Them Vikings Rune Everything!
It is has been said by many popular historians that the Norse—and other Germanic peoples—of the Viking Age and the late Iron Age were illiterate or preliterate. Which is about the same as saying that they had no poetry since alliterative verse did not rhyme in the sense with which they are familiar! The difference between the fuþark and the ABCs is merely in their uses.
Although Katherine Holman writes in The Northern Conquest that “Unfortunately for us, Scandianian society during the Viking Age does not appear to have had a literary culture and so there are no written histories, poems or tales that have survived to tell us about the Viking homeland in any detail.” I disagree with her facts as well as with her interpretation. True, the fuþark was not used to write histories or prose. But they were used for writing poetry, generally on such things as runestones and drop spindles. See for example the poem on the Karlevi Stone, which is a full stanza in the style of poetry known as drótlvætt. Or look at the riddles on the Buckquoy spindle whorl from Orkney.
The runes were used to inscribe on stone, wood, bone or metal. Probably its most common and known use during the period was on monuments and memorials—the famous runestones—contained a brief description of who erected the stone, in whose honor it was erected and why it was erected, as well as some poetry as well. The one seen here is the Asferg Runestone, which is displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen. It says: “Þorgeirr Tóki’s son raised this stone in memory of Múli, his brother, a very good þegn.”
Runestones were often set at crossroads or along roads so that travelers could easily read it, to spread the honor and fame of the relative but also the generosity and wealth of whoever set it up since having the stonecarved—generally by a professional carver who often signed his pieces— and set up was not an inexpensive process. There is a controversy as to how many people of the area were rune literate, though I believe there was a high level of runic literacy.
The fuþark was developed in the first or second century by someone in the north who was literate in the Latin alphabet. It was inspired by a Latin cursive, but the strokes were simplified and altered slightly so that it could more easily be carved/ The Elder Fuþark had twenty-four characters. By the time of the Viking Age, two variations—long twig and short twig—of the fuþark had been reduced to sixteen characters for the Younger Fuþark. Many characters had more than one sound. Later, the so-called Modern or Christian fuþhark added a few sounds back, starting in the eleventh century. The Anglo-Saxon version was known as the Fuþorc and brought over to England by the Anglo-Saxons and Frisians.
The end of the use of runes differed from location to location. The Anglo-Saxon version, known as the fuþorc, was rarely used after the ninth century and not used at all after the tenth. The actual fuþark, which had been introduced by Scandinavians, was apparently not used after the Norman invasion. Runes were phased out in Denmark in the thirteenth century and used in Norway until the eighteenth century.
Runes were in regular use in Sweden until about the fourteenth century. Johannes Bureus, a Swedish antiquarian, polymath and mystic, started serious study of runes in the sixteenth century, and allegedly learned the system from a rune-literate farmer from the Swedish province of a Swedish province of Dalarne. In the Thirty Years war (1618–1648), several Swedish officers used runes as a ready-made code (it is uncertain whether this was from Bureus’s writings or from knowledge handed down in families). Runes were still being used in natural, non-academic situations in Sweden and were apparently used the last time at the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, many people were following Bureus’s scholarly studies, and runes were being used in such situations as the markings on gravestones.
Any of the books by Stephen Pollington is recommended; for learning more about runes, his Rudimentary Runelore is an excellent brief introduction!
The authenticity and literal existence of shield maidens has become a more popular topic in many quarters lately because of their appearance in Michael Hirst’s fantasy that purports to be the literal facts. Unfortunately, the proposed existence of shield maidens is probably just as remote as many other of the “facts” presented by the show.
Their existence is based to a great extent upon fable, mythology and not a little amount of the allocation of modern thought to actions of a previous day. Any of the appearances of valkyries and mortal shield maiden n the popular literature of the time appear to have little if any relevance to what actually transpired.
I have no great hope that this small essay will cause people to see the light and to change their ideas, but I am still filled with a quixotic desire to note a few points.
The very worth of the woman might be seen as a two-edged sword. For example, there was a thirty percent chance that a woman would die in childbirth, so women were important parts of the culture and necessary for its perpetuation. As Roland Williamson notes, this percentages does not lend credence that the safety of such a vital part of the culture would be endangered by having them engage in warfare. The deaths of men in battle set a higher premium on a higher birthrate and the replacement of lost males, and one would have been reluctant to endanger this replacement by sending the woman out to battle.
On the other hand, it appears that many cases of exposure were of female babies because they did not contribute to the work force and were simply another mouth to feed. However, most exposures were done by the lower classes and consisted of women who were not members of the warrior class to begin with. Exposure was tolerated but not seen as a good action a the time even though it might have been necessary for the family. For example, if we look at the Saga of Þorstein Oxfoot, where Þorstein , a son of Egil Skallagrimsson, wants a daughter to be exposed simply because of her action in a prophetic dream, and the man’s wife, Jofrid, chastised him, saying, “Your words are unworthy of a man of your standing. No one in your easy circumstances can see fit to let such a thing happen.”
There have been some observations that the graves of some women contain weapons and that this is evidence that shield maidens were real, but this totally ignores the fact that some graves of pre-pubescent children contained weapon as well, not smaller, child-sized practice copies but full-sized swords, other weapons and such things as a full-sized key (symbol of the grown woman’s authority in a house). Using the logic these people use, there should be a bunch of toddlers on the field as well! It is much more likely that the weapons were seen as valuable artifacts rather than indication of warrior status!
Of course, there was the very real likelihood that the females of the time were tutored in the use of weapons alongside the males. This was not because they were expected to be shield women, but because they were in charge of the homes and were expected to be able to organize and to probably participate in home defense when the men were away. We see many instances of this happening in the sagas and other writings—including Freydís Eiríksdóttir’s familiarity with swords from the Greenlander’s Sagas—while there are no eye-witness accounts of the existence of sword maidens!
(The supposition that this would lead to a feeling among the females of “I’m just as good as the men, so I’m going out on the field” owes its existence to applying a modern mindset upon an early period in my opinion and is therefore of little validity.)
If you have encountered any period eye-witness accounts of shield maidens, I would love to hear of them! Until then, I have to relegate them to the fantasy files!
For additional points and facts, see Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History. Cannot agree with all the interpretations and conclusions, but a rich source of valuable trivia!