Runriket, Where the Power Struggle of a Viking Ruler is Written in Stone
The Viking era (800 -1066 AD) is arguably one of the most fascinating in history. Runriket, or the Rune Kingdom, is a unique archaeological area in Sweden, containing more than a hundred runestones with a great number of inscriptions. Runriket is the largest known concentration of runestones in the world and they offer us the opportunity to get close to Sweden’s ancient Viking past.
The Rune Kingdom and the Age in Transition
Runestones are monuments with inscriptions written in the Runic alphabet. They were typically engraved by experts known as ‘rune masters’. While Christian writers often portrayed the runes as sinister, many of them were simply memorials. Researchers are able to better understand the mindset and history of the Viking world through these writings as the Rune Kingdom demonstrates the complexity of Viking society and culture in ancient Sweden.
The majority of the runes date to the 11th but especially the 12th century. While we may regard the Vikings as pagans who worshipped the gods Thor and Odin, the reality was rather different. Many of them had been Christianized or at least partly Christianized. Through the 11th century, the pagans and the Christians had agreed to co-exist in a unique instance of tolerance in the Middle Ages. By the 12th century, Sweden was mostly Christian.
Detail of one of the many runes at Runriket (Oliver, K / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Many of the runestones were erected and carved on the orders of a man named Jarlabanke. He and his family ruled the local region known as ‘a hundred’. It appears that they had long been Christians and one of Jarlbanke’s relatives had even gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Jarlbanke controlled key routes around Lake Vallentuna. He was also a builder and constructed a bridge and many of the runestones that survive in the locality were created to celebrate his achievements. The monuments were additionally used to legitimize his power as he was not secure in his rule thanks to the power struggle with his half-brother.
Many other local rulers in the Medieval period erected stones. Some tell the story of a woman called Estrid and her extended family. The engraved monuments were gradually appropriated by the Christian population and were used by them to advertise their faith. Out of respect for their ancestors, later generations did not destroy them. The Rune Kingdom is protected by Swedish law.
The Sights of The Kingdom of Runes
The Rune Kingdom is located in the lakeside district of Vallentuna, which is noted for its scenery. The monuments are spread out over a large area and now mostly overgrown with moss and lichen, but the majority of the inscriptions can still be seen.
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One of the stones displaying runes, the cross and pagan artwork (Mats / Adobe Stock)
There is a reluctance to remove all the vegetation for fear of damaging the inscriptions. Some, however, have been cleaned and their inscriptions are clear. Two of the best-known flank Jarlabanke’s bridge. This modern bridge was built on the site of the Viking ruler’s original 12 th century crossing.
Another important stone can be seen adjacent to the local church. Many of the runes tell of the deeds, travels and deaths of the local elite. These would once have been brightly painted and visible for miles.
Some of the stone have been restored and give a good impression of what they once looked like. While many of the monuments have Viking symbols, others display the Christian cross. On these stones, we witness the transition of the region from paganism to Christianity.
Visiting the Rune Kingdom in Sweden
The area is about an hour’s drive from the Swedish capital. No fee is required to see the many monuments and there are some information boards in the area. There are guided tours to the area, and these also include nearby Viking sites, including an assembly place and a Medieval Church.
Top image: Runriket rune stone in Sweden Source: Mats / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Barnes, M. P. (2012). Runes: a handbook. Boydell Press
McKinnell, J., Simek, R., & Düwel, K. (2004). Runes, magic and religion: a sourcebook. Fassbaender
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Scott, F. D. (1988). Sweden, the nation's history. SIU Press
Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=lang_en&id=Qv8zxie3A18C&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=sweden+medieval+history&ots=dTWsUr-OLm&sig=38XFO9jgOATH-GZrxV52DTluEAo&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=sweden%20medieval%20history&f=false