Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Runes 101 - Runes in History - Maeshowe, Orkney

Orkney: Maeshowe neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave*
There can be no question about the reach of the Vikings during the roughly 300-year period named after them - the Viking Age (~790-1066).  Reaching Asia in the east and North America in the west, Vikings were the greatest navigators and explorers of their time.  They affected life and culture wherever they went, leaving behind evidence of their impact as grand as cities they founded and as simple as runic graffiti they carved.

Just over a year ago,  I provided an overview of some graffiti on the Piraeus Lion in Italy, carvings which were rather elaborate.  Much closer to the Viking homelands, however, lies one of the largest known groups of runic graffiti.

At the end of 1999, on mainland Orkney,  a UNESCO World Heritage Site was named and includes four neolithic structures - the Standing Stones of Stenness, Skara Brae (a neolithic village), the Ring of Brodger, and Maeshowe (pictured above).

However, Maeshowe is not famous just because of its age or its interior chambers and passages.  It is also home to at least 30 runic inscriptions, carved between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

These 30 inscriptions include at least one set of the Norwegian (Younger) Futhark, several common statements such as Vermunt carved (these runes) or Tryggr carved these Runes.  Some inscriptions mention women (Ingbjork the fair widow, for example), while others inform us about some of the men who broke into the cairn and carved the Runes on the walls.  They were crusaders and may have been in search of treasure or, at least, were aware that the cairn once contained treasure that had long since been taken, well before the Rune carvers showed up.

In addition to the Runes, there is also a worm knot and  very ornately carved dragon, which has become a common and recognizable Orkney symbol, appearing on T-shirts, jewelry, and even malt whiskey.  If you search online for images of the Orkney dragon, I guarantee you will see plenty of examples of it.  For now, here are a couple of links to sites that provide more images of and information about the Maeshowe Runic inscriptions:

The Project Gutenburg eBook


*Image from, photographer Juliane Jacobs

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