What on earth is a "Greece runestone"? Is it a Viking monument in Greece?
No, the term relates to Viking runestones in Sweden that mention Grikkland, the Greek-speaking part of the Byzantine empire where Norsemen traveled.
What was the Varangian Guard?
Some returned home, while others perished in battles as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor.
They were members of the Varangian Guard, an elite force that served as personal protectors of the emperor. Some of them also fought in battle.
It was formed in 988 by Basil II and was partly made up of Viking units.
Thousands of lesser-known Vikings also protected Basil II, and about 30 of the runestones in Sweden mention those who went to Greece and those who served as the emperor's guards.
The U 112 runestone, located in Sweden, is a significant artifact that commemorates the Viking commander Ragnvaldr and his ties to the Byzantine Empire. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One in particular, concerning the Viking commander Ragnvaldr, merits particular attention.
It is carved into a large stone block that has been nestled in the woods since the Ice Age.
Large stones were embedded in the ice glaciers that once covered Sweden more than 10,000 years ago. When the ice melted, the stones remained on the ground.
The fact that it is carved on a stone boulder rather than a quarried runestone is unusual, though not unique, in Scandinavia.
However, it is the inscription that is of particular interest, as it mentions not only Ragnvaldr but also his mother.
As the script says, Fastvé was his mother, "Ónæmr's daughter, who died in Eið, may God help her spirit. Ragnvaldr had the runes carved; (he) was in Greece, was commander of the retinue."
As well as honoring his deceased mother, Ragnvaldr is also careful to mention his status in Greece.
Given the fact that many Vikings served in the Varangian Guard, we can be quite certain that he is referring to a specific Viking unit within it.
The mystery deepens
Why say this on a runestone otherwise created to honor his dead mother?
Runestones were usually a costly and complex endeavor that required a paid professional artisan.
It may have had both a functional and a practical perspective, as it would be logical to make more than one important statement when you are deciding to raise the stone.
Ragnvaldr, likely having amassed wealth from his service in Byzantium, wanted to highlight his importance to those who passed by the local road near the forest.
The task of moving such a massive stone boulder would not have been undertaken by a neighbor of more modest means.
The brevity of the inscription is typical for most runestones and leaves ample room for interpretation.
Ragnvaldr must have belonged to a very powerful local family.
Becoming the captain of a Viking unit would not have been an easy feat for anyone, and certainly not for the average Viking of the Karl class.
It is, therefore, more likely that Ragnvaldr came from the local Jarl class in the area around Lake Edssjön and that he had extensive contacts with other Viking elite families in eastern Sweden.
It is even possible that he was a member of the ruling family of the Swedish Kingdom (Svea rike).
The Viking graffiti in Hagia Sophia offers a tangible link to the days when Norse explorers and mercenaries roamed the streets of Constantinople. Photo: Not home / Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Runestone U 112 sticks out by the fact that it states that Ragnvaldr was a commander because usually, the inscriptions simply mentioned that a person went to Greece, leaving the rest of the information up to our modern interpretations.
A lot of information may well have been implicitly understood by locals in the area during the Viking Age.
U 112, having been studied by Swedish academics for almost 500 years, holds a significant place in Swedish Viking history.
Runologists Johannes Bureus and Martin Aschaneus visited the stone in the 16th century. They claimed that the local population called it Konungastenen. This word translates as "King's Stone."
It may be interpreted either as a tall tale or another lead pointing towards the considerable power and influence of Ragnvaldr as a local Viking aristocrat.
Visiting the runestone
The runestone is located near Lake Edssjön, a lovely place to hike.
You can reach it in 30 minutes by train from Stockholm Central to Upplands Väsby, then a 30-minute walk to the start of the trail, mapped out in the provided map.
By car, head to Eds Kyrka (Eds Church) and take the walking trail south along the lakeside nearby.
The path is smooth and accessible for those with limited mobility, but to approach the carving, they may need assistance venturing into the woods.
The U 201 runestone, situated near Angarns Kyrka in Sweden, commemorates the sons of Toke, who tragically perished in Greece during the Viking Age. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
What else is there to see?
Other notable Greece runestones near Stockholm have the designations U 136, U 201, and U 431.
U 136 was raised by Estrid to honor her husband Östen. It says that he traveled towards Jerusalem but died in Greece.
We are unclear if he was a member of the Varangian Guard or if his trip had a commercial or religious reason.
The stone is located at the site known as Broby bro, near a former Viking grave site, and can be reached through the services of local tour companies, who provide an in-depth guided visit.
You can also go there independently by taking the train from Stockholm Östra to Täby kyrkby and walking for about 30 minutes.
U 201 is located by Angarns Kyrka (Angarns Church) and can be reached in 30 minutes by car from Stockholm. The stone was raised by the sons of Toke, who perished in Greece.
U 431 is located at Norrsunda Church near the highway, close to Stockholm-Arlanda airport. It can be reached either by car in 25 minutes or by taking the train from Stockholm Central to Rosersberg, followed by a 30-minute walk.
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