The biggest challenge when writing about the Vikings is that they left no written records in the conventional sense. Everything written about them was written by those who suffered at their hands. However, the Vikings did actually leave a form of written history. It is in an alphabet called “Runic” and carved on large stones. There are around 2,500 of these stones, rune stones, in Sweden, most of them are in the area just north of Stockholm.
The inscriptions often give tantalising snippets of information behind which must be many stories of tragedy in far off countries. Above all, they highlight what incredible travellers the Vikings were and often show how important trade was to them.
Two parents living on the island of Gotland had three nearly identical rune stones carved in memory of their sons, all of whom appear to have died on the same journey. The inscription reads, “Rodvisl and Rodälv have raised these stones in memory of their sons, this one is for Rodfos. He was murdered by the “Walacker”. God have mercy on his soul and punish his murderers.” (Walacker were the inhabitants of what is now Rumania, see page 136 in Finn’s Fate). The cross on the stone shows the early influence of Christianity among Vikings.
These next two rune stones highlight the fact that although the Vikings are thought of as aggressive raiders, in fact much of their activity was trading. The men remembered on these stones were probably on trading journeys. The ones mentioned on the first rune stone above, killed by the “Walackers”, were so far south that it is likely that they were travelling to or from Istanbul. Such trading journeys could be hugely profitable, but also extremely dangerous as the travellers had to pass through hostile territories where robbers, well aware of the value of the goods in transport, lay in wait.
The Vikings traded furs, amber and slaves for silks, jewellery, wines and spices. In order to protect their cargoes they would travel in well armed convoys. However, there were places where they were vulnerable, in particular where they had to drag their boats out of rivers to make a portage, that is, to drag their vessels over land to the next waterway.
The runestones can also tell us something of the pre-Christian beliefs of the Vikings. In the stone below, the woman depicted holding the drinking horn is a Valkyrie. She is welcoming a warrior who is from the ship shown at the bottom of the stone. He has been killed in battle and she is admitting him to Valhalla.”
It is believed that runestones were originally painted in bright colours. This stone is a modern copy and has been painted with the colours indicated by the traces of pigments found on old stones.
Viking rune stones have been found in other countries too. This one was discovered in St Paul’s churchyard, London.
And the Vikings were not above boasting about themselves. This rare 11th C. rune stone was commissioned by a sea captain while he was still alive and says, “Vigmund had the stone carved for himself, the cleverest of men. God help the soul of Vigmund the ship’s captain”