Monday, February 25, 2013

Runes 101 - Runes in History 8

In the last Runes 101 post, I wrote about the 1955 Bergen fire.  This time, while I complete etching the Runes on my wooden staves, I thought I would figuratively head to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and write about the Manx Crosses in general, and one in particular.

The Manx Crosses are actually Runestones, displaying both Celtic and Norse roots and blending early Christian imagery with Celtic/Norse ones.  This group of more than two dozen stones, dates back primarily to the 10th century, the height of the Viking Age.  There had been a long Celtic tradition of raising crosses to the dead (nearly 200 such stones have been found), prior to the Norse influx, but it is with their arrival that the two cultures merged to create some very interesting and artistic works.  For example, where the earlier crosses had wonderful Celtic knots carved into them in a variety of styles, the later ones build on that idea, twisting animals around each other in a similar fashion.

Another interesting aspect to these crosses is that there are multiple styles of Runes used on them.  There are Anglo-Saxon, elder Futhark, and short-twig or staveless Runes found on different crosses, though none together on the same cross, as far as I can tell.  In addition to Runic inscriptions, the first half of the Ogham alphabet appears on one and Ogham letters are visible on both sides of another.

Most of the Manx crosses are carved in memory to someone, a father, a wife, a son or daughter.  Some are dedicated to the person who raised the cross, while others are simply illegible.  At least one cross records a betrayal.

The Manx Cross that interests me the most is one from the Jurby parish in the northwest part of the island.  It is ornately carved (images above and to the right) and includes other ornamentation along with an Old Norse runic inscription:
"[s]on sinn en annan reisti/retti [hann] eptir Thorb" 

The inscription translates into something like the Rune carver has raised a stone for his son and raised another in memory of someone whose name began with Thor - Thorbjorn, Thorvald, etc.

I confess that it is not the inscription that intrigues me about this cross, rather the fact that this cross includes an image of Heimdall, the Norse gods' sentry, who happens to be the main historical character in my novel, The Son of Nine Sisters.   Although Heimdall is carved on this cross, no evidence exists to support the idea that there was ever a culture, tribe or group that worshiped or sacrificed to him.

I believe this image actually supports that idea and represents the call to the beginning of Ragnarök, the final battle of the Norse gods, rather than highlighting Heimdall as a deity.  As you can see in the enlarged image (left), Heimdall is clearly blowing Gjallarhorn to signal the battle's onset.

Across the Irish Sea, in Cumbria, England, another cross (The Gosforth Cross) depicts another Norse image of a god, which has been identified mistakenly as Heimdall, because he holds a horn in one hand while fighting a beast in the other.  I do not believe this is Heimdall, rather, if it is a god, it is Thor killing the Midgard serpent.  That aligns better with the final battle and Thor's own personality as being able to drink enough mead to lower sea level.  Besides, there is no record or story of Heimdall battling anything other than Loki.

Getting back to the Manx Crosses, The Isle of Man Manx National Heritage Museum is a great resource for learning more about these fascinating stones, including having replicas of some of the stones and a database of illustrated images of all the Manx Crosses.

Long ago, I added the Isle of Man to my places to visit.  How about you?  Have you traveled to the Isle of Man?  Did you see any of these crosses?  If so, please share your experience with us.


  1. Interesting post! I would like to learn more about the Runes. Is the Isle of Man Manx National Heritage Museum in Douglas? I spent a few days in Douglas, in the summer five years ago, but didn't see the museum. Unfortunately, most of the island was closed to cars and buses because I happened to go there the week of the motorcycle races. I live in Seattle, so I don't know when I might return there.

    1. Yes, it is in Douglas; I'm sorry you didn't get to see it or much of the rest of the island.