Little is known about the origins of the Runic alphabet, why did Vikings sometimes use codes when they wrote in runes? In Old Norse the word rune means ‘letter’, ‘text’ or ‘inscription’. The word also means ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ in Old Germanic languages and runes had a important role in ritual and magic. Were the messages secret, or did they have other reasons for encrypting their runic texts? Researchers still don’t know for sure.
The Lingsberg Runestone, Sweden, known as U 240 Photo copyright Berig, Wikipedia
Here are some theories about the origins of runes:
- The alphabet was probably created independently rather than evolving from another alphabet.
- Runic writing was probably first used in southern Europe and was carried north by Germanic tribes.
- The Runic alphabet is thought to have been modeled on the Latin and/or Etruscan alphabet.
There are several historical runic inscriptions, found on everything from swords to stones to bronze pendants, which list the entire runic alphabet in order. One of the oldest and most complete of these is the Kylver stone, found in Gotland, Sweden and dating from the fifth century.
A rune stick from the Wharf in Bergen testifies to a mischievous use of runic writing. The lines in the beards of these men comprise a message, written in cipher runes. (Photo: Aslak Liestøl/ Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)
But Runologist K. Jonas Nordby thinks he has made progress toward an answer. He has managed to crack a code called jötunvillur, which has baffled linguists and historians for years. His discovery can help researchers understand the purpose behind the mystery codes. “It’s like solving a riddle,” says Nordby. “After a while I started to see a pattern in what appeared to be meaningless combinations of runes,” he says.
“Many think the Vikings used cryptography to conceal secret messages. But I think the codes were used in play and for learning runes, rather than to communicate,” says Nordby.
One of the reasons for his claim is that the jötunvillur code is written in a way that makes the interpretation ambiguous.
“Jötunvillur can only be written, not read. It would be pointless to use it for messages,” says Nordby.
Runologist Jonas Nordby is a code-breaker. The Oseberg Ship behind him also contained one of many riddles from the Viking Era. (Photo: Ida Kvittingen)
This is why he has considered other possible uses for the code. Nordby thinks the Vikings memorised rune names with the help of the jötunvillur code.
All runes have names, and the jötunvillur code 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.
The rune codes were not just used for learning. Nordby thinks the use also indicates a whimsical use of runes in the Viking Era and the Middle Ages.
“We have little reason to believe the runic codes were used to conceal sensitive information. People often wrote short, routine messages,” says Nordby.