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.

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.

Dorian and Ólafr: peacocky men

By far one of the best characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition is this man.

From the Dragon Age wiki page

His name is Dorian Pavus, he’s a smart, funny, and altogether fabulous character. A major part of the way his personality is written is his flirtatious self-confidence; he struts his stuff and will happily tell you that he’s well aware of how handsome he is.

At some point while re- or re-re-playing the game, I wondered why they chose that last name. He’s from The Tevinter Imperium, which is obviously modelled on the Roman Empire. This is something you see not least in the names, which rely heavily on -us endings to show the connection. At first, I thought his name was Parvus, ‘small’, a name that seemed a bit weird for such a big personality. When I realised my mistake and looked it up, I found that he had a wonderfully fitting name: pavus is a Latin word for ‘peacock’. It’s a nice little wink at the way Dorian behaves. It also made me as an Old Norse scholar happy, because Dorian is not the first fictional Peacock to work it.

In the wonderful Laxdæla saga, a boy called Ólafr is the son of the rich Icelandic chieftain Höskuldr and Melkorka, a slave he bought while abroad. Since Ólafr is going to grow up to be a hero as well as a father of heroes, Melkorka of course turns out to be not just any slave, but the daughter of an Irish king, kidnapped at the age of fifteen. Ólafr himself is fabulous. As the saga describes him early on, “It was soon seen that Olaf, as he grew up, was far superior to other men, both on account of his beauty and courtesy.” This beauty in time earns him a nickname:

Olaf grew up with Thord, and became a great man and strong. He was so handsome that his equal was not to be found, and when he was twelve years old he rode to the Thing meeting, and men in other country-sides looked upon it as a great errand to go, and to wonder at the splendid way he was made. In keeping here-with was the manner of Olaf’s war-gear and raiment, and therefore he was easily distinguished from all other men. Thord got on much better after Olaf came to live with him. Hoskuld gave Olaf a nickname, and called him Peacock, and the name stuck to him.

So there he is, Olaf Peacock, or as he’s called in Old Norse, Ólafr Pái (I use the Norse spelling, the 1899 translation quoted doesn’t). It’s interesting to note that contrary to the common idea of Viking Age men being almost comically butch and rugged, Ólafr is not necessarily given this nickname as an insult. He’s handsome and well dressed, and this theme follows him throughout the saga, where his colourful clothes and gold-inlaid weapons are often described. Ólafr also becomes the father of the tragic hero Kjartan, who is said to be the most beautiful man ever born on Iceland.*

That the words pái and pavus look very similar is of course no coincidence. Peacocks aren’t exactly common in Iceland, so the Old Norse word is a loan from Latin. As an aside, the fact that pái starts with a p tells anyone who knows their historical linguistics that the word has to be a loan word, as Proto-Indo-European initial becomes very early in the Germanic languages (which is why Latin has pater while English has father, for example). This is called Grimm’s Law and this is probably not the right place to go further into that.

So Dorian Pavus and Ólafr Pái have this in common, that someone – a game writer, a father, a saga author – decided that “peacock” would be a good way of describing them. They’re proud men, they care about their looks and their outfits, they know how to carry themselves. They’re great additions to any good story, and while they may stand out for all the right reasons, I don’t think they’re as weird as some would like to think.


* A couple of asides/recommendations: a) read Laxdæla saga, b) if you’re interested in Old Norse nicknames, there’s an entire dissertation about them by Paul Peterson. The name Pái is treated on page 202. And if you like both of these things, Saga Thing is the podcast for you.


Naming Nords in Skyrim

When I played Skyrim about four years ago, I not only developed a strange fear of sneak dragon attacks, but also started thinking more seriously about how game developers name things and people.

Skyrim is set in a sort-of Nordic environment – snowy and windy, mostly peopled by pink people with uncombed blond hair living in sturdy log houses. The major place names are for the most part not Scandinavian-sounding; the main cities are called Whiterun, Solitude, Markarth, Windhelm, Falkreath, Morthal, Northstar and Winterhold. It’s an interesting choice, and probably a smart one, since these names probably are easier to remember for most players. They still evoke a certain windswept sturdiness. And it’s probably not surprising that Morthal is the place described on the Skyrim wiki as lying “deep in the marsh, a foreboding area of Hjaalmarch isolated from other villages and shrouded by a constant and ominous fog”. Spoiler: creepy stuff goes on there.

On the other hand, many of the people your character meets have distinctly Norse names. Within the first hour or so of playing, you’ll have met a fair amount of people with names lika Bjorn, Alfhild and Hrodulfr, mainly borrowed from the Icelandic and Old Norse name tradition. I don’t blame Bethesda for not putting the proper ö‘s and ð‘s in there, although I for one would have enjoyed it. But then I’m in a certain subset of nerd. In general, these names are about as surprising as the fact that it takes ages to get to Solitude – if you’re making a Nordic inspired game, it makes sense to find a lot of names in that tradition. In a later post, I might go deeper into the variations you can find on this tradition, but here I want to focus on three names that stood out to me as I played.

Unless you’re deliberately playing against the grain, the first city you’ll reach in Skyrim is Whiterun, which lies right in the middle of the map. You tend to spend a lot of time here, making armour out of things you’ve killed, selling ancient swords from legendary battles to the first merchant you meet, being the only person who runs everywhere, etc. In the main square, you’ll hear this guy preaching:

In the context of the game, Heimskr here is a religious nut, yelling at people and being generally annoying (which leads to things like this). For this reason, I loved his name: heimskr means ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ in Old Norse. Etymologically, it’s derived from heimr ‘home’; the person who stays too much at home becomes stupid, or you leave the stupid at home. So Heimskr is a great name for the village crazy.

Another couple of names did confuse me as someone who knows the language, and for the same basic reason. At one point, I was asked to go find Captain Aldis in Solitude. It took me longer than it should have, because I was not looking for this:

From the Skyrim wiki:
From the Skyrim wiki:

The reason my eyes were not set to Bearded Man was that I interpreted Aldis as a female name. While other games have recently done great trans characters, I never got the feeling that Skyrim was aiming for that, but who knows? The suffix -dís, which determines the name’s grammatical gender, is not only grammatically feminine, but has the basic meaning ‘goddess’. Captain Beard’s first name could actually be interpreted as ‘All-goddess’. Names formed with this suffix can be found on everything from runestones to presidents.

I then had a similar experience when I met Helgi. Helgi is a very common male name in both West and East Norse. known among many other things as the name of a poetic hero. In Skyrim, this is Helgi:


Although a bit transparent, it is meant to be a girl. Who happens to have a very heroic male name.

What I wonder when it comes to the two last names is what happened to give them this gender swap. Given the clever use of Heimskr, the large number of Norse names that are absolutely fine and the fact that this is no low-budget production, how did this come to be? As mentioned above, I unfortunately don’t think it’s a conscious play on the characters’ gender roles. I also have to assume that the developers had someone research possible names from the tradition they were working from, and since they in general don’t seem to be used randomly regardless of gender, they must have known at some point that Aldis denotes female and Helgi male in the original language. My best bet is that the writers did know this, but thought more about their non-Scandinavian audience. Names ending in –is are often male in English (Harris, Lewis), and you can even find the name Aldis as a boy’s name, if uncommon. The name Helgi might put the non-Scandinavian speakers (poor, unfortunate souls) in mind of any number of names ending in –i or -y, like Cindi or Jenny. The female version of Helgi may also be more familiar, Helga.

While it’s sad to conclude that huge, international game companies could tend to think more about their most likely audience than about total correctness in their historical onomastics, it can be a comfort to see that they do it pretty rarely.