A scholar of the University of Oslo has cracked one of the rune codes used by the Vikings, revealing they were sending each other messages such as ‘Kiss me’.
K. Jonas Nordby, a runologist doing his PhD research, was able to discover the secret behind the jötunvillur code, which can be found in nine of the eighty Norse inscriptions that contain code. He found that on a stick from the 13th century two men, Sigurd and Lavrans, carved their names both in code and in standard runes. For the jötunvillur code, one would replace the original runic character with the last sound of the rune name. For example, the rune for ‘f’, pronounced fe, would be turned into an ‘e’, while the rune for ‘k’, pronounced kaun, became ‘n’.
“It’s like solving a puzzle,” said Nordby to the Norwegian website forskning.no. “Gradually I began to see a pattern in what was apparently meaningless combinations of runes.”
However, those thinking that the coded runes will reveal deep secrets of the Norse will be disappointed. The messages found so far seem to be either used in learning or have a playful tone. In one case the message was ‘Kiss me’. Nordby explains “We have little reason to believe that rune codes should hide sensitive messages, people often wrote short everyday messages.”
In many instances those who wrote the coded runes also left comments urging the readers to try to figure it out. Sometimes they would also boast of their abilities at writing the codes.
There are several kinds of Norse rune codes, some of which have been solved, while others remain a mystery. In article published last year in Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies, Nordby writes that in some cases there is not enough information to piece together what the code could be.
But equally often an inscription may be complete and as clear as day, and yet make no sense. In many examples of the latter type the trained eye will spot the hand of a total illiterate scribbling rune-like symbols, or an unsteady and untrained writer trying to copy a runic text without any understanding of what it says. The most difficult cases to give up on are those that yield no sense even though the runes are well executed and the carving apparently secure. In an attempt to find a solution the dedicated runologist will try everything, viewing the inscription from all conceivable angles.
Nordby hopes that his new discovery will help other runologists. “We still know very little about the use of runic codes, so each new piece of information is important. My finding means we might have to look at reading and writing runes in a new way. This may help us in understanding how the runic knowledge was conveyed,” he says.