[Heads up: there’s some sexual violence discussed in this post.]

As someone who is interested in how the Viking Age, vikings (and ideas of them) are represented in popular culture, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I actually don’t watch the most obvious of TV series: Vikings. I keep thinking I should. With that said, and with all the disclaimers that I don’t know the series that well etc., here’s, well, a post about some runes in Vikings.

I’ve been staying with friends this week, and one of them watches Vikings. Last night, I came home late from a thing, popped my head in to say goodnight, and saw runes. On a head. That was obviously enough to keep me hanging around to see what was going on (disturbing my friend’s viewing pleasure by commenting on everything, of course). People who watch the show will know that I saw Floki in his latest iteration, with runic bands tattooed on either side of his head.

(Apologies for the lack of attribution for the screenshots; I’ve taken these from Pinterest and Reddit, but they can be found several places online.)

Again, I don’t know most of the story in Vikings at this point, but I do know a thing or two about runes, what with the PhD and everything. From the images above, at least the right side of his head is legible. The runes transliterate as

þursamegin : þþþ

While þursamegin isn’t a word that seems to be attested in the Old Norse corpus, nor in the runic corpus as far as I can see, it’s a pretty straightforward compound. As I read it, it’s made out of þurs ‘giant, troll, demon’ and megin ‘power, force’, so would translate as ‘giant-power’ or something along those lines. Now, it looks like the designers on Vikings has something slightly different in mind than what the sources do.

In runic inscriptions, the word þurs appears on small amulets and seems to denote a personified illness. On one of the two Solberga amulets (Öl Fv1976;96A in Samnordisk runtextdatabas), a þrymjandi þurs ‘bellowing giant’ is commanded with the help of Christ and Mary to leave (or stay away from) a woman called Ōlôf. On the other Solberga amulet (Öl Fv1976;96B), it says þurs ik fa hin þrihufþa Þurs ek fā hinn þrīhôfðaða ‘I remove the three-headed giant’ – also from a woman. In both these cases, the word giant may not be the best translation; in this context, the þurs sounds more like an evil spirit or demon than a giant. Coincidentally, there’s a brand new PhD dissertation about these amulets and many more by my friend and colleague Sofia Pereswetoff-Morath. I took much of the above from there, and the entire thing can be downloaded here. One of Pereswetoff-Morath’s suggestions is that the þurs in these amulets refers specifically to complications at childbirth or post-partum fever. This can be connected to the fact that the word þurs also is the name of the þ rune. In two of the medieval rune poems from which we know the names of the runes, þurs is defined as “the pain of women” or something that “causes women’s illness”.

The rune name þurs is in all likelihood what the þþþ in the tattoo refers to. Using individual runes to stand for the name of the rune is attested, quite often with the same rune several times in a row like this. There is actually at least one example of a runic inscription with þþþ on it, the medieval rune stick B 556. It has these three runes on one side, and on the other, it says  -u mik man ek þik [þ]ú mik man ek þik ‘…you me, I love you’. So again, not really an inscription about giants, but about love, and possibly sex. It may even have a much less pleasant association, viewed in the light of an Old Norse poem.

In Skírnismál, the god Freyr sends his servant Skírnir to fetch Gerðr, a giantess Freyr has his eyes on. In order to get Gerðr to leave her home and have sex with/marry a man she’s never met, Skírnir first tries to bribe her, then to threaten her with physical violence. What finally makes Gerðr give in to his demands is a series of (increasingly sexual) curses, including rape threats and that she will never have any husband but a three-headed giant: a þurs þríhôfðaðr, no less. Skírnir’s threats culminate in him saying that he’ll carve three þurs and runes to make Gerðr overcome with painful and perverted sexuality – but he could instead remove the runes, and make the curse go away, if he needs to. Nice life you’ve got here. Would be a shame if anyone were to… curse the shit out of it. 

So in this light, the Bergen inscription with the three þ starts to look more like coercion than a love letter. Floki’s head tattoo is also looking distinctly odd. Now, I don’t think the idea of that design was to imply that Floki is permanently doing sexual cursing from the side of his head. My impression is that it’s supposed to be about giants rather than childbirth complications (although Vikings viewers, feel free to correct me!). What is the unattested þursamegin supposed to refer to then? Well, every hit on the first page I get when googling the word is for the lyrics of this song:

The lyrics draw on imagery from the poem Vôluspá, mainly about the giants of the underworld and the icy rivers that flow there. And here the word þursamegin is used, if I read it correctly, to describe something like an army of giants. Looking at a similar, equally unattested word, þursmegin, it seems to be used in Asatru circles for one of several powers you can call upon. Unfortunately, the few uses of this word I can find online are in closed groups or behind paywalls, and I don’t feel comfortable speculating about its use. I have a sense that there’s something I’m not seeing. What I can say is that  it’s modelled on other, attested words ending in –megin, most likely ásmegin, the power and strength particular to the æsir, the gods. The word is especially used about Þórr’s power. It’s something that can come upon him or grow stronger in him when he gets angry or puts on his special belt (the megingjǫrð ‘power belt’) (cool name bro). Because he’s a super hero, obviously. So it looks like Floki is drawing on a similar power, but one that comes from the enemies of the gods: the giants. (A friend of mine also pointed out that þursamegin here could be read as a pun: megin also means ‘side’, so this is literally ‘the side with the þurs-es’ or ‘the giants’ side’.) It’s interesting that the writer/designer behind the tattoo in Vikings picks up a modern, faux-Norse word and puts it into a pretty realistic Viking Age setting. From here, it may well gain traction and some authority as Old Norse.

The other side of his head is much harder to read from the images I’ve been able to find. It looks like it may say luki, which I’m going to guess is meant to be the name of the god Loki. It would make sense with the giants on the other side of the head; Loki is half giant and you never really know whose side (heh) he’s on. I’m a bit torn as to whether the rune really is the best way to write the first vowel in Loki, but I’ll leave that for the time being.

This became a bit of a ramble through a lot of different sources and interpretations, leading up to a piece of art that doesn’t really do what the sources do anyway. (I could also mention that the tattoos are laid out more like a runestone than runic writing on other surfaces with the supporting horizontal lines.) It’s wonderfully characteristic of how runes and Old Norse are used in popular culture: taking inspiration, making something new with an old feel, both drawing from and feeding back into modern ideas of the past.


Side note: many people far more well-read than me have written about giants and curses. For the interested, I recommend the work of Carolyne Larrington, John McKinnell, Stephen Mitchell and Tommy Kuusela. The latter has a really interesting article (in Swedish) about sexual curses here, from which I took a lot of the information in this post.

The Codex in the Halloween Special

I’m glad I don’t make my living doing hot takes, because my idea of being timely is finding something to write about in a TV episode that’s only a year old. And in a Halloween special only two weeks after Halloween.

So. In S11:E5 of Bones, the murder victim turns out to be the unlikely owner of an Ancient Book. They never explicitly say it’s a medieval manuscript, but they do treat it more carefully than they would a modern reprint. I don’t know where all these gothy students on TV get their hands on priceless national treasures, but it seems like the FBI should investigate that as well. The book signals straight away that Ancient Ancientness is going on:

Bonus: some Danish lessons from the subtitles. “Yes.”

The symbol is the same as the one found on a spooky tomb earlier. If only this series had a polymath genius or two in it who could figure it out. (Apologies for the image quality in this post, only proper screenshots I’ve managed.)

“I recognize this symbol, it is the Nordic rune Uruz.”

It’s a rune (for rune names, see my published work)! Ancient Spooky Things must be afoot. Why this specific rune is never really explained, but that doesn’t matter, as we see Brennan open the book and we get SO MANY RUNES.

“Exactly, pagan symbols, a headless body, Halloween?” These Danish lessons are getting really useful.

This is where I started grinning, as would other medievalists with me (except for one palaeographer friend of mine, whose FB comment to this image was “SHE IS TOUCHING THE INK!!! WHY IS SHE TOUCHING THE INK????”) (don’t touch the ink, kids). These aren’t random runes on a page, this is a specific manuscript. Specific and very recognizable, as it’s the only one of its kind; you don’t get the nickname Codex Runicus for nothing.

Its proper shelf mark is AM 28 8vo, which tells you a couple of things. It’s number 28 in the Arnemagnæan (AM) manuscript collection, a low number in a big collection of manuscripts housed in Iceland and Denmark. This particular manuscript is housed in Copenhagen, in the very building I work in these days (Copenhagen is also the reason why my Netflix subtitles are in Danish). You can also see that it’s a pretty small manuscript (octavo, or 8vo, is the format). Much smaller than its Bones counterpart – the real measurements are about 18 x 12.5 cm. This is where I’ll restrain myself from giving a minor lecture on formats and 17th century manuscript collection and instead point the interested reader to places like http://haandskrift.ku.dk/ and https://handrit.is/.

So what’s in the Codex Runicus? The same thing as its TV alias, the Liber Sub Umbras?

“Alchemical recipes, blood rituals, druidic rituals, necromancy.”

…no, not really. Sorry. The opposite, in a way: the Codex Runicus is a law codex. It dates to about 1300 and contains medieval laws for what is now southern Sweden and was then eastern Denmark – Skåne, Halland and Blekinge. If it mentions necromancy (I doubt it does), it’s only to set out the punishment for it. The pages we see the most of in the episode are these:


The prop designer for the series has done some very nice work making it look more Ancient Alchemical with the symbol on the left and some rearranging and copying, but the text on the right hand side (the recto page) is taken from this:


The image is from the online facsimile, where anyone can leaf through this wonderful thing. And what is the Ancient Spooky Necromancy text? It’s the beginning of the church law of Skåne. The word biskup ‘bishop’ is right there on line 3. So yeah, the pagan symbols are not so pagan.

The funny thing about the Codex Runicus is that it’s probably written in runes for much the same reasons as runes are used in pop culture now: to signal something Ancient. It isn’t a normal 14th century manuscript, basically one of a kind, and the spelling shows that it was copied from a manuscript written in the Latin alphabet. To my mind, it’s an early example of an intellectual interest in runes as representing the old Scandinavian culture, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s used to copy down laws. It’s a wonderful manuscript, but the rune use is the exception, not the rule.

I would be a bad runologist if I didn’t end by pointing out that this manuscript also contains the oldest written music in Scandinavia on the penultimate page. Here’s an interpretation of it with the lines from the manuscript shown. Only the first sentence is attested, the rest is modern.

Runes in Space

In games set in space, you don’t really expect to find anything Old Norse-related. The world-building blocks of space games just aren’t the same as in, say, a fantasy RPG.For this reason, I was a bit sad that I wouldn’t be able to write about No Man’s Sky, which I have been enjoying bumbling around in (but it really is the cilantro of games). I thought about forcing a mention that the symbol for your starship looks like an rune.

Bachelorette nr 3 enjoys Thai food and accidentally trick landing starships.

But I should have known that my runedar is strong. I came across an alien monolith (or well, technically I’m the alien in this game) and was given the choice of reading either a series of precise dots, more normal lettering, and roughly scratched runes. You don’t get to see the runes, but of course I chose to read them. They turned out to belong to the grumpy square-jawed Vy’Keen who seem to be the warrior types of the NMS universe. I even think I learned the word warrior from the runes (if it wasn’t something like nasal or spittle; it’s been known to happen). So runes in this game are used to indicate something harsh and aggressive, perhaps a bit primal. It’s not an uncommon use, but I’m happy to find them.


In my last post, I mentioned the solar system in the Mass Effect games that contains the planets Hagalaz, Isa, Ansuz, Kenaz, Thurisaz and Uruz . These are all reconstructed names of runes, based on medieval and post-medieval manuscripts listing, sometimes in the form of a poem, the futhark with a word for each rune. The rune stands for  ‘cattle, wealth’, the rune stands for áss ‘god’ and so on. Probably, the names, or more accurately labels, are a kind of mnemonic device that helps you remember in which order the runes come in the futhark. A bit like singing an alphabet song, just with words. (The planet names above translate as ‘hail’, ‘ice’, ‘god’, ‘torch’, ‘giant’ and ‘aurochs’, by the way. )

There is some evidence that at least some of these rune names were used by rune carvers. Some inscriptions use one rune to stand for an entire word, such as the older futhark d in the otherwise younger futhark inscription Ög 43 (first rune on the second row) The name for d in the manuscripts is dagr ‘day’, and in this inscription it may well be the name of the carver. The f rune can also be found repeated several times on an inscription, and it’s not too far a stretch to connect that to a wish for  ‘cattle, wealth’. When I say that the names used for planets in Mass Effect are reconstructed, it’s because they’re a reconstruction of what the names found in the medieval manuscripts would have been up to a thousand years earlier. They’re not attested anywhere (except in space). If you google “runes”, you’re sure to come across these reconstructed rune names presented as fact, or magic, or factual magic. The normal warnings about trusting facts on the internet apply, doubly so for runes and magic.

You found a rune(stone) on your gear!

There has been a lot of ancient magic power etc. in the runes on this blog lately, working their ancient evil, being ancient runes as they were. This week, You Found A Runestone turns to some more benificial runes. Don’t worry, they’re probably ancient as well.

In many fantasy-themed games, runestones or runes (or, more often, something called “runestones” and “runes”) will turn up as a kind of booster for your weapon or armour. Off the top of my head, I can mention series like Diablo, the ever present (on this blog at least) Dragon Age, and The Witcher. I’ve picked these specifically not only because I’ve played them relatively recently, but also because they use the word runestone. A runestone in the real world is of course a big, monumental thing, so I actually got momentarily confused the first time I received a “runestone” in The Witcher 3. It fits in my backpack?

U 971-3  H Williams 2009
Maybe if I leave it open?

The runestones/runes in Witcher are the most runelike, while Diablo’s and Dragon Age’s are more squiggly, odd-looking symbols. In DA2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, they’re just symbols of the kind of damage they add (frost, fire, etc.). And yes, there’s a huge difference between “runelike” and “squiggly odd-looking”.

The runestones in W3 also have names that aren’t just descriptors (as in “Frost Rune” or “Rune of Devastation”). Looking into these names was an interesting case study for me, because they’re not Norse in origin or style. I’m usually the one thinking “oh, I know what that word means, I wonder what effect it has on people who don’t know Old Norse”, but in the Slavic-inspired world of The Witcher, I’m the normal audience. So my initial reactions to runestone names like Triglav and Stribog are a) that sounds cool and Slavic, and b) that sounds like there’s some history behind it – both of which are probably what the author/developers (I’m not sure which, not having read the books) were going for. And a minuscule amount of googling showed that they’re Slavic names with some history to them: runestones in The Witcher 3 are all named for Slavic gods. Just writing that, I feel I’m on thin ice; I know next to nothing about whether you can even talk about a Slavic pantheon or if the Wikipedia article is bananas, so I’ll leave it there. (As an aside, the Slavic pantheon also lends names to the planets in a solar system in the Mass Effect series, as do some reconstructed rune names. I might return to the latter, but there’s not that much to say about it.)

The runes in the Dragon Age series are made through enchanting and are, at least in the first game, associated with the otherwise Roman inspired Tevinter Imperium (see my published works), probably because of the magic involved. As the Viking-like Avvar have become more prominent in the latest game, especially the Jaws of Hakkon DLC, I wonder if the writers regret not giving them the runes. (I am definitely returning to the Avvar in a later post; lots of name goodness to be had there.)

In any case, “runes” and “runestones” in these games are small, physical objects you attach to your gear to boost it. No one claims that this is the historically accurate way of using runes on weapons and armour (I hope), but we do actually find runes on weapons. Just not in that way. In fact, some of the earliest runic inscriptions found are on weapons. This doesn’t necessarily mean that inscribing weapons was the first use for runes, only that metal survives 1500+ years much better than other materials. I can’t get myself to go on without the disclaimer that even as a professional runologist, these early inscriptions are pretty far from my area of expertise, so I’m working from other people’s interpretations.

Many, probably most, of the weapon and gear inscriptions found have been interpreted as names. For instance, the two Danish 4th century spear heads from Illerup and a similar one from Vimose all bear the masculine name Wagnijo in 5 mm tall runes. The name itself derives from a word for wagon (sometimes 4th century Norse is delightfully familiar) and might mean something along the lines of ‘the one that moves’ according to Lena Peterson’s dictionary. All three inscriptions are stamped on the spear head and look the same. This implies that the name refers to the maker of the spears or to a military leader of the group that carried them. I also like the idea (also referred to in Peterson) that it could be a kind of brand name for this kind of spear. “Going to war? You’ll want our Wagnijo model, can’t beat it.” Actually, since they were probably sacrificed by the victors as spoils of war, they could totally be beaten.

The problem with inscriptions that are simply a name is pretty much what you see above: who does the name refer to? The owner? The maker? The weapon? A leader? Without other context, it’s impossible to say. Like another Illerup find, the bronze handle of a shield, which bears the inscription swarta Swarta ‘the black one’ (cf. swarthy). There are other finds from the 3th and 4th centuries, such as brooches and combs, that have name inscriptions, so it’s not only a weapon thing. The spear heads’ inscriptions tend to be interpreted as weapon names. Apart from Wagnijo, there are examples like RaunijaR ‘Tester’, Ranja perhaps ‘Stabber’ and Tilarids ‘Attacker, Target-hitter’. (If I’m ever involved in making a game, those names are going in there.) Other inscriptions at least help you out by adding a verb, telling you that “XX made (this)”.

Now, spears seem more common in the runic weapon arsenal than in the games I’ve mentioned. Where are the swords and axes we’re used to wielding? Well, most of what I’ve been able to find isn’t swords, but sword gear: leather scabbards and metal fittings for them. The metal fittings can be as old as the spear heads, such as this (again from Vimose, those bog finds are pretty important). It says iala/ala a mariha makija and the most likely translation is ‘Alli owns the famous sword’. Yes, makija means ‘sword’. Sometimes 4th century Norse is delightfully unfamiliar. The leather scabbards, on the other hand, are fairly young; the ones I’ve found are dated to the early 13th century (we’re in Lund in southern Sweden now). One can be read garm -m(a)=(k)i a=l umal Garm mæki ôll? omál ‘Garmr (protect the) sword from all(?) curses(?). If this translation is correct, here’s makija almost 1000 years later, in its medieval form mæki, which is so lovely I’m tempted to put an emoji next to it. By the way, if you read Swedish and are interested in these scabbards and more thoughts on runes on swords, my information is from this article, from p. 238 (7 in the pdf).

I’m trying to keep this from becoming All the Weapons, but I can’t not include this pretty thing, a one-edged sword (a seax) from the 10th century, found in the Thames. It has a full Anglo-Saxon futhark and a name, Beagnoth. The purpose of a futhark inscription like this is discussed, but it may have some kind of magical connotation in this context. Perhaps my favourite rune-inscribed sword also has a futhark, or at least the beginning of one, inscribed on one side. On the other, it says Ívarr á sverð ‘Ívarr owns the sword’. But this is not a proper metal sword: it’s a small wooden sword from medieval Trondheim. Judging from the size, Ívarr was about six when he owned it, and possibly practiced his futhark on it. So not a sword for a big burly monster hunter, only for someone who pretended to be one. Don’t we all.

In conclusion, Geralt & co. should be out there naming their weapons or making sure people knew their brands. Perhaps a bit of magic, sure, but names. Don’t forget names.

Feud Feud
The “pew pew pew” of medieval weapons.

Extra Vikings

I’ve been waiting for my favourite YouTube channel Extra Credits to use runes or Norse or Vikings in their Extra History series so I could say something about it. And now they did!

And lucky for me, there are runes in there, at about 2.45, demonstrating the foreign language the attackers spoke:

Extra Vikings

At first glance, it’s clear there’s something iffy about these runes. The second rune isn’t found in any of the classic futharks, and the two last runes being the same points to a transliteration from a modern language. It also suggests, however, that this is a sequence that can be transliterated into something meaningful rather than random runes.

My first try was the older futhark, which gives the following transliteration:

u?leasw well

Hm, no. That second rune messes things up as well. I began to suspect a modern runic alphabet and checked Tolkien’s (because that’s the first place to look when modern runes look odd), but no. Fine. An open googling for “runes” gave me the answer: someone at Extra Credits is an Ultima player, or just liked the look of their runic alphabet. It’s basically the Anglo-Saxon futhark with a wonky and with w and swapped for some reason. I’m pretty sure the copyright has expired on the Anglo-Saxon futhark. Anyway, the battle cry of the Viking above is:

unleash hell

Mystery solved.

But how would a Viking in 793 have written this? If they were too shy to shout their battle cry and just wanted to hand it over on a carved stick? Well, the general estimate of when the switch from the older to the younger futhark happened  is about AD 800, so the late 8th century is about as annoying as it gets for this question.

If they were a bit old school, they might have written it like this:

Unleash ÄF

They wouldn’t have doubled the l in “hell” of course, and there’s no sh-sound represented in the Scandinavian futharks, which might mean the sound wasn’t used much. The <ea> in “unleash” is represented by the rune.

If this was a more hip and with it Viking, they might have gone for this:

Unleash YF

Not a huge difference, but still. There might have been some debate around the rune at this point, since it is identical to the old a rune.

This is of course assuming that our Viking spoke modern English. Does the phrase translate into Old Norse? The word unleash in Old Norse is leysa (related to loose) and there is a Hel in Old Norse, which can refer to the goddess of the underworld or the underworld itself. So translated word for word, you get leys hel. That kind of sounds like the goddess has been bound and is now set free, though. “Hell” is used in a more metaphorical sense in the English phrase. But! There is a vision of chaos and doom in Old Norse literature connected to unleashing: the wolf Fenrir getting free of its magical chain as part of Ragnarok. In the poem Vôluspá, it’s described with the words festr mun slitna/ en freki renna ‘the rope will break/ and the greedy one [the wolf] will run’ (pardon my very prosaic translation). That’s a bit of a mouthful for a battle cry, but the first line would probably be enough to set the memory going. The first and second lines in the quote alliterate, making them rhyme and easy to remember. The phrase is also repeated a couple of times in the poem’s description of the end times.

So our well-versed Viking runs into battle yelling “FESTR MUN SLITNA!!” and our shy Viking writes either

Festr ÄF


Festr YF

and hands it over to a confused monk, who promptly puts it in a manuscript illustration, the animated YouTube history lesson of the Middle Ages.

Let’s not discuss the likelihood of this, or the age of Vôluspá (please not the age of Vôluspá), or the anachronisms and shortcuts throughout this post. Instead, anyone who wants UNLEASH HELL in runes as a tattoo, as I’m positive people do, here: have a bunch of suggestions.


What do cursed runes say?

It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said man using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of Hell.

Basically, runes are really bad news in the 1957 film Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon in the US). For some reason, the part about ancient runic symbols was left out of the trailer, but the film starts with the quote above. For my purposes, the most important part of the plot is this: A plucky American psychologist, Dr John Holden, decides to investigate the death of his British colleague Dr Harrington (and flirt with “the frightened girl”, Harrington’s niece, because of course he does) but ends up cursed in the same way: by [dramatic voice] runes. The mad magician Karswell slips the runes in among Holden’s things, written on what the film keeps calling a piece of parchment, but which looks more like a piece of flimsy paper.

Curse of the demon
I can’t believe it’s not parchment.

So what does it say? Allow me to transliterate. (Am I part of the Transliterati?) Actually, first allow me to pontificate. There’s a problem in choosing which futhark this is. It could be either the Older Futhark or the Anglo-Saxon one, and if it hadn’t been for two runes, I could have picked one without even saying which. But there’s one rune that doesn’t belong in the Older Futhark, and that’s the fourth in the top row, the one that looks like a rhombus with a line through it. It’s part of the Anglo-Saxon futhark (futhorc, sorry) and transliterates as j. Funnily, the other problematic rune also transliterates as j, only in the Older Futhark, and that’s the first one on the top line, the two angles. Since any rune or sign that isn’t in the futhark you’re transliterating from needs to be marked with capital letters (in a similar way to Latin characters, see the weird runestones in Year Walk), I now need to choose. The film is set in England, so let’s go for the Anglo-Saxon runes. So:

-J omj÷ufmu dofJxs ¶ -Jil lxjfmlut þoaJ?x÷lj

Notes on the transliteration: ÷ stands for a punctuation mark that isn’t one of the common ones (x or : for instance). I’ve interpreted the cross hatching here as a punctuation mark rather than a stack of runes. I must have seen it used that way somewhere, or I wouldn’t have transliterated it like that – it’s not like there are obvious words to separate here. The  signifies a line break, and if I haven’t mentioned it before, the means that I can tell there’s a rune or other character there, but can’t say what it is. In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent linguistic meaning in the text, but I have to admit I don’t speak Demon. Whoever wrote this is not a fan of vowels, but does seem to like those j runes.

At one point in the film, Dr John realises he needs to go to (apparently nearby) Stonehenge to compare his runes to… the runes carved on Stonehenge? Well, alright, while there is a 3000 year age difference between Stonehenge and runes, you don’t need to carve your runes the minute you erect your stone.* Still.

Curse of the demon 2

Since the image (a screenshot, to be honest) is a bit hard to read, I’ve made a clarified version in good runological tradition (and in MS Paint):

Curse of the demon 2 ifylld

Also in keeping with runological tradition, I’ve attempted to fill out everything that appears carved on the stone. That’s the principle behind the Swedish painting of real live runestones – the runologist doing the painting shouldn’t interpret the text beforehand, only clarify what’s there. Of course, I’ll have to go to Stonehenge to examine the grooves for myself in order to make sure they’re all made by humans and not natural.

Here’s the transliteration:

+?tjos jim? ¶ hofjtus?x^ftj{K}÷Jtj? mtiKts ¶ flu???J?

So, not much more sense to be had here. The ^ between two letters in the transliteration means that those two are part of a bind rune, that is, a rune that can be read as two runes in one. In this case, I’ve interpreted it as an x and an f. I should also point out that several of the transliterated letters above are unsure. There are ways of showing that in a transliteration, but I can’t get WordPress to do them for me.

In short, demons and their human minions don’t communicate as most rune writers do, oddly enough, but they do for the most part use actual runes. It’s interesting that in the short story that the film is based upon, Casting the Runes by M.R. James, the runes are in fact described as impossible to decipher. Dr Harrington (who’s the main character in the story, not having been written by Hollywood) describes a “strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black–most carefully done–it looked to me more like Runic letters than anything else” and later we learn that “the characters on it were more like Runes than anything else, but not decipherable”. The film may have made poor Harrington the victim rather than the hero, but to be fair, that’s a pretty good description of the runes in it.

Oh, and a P.S: in Casting the Runes, most of the cursing and rune writing is part of an academic feud. The evil magician Karswell has had a book negatively reviewed by one of the intended victims and a paper rejected by the other. I’m not saying this happens a lot. But I am a runologist with some things up for peer review soon… [OMINOUS THUNDER]


* On the subject of adding to an existing monument, here’s a gratuitous runestone: The Sparlösa stone has a pretty odd and difficult 9th century inscription. Then wonderfully, in the 11th century, a guy called Gisli decided he’d carve his own, much clearer message, stating that he made the monument in memory of his brother Gunnarr.


A bit about The Banner Saga

I’ve been playing the very enjoyable Viking themed game The Banner Saga lately, and of course I’ve kept my eyes open for how they use language to give that Viking feel. Very short version: they do it really well and it makes me very happy, but also gives me problems writing about it. It’s easier to point out people’s mistakes, it turns out. I should also point out that I know very little about how the game was made, other than that it was on Kickstarter. This is all guesses and babble (as usual).

The base “flavour language” (let’s call it that) of the game is modern Icelandic, which you can hear in some scenes in the beginning as well as see in names across the game. The narrator is also Icelandic, as far as I can tell from the wonderful flöhffy Ihcelahndic Ehnglish he speaks. There are no runes as such, but a pretty, runelike font is used throughout.

Rune compass

And there’s this rune animal on the map, which I adore. I’m pretty sure it’s not based on an actual carving, but it looks very much like what you’d find on a Swedish runestone from the first half of the 11th century, so who knows? Apart from the writing, of course. As you can see, it just says vestur, norður, austur and suður – the four winds in modern Icelandic. And I say “modern” because those –ur endings give it away. In Old Norse, the ending was simply –r (vestr, norðr etc.), but, as often happens when you have a bunch of consonants clustered together, a vowel has snuck in over the years.

Map Banner Saga

In the placenames, they’ve gone for the Old Norse in names like Skogr (‘forest’) and Frostvellr. But I shouldn’t have mentioned the latter, because it’s actually not completely correct Old Norse – it should either have been Frostvôllr ‘frost field’ (with a hooked o where I’ve put ô) or Frostvellir ‘frost fields’. Sorry. As a Swede, I also have to admit that I laughed a bit at the name Setterlund, just because it’s a fairly common surname in Sweden. Just off the map to the left is Hraun ‘lava field’, which happens to be one of my favourite Icelandic words. It’s just so nice to pronounce.

Other than the placenames, the personal names are solid Icelandic/Old Norse for the most part, like Hakon and Eyvind and Oddleif. A couple of main characters have non-Norse names, like Rook and Alette, for some reason. My personal favourite was discovering that Rook’s dead wife was named Aldis, because, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s a nice female name used on a very male man in Skyrim. Banner Saga gets it right where Skyrim doesn’t.

While there aren’t really any runes to speak of, there is a runestone – kind of. As you travel through the world, you come across so called godstones: huge ornamented stones dedicated to a variety of (now gone) gods. One of them is the godstone Ingrid.

Godstone Ingrid
If you know the game, you can also see here that I’m a terrible, terrible leader of men and huge horned people.

Next to the godstone are a lot of big stones with writing on them. The game tells you that Ingrid was the god of knowledge and that the writing on the runestones shifts as you look at them. Since I’m no stranger to zooming in on text the player isn’t supposed to read, I did just that with the screenshot above. It’s still the pretty rune font, only upside down or mirrored. On the godstone itself and on one of the standing stones next to it, it says “We know these things to be true, that all men are responsible for their own actions” (and a bit more, but that’s the full sentence I get out of it). It’s a message that fits very well with the gameplay; the choices you make do have consequences in the game. In my game, mainly that everyone starves and/or tries to kill you. The middle stone seems to have a list of names on it. Kickstarter backers? Makes me regret not backing it myself if that’s the case. By the way, this stone also has a bit of that Urnes style I’ve mentioned before.

As I said, I highly recommend this game to anyone who likes games or Viking-y things or both (as anyone reading this surely will). I’ll most likely return to The Banner Saga once the sequel is out.

You found a runestone in Year Walk!


The setting of Year Walk is a very quiet Swedish forest: snow, birches, the occasional cottage. And a couple of runestones. This game is developed in Sweden and based on Swedish folklore, and you can feel that in the atmosphere of the game. It’s probably no coincidence that the runestones are among the closest I’ve seen in a game to what an actual Viking Age runestone looks like: standing stones with runes running in a band along the edge and all carved lines filled in with dark red (which is the standard in Sweden, but not Denmark or Norway). The similarities do end there, though. These runestones are part of a puzzle, and it’s the lines in the middle that’s the point, not the runes. On a real Swedish runestone, that space would normally be occupied by some kind of decoration: a cross, most likely, or an animal form. The runic band is normally in the form of a snake. But you can probably see the resemblance:


U 769, also in snow with trees. Less of a puzzle.


The runes on the Year Walk stones aren’t all proper runes, either.


They seem to be the same on all stones, and transliterate (from the older futhark) as:

* tbþï– * tï{N}sþet * þ{G} * {N}ï * tuþ{O}- *

This transliteration needs a couple of comments.

  • The runes transliterated as ï are an interesting case; that rune is rarely found outside of futhark inscriptions (that is, inscriptions that comprise the entire futhark) and its sound value is unclear. It’s most likely a vowel. (It appears on one of my favourite runestones, which can’t be/hasn’t been interpreted.)
  • Using { } means that the letter(s) between them is interpreted as being from the Latin alphabet. Here’s another wonderful runestone that has Latin characters on it as well as runes.
  • The transliteration – indicates a character that can’t be defined but can be counted as a rune. These are, if anything, so-called pentimal runes, mostly known for being on the 19th century Kensington runestone and in the somehow related Larsson papers (and that is very much a discussion for another time). In that case, they could transliterate as 23 and 2.

Of course, that’s a long description for a piece of runic writing that is probably not meant to be understood linguistically. I find it interesting that the developers/designers decided to just write some rune-like characters and not attempt to give it meaning.


Bonus reading: if you’re interested in non-lexical runestones, ciphers, and how a runestone is designed – and you read Swedish – I highly recommend Marco Bianchi’s dissertation on the subject. I’ll probably return to Kensington and other American runestones at some point, but until then, here’s a good article on the subject.

You found a runestone in Dragon Age: Origins!

This post will feature pictures of a woman looking at things while wearing a succession of funny-looking hats. The things she’s looking at are runestones (and in one case, a wooden column), the hats she’s wearing are mage hats, and the mage hats look funny because she’s in Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), where no one wears normal clothes, least of all normal hats.

Runestone DAO
Hero in hat.

Runestones aren’t central to DAO at all, you come across a couple of them when dealing with dwarves. The example above is pretty typical, a slab in the dwarven city of Orzammar that says “Runestone” and which you can interact with. Doing so gives you a codex entry, written in the same style as most codex entries in the game. Codexes (or codices, if that makes you happier) (in which case you probably write “lacunae” as well) are of course a common way to give the player background information about a game’s world without forcing them to read it all if they’re not that interested.

In Dragon Age, the preferred shape of a codex is as an actual book, and the style of the entries tends to be very bookish: a bit long-winded and academic, and often in the shape of a quote from some imagined larger source. It’s efficient in giving the impression of a vast world you as a player are only a small part of; you’re only seeing snippets of centuries of literature and history from different cultures. One thing I think is a shame though, and this is not just in Dragon Age, is the many missed opportunities for connecting the object you find in the world to the text supposedly written on it. Sure, you’ll often find a Crumpled Note or something on a dead body, and those will have a note-like quality to them (“J – I’ve hidden the MacGuffin under the Super Obvious Tree. Try not to die right next to it. – M.”), but the basic codex entry is generally the norm. The runestones, as well as other carvings, in DAO would feel much more like runestones if the text on them were more like the kind of text you find in inscriptions.

So what do you write on a stone or carve into a wall in a city? Nothing long, firstly. Carving is hard work. Secondly, runestones and wall carvings of the kind you find among the dwarves are very public texts, and that is the whole point of them. What you want to write in that medium is something official and monumental, a declaration or memorial of some sort. So when runestones function as codexes in a game, the information they give the player should be like that: famous names or events in the culture, an idea of what official propaganda looks like. In later Dragon Age games, statues are sometimes used like this, and it would add more depth to the world if the codex entries were more connected to their material – especially if you actually saw the text in-game.*

*Academic terms avoided in the above: materiality, linguistic landscapes, all kinds of things about semiotics.


The other kind of runestone in DAO has absolutely nothing to do with writing.

Runsten awakening
Hero in new, very similar hat.

(To be specific, this is from the DLC Awakening, but still DAO.) In this case the runestone is part of a puzzle in which you match the rune on the wall to the rune on the slab. The developers could have chosen any symbols for this, but they went with runes. In fact, they went with actual runes. The purple one is an older futhark and the less visible, yellow one is an l. The runes in the puzzle don’t actually spell anything (my first, overthinking, thought was that they should be arranged in a word), so they really  are just symbols rather than writing. Any time you put a puzzle or other minigame into a roleplaying game, it needs to be at least superficially justified as a part of the world, and that’s what the function of the runes are here. Sure, they look like they’re projected in neon lights, but they do their job as Ancient Symbols. You can just about imagine some olde magick working in this dungeon.



Hero really digs hats.

Finally, and only slightly related to the above, I just wanted to point out that DAO uses Scandinavian imagery and aesthetics in other ways as well, to give certain areas a rustic, Northern feel. That includes, as in the picture above, carvings from Urnes stave church, which has given name to an entire style of art (called, well, Urnes style). That room happens to be a small supplies closet in a castle. Which is apparently decorated with some really, really, really, really high-end carving.

You found a runestone!

The whole idea for writing this blog came from being a runologist and constantly coming across runes, or something called “runes”, or “runestones” in popular culture. Most of the time, I have no problems with the weird and varied usage of runes, but the variation in itself is fascinating. There are so many examples of rune usage in games, films, books, etc. that I thought I’d address them individually in shorter, thematic posts and then try to look at them collectively. The first such series of posts is going to be You Found a Runestone!, which will be about things called runestones in games.

Here’s an old picture of me and a very big runestone: