Vikings. The word evokes ferocious warriors, swords, battleaxes, and bloodthirsty raids. Most of what we know about the Vikings, however, are exaggerations written by people who encountered them. There is a way for us to hear the Vikings speak for themselves: by reading messages carved on runestones.
Runestones are upright slabs of stone displaying messages carved in runes. They became fashionable after Danish king Harold Bluetooth raised one—known as the Jelling Stone—to commemorate his parents, the late Danish king Gorm the Old and his wife, Tyra, sometime between 960 and 985 CE. The Jelling Stone set off a craze for runestones that lasted throughout the 11th century, and into the 12th century in some places. Today, about 3000 of these 1000-year-old stones can be found all over Scandinavia and the British Isles, and new ones continue to be discovered.
Here are some more surprising facts about Viking runestones.
1. Viking runestones were meant to be seen.
During the Viking Age (800-1050 CE), runestones were often painted and the carved lettering filled in with bright colors. Runestones were raised along waterways and property boundaries, by road intersections, and on hilltops so people could find and read them.
2. Runestones are not tombstones.
Runestones often mention people who have died, but they were never raised next to a grave. Instead, they commemorate people who were deceased. Sometime between 1010 and 1050, a woman named Torgärd raised a runestone near the village of Högby in the region of Östergötland (now in southern Sweden). Torgärd’s stone mentions that the farmer Gulle had five sons and lists how each of them died a violent death. The stone is dedicated to one of the sons, Torgärd’s maternal uncle, Assur, whose life ended in the Byzantine Empire (now modern-day Greece and Turkey).
3. Most Viking runestones are Christian rather than pagan.
In pop culture, Vikings are depicted as pagans, but the Viking Age was really an age of transition when Scandinavia went from paganism to Christianity. Those who converted to Christianity raised runestones to declare their faith in the face of their pagan neighbors. More runestones are decorated with crosses and invoke the names of God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary than the pagan gods of Norse mythology.
4. Runestones contain complex messages.
Viking Age society was a predominantly oral society; important decisions were made by word of mouth rather than in writing. The runestones demonstrate, however, that there was a literary culture with professional rune carvers who chiseled short, poignant messages in stone. They followed a strict formula: the name of the commissioner, the name of the deceased, what this person achieved in life, a prayer, and the name of the rune carver. Some runestones follow this formula in verse. In the traditional Swedish province of Södermanland, a runestone is raised over the two brothers Håsten and Holmsten with text written in fornyrðislag, a poetic meter using an intricate rhyming pattern based on alliteration.
5. The runestones were carved using the Futhark.
Viking Age Scandinavia’s runic alphabet, the Futhark, is named after its first six symbols (f, u, th, a, r, and k). Runestones use a later version, the Younger Futhark, containing 16 symbols derived from the 24-letter Older Futhark. The reduced number of letters made for efficient rune carving, but one downside for modern scholars is that a single symbol can represent several different sounds, so translation of the runestones' messages can be difficult.
6. More than 2500 Viking runestones can be found in Sweden.
Medieval texts tend to focus on Vikings from Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, yet most known runestones are located in Sweden. Since the stones were mainly expressions of Christian faith, scholars theorize that the large number in Sweden is evidence of the conflict between the old religion and the new.
7. Women could—and did—commission runestones.
Viking Age Scandinavia was a man’s society, but women could speak for themselves. We know they made their own decisions and controlled their personal wealth because women commissioned runestones, which was a big and expensive undertaking. Estrid Sigfastsdotter, a rich and powerful woman who lived between 1020 and 1080 north of modern-day Stockholm, raised several runestones in her own name in commemoration of her husbands and sons. She is also one of the earliest known Swedish Christians.
8. Runestones explain a person’s social position.
People are mentioned on runestones in relation to family members as a way of explaining who they are. Because of this practice, we know that Vikings traced their lineage through their mothers and their fathers, depending on which parent had the higher social standing. On one 12th-century runestone from the Swedish region of Uppland, not far from where Estrid Sigfastsdotter lived, a man named Ragnvald declares himself to be the chieftain of a warrior band in the Byzantine Empire, and the son of Fastvi, his mother. Ragnvald never mentions his father.
9. People used runestones to brag.
One thing we can say for certain about the Vikings: They were not humble. If they had achieved something great, they wanted people to know about it. What better way than to carve it on a runestone? A man named Alle told the world—while he was still alive—that he had been a Viking in the British Isles with the Danish king Cnut the Great.
10. Runestones are evidence of a far-reaching trade network.
Swedish Vikings, located at the center of a trade and communications network, maintained close ties to civilizations from the Netherlands to the Middle East. The network followed the waterways and roads of the Baltic and Russia, but scholars don’t fully know how it actually worked. It must have been strong and tight-knit, because word of a Viking raid into Central Asia in the 1020s, which ended in disaster, traveled intact to the families waiting back home. There are 30 runestones raised in commemoration of the warriors who never returned.
11. Vikings carved messages of love and affection.
Runestones relay victories in battle and personal triumphs, but the messages can also be surprisingly tender. In central Sweden in the 1050s, a farmer named Holmgöt raised a runestone over his wife Odendisa, where he tells the world that there was no better woman to run a farm than she. In Scania, the once-Danish region of south Sweden, a warrior named Saxe raised a runestone in the 980s to commemorate his comrade, Äsbjörn, who did not flee in battle, but fought until he no longer had a weapon to wield.
12. People used runes long after the runestone fad faded.
When the Viking Age ended, so did the practice of raising runestones, but people continued to use runes. For centuries, runes were carved into everyday objects to claim ownership, cast magical spells, and even make jokes. The town of Lödöse in west Sweden is a treasure trove of medieval objects with runic inscriptions. Scholars have found a wooden stick from the 13th century on which a man named Hagorm carved a magical spell to help with bloodletting, as well as a rib bone from beef cattle carved with the name Eve. As Scandinavia joined the Middle Ages, though, the Latin alphabet (the one you’re reading) took over.