Messages from the past
by Michael E Wills
What we know about the Viking Age comes almost entirely from the accounts of their victims. The very useful Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is, understandably, coloured by outrage at the raiding, plundering and murder perpetrated by the Norsemen. The description of the Vikings written by Adam of Bremen in his "History of the Archbishops of Hamburg", is also valuable, but it is not contemporaneous as he wrote around 1070, nor is his information gained at first hand. The Icelandic Sagas were written well after the Viking Age and are based on oral tradition.
However, there are two other sources which are contemporary. Firstly, some Arab travellers wrote about Vikings they met on the Eastern European trade routes. They described their social and personal habits, (definitely not admired), their dress and customs.
Secondly, there are the records kept by the Vikings themselves in the form of runic carvings. These messages are sometimes cryptic, but they can give the researcher vital clues to the travels and ways of life and death of the Vikings.
It is claimed that there are around 3000 runes stones in Scandinavia. I think that this claim is somewhat high, for looking at published maps of where they are to be found, there seems to be far fewer than 3000. However, it was not only in Scandinavia that runes were carved. There are Viking rune stones in England, Scotland, The Faroes, Greenland, Germany and Ukraine.
When touring in Scandinavia, I have made a point of going out of my way to seek out the stones. A few are, to an historian, spectacular. The majority, while often richly decorated, have a simple message. Most are dedicated to a lost relative, a few are clearly meant to brag about the daring deeds of a person while they were still alive. The stone on the right falls into this category.
One of the most remarkable rune stones is the "Jelling Stone" in Denmark. This stone gives the first mention of Denmark being a "state" and that it had been Christianised. It can be dated very accurately, (965), and tells us that Harald Bluetooth claimed the unification of the country. There are in fact two large stones outside of the medieval church adjacent to huge burial mounds in Jelling. The largest, the Jelling Stone, is that which Harald ordered in memory of his father, King Gorm and his mother Queen Thyra. The other was ordered by King Gorm in memory of his wife.
I had a particular piece of luck when I visited Jelling. Despite the fragility of the carvings, the two stones had been left where they had first been placed, in the open air. Clearly, a decision had been made to move them into a protective glass cover, for when I arrived, a crane was lifting the smaller of the two stones. As I stood watching the stone rising from the ground there was excitement among the archaeologists - there was a man's skeleton directly under the stone. It had definitely been buried exactly under the setting of the stone. I immediately found myself wondering if this was a ritual sacrifice and what significance the burial had.
I would like to give two examples of how these stones have helped me in researching the background for stories.
Visitors to Stockholm, travelling by BA, do not have far to go before they see their first rune stone. Just to the left of the Terminal 2, "Arrivals" entrance, there is a fine rune stone. Obviously, this is not its natural resting place. The stone was discovered when the motorway to the airport was being built. Like so many stones it seems to have been placed near an ancient bridge over wetlands. The runes on the stone have been translated as, “Gunnar and Björn and Thorgrim set up this stone in memory of Thorsten their brother. He died in the east with Ingvar and built this (bridge?).”
The rune stone design gives a strong clue to the period when it was carved. In the centre of the traditional writhing snakes containing runic letters, futhark*, there is a cross. This indicates that it was made in the late Viking Age when the people of this region had embraced Christianity. That is not to say that the old pagan practices did not still hold sway and there is a very powerful symbol of this on the stone which shows this.
Right in the centre of the cross is a swastika. This symbol in Norse mythology denoted Thor, the principal sky god of the Viking Age. In the Norse tradition, his hammer was used to defend the gods’ celestial stronghold, , from the , the forces of chaos, decay, and destruction. The swastika was carved in the middle of the cross as a form of “double insurance” that the person being commemorated would be guaranteed to be taken from one state of being – that of chaos and weakness – to another – that of sacred order and strength. Use of the symbol in this way really does illustrate graphically how tenuous the foothold of Christianity was in Sweden at the time the rune stone was carved.
A second significance of the stone is that there is a mention of what was perhaps the greatest disaster ever to befall a Viking expedition. The stone mentions Ingvar. In 1036, the 25-year-old Ingvar, a Viking chieftain later to be called “Ingvar the Far Travelled”, set off with a fleet of at least thirty ships and as many as 2000 men, to travel to the Middle East, to Serkland, the land of the Saracens. Serkland is the area around the Caspian Sea.
The purpose of the expedition was almost certainly a quest for gold. There are 26 runes stones in the area around Stockholm which commemorate men lost on the expedition and several of them mention gold. The stone at Gripsholm says, “"Tóla had this stone raised in memory of her son Haraldr, Ingvar's brother. They travelled valiantly far for gold, and in the east gave (food) to the eagle. (They) died in the south in Serkland." . “Food to the Eagle”, is a classic Viking way of saying that someone was killed.
According to a contemporary Georgian chronicle, dated to about 1040, around 2000 Norsemen had travelled from the Black Sea up the River Rioni to Basha. There they agreed to send 700 men to support the Georgian King Bagra in a battle against his enemies. Unfortunately, the battle was lost, but the victors agreed to let the Vikings go free. Legend has it that Ingvar then led his men to Baku in Azerbajan. What happened to the expedition after that is a complete mystery. It is said that just one ship returned to Sweden and the crew of this ship reported that the expedition had ended in disaster. See for more background.
The second rune stone I would like to introduce gives a tantalizing glimpse of what, from the Viking perspective, was much more successful.
A few kilometers north of Stockholm is a tiny village called Orkesta. The beautiful village church was built in the 12th century. Outside the church there are two rune stones which were placed there in 1977. Both of these stones mention the name of “Ulv”. One carving translates as, “Ulv raised this stone for Onäm, hjs uncle. They both lived in Borresta”. Borresta is an ancient estate to the west of Orkesta church. This a conventional rune stone inscription. However, the second stone is nothing short of sensational fodder for a novelist looking for background to a story.
This second rune stone which is the basis of my present work in progress, “For The Want Of Silver”, translates as, “Ulv received danegeld in England three times. The first was (part of) Toste’s Danegeld, the second was (part of) Torkel’s, the third was (part of) Knut’s.”
It is often claimed that the “Toste” mentioned was Toste Skagul, a legendary chieftain from Swedish province of West Götaland, who is said to have raided England in 970. However, Sweden’s leading rune stone expert, Magnus Källström, emphatically denies that this is so, pointing out that Ulv of Borrestad would not hve been alive in 970.
The second person, Torkel was “Torkel the Tall”, commander of the dreaded “Jomsvikings”. He led a Viking army to raid Kent in 1009. After being paid a danegeld of 3000 pounds of silver to leave Canterbury, he went on to besiege London. He was unsuccessful and so in 1011, returned to Canterbury to claim another danegeld. However, the Archbishop refused to allow the danegeld to be paid and was taken prisoner. Then the story gets really ugly. A number of Torkel’s warriors mutinied. He offered them everything he owned, with the exception of his ship, to release the holy man who had previously converted him to Christianity. The chieftain’s offer was refused by the rebel warriors who savagely tormented the Archbishop and then murdered him. Torkel took those who were loyal to him and continued raiding southern England, eventually collecting 48,000 pounds of silver in danegeld.
The third name is that of King Canute. After being crowned King of England in 1017, he paid off his warriors with a huge sum of 82,500 pounds of silver to persuade them to go home.
However, there is another story behind these two runestones. In 1868, an antiquarian called Richard Dybeck, carried out a search of the Orkesta area for a rune stone which was said to extend the text of the first one I mentioned above. He did not find it, but he discovered the second one above being used as a hearth stone at a farmstead. The extraordinary thing about this stone, apart from the message on it, is that the runes had been carved as a mirror image. That is, they had to be read from right to left. Why? It is most odd that Ulv’s story should be recorded in a way which rendered it almost impossible for anyone to read unless they could decipher runes backwards! Could it be that he wanted his story to be recorded for posterity but did not want to flaunt the fact that he had a stash of silver in his house?
My new book, a Viking story for young readers, called “Bound for Home”, was greatly inspired by the runes carved in Istanbul by Viking warriors employed by the Greek emperor. These runes, such as those carved on the lion statue seem to indicate that the warriors had plenty of time on their hands!
I could tell more, though I have much research left to do. A study of the stones produced outside Scandinavia beckons. And don’t think that the use of runes ceased at the end of the Viking Age. They were still in daily use in the 20th century. But that’s another story.
*Futhark – the Viking runic alphabet in used at this time, named after its first six letters.
Children of the Chieftain – Bound for Home
The concluding book in the series. After three years in the service of the emperor of the Greeks, Ahl and his Viking friends have become very rich. Now the crew longs to return home with their wealth, their problem is that the emperor will not permit them to leave. They make a daring plan to escape. The route home is perilous as they navigate uncharted seas. They must overcome robbers, storms and hostile strangers as they seek their way back to the Northlands with the riches which they have earned.
Michael E. Wills
Michael E. Wills was born on the Isle of Wight, UK, and educated at the Priory Boys School and Carisbrooke Grammar. He trained as a teacher at St Peter’s College, Saltley, Birmingham, before working at a secondary school in Kent for two years.
After re-training to become a teacher of English as a Foreign Language he worked in Sweden for thirteen years. During this period, he wrote several English language teaching books. His teaching career has included time working in rural Sweden, a period that first sparked his now enduring interest in Scandinavian history and culture - an interest that after many years of research, both academic and in the field, led him to write “Finn’s Fate” and the sequel novel, “Three Kings – One Throne”. Continuing in a Viking theme, in June 2015, Michael published, “Children of the Chieftain: Betrayed”, the first of a quartet of Viking adventure stories for young readers. The book was described by the Historical Novel Society reviewer as “An absolutely excellent novel which I could not put down.” The novel was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society, 2016 Indie Prize. The second book in the quartet, “Children of the Chieftain: Banished”, was published in December 2015 followed by the third book, “Children of the Chieftain: Bounty”, which was published in 2017. The fourth and final book in the quartet. “Children of the Chieftain: Bound for Home”, has just been published.
Today, Michael works part-time as Ombudsman for English UK, the national association of English language providers. Though a lot of his spare time is spent with grandchildren, he also has a wide range of interests including researching for future books, writing, playing the guitar, carpentry and electronics.