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.
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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 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 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.
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.
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:
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
Bernard Mees and Mindy MacLeod’s Runic Amulets and Magic Objects.
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.
As always, thanks for listening!
Outro – Ólafur Liljurós