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Where Did the Runes Come From?

Where Did the Runes Come From?

If you’re a Heathen, you probably know the story of how Odin hanged himself for nine days and nights on Yggdrasil and obtained the runes.  It’s a great story and one we love telling to explain the overall mystical qualities the runes possess. But, like anything, our stories don’t necessarily tell the whole story of how the runes came into being.  So, this piece looks at the runes and how they evolved.

The Havamal and Archetypes

The Havamal describes how Odin sought wisdom by hanging himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights.  He hanged with a spear stuck through him to earn the runes’ wisdom.  For those who follow Christianity, the image is oddly reminiscent of Jesus on the Cross.  Think about it: a god sacrifices himself to himself via crucifixion.  He is stabbed with a spear.  He dies and comes back to life, even before he created the world.

It just shows how the archetypes of ancient legends filter through to today’s most popular religion.  The idea of a crucified god isn’t new, nor is the concept of a god dying and being resurrected.  But that discussion is for another time.  We’re still talking about the runes, here.

Runes in the Havamal

I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence.

Nine mighty songs I learned from the great
son of Bale-thorn, Bestla’s sire;
I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,
with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.

Ere long I bare fruit, and throve full well,
I grew and waxed in wisdom;
word following word, I found me words,
deed following deed, I wrought deeds.

Hidden Runes shalt thou seek and interpreted signs,
many symbols of might and power,
by the great Singer painted, by the high Powers fashioned,
graved by the Utterer of gods.

For gods graved Odin, for elves graved Daïn,
Dvalin the Dallier for dwarfs,
All-wise for Jötuns, and I, of myself,
graved some for the sons of men.

Dost know how to write, dost know how to read,
dost know how to paint, dost know how to prove,
dost know how to ask, dost know how to offer,
dost know how to send, dost know how to spend?

Better ask for too little than offer too much,
like the gift should be the boon;
better not to send than to overspend.
Thus Odin graved ere the world began;
Then he rose from the deep, and came again.

Havamal, 137-144, translated by Olive Bray

Where Did the Runes Actually Come From?

If we look at the runic alphabet from archaeology, we can get a sense for where the runes came from.  Even so, it’s sort of a mystery how the runes came into being.  We know that the oldest runes, the Elder Futhark, were written as early as 150 AD or CE (Common Era).  But whence they came is as interesting as the story in the Havamal. Runes may have be derived from what are called the Old Italic Alphabets, which includes the Raetic and Venetic alphabets.  These alphabets may have come from a Proto-Indo-European language and made their appearance as far back as the 700 BC or BCE (Before Common Era). You can see the similarities in the Elder Futhark and the Raetic and Venetic alphabets, if you look closely.  Many of the same letters in the runic system are there.

We can assume that the runes and the modern alphabet came from a similar source. The Latin alphabet, the alphabet we use today, was derived from the Etruscan alphabet which had most of the same letters. These letters came over from the Greek language from a Greek colony in Italy, around 600 BCE.  There’s a possibility that this alphabet influenced the runic alphabet as well.

There’s also a hypothesis that the runes may have Germanic origins because of the Vimose Inscriptions. These inscriptions are some of the earliest Elder Futhark inscriptions, and they’re written in Proto-Norse. They were found on an island off of Denmark, making a case for West Germanic origins.

Scholars just don’t know the exact origins of the runes, but they can guess given the similarity of the alphabets.

Why the Runes are so Powerful

Our ancestors ascribed magical powers to the runes, and it’s not hard to guess why.  If you’ve never had a way to keep knowledge available for generations to come other than oral tradition (which had problems with changes over time, and lost information due to untimely deaths), it would seem like magic.  Think how magical it would be to have a way for your ancestors to speak to you.  Those who could write the runes must have appeared to be very powerful shamans to less learned folk.  And those who could read the runes were certainly powerful in knowledge.

As the Rational Heathen, I’m not really into the woo-woo stuff. And yet, I do and have done runecastings. I suspect that the runecastings work through your subconscious–that your mind knows what is going on and you’re in touch with it.  Your fingers pick out the runes that your subconscious knows well.  Perhaps a person who does a runecasting for someone else gets cues that only our subconscious can understand and comes up with a reading that makes sense.

Or, maybe not.

Whether you believe that Odin brought us the runes, or whether you think they evolved from another written language, I hope you enjoyed this post.  Let me know what you think and whether I should write more rune posts.

Vikings in Oklahoma, and Other Oddities

Vikings in Oklahoma, and Other Oddities

Several years ago a friend of mine told me about a runestone found in Oklahoma.  I laughed.  No, he insisted, it really did exist.  So like most skeptics I ignored it as another Piltdown man hoax.  But I never forgot his insistence that Vikings may have traveled to Oklahoma, among other places.  So when I stumbled across a listing of purported Viking runes and artifacts, I couldn’t help but think it would make an interesting post at some point.  Well, my eager readers, today is the day.

Where We Know the Vikings Did Show Up 

Few archaeologists will argue that Vikings didn’t land in North America, and set up colonies, but few would actually claim that they headed farther south than the runestones seem to suggest.  We know that there was a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, and recently there has been another discovery at Point Rosee, some 370 miles away from the first confirmed site.  

How Tough Would It Have Been for Vikings to Travel Inland?

If Point Rosee is a Viking settlement site (jury is still out on it, but I suspect it probably is), how tough would it have been for the Vikings to head a bit more south? I’m hesitant to say that it’d be easy, because it certainly would not have been. But the Vikings were masters at travel, and if anyone could’ve navigated uncharted territory, it would have been them.  But North America is sizable, and it would take extraordinary people to accomplish this, even among Vikings.  Still, people with no more than their feet have traveled across North America in prehistoric times.

Let’s Get to the “Evidence,” Shall We? 

I placed the word “evidence” in quotes because, quite honestly, it’s hard to establish these as real and not elaborate hoaxes.  In many cases, science has dismissed certain “Norse artifacts” when data proves that they are anything but.   So let’s look at three pieces of allegedly Viking artifacts.

The Newport Tower in Rhode Island

If I could point to one thing that is sketchy when it comes to Norse artifacts, it would be the Newport Tower in Rhode Island. Proponents claim that Norse built it somewhere between the 11th century and the 14th century.  Most scholars consider it a windmill and not a tower built by the Norse (when did the Vikings ever have this type of architecture anyway?)  This was originally proposed by Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn in 1837.
Others have expanded on the theory, but carbon dating places its age at the mid-17th century.  Still, there are those who purport that it is some antiquated tower and not a windmill (most experts believe it is a windmill), saying that it was built in the 15th century, underwent a fire, and then was rebuilt in the 17th century.

Despite the various arguments, I’m going to have to go with the establishment and call this one as a windmill and not a special tower.  Certainly nothing that the Vikings would ever construct.

The Kensington Runestone

The Kensington Runestone is a more interesting find.  There’s some debate about it, but the general consensus is that it’s a hoax. However, there are some interesting points to be made why it might be authentic.

The runestone was purportedly “found” by Olof Ohman, a Swedish immigrant who lived near Kensingon, Minnesota. He was digging up the roots of a poplar (or aspen, depending on what account you read) on his farm, and allegedly found it with the roots growing around it. It’s 3 feet long, 16 inches wide, and 6 inches deep.

Now, being the suspicious type, reading about a Swedish person uncovering runes seems a little odd to begin with. The red flags went up with that one.  Anyway for those interested, the runes translate as follows:

“Eight Geats and twenty-two Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were [out] to fish one day. After we came home [we] found ten men red of blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgo Maria) save [us] from evil.”
“[We] have ten men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ travel from this island. [In the] year 1362.”  — Source, Wikipedia.

Now, this sounds really cool, doesn’t it? There was a group of Norse explorers led by Paul Knutsson sent by King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden and Norway into the west. But there aren’t any records whether they truly embarked on their mission.  If they did go, they never returned.  So, it’s a possible link.

Swedish linguists pronounced the piece as a fake due to wording that did not exist in the Swedish lexicon until the 16th century.  The runes, too, seem to be a mix of old and newer runes that would not have been used in the 14th century.  That being said, other linguists have challenged that, saying that the usage could be a variation due to regional dialects.  Still, many linguists do claim that this stone is most likely a hoax by Ohman and others who live in Kensington.

What do I think?  I think it is most likely a fake, especially when other definite hoax runestones were found in the area.  From my own experience, aspen trees only live about 15-20 years and those poplars near where the stone was found were no more than 40 years old.  The Swedish written on the stone was closer to 19th century than 14th century, thus making it most likely a hoax.  Still, if it’s real, it’s a cool piece.  By the way, it has its own museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, so you can check it out.

The Heavener Runestone

The last piece of alleged “Viking artifacts” I’ll be talking about comes from Oklahoma, where, oddly, there are quite a number of found runestones, most considered to be fakes due to the lack of weathering on them. That being said, the Heavener Runestone is the most famous of the lot.  Made famous by Gloria Farley in the 1950s, the rock had been called “Indian Rock” for more than 100 years because people believed that it had been carved by Native Americans. The runestone is 12 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and 16 inches thick.   It is now a state park, and whether it is really a runestone from Viking explorers or not, it is at least preserved for all to see in a building that was built around it.  Scholars have argued over the translation of either “Gnome dal” or “Glome dal,” meaning either “sundial” or “Glome’s Valley,” depending on which translation you choose. It is thought it may be a boundary marker and may be as old as the 7th century.  

The problem with the Heavener Runestone is that it is just one piece of evidence that doesn’t seem to have any other archaeological evidence to back it up. We don’t know what the carver meant when he or she chiseled the runes into the rock and we don’t have any written account of there being Vikings in this land. Also, we don’t have any other finds that would suggest that the Vikings rowed their ships down the Arkansas River to carve this stone, other than the stones that experts consider to be carved sometime in the 19th or 20th centuries.

A Lewis and Clark Comparison (Stay with me on this)

All that being said, I’d like to compare this to a 19th expedition that did happen, that is the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806.  We know it happened because of all the written records.  Plus, while there is no one alive who remembers that expedition, there were people who knew about, talked about it to others, and wrote about it.  Despite all that we know about the expedition, the only archaeological evidence of the expedition was at a place called Traveler’s Rest in Lolo, Montana

Suppose for a moment that nothing was written down about the expedition.  That there was pretty much no documentation. Then the only evidence that Thomas Jefferson sent men out to explore the Louisiana Purchase would’ve been the archaeological evidence at Traveler’s Rest. Assuming the US boundaries of the time, would we assume that people traveling from the states somehow ended up in Montana without any other evidence?  We might say “Possible but not probable.” 

So What Does the Rational Heathen Think?

 It’s an interesting intellectual exercise.  After all, if we haven’t uncovered evidence from two centuries ago, it’s unlikely we would uncover much from Viking visitors from 1000 years or more ago, given the long distances and the mode of travel. But at the same time, the Heavener Stone doesn’t seem to have many experts on its side accepting that it could be legitimate. In 2015, a Nordic linguist from Uppsala University visited the Heavener Stone and said that it was most likely a 19th century creation, but gave a 20 percent chance that it might be from the 10th or 11th centuries. However, there were many issues with the stone, including lack of ornamentation, problems with it linguistically, and the little issue of a problem with the timeline.

If there were any artifacts that had a chance of being authentic, I’d say it is probably the Heavener, but I think it is more likely to be something written in the modern era. Still, as I said, it’s interesting to think about and it is certainly something worth considering.

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