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:
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:
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 n and with w and h 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:
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:
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 i rune.
If this was a more hip and with it Viking, they might have gone for this:
Not a huge difference, but still. There might have been some debate around the h 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
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.