Monday, January 27, 2014

Runes 101 - Runes in History - The Hedeby Stones

Reconstructed Viking Village at Hedeby
Though now a part of Germany, during the Viking Age, Hedeby was part of Denmark and it was a busy and crowded trading center between the 8th and 11th centuries.  Its location served basically as a crossroads between the North and Baltic Seas.

By the second half of the 11th century, Hedeby was abandoned, due largely to two major and intentional fires.  However, before its inhabitants left, Hedeby became home to four interesting Runestones.

The first two stones date to the decade of 930 and are called the Sigtrygg Runestones.  The 930s date is given to these stones, because they both mention King Gnupa, a tenth century Danish King, who was succeeded by his son, Sigtrygg, also mentioned on the stones.  It is important to note that these stones were both raised by Gnupa's wife and Sigtrygg's mother, Asfriðr.  It is common knowledge that many Viking women raised or were mentioned/honored in Runestone inscriptions; this is just one example.  One other cool tidbit about these stones is that they were not found together.  In fact, not only were they 'discovered' nearly 100 years apart (one in 1797, the other in 1887), but one was being used as part of the ramparts of Gottorf Castle in Schleswig, across the river from where Hedeby used to be.  The castle was built sometime in the mid 12th century for the local bishop.

The third Hedeby stone was raised by King Sveinn, in the early 980s to honor the memory of Skarði, who is referred to as a heimþegar.  This has been interpreted to be someone who serves a king (or other royalty) and receives gifts, such as houses, from them.  The stone claims that Skarði went west, but then died in Hedeby.  Scholars believe that this means he went west to England.  Given that King Sveinn is thought to be Sveinn Forkbeard, the 'west' being England is highly likely, since Sveinn was King of England too.  What is unclear is whether the two men traveled together and if Skarði was injured in England, but died in Hedeby or returned safely from England and then died.

Eric's Rune is the fourth and final Hedeby Runestone, raised roughly a decade after the Skarði stone.  This stone tells the story of how Hedeby was sacked by King Eric from Sweden.  The translation of the inscription is a bit confusing.  What is clear is that Thorulf raised the stone.  Eric, for whom the stone was raised, is memorialized as having been a captain and a good and valiant man and the two men were, apparently, business partners (for this quest, at least).

As best as I can tell, all four of these Runestones are on display at the Hedeby Viking Museum.  You may want to put this on your list of places to visit should you find yourself in northern Germany.  They have set up the Skarði stone to light up as a recorded voice reads its inscription.  I'll leave you with a short video of that.  (Make sure your have the volume up on your computer so you can hear it.)

Image credit: stock photo from

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