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Runes - the first written language of our ancestors

A so-called Ingvar stone outside Gripsholm Castle in Mariefred

"My dear, kiss me" reads a medieval runic inscription found on a wooden stick in Bryggen in Bergen, Norway. In Sweden there are around 2500 rune stones erected by our ancestors. This is the history of runes.

The runes are phonetic characters that were created and started to be used in the Germanic parts of Europe centuries after the birth of Christ. The shape of the runes suggests that they developed with inspiration from the Roman and Greek alphabets, as in many cases the runic characters correspond to the corresponding letters.

Runes were most widespread in Scandinavia, and nowhere are runic carvings as common as in Sweden. In total, around 3500 runic inscriptions have been found in modern Sweden, ranging from single words on rune-covered loose objects to longer inscriptions on huge blocks of stone. The richest runic finds are to be found in the Mälardalen region. Of Sweden's 2500 rune stones, around 1300 are found in Uppland.

Among the oldest Swedish runes are the inscriptions on a buckle from Gårdslösa in Skåne and a spearhead from Gotland. Both have been dated to the 2nd century. The rune stones, which are perhaps the most important symbols of runic writing, were mainly carved during the Viking Age.

The runic alphabet (the runic line) has changed several times. In simple terms, three runic rows can be distinguished: the Old Norse runic row, the Viking Age runic row and the medieval runic row.

The Old Norse runic line, also called "futhark" after the first six letters, was used from about the year 0 to the 7th century. The futhark consists of 24 runes and became widespread throughout the Germanic language area. In total there are about 20 stones in Sweden that have carvings with this older runic line. Many express magical incantations. Inscriptions have also been found on weapons, combs and jewellery.

The Old Norse rune line was used during the so-called Migration Period, when different ethnic groups moved around Europe. This influenced the language and in Scandinavia people switched from speaking an archaic Germanic language to speaking Old Norse. The linguistic changes created the need to modify the writing system and in the 7th century the runic script was simplified to the Viking runic line with 16 runes. Also in this runic line the first letters are f, u, th, a, r and k, which is why the name futhark is kept. With only 16 characters, some runes must represent several language sounds, so that for example u, y and ö were written with the same rune.

The stone lid to the tomb of the Viking woman Kata, which can be seen in the exhibition hall Kata Farm in Varnhem, Västergötland.

Most rune stones in Sweden are carved with the Viking Age runic line. The rune stones were erected as monuments in prominent places and along well-used waterways. Specialised rune carvers travelled professionally to carve the stones. The best known is Öpir, who produced more than 50 preserved stones in Uppland, Gästrikland and Södermanland.

Runic texts are often memorial inscriptions of dead people and follow a similar formula. Sometimes the text contains descriptions of historical events, which makes the runestones an important historical source material. For example, it is thanks to the runestones that we know about the Ingvar Train, a great Viking raid to the east, which ended very badly. Other stones have texts of a more poetic nature, such as the world's longest runic inscription on the Rökstenen in Östergötland. The inscription on the Rökstein contains a strophe that may well be said to be Sweden's oldest preserved poetry.

In the 10th century, dots began to be added to the runes. This so-called stitching made it possible to distinguish the sounds of language written with the same rune. The system of stubbed runes was further developed during the Middle Ages, which, together with other adjustments, created the medieval runic line. During this time, the Church became increasingly influential, and the Latin alphabet also spread. The two writing systems were used in parallel for a period, but from the 14th century onwards the Latin alphabet began to increasingly replace the runic script. In some places, however, runes survived as a popular written language. Runes were in use for a particularly long time in parts of Dalarna, where the so-called dal runes were used until the 19th century.

During the period of the Great Power, a Swedish interest in burial mounds, rune stones and other historical memorials arose. Officials were sent out into the country to collect, document and report cultural and historical finds. In 1666, a royal decree was issued concerning the preservation of remains from ancient times, which can be said to be the world's oldest law for the preservation of ancient monuments. It is one of the reasons why many rune stones have been left untouched in their original places, where they still convey their messages to anyone who stops to read them.

Print sources:

Erikson, Bo and Löfman, Carl (1985), The story of Sweden, Nature and culture

Ohlmarks, Åke (1983), Swedish cultural history, Forum

Unprinted sources:!/presentationer/specialomraden/RunornasLitteratur.html

Originally published on Cultural memory.

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