"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 154-192
Knowledge of the art of writing—Knowledge of rune writing very remote—Archaic Greek characters—Jewels with earlier runes—Runes on memorial stones—Runic alphabets—The origin of runes—Their mystical meaning—Memorial runic stones—Runic staves—The Runatal —Archaic inscriptions compared with runes.
As the early form of writing known as runes occurs so frequently in connection with these Northern relics, it will be well to devote a chapter to the subject. The written records and finds in the North give numerous examples showing that at a very early period the tribes of the North knew the art of writing. The characters used were called "rúnir" runes.
The knowledge of rune writing was so remote, that it was supposed by the people to have come with Odin, thus showing its great antiquity and possibility of the theory that the runes were brought to the North by the people who had migrated from the south-east, and who may have obtained their knowledge from the Greek colonies situated on the shores of the Black Sea or Palus Mæotis. The numerous runic inscriptions, showing in many cases the archaic form of these characters, bear witness to the truth of the Northern records, though it cannot be denied that they often closely resemble the Etruscan letters. To corroborate these records a considerable number of antiquities, the forms of which are unknown in Italy and are similar to those of the North, have been found in Southern Russia, and may be seen in the museums of that country.
At what early date the art of writing runes became known in the North it is impossible to tell. From the Roman Coins found in the Nydam, Vimose, Thorsberg, &c. finds we know that the people knew the art at the period to which the coins belong, but this is far from proving to us that they had just learned the art of writing; people do not learn how to write first on objects of gold and silver; but, at any rate, we can fix a date as early as the second or third century of the Christian era. It must be admitted as surprising, if the Northern peoples were so advanced as to manufacture the beautiful weapons and artistic articles found in the graves and elsewhere, they had not also instituted a coinage of their own.
That the knowledge of runes did not come to the North before that of working iron is almost certain, as no runes have been found there on the objects belonging to the bronze age. A fact we must bear in mind is, that in the earlier graves of the iron age, many of which are of greater antiquity than the bog finds, (2) the objects were so thoroughly destroyed on the pyre, that all traces of runic character upon them would disappear.
1. I can give an example that has lately come to my knowledge to prove this assertion.
Danish coins with runic characters have been obtained
from as early a period as that of Svein
Úlfsson, or the 12th century. A runic kefli, according
to its contents, carved soon after
1200, is preserved in the Danish museum. It was found in
Vinje church, Upper Te lemarken,
of Norway. The inscription thereon signifies: Sigurd
Jarlson traced these Runes
the Saturday after Botolf's mass, when he journeyed
hither and would not be reconciled
to Sverre, the slayer of his father and brother. Sigurd
was the son of the wellknown Erling
Skakke; he lost a battle against Sverre in 1200. As the
latter died in 1202, it was
between these two dates that the unsuccessful attempt at
Besides the runes found inscribed upon jewels, weapons, coins, (1) &c., there are others engraved on rocks and memorial stones, which are of very great antiquity, some of which seem to be earlier than the runes of the bog finds.
Professor Lorange found runes on parts of burnt bones found in a grave which he with Professor Stephens places, judging from the antiquities which belonged to it, as belonging to the sixth century.
"RUNE-INSCRIBED BURNT BONE.
a letter dated Feb. 27th, 1886, I received from my
friend the gifted Norwegian oldlorist A.
Lorange, Keeper of the Bergen Forn-hall, a facsimile
drawing of a piece of burnt bone,
shortly before found in a grave-urn from the early iron
age at Jæderen. Afterwards he
kindly sent the original to the Danish Museum, that I
might give a faultless engraving. While
there, the frail treasure was scientifically treated by
Hr. Steffensen, the Conservator,
and it is now quite hard and in excellent order. But
even when it was taken from
the urn, the runes were sharp and quite readable. These
Old-Northern letters were elegantly
cut, most of them in decorative writing, that is, with
two or three strokes instead of
one, very much in the style of the (? 7th century)
Old-Danish Bone Amulet found at Lindholm
in Scane, Sweden ('Old Northern Run. Mon.,' vol. i., p.
219; iii., p. 33; 4to Handbook,
P. 24); and of the ashen Lance-shaft from the Danish
Kragehul Moss, not later
than the year 400 ('O. N. Run. Mon.,' vol. iii , p.
133; 4to handbook, p. 90). "This
burnt bone is nearly 4 inches long ; average width,
inch. It bears over forty runestaves, cut
in two lines, in the Boustrophedon order. "From
the rune-types and language I judged this piece to date
from the 6th century. But as
Hr. Lorange was familiar with the build and grave-gear
of the tumuli of a similar class, I
begged him to say whether—exclusively from his
standpoint as archæologist—he agreed
with me. He replied, that he did.
1. Similar runes also occurred on a scabbard found at Varpelev, and on a gold horn.
There are two alphabets; the earlier one numbered twenty-four, the later sixteen letters.
The Vadstena alphabet is divided into three sections, each containing eight letters or characters. The earlier runes were written from the right to the left; the later runic inscriptions are read from the left to the right. The later runes differ considerably from the earlier ones, from the gradual changes that took place, some falling out of use, till only sixteen existed in later times. Their signification also changed.
Were it not for the evidence of the finds having runic inscriptions of the fuller runic alphabet, it would have seemed more probable that the less developed one was the earlier; but in the face of the most indisputable proofs of the antiquity of the fuller alphabet, such assertions cannot be made. The only conclusion to which this leads us therefore is, that the runic alphabet must in the course of time have become simplified. There are runic inscriptions which contain both earlier and later runes, but the former at last gradually disappeared.
It seems that the custom of having alphabets on objects such as the Vadstena bracteate existed in Greece and Etruria, (1) The earliest graves in the Roman colonies in which there is writing are very few; what writing there is is never in the language of the people, but always in Latin; and nearly all, if not all such graves, are those of Christian people.
The art of writing shows the advanced civilisation of the people of the North compared with that of the other
1. Dennis, p. 306. See Signor Gamurrini, who has described and illustrated them (see Aun. Inst. 1871, pp. 156—166). Franzius in his 'Elementa Epigraphices Græcæ,' p. 22, 4to, Berolini, 1840, gives three Greek alphabets found inscribed in the same manner on various objects. No. 1, of twenty-four letters, is on the Agyllic vase first engraved by Lepsius ('Annal. Hist. Archæol. Rom.,' vol. viii., p. 186). The second is a fragment, only sixteen letters, found on the wall of an Etruscan sepulchre ( 'Lanzi Saggio di ling. Etr.,' ii., p. 436). The third is incomplete, having only the beginning, or the first fourteen letters.
countries mentioned. The language of Tacitus (1) is plain enough, and any other interpretation is not correct. The assertion made that the knowledge of writing came to the North through the present Germany is not borne out by the facts.(1) Runic monuments do not occur south of the river Eider, either on detached stones or engraved on rocks. The few jewels found scattered here and there, either in France or Germany are thoroughly Northern, and show that in these places the people of the North made warfare, as corroborated by the testimony of the Eddas and Sagas, as well as of Frankish and old English and other records.
Great indeed has been, and still is, the harvest of runic monuments or objects in the North. Every year several new objects with these characters are discovered in fields, bogs, and graves, or when old walls or buildings are demolished.
1. Tacitus (Germ. c. 19) says: "Litterarum secreta riri pariter ac feminæ ignorant" (Men and women are equally ignorant of the secrets of letter writing). The earliest Latin inscriptions found in the North have characters unlike the runes.
England, being the earliest and most important of the Northern colonies, possesses many monuments and objects with runes; among them a large knife, now in the British Museum, found in the bed of the Thames, the blade of which is ornamented with gold and silver, and an inscription in runes. (1)
From the sagas we learn that runes were traced on staves, rods, weapons, the stem and rudder of ships, drinking-horns, fish bones, and upon the teeth of Sleipnir, &c.
In Runatal (Odin's Rune song), or the last part of Havamal, there is a most interesting account of the use that could be made of runes. It shows plainly that in earlier times they were not used by the people in general for writing; that they were mystic, being employed for conjurations and the like, and therefore regarded with a certain awe and superstition; just as to-day writing is looked upon by certain savage tribes, who cannot be made to understand how speech can be transmitted and kept on paper for an indefinite period.
In this song, Odin is supposed to be teaching some one, and giving advice; he reckons up his arts thus :—
know that I hung
songs of might
1. In the Royal Library at Copenhagen there exist three most remarkable manuscripts in runic characters, showing the late period at which these still were in use. The first of these manuscripts, bearing the date of 1543, was written as a journal by Mogens Gyldenstjerne (a Danish noble) of Stjernholm, during a voyage into the North Sea undertaken by him in that year. The second bears the date of 1547, and is written as a note on a rough draft of a power of attorney by Bille of Bregentved, another Danish noble. The third is a notice about the lastmentioned estate, also containing a line in runic characters.
The Runic codex containing the Scanian law also contains, in a different hand, a list of Danish kings, and among these one Ambruthe as having been king in Jutland. The time of this codex can be approximately fixed at about the year 1300.
2. The sacred or mystical number.
3. We see that Odin had to go through a terrible ordeal to learn the runes.
4. Bölthorn and Bestla are nowhere else mentioned in the earlier Edda.
5. Song-rouser, one of the vessels holding the sacred mead.
I became fruitful
wilt find runes
runes) among the Asar; (1)
tis not to invoke
second I know, Which the Sons of men need,
fifth I know,
sixth I know,
eighth I know,
1. From this stanza we learn which tribes or people knew the art of writing runes.
2. Thund = Odin.
3. Three last lines of stanza are missing.
4. The edges of weapons. Some persons were supposed to have the power to deaden weapons' edges.
5. Spells on the roots of a young tree or sticks.
ninth I know,
tenth I know,
eleventh I know,
twelfth I know,
thirteenth I know,
fourteenth I know, If I shall reckon up
fifteenth I know,
sixteenth I know,
seventeenth I know,
know the eighteenth,
1. Witches and ghosts were believed to ride on hedges and tops of houses at night.
2. Hanged corpse.
4. Here the Alfar are reckoned among the gods.
5. The mighty rearer.
6. Delling is the father of Day (Vafthrúdnismál, 25; Later Edda).
8. Loddfafnir is some one whom Odin is teaching.
9. One must not tell his secret to any one.
the song of Har is sung,
"Atli was a great, powerful, and wise king; he had many men with him, and took counsel with them how he should get the gold; he knew that Gunnar and Högni were owners of so much property (2) that no man had the like of it: he sent men to the brothers and invited them to a feast in order to give them many gifts ; Vingi was the leader of the messengers. The queen knew of their secret talk, and suspected treachery against her brothers. She cut runes, took a gold ring, and tied on it a wolf's hair; she gave this to the king's messengers. They went as the king had told them, and before they landed Vingi saw the runes and changed them so that they meant that Gudrún wished them to come to Atli. They came to the hall of Gunnar and were well received; large fires were made before them; there they drank merrily the best drinks. Vingi said: 'King Atli sent me hither and wanted you to visit him to get honour and large gifts, helmets and shields, swords and coats-of-mail, gold and good clothes, warriors and horses and large estates, and he says he would rather let you than any others have his realm.' Then Gunnar turned his head and said to Högni: 'What shall we accept of this offer? He offers us a large realm, but I know no kings owning as much gold as we, for we own all the gold which lay on Gnitaheath, and large skemmas (rooms) filled with gold and the best cutting weapons and all kinds of war-clothes; I know my horse to be the best, my sword the keenest, my gold the most renowned.' Högni answered: 'I wonder at his offer, for this he has seldom done, and it is unadvisable to go to him. I am surprised that among the costly things which Atli sent to us I saw a wolf's hair tied on a gold ring, and it may be that Gudrún thinks he has a wolf's mind (mind of a foe) towards us, and that she wants us not to go.' Then Vingi showed him the runes which he said Gudrún had sent. The men now went to sleep, while they continued drinking with some others. Then Högni's wife, Kostbera, a most handsome woman, went to them and looked at r the runes. She and Gunnar's wife, Glaumvör, a very accomplished woman, brought drink. The kings became very drunk. Vingi saw this, and said: 'I will not conceal that King Atli is very heavy in his movements, and too old to defend his realm, and his sons are young and good for nothing; he wishes to give you power over the realm while they are so young, and he prefers you to enjoy it.' Now Gunnar was very drunk, and a great realm was offered to him, and he could not resist fate; he promised to go, and told it to his brother Högni, who answered: 'Your resolve must be carried out, and I will follow thee, but I am unwilling to go'" (Volsunga, c. 33).
1. We see by this and many other passages that the Jötnar were the enemies of the Asar.
2. Property here means gold.
Runes were occasionally used as charms in cases of illness.
Egil went on a journey to Vermaland to collect the tax from the Jarl Arnvid, who was suspected of having slain King Hakon the Good's men when they went thither for this purpose. On the way he came to the house of a bondi named Thorfinn.
"As Egil and Thorfinn sat and took their meal, Egil saw that a woman lay sick on the cross-bench, and asked who she was. Thorfinn answered that she was his daughter Helga. She had been long ill from a very wasting sickness; she could not sleep at night, and was like one ham-stolen (1) (crazy). 'Has anything been tried for her illness?' said Egil. Thorfinn said: 'Runes have been traced by the son of a bondi in the neighbourhood, but she is far more ill since than she was before; canst thou do anything for such an illness?' Egil answered: 'It may be that it will not be worse though I take charge of it.' When he had done eating he went to where she lay and spoke to her. He bad that she be taken out of bed and clean clothes put under her, which was done. Then he examined the bed, and there found a piece of whalebone with runes on it. He read them, cut them off, and scraped the chips into the fire; he burned the whalebone and had her clothes carried into the open air. Then Egil sang :—
man shall not trace runes
"Egil traced runes, and placed them under the pillow in the bed where she rested. It seemed to her as if she awoke from a sleep, and she said she was then healed, though she had little strength. Her father and mother were very glad" (Egil's Saga, c. 75). When persons were deaf, they communicated with others by means of runes.
1. Of witches = shape-stolen.
"Thorkel told his sister Orny that the steersman had come to his house, saying: 'I wish, kinswoman, that thou shouldst serve (1) him during the winter, for most other men have enough to do.' Orny carved runes on a wood-stick, for she could not speak, and Thorkel took it and read. The wood-stick told this: 'I do not like to undertake to serve the steersman, for my mind tells me that, if I do, much evil will come, of it.' He became angry because his sister declined, so that when she saw it she consented to serve Ivar, and continued to do so during the winter" (Thorstein Uxafót, Fornmanna Sögur, 110).
Runes traced on sticks (kefli), which were sometimes used, did not offer proper security against falsification, unless personal runes were used, which however were known only to a very limited number.
An Icelandic settler named Gris, who had gone on a journey to Norway, was going back to Iceland from Nidaros (Throndhjem).
"A woman came to him with two children, and asked him to take them with him. He asked: 'What have they to do there?' She said that their uncle Thorstein Svörf lived in the district where Gris had a bœr, and that her name was Thorarna. Gris said: 'I will not do that without some evidence.' (Then she gave him from under her cloak a stick on which were many words known to Thorstein. Gris said: 'Thou wilt think me greedy for property.' She asked: 'Ask as much as thou wilt?' He answered: 'Four hundreds in very good silver, and thou must follow with the children.' 'It is not possible for me to follow them,' she said, 'but I will pay what thou askest.' She told him the name of the boy Klaufi, and of the girl Sigrid. Gris added: ' How hast thou become so wretched, thou who art of such good kin?' She replied: 'I was taken in war by Snækoll Ljotsson, who is the father of these children; after which he drove me away against my will.'
1. Take care of his clothes, &c.
"Gris had a favourable wind after he had taken these children on board, and sailed to Iceland into the same river-mouth as usual; and as soon as he had landed he carried away both children, so that no one knew of his coming. That evening he went to Thorstein at Grund, who received him very well, mostly because his son Karl had gone abroad at the time that Gris had been abroad, and Thorstein wanted to ask about his journey. Gris spoke little. Thorstein inquired if he was ill. Gris answered that it was rather that he was not well pleased with his doings; 'for I have brought hither two children of thy sister.' 'How can that be?' said Thorstein. 'And I will not acknowledge their relationship unattested.' Then Gris showed him the stick, and he recognized his words thereon, though it was long since he spoke them. He acknowledged the children, but paid Gris to bring up Klaufi" (Svarfdæla, c. 11).
"Klaufi and Gris sailed from Solskel southward along the Norwegian coast, until they came to an islet, where lay two ships with no men on them. They jumped on board one of the ships, and Klaufi said: 'Tell thou, Gris, who has steered these ships, for here are runes, which tell it.' Gris said he did not know. Klaufi answered: 'Thou 'knowest, and must tell.' Gris was obliged to do so, against his will, and thus read the runes: 'Karl steered the ship when the runes were carved'" (Svarfdæla, c. 14).
"One summer in the time of King Harald Hardradi it happened, as was often the case, that an Icelandic ship came to Nidaros (Throndhjem). On this ship there was a poor man who kept watch during the night. While all slept he saw two men go secretly up to Gaularas with digging tools and begin to dig; he saw they searched for property, and when he came on them unawares he saw that they had dug up a chest filled with property. He said to the one who seemed to be the leader that he wanted three marks for keeping quiet, and some more if he should wish it. Thorfinn assented to this, and weighed out to him three marks; when they opened the chest a large ring and a thick necklace of gold lay uppermost. The Icelander saw runes carved on the chest; these said that Hakon Jarl had been the owner of this property" (Fornmanna Sögur, vi. 271).
One day Thurid, the old foster-mother of Thorbjörn Öngul, an enemy of Grettir, asked to be taken down to the sea.
"When she came there, she found the stump of a tree with the roots on, as large as a man could carry. She looked at the stump, and had it turned round. On one side it looked as if it had been burned and rubbed. On this side she had a small spot smoothed with a knife. Then she took her knife and carved runes on it, and reddened it with her blood, singing words of witchcraft over it. She walked backwards around the stump, in the opposite direction to the sun's course, and pronounced many powerful incantations thereover. Then she had it pushed out into the sea, and said it should be driven out to Drangey, and cause great mischief to Grettir. When Grettir was cutting the stump for firewood with an axe, he wounded himself severely above the knee " (1) (Gretti's Saga, C. 81).
1. Cf. also Gretti's Saga, c. 62.
The deeds of warriors were recorded on runic staves :—
Örvar-Odd, when very old, desired to revisit the scenes of his childhood, where a Völva had foretold him that his death would be caused by the head of the horse Faxi, at his birthplace, Hrafnista. When he arrived there he walked around on the farm, and his foot struck the skull of a horse, and a viper came out of it and bit him in the leg.
"He suffered so much from this wound that they had to lead him down to the shore. when he got there he said: 'Now you must go and hew a stone coffin for me, while some shall sit at my side and carve that song which I will compose about my deeds and life.' Then he began making the song, (1) and they carved it on a tablet, (2) and the nearer the poem drew to its end, the more the life of Odd ebbed away" (Orvar Odd's Saga; Fornaldar Sögur, p. 558).
1. Kvædi, a poem or song. The poem consists of seventy-one stanzas with eight verses each, and the manuscripts are late and corrupted. It is evidently made up from the lives of several warriors, and often exaggerated, e.g., that he lived 300 years, and that his height was 16 or 24 feet.
2. Speldi = tablet, flat piece of wood.
"The two brothers Jokul and Thorstein were to meet Finnbogi for a Holmganga. (1) As he did not come, they took a post form the latter's farm; Jokul carved a man's head at one end, and traced in runes an account of what had occurred that day" (Vatnsdæla, 34).
1. A form of duelling.
The inscriptions of the earlier runes, the translation of which must be received with extreme caution, are short, while those of a later period are much longer.
1. Professor Stephens in 'Handbook of Old Northern Runic Monuments,' says: "The only Northern stone known to me which bears two words, cut far apart and running in different directions. I would therefore suggest that the one name is carved later than the other. Perhaps the husband or wife died first, and shortly after the partner was called away: thus they most likely lay in the same grave, and were remembered on the same block."
Not only do the finds prove to us how extensive were the voyages and journeys of the vikings, but many of the runic stones add their testimony to these and the sagas, often mentioning journeys in distant lands both for peaceful and warlike purposes. There are our runic stones extant on which Knut the Great is mentioned as "Knut who went to England"; the Thingamenn or Thingamannalid is mentioned on at least two runic stones.
1. Bugge, by comparing the runic inscription on the Piræus marble lion now at Venice, comes to the conclusion that, while the damaged state of the inscription makes it impossible to decipher it as a while, enough can however, be read to show itsapproximate date, and also the home of the tracer. The snake-slings and runes on this lion in all probability are traced by a man from Sweden, who has been among the Værings or Varangians.
309. – Later runic stone, Edssocken, Upland.
310. – Later runic stone, 7 ½ feet above the ground.
The inscription on the above stone runes thus, the translation being literal: "Haraltr kunukr bath kaurua kubl thausi aft kurm (Gorm) fathur sin auk aft thæurui muthur sina, sa haraltr ias sær uan tanmaurk ala auk nuriak auk tana . . . . t kristnæ" = Harald king bade make ounds these after Gorm, father his and after Thyra, mother his, that Harald who swore, Denmark all and Norway and Dane . . . . to christianize.
The historical mounds of King Gorm and his queen Thyra are respectively 200 and 230 feet in diameter, and about 40 feet high (see p. 183); the burial chamber of KingGorm was of wood, 22 feet long, 4 ½ feet high, 8 feet wide. In the grave were found a small silver cup, a bronze cross covered with gold, and wooden figure representing a warrior in armour, several metal mountings, &c.
Two rock-tracings found at Ramsund and Gœk, on the souhtern shores of Lake Mälar, province of Södermanland, Sweden, show how deeply preserved in the memory of the poeple all over the North is the history of the Volsungar as told in the earlier Edda, and the Saga of the that name. To the late Professor Carl Säve we are indebted for the discovery of these two mementos of he past. I here give the presentation of the finer of the two, which is engraved on granite.
The scene is surrounded below by sculpture, and covered with runes above are two serpents twisted together, one without runes. Below the large snake Sigurd on his kneee pierces with his sowrd the body of the reptile.
In the midst between the snake the horse Grani is standing, made fast to a tree where two birds are seen. On the left Sigurd, seated, roasts on the fire, at the end of a stick, the heart of Fafnir. Round the fire are deposited pincers, an anvil, bellows, and hammer; the head of the smith (blacksmith) Regin is een separated from the trunk. Then above is sculptured an animal, which looks like a fox – no doubt the otter – for the murder of which was given as ransom, the rich treasure so fatal to Fafnir and to all those who possessed it after him. The runic inscription has not the slightest connect ion with the scene, not even with Sigurd Fafnisbani. As Mr. Säve remarks, Sigurd or Holmger, and perhaps both, believed that they were descended from Sigurd Fafnisbani, the famous hero of the Volsunga.
The tracing on the stone of Gœk, not far from the city of Strengenæs, is about half the length of that on the Ramsund stone, but of the same width, and is not as fine. The subject is treated in a somewhat similar manner; the hammer is on the ground, while on the Ramsund stone it is in the man's hand. Above the horse Grani is a Christian cross.
The runic inscription, here also upon a snake, surrounds the figures, but has nothing to say about Sigurd Fafnisbani.
From the facsimile illustrations given of Etruscan, Greek and earliest Roman inscriptions chosen at random from the museums, the reader will be able to judge for himself, and probably see how much more closely the earlier runes resemble the Greek archaic and Etruscan inscriptions than the Latin ones.
335. – Bronze spear-point, with earlier runes, and
336. – Iron spear-point, with runes and figures inlaid