February 21, 2020 100

Spells, threats, and dragons: The secret messages of Viking runestones – Jesse Byock

Spells, threats, and dragons: The secret messages of Viking runestones – Jesse Byock


In the 8th century CE,
Vikings surged across the misty seas. They came from Scandinavia
in Northern Europe but would travel far and wide. Some plundered and settled
in the British Isles and France; others braved Artic exploration or forged clever new trade routes
to the Middle East. With their steely navigational skills,
advanced long-ships and fearsome tactics, the Vikings sustained their seafaring
for over three hundred years. But for all their might,
they left few monuments. Instead, fragments of stone,
bark, and bone provide the keys to their culture. Found in graves, bogs,
and sites of ancient settlements, many of these objects are inscribed with messages in Old Norse
written in runic letters. But the Vikings also scratched runes
into household goods, jewellery, weapons, and even shoes. Deciphering these messages
is no easy task. Runes are short, straight,
and diagonal lines that make up an alphabet
called the “futhark.” All classes of people spoke and wrote
this language, in many different dialects. There was no standard spelling,
they wrote the individual runic letters by pronouncing the sounds
of their regional accents. Some of these inscriptions also bore
the influence of other cultures the Vikings interacted with— the runic inscription “love conquers all,”
for example, is originally a Latin phrase
from the poet Virgil. Many, like the enigmatic Rok runestone,
were carved in verse, highlighting the tradition
of Old Norse poetry. So even though modern runologists
can read runes, their meaning isn’t always obvious. Still, in spite of the remaining
mysteries, many inscriptions memorializing the dead and recording local histories
have been deciphered— along with some
containing magical incantations. The Ramsund runes in Sweden are carved
on a rocky outcrop beside a bridge for travelers passing over swampy ground. This causeway was commissioned
by a prominent local woman named Sigríðr. She proclaimed both her importance
and her family’s power by carving their names in stone, and even associated herself
and her family with mythical heroism by carving illustrations of Sigurd
the dragon slayer. In the town of Jelling in Denmark, two standing stones from the 10th century memorialize different generations
of a royal family. The first was erected by King Gorm the Old
in memory of his Queen Thyrvi, and the second by their son,
Harald Bluetooth, after Gorm’s death. The stones announce the power
of this Viking Age dynasty, and they are among the earliest historical
documents of Denmark. They indicate that Denmark
was the earliest major Viking Age kingdom, by telling that Harald controlled
southern Norway, and that he converted to Christianity. Today, Harald Bluetooth’s initials
make up the Bluetooth logo. The 10th century warrior poet Egil
was a well-known carver of runes. According to poetic accounts, he once
carved runes on a horn filled with poison, causing the horn to shatter. In another story, Egil saves a young girl’s life
by placing a piece of whale bone carved with healing runes
under her pillow. Norse poetry tells of runic spells,
cast to ensure calm seas, safe childbirth and triumphant battles. But the exact nature of these spells
isn’t fully understood— many of the inscriptions on swords,
axes, and spears are indecipherable. Other objects, like the Lindholm amulet, have inscriptions that could be
incantations, riddles, or religious messages. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the end
of the Viking era, by 1100 CE their sea-borne expansion
had mostly come to an end. However, people continued to speak
versions of Old Norse throughout Scandinavia; and runes remained in use in rural areas
into the 19th century. Today, many runestones remain standing
at their original sites. The inscription on the Danish Glavendrup
stone has fearsomely declared
for a thousand years: “A warlock be he who damages this stone
or drags it in memory of another!”

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