the sixth century a series of volcanic eruptions spread an aerosol layer in the atmosphere that weakened the effect of the sunshine. This led to crop failure and widespread famine. Half of all people in Scandinavia died and the effect on society, culture, religion and even language was profound. Words changed shape, sometimes radically, and new speech sounds arose. This changed the rune designations so that they did not always start with the proper speech sound. The name of the e-rune ehwaz developed to ioʀ and couldn’t represent e anymore. Runic writing consequently became even scarcer.

How to solve the problem? In Old English the changes were not as radical and their futhark was simply expanded to first 28 and eventually over 30 runes to accommodate differences. On the Continent no adjustments were necessary except in Frisian which added a couple of runes. In Scandinavia, however, the situation was more chaotic and the solution drastic, even revolutionary. The 24 runes were reduced and their shapes simplified. The t-rune, for example, thus had to represent both t and d (and sometimes nd and nt) and the u-rune several different vowels as well as w. The process is finished on the threshold of the Viking Age.


The Viking Age

The reduction of the 24-character futhark resulted in a 16-character set of which there are three main variants, the long-branch (normal or Danish runes), the short-twig (Swedish-Norwegian or Rök rune), and the quite rare staveless (Hälsinge runes):

 

There are individual variants within the new futharks. Early on the short-twig runes are common and some of them occur in later long-branch inscriptions.

During the eighth, ninth and first half of the tenth century, runic inscriptions gradually came into their own as primarily a medium for memorial texts on stone. The basic formula consisted of the mention of one or more persons who raised or had inscribed the stone or runes in memory of one or more related persons. Other contents occur, especially in the earlier part of the period. The production of inscriptions does not increase, though. It isn’t until the 960s when the real breakthrough occurs, the raising of the great Jelling stone. It was commissioned by King Harald “Bluetooth”, son of king Gorm.

Harald’s realm was under the threat of invasion from Germany on the pretext that Danes were heathen, but the king pulled a fast one and converted to Christianity. He boasts of this on his magnificent, three-sided monument, and also that he had unified Denmark and conquered Norway:

‘King Harald ordered these monuments made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyra, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

The largest of the Jelling runestones


The Jelling stone set off a wildfire of memorial runic monuments in Eastern Scandinavia, starting in Denmark and the then Danish province of southernmost Sweden and culminating in the Swedish province of Uppland, north of Stockholm. Sweden has 3000 Viking-Age runestones, almost half of these in Uppland alone.

Although runic texts can occur on many types of objects made of different kind of materials, the Viking-Age inscriptions are known primarily from runestones. Apart from the memorial formula mentioned above, up to three additional formulas may be added: a signature by the carver, an obituary mentioning the circumstances of a person’s death or their achievements in life, and a Christian prayer. This last addition may be surprising to some. Nevertheless, since only a couple of percent of all Viking-Age runic inscriptions are from pre-missionary times, it is logical that almost all are Christian, explicitly or not. Hundreds have prayers such as the very devout ‘May God and God's mother help his soul, (and) the Holy Christ in Heaven’ on the Timmele stone, and many more bear a cross.

 

How to interpret a runestone

As I have already said, runestone inscriptions follow a set memorial formula. Contemporary readers knew and modern ones know what the contents will be and what words to expect. Still, that does not make the interpretation of a runestone as straightforward as it sounds. Early Viking-Age inscriptions joined words together without spaces and let the end of words share runes with the beginning of the next word. Only having 16 runes to represent many more distinct speech sounds didn’t help either. To make things easier, carvers started putting dots on three of the most commonly used runes, although very inconsistently. 

This alerted the reader to differentiation from u, k, and i. Also, dot-shaped or x-shaped division marks were put in to separate words.

Even so, fully understanding a runic text is a task for a specialist. One needs to know a lot about the Old Norse language and runology, the science of reading and interpreting the inscriptions. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on just one rune, . The designation of the rune was ā̃ss or ǭ̃ss which represented an originally unrounded, later rounded vowel pronounced nasally. That’s why it is used for in older inscriptions and for o in younger. It doesn’t stop there. This rune was used also for ø, y, u, and w, making interpretations quite difficult sometimes, and it was my task to sort this out. Moreover, the sound value had been used to date inscriptions to before (a) or after (o) 1050. That did not pan out, and it took an archaeologist, Professor Anne-Sofie Gräslund, to come up with a good chronological system.

It may be of interest to illustrate the interpretational process with an example. One of the runestones outside Gripholm’s Castle bears a text that may be translated ‘Hegulf and Eyjulf, they had both of the stones raised in memory of their brother Ketilmund; and the bridge in memory of somu, their mother. And Brúni, her brother, cut.’ Both the first and the last name have their problems, but here I will focus on the name of the mother which I have left in bold type. It is with some doubt assumed to be a declined form of Sóma, a feminine derivation of a masculine sómi meaning ‘honor’, not a very spontaneous interpretation as the word is unattested in Swedish. The o‑rune doesn’t have to stand for o as I have already mentioned. A more attractive explanation in my opinion is a straightforward adjective Sǿma ’the suitable one, the attractive one’.

This is just a single name out of over a thousand different ones on runestones, and some may wonder why it’s important to know what a particular person was called. It’s not as we know them from later sources, except in a few cases such as Harald Bluetooth. One could argue that a person’s name is never irrelevant and that it is important to find out exactly what this was. A more practical argument is that personal names give a rare insight into Viking-Age mentality. What circumstances or characteristics led to someone being named Foot, Unwashed, The calm one, Holly etc.? Most of the runological work left to do is on new-found inscriptions, damaged or lost texts, and uninterpreted or misinterpreted names.

Runestones are distributed unevenly throughout southern Sweden and there are over 400 on historically Danish ground as well. Norway for some reason has fewer, but in the Norse colonies on the British Isles there are further inscriptions. The Viking Age as such is usually said to end in the middle of the eleventh century, but in Sweden proper runestones are raised a whole generation into the twelfth even though this is really the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages

Yet another common misconception is that runes were exclusively used in Viking times whereas that is true only outside the Nordic countries. In medieval times, runes are no longer found on memorial monuments but on proper grave markers and many other types of church-related pieces such as bells, baptismal fonts and other artifacts, or on the church walls themselves. Objects such as household items, combs, handles etc. also bear runes, as do over a thousand sticks of wood, primarily in Norway, and left-over bones from meals. This is where the really everyday runic texts are to be found, such as ownership tags (‘Helga owns this spindle-whorl’), letters of trade, love (If you love me, then I love you. Gunnhild! Kiss me, I know you well.’), and hardcore porn (‘Thorny fucked’). Nothing human seems too alien to mention in a runic inscription, except the weather as far as I have found (we Scandinavians just want to forget it.)’’

All in all, we know of almost 7000 runic inscriptions from the first millennium and a half (see table below), and more are found every year, sometimes of an unexpected nature. Not all news about new finds or radically different interpretations is accurate, unfortunately. One example is the 5th-century bracteate (a thin gold medallion) found a couple of years ago in Denmark. Too soon, the sensational proclamation spread around the world that its “inscription represented the first solid evidence of Odin being worshipped as early as the fifth century – at least 150 years earlier than the previous oldest known reference".

It’s too bad this was announced without any scientific support and on the basis of a faulty reading of the runes. As several of the world’s leading runologists could see for themselves when examining the bracteate in October of 2023, the sequence in question does not spell out Odin’s name but rather reads wodhas. I don’t know what that means, if anything. It might serve as a reminder when we turn to runic usage in modern times.

 

The Youngest Runes

In the early 16th century, learned publications on runes started to appear. Even though runic inscription were still carved in some remote parts of Scandinavia, the knowledge of runes soon spread among scholars and laymen alike. There are probably thousands of runic inscriptions carved in modern times, discounting what has been written on paper or tattooed into skin, but we don’t know really since documentation is very sketchy. The most famous runic monument in the world is actually modern, not from the Viking Age as one would perhaps have thought. I am referring to the Kensington runestone (KRS).

The KRS was reported to have been found in 1898 and has come the public’s attention several times since, most recently 20 years ago. It may be translated ‘Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) exploration voyage from Vinland westwards(?). We had a camp by two sheds(?) one day’s voyage north from this stone. We went fishing one day. After we came home (we) found 10 men red from blood and death. AVM may save from evil. There are 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ journey from this island/peninsula. Year 1362.’

Even though everything indicates that the inscription was carved not long before the stone was found, this is not common knowledge and many still believe it to be authentically old. Over a hundred objects in North America have been claimed to bear runes and many actually do, just not very ancient ones. I am still glad runes continue to be popular and that interest in the Viking-Age inscriptions is particularly strong. I only hope that runic fans will have access to correct information on what these intriguing texts have to offer. I have only scratched the surface but include the references to a few good introductions below.

Further reading:

Michael Barnes Runes: a Handbook 2005
Martin Findell Runes 2014 (excellent, in-print and inexpensive)
Sven B. F. Jansson Runes in Sweden 1987
Erik Moltke Runes and their Origin, Denmark and Elsewhere1985
R. I. Page An Introduction to English Runes (2 ed.) 1999
Terje Spurkland Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (2005)

 

About the images:

Picture of the author: Photo by Grimfrost

Picture of the Jelling runestone: Photo by Jürgen Howaldt. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license.

Featured image: Cropped portion of the Rök Runestone. Achird, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


1 comment


  • William Kincaid

    Very good blog very informative


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