Norse people carved runic inscriptions onto sticks of wood,
stones and other objects. They have turned up all over
Scandinavia, the British Isles and other places where runes were
used, often etched on personal items such as weapons, brooch
pins and combs. Personal names occur frequently. Among the many
examples of ancient runic writing for study, we find that the use of code was common.
“It was very common to use codes.
Much of the population mastered them. That’s why I think they
were something people picked up at the same time they learned
the runic alphabet. If you had learned to read and write, you
had also learned codes,” says Nordby.
Knowledge of this system of written
communication could be transferred from generation to generation
by linking it to games, poetry, and codes, Nordby suggests. Even
as we do today, when teaching children language in spoken and written
forms, using time-tested games, songs and even
simple cyphers. The rune poems, which appear in most of the
Scandinavian languages, are another example of this kind of
ancient Nordic popular instruction.
Some think of it as a kind of
medieval text message, encrypted to be read by a select few whom
you knew understood the code— perhaps, but its also more than
"We have little reason to believe the
runic codes were used to conceal sensitive information. People
often wrote short, routine messages," says Nordby. He continues,
“I think the codes were used in play and for learning runes,
rather than to communicate.”
As with the rune songs,
Nordby thinks that the Vikings may have memorized rune names
with the help of the jötunvillur code. All runes have names, and
the jötunvillur code works by exchanging the rune sign with the
last sound in the rune’s name. For example, the rune for the
letter m is called “maðr” so it is encoded with the rune for R.
The difficulty comes determining exactly which runic letter the
code intends, since many runes end in the same sound.
"The thing that
solved it for me was seeing these two old Norse names, Sigurd
and Lavrans, and after each of them was this combination of
runes which made no sense," said Nordby.
code is found on only nine inscriptions, from different parts of
Scandinavia, and has never been interpreted before. So far, what
Nordby calls his "Rosetta stone" is the only place in which it
is possible to be sure what the jötunvillur code says, although
he believes another rune stick may well have been inscribed with
the name Thorstein, and another with the name Einar.
The sticks on which the code has been
written, said Nordby, are "everyday objects, so you often find
names on them, either because they used them to communicate that
it was something they wanted to keep or sell, or for practising
writing, or because they were talking about people so names
Many rune sticks have been excavated
in Scandinavia, dating back to the 1100s and 1200s, he said.
Just a few use codes, and even fewer use the jötunvillur code.
"They were used to communicate, like the text messages of the
Middle Ages – they were for frequent messages which had validity
in the here and now," he said. "Maybe a message to a wife, or a