Still full from the epic meal of Njal’s Saga, John and Andy turn to lighter fare. In this episode of Saga Thing, Thorstein the White grows older and older and still older. Along the way, he has some children and loses his beloved wife. To make matters worse, he also loses his eyesight, which makes running the farm a bit more difficult. Fortunately, his son Thorgils is there to pick up the slack…until he’s killed in a local disagreement between Thorstein the Fair and his rival Einar. How will Thorstein the White get on without his trusted son? Who will raise little Brodd-Helgi Thorgilsson? And whose saga is this anyway? Listeners will find a lot more here about Thorstein the Fair and Einar than they will Thorstein the White. Nevertheless, join us as Saga Thing takes on The Saga of Thorstein the White!
Over the past few years, listeners have often asked us to do something with runes. And who doesn’t love runes? Whether it’s a fascination with the runic inscription as a point of contact with another time or a sense that the runes themselves are more than a mere phonetic symbol, there’s something magical about them. Even the word, rúnar carries with it layers of meaning, at times denoting “secret, hidden lore, or wisdom” and others referring to the written characters themselves. In this Saga Brief, John and Andy investigate the history, forms, and functions of runes with the help of Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland, linguist and runologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney. Download this episode (right click and save)
While you may think of runes as the alphabet of the Vikings, it’s important to remember that runes come in many different forms and date back at least to the 2nd century CE. In fact, some point to the inscription on the controversial Meldorf fibula, a kind of brooch for pinning clothes, as evidence of runic writing in the early 1st century.
The Meldorf Fibula
The runic alphabet most of you will be familiar with is the futhark, named for the first six letters of the alphabet. With some minor variation, depending on region and date, the futhark was used by Germanic peoples throughout the early to late Middle Ages. This alphabet was designed for cutting or carving simple strokes into wood, leather, bone, metal, and stone. Each letter is drawn by combining verticle strokes (staves) and diagonal protrusions (branches). In the pre-Viking era, the dominant form of the futhark consisted of 24 letters representing the particular sounds of early Germanic languages.
The Elder Futhark
The opening of the Viking Age saw the emergence of a simplified 16 character alphabet, known as the younger futhark. Like its predecessor, the younger futhark’s exact look was largely determined by the region. On the top here, you can see the long-branch (Danish) version of the younger futhark. The second row features the short-twig runic alphabet, a variant most often linked to Sweden and Norway. The short-twig variant is obviously much easier to carve than the long-branch.
Wherever the Germanic and Scandinavian people went from the 2nd century to the early modern period, they left traces of their presence in the form of runic inscriptions on monuments, artifacts like jewelry, tools, and weapons, and other everyday materials. While the majority of their efforts have been lost, more than 6,000 items with runic inscriptions of one form or another survive. Most of these are from the period of the younger futhark. Below you’ll find a sampling of some of the items we reference in this episode.
“Alu” inscription on Bracteate G 205
Ribe Skull Fragment
We don’t mention this example, but it’s worth including here. On the top floor of the southern gallery of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul there is a parapet with a faded runic inscription dated to the 9th century featuring the name of the carver, Halfdan. John and I love to talk about the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine Emperors’ personal bodyguards. We’d like to imagine that Halfdan was a member of this elite unit. The plaque above the inscription suggests a date in the 800s, but don’t believe everything you read.
The “Halfdan” Runic Graffiti in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Near the end of the interview, we discuss ciphers. Really clever rune masters sometimes used these ciphers or cryptics to disguise their messages. The cryptic runes replace the letter with a picture containing a series of carefully plotted strokes. The simplest of these is the tree or branch runes, which can be seen on this image of the Hackness Cross:
Tree Runes on the Hackness Cross, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
The Hackness Cross from Hackness, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
There are tent cryptics, fish cryptics, and many others, but our favorite is the bearded face cryptic from a runic stick recovered from a site at Bergen, Norway. How could it not be?
Runic stick from Bergen, Norway
We hope you enjoy the interview and this brief introduction to runes. There’s plenty of good information out there if you’re interested. Dr. Ljosland recommends
If you’re interested in learning how to read runes, we recommend picking up a copy of Jesse Byock’s Viking Language 1 & 2. It’s an excellent introduction to Old Norse, runes, and the Icelandic Sagas! Visit http://www.vikingnorse.com/ for more information or click on the images below for links to purchase the books on Amazon.
At long last, it is time to put Njal’s Saga on trial. You’ve listened to the saga summary for nearly a year. Now, find out who will take home the prestigious Best Bloodshed and Notable Witticism trophies. Discover exactly how many bodies hit the floor (give or take a few). Learn interesting facts you never knew you needed to know, like who among the many candidates for Nicknames turns out to be related to Hamlet of Denmark. Review the crimes of the saga’s villains and consider along with the hosts who most deserves a sentence of outlawry. If you could only take one man or woman from the saga as your thingman, who would you choose and why? Listen as John and Andy debate the question and finally select a new ally to join their formidable bands of thingmen. Is this, as many scholars agree, the very best of the Sagas of the Icelanders? Only John and Andy can decide. Join us now for the epic judgments of Njal’s Saga!
The epic journey through Njal’s Saga finally comes to an end. In this episode, we follow Kari Solmundarson on his quest to avenge the deaths of everyone he was forced to leave behind in the burning house. His targets are Flosi and the Burners. With so many against him, the odds aren’t in his favor. But Kari is known throughout Iceland for his unmatched bravery and fearlessness. His pursuit of the burners carries him from Iceland to the British Isles and then on to Rome. Along the way, we’ll take a brief detour to Ireland for a glimpse at the historic Battle of Clontarf. Though this may be the end for our little summer saga, there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy. In addition to the revenge, the battles, and the blood, you’ll want to keep listening for the world’s strangest mathematics word problem and a brief discussion on Entish naming practices. Enjoy!
In this, the penultimate episode in the Njal’s Saga summary, we follow Flosi and the Burners as they bounce around the region seeking support for the inevitable legal case against them. Meanwhile, a slightly singed, but recovered Kari Salmundarson prepares his own case against the burners. And who better to help him than Thorhall Asgrimsson, the young protégé of Njal himself. Unfortunately, Thorhall’s got a nasty infection in his leg and the case falls to Morð Valgardsson. The threat of violence permeates the proceedings as Morð and Eyjolf trade legal barbs and try to out maneuver one another. Will justice be served as cooler heads prevail? Or will the hallowed site of the Alþing be desecrated with the blood of those too slow to dodge an incoming spear? Find out as Saga Thing takes on Njal’s Saga, chapters 133-145.
This episode is full of interesting scholarly tidbits and legal minutiae. We’ve also got the usual nonsense, like old movie references and bad jokes.
Thanks to George Hook for the picture of the Althing from his trip to Iceland. This image is on the information sign for Snorri’s Booth.
Saga Thing returns after a not so brief holiday hiatus. When last we left you, the settlement for the slaying of Hoskuld Thrainsson had been disrupted by insults and threats of violence. We pick the story up as Flosi gathers his forces to surprise the Njalssons at home. When the surprise attack is spoiled by a wishy-washy conspirator, Flosi is left with the difficult task of finishing what he started regardless of the consequences. In this episode, we finally discover how the Saga of Burnt Njal got its name.
In this episode, we leave the conversion behind and get back to Njal’s Saga. Tensions are running high yet again thanks to the careful plotting of your favorite villain, Morð Valgardsson. Despite their troubled history with Morð, the Njalssons accept his friendship and quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the law. With a major lawsuit pending and most of Iceland turning against them, the Njalssons seek help from some of Iceland’s most powerful men, including such notable figures as Guðmund the Powerful, Thorkel the Bully, and the inestimable Snorri Goði. Will Skarpheðin lead his brothers to glory? Or will fate finally catch up with Njal and his sons? Find out as Saga Thing takes on Njal’s Saga (again).
In the second part of our Saga Brief on the conversion of Iceland, we discuss the conversion tactics of King Olaf Tryggvason, the Icelanders’ controversial decision at the Althing of 1000, and the effects of Christianity on Icelandic culture. You might notice that Andy is a bit more subdued than usual in this one. He was sick during recording.
In this episode of Saga Thing, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in Iceland’s history as the fierce Thangbrand arrives on a mission from King Olaf Tryggvason to convert Iceland once and for all. It turns out John and Andy aren’t the only ones who love a good digression. This section of the saga is book-ended by action and violence brought on by the slaying of Thrain Sigfusson, but it’s mostly about Thangbrand’s visit to Iceland and the resulting divide between the growing number of Christians and those who remain loyal to Odin. This episode features its usual share of bloodshed and wit, but we’ve also got some blasphemous poetry for you, a bit of history, a miracle, and an important test for a berserk. There’s something for everyone!