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.