I attended a lecture this morning at the wonderful American Swedish Institute. I caught just the first of three sessions there today with Professor Henrik Williams, a philologist (one who dusts off and studies old languages). He is also one of the world’s seven PhDs in runology. For more than 30 years he has studied runes, an alphabet that appeared in Northern Europe almost two thousand years ago. It is often associated with the Vikings who, while considered a pre-literate culture, did use the runic alphabet to tag stones, bones and various articles as they roamed the world. Bjorn was here type inscriptions have been found in places ranging from Greenland to Great Britain, and a number of countries in continental Europe including Turkey.
“The world of runes is rich beyond belief,” says Williams. It gives him “goose bumps” to study and translate runic inscriptions, many of which have defied translation for centuries. They are a rare and remarkable “direct source” to people who lived long ago. It gives a sense, he says, “that we are recovering an identity of the past in small pieces of truth.”
He noted that there are a lot of wrong ideas associated with runes. He doesn’t find historic evidence that runes ever served magical purposes such as healing and divination. He also finds it unfortunate that runes are sometimes associated with fascists and right wing elements (the Nazis loved using runes in their branding). He calls runes “fascinating and incredible” and it is his goal to make runes much better known.
Professor Williams teaches at Uppsala University in Sweden, a hot spot for runestones which are raised stone markers with runic inscriptions. Runes are found on other objects too but these stones have proved to be enduring records of the runes which date back as far as 100 AD. He says that the most common type of runic inscription on a stone begins with the name of the person who chose to erect a memorial to a relative. Typical is the phrase, “Svein had the runes carved in memory of Torbjörn his brother.” Runestones have striking graphic designs that place the text inside serpentine banding that runs right-to-left, up-and-down and around the stone. The runes are often accompanied by illustrations of tangled and intertwining creatures typical of Viking art. They were originally painted, he said, the soot black and lead red colors giving the designs a 3D effect.
Like obituary notices, says Williams, runestones often commemorated men who had died far from home. The stones were placed at sites where people would see them— “communication points” such as main roads and bridges. A slightly different example Williams shared was a runestone raised by a mother to honor her daughter–in an era when handcraft rivaled battlefield heroics: “Gunnvor, Thryrik’s daughter, built a bridge in memory of her daughter Astrid. She was the handiest girl in Hadeland.”
Runestones sometimes were like picture books. One of the most famous is the Ramsund stone in Sweden. Runic text snakes around cartoon-style action figures as Sigurd the dragon slayer stabs the belly of the monster, chops off the head of his enemy and rides away with treasure on horseback. This tale is very old and is found in the Icelandic sagas and is kept alive on the Faroe Islands where people still dance in a crowded, serpentine line while chanting long verses of the story.
I asked professor Williams if much is known about who learned to write in runes and how it was taught and why. He said that runes were most likely influenced by Latin letters. The pre-literate Northern people were likely impressed by the power to put speech into writing and developed a rustic and accessible alphabet of their own. Unlike Latin and Greek, runes became the alphabet of the people, used by women and men to label everyday objects (a way to teach runes!), describe contracts, even share poems, word play and jokes, but it never became the script of the church or state.
In a way, he concedes, runes were somewhat like Twitter (or the other way around) in that they served the purpose of connecting people, the sender or the person who set a runestone was the focus of the message and remarkably, like Twitter, there was a space limit, usually 62 characters, even more compact than a tweet.
Professor Williams ASI lecture nearly ties up a month long lecture circuit across the U.S. to raise rune awareness and money to fund an endowed Chair of Runology at Uppsala University. The tour is co-sponsored by the American Association for Runic Studies and the American Friends of Uppsala University. Runes have been a topic of study since the father of runology Johannes Bureus launched it in the late 1500s.
You won’t find Professor Williams on Twitter (not a fan) but for more information on runes including Professor Williams’ thoughts on Minnesota’s own Kensington Runestone (from a 2011 Minnesota Historical Society podcast), visit his page on the American Association for Runic Studies website.
There are a couple of sites that will translate your name into runes. This rune converter wrote mine in Elder Futhark, the most ancient Germanic runic alphabet.