The Runic Writing System
A rune stone from Vaksala Church in Uppland, Sweden. Photograph by Ben Allport.
The use of runes is one of the most iconic—but often misunderstood—features of Viking Age culture. Many people will already be familiar with runic characters, especially as they are a favourite in the cover art and typography of bands associated with Viking metal music (and other heavy metal subgenres).
Yet there were multiple runic alphabets that were prevalent in different parts of the Germanic world during different periods. The only runic alphabet used by the Norse in the Viking Age is known as the Younger Futhark, which consisted of only sixteen ‘staves’ or characters. There were two main variants of this alphabet, known as short twig and long branch runes, which differed in popularity in different regions and at different times in the Viking Age.
We do not know how commonly runes were used during the Viking Age. After the Viking Age, we have evidence of runes being used as an everyday writing system: businessmen in fourteenth-century Bergen sent messages to one another carved on wooden sticks.
The long-branch variant of the Younger Futhark. Artwork by Ben Allport.
During the Viking Age, however, most of the evidence for the use of runes is found on standing stones which were used to commemorate dead relatives. There is no evidence of runes having an everyday function and they may therefore have been a sign of prestige—then again, it may simply be that the evidence of daily use has perished, as rune sticks have rotted away over time.
The Elder Futhark. Artwork by Ben Allport.
You will often see a runic alphabet being referred to as a futhark; this name is based on the order of the first six runes (th was represented by a single rune), much in the same way that the word ‘alphabet’ derives from the Greek letters ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’. The earliest runic alphabet is known as the Elder Futhark. This consisted of twenty-four characters which broadly correspond to the Latin alphabet, upon which it was mostly based. This alphabet was used from the second century AD up until around 700, by which point it had started to evolve into the Younger Futhark. It changed in part because the Scandinavian languages were evolving from Proto-Germanic, to Proto-Norse to Old Norse. The Elder Futhark was never used in the Viking Age. After the Viking Age, the alphabet began to change again: a series of new staves were added in order to bring the Futhark in line with the Latin alphabet once more. These changes occurred due to the conversion to Christianity and the influence of Latin manuscripts.
You may occasionally see runes floating around the web that belong to yet another runic alphabet, the Old English Futhorc. This alphabet also derived from the Elder Futhark and underwent changes as the language it was used for shifted from Proto-Germanic to Old English. Unlike the Younger Futhark, the number of staves in the Old English Futhorc was higher than in the Elder Futhark, numbering twenty-nine in total. Although there is some evidence for these runes being used for pagan purposes, the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon runes are found in a Christian context: on manuscripts, stone crosses or other forms of Christian art. They may have survived due to Christian academic interest, rather than any practical use.
A rune stone from Vaksala Church in Uppland, Sweden. Photograph by Ben Allport.
Despite the religious differences of those that raised the stones, we can be certain that rune stones were an expression of wealth and elite status: rune stones required considerable effort to raise and the carving of the runes and the accompanying decorations required expertise to carve. A number of Swedish inscriptions reveal that there were trained rune carvers who would have been paid for their services: these carvers occasionally added their own name to the inscription and as a result we know the names of a few who were active throughout Uppland.
Thousands of rune stones have been found in Viking Age Scandinavia, the vast majority of which are found in the Uppland region of Sweden, surrounding Lake Mälaren. Here, many rune stones still stand in their original locations, often by the sides of roads or in prominent positions that could be viewed from nearby waterways. Perhaps surprisingly, most Viking Age rune stones have explicitly Christian messaging, usually asking God’s protection for the soul of the deceased. Occasionally, these memorial stones refer to pagan gods in a similar fashion. These stones may have been a way for people to express their religious affiliation during the turbulent conversion period of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
and contextual information. Linguistic dating and runic features are particularly challenging: although we know that both the Norse language and the runic alphabet were slowly changing throughout this period, this happened in different ways and at different rates depending on the region. We might therefore end up with forms that look like later features but are in fact just regional variants.
Dating stones by looking at decorations is also an imprecise art. By looking at the development of decoration styles, we can come up with what is known as a relative typology—we can learn to recognise which styles came earlier and which were later depending on the development of certain features. However, we must rely on other factors to provide concrete dates: relative typologies can only give us a broad sense of when a stone might have been erected in relation to other stones. Finally, it is rare than there is any contextual evidence—evidence from around the stone that might be related to when it was put up—can be found.
Some rune stones have elaborate decorations accompanying the inscriptions. Some, such as Sigurdsristningen in Sweden, have depictions from Norse mythology. Others have scenes which are more likely to be Christian, such as the Christ-like figure on the Jelling Stone. Often the runic inscription is incorporated into the design of the decoration, being enclosed in long, curving and interlacing ribbons combined with biting animal heads. Over time, these became more and more elaborate. This can make the inscriptions difficult to interpret, as the runes might curve around and end up upside down. Most inscriptions run in continuous lines like this and can sometimes move from right to left—the Jelling Stone is an exception in that the inscriptions run from left to right on successive lines. Some have suggested that this reflects influence from Christian manuscripts.
Occasionally, runic inscriptions give us more than a simple commemorative message: some bear messages that give us an insight into contemporary politics. The most well-known of these is the Jelling Stone, from Denmark . The inscription of this stone proclaims that King Harald Bluetooth had become ruler of both Denmark and Norway and had converted the Danes to Christianity. This stone was probably raised during the 960s, shortly after Harald converted to Christianity.
It can be very difficult to date when rune stones were raised, as there are no chemical tests that can reveal when the stone was carved. There are four ways in which rune stones can be dated: the runic alphabet used, decoration styles, linguistic details
In modern times it is often assumed that the Vikings viewed the runes as magical. This stems in part from Old Norse mythology written down in Iceland by Christians two hundred years after the end of the Viking Age. According to these myths, the god Odin learned the secret of the runes while he was hanging on the World Tree—the name ‘rune’ itself originally meant ‘secret’, but this is probably a reference to the fact that messages could be written down and only a few had the ability to understand them. This is hard to grasp in a world so saturated with writing, but for many, writing of any sort, whether in runes or the Latin alphabet, might have been regarded with superstition by those without the training to understand them.
However, there is little evidence that the forms of the runes themselves were regarded as inherently magical. There are a number of inscriptions that people have interpreted as magical charms. Often this is simply because the runic inscriptions cannot be understood. We have some inscriptions that appear to be random strings of characters that don’t form words we can recognise. To dismiss them as magical is a simple solution but one which discourages more nuanced interpretations. Nevertheless, some runic inscriptions undeniably contain charms or incantations, just as many inscriptions in the Latin alphabet do: this is not an indication that runes were perceived as inherently magical, but confirms that they could be used for this purpose.
Norse runes and art in the British Isles and Ireland
The Norse began to settle in the British Isles and Ireland during the ninth century (see the previous pages on England, Scotland and Ireland and Wales) and had a profound effect on the culture of the areas in which they settled, as is indicated, for example, by their impact upon the English language. This influence can be also be detected in art forms and runic inscriptions that are associated with the areas of Norse settlement. One striking example of this is the tenth-century Gosforth stone cross from Cumbria, which appears to depict scenes from Norse mythology.
Throughout areas of Norse settlements in England and southwestern Scotland we find another type of sculpture: hogback stones. These stones are unique to this part of Britain—nothing equivalent is found in Scandinavia itself. As a result, the stones are likely to be an expression of a new culture created from the assimilation.
Possibly the greatest expressions of Norse culture in the Insular world, however, are the rune stones found on the Isle of Man. These include some beautiful depictions of scenes from Norse mythology, while others demonstrate the remarkable blend of Norse and Celtic culture that emerged on the Isle of Man as they bear inscriptions in runes, the Latin alphabet and even Ogam, an Irish alphabet.
A depiction of Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent on the Gosforth Cross in Cumbria. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.