Monday, September 10, 2012

Runes 101 - Runes in History - Bergen Fire

Bergen, Norway
Over the weekend, I finally got around to reading an article I found quite a while back about some runic inscriptions from Bergen, Norway.  Well,  these were no ordinary inscriptions.  In fact, nearly 700 of them were discovered after a huge fire broke out in 1955. During the 14th century, the area had been home to a group of German merchants, called the Hanse or Hanseatic League, which controlled much of the northern European trade along the coast, including Bergen's fish trade.  The 1955 fire, which began when lightning struck the nearby wharf, burned through four large building complexes.

Two amazing discoveries were made as a result of this fire.  First, it was not the first fire in the area.  In fact,  "German Bryggen" (The German Bergen) has burned at least seven times since the late twelfth century.  What these past fires provide archeologists and other researchers with is a tool to date artifacts found in the area.  When a large fire like this occurs, basically, it leaves a charcoal line in the strata.  Because researchers know the dates of the fires, and thus the charcoal layers, they can determine the age of the artifacts in the surrounding layers.

The other aspect to this fire and the aspect which is relevant to this post is the findings of the archeological research that ensued following the burn.  As I mentioned above, archeologists found nearly 700 runic inscriptions in the area.  Some of the inscriptions occur as late as the 14th century, which surprised me, because I had assumed that the use of Runes had died out shortly after Christianity took over.  Apparently, many other people thought that it had ceased by the end of the 12th century as well.

The really cool thing about these inscriptions is that, not only do they give us a glimpse of daily life in Bergen over a number of centuries, but they are quite varied.  Occurring primarily on wooden sticks, the carvings range from simple labels that could be affixed to other items to declare ownership, to letters dealing with finances and other business matters, in addition to poems, quotes from mythology, biblical quotes or prayers, and even proclamations of love and romance, and a letter from a crown prince, who was seeking ships to build a naval force.  A few wooden sticks also included charms and spells.

I'm not sure which of these inscriptions I find the most interesting.  The fact that people carved complete letters into wood is pretty cool and the love poems are fun, but I may have to go with either the contrasting mythological and biblical quotes, demonstrating a potential culture clash, or the sticks with spells and charms - a.k.a. magic.  According to the article I read, more than 100 of the runic inscriptions are related to magic and about half of those use the Futhark as their magic.  That is to say the writer would inscribe something (such as a wish or a warning) on one side of the stick and, on the other, would carve out the entire Futhark.  What was interesting to me is that this is claimed to be an "immensely old" form of sorcery, yet the Futhark used (in the images I saw) was the Scandinavian and Younger Furthark which contains only 16 letters, whereas the Elder Futhark, from which this and the Anglo Saxon Younger Futhark derive, contains 24 (see my earlier post Runes 101 - Runes in History).  I would have expected that the Elder Futhark would have been used, but this represents regional variations of the Futhark that developed with time and distance.

This is a fascinating topic, one I feel I could spend years researching.  However, what I will do instead is add to this brief introduction a few links to information about the Bergen fire runic inscriptions and the article on the subject from 1966 that I read.

For those of you interested in learning more, please read on...



Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

1 comment:

  1. Vert, very interesting! Thanks for sharing the links.