Verse on Runestones

by | Aug 4, 2020

Viking Age runestones most often contain a memorial formula for deceased relatives, but did you know that some are formulated as poetry?

Probably the most famous runestone with a poetic inscription is the Karlevi runestone (Öl 1) on the Swedish island of Öland. The stone dates to just before the year 1000 AD and still stands in its original location in a field within view of Öland’s western shore. The stone was raised in memory of the local chieftain Sibbi, son of Foldarr.

What is remarkable though, is the fact that the memorial formula is followed by a complete verse in dróttkvætt (”lordly meter”). This meter belongs to the genre of Skaldic poetry, a style which is known for its extremely complicated meter and alliterative patterns that must have been as chellenging to compose as they are to read and interpret. The inscription is as follows:

Transliteration of runes:

+ s-a… –(s)- i(a)s · satr · aiftir · si(b)(a) · kuþa · sun · fultars · in hons ·· liþi · sati · at · u · -ausa-þ-… +: fulkin : likr : hins : fulkþu : flaistr (:)· uisi · þat · maistar · taiþir : tulka · þruþar : traukr : i : þaimsi · huki · munat : raiþ:uiþur : raþa : ruk:starkr · i · tanmarku : –ntils : iarmun··kruntar : urkrontari : lonti

 Translation into English:

He lies concealed,

he who was followed

by the greatest deeds (most men knew that),

a chieftain (battle-tree of [the Goddess] Þrúðr)

in this howe;

Never again shall such a battle-hardened sea-warrior (Viðurr-of-the-Carriage of [the Sea-king]

Endill’s mighty dominion ( = God of the vessels of the sea) ),

rule unsurpassed over land in Denmark.

As impressive as it is, the Karlevi runestone is not the only one bearing verse. Another example with a sort verse is the Fyrby runestone (Sö 56), where the memorial formula itself has been written in alliterative verse:

Transliteration of Runic Swedish:

iak · uait : hastain : þa : hulmstain : bryþr · menr : rynasta : a : miþkarþi : setu : stain : auk : stafa : marga eftiR · fraystain · faþur · sin ·

Translation into English:

I know Hásteinn and Holmsteinn, the most rune-skilled brothers in Middle Earth, placed many a stone and staff in memory of Freysteinn, their father.

Especially interesting is that the names of the brothers, Hásteinn and Holmsteinn, alliterate (which fits into the verse very nicely), and also share the second name element — steinn with each other and their father, which is a very old method of naming children and would eventually fall into disuse in later centuries. It also appears that verse on runestones became far less common after about 1050 AD, when most people chose to use the standard memorial formula: ”NAME raise this stone in memory of NAME, her/his RELATIVE.”