The article we present to you in this way is a continuation of the articles “Skald Þorbjǫrn Carved Runes” and “I Carve Healing Runes“, which were created in previous years and which aim to realistically show everyday work with runes in the Early Middle Ages. This time we chose a specific group of ordinate household tools – whorls – that bear individual runic letters or entire inscriptions on their surface. As far as we know, the everyday objects of the Old North have not been analyzed from that perspective, and therefore some conclusions need to be seen as an entrance door to a thousand-year-old mentality rather than as final conclusions. At the same time, it should be emphasized that the texts we will analyze here were not perceived as much magical, ritual or ceremonial at the time of their creation, but as a functional practical part of everyday life.
In Early medieval Scandinavia, yarn was spun in such a way that the combed, prepared wool was wrapped on a distaff (rokkr), which consisted of a wooden stick that was placed under the armpit, leaving the spinner with both hands free. To the distaff, a manual spindle (snælda) was connected, consisting of an organic shaft and whorl, which served as a weight and a rotary flywheel at the bottom of the shaft (for technical details, see Březinová 2007: 76-80). The yarn released by the rotary motion was manually wound around the shaft, which, once filled, served as a spool and the whorl was pushed onto the next shaft.
In Old Nordic society, spinning was a traditional female activity (eg Jesch 1991: 14, 19, 41; Jochens 1995: 135-136; Petersen 1951: 302; although as we will see later the problem is somewhat more complicated), which was practised from early youth (see cat. no. 36) to old age probably in every spare time. It was considered a major toil if the household was able to produce yarn for twelve-elbow long cloth in a day (≈ 3.6 km) (Anderson – Swenson 2002: 194). Thanks to such production it was possible for the farm to be self-sufficient in textile terms.
In this work we will focus on whorls that were created between 500-1500 and their manufacturers or owners considered it important to mark them with runes. From the total number of thousands of whorls, we were able to collect 56 pieces that fall into this category. This group is further divided into the years 500-1100 (14 pieces) and 1100-1500 (42 pieces). For whorls we will comment on their geographical distribution, materials, informative value of inscriptions, producers and owners. Last two pieces from the list were added after the analyses were done, and therefore are not included in the further parts of the text.
List of runic whorls can be found here:
In this chapter, we will focus on the number of runic whorls, their geographical distribution and the materials from which they were made. The following mapping will be decisive for our conclusions.
Distribution of runic whorls in Europe, 500-1500.
Click on the map for a larger resolution.
First of all, we can notice some differences between defined periods – from the period 500-1100 we found 14 pieces (25.9%), while from the period 1100-1500 we found 40 pieces (74.1%). This difference is interpreted by the emergence of cities such as Trondheim or Oslo, which are systematically explored by archaeologists. Especially from the examples of the medieval sites Igalik / Gardar (6 pieces) and Trondheim (4 pieces), it is clear that statistics is influenced by well-explored craft centers. Greater literacy in later period, which would lead to more inscriptions, is debatable.
Runic inscriptions on whorls are related to Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture. Their most frequent representation can be found in Sweden and Norway. In these countries, the frequency of their occurrence in relation to the total volume is more or less balanced in both observed periods (Sweden 28.6% : 32.5%; Norway 28.6% : 25%), suggesting a certain tradition. Surprisingly, we do not find any runic whorls on the territory of today’s Denmark. In the older period, under the influence of the Old Nordic diaspora (“Viking conquests”) runic whorls began to appear in Iceland (7.1% : 12.5%), Great Britain (28.6% : 0%) and Latvia (7.1% : 0%). In the younger period, Great Britain and Latvia are disappearing from this list, while Greenland (0%: 27.5%) and Ukraine (0%: 2.7%) are increasing. In countries that have only been in temporary contact with the Norse cultural circuit (Great Britain, Latvia, Ukraine), there is no long-standing tradition of using runic whorls. The whorls thus implicitly resonate the movement of people and thoughts at the time they were made.
Distribution of runic whorls dated to 500-1100 and 1100-1500.
Higher resolution here.
If we look at the materials of runic whorls from a higher perspective, we can notice the predominance of whorls of soapstone (28.6% : 36.8%). Other materials used for production include lead (14.3% : 7.9%), slate (14.3% : 7.9%), wood (7.1 : 5.3%), sandstone (0% : 13.2%), limestone (7.1% : 2.6%), palagonite (7.1% : 2.6%) and jet (7.1% : 0%). We do not find runic inscriptions on ceramic, iron, glass, bone and amber whorls. The absence of ceramic pieces may be the reason why we do not know the runic whorls from Denmark. As many as 88% of the whorls from Haithabu are made of burnt clay (Anderson 2003: 118). Most of the rune whorls are made of materials that can be easily engraved or cast.
Runic whorl materials dated to 500-1100 and 1100-1500.
Higher resolution here.
A slightly more precise picture is shown when examining the materials in separate country. Soapstone, which seems to be the most common in the general comparison, was obtained in Norway (Hansen – Jansen – Heldal 2017: 254-255), and so it is not surprising that almost half of all Norwegian whorls were made of this material (Petersen 1951: 304-305) and it dominates in the case of rune whorls. For other countries, runic whorls were largely made from other regionally available stones. In the case of Sweden, sandstone, limestone and slate were included, which are also found in whorls of Birka (Anderson 2003: 75). Although we know soapstone whorls from Iceland (Eldjárn 2000: 399-400; Traustadóttir 2015: 320, 324), rune whorls are made of slate, palagonite and sandstone. Soapstone, which is not naturally present in Iceland, had to be imported in the form of raw material or finished products. It is important to note that whorls could have been made, for example, from broken soapstone dishes or broken and worn slate grinders (Anderson 2003: 75).
We will go further and see what the inscriptions carved in the whorls can tell us. We will try to make as broad comment as possible to help put the reserved and unclear messages into context. The texts can be divided into seven categories:
The following chart then reveals the internal interdependence of these groups of inscriptions.
Inscription naming the object
In three cases the word snáld (“whorl”) appears in the inscriptions: “Gunnhildr made whorl” (cat. no. 6), “Helga owns this whorl” (cat. no. 8), “whorl” (cat. no. 25). Runic inscriptions of this type are not unusual: for example, we know a spoon handle with the words “spoon spoon” (Gr 64), a pin with the word “pin” (Knirk 1997: 9) and the hammer amulet from Købelev with the words “this is a hammer“. These inscriptions are often interpreted as trivial creations of forgetful people, but this seems to us to be a misguided idea. A more realistic idea is that these inscriptions served as teaching prop, which can be close to the inscription placed on a wooden crossbar that says “This is an open window. Closed window” (N A240). These inscriptions do not seem to fit among those that are rather mocking, entertaining, testing or informing a potential reader. At least in some cases, the runic inscriptions seem to have the character of self-praise from a well done job: “Þorfastr made a good comb” (Br E4), “Andrés carved these runes and made this, the first door-hinge” (N 159), “Árni Þorsteinsson made me and Háleikr Gautason owns me. Thus he did with healthy hands. This was carved on Sunday towards evening” (N 178). Nor should we exclude the possibility that the manufacturer of the inscription, which names the object, was fascinated by the fact that it is possible to record the idea and essence by means of letters. The association of the name of the thing and its power could have practical significance, as it could block possible efforts to enchant the subject. The whorl was originally a wildlife object that was worked and incorporated into human culture. From the period perspective, it was possible enchant the object and ask the giants to seize it and hurt the owner of the object. The awakening of the giant in stone is documented by the inscription N B252. Thus, the word “whorl” could be a safeguard or counter-attack that supported or multiplied the functioning of the object. Such a support “supportive” function of runes also explicitly mentioned in runic inscriptions DR 295 and U Fv1984;257.
Stone whorl from Uppstad (C28808), cat. no. 8. Taken from Unimus catalog.
Inscription related to production
The seven inscriptions are explicitly related to the production of whorls or inscriptions: “Gautr engraved runes” (cat. no. 4), “Gunnhildr made whorls” (cat. no. 6), “[…] these runes on […]” (cat. no. 14), “[…] made […]” (cat. no. 32), “Hólma made this at Sigtyggr’s place” (cat. no. 33), “Girl wrote me” (cat. no. 36), “made by Sigríð / made for Sigríð” (cat. no. 53). Although whorls could be branded, it seems that they were made at home (see cat. no. 33) according to standard shapes. As we can see, there are only one male manufacturer and three female producers in our list. It may be interesting to find out that women made their own tools. Whorls may have been gifts of love as well, as suggests the wooden whorl of Oslo (cat. no. 22): “Nikulás loves a woman called Gýríðr, step-daughter of Pitas-Ragna.” Among other things, the inscription could have helped in the eventual dispute over whorl by proving the owner’s argument for legal ownership, as will be discussed below.
We can also mention that the inscriptions were mostly engraved with sharp points, probably knives, or were cast together with the whorls. The position of the inscriptions depends on the shape of the whorl – the inscription is usually placed on flat sides or on the perimeter, but the inscriptions on the beveled sides are no exception.
Soapstone whorl from Sigtuna (Sl 64; fyndnr. 48313), cat. no. 33.
Photo: Bengt A. Lundberg, 1999.
A total of nine whorls originally marked their owners: “Vilborg owns me” (cat. no. 5), “Helga owns this whorl” (cat. no. 8), “Þóra owns me” (cat. no. 17), “[ …] unn owns me” (cat. no. 19), “Kristin owns me” (cat. no. 29), “[…] owns me” (cat. no. 31), “[…] Jón owns me” (cat. no. 38), “[…] own chaplain” (cat. no. 40), “[…]ldur owns me“(cat. no. 43). In the other seven cases, whorls indicate the name without any further information, and can be assumed to be the manufacturer or owner: “Jóhanna” (cat. no. 16), “Hróðþrúðr” (cat. no. 21), “Ingivaldr” (cat. no. 28), “Rǫgn[valdr]” (cat. no. 44), “Bjarni” (cat. no. 48), “Óláfr” (cat. no. 49), “Sigríðr” (cat. no. 54). It is possible that separate runes found on some whorls may also be abbreviations of the owner’s name.
As we can see, six whorls were owned by women and two by men, which is also an interesting finding that supports the view that male members of household helped with spinning (Foote – Wilson 1990: 168). As we mentioned above, people with whorls have been working for a large part of their lives, so they have built a certain relationship with their instruments that is reflected through the inscription. In addition, identifying the owner could be a simple tool to recognize own whorl and prevent disputes. Signed whorls could be harder to steal because they would be easily identifiable. Another potential function of such an inscription is to ensure functionality only for the signed person and no other. In this context, however, it is interesting to note that none of the runic whorls was found in the grave, although whorls commonly became a grave inventory. It is possible that they were in circulation until they were lost or destroyed.
Inscription outlining the relationship of two people
In addition to the above-mentioned inscription from Oslo (cat. no. 22), which mentions the love relationship between man and woman, and the inscription from Sigtuna (cat. no. 33), which mentions the name of a woman living under the patronage of man, two names can be probably found in the inscription from Saltfleetby (cat. no. 1), ending with the names “Úlfljótr and [kiriuesf]”. This particular inscription seeks protection for both mentioned. A potential fourth candidate is the inscription “handshakes” (cat. no. 7), which uses a legal term to confirm an oral obligation. According to Olsen (1954: 221), this whorl could be a gift of a man to a woman, and the inscription could refer to an agreement or bond between them. At least one runic inscription speaks of “runes of joy and runes of friendship” (teitirúnar ok ævinrúnar; DR NOR1988;5) that we could possible see in inscriptions naming two people.
Whorl from Saltfleetby, cat. no. 1 Photo: Lincolnshire County Council.
Invocation for protection, wishing luck, invocation of agents
Up to five inscriptions can be evaluated as protective: “Óðinn and Heimdallr and Þjálfa, they will help you, Úlfljótr and […]” (cat. no. 1), “choice / good” (cat. no. 12), “Pax Portanti, Salus habenti. Ingvaldr” (cat. no. 28), “María” (cat. nos. 18 and 51). The runic inscription cat. no. 28, which is in Latin, most clearly shows the function of such inscription: “Peace to the wearer, prosperity to the owner. Ingivaldr”. Similar invocations can also be found in other inscriptions: “Hail both he who carved, and he who interprets” (N 169), “Hail to you and good thoughts. May Þórr receive you, may Óðinn own you” (N B380). This is not a simple statement, runes are expected to provide what they say – that is, to help the owner in good health and mental condition and turn her or him away from danger. In the article “I Carve Healing Runes“, we have shown that runes assembled in the right sequence were expected to have healing power, while inscriptions poorly assembled could make the patient suffer. It is symptomatic that positive agents, such as the Óðin – Heimdallr – Þjálfa trinity and Saint Mary, are called to help. Such an invocations usually indicate urgency in medical inscriptions. However, the negative agents are sometimes also called to do a specific action.
Whorl from Lunne, cat. no. 28. Photo: Bengt A. Lundberg, 1996.
Alphabet or spelling text
In case of four whorls, we can find a partial or complete alphabet: “María fuþorkhniastbmly” (cat. no. 18), “abcdefghiklmnopurstøy” (cat. no. 26), “fuþoʀkhmi” (cat. no. 34), “fuÞorkhniastmlyøkhp Jón owns me” (cat. no. 38). While the second inscription is rather atypical, others have numerous analogies, as will be shown. Before we move on, we need to mention three more whorls with “runic spellers”: “fufofafi [ruro]rari kukokaki huhohahi nunonani tutotati bubob[abi m]umoma milulolali frufrofrafri nribu. Grasp the runes from me! You will challenge most people” (cat. no. 11),”fufofafife” (cat. no. 20), “fifafufofyfi” (cat. no. 27).
It is generally accepted that all inscriptions of this kind are related to the process of learning. If we look at the whorl of Sigtuna (cat. no. 11), this conclusion is unquestionable – the inscription should serve as a reader’s challenge. A very similar wording can be read at the shipboard from Brørs: “I have therefore learned: fe fu fa fø fuþorkhnieø sbpmtlæy fatatratkatnatpatbatmat” (N A24). Learning in syllables is well attested in primary education in medieval Novgorod (Janin 2007: 49-51). We do not know whether runes were taught on a daily basis, but the lessons were certainly not as intense as today’s study. The average Early Medieval user of runes probably did not read and write daily. At the same time, there were no textbooks or exercise books – the most common engraving material could be a piece of wood, bone and stone. Indeed, if we look at the objects that bear the complete fuþark or its variants the most often, we find that pieces of bone (eg N B490, N A203, N A205, N A216, DR 301, DR EM85;458A-B, U Fv1973;197B), wooden sticks (eg N B17, N A15, N A62, DR EM85;371A, GR 76, GR NOR1999;7) or pieces of stones (eg DR 21) are the most prominent. The trial version of ornaments cut into bone scraps are interesting analogies (Lang – Caulfield 1988; MacGregor 1985: 195-197; O’Meadhra 1979). Sometimes fuþarks are supplemented with inscriptions that could be interpreted as language puns (GR 76) or tentative love messages (N B17). Inscriptions may be the results of trying to learn runes, but could also serve as a tool for those who did not write long and needed to practice.
However, if they only were teaching props, we would find the texts of this kind on waste material, but this is very far from true. The complete fuþark can be found on a number of utility items: whetstones (eg G 281, G 237, G 311), needles (eg DR EM85;470C), leather sheaths (eg DR Fv1988;237), knife handles (eg. N B26, U Fv1992;161C, Sö Fv1965;136, Vs Fv1992;173), drinking horns (eg N 229), mills (eg U F2;43, Vs 26), combs (eg N A18, DR EM85;466B, Sö Fv1981;197), church bells (eg N 15, Vg 205), baptisteries (eg DR 224, Vg 259, Vr 4), church roofs (eg DR EM85;440A, DR EM85;522, Hs ATA322-2795-2011), pendants (eg Vg 207, Nä 10) and similar. It is evident that this has been a constinual practice for at least a thousand years, sometimes standing very close to our concept of vandalism: the comb Sö Fv1981;197 is described by three complete fuþarks, the beam Hs ATA322-2795-2011 is engraved with the inscription “fu fuþ fuþo fuþor fuþork“, the interior of church in Hemse (G 56) was painted with twenty-one fuþarks. Needless to say, we are dealing with something deeper than just teaching props. Even runestones and inscriptions in churches, the most formal types of inscriptions, contain texts like these. For example, the runestone from Gørlev bears an inscription saying: “Þjóðvé raised this stone in memory of Oðinkárr. fuþorkhniastbmlʀ. Make good use of the monument! þmkiiissstttiiilll. I placed the runes rightly. Gunni, Arnmundr” (DR 239). The church engraving from Grötlingbo even says “May Jesus be gracious to all Christian souls. Amen. Fuþork. May Jesus be gracious to Óttarr’s soul (…) Jóhan (…) fuþorkhniastblmR (…) Ólafr (…) May God be gracious to the soul. Interpret fuþorkhniastblmR (…)” (G 38). A similar wording, including the “interpret” encouragement, can be found in the church of Lye (G 104A , G 104E).
To the extent that one can judge, fuþark inscriptions appear to be a formula which is related to the very essence of the runic script. The formula benefits from the completeness of the runic alphabet, whose potency ensures good luck and successful functioning. Therefore, the function of such a text can stand very close to invocation for protection.
If we gather enough finds, the rune whorls can be the gateway to the fascinating world of runes, runes that name the object, support and ensure the functionality and determine the owner. The combination of runic inscriptions with whorls could be perceived as an exceptionally powerful combination – in family sagas, the spindles are described as magical instruments capable of influencing the events around them. It is not impossible that a rotating motion could help activate or multiply the runic inscription functions.
Nevetherless, one question still remains. If the runic whorls were powerful enough to help, why do not we know more of them? We will not give a single explanatory answer to this question, but we can propose several sub-solutions:
The work on the above presented article revealed a fascinating phenomenon that lasted up to 1400 years and which unfortunately lies beyond the interest of both researchers and reenactors. This supplement is intended to serve as a starting point for all those interested in spiritual and material culture, and at the same time to inspire the reenactors to consider including inscriptions when creating replicas. The supplement is divided into archaeological and literary parts. In the archaeological part, it is possible to find lists and mapping of runic inscriptions on selected subjects. In the literary part, we include runic inscriptions mentioned in the Family sagas, Kings’ sagas, Bishops’ sagas, lawbooks and Poetic Edda. From this comparison, it is then possible to draw conclusions if there is a consensus or a difference.
Rune swords, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps metal and wooden swords, scabbards and baldrics with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Axes and Axehammers, 200-1600 AD
The following list maps axeheads (metal and stone) and shafts with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1600 AD.
Runic Spears, 150-1100 AD
The following list maps spear-tips and shafts with runic inscriptions from the period 150-1100 AD.
Runic Shields, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps shield-bosses, handles and fittings with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Arrows, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps metal and stone arrow-tips and shafts from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic knives, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps knives and their components (blades, handles, sheaths) with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Whetstones and Touchstones, 500-1600 AD
The following list maps whetstones and touchstones with runic inscriptions from the period 500-1600 AD.
Runic Belts, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps buckles and strap-ends with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Fishing Tools, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps runic weights and floats with runic inscriptions from 200-1500 AD.
Runic Ships and Boats, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps oars and ship/boat planks with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Horns, 200-1500 AD
The following list maps drinking and signal horns with runic inscriptions from the period 200-1500 AD.
Runic Vessels, 500-1500 AD
The following list maps eating bowls, cups, barrels, cauldrons, washing basins and hanging bowls that are decorated with runes.
The list below is based on Family sagas, Kings’ sagas, Bishops’ sagas, lawbooks, and Poetic Edda. The most crucial text is Sigrdrífumál, which illustrates the existence of a spectrum of runes ranging from mundane function (engraving into objects) to intangible knowledge and mysteries (engraving into liquids, body parts of mythical beings and memory). We encompass all work with runes from this spectrum. The idea of intangible runes is certainly fascinating and is broadly discussed by Jiří Starý (2004: 147-152).
When the written sources mention the writing of runes, runes primarily serve as a practical tool of understanding and a tool of gaining benefit or protection. Being the utility script, they served as well for neutral interpersonal communication as for communicating with positive or negative agents. The runes were certainly not stigmatized as pagan characters in literary sources.
Subject and context of runes usage:
The object equipped with runes:
The way how runes are applied:
How runes are activated:
How runes are disactivated:
Anderson, Sarah M. – Swenson, Karen (2002). The Cold Counsel: The Women in Old Norse Literature and Myth, New York – London : Routledge.
Andersson, Eva Birgitta (2003). Tools for Textile Production – from Birka and Hedeby, Birka studies 8, Stockholm.
Březinová, Helena (2007). Textilní výroba v českých zemích ve 13.-15. století : poznání textilní produkce na základě archeologických nálezů, Praha : Ústav pro pravěk a ranou dobu dějinnou, Filozofická fakulta, Univerzita Karlova.
Eldjárn, Kristján (2000). Kuml of haugfé, Reykjavík.
Foote, Peter – Wilson, David M. (1990). The Viking Achievement, Bath.
Hansen, Gitte – Jansen, Øystein J. – Heldal, Tom (2017). Soapstone Vessels from Town and Country in Viking Age and Early Medieval Western Norway. A Study of Provenance. In: Gitte Hansen – Per Storemyr (eds.). Soapstone in the North Quarries, Products and People 7000 BC – AD 1700, Bergen: University of Bergen, 249-328.
Janin, Valentin Lavren (2007). Středověký Novgorod v nápisech na březové kůře, Červený Kostelec.
Jesch, Judith (1991). Women in the Viking Age, Woodbridge: Boydell.
Jochens, Jenny (1995). Women in Old Norse Society, Ithaca – London: Cornell University Press.
Knirk, James E. (ed.) (1997). Nytt om runer : Meldingsblad om runeforskning, Nr. 11, Oslo.
Lang, James T., – Caulfield, Debbie (1988). Viking-age decorated wood: a study of its ornament and style, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
MacGregor, Athur (1985). Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period, London.
Olsen, Magnus (1954). Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer, Bind III: Aust-Agder, Vest-Agder, Rogaland, Oslo.
O’Meadhra, Uaininn (1979). Early Christian, Viking and Romanesque Art: Motif-pieces from Ireland, Stockholm.
Petersen, Jan (1951). Vikingetidens redskaper. Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske videnskapsakademi i Oslo 2, Oslo.
Starý, Jiří (2004). Runové písmo. In: Souvislosti: Revue pro literaturu a kulturu, 15/3, Praha, 138-154.
Traustadóttir, Ragnheiður (2015). Spindle Whorls from Urriðakot. In: Irene Baug – Janicke Larsen – Sigrid Samset Mygland (eds.). Nordic Middle Ages – Artefacts, Landscapes and Society, Bergen: University of Bergen, 317-330.16. března 2020
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