Runic expert cracks 900-year-old secret Viking code
Researchers have been trying for years to crack a little-known runic code called Jötunvillur, which has only been found in nine inscriptions in northern Europe. However, a runes expert has finally been able to decrypt a message scratched into a piece of wood and it just might help solve the mystery of the Vikings’ secret codes.
In Old Norse the word rune means ‘letter’, ‘text’ or ‘inscription’, and in old Germanic languages it means ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’. Indeed, runes have been found to have played an important role in ritual and magic.
There are a number of different Runic alphabets, with the earliest known codes dating from the 1st century AD. However, the vast majority of Runic inscriptions date from the 11th century, and the Jötunvillur code dates to 11 th or 12 th. The codes exist in many forms and contexts; they have been found throughout Europe from the Balkans to Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles, and carved into wooden sticks, stones, swords, pendants, and other objects. But there is much that is still unknown about Runes - were the messages secret, or did they have other reasons for encrypting their runic texts? Why did the Vikings use codes when they wrote runes?
Runologist Jonas Nordby, from the University of Oslo, believes he has now made progress towards finding some of these answers. He has managed to crack the Jötunvillur code, which he found works by exchanging the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. For example, the rune for the letter U is called “urr” so it is encoded with the rune for R. The problem is that many runes end in the same sound. This makes it hard to figure out which runic letter the code refers to.
“It’s like solving a riddle,” said Nordby. “After a while I started to see a pattern in what appeared to be meaningless combinations of runes.”
Ancient codes prompt associations with treasure hunts, conspiracies, and secret rituals. However, the message that Nordby deciphered shows that Rune messages were also used playfully among friends – the 900-year-old message he deciphered is a romantic message that reads “kiss me”.
“We have little reason to believe that rune codes should hide sensitive messages, people often wrote short everyday messages,” said Nordby. “I think the codes were used in play and for learning runes, rather than to communicate,” he added. For example, many of the messages in runic codes included a challenge to the reader to crack the code, like “interpret these runes”.
Being good at writing and breaking codes ensured a certain amount of status, and people bragged about their proficiencies. For example, the inscription: “These runes were carved by the most rune-literate man west of the sea”, was found on the Orkney Islands in a Stone Age burial chamber that had been broken into in the 1100s. “A typical bunch of male adolescents were fooling around and wrote tall tales about treasures and their own sexual prowess,” said Nordby.
The Runic inscription within the Stone Age burial chamber on Orkney. Photo credit: Bengt A. Lundberg
Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important. “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,” says Williams. “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”.
Featured image: A runic code that reads “kiss me”. Photo credit: Jonas Nordby .