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Viking Language, Runes, and Poetry:
expressing thoughts in the Viking age

Viking people expressed and preserved their thoughts using several means. Understanding these ways is highly important to understanding Viking society because words had power in the Viking age. They carried weight and responsibility for both good and evil. Words had consequences.

Words could carry praise telling of a man's drengr-like activities, earning him orđstírr: the state of being where people talk about you and speak your name, even after death. The ancient poems tell us that orđstírr is the only part of man that is eternal (Hávamál 76). Men wished to die in a way that they would be talked about after death. When Ţorbjörn's foot was cut off in a battle, he did not want to live as a cripple. He ran over to face Barđi, one of his strongest opponents, saying it was drengskapr (the state of being a drengr) to fight for as long as you can. Barđi struck the death blow, earning Ţorbjörn good words for his drengr-like behavior in battle and death (Heiđarvíga saga, ch.30). Ţorbjörn attained the eternal life through the spoken words of others.

Words could also carry slander, mockery, or shame, all forms of níđ . A man had no choice but to respond vigorously to words of níđ if he was to remain a viable member of society. Spoken words could not be ignored, even if they were not made in the presence of the offended man. During a pause in a battle, Ljótr urged Ţorsteinn to break off the battle, but Ţorsteinn replied that he now saw that Ljótr did not dare to fight him, saying "Begone and carry my words of níđ wherever you go." (Svarfsdćla saga, ch.5) Ljótr had little choice but to continue the battle to his death. The nature of níđ and the importance of avoiding even the slightest stain of níđ in Viking society is discussed in the mindset article.

It seems that to the Viking people, words were more than a way to communicate; they held power and consequences, so much so that people were prepared to kill or to die in response to them. The boost or the damage to a man's reputation caused by words was even greater if the spoken word was made permanent by expressing it in poetry or in runes. The runes or the poetry carried the power of the spoken word, and the praise or níđ they conveyed, preserving them and allowing them to travel far and wide for a long time to come.

Runestone Ög 81
Runes were one way of preserving thoughts in the Viking age. This runestone (Ög 81) was raised in memory of a man named Özurr. (Creative Commons)

the four facets of Óđinn
The four facets of Óđinn

Additionally, many aspects of words and the thoughts they convey are tied closely to Óđinn. He is a multidimensional figure with many responsibilities, many names, many aspects, and many faces. Four of those faces are tightly connected; we can think of them as the four sides or four facets of a pyramid. They are: knowledge; runes; poetry; and magic.

Óđinn constantly sought knowledge. He sacrificed himself to gain mastery of runes. He used elaborate plots to steal the mead of poetry. He used this knowledge and these arts to work magic. These four facets of Óđinn - knowledge, runes, poetry, and magic - have many similarities. While not identical, they are all part of the same unit: facets of the same pyramid. Gathering knowledge, preserving and transmitting knowledge in runes and poetry, and using knowledge to express magic are all tightly connected in Viking society. Indeed, the word for being skilled in magic, fjöllkunnigr means much-knowledge.

Throughout this article, we will return many times to the power of words in Viking society, and the four facets of Óđinn. We will look at: language, the spoken words of the Viking people; runes; the written words of the Viking people, but also much more; poetry, the means by which longer thoughts were preserved in time and conveyed from person-to-person and from land-to-land; and manuscripts, the means by which these thoughts were preserved after the close of the Viking age so today we moderns can read and understand the thoughts of the Viking people.

Language

Understanding about the language of a people informs us about how those people think and how they view life and the world around them. Thus, we seek to know about the language of the Viking-age people to better understand the thought processes and world views of Vikings.

An example is the word rún (rune), usually taken to mean the alphabet of the Viking-age writing system. But as we will see later in this article, rún also has the meaning of secret and hidden lore. When we understand the meaning, the idea, and the concept that is labeled rún, we start to get a glimpse inside the minds of the Viking people.

runestone Ög 8
An example of a runic inscription: runestone Ög 8, a memorial to Eyvindr (Creative Commons)

spear head
Viking-age spear head

A study of the origin of words can enlighten us about the use of the objects they describe, such as the Old Norse word spjót (spear). The word is cognate with the English word spit, the iron rod that is pushed through a piece of meat for roasting over the fire. This connection suggests that the proper use of a spear was not for poking or jabbing, but rather, for powerful thrusts that go all the way through one's opponent.

A study of the language bears witness to the conflicts of the Viking age, such as in personal names, such as Brandr (sword), Geir (spear) or Hjördís (female spirit of the sword). Personal names also inform us about the beliefs in animism in the culture - that creatures have a spiritual existence, and that there is something to be gained by the association with the animal, such as having the animal as one's name. Examples include: Björn (bear, connected with the strength of a bear), Refr (fox, and the slyness of a fox), and Hrafn (raven, and the knowledge of a raven).

Viking-age people spoke a language they called the dönsk tunga (Danish tongue). Today, this early language is called Common Scandinavian or Old Norse. It is a part of the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. The modern languages of the Viking homelands and settlements derive from this branch, as does modern German and English.

In the centuries before the start of the Viking age, major changes took place in the language that separated the Common Scandinavian in the northern lands from the other Germanic languages in the rest of Europe. The changes appear to have been adopted rapidly and uniformly across all the northern lands, perhaps through contacts at trading centers in these lands. Although slight, the available evidence suggests a remarkable degree of uniformity in language in these lands.

By the beginning of the Viking age, these changes to the language had slowed. It seems that the Old Norse language was sufficiently uniform that people across all the Viking lands could communicate without difficulty. Language was no barrier to communication between Vikings wherever they traveled within Viking lands, from the Baltic to Greenland, but this is not to imply that there were no regional differences. By the end of the Viking age, the Scandinavian language had split into two dialects: East Norse (Sweden and Denmark and lands to the east) and West Norse (Norway and Iceland and lands to the west).

Loan words entered the language from Viking contacts with people outside the Norse lands. Some examples include: torg (market) from the Slavic language; sofn (kiln) from the Celtic language; and numerous church-related terms from Latin such as prestr (priest). The mythology tells us that Óđinn has so many different names because men who spoke many different tongues invoked his name, and that each had adopted his name to their own language (Gylfaginning 20).

Language Family Tree
Simplified family tree of the Germanic languages

The language was used to differentiate "us" from "them" in the lands where it was spoken. Different laws applied to people able to speak the language than for foreigners who could not speak it (Grágás K.97). Dönsk tunga was used not only to refer to the language but also to refer to the Viking lands - the lands where the Common Scandinavian language was spoken (Skáldskaparmál 43).

A distinguishing feature of Old Norse compared to a more familiar language such as modern English is that the Old Norse language is highly inflected: the form of a word changes with its use in a sentence. As a result, the order of the words in the sentence need not be fixed. Instead of the usual subject-verb-object order of English, the word order can be varied without affecting the ability to understand the meaning, since the form of each word shows its place in the sentence. This flexibility allows for the incredibly complex sentence structure essential to the art of poetry, as we will discuss later in this article.

The language uses compound words, formed by joining words to create a new word. It often is possible to gain insight into the meaning of a compound word by studying the meaning of the words that make up the compound. An example is orđstírr, a concept discussed earlier. The usual English translation is prestige, which fails to capture the essence. The compound words are word-glory, which far more accurately convey the meaning. Orđstírr is the eternal part of a man: the state of being where people talk about you and speak your name, even after your death.

To provide the reader with some sense of the nature of the language, we offer a short animated clip of the opening lines of the eddic poem Völuspá, as performed in Old Icelandic by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, co-founder and former allsherjargođi of Ásatrúarfélagiđ, the heathen association of Iceland. In the verse, the speaker, a völva (seeress) calls for the attention of the audience. Since we have no audio recordings of native Old Norse speakers, the reconstruction of the spoken version of the language is speculative.

After the end of the Viking era, the Scandinavian languages continued to diverge from one another, becoming for example, Old Norwegian, or Old Icelandic, with the language in each land and settlement different from the others. During the centuries when most of the medieval Icelandic manuscripts were being written, Old Icelandic was used in Iceland, not far removed from the Old Norse language of the Viking age.

In the centuries after this period, all the Scandinavian languages continued to evolve and mutate, simplifying and streamlining the language and removing many of the inflections of the words. The notable exception was Icelandic. Icelanders continued to read the sagas and other material in the ancient manuscripts. When it was noticed that language had started to drift away from the language of the written materials, intentional language reforms were made to bring the Icelandic language back to ancient language of the sagas.

Words from the Old Norse language remain current in modern English, such as harry (to carry out an attack), cognate with the Old Norse word herja, used to describe the activities of raiders. Other examples include husband (from húsbóndi, the master of the household) and reindeer (from hreindýr, a clean or pure animal). We see connections in personal names as well, such as Roger (from the name Hrođgeir, meaning a destroying spear) and Alfred (a council of elves).

reindeer
reindeer / hreindýr

arm ring
A replica of a silver arm ring, used in the Viking-age for swearing an oath

Viking-age people used the spoken language in much the same way as any other people: to conduct business; to spin tales; to make threats; to express love; and to issue insults. Yet in Viking society, words carried immense power. Words had consequences. Men who swore an oath on a ring were expected to uphold their word or die in the attempt. Whether expressing praise or slander, words traveled far. Even a single word of níđ required a vigorous response, if the victim was ever going to remain in society. In the next two sections of this article, we look at the ways that Vikings made their spoken words more permanent, increasing the power and influence of those words for both good and evil.

Runes

Old Norse was the spoken language of the Vikings. Runes were the system they used for recording their words on physical media - the writing system of the Vikings and other Germanic people. Yet the runes are so much more, as we will discuss in this article. Being literate in the runes was a gateway to knowledge. The runes were used for recording knowledge in written, permanent form. Spoken words had power in Viking society, and runes made that power more permanent and longer-lasting. The runes were used for magic and other paranormal activities, including providing protection against enemies and supernatural forces, and for making the future more in line with one's desires, such as gaining the love interest of a woman.

The word for rune, rún, has the meaning of secret lore. This etymology helps us understand the secret aspects of runes in Viking society and the ability of runes to hold hidden messages and magic, in addition to their being a straight-forward alphabet for writing easily interpreted messages. With that understanding, we see that magic was so real and important, but at the same time so mundane, that it was part of the writing system, and that knowing how to read and write was valued. It was not merely about getting a message across. Knowing how to read and write was associated with having control over the supernatural and defending against supernatural attacks.

Viking people were held accountable for their spoken word. Words were not merely sounds emanating from the human mouth; they carried power and responsibility. Runes allowed words, along with their power, to be transmitted without the originator having to be present. Additionally, runes gave permanence to those words and the power they conveyed. An idea was fixed when written in runes.

Runes were also a way to enhance one's orđstírr. A person's name written in runes in a prominent and visible place made that name more permanent and more likely to be spoken in the future, such as the memorial stone (DR 216) for Frađi that forms the basis of the title of our book, Men of Terror. Even something as simple as the graffiti inscribed in the marble of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople caused a man's name to be remembered. The name scratched into the marble is now too worn to interpret, but it is thought to be the name Halfdan.

Runes in Hagia Sophia
Viking-age runic graffiti in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Creative Commons)

Interpreting the runes is not always straight-forward, as we will discuss below. Thus, runes were, in a way, a code to be cracked in a manner not dissimilar to poetry. Both seem to reflect the apparent desire amongst Viking people to work out a puzzle and to demonstrate skill and knowledge.

In this article, we refer to runic inscriptions by their designation in the Scandinavian Runic Text Database. For example, the Frađi stone is designated DR 216. The database contains a wealth of information about the corpus of runic inscriptions all across the northern lands, including interpretations in Old Norse and, in most cases, translations into English. A user-friendly front-end for the database is available at Rundata-net.

Several sources make strong connections between the runes and the gods. Óđinn acquired the knowledge of runes during a self-sacrifice, hanging himself from the tree Yggdrasill, pierced by a spear for nine nights until screaming, he fell from the tree having taken up knowledge of the runes (Hávamál 138-139).

Óđinn acquires the knowledge of runes
Óđinn acquires the knowledge of runes

Runestone Vg 63
Runestone Vg 63, an early inscription that tells us of the divine nature of runes

Several carvers of runic inscriptions make this connection between the gods and runes, such as the inscription "I prepare the suitable divine rune … for Hakoţuz." (Vg 63 and similarly Vg 119) Another verse of Hávamál confirms the divine nature of the runes (Hávamál 80).

Rígsţula tells of the origin of the three classes of Viking society, as discussed in the article on classes. Konr ungr, the future king and the son of Jarl, the progenitor of the leading class, is said to know runes, including the runes of life and eternity, and to have discussed runes with Rígr, thought to be the god Heimdallr in disguise (Rígsţula 44, 46).

The archaeological sources give us additional information about the origin of the runes. The earliest surviving inscriptions date from around the first century CE and are found in southern Scandinavia. It seems very possible that the use of runes predates these early finds, perhaps by centuries. The nature and form of the runes suggest that the creator or creators modeled them on Roman letter forms and the sounds found in the Roman language.

Roman vs Runic glyphs
Some Roman letters compared to their equivalent runic glyphs

The Old Norse word for rune is rún, an ancient word which may be based on the lost verb rúna, meaning to enquire. The word is connected to mystery and secret lore. The etymology suggests that the runes were more than merely a written character for recording words — that they were more than just the futhark, the "alphabet" of the Viking language.

The futhark is the name given to the glyphs (symbols) used for writing in runes, and the name is taken from the sounds associated with the first six glyphs: f, u, th, a, r, and k, in much the same way that the word alphabet is taken from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha and beta). The earliest futhark, which greatly predates the Viking age, used 24 glyphs. One glyph corresponded to one sound in the Proto-Scandinavian language of the time.

Prior to the start of the Viking age, major changes took place in the language that became the Old Norse language of the Vikings, and accordingly, there were changes in the futhark needed to represent that language. The number of glyphs was reduced to just 16, and the futhark was simplified. However, the change meant that one glyph now represented several possible sounds, and one sound might be represented with several different glyphs, complicating the interpretation of the runes.

younger futhark
The younger futhark. The upper-case R is used to distinguish a hard R sound from the softer r sound. The ã is used to represent a nasalized "a", and also represented an "o" sound.

It is this futhark that was used during the Viking age, often called the younger futhark to distinguish it from the earlier elder futhark predating the Viking age. The glyphs making up the futhark consisted of vertical lines (staves) combined with diagonal branches (twigs). Since they were made up only of straight lines, these glyphs were easy to carve into the materials readily available for runic inscriptions, such as stone, wood, or bone. Additionally, they had no horizontal lines that might be confused with the woodgrain when carved into wood.

The futhark was divided up into three ćtt (families) of 6, 5, and 5 glyphs, indicated by a space between glyphs in the illustration. These divisions will become important when we talk about cryptic runes later in the article.

The futhark had numerous variations. The variation more commonly used in Denmark is shown in the illustration. Norway and Sweden more often used the short-twig variation, in which some of the diagonal twigs were shortened or deleted. Other variations were also used.

variations in the letter
Variations in the glyph for upper-case G

Yet in the same way a modern reader of English would recognize all the glyphs in the illustration as representing an upper-case "G", a Viking-age reader would recognize the various ways a runic glyph might be represented.

Additionally, the futhark was altered to meet the needs of the local language when used in other lands. Inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon variant and Frisian variants of the futhark have survived.

Each glyph in the futhark had a name, a word usually starting with the sound the glyph represented. The names were meaningful, and in runic inscriptions, the glyph alone might stand in for the word making up its name. For example, the first glyph (which has the sound of "f") was called meaning wealth, and came to represent money, prosperity, and power.

Rune poems have survived that list the names and the meanings of each glyph. One such poem is commonly called the Icelandic Rune Poem and is preserved in several manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the 15th century (AM 687 d 4to). Page (1999) translates the verse for the first glyph as "'F' is family strife and men's delight and grave-fish's path."

The translation makes no sense until the kennings in the verse are worked out, as described in poetry section of this article. A rough approximation is that money/wealth (fé) is the source of discord between kinsmen, is a delight to men, and is the serpent's path, which is to be greedy, lying on its gold hoard like a dragon.

Icelandic rune poem AM 687 d 4to
The Icelandic Rune Poem as it appears in AM 687 d 4to 1v

Piraeus lion runic inscription
Runic inscription on the marble lion from Piraeus

The runes were inscribed on readily available media: carved into stones, sticks, horn, bone, as well as into a range of personal objects, such as weapons, knives, combs, and spindle whorls. Additionally, Vikings left runic graffiti on public buildings and monuments during their travels, such as at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, mentioned earlier, and the marble lion from Piraeus near Athens, Greece.

Additionally, runes were inscribed on writing tablets: a wooden tablet with raised borders filled with wax. A pointed iron stylus was presumably used to incise the wax and record the runic message, which could be erased either with heat, or with a burnishing tool, so the tablet could be reused. The tablet found at Trondheim has marks in the wood where the stylus penetrated the wax and scored the wood, clearly indicating it was runic glyphs that were being recorded.

Viking-age writing tablet
replica of a Viking-age writing tablet

Rune carvers likely desired to keep their inscriptions short, presumably because of the time and effort needed to carve them into the material. Several means were used to compress the runes. Virtually all doubled letters were dropped; if a word ended in the same sound as the first sound in the next word, only one glyph was used. In addition, abbreviations were used for commonly written phrases. Many runic inscriptions name the person who carved the runes, reist rúnar in the old language, which was often expressed with two "R" glyphs. There were rarely any word breaks; at best, some inscriptions placed dots between words indicating the breaks.

The directions of the flow of glyphs on the line was not standardized in any way. Runes could run from left-to-right or right-to-left. The "facing" of the runes makes it clear which way to read. For inscriptions longer than one line, alternating lines were frequently written in opposite directions: first rightwards, then leftwards. Sometimes, the lines bent around at the end, so that one line reads left to right, and the next right to left and upside down. The effect is shown in the illustration with English text using Roman letters.

flow of text in runic inscription
an illustration of the flow of text in a runic inscription using Roman letters

Runestone U 164
Runestone U 164 showing a zoomorphic design (Creative Commons)

Some runes were contained within zoomorphic designs, such as the Jarlabanke stone illustrated.

Perhaps the most common orientation is that which most English readers would probably describe as "sideways", running from bottom to top. The Frađi memorial (DR 216) stone is a good example of a runic inscription with that orientation.

runestone DR 216
Runestone DR 216 raised in memory of Frađi, illustrating the "sideways" orientation of the runic text. (Creative Commons)

Runestone Ög 136
Runestone Ög 136, the Rök stone

Some runic inscriptions covered every available surface of the stone with lines reading leftwards, rightwards, upwards, and downwards, such as the Rök stone (Ög 136).

Runes were used in a number of ways in Viking-age society. The first is for simple communication and recording of thoughts in the way that we moderns use the alphabet today. The difference is that in the Viking age, runes were used only for short messages: perhaps the equivalent of Post-It notes today. The longest surviving inscription is equivalent to about one verse of poetry. Longer thoughts were preserved in poetry and conveyed orally, discussed later in this article.

Everything was in place for recording longer messages in runes, but the Viking-age people apparently did not see a need that wasn't already met by using poetry. Poetry was thought to be a reliable way to remember long thoughts, due to the complexity and artistry of the verses. An error in recalling a verse would be clear because some element of the complex poetic structure would fail to work.

Runic inscriptions were used to record the ownership of an object, such as "Sölveig owns these threads." (N 735). This and many of the following examples were found in a treasure trove of rune sticks uncovered in Bergen, a Viking-age trading town. A spindle whorl found in Reykjavík at an early house site is inscribed with the owner's name, Viborg.

spindle whorl
A spindle whorl with a runic inscription from Ađalstrćti 14-16 in Reykjavík

Runestone Öl 28
Runestone Öl 28, raised in memory of Smíđr (Creative Commons)

Runestones served as public memorials to dead people, such as the Frađi stone (DR 216) discussed earlier. Runic inscriptions on memorials were used to record the name, and occasionally the activities, of the dead man being memorialized, along with the name of the person who caused the monument to be constructed, and the name of the man who carved the runes. "Herţrúđr raised this stone in memory of her son Smíđr, a good drengr. … Brandr cut rightly, therefore one can interpret the runes." (Öl 28). Some of these memorials also served as a form of document to lay claim to an inheritance from the dead man.

Some of the rune sticks were merchants' markers, to identify the owner of the goods, intended to be stuck in or attached to a pile of goods such as fabric. Some sticks record business transactions. "I would like to have your iron spears worth eighteen ells that I send with Jón Řri." (N B448) Some were bills or IOUs. "This you owe in payment: two measures and three casks." (N 650)


A merchant's marker stating "Gunnarr owns"

runestick N648
Rune stick N 648, which expresses the complaint, "There is no beer." (Creative Commons)

Some sticks are notes and messages, perhaps from home. "Gyđa says that you should go home." (N B149) Some record praise. "Ásbjörg the best child." [N B660] Some contain complaints. "If only I might come nearer the mead-house much more often," and "I am lacking much, there is no beer and no fish." (N B308 and N 648)

Some sticks record expressions of love. "My beloved, kiss me." (N B17) And numerous sticks contain crudities too vile for a web article intended for the general public. One of the milder examples is, "Sit down and read the runes, stand up and fart." (N B584, along with N B434, N B628, N B39, N B11, Or Barnes10)

Runestick N A41
Runestick N A41 with the inscription, "Kiss me." (Creative Commons)

This wide range of every-day messages and thoughts give a vivid picture of the human side of life in the Viking age. Additionally, the evidence points to widespread literacy in the Viking age. These rune sticks do not seem like something reserved for the elite, but rather the work-a-day messages, musings, and ramblings of people conducting their business, living their lives, finding their loves, and just being human.

irunestone DR 209
Runestone DR 209 was raised in memory of Alli and carved by Sóti. (Creative Commons)

Public memorials meant to be seen and read provide more support for the existence of widespread literacy; why put up a memorial that no one can read? The literary sources mention people casually reading and writing runes numerous times. Further, the writing tablets are mostly found on farm sites, rather than in trading centers or power centers, again suggesting literacy amongst the common folks of the Viking age.

Many runic inscriptions name the carver of the runes, and most are men's names, such as Sóti who raised the runes of DR 209 shown here. Yet, there are at least a few who are women, such as the inscription "Hlíf, the earl's housekeeper, carved [these runes]." (Or Barnes24) In the literary sources, there are several mentions of women carving runes, such as Egil's daughter Ţorgerđr who offered to carve a poem composed by her father onto a rune stick (Egils saga, ch.79).

There are examples of runic messages whose meaning is hidden in one form or another. Some are written with runic characters, but are coded in some way. Others are written in characters not in the futhark.

Why were some thoughts recorded in cryptic runes? There is no clear answer. It has been suggested that doing so might limit understanding of the message only to a small group of people in the know. This explanation seems unlikely, since some of the coding methods are so easy to decode. Perhaps the use of cryptic runes highlighted the portion of the text that is encoded. Or perhaps the cryptic runes showcased the skill of the rune-carver. This last explanation probably holds the most merit, since it connects with showcasing one's skill and knowledge in arts related to Óđinn, who worked and sacrificed to gain the knowledge of magic, runes, and poetry.

Some of the ways that meaning was encoded using glyphs from the futhark include using abbreviations, as discussed earlier. Sometimes, a simple substitution cypher was used, with each glyph replaced by the next glyph in the futhark, or the previous glyph. Sometimes a portion of the glyphs were written in backwards order. And in a few cases, glyphs from the elder futhark were substituted for glyphs from the younger futhark generally in use during the Viking age.

Same-stave runes combine all the glyphs in a line of text into a single glyph, consisting of a single stave, with many twigs. An example is seen on the Sřnder Kirkeby stone (DR 220). The stone was damaged in the portion of the inscription with same-stave runes, and the illustration shows a speculative reconstruction of the missing section, along with the separation of the same-stave glyph into the component glyphs. The complete message is Ţórr vígi rúnar (May Ţórr hallow these runes).

same stave runes
Portion of runestone DR 220 with several same-stave runes

same stave runes
Same-stave rune with missing portion restored

same stave runes
Same-stave rune separated into individual runes

same stave runes
Transcription into Roman letters

Cryptic runes were also written using glyphs other than the futhark. In some cases, the glyphs used look like the futhark, but aren't, and it is only due to the formulaic nature of the runic inscription that the code can be cracked. An example is seen in the runic graffiti at the burial cairn at Meashowe in the Orkneys.

Another form of cryptic rune encodes uses groups of lines or twigs in a series of similar figures. Each figure has two groups of twigs. The number of twigs in the first group represents in which of the three ćtt (grouping of runes within the futhark) the rune appears, and the number of twigs in the second indicates which rune in the grouping is meant.

ship runes
Cryptic runes in the form of ship runes from AM 687 d 4to 2r

One example of cryptic runes are skiprúnar (ship runes) found in an Icelandic manuscript. The runes are encrypted in figures of ships, and the twigs on the stems and sterns of the ships indicate which rune is meant. The ship on the left in the illustration encodes 3-2 (second rune in the third ćtt).

Other examples of cryptic runes use twigs in images of men's beards, on the fins of fishes, on shields, on knives, and many more. While some of these can be found on runic inscriptions from the Viking age, some appear only in later manuscripts.

beard runes
Portion of runestick N B384 showing cryptic runes in the form of beards

Runestone Ög 136
Cryptic runes on the top of the backside of the Rök stone, Ög 136 (Creative Commons)

The Rök stone has several types of cryptic runes, including the row at the extreme top. The twigs on the X-shape staves encode the rune, reading clockwise from the upper left. The first figure on the left is thought to encode 2-2 followed by 1-4.

Some of the cryptic runes clearly contain intelligible messages. When the code is cracked, the pattern of a cryptic rune is recognizable and is easy to read. When the code isn't cracked, it is not always possible to tell whether there is intelligence in the glyphs or not. Perhaps the glyphs are just doodling or decorations or illiteracy on the part of the carver. It is not always easy to tell.

Runes, per se, are not magic. Runes by themselves have the power to record and express the spoken word in a permanent fashion. Thus runes could be the vehicle that conveyed the magic, carrying the magic to the world, and to the entities to whom the spell was directed, be they human or paranormal. In invoking her spell against Grettir, Ţuríđr found a tree root, carved runes into the wood and smeared them with blood, recited her curse, then sent the root carrying the runes out to sea to harm Grettir in every possible way (Grettis saga, ch.79). This smearing of blood or other bodily fluids into the runes amplified (magna) their power, as seen in this and other examples in the literary sources. As discussed earlier, magic was based on knowledge. Words convey the knowledge and runes convey the words and their power, and thus the power of the magic.

Ţuríđr carves runes
Ţuríđr carved runes in a root and sent it out to sea to harm Grettir.

magic stave
Magic stave for raising the dead, which must be inscribed with a mixture of seal blood, fox blood, and human blood.

Perhaps in a similar way, the later Icelandic magic staves, formed by combining runic glyphs, conveyed the magic. Sometimes, as with runes, the power of the magic being conveyed was amplified by smearing the staves with blood or other bodily fluids.

This power of runes to convey (or misconvey) the magic is illustrated in Egils saga, when Egill was asked to help an ill woman. She had been treated by a neighbor who carved some runes on a whalebone to help her. Egill found the runes were faulty, causing her continued illness. Egill said, "No man should carve runes unless he can read them well." (Egils saga, ch.73) The same message is found inscribed on a rune stick (N A142).

Surviving runic inscriptions invoke a curse against anyone disturbing the monument carrying the inscription. Two stones both predating the Viking age invoke a curse, dooming to insidious death, anyone who breaks the monument (DR 357, DR 360).

One of the Bergen rune sticks invokes a curse against a lover unless she returns the love of the rune-carver. "May unbearable distress and misery take effect on you. Never shall you sit, never shall you sleep, that you love me as yourself." (N B257)

Both the literary sources (Sigdrífumál 19) and the runic inscriptions themselves suggest that runes can help and protect. "I cut runes of help, I cut runes of protection; once against the elves, twice against the trolls, thrice against the giants." (N B257) Some of the types of magical runes that are mentioned include: manrúnir (runes of love); sigrúnir (runes for victory in battle); and bjargrúnir (runes of help and protection).

Runestone DR357
Runestone 357 reads "doomed to insidious death he who breaks this" (Creative Commons)

When runes are used for foretelling the future, the word used is spánn (Ynglinga saga, ch.38). The word also means a chip or a shaving. Tacitus, writing in the first century, describes Germanic tribes making predictions by throwing cut-up sticks marked in some fashion. Hávamál adds that "what you ask of the runes is divinely descended (reginkunnr)," suggesting this foretelling of the future is connected with the gods (Hávamál 80). Not surprisingly, the Christian section of the later law codes forbids spánn, along with incantation and wicked sorcery (Gulaţingslög, 28).

In modern times, runes have been connected to occultism in ways not supported by any available evidence. Even more regrettably, runes have been appropriated and distorted by groups to help them spread hateful ideologies. There is simply no evidence that these practices and these connections have anything to do with the use of runes in the Viking age, and these regrettable practices degrade the memory of the ancient Viking culture, disrespecting it by bringing it down to a terrible place.

Some runic inscriptions contain verses or half-verses of poetry, notably on some memorial stones. The runic poetry is similar to skaldic poetry (discussed in the next section on poetry) in that it is often comprised of poems of praise. Yet runic poetry is more like eddic poetry in character; the form and artistry is not as complex as skaldic poetry. Often, the poetic form is so simple that it can be hard to distinguish runic poetry from straight prose. Some rune-carvers have skáld (poet) as their nickname, such as Grímr skáld (U 951) and Ţorbjörn skáld (U 29), yet none of the inscriptions carved by men with this nickname contain verse.

The runes were the "alphabet" of the Viking people, but they were also much more. They were one of the four facets of Óđinn. Runes were used both for the mundane, and for the magical and paranormal. They were used for transferring and preserving words, and for hiding words in secret ways, and for conveying the words in magical spells. In the Viking age, words had power and weight, and putting words in runes made them permanent and amplified their power, in much the same way as putting the words into verse, as we will see in the next section.

Poetry

As discussed earlier, Óđinn was closely associated with the four facets, striving to increase his skills and sacrificing himself to acquire them. The story of how Óđinn gained skill in the art of poetry and how he occasionally shared that art with humans is told in a long tale (Skáldskaparmál, G57-G58, Hávamál, 104-110), which is summarized in an article in the mythology section of the Hurstwic site.

In brief, the story starts with the truce that ended the war between the two families of gods. The truce was sealed by the gods and goddesses spitting into a jar. The spittle was fashioned into a man named Kvasir, so knowledgeable that he could answer any question. Dwarves killed Kvasir and made mead from his blood. Anyone who drank the mead became a wise man or a poet. The giant Suttungr seized the mead and hid it inside a mountain guarded by his daughter Gunnlöđ. In a complex series of ruses, Óđinn entered the mountain, drank all the mead, and while holding it in his mouth, flew back to Ásgarđr in the form of an eagle, pursued by Suttungr. Óđinn spat out the mead into large containers, and he gave the mead to the Ćsir, and to the occasional man who is skilled at poetry.

mead of poetry
Óđinn, in the form of an eagle, carries the mead of poetry to Ásgarđr, pursued by Suttungr, seen in an from the manuscript SÁM 66.

The mead, called Suttungsmjöđr (Sutting's mead), is often called the mead of poetry, but poetry is only one aspect of the drink. It also relates to knowledge, made from the blood of Kvasir, a man famed for his knowledge. The origin of the mead highlights the connection between poetry and knowledge.

Óđinn
Óđinn

In stealing the mead, Óđinn broke a ring-oath, the most sacred oath imaginable to a Viking, which informs us of the value of the mead to Óđinn, a consummate seeker of knowledge. The connection between Óđinn and knowledge, runes, poetry, and magic is very strong in the myths. He traveled far and wide, going to extreme lengths, including self-torture and breaking inviolate oaths, in order to strengthen his abilities in these four facets.

Yet, Óđinn is not the only master of poetry among the gods. Óđinn and his temple priests are said to be skilled in the art of poetry since the art began with them (Ynglinga saga, ch.6), yet Bragi is the god of poetry. He is called wise, eloquent, and knowledgeable about poetry (Gylfaginning 25). The text adds that men and women more skillful with words than others are called bragar, a word for poets derived from Bragi's name.

Poetry was the way that thoughts were remembered in the Viking age. A thought, set to verse, could be easily remembered and transmitted orally from one person to the next reciting the verse, resulting in the spoken word traveling far and having a long life. This permanence could benefit a man if the words expressed praise, but words of disrespect, or similar níđ were devastating. A libelous or scandalous verse could spread far and be long remembered, carrying níđ that ruined a man's reputation, bringing him the kind of orđstírr no man wanted. Poetry served to amplify the strength of the spoken word.

The strength of some insulting verse is illustrated by an episode from Iceland's early history. After a bailiff of the king of Denmark seized the cargo from a shipwrecked Icelandic ship in Denmark, a law was made in Iceland that everyone should compose a scandalous níđ verse (níđvísa) about the king. This níđ could not go unavenged, so the king responded by making plans to sail with his fleet to attack Iceland to avenge the insult (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ch.33). The king's spy was turned back by four protective land-spirits of Iceland, an episode memorialized in the official coat of arms of Iceland, and no attack occurred.

Icelandic coat of arms
Icelandic coat of arms

The strength of words in verse is also illustrated in the law codes, which prohibit composing or reciting even a half-stanza of poetry that has defamation in it (Grágás K238). Some forms of this kind of verse gave the victim the right to kill in retaliation.

In the old language, a number of words are related to poetry. The verbs emphasize the verbal nature of poetry. The verbs used to describe the creation and recitation of poetry include: kveđa (to say), cognate with the English verb to quote, and also having the meaning of creating a verse; segja (to say or to report), an ancient word in virtually all the Germanic languages; syngja meaning to ring or to clash (such as weapons) or to whistle (such as the wind) or to sing (such as a tune) or to chant; and yrkja (to work) cognate with the English word to work or to wrought, with multiple meanings, including the meaning of composing poetry.

The general word for poetry is kvćđi. In addition, there are a number of words for specific types of poetry: drápa (a heroic poem of praise); vísa (a verse or stanza); ljóđ (a short or simple poem, sometimes called a lay or a ditty); kviđa (an epic poem or ballad); and mál, a word with many meanings, including poems in the form of a dialog, such as Hávamál (Sayings of the High One). The word bragr, meaning poetry, is derived from the name Bragi, the god of poetry. In addition to specifying the general nature of the poetry, some of these words reference types having more specific characteristics. For instance, a drápa is a poem made up of a number of stanzas with a recurring refrain.

Other words related to poetry include skáld (poet), a word used in many compound words related to poets and poetry, such as skaldskap, which means poetry, but the meaning has several senses. The usual sense is good poetry, but the more ancient sense is libelous poetry, a sense preserved in the law code (Grágás K238) and in compound words such as skáldfífl (a libeler) and skáldstöng (a libel pole). The origin of skáld is unclear, but may relate to the ancient Germanic word skeldan meaning to scold, or possibly to skálda meaning pole. As discussed earlier, poles were used for delivering curses carved in runes (níđstöng) as well as for libelous poetry (skáldstöng), an act that was prohibited in Grágás (K237) and in later law codes (Kristinn réttr Sverris, 79).

Both praiseful and libelous forms of poetry were used by Viking-age poets. On one hand, the king's skald created poems of praise to memorialize the king's accomplishments. On the other, numerous poets used verse to deliver insults intended to knock someone down a notch or two. During his duel with Ljótr, Egill spoke several verses of trash talk about his opponent, calling him afraid: "Prepare for a fight; I give him no hope of mercy" (Egils saga, ch.65). And in his exchange of verses with his rival Björn, Ţórđr held nothing back, saying "the dolt, jaws dripping, always dazed by every slander, stripped of sense and reason stays a useless loser" (Bjarnar saga, ch.29).

Snorri Sturluson, the medieval author of a poetry textbook, teaches that poetry has two aspects: language and verse-form (Skáldskaparmál 1). In addition to plain language, poetry uses word substitutions and artistically created phrases that stand in for words. Poetry also uses verse forms with set patterns of alliteration, rhythm, and internal rhyme. Some examples of verse forms include dróttkvćtt (court meter), ljóđaháttr (song form), and fornyrđislag (old story meter).

Broadly speaking, there were two general forms of poetry in the Viking age: eddic poetry and skaldic poetry. Some add a third form, runic poetry, the poetry used for many runic inscriptions which are simple in form. As with most generalizations, this division is oversimplified.

Virtually all the surviving poetry we have comes from medieval Icelandic manuscripts that postdate the Viking age. Some scholars speculate that at least some of those written verses were created for the manuscripts. Yet there is also evidence that at least some of the poetry in these manuscripts may be faithfully reproduced from the Viking age. The nature of Viking poetry is such that it seems possible that it was faithfully transmitted through the centuries in oral retellings, as we will discuss later. Additionally, the surviving verses on runic inscriptions from the Viking age, despite being short and simple, have significant overlap with the poetry in the manuscripts, adding further weight to the idea that the material was preserved with some fidelity.

Rune poems typically were inscribed on monuments and serve to praise an individual. They are brief and usually have a simple meter and style.

GKS 2365 7v
A leaf from the Codex Regius, GKS 2365 4to

Most of the eddic poetry is preserved only in the Codex Regius manuscript (GKS2365 4to), a carefully compiled collection of mythological and heroic poetry. The poems tell of the Norse gods and ancient Norse heroes and their exploits. Eddic poetry also has relatively simple meter and style. The stories are exciting, packed with action, and frequently contain valuable object lessons. Little can be said about the development of eddic poetry, but it was probably in place and in use at the start of the Viking age.
A video of a presentation on eddic poetry given at the Hurstwic Heathen study group is available here on YouTube.

Skaldic poems typically praise the deeds of notable people, and they were usually composed during the lifetime of the person being praised. While some of the surviving skaldic poetry probably dates from the medieval period, many of the poems are believed to date from the Viking age. The Karlevi runestone (Öl 1) is the only skaldic verse known to have been written down in the Viking age that is composed in the elaborate skaldic meter called dróttkvćtt. The stone is thought to date from roughly the year 1000. Few skaldic poems have survived more or less complete; most of what survives are individual verses quoted in prose works, such as in Heimskringla (the kings' sagas) and in Snorra edda, Snorri Sturluson's books intended to teach the art of skaldic poetry.

While the eddic poetry is uniformly anonymous, much of the surviving skaldic poetry is credited to a particular poet at a particular place and time. As with identifying the carvers of the runes, naming the poet serves to preserve his orđstírr, but one wonders if there was a second purpose. Since these recorded words carried power, people might want to know who set that power loose by inscribing the words in runes or composing them into verse.

Karlevi runestone (Öl 1)
Karlevi runestone (Öl 1) (Creative Commons)

The skaldic poems have complicated meters, strict patterns of alliteration, and ornate metaphoric language, with wordplay to delight the sophisticated listener. The poems usually celebrate the exploits of a particular king, leader, or heroic man. These poems were thought to be reliable testimony to the events, even though (in most cases) they weren't committed to writing for centuries after their composition. This point-of-view is clearly stated by Snorri: "And we have set great store in what is said in these poems, which were recited in front of the kings themselves or their sons. We take as true everything that one finds in these poems about expeditions and battles." (Heimskringla Prologus). Since exaggeration was considered to be mockery, and mockery was a lethal insult, it was expected that the poets retold the events faithfully in their verse to the kings and their sons.

Ćgir
Ćgir

Skaldic poetry uses a variety of circumlocutions, such as kennings. A kenning is a phrase used as a metaphor to represent an idea. The usual form is a noun, qualified by another noun in the genitive case. For instance sweat of the sword is used to mean blood, or horse of the sea to mean ship. Some of the kennings can only be understood by someone with an extensive knowledge of the ancient culture and of the ancient mythological and heroic stories. For example, fire of Ćgir is used to mean gold but would probably be understood only by someone who is familiar with the myth in which Ćgir lit his hall with heaps of glittering gold rather than fire when the gods visited.

Kennings can have multiple levels. Since Ćgir is the god of the sea, flame of the sea is also a kenning for gold with sea standing in for Ćgir. Additionally, a poet might use a kenning for gold, and then use that phrase in place of the word gold in yet another kenning, such as flame of the sea-stead's path. Sea-stead's (ship) path is water, so flame of the water refers to gold. Some kennings depend on hyperbole. Enemy of gold refers to a man who does not like gold and gives it away: a generous man. Some kennings take the form of puns, such as using sky of the eel to represent ice in identifying someone as an Icelander.

The form of poetry is complicated beyond the wordplay of the kennings. The need to fit strict rules of alliteration and rhyming and rhythm result in verses in which multiple ideas are being formed simultaneously. Because Old Norse is a highly inflected language (word forms change depending on the usage of the word in a sentence), it's possible to jumble the word order yet retain the meaning of a sentence. Indeed, some skaldic verses develop multiple sentences simultaneously. A more detailed explanation of the complexities of skaldic poetry is presented in a separate article.

Because of its complexity and wordplay, some have wondered whether skaldic poetry could be understood by a listener hearing a verse for the first time. There are examples in the literary sources that support the belief that the poems were a puzzle to be solved. Gísli spoke a verse in which he took credit for the killing of Ţorgrímr. The verse was overheard by Ţórdís, the sister of Gísli and the wife of Ţorgrímr. It wasn't until after she returned home and pondered on the verse that she worked out its meaning (Gísla saga, ch.18).

Additionally, in an oral culture, it would be important to recall poetry without error. Because of the complexities of Norse verse, a defect in a recalled verse would be immediately apparent, since the rhyme, rhythm, or alliteration would no longer work. Any erroneous substitution would stand out. Thus, the complexity of the verse acted as a mnemonic aid to help recall the verse and to identify errors. This built-in error detection was one of the reasons that information conveyed by poetry during the Viking age was thought to be more reliable than information in prose.

The importance of poetry to the ancient northern people can perhaps be seen in its long life in the northern cultures. A gold drinking horn from the 5th century, runestones from the 11th century, and vellum manuscripts from the 13th and 14th century all record poetry with similar forms whose verses would have been recognizable to people from any of those eras.

Gallehus horn
A detail from a replica of one of the Gallehus horns from the 5th century showing the poetic runic inscription at the top. (Creative Commons)

In the Viking age, poetry served many purposes, and thus poets were historians, journalists, reference librarians, entertainers, and more. By preserving a thought in verse, it was made permanent. Preserving a man's name and deeds in verse enhanced his orđstírr; people were more likely to think of him and speak his name when that name was recorded in verse. Verse maintained or elevated one's rank in society by preserving one's accomplishments and one's family genealogy.

News of important events was disseminated with poetry. In large-scale battles, kings placed their poets in a skjaldborg (shield castle) so they could observe the battle safely at close range and then compose poetry to preserve the memory of the event and the heroic deeds performed there (Óláfs saga helga, ch.206).

Since memories of important events and important people were preserved in verse, poets were the connection to that saved knowledge. In the days before books and before the internet, a poet with a repertoire of poems was the equivalent of a modern-day research librarian, able to provide answers to questions on a variety of topics. The tight connection between poetry and knowledge extends from the myth of the mead of poetry (created from the blood of a wise man and stolen by the god who seeks knowledge in all forms) through to the everyday use of verses in the Viking age.

Poetry, like runes, could convey magic or níđ (described earlier) and made it more long-lasting. A spoken insult was bad, but a spoken insult put into verse form was so bad as to be in violation of the law codes and subject to instant lethal revenge.

Poetry was a way to test a man and for one to show one's place in society. As discussed in the article on games, competition in poetry was a sport, and engaging someone in a poetry competition gave one insight into the kind of man one was dealing with. Was he clever, able to create his own ingenious verses, and also to solve the puzzle of a verse from his competitor? How did he react to a verse? Was he able to stay composed and competitive after taking a punch to the head in verse? Showing skill in poetry in these competitions elevated a man. Enemies could become friends when they mutually admired each other's skill in poetry, as did Grettir and the man whose horse he stole when the two finally met (Grettis saga, ch.47).

Stiklarstađir battle
King Óláfr at the Battle of Stiklarstađir, painting by Arbo

Poetry could be inspirational. Early on the morning of the battle at Stiklarstađir, King Óláfr asked his poet to recite some verse. Ţormóđr chose Bjarkamál in fornu, a heroic poem about the warriors who fell while fighting for King Hrólfr kraki. Ţormóđr recited the verse in such a loud voice that the entire army could hear him, and they were exceedingly pleased by the choice, perhaps reminded of what was expected of them in the upcoming battle (Óláfs saga helga, ch.208).

Lastly, poetry could be entertaining. The literary sources are filled with examples of poets reciting verse in the king's hall for the entertainment of king and his men. After Ţormóđr recited the poem for the king's warriors at Stiklarstađir, the king thanked him for his entertainment (skemmtun). Presumably poetry was recited for entertainment in the halls of men of lower social rank and at other occasions as well. For example, Björn and Ţórđr entertained people waiting for the start of a sporting event by reciting poetry to the assembled crowd (Bjarnar saga, ch.23).

Poets were valued in Viking society. Through their verse, they fixed and made memories permanent, so they could be preserved and disseminated throughout the Viking lands. A man's orđstírr, the goal of any drengr, was enhanced by having his name and deeds preserved in verse. Thus, a poet was ranked high in Viking society, as described in the article on the structure of Viking society.

A good poet not only conferred orđstírr on the subjects of his poems; he also added to his own orđstírr. A large number of the surviving skaldic verses are attributed to named poets; we still speak their names one thousand years after they composed their verse.

Again and again, we see four facets associated with Óđinn: poetry; runes, magic; and knowledge. They show the importance and power of words in Viking society. Words had consequences, and one could not hide from the consequences of words spoken, especially when preserved in poetry or runes.

This connection to Óđinn is perhaps best seen in the poem Sonatorrek, attributed in the saga to the poet-warrior-raider Egill Skallagrímsson. His life story, told in Egils saga, demonstrates to us that he was a powerful fighter, brutal in battle. Yet his poetry shows us he was no brute.

As an older man, Egill's youngest and most promising son, Böđvarr, died when his boat overturned in the fjord. Egill was grief-stricken, and locked himself in his bed closet and prepared to die there. His daughter was called, and she tricked him into opening the bed-closet door, taking nourishment, and composing a memorial poem to Böđvarr and another son who had died earlier. It has taken the name Sonatorrek (On the Loss of My Sons, Egils saga, ch.79).

Egill's raw emotions are laid bare in this masterful example of Viking-age poetry. The emotion came from his heart, but his words and his artful and complex poetical diction came from his mind. This magnificent artistic creation cannot be the work of a mindless brute; it is the work of a powerful creative mind.

sculpture of Egill and Böđvarr
Egill carries the body of his son Böđvarr for burial, seen on a bas-relief by Carl-Nielsen.

And that is the paradox that is Viking poetry. So many aspects of their society are touched by the violence that seem to infuse every part of the life of a Viking. Yet at the same time, these people prized the emotional and creative art called poetry. Egill makes that clear in his poem. On one hand, Egill blames Óđinn for taking away his son and castigates him for causing the loss. Yet on the other hand, Egill realizes Óđinn has given him two valuable gifts: the gift of poetry, and the gift of being able to discern his true enemies, which presumably, gave Egill his edge in battle. With this balancing of the ledger, Egill closes the poem, accepting his fate.

The Manuscripts


Manuscript AM 556A open to leaves containing Grettis saga

Runes and poetry were the two primary means used to record knowledge and to convey magic during most of the Viking age. Towards the end of a Viking age, a new method of preserving thoughts arrived. The idea of writing Roman letters with pen and ink on vellum manuscripts was introduced into Viking lands by the church. This method could be used not only to write church-related documents in Latin, but also secular material in the vernacular.

It was this second approach that was vigorously embraced by Icelanders, who turned out a torrent of written works in their language, Old Icelandic. It's not clear why Icelanders were different and created so much written material, compared to the other Viking lands. Perhaps the tradition of oral story-telling by poets was stronger there than in other places. Perhaps it was because Iceland had a large population of free farmers who could afford the books, and who were educated and literate and able to read the books. Perhaps they wanted books that recorded their family histories and stories, and they wanted them in their own language, not Latin.

The monastery at Ţingeyrar was known to have a scriptorium, and it is likely that copies of written material were made there, but it appears that many of the manuscripts were created by farmers in their homes.

The process of making a manuscript is detailed in a separate article. The cost of making a manuscript was extreme, both because of the time required, but also because of the materials. The skin of one calf yielded only 4 pages of vellum during a time where having one more milk cow might make the difference between starving to death and surviving a rough winter.

The surviving manuscripts show us that rather than being stored away in a library with limited access, these manuscripts were routinely used, presumably for centuries, dark with soot from the fires of the longhouse, and showing signs of being handled regularly.

Ţingeyrar
The church at Ţingeyrar where, in medieval times, there was a monastery with a scriptorium.

Flateyjarbók
A leaf from Flateyjarbók (GKS 1005 fol 79r), the beginning of Óláfs saga helga

Some of the manuscripts are large, ornate, and beautiful, with large margins containing illustrations throughout, such as Flateyjarbók (GKS 1005 fol).

Others are extremely plain and sparse, using all the available space for the text, such as Codex Regius, the only surviving copy of the Poetic Edda.

Codex Regius
Manuscript GKS 2365 fol 3r, showing the opening verses of Hávamál

The books range in size from small pocket-sized law books to large, ornate books that are coffee table size.

The earliest known Icelandic work that was committed to vellum was the Icelandic law codes, written during the winter of 1117-1118. Other early works include: histories, such as Íslendingabók, a history of Iceland written around the year 1130; textbooks, such as the First Grammatical Treatise teaching how to use Roman letters to represent the Icelandic language; genealogies of the settlers of Iceland, such as Landnámabók. European literature was also translated into Icelandic, including learned books on topics such as astronomy, geography, and natural history.

assortment of books
An assortment of medieval Icelandic books showing the variation in size.

Books were written to commemorate the exploits of kings or other great leaders. Some of these books were in the form of histories, such as Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway. Others described contemporary events, such as Sturlunga saga, a compilation of sagas describing the events in the turbulent times when the sons of Sturla Ţórđarson were changing the political landscape of the Iceland, written by people who were often eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and sometimes even participants in the events.

Icelanders also wrote down the stories of their ancestors in the Viking age. These Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders, also called family sagas) were a unique and new form of story-telling unlike anything that preceded them. They are clearly based on Iceland's vibrant oral story-telling tradition.

Most of these sagas are thought to have been composed between 1200 and 1400. These stories tell of the tales of farmers and chieftains living in Iceland from the 9th through the 12th century. Many of the sagas follow families for generation after generation, from the settlement era to the commonwealth period in Iceland's history. The stories are distinctive in that they tell heroic tales not about heroes, but about just plain folks: the early Icelanders.

Yet, they are not histories; they are distorted by the time that separates the events depicted and the writing of the stories. Nonetheless, there is clearly a considerable body of genuine historical information imbedded in these texts, and they remain one of the most important reference sources for understanding not only saga-age Iceland, but also the broader Viking age in Northern Europe.

We also have other written material from Iceland, such as the Fornaldarsögur (legendary sagas) about heroes from long ago times and often far-away lands. Ancient poetry about heroes and gods was compiled into the Eddukvćđi (Poetic Edda).

Snorri Sturluson
Statue of Snorri Sturluson by Vigeland

Much of this written material is anonymous; the books generally do not have titles, or author's names, or chapter headings. However, one author who can be identified with some certainty is Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). He wrote Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway. Additionally, Snorri feared that the tradition of composing poetry to commemorate great men and great events was dying. For this, and other reasons, he wrote the Snorra edda, a four-part textbook on writing skaldic poetry. The book summarizes Norse mythology (necessary for the poet to understand the kennings), teaches the language of poetry, and presents examples of the various verse forms.

The book not only provides us with a unique overview of the Norse mythology, but Snorri quotes excerpts from poems and stories as examples of proper form and technique. In most cases, the full works are now lost, so the quotes from Snorra edda are the only way we have any knowledge of these stories.

None of the surviving manuscripts represent the "original" version of the stories as set down by the first author. All the surviving manuscripts date from well after the time the stories were written down. Over the centuries, the original manuscripts of the old stories were copied, transcribed, combined, interpolated, and edited. Material was deleted and new material written to bridge the gap. In some cases, the original stories may have been distorted. Both early and late manuscripts survive for some stories, and occasionally, the differences are quite significant.

When Scandinavian nationalism movements began to grow in the early modern period, scholars realized that the best available written materials on the early history of Scandinavian lands were those created by Icelanders a few centuries earlier. Yet while the Scandinavians could no longer read that language, Icelanders could. Their ability to read the old manuscripts was instrumental in preserving the old manuscripts.

Icelanders, notably Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), began to gather the manuscripts from all around Iceland and take them to Denmark (which ruled Iceland at this time) for safekeeping. It seems likely that many manuscripts were lost, including a notable number lost at sea in a shipwreck, and many destroyed in the great fire at Copenhagen (1728). Yet, many were saved, and most have been repatriated back to Iceland.

Árni Magnússon
portrait of Árni Magnússon

Árnagarđur
Árnagarđur, the building that houses Árna stofnun.

The bulk of the Icelandic manuscripts are preserved at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (the Árni Magnússon Institute) in Reykjavík As this article is being written, a new building is being constructed for the preservation and study of the manuscripts.

In addition to the Icelandic material, we also have material from other Nordic lands, such the chronicle composed by Adam of Bremen Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum, written around 1075. Saxo Grammaticus wrote a history of the kings of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, created at the end of the 12th century. We have late law codes, such as Gulaţingslög and Frostaţingslög both from Norway in the 13th century. Some of the ancient heroic Germanic poems survive in other lands, such as Beowulf, written in Old English, and Waltharius, written in Latin.

Manuscripts, this new way of preserving knowledge and thoughts, were also used after the Viking age to record knowledge of the last facet of Óđinn: magic. Medieval grimoires were textbooks of magic spells and procedures, created to preserve the knowledge of magic. A notable example mentioned numerous times in legend and folklore is Rauđskinna, buried with its author Gottskálk grimmi Nikulásson, the bishop of Hólar.

Although the means of preserving thoughts in manuscript form did not arrive in Viking lands until near the end of the Viking age, it remains perhaps our most important source of knowledge about Viking-age people and their society. Without these manuscripts, we would know almost nothing about their myths, their heroes, their gods, their beliefs, their laws, their accomplishments, or their daily lives.

Summary

Viking-age people spoke the language we commonly call Old Norse. In their society, spoken words carried power and consequences. The knowledge and power conveyed by those words was fixed when they were inscribed in runes or composed into poetry. Runes and poetry allowed the knowledge and power of words to disseminate far and wide and echo for centuries.

These means of expressing, conveying, and preserving thoughts seem to be closely tied to Óđinn, the highest of the gods. The four facets of Óđinn's skills include knowledge, poetry, runes, and magic, all aspects of gathering and controlling knowledge in the Viking age, key parts of life in Viking-age society.


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