Early Germanic tribes of northern Europe were first to develop runes, but the Scandinavians soon adopted the symbols for their own use. When the seafaring Vikings traveled to faraway lands, they brought their system of writing with them, leaving behind runic inscriptions in places as distant as Greenland. Wherever they went, Vikings turned to runes to express both the poetic (“Listen, ring-bearers, while I speak/Of the glories in war of Harald, most wealthy”) and the prosaic (“Rannvieg owns this box”), inscribing them on everything from great stone monuments to common household items.
Historians disagree on when runes first came into use. Since the first objects inscribed with runes date to the second and third centuries A.D., some surmise that the runic alphabet arose no earlier than the first century A.D. Scholars concur that runes grew out of an earlier alphabet, but which one is unclear. A likely candidate is the Etruscan alphabet. Many argue that the relative geographic proximity of the Etruscans, who lived in northern Italy, to the Germanic tribes of northern Europe makes it likely that these two groups had some form of cultural exchange. Also, similarities exist in some letterforms of the Etruscan and runic alphabets.
Another possibility for a source alphabet is Latin. Those who subscribe to this theory believe that the numerous commercial contacts between the Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire during the first century A.D. exposed the former to the Latin alphabet. The Northerners may have simply borrowed the Roman letters and adapted them to their needs.
The Scandinavians had their own explanation for the appearance of the runes. According to legend, Odin, chief of the Norse gods, speared himself to a tree in a self-sacrificial attempt to receive occult knowledge. As he hung suspended for nine windy nights, he learned the mysteries of the runes, which he then passed on to his people. Since Nordic peoples believed the runic script to be a gift from Odin, they treated it with great reverence. Belief in the divine origin of the runes also contributed to the idea that runes possessed magical powers.
Those who used them for magic took the supernatural powers of the runes seriously. As one Viking poet put it, “Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well.” While many in the upper classes could read and write runes, the Vikings called in a specialist when dealing with the talismanic properties of their alphabet. These experts, called Rune Masters, were specially trained to bring runes into play for divination and sorcery.
Judging from the many poems and legends chronicling their feats, the Rune Masters held positions of great importance in the Viking world. In one tale, a woman becomes deathly ill due to the bungling of an amateur Rune Master. The sorcerer carves a runic formula onto a whalebone, which the woman then hangs over her bed. The inscription is meant to protect her, but because it bears the wrong runes, it makes her sick. Another Rune Master corrects the runes, and the woman immediately recovers. In another story, a Rune Master inscribes protective runic symbols on his drinking horn. When a rival attempts to poison his drink, the drinking horn breaks in two. Thanks to his knowledge of the runes, the Rune Master saves his own life.
In recent times the Vikings’ enigmatic alphabet has had a resurgence.
Rune Masters were also skilled in the art of rune casting, a method of divination. In one common rune-casting technique, the diviner carved runes on pieces of bark then flung the pieces on the ground, picked three at random, and used the symbols inscribed on them to answer his client’s question. Alternatively, the Rune Master painted runes on flat pebbles. He then placed the pebbles in a leather bag, shook the bag, and cast the pebbles onto the ground. Runes that landed face up served for the divination.
Viking warriors harnessed the arcane powers of the runes even in war. Runic inscriptions on swords entreated the gods either to protect the sword’s owner or to bring pain and misery to his enemy. The berserkers, whose reckless behavior on the battlefield gave rise to the word berserk, may owe their reputation in part to the runes. These warriors customarily carved the runic symbol for Tyr, the god of war, onto their shields. They would then charge fearlessly into battle, in the belief that nothing could overcome the power of the runes.
The magical met the mundane in the runestones—large, freestanding rocks or boulders inscribed with runes. Runestones that served as memorials to the dead often bore thaumaturgic formulas meant to ease the dead person’s passage into the next world. But these monuments had a pragmatic purpose as well: documenting how much land the deceased had owned and listing relatives who would likely inherit that person’s estate. One such dual-purpose runestone was put up by “Kaufi and Autir, they erected this stone in memory of Tumi, their brother who owned Gusnava [a Swedish village].” Kaufi and Autir put up their runestone both to honor their brother and to make perfectly clear who owned Gusnava after his death.
Although most runestones honor men, some commemorated Viking women. One runestone found in Norway honors “Gunnvor, Thryrik’s daughter, [who] built a bridge in memory of her daughter Astrid. She was the handiest girl in Hadeland.” Some runestones also celebrated the achievements of the living. In one example, Jarlabanki, builder of the famous Jarlabanki causeway in 11th-century Sweden, erected a group of runestones to aggrandize himself for his contributions to the community.
Even with the advent of Christianity in the north, runes continued to appear on coffins, gravestones, and monuments, often side by side with Christian symbols. Like many of their contemporaries, the Norsemen Sven and Thorgot, who raised a runestone “in memory of Manni and Sveni; may God help their souls,” had no problem using pagan symbols to replace the usual “may Thor hallow these Runes” with an appeal to the Christian God.
The Norsemen continued the practice of mixing runes with Christian symbols until the 17th century, when the medieval church banned runes in an attempt to drive out all vestiges of superstition, paganism, and magic. Runes fell out of widespread use but did not disappear altogether, and in recent times the Vikings’ enigmatic alphabet has had a resurgence at the hands of groups as disparate as Nazis and New Agers.
This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Vikings.