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Spells, threats, and dragons: The secret messages of Viking runestones - Jesse Byock

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With their navigational skills and advanced longships, the Vikings sustained their seafaring for over 300 years. But for all their might, they left few monuments. Instead, fragments of stone, bark and bone found in the sites of ancient settlements provide the keys to their culture. Many of these objects are inscribed with Old Norse written in runic letters. Jesse Byock explores the ancient language.

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Meet The Creators

  • Director Lisa LaBracio
  • Educator Jesse Byock
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Illustrator Lisa LaBracio
  • Animation Assistant Ricardo Delarosa
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Ancient Scandinavians wrote in runes, and surviving runic inscriptions are a main source of social, historical, and linguistic information. Runes are an alphabet, not a pictographic or a syllabic script. Just as we might call our alphabet the ABCs, the runic alphabet was composed of runic letters and called the futhark, named after the first six runes or runic characters, FUÞARK. Runes were carved on wood, stone, bone, antler, and metal. They are found on weapons, jewelry, everyday items, wood, and bark. Runes were used for identification, commemoration, messages, and magic. Runic inscriptions are the closest written sources to the speech of the Viking Age. For more on runes, old Norse, pronunciation and Viking history, check out this website.

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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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Lisa LaBracio
  • Educator Jesse Byock
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Illustrator Lisa LaBracio
  • Animation Assistant Ricardo Delarosa
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more