Photo: Alexis Pantos/KHM, UiO.
While excavating a cremation burial site in eastern Norway, archaeologists uncovered a red sandstone boulder bearing a unique inscription. Ongoing research at this Svingerud site revealed that the items this rune stone was buried with date as far back as the first century of the Common Era.
That is, this rune stone (now called the Svingerud Stone) and its inscription may go all the way back to the year 1 – the time of Christ and Caesar Augustus, an age when the literate culture of the Romans was hundreds of miles away from Scandinavia.
This is big news because:
1) it proves that runes were in use in Scandinavia centuries before we previously thought, and
2) the influence (or origin) of other literate cultures on the development of runes may be less ...or at least happened differently than scholars previously thought.
Of the thousands of rune stones in Scandinavia, the Svingerud Stone is the only one now known to be from before 300 AD. Indeed, only 30 or so stones are from before 550. This stone (which measures approximately one foot by one foot) carries a single, somewhat crudely carved inscription in runes, as well as characters that may be lost runes, embellished runes, or simply rune-like designs. The presence of unknown characters next to known runes of the Elder Futhark (the established ancient runic alphabet) again demonstrates that the development of runes was a process and not as standardized as we sometimes might think.
At face value, the inscription on the Svingerud Stone seems to give us the word “Ideberug.” The best guess available from Museum of Oslo experts right now is that the term may refer to the name Idebera, a feminine name used in Scandinavia at the time. Thus, Ideberug might mean “to Idebera" or perhaps "[the progeny or property] of Idebera.” Of course, carving names or titles in runes onto stone would become a common practice later in Nordic and Germanic cultures.
There are other possible interpretations, though. The above interpretation assumes that the runes were to work together as one word versus standing as a mnemonic or code for several different words. It also must ignore the presence of uncertain characters, which may or may not have had a specific meaning for the inscription.
The Discovery of Runes According to Viking Lore
The Vikings (referring to the Norse who came long after this runestone) believed that humans never invented the runes. Instead, the runes were discovered by the god Odin. As such, they were not mere letters but part of profound cosmic principles. Odin received the runes after enduring great suffering. Odin pierced his divine heart with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine nights. Only then were the runes revealed to him. As the Eddic poem Havamal (The Words of the High One) reads:
- I ween that I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
To Odin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
- None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
Immediately after these stanzas, the Eddic poem briefly describes Odin's theft of the Mead of Poetry. It then lists the 18 magic spells this God of Wisdom has mastered. This ordering of the discovery of runes with poetry and magic suggests that, for the Vikings, runes belonged to the same mystical family of higher intellect and arcane knowledge that were the attributes of the gods.
However, today many scholars disagree with the notion that runes were considered inherently “magical.” They contend that the runes' incorporation with magical practices made them magical and not any perceived property of the runes themselves. This is a matter of controversy, and not everyone sees the distinction. Regardless, it is true that runes were sometimes used for everyday purposes. For example, a bone comb from 9th-century Viking Denmark bears the runic inscription "COMB.”
As the Viking Age continued, runic writing became more common and mundane. Excavations of Viking trading ports at Bergen and Trondheim (both in Norway) revealed a trove of hundreds of bone and wooden slips bearing runic inscriptions. These inscriptions were anything but mystical. Instead, they covered a full range of ordinary human messages, such as merchants’ tallies or notes to friends. By the height of the Viking Age, many Vikings were literate and used runes as an everyday tool. But we should remember these were late developments after Vikings had extensive contact with other literate peoples over vast trade networks.
Historical/Linguistic Theories of Rune Origins: Mediterranean Connections
Most historians, linguists, anthropologists, and other academics are not ready to accept that Odin discovered runes after sacrificing himself on a cosmic tree. Instead, prevailing theories are that runes arose from Nordic and other Germanic peoples consciously imitating the sophisticated cultures of the Mediterranean. This primarily means Rome, though other cultural contacts (through trade and war) could have also played a part in the development of runes.
In the centuries leading up to the inscribing of the Svingerud Stone, Rome was aggressively expanding in all directions. In addition to an awesome military machine, Rome actively pushed its vibrant culture everywhere it went. Soon, it was not just conquered vassals that took on the Roman language and Roman ways. Those on the outside who envied the wealth and power of the Empire were adopting this culture, too.
Though in today’s literate world, writing is largely taken for granted, in ancient times, writing was amazing technology that could communicate meaning across vast distances. Writing could convey military orders, hand down laws throughout the land, record taxes, and certify business transactions. No wonder writing would be associated with magic by those without access to this incredible tool.
So, it is generally thought that the peoples of Northern Europe adopted the idea of writing from the Romans (who, of course, had inherited the literary tradition of the Mediterranean thousands of years in the making). That a few of the runes resemble Roman letters confirms this for some. However, it is interesting that runes were not simply adopted straight from the Roman alphabet or that their use remained much more ceremonial and mystical than the Roman writing system had ever been. Even if there were Roman influences, runes like the Elder Futhark remained unique to the culture that developed them.
At the time of the Svingerud Stone, the Rhine River was the frontier between the Romans and the Germanic peoples. This barrier is far away from Norway. Meanwhile, Romans were only beginning to contemplate a presence in Britain. Once established in the mid-first century, even Britain (Rome's most remote province) was also far away from Norway, especially since most Scandinavian boats of that time did not have the sails or keels that would later make the Viking Age possible. So, while there was contact between Scandinavia and Rome (such as the trade of amber from Denmark or furs from further north), it seems dubious that there was enough contact to justify Roman-influenced runes at such an early date.
Most people in first-century Norway would certainly have never seen a Roman. This in and of itself does not prove that there was no Roman influence in the development of runes. But it does suggest that either 1) the influence happened earlier, before the real heyday of Roman-Germanic interconnection, and/or 2) the idea of writing was so powerful that the runes spread very quickly.
The Etruscans were a sophisticated, literate, ancient civilization of central and northern Italy. They were eventually crushed and assimilated by the Romans. Long before they were, however, they had extensive trade and military networks throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic regions.
One small attestation to the sphere of Etruscan influence was the discovery of the Negau helmets – 26 bronze helmets dated to about 450-350 BCE found all the way in Slovenia (in the Balkans near the Adriatic Sea). Many of these Negau helmets had inscriptions in the Etruscan alphabet. One of these inscriptions reads, “Hariχasti teiva,” or “Hariagasti the Priest.” Hariagasti is a Germanic name, so the Negau helmets prove 1) early contact between Germanic and Mediterranean peoples and 2) exposure to letters by Germanic speakers. Any adventurers like Hariagasti could have taken knowledge of writing back to Northern Europe.
Thus, it has already been postulated that perhaps the Elder Futhark runes of ancient Germanic and Nordic peoples owe less to Roman writing than Etruscan writing. Indeed, at face value, the Etruscan alphabet is much more similar to the Elder Futhark than the Roman alphabet is.
However, further evidence is scarce, and, likely, we will never know. It is also possible that neither Romans nor Etruscans inspired the runes. After all, writing is a mode of language, and language is one of humanity's most salient features. Writing has appeared around the world spontaneously, arising (when cultures need it) in far-flung places with no discernable contact with each other. So, perhaps the Proto-Norse speakers of Scandinavia and their Germanic cousins developed runes with little more than a need for it and an idea to go by.
Learn more about the Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark runes here
So, indeed, the Svingerud Stone offers proof that runes were around earlier than we thought. Aside from this, it offers few answers – only more questions. But these questions are fascinating to contemplate, and much more research will be inspired by these few cryptic characters scratched on stone so long ago
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- A. Orie. World's oldest dated runestone discovered in Norway -- with a mysterious inscription. CNN. January 18, 2023. https://www.msn.com/en-us/travel/tripideas/world-s-oldest-dated-runestone-discovered-in-norway-with-a-mysterious-inscription/ar-AA16tDXz?ocid=msedgdhp&pc=U531&cvid=9dd6f2852e584f4ea9a0570d5001d5ba
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- The Poetic Edda. H.A. Bellows (translator). 1936. Available through Sacred Texts: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/index.htm