Spells, threats, and dragons: The secret messages of Viking runestones - Jesse Byock
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The earliest runes date to the first century CE, and runes were then used in Scandinavia for the next 1300 years or more. Almost surely, runes were adapted from writing systems employed in the Roman Empire. At that time, there was considerable contact between the Roman world and Germanic peoples. Speakers of Proto-Norse and other Germanic languages probably adapted the letters of either Latin or Northern Italic alphabets to fit the sounds of their own languages. They modified the letters in order to make them more suitable for carving.
Those who designed the runes used straight strokes, a feature which worked well with wood grain and on stones. Messages were usually short due to the limitations imposed by pieces of wood, strips of bark, bones, or tablets of wax. The use of pen and ink and the art of preparing pages of vellum for manuscripts were unknown in Scandinavia before the conversion to Christianity.
Runes were common in Viking times, and the Norse often left traces of their runic writing where they traveled. Spelling was not standardized and letters were often left out of words. For example, - m- is missing from the word kubl (= kumbl) and -n- from kunukR (= konungr) in King Gorm’s stone pictured above and translated in the reading selection below. Rune carvers sounded out words, and missing letters sometimes reflect lightly pronounced sounds that were easily dropped. Words were abbreviated and word divisions often missing. Modern runologists sometimes differ on how to translate an inscription.
Runes were carved by members of all social classes, but property owners most frequently paid for and raised runestones. Many runestones honor the dead, and they often indicate the wealth and authority of those who erected the monuments. Inscriptions proclaim family relationships, authority, inheritance and property claims. Runestones, such as those at Jelling, announce the claims of aristocrats and royalty. Runes were sometimes written in poetic meter (see the runic verses and runestones in Viking Language 2: The Old Norse Reader). Note that the following runic passage employs two -r runes: r and z. These two characters were sometimes used in the same inscription
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