Brian Murdoch

title.none: Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Brian Murdoch)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.008 06.05.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian Murdoch, University of Stirling,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Spurkland, Terje. Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell press, 2005. Pp. ix, 206. $49.95 1-84383-186-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.08

Spurkland, Terje. Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell press, 2005. Pp. ix, 206. $49.95 1-84383-186-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Brian Murdoch
University of Stirling

The English title of this book, which first appeared in 2001, is slightly misleading, and its somewhat biblical original, I begynnelsen var futhark , though slightly closer, is itself not entirely reflective of the content, which covers, as the preface makes clear, the rise and fall, of runic writing in Norway in particular, but also elsewhere. Some references to Sweden are inevitable, of course, but attention is paid to runes in Orkney (admittedly part of Denmark-Norway until 1469) and indeed to runic inscriptions on the Isle of Man. The author makes it clear, too, that this is a survey volume, aiming to present an overview of the use of runic down to the High Middle Ages, with selected examples only, for which the accepted (although that word, too, can be a debatable one) interpretations are largely adopted. The general-introductory intent of the work is underlined by the often engagingly informal tone of the writing/translation.

As an overview of what runic is, and what kind of material has been preserved in the various versions of that script, the book is useful, and it is worth noting that all the inscriptions cited are given in transcription, transliteration and then both in normalised Old Norse versions and English translation. As with all medieval texts, such a progression can admit speculation at every single stage, of course, even the simple reading of what is there, but the descriptions are invariably careful, and point out where there are disputed readings. In that sense, then, it takes its place beside other introductions to runic, such as those by Page, Elliott, Dü:wel and others, this time with an emphasis on Norwegian material, where Elliott, say, focuses upon English material. What emerges from the book as well, however, is the much-repeated lesson that runology is and will presumably always be highly speculative, and apparently confident interpretations especially of early, but also of late texts, can be highly dubious.

The book takes us from a presentation of the earliest forms of the runic alphabet (in spite of the initial quibble, the futhark is generically an alphabet in the normal definition of the word), through to the earliest inscriptions, beginning with the Gallehus horn. Here the linguistic relations are somewhat unclear (proto-Scandinavian is a questionable term: common Germanic is more familiar) and it would be worth mentioning that the "ek erilaR" formula on the Bratsberg buckle or brooch (here p. 67) is a known (but not really understood) formula found in a number of other cases. The precise correlation of runic inscriptions with language in the earliest forms is itself notoriously difficult. Spurkland argues for there being a greater variation in what may then be seen as contemporaneous dialect forms, rather than such variations being markers for chronological distinction, but he is necessarily tentative, and the impression (to which he refers) that the interpreter can, and often does, make of the earliest runic inscriptions "what he has predetermined it should" mean is not diminished. The message that one carries away from this study (and indeed from other similar works) remains to an extent a counsel of despair. Beyond the simplest inscriptions (here categorised rightly as being of the "Kilroy was here" variety, or of the kind "X cut the runes", "X made this..."), both early and later inscriptions have very frequently remained opaque as to sense. Of course, the celebratedly enigmatic nature of skaldic verse, for example, often stretches the interpretative imagination, and the same applies to many of the early runic pieces especially, but care always has to be taken. In a number of cases, too, the actual rune-monuments have (partially) disappeared and we are dependent upon engravings (as with the Gallehus horn, or the boulder at Kvamme).

A full chapter is devoted to the Eggja Stone, where the difficulties in interpretative methodology are paradigmatic. The stone is weathered and difficult to read, and its original function, covering a chamber grave (or cenotaph?) with the runes (plus a carving of a horse) on the underside is equally enigmatic. Spurkland points out the danger of the circular logic of establishing what the text seems to be about, and then of making the individual words fit the presupposition, and discusses also the question of the supposed external circumstances in which the text was created. What is important here is that the Eggja monument has given rise to an enormous divergence of opinion, and here we are shown the interpretations of Magnus Olsen, Lis Jacobsen and most recently Ottar Grønvik, which Spurkland declares, though others may disagree, of course, to be the most convincing. That reading, in fact, which implies a shipwreck by rigging failure, has itself, depending upon the dating, further-reaching implications for the early existence of rigged ships--all of this illustrating another temptation and danger if the interpretation is not (completely) correct. In any case it is radically different from those of Olsen, Jacobsen, Krause and more than a further half-dozen other interpretations.

Spurkland sees the Eggja Stone as a testament to the "sweeping linguistic changes that marked the transition from Proto-Scandinavia to Old Norse" (72), and then moves very quickly to the developments in the futhark itself which is of course attested in Scandinavia in the sixteen-rune versions and also in the abbreviated Hä:lsinge runes. This is clearly presented, with the differences between Swedish and Norwegian inscriptions now coming to the fore (the serpents on such famous Swedish monuments as the Gripsholm or the Broby Stone are not matched in Norway). So too we are now in a period where Christian and historical references can make things a lot easier, and of particular interest is the stone (now fragmented, but backed up by seventeenth-century drawings) from Galteland, referring to the loss of a Viking in the invading army of Cnut in England early in the eleventh century. Even at this period, however, there are often interpretative problems (now frequently of identifying names). In the Christian context, Spurkland devotes some space to the crosses on Man. The Roman form of the name IHSVS (discussed p. 126) is, however, by no means as surprising as here implied. Ihesus is a regular manuscript spelling, and far from this being a noteworthy Greek eta, the regular 'e' may simply have been lost. As indicated, Spurkland also discusses in detail the many runic inscriptions made by the storm-trapped crusaders in Maes Howe on Orkney in the mid-twelfth century, which indicate not only the general banality of many runic inscriptions as simple graffiti (raising questions about the supposed magical qualities of the runes; "Eyolfr...carved these runes up high"), but also point on to the final chapter, which shows even more clearly not only the loss of anything magical, but how even late inscriptions can attract over-inventive interpretations. Of course the same happens with written documents in early Germanic languages (such as the "Starzfidere" verse in Old High German). Early written texts match runic ones in various respects, even unto using an adjacent-letter code in one case. But the reading of the Nord-Gudbrandsdal "marriage proposal" stick is here presented in the form of an extended speculative narrative, and only then with a disclaimer. And could one really carve runes as quickly? So too the (homo-)erotic texts need hardly be realistic, and might equally be just insulting, or even wishful thinking. We do, however, get an idea of the enormous range in this late material, from prayers to a love-song (which echoes both the early German "ich bin din/du bist min" and more recent pop lyrics), to a line of Virgil's 10th Eclogue (the familiar omnia vincit amor ) in runic letters.

The book is nicely produced and illustrated. Especially useful is the provision throughout for each inscription discussed of transcription, transliteration, (supposed) Old Norse equivalent and translation, while a large number of the monuments are also shown in variable photographs (the Eggja Stone is not very instructive in the full photograph, though the close-up is useful) or drawings (as with the ciphered runes in Maes Howe). The book is a readable extended introductory work focussing largely on runes in or associated with Norway, although some of the interpretations have been presented or endorsed perhaps too enthusiastically. The central message remains the methodological one: interpreting a given runic text requires a range of interacting (and sometimes dangerously interdependent) skills, one of which is knowing when not to be too inventive.