The Viking Rune

This blog is on Vikings and for Vikings. Warriors and traders from Nordic countries reached as far as North America, leaving lasting marks of their presence everywhere. In battle, Vikings feared nothing, eager to join Odin in his hall. They knew that valkyries chose who would die and become one of the einherjar in Valhalla.

Thurs runeFor years, I have been receiving questions like ‘What is the rune for Joy?’ or ‘What is the rune for Happiness?’. The point is, Norse runes aren’t ideograms. Normally, they do not stand for abstract notions like ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’. Neither are they logograms, that is, they do not stand for all kinds of words like ‘go,’ ‘bird,’ or ‘angry’, unlike Japanese kanji or Chinese Han characters. After all, there are over 50,000 Han characters and this pretty explains why you can possibly ask, what is the character for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. There should be some. Even though to read a Chinese newspaper you would need to learn only about 3,000 characters, the 16 runes of the Viking Age Younger Futhark cannot work the same way simply because they are so few. I think, there is no human society that needs only 16 words to function.

In some instances, however, Younger Futhark runes may stand for whole words. These words are usually the names of the corresponding runes. The instances are not very numerous. A great example is the runic inscription known as Storhedder III (192).

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Staraya Ladoga runic distaffRecently I blogged about the Younger Futhark runes as a writing system, emphasizing insufficiency of only 16 runic symbols for 21 consonants and 38 vowels of the Old Norse language between the 9th and 12th centuries. The 16 runes of the Younger Futhark are about three times less than one would expect. Anglo-Saxons invented additional runes for the standard Elder Futhark set of 24 runes when the language changed and additional phonemes emerged. Scandinavians did to the contrary. It is not clear why. What is clear is that Younger Futhark runes create a whole lot of problems for those who try to read them.

A great example of it is the runic inscription from Staraya Ladoga (mentioned as Aldeigjuborg in the sagas) in northwestern Russia. The fir tree stick was discovered on September 2, 1950 in the archaeological horizon Е2 dated to the period between 840-865 AD. It is preserved in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, with the inventory number 10 ЛС 1969. I have seen it and took several photos of it in December 2012, on an exhibition in Moscow. [click to continue…]


sunsetAbout two years ago I received a request to write with runes a quote in Old Norse. This happens time and again since people find difficulty in substituting letters of the standard Old Norse orthography for the Younger Futhark runes. The request was for a 6 line stanza from Hávamál (Sayings of the High One):

A farm of your own is better,
even if small.
Everyone’s someone at home.
Though he has two goats
and a coarsely roofed house,
that is better than begging.

The person who requested the quote in runes wanted to carve it on an old stone on his farm in Denmark. The task required time and effort, and I answered that I’d rather make a tutorial that would help people to write in Old Norse with runes all by themselves. I did not feel like investing half an hour into this, even though I felt grateful that the person who sent the request also asked where the donate button was. I did not have one and I still don’t, but it was the first time when someone asked about it after I answered about 700 questions on Norse runes posted as comments on this blog. [click to continue…]


Younger Futhark runesPeople tend to believe that there is nothing more easy and natural than to write in Old Norse with runes. In reality it’s quite the opposite. The language that we know as Old Norse is the language of the sagas of Icelanders, which were written down in the 13th century. Strictly speaking, this language is classical Old Icelandic. In reality, Old Norse was constituted by dialects that existed at various places during several centuries. Since there is a whole literature in classical Old Icelandic, while we have rather scarce evidence for all the rest, Old Icelandic is referred to by scholars as Old Norse for convenience. In fact, the sagas were written down in the West Norse dialect, while people who carved the majority if the Viking Age runestone inscriptions spoke the East Norse dialect. Speakers of both dialects realized they had the same language and called it dǫnsk tunga in the West and dansk tunga in the East, thus both calling it ‘Danish tongue’ (even though it was common for Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Icelanders). However, there were substantial differences as for how people from Scandinavian East and West spoke (note the difference between dansk and dǫnsk above). [click to continue…]


Younger Futhark runesWhat did it feel like for Vikings to have the Younger Futhark as an alphabet in the Viking Age? Imagine you have your standard English alphabet. Then you have a reform based on the fact that the writing system is exceedingly complex and the letters are too many. Let us cut down their number, they say, it will be fun, they say. There are many sounds that really sound in a very similar way, let us have only one symbol for the two! Let us write p for both p and b (let us abolish b altogether), t for both t and d (we don’t really need d, do we?), k for k, g and ng (we know you never liked g and ng), f for both f and v (despite v being the sign of victory), u for both u and o (they do sound the same), i for both i and e (we don’t think this will be a problem after we’ve done what we have). Just look how wonderful our new writing system is: [click to continue…]


Viking shipThe 4th season of The History Channel’s Vikings started a few days ago. The TV series grew so popular that this year it will have twice as many episodes as in the previous seasons, with additional ten in fall, after a summer break. Many things in the Viking Age epic by Michael Hirst stir up controversy, like Ragnar’s fancy hairstyle or the runic inscription on the so called sword of kings that the mighty konung came to own. But there is no doubt that the creators of the series found themes that deeply resonate with the modern Westerner’s soul.
To be sure, one of these themes is spectacular violence. Culture gave the West its amazing progress in all things humane. However, culture did suppress the physical urge to throw oneself upon one’s enemy and enjoy the vengeance. Battle scenes in the Vikings awake something medieval in me, and it has nothing to do with scriptoria and cathedrals. [click to continue…]