Returning to England from Sweden with my notebook full of ideas for my next Viking story and my camera memory almost full with pictures of rune stones, artefacts and historical sites, I had a wait for my BA flight in Terminal 3 at Stockholm airport. The mind of a researcher is always enquiring and I immediately found myself drawn to an enormous exhibit in the waiting hall. It was a rune stone which had been discovered in April 1990, when the motorway from Stockholm to the airport was being constructed.
The rune stone design gives a clue to the period when it was carved. In the centre of the traditional writing snakes containing runic letters, futhark, there is a cross. This indicates that it was made in the late Viking Age when the local tribes, the Svea, had embraced Christianity. That is not to say that the old pagan practices did not still hold sway and there is a very powerful symbol of this on the stone.
Right in the centre of the cross is a swastika. This symbol in Norse mythology denoted Thor, the principal sky god of the Viking Age. In the Norse tradition, his hammer was used to defend the gods’ celestial stronghold, Asgard, from the giants, the forces of chaos, decay, and destruction. Ritualistically, the symbol of Thor’s hammer was used to consecrate and bless a marriage, a person, an endeavor, a piece of land, or anything else that one wanted to be protected by the forces of cosmic order and against those of anti-cosmic chaos.
The swastika was carved in the middle of the cross as a form of “double insurance” that the person being commemorated would be guaranteed to be taken from one state of being – that of chaos and weakness – to another – that of sacred order and strength. Use of the symbol in this way really does illustrate graphically how tenuous the foothold of Christianity was in Sweden at the time the rune stone was carved.
So when was it carved? The runes on the stone have been translated as, “Gunnar and Björn and Thorgrim set up this stone in memory of Thorsten their brother. He died in the east with Ingvar and built this (bridge?).”
The clue to the date of the rune stone is in the reference to “Ingvar”. However, before considering who Ingvar was it is interesting to note where the stone had been placed and the significance of this.
The land where the rune stone had been found was once very marshy. It is very difficult for the researcher of Viking history to appreciate the topography and geography of central Sweden a thousand years ago. During the Ice Age the land was covered by an almost three-kilometer-thick layer of ice. The weight of this ice depressed the land mass significantly. When at the end of the Ice Age the weight was lifted by the melting of the ice, the land started to rise again. It is still rising. The rate of this rise varies according to latitude, but it can be as much as a centimeter a year. Thus in places, the land is now ten metres higher than it was in the Viking Age. The consequence of this is that what was once shallow sea is now coast, islands have appeared which were once under water and inland waterways have disappeared or become much smaller. In the case of the land where the rune stone was discovered, what was once marshy land is now dry.
It seems that the memorial had been placed by a bridge over a small stream in a marsh. The building of bridges is often mentioned in runic inscriptions and seems to be a way to signify and help the passage from life to an afterlife.
And Ingvar? There are three main theories about who Ingvar was, but all of them agree that he was a chieftain of royal blood. In 1036, the 25-year-old Viking set off with a fleet of around thirty ships and perhaps as many as 2000 men to travel to the Middle East, to Serkland, the land of the Saracens. Serkland is the area around the Caspian Sea. There are various theories about the origins of the name Serkland, but a strong contender is the idea that “Serk”, a word still used in Swedish today meaning “gown”, refers to the fact that it was the land where men wore gowns. Ingvar travelled down the Volga or the Dneiper rivers to the Black Sea and beyond.
The purpose of the expedition was almost certainly a quest for gold. There are 26 runes stones in the area around Stockholm which commemorate men lost on the expedition and several of them mention gold. The stone at Gripsholm says, ““Tóla had this stone raised in memory of her son Haraldr, Ingvar’s brother. They travelled valiantly far for gold, and in the east gave (food) to the eagle. (They) died in the south in Serkland.” . “Food to the Eagle”, is a classic Viking way of saying that someone was killed.
There is no contemporary description of the campaign, only later accounts, many of which may be unreliable. However, according to a contemporary Georgian chronicle, in about 1040, around 3000 Norsemen had travelled from the Black Sea up the River Rioni to Basha. There they agreed to send 700 men to support the Georgian King Bagra in a battle against his enemies. Unfortunately, the battle was lost, but the victors agreed to let the Vikings go free. Legend has it that Ingvar then led his men to Baku in Azerbajan. What happened to the expedition after that is a complete mystery. It is said that just one ship returned to Sweden and the crew of this ship reported that the expedition had ended in disaster.
In 2004 a group of Swedes re-enacted Ingvar’s voyage through the Middle East. The crew were members of an association called “Vittfarne”, or “Wide travelled”. They used a Viking ship, the “Himingläva”, which was specially constructed for the expedition. It was modelled on the famous Norwegian 23 metre long Viking ship which was discovered in 1880, the “Gokstad” ship. The group followed the supposed route of Ingvar from southern Ukraine to Baku.
So, to return to the rune stone at the airport, and assuming that it took at least two years for the single ship to return with news of the fate of Ingvar and his men, the stone must have been carved sometime around 1045. It records what must have been the last great Swedish Viking adventure.
*Futhark – the Viking runic alphabet, named after its first six letters