Runes, the Viking Alphabet Illustration

The Vikings
Runes, the Viking Alphabet

The Vikings had a written language. Just the same, for hundreds of years they rarely wrote stories down. Instead, they sang songs about their great battles and victories in war, and told stories about their gods and goddesses. After the Viking era, some of these story songs, called sagas, were written down so the stories could be preserved and saved.

The Vikings wrote on stones and sticks. Their system of writing was called Runes. Runic writing has been found on everything from giant stones to tiny pieces of horn, seal tucks, metal jewelry, and weapons. Runestones were large stones carved with pictures and writing in runes. These stones were placed so that people could admire them and learn about the bravery of a person who had died. Household items like a wooden comb had the owner's name written on it in rune. Each rune, or letter in the Viking alphabet, was made up of a series of straight lines, because they were carved on objects. It took time to carve each rune, or letter, so not much was written down.

The Vikings believed that their alphabet was made up of more than letters. They believed each letter, or rune, had magical powers.  As well as a sign of ownership, a Viking might carve a rune on their knife or dagger to give their weapon strength.

Runes told fortunes, provided protection, and cast spells. The Viking men and women who could read runes were very powerful. But some only pretended they could read the runes. That caused some serious problems.

Legend says: Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a woman who noticed her hair was no longer shiny. Each day, her hair became more and more dull looking. She tried oils, but it did not help. Although it was expensive, she went to a rune reader for help. The rune reader created a charm for her out of a smooth piece of metal, with runic writing on one side. He attached the charm to her comb. Days passed. Her long blonde hair still did not shine. In fact, if anything, her hair seemed to become more brittle, more limp, with each passing day. In desperation, she visited another rune reader. That rune reader saw the error immediately. He removed the metal charm from her comb, created a new carving on whale bone, and attached it to her comb. Over the next few days, her hair thickened and began to shine. She was so happy. She did not report the first rune reader to the council. But she did tell a friend what had happened to her, who told a friend, who told a friend. Soon, the first rune reader had less business than ever before, while the second rune reader had more business than he could handle!

Write your name in Runes - the Runes through time (pbs)