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.

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: