Norse Sea Runes

By William Sayers, published November 2021


Heroic poems from the Old Norse Edda recommend the carving of runes on ships’ parts, as on weapons, tools and personal artefacts, in order to assure effective sailing, fortunate trading or raiding, and a safe return. Apparent placement establishes a cosmic, top-to-bottom dimension, yet archaeological evidence is scant. The runes might represent the names the letters had in the old futhark alphabet, or other words beginning with the same sound. The L-rune was named laukr in Old Norse and meant ‘leek’ but was also used figuratively of the mast, also tall and straight, making it a suitable object of runic inscription. Such runic inscriptions join the language of sea, which had taboo elements and various kind of indirection in order not to attract ill luck by too clear a statement of one’s purposes. The word víkingr displays this same concern not to be overly explicit, and originally meant no more than ‘going off’.

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