The Vikings erected thousands of stone monuments across roadways and points of high visibility in Scandinavia. As they voyaged around the medieval world, the Vikings left runestones behind in England, Ireland, Greenland, and Turkey as well. They transformed these stones into archival records of the Norse world by carving pictures and runes. Drawing from Mediterranean alphabets, viking runes were a Germanic writing system used by Scandinavians during the Viking Age. The medieval Norse carved runes into memorial stones, but also left messages behind on necklaces, weaving tablets, comb cases, and the floors of famous mosques. But the most popular medium for runic messaging appears to have been stone. Through these carvings, the Vikings left behind records of the people, places, and events that shaped their world.
1. Viking Runes: An Ancient Scandinavian Tradition
In 2021, archaeologists working with the University of Oslo trekked to a field in eastern Norway, where they found graves and a runestone. The runestone was reddish-brown sandstone and carried the inscription: “Idibera.” The meaning of “Idibera” continues to be explored. It may be the name of one of the people buried nearby, but scholars are uncertain if it is a first or last name.
Radiocarbon dating of the runestone brought great excitement to the archaeological world. The Svingerund Stone dated to approximately 1-250 CE, making it the oldest dated runestone in the world. The runes on the Svingerund Stone may have been recognizable to the Vikings several centuries later. They too wrote in an alphabet used for centuries in Scandinavia called the futhark. The futhark takes its name from the first six runes in the runic alphabet and adorns Viking Age runestones around the world.
2. Magic, Myth, and Curses on Viking Runestones
At an unknown time in the Viking Period, a jilted woman took to her weaving tablet and cursed her rival. A weaving tablet from Sweden reads: “Sigvor’s Ingemar shall have my weeping -aallatti!” The last word invoked a magical curse. Whoever she was, this lady meant business.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
A Viking poet once admonished: “Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well.” One saga provides a mythical account of how Odin obtained knowledge of the runes. According to the saga, the Norse god hung in a tree for nine nights. He was pierced by a spear but did not drink or eat. For many runes and runestones carry a mythical or occult aura. Archaeological evidence to support this saga tale is nonexistent, but objects like the weaving tablet recovered in Sweden attest to the use of runes for both practical and mystical purposes.
3. Masters of Runes and Stones
Runestones have been found in many shapes and sizes. Inscriptions vary in length and content. A variety of geometric and animal designs adorn these stones. Time has taken its toll on many. The most dramatic impact of the centuries has been the loss of color. A few colored runestones survive showing that the monuments were once brightly colored. Today, most runestones are grey, but the elaborate carvings of runes and animals retain the original magnificence of the monuments. Who made these stunning memorials?
Vikings gave credit where credit was due. Most runestones start in a similar fashion telling the reader who commissioned the runestone. Somewhere in the inscription, credit for the rune carver typically follows. A stone in Skälby for example reads: “Björn and Igulfast and Jon had this bridge built in memory of Torsten, their brother. Öpir cut the runes.”
Comparison of runes in the Mälar Valley reveal that a person (likely persons) by the name of Øpir received credit for some fifty surviving runic inscriptions. Uncertainty surrounds the logistics of becoming a rune carver. Scholars posit that rune carving could have been passed from father to son but allow that it is also possible that rune carvers learned independently by copying runestones they were familiar with until they mastered the craft.
Advances in technology provide archaeologists with high-tech means of assessing similarities and differences in carving techniques on different runestones. Using 3D-scanning and multivariate statistical methods, scholars assessed runestones from Denmark. They found that specific rune carvers were associated with specific families. There is much that remains unknown about the Viking Age rune carvers but they were certainly skilled and valued members of the medieval world.
4. Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth: Monumental Trendsetters
Around 950 CE, Gorm the Old raised a small stone memorial to his wife Queen Thyra. The stone was carved with several lines of runes and two snake heads. The runes read: “King Gorm made these runes in honor of his wife Thyra, the pride of Denmark.” It was a personal gesture that would be embraced by his people and his son.
Around 970 CE, Harald Bluetooth decided to continue the memorial tradition. At Jelling, he had an elaborate runestone erected in memory of his father Gorm the Old and his mother Queen Thyra. The inscription on the larger stone also contains a bit of bragging from the king: “King Harald ordered these kumbls 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.” Most Danish runestones date to between 975-1025 CE, so along with his father, Harald Bluetooth has been credited with getting runestones trending in Viking Age Denmark.
5. Cultural Transitions Carved into Runestones
Although the Vikings are associated with the Norse pantheon and pagan belief systems, runestones show that the people of medieval Scandinavia embraced multiple views of the world. A runestone from Sweden known as Unna’s stone reads: “Unna had this stone erected for her son Östen, who died in christening clothes. God help his soul.”
Another runestone from Denmark reads: “Svæinn…raised this stone in memory of Bø̄si, his son…who was killed in battle at Ūtlengia. May Lord God and Saint Michael help his spirit.” According to the Bible and Quran, St. Michael was an archangel frequently depicted as a warrior. This character may have appealed to the warrior culture deeply embedded in the Viking world and eased someof the Vikings’ conversion to Christianity.
6. The High Price of Going Viking
The Vikings were known to most of Europe, the Baltic, and parts of the Near East. Though they conquered many lands outside of Scandinavia, they often intended to return to the Norse world with tales and bounties from their journeys overseas. A runestone erected in Uppland, Sweden provides an example of the treasure and bragging rights the Vikings hoped to return with; it reads: “Ulv took three gelds in England. The first was that which Tostig paid. Then Thorkell paid. Then Cnut paid.”
But sailing and traveling abroad were dangerous endeavors in the medieval world. Runestones show that many died abroad. In Gripsholm, a mother named Tola had a stone made for her son, Harald. The stone read: “They went gallantly far for gold and in the east fed the eagle. They died in the south in Saracenland.” Two sisters in Fagerlöt lost their father in a similar manner. They commissioned a stone for their father, Eskil, that read: “He offered battle on the eastern route before the war-fierce one had to fall.” A runestone raised by Sassurr for his father, Hallvarđr, reports that the man “drowned abroad with all the seamen…May this stone stand in memory.” Those left behind in Scandinavia ensured that the Vikings who fell in battle abroad would be remembered as fierce, brave warriors for generations to come.
7. Records of Official Business
Vikings often traveled to raid, trade, and conquer. Inscriptions on runestones provide anecdotes of other official voyages. In Sweden, brothers Skúli and Folki had a runestone erected for their brother Húsbjǫrn. The runestone reveals that Húsbjǫrn traveled to Gotland to collect taxes from the island. He fell ill while away but was not forgotten by his family.
Runestones also recorded property transfers. A particularly long runestone from Hillersjö, Sweden records the traumatic relationships and losses of a woman named Geirlaug and how they impacted her inheritance. The runestone notes her first husband drowned, then her first son died. She lost several other children during her second marriage except for a daughter, named Inga. Inga’s husband and child died, so when Inga died, Geirlaug inherited her property.
Runestones recorded other transactions in the Viking world. Slavery was an important aspect of the viking world’s hierarchical society. People could be purchased at markets around the medieval world who had been enslaved following a raid or battle, or who were born into slavery. A runestone from Hørning in Denmark memorializes the emancipation of a slave. The formerly enslaved smith Toki commissioned the runestone in honor of Thorgisl, the man who freed him from bondage.
8. Not Just Runestones
Vikings erected hundreds of stone memorials across their world, but also left runic inscriptions on other objects and in other places. In 1964, a dramatic discovery was made in the Hagia Sophia. Across the marble floor of the famous mosque in Turkey, a runic inscription was found reading: “Halfdan carved these runes.” Millions of feet had passed through that mosque for centuries before the inscription was recognized as Norse and translated. Similar inscriptions have been found at places throughout the Viking world documenting the travels of Scandinavians far from home. Names were commonly carved into objects such as necklaces and other accessories. Runes also documented gift exchanges. On a bronze mount one Viking had the following message inscribed: “Gautvid gave this scales-box to Gudfrid.” Not all runic inscriptions were carved to document personal achievements for history, some had a more personal intent.
9. Viking Runes: Riddles of the Past
“Let the one solve who can,” is a common dare to readers inscribed on runestones. With some runestones, scholars are still trying to do just that.
In Sweden, the Rök runestone was erected toward the end of the ninth century CE. Carving runes was hard work. Many inscriptions run on the shorter side, with just a couple of sentences or even fragments of information about the deceased, their family, and the rune carver. The Rök runestone, however, is not a quick read. With 760 runes, it is the longest runic inscription.
A leader named Varinn raised the Rök in memory of his son Vamoth. The long inscription also contains several riddles that scholars continue to ponder. One of the riddles reads: “Let us say this as a memory for Odin, which spoils of war there were two, which twelve times were taken as spoils of war, both from one to another?” Another reads: “Let us say this as a memory for Odin, who because of a wolf has suffered through a woman’s sacrifice?” Over the years, scholars have put forward different solutions to the riddles. For many years, scholars believed that the riddles were about a leader but recent interpretations suggest that the runestone discusses the sun, potentially in relation to changing climates. Viking Age runestones continue to intrigue and shed new light on the people, politics, religion, language, and the arts in the Norse world.