Elizabeth Solopova, ‘The Earliest Runic Inscriptions: Problems of Language and Interpretation’

Paper presented at the British Epigraphy Society Autumn Meeting. (Brief Report by Philip Davies)

The Earliest Runic Inscriptions: Problems of Language and Interpretation

Elizabeth Solopova, Oxford, November 21st, 2009

In keeping with the theme of the British Epigraphy Society’s Autumn Colloquium, (‘Epigraphy, but not as we know it’) this interesting paper took us away from the familiar territories of the Mediterranean to consider the Runic alphabet (or, to give it its proper name, futhark) used by Scandinavian and Germanic peoples from the second century through to, in the case of Scandinavia, the early modern period. Specifically, her paper examined the difficulties of interpreting ‘older runes’, these being the futhark as extant from approximately the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD. After this the futhark entered a phase of transition, developing and diversifying into regional variations, known collectively as ‘younger runes’.

As to evidence for these ‘older runes’, we are limited to some 400 extant inscriptions. In contrast to the ‘younger runes’, ‘older runes’ appear to develop strikingly little across the geographical and chronological range of their usage, as least until the shift to the ‘younger runes’. However, their interpretation remains problematic. Inscriptions have been found of words which have defied translation, and indeed appear to be unpronounceable, such as the word ‘baijsz’, found on the Kårstad Rock in Norway. Furthermore, certain words, which appear frequently (e.g. ‘laukaz’ – leek, ‘lathu’ – invitation, ‘alu’ – ale?), seem to have a ritual significance as magic or charms, being used almost as one might the symbol of a cross. For example, we find ‘alu’ inscribed without any other words upon a gold pendant known as Djupbrunns-C, from Gotland, Sweden. If this might be said to be bordering on non-linguistic uses of letters, we must say this all the more of the Linholm ‘amulet’ from Skåne, Sweden. In this case, Solopova suggests a numerological significance for the following of a more comprehensible inscription with runes translating as ‘aaaaaaaa zzz nnn? bmu ttt: alu:’.

Solopova draws attention to the fact that, even where these inscriptions are comprehensible, they are most often highly formulaic, sometimes to the point of foiling interpretation. A large part of surviving inscriptions are found upon items made of metal, bone etc. Some of these are obvious in purpose, such as the inscription ‘I Hlewagastiz Holtijaz made the horn’, upon the golden horns found at Gallehus, Denmark. Others, however, are far more uncertain in their significance, such as an ankle bone from a deer, found at Caistor-by-Norwich, marked with ‘of a deer’. As to inscriptions upon stones, some formulae are self-evidently memorial in purpose, observing the pattern ‘Eyvindr raised this stone in memory of Gunnhvatr, his son’, as found on the Søgne Stone, from Vest-Agder, Norway. However, others say simply ‘Dagastiz painted runes’ (Einang Stone, Norway) or ‘I wrote runes of divine origin’ (Noleby Stone, Sweden), without any greater statement of the reason for writing these runes.

Not surprisingly, it has been suggested that runes were seen at this time as having an almost magical power, rather than simply being the writing of language. Supported by this apparent lack of linguistic development, Solopova makes the point that the introduction of the runes does not appear to have changed the oral nature of the cultures by which the runes were used. Indeed, though she acknowledges that administrative documents, and other such evidence of everyday use of the ‘older runes’, would be less likely to survive to the present day than the stone, metal and bone objects which form our evidence, the absence of any such evidence supports her argument. Rather she suggests that the futhark remained largely confined to elite groups, nobility, religious figures etc. This would also account for both the archaism and uniformity of the ‘older runes’.

Finally, building upon this, Solopova addresses the question of the origins of the futhark. It is widely agreed that similarities in letter forms and sounds indicate that the futhark was inspired by at least one of the Mediterranean languages, though Latin, Greek and Etruscan have all been suggested as the progenitor in question. At the same time, however, there is a notable difference from these alphabets in the ordering of letters within the futhark. Indeed, the term futhark derives from the first six letters of the runic alphabet (f-u-th-a-r-k). Solopova argues that this indicates a conscious effort to differentiate the futhark from whichever language, or languages, provided its inspiration. In conclusion, Solopova suggests that this was the action of an individual or small group of individuals, associating it with priestly figures, who would also have formed a large part of the ‘rune literate’ population, arguably encouraging its ongoing conservatism.

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