Rune staffs at the Museum of History in Lund, Sweden.

Medieval Sudoku: Codebreaking Hidden Messages in Viking Runes

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Jötunvillur is a little-known runic code. Only nine known examples of Jötunvillur inscriptions have been found in northern Europe, making it extremely difficult to crack. When a runes expert managed to make sense of a message scratched into a piece of wood , it seemed that Vikings’ secrets codes would soon begin to unfold.

The word rune simply means ‘letter’, ‘text’ or ‘inscription’ in Old Norse. On the other hand, Old Germanic languages defines it as ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ – a description which is likely related to the Nordic runes’ roles in magic and rituals.

There is not only one runic alphabet and the oldest date as far back as the 1st century AD. The Jötunvillur is one of the alphabets from the 11th or 12th century – a period when many of the known runic inscriptions come from. Several different codes have been made with the runes as well, in a variety of forms and contexts. Examples have been found carved into sticks and onto stones, swords, pendants, and other artifacts across Europe from the Balkans to Germany, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.

Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best-preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes.

Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best-preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes. ( Public Domain )

Many discoveries have been made surrounding the runes over the years, however there is still a sense of mystery about them and many questions yet to be answered. For example, were codified messages meant to hold secret information? And, even more simply, why did the Vikings use codes at all when writing with runes?

By cracking the Jötunvillur code, runologist Jonas Nordby of the University of Oslo hopes to have set the track in the right direction to begin answering these questions. Nordby was able to decipher the Jötunvillur code when he noted that the rune signs in this code should be exchanged with the last sound in the rune’s name. For instance, when looking at the rune for the letter U, the sound is “urr” which means it’s encoded with the rune for R.

Deciphering the Jötunvillur code.

Deciphering the Jötunvillur code. ( Ala de Cuervo )

However, many runes end in the same sound, meaning that there was still some puzzle work to do to decide which runic letter the code was using at times. But as Nordby said, “It’s like solving a riddle. After a while I started to see a pattern in what appeared to be meaningless combinations of runes.”

Although ancient codes may raise images of conspiracies, treasures or secret rituals to mind, not all are so intense. The 900-year-old message in the Jötunvillur code? It was a playful romantic message telling the one which reads “kiss me”.

The runic message reads “kiss me” in the Jötunvillur code.

The runic message reads “kiss me” in the Jötunvillur code. ( Jonas Nordby )

Nordby points out, “We have little reason to believe that rune codes should hide sensitive messages, people often wrote short everyday messages. I think the codes were used in play and for learning runes, rather than to communicate.” This can be exemplified best in runic codes which are just challenges to crack, like one reading “interpret these runes”.

Code breaking would have been considered challenging back in the day as well. Thus, those who could write and decipher runic codes also bragged about their abilities. For example, there is a runic inscription in a Stone Age burial chamber on the Orkney Islands that had been broken into in the 1100s which states “These runes were carved by the most rune-literate man west of the sea.”

The runic inscription within the Stone Age burial chamber on Orkney.

The runic inscription within the Stone Age burial chamber on Orkney. ( Bengt A. Lundberg )

Henrik Williams, a Swedish expert on runes and professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages, explains why Nordby’s discovery is so important, saying,

Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances. They tell us much about people’s playfulness and innovation. We come closer to the thoughts of people living at the time through understanding their codes.

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