The story of perhaps the greatest runemaster that ever lived is filled with love, joy, adventure, and sorrow and is etched in stone...

Runes and runestones

The study of history can often be a blur of dates, names, and places. Spare a thought for those studying (or writing about) history from more than a millennium ago. 

How can we relate to people that lived over ten centuries before us? Yet every so often, a glimpse of the human story of past deeds shines through...

For much of the early medieval period, peoples in Viking societies developed a series of related alphabets, based upon Germanic languages, that we call the runic alphabets. 

The development of this alphabet, and the letters called runes, can be traced back to at least the 1st century CE. As Germanic tribes encountered the Roman Empire, and thus the Latin world (via direct military contract or indirect trade) – the runic alphabets slowly became transformed.

The two most common runic alphabets were used by peoples in the Viking "homeland" of Scandinavia throughout the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE). 

Academics differentiate these two sets of alphabets by time, with the Elder Futhark runic alphabet (named after six of the runes) used by Germanic peoples, in Northern Europe, up until the 8th century CE. 

The Germanic peoples in Scandinavia then simplified this alphabet – to only 16 letters – and developed the Younger Futhark runic alphabet, used widely between the 8th and 12th centuries CE. 

This simplification mirrored the spoken language in Scandinavia, developing from Proto-Norse to Old Norse, the language most Vikings spoke.

One of the factors that have been argued to end the raiding of Vikings was the possible "cultural softening" caused by the introduction of Christianity. 

The long process of Scandinavia took centuries to complete, but by the latter stages of the 11th century CE, most Scandinavian elites had been baptized and were actively promoting it. 

The introduction of Christianity, and the Latin alphabet, saw the runic alphabet fall out of favor. A latinized form of runes was still being used in the Swedish province of Dalarna into the early 20th century CE.

Set in stone

The Vikings, with all their raiding, pillaging, and plundering, may have somewhat ruined the intellectual reputation of Scandinavians in the early modern period. 

Yet people in Viking societies had developed a sophisticated runic alphabet and a sophisticated culture steeped in death. 

The memorialization of those that had died was such a significant part of Viking culture that huge stones were raised, and written on, to honor the life of those fallen. 

These runestones saw not only inscriptions inscribed mostly on boulders but also brightly detailed images often depicting events from Norse mythology.

More than 5,000 runestones have been uncovered all over Europe, from the Isle of Man to the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, but the vast majority are located in Sweden, especially around the historical province of Uppland.

Most of these runestones were raised to commemorate mostly men, with only 1 in 8 raised to honor a deceased woman. What is fascinating, however, is who organized these runestones to be raised. 

It was not just exclusively grieving families, especially widows, and children, who were responsible, but runestones have been found raised by sisters, brothers, uncles, and even business partners!

Analyzing such runestones can paint a picture of not only the individual's life, but we can catch of glimpse of familial and communal bonds from more than a millennium ago. The best such examples are in the beautiful surroundings of a small parish church in Orkesta, Sweden.

Snapshot of two Viking families

Our story starts in the 11th century CE in the small town of Orkesta in Sweden. Here, several stones were either raised in the memory of, or constructed by, one Ulf of Borresta. 

Our first insight into the life of Ulf comes from a runestone which is named U336 in Orkesta. Ulf raised this runestone in memory of his mentor, an uncle named Ónæmr (Old Norse for "Slow Learner," possibly a nickname), who was also a chieftain of a clan whose ancestral estate was named Borresta.

The Orkesta Runestones are situated in the vicinity of the Orkesta church, which is located to the northeast of Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: Berig / CC BY 2.5

It appears that, like most political elite families, Ulf's relatives played an active part in the military campaigns – whether opportunistic raids or more organized campaigns – that were characteristic of the outward expansion of the Vikings from the 8th century CE onwards. 

His uncle is mentioned on several other runestones (U112, U328, and U336) dotted around what is now the grounds of the Orkesta church.

Eastward adventures

Our next glimpse into the life of Ulf, however, lies on the western shore of Lake Vallentunasjön, some 17 km / 10.5 miles away. 

Here, two runestones (U160 and 161) were engraved by Ulf himself. On this, Ulf engraved a dedication for Ulfr of Skohammar, from his children and wife, in memory of "their good father" and wishing that, in the afterlife, he be granted "light and paradise." 

The next runestone, U161, fashioned again by Ulf, shows that Ulfr is more than just a client; he is a family member. Not only does this stone acknowledge that Ulf himself "cut this stone," but it also shows elements of Norse mythology (two great serpents similar to the Midgard serpent) as well as the possible influence of a Varangiarn connection with a Byzantine Cross.

We can trace this possible Varangian connection, in the family, by looking at runestone 112. On this, not only is Ónæmr's son, Holmi, mentioned as falling in "Italy" (Italy being a common Norse name for the Roman Empire which, during the early medieval period, had fallen in Western Europe but survived as what later historians have dubbed the "Byzantine Empire") but we know that another cousin of Ulf's, Ragnvaldr, was a commander of the prestigious Varangian Guard in Constantinople. 

This was the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor and was mostly made up of Viking warriors.

Danegjeld and later life

The final chapter of Ulf's life, however, is revealed back in the Orkesta churchyard. 

Here, two runestones (U343 and U344) were raised in memory of Ulf himself by his sons, Karlbjörn and Karsi. 

They relate how Ulf, in between learning the skills needed to carve and create runestones, went three times to England to take three danegelds.

This was a tax raised, by Vikings, on Anglo-Saxon populations, throughout England. Essentially, it was a sort of early medieval "protection money" whereby communities that did not pay were often ravaged and pillaged.

U343 mentions how Ulf had partaken in the taking of 3 danegelds – essentially meaning he went on three military campaigns to Anglo-Saxon England – commanded by Skagul Toste (991 CE), Thorkel the High (1012 CE) and, the most successful, Cnut the Great (1018 CE). 

Cnut, of course, was a Danish prince who won the throne of England in 1016 CE and would go on to rule Denmark and Norway, establishing the "North Sea Empire," a thalassocracy that is seen as the pinnacle of Viking rule over Europe.

Ulf's death is also mentioned on this runestone without the flowery dedication of love and wishes that his kinsman and family member, Ulfr, received.

The families of Ulf and Ulfr may have been united by marriage during their lifetime, but thanks to the work of runemasters like Ulf, they will remain forever interlinked in stone and memory.

Science Nordic has published an article on the recent (historically speaking) termination of the use of runes in Sweden, available to read here

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