What’s in a Rune? by @ginaconkle

posted in: Gina Conkle, Vikings | 10

iStock_000005173187SmallViking runes combine mysticism and practicality. What are they? The Vendel and Viking Age alphabet. As Viking peoples changed, so did the runes.


When you hear “Viking” you think of raiders, those hot giant blonde men from the north, right? They earned their size and staying power through hardship…survival of the fittest. To know the runes is to know Viking history, beginning with Rome — more precisely Romans vs. word nerd barbarianbarbarians and the Migration Age.


Europe’s Migration Age went in two phases, starting with the first phase around AD 300. Rome conquered some barbarians, and there were those Rome couldn’t quell.


Guess where those survivors went?


The “Franks” (old German for “free”) stayed in parts of western Europe, evading the Romans. Hardy groups went north and settled iniStock_000030708114Small “Scandinavia.” Goths and Visigoths filled the first wave. You know these were tough tribes, because Germanic Visigoth leader, Alaric, sacked Rome in AD 410.


The second wave came from Slavic countries (our modern word slave gets its foundation in slavic). 


Then came the Vendel Age roughly from AD 550 to 790. Vikings were still disjointed, more tribal. Many Scandic and Nordicpeople lived in communal longhouses. Oral traditions taught people religion and history, enriching their lives with stories around the fire. They weren’t big readers and writers. This was an era of survival. Their alphabet during this time consisted of 24 letters, or runes. Those runes were considered magical and they served a practical purpose.


But, something happened around AD 790.


Sail quoteViking ships got better. Shipbuilders used new technology called “keels.” Saxons and Frisians still used flat-bottomed boats, which caused them to capsize often. They had to stick close to shore. Keels, however, enabled Vikings to venture far into the ocean. Some historians say Vikings started using sails around this time.


We do know Lindisfarne happened. That’s when people started writing about these fierce Northmen. Which brings us to the Vikings and their alphabet.


Vikings shared a common language in the areas we know as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and later Iceland (settled in late 800s). Viking families started living in their own longhouses and farms, and Nor’man –Viking– identity formed. Sure there were raids, but there were peaceful pursuits like art in their carving and metalwork.


runic 24
The Runic Alphabet: 24 Letters

And when the Viking Age started, the Runic alphabet changed from 24 letters to 16. Maybe when you’re off to raid, you need to communicate in shorthand?


We also know Vikings didn’t bother with scrolls and such like the rest of the IMAG0237world, but they sent messages to each other via board and wax. A sheet of wax covered a piece of wood and the writer penned his message with a kind of stylus. If a response was needed, the receiver melted the wax and let it harden. Then he’d scratch his message. Sadly, most of these are lost to us. Really, the stereotype of Vikings as illiterate brutes is inaccurate.


Rune stone markers like the one pictured on the right are a different story. We still have rune stones, but these were mostly signposts and memorials.



The Runic Alphabet: 16 Letters

Runes (the letters) still held a mystique. Vikings weren’t big writers and readers. They were doers. Likewise their alphabet served two purposes: to communicate and foretell. A letter carved on a piece of wood or bone or small stone was used to tell someone’s fortune. It held mystical meaning. Yet, those same letters spelled out signposts like “Turn left to get to Sven’s farmstead.” Nothing magical about that.


This seesaw of purpose embodies the Vikings — bold and ever-changing, adapting to their environment. The Nor’men winnowed life down to necessity with a side of wonder just to keep things interesting.




Thanks for stopping today. August is “Viking Theme” month here at Embracing Romance (on our Facebook page). We’re having a Viking party August 30th. You’re invited. We’ll talk Viking history, Viking romance, Viking mythology, and well, all things Viking. We’d love for you to join us! Click this link to find out more: Embracing Romance’s Viking Party.




Hope to see you there! Cheers to you, Reader ~ Gina


Now it’s your turn: What do you like about the Vikings?





Follow Gina Conkle:

A writer of Viking and Georgian romance with a softly sensual side, Gina loves history, books and romance…the perfect recipe for historical romance writer. Her passion for castles and old places (the older and moldier the better!) means interesting family vacations. When not visiting fascinating places, she can be found delving into the latest adventures in cooking, gardening, and chauffeuring her sons.

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10 Responses

  1. Barbara Monajem

    I love runes. In my mind they are associated with magic–not surprising, considering they are used to foretell. It’s funny, because I don’t like foretelling at all–but the mystical aura of the runes is nevertheless compelling.

    • ginaconkle2013

      Our word associations. I tend to think of the everyday “letter” purpose and the large rune stone markers.

  2. Violetta Rand

    Love the post Gina. Oh those Vikings, such a mixture of practicality and magic.

  3. terriaustin

    I love your posts, Gina. I always learn something new and interesting.

    • ginaconkle2013

      Thanks Terri! I’m a history nerd and the deeper and more detailed, the better. I appreciate you stopping by today. 🙂

    • ginaconkle2013

      Thanks Denise! And thanks for stopping by the blog. Have a great weekend.

    • Gina Conkle

      NO WAY! How did I miss this? And the Field Museum has been a family “Mecca” for years, like back in the day when my boys were into dinosaurs. Dr. Paul Serino used to be the boys’ super hero. Now I need to email you about this. Is there wine included in this “Field” trip? 🙂