Viking society and the beginnings of expansion

2.4 Scandinavian runes

Until the conversion to Christianity – a long process that began in Denmark in the 980s and ended at the beginning of the twelfth century – there are no written records in Scandinavia except for the runic inscriptions. The earliest runic alphabets are Germanic in origin, date from c. AD 150, and continue in use well beyond the conversion, particularly in rural Scandinavia. There are three principal runic alphabets, although there are many variants, particularly in the later forms.

Although later medieval runes on wooden objects are known from Scandinavia, the majority of Viking age runic inscriptions are carved on stones. These rune stones are part of a widespread prehistoric tradition of erecting standing stones.

Rune stones are known from the early Viking period, such as the famous Rök Stone in Sweden, but the majority of these stones date from the eleventh century.

Many of the rune stones are monumental, such as the eleventh-century examples (one of which is shown here) from Uppland, Sweden. These stones commemorate the construction of a causeway over a marsh. The runes on this stone translate as follows:

Jarlabanke had these stones raised in memory of himself while alive, and made this bridge for his spirit, and (he) alone owned all of Tábýr. May God help his spirit.

A rune stone raised by Jarlabanke to commemorate his construction of a causeway in Uppland

Licensed by Berig under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license

Individual activity: Runic inscriptions as evidence

Look at the Viking Age Runes website. Make notes and consider the following:

  • What sort of information can we learn about Viking society from runic inscriptions?

We also find examples of runes used in a much more informal way. The prehistoric burial chamber at Maeshowe, Orkney, has 30 examples of runic graffiti (‘Maeshowe’s runes – Viking graffiti’ on the Orkneyjar website), and a stone lion from Piraeus Harbour, near Athens shown on the Archaeology in Europe website, has runic graffiti on its shoulder. (This sculpture is now in Venice.)

Although written evidence is limited to rune stones, the Vikings had an extensive oral literature and much of this was later written down, mainly during the thirteenth century. You can find out more from the article ‘Written Sources for the Viking Age’, on the Havhigsten website and from the later unit ‘Art and literature’.

Optional activity: Runes

For more detailed information about runes you might like to look at the ‘Runes’ website maintained by Arild Hauge, which has a brief history of the Scandinavian runes and links to pictures of over 300 runic inscriptions.