Pictures on rune stones
The rune-writers are not only Sweden’s first known authors—they are also our oldest named artists. The inscriptions of the rune-masters are not exclusively sources of linguistic, literary and historical interest: their work may also justly claim a place in the history of Swedish art.
Rune carvers like Åsmund Kåresson, Äskil, Fot, Livsten, Balle the Red and Öpir, created and developed the Swedish rune-stone style. Their art is essentially decorative; their feeling for proportion and linear rhythm is often superb. Their art-form—which in its restless and constant movement seems to be an expression of their own times—represents the last offshoot from the animal ornament of the early Germanic peoples. Pictorial representation does occur on a number of stones (see below), but for the most part these belong to monuments of a different order—the picture stones of Gotland.
These Gotland monuments of pictorial art, whose golden age lay as far back as the eighth century, give us rich and living illustrations of myths, legends and poems—most of which are unfortunately totally unknown to us. The subject-matter of the picture series on any given stone—certainly entirely intelligible to the age that created them—is hidden from us in an almost impenetrable obscurity. We have the illustrations but not the captions. (This applies equally of course to pictorial scenes on other ancient objects, in metal for example—from the golden horns of Gallehus onwards.)
From the point of view of art history the Gotland picture stones are of extraordinary interest. With their innumerable figures, their warlike men and proud horses, their ships sailing under lozenge-patterned sails over turbulent seas, they give us a unique glimpse into the picture world of the ancients. But they usually have no runic inscriptions on them, and they are very different in character from the common kind of rune stone—though it is true that the famous Ardre stones, in both ornament and runic inscriptions, stand on the borderline between the two types. Place cannot be found for the Gotland stones in the present account; they deserve a chapter of their own.
As mentioned above, however, pictures are not entirely lacking on the ordinary rune stones, although they are usually in a purely decorative style.
To judge from the pictures on Swedish rune stones, by far the most popular hero of legend was Sigurd, the slayer of Favner the dragon. He is a figure  introduced in several carvings but his story is depicted in most detail and best executed on the famous rock at Ramsund in Södermanland, not far from Eskilstuna. Some of the most dramatic episodes in the hero’s career are reproduced there—not in words, for the runic text is a “bridge” inscription of the usual kind, but in pictures. We see Sigurd in his pit, using enormous force to thrust his broad sword, forged by Regin, through the massive trunk of the dragon’s body—this forms the band in which the runes are inscribed. At the left end of the carved surface lies the body of the treacherous Regin with his head cut off, and immediately to the right of him we see the smithy, with its bellows, hammer, anvil and tongs. Sigurd sits there and roasts Favner’s heart over the smithy fire. He has just burnt himself, trying the dragon’s heart to see if it is properly cooked, and has stuck his scorched thumb into his mouth to ease the pain: “But when the dragon’s heart’s blood came on his tongue, he understood the language of birds. He heard the marsh-tits twittering...”, as it says in the prose accompanying the eddaic poem Fáfnismál.
The marsh-tits who warn Sigurd are also pictured on the Ramsund rock; they sit in a handsomely stylised tree, to which Grane, Sigurd’s horse, is also tethered.
The rune-stone pictures of Gunnar in the snake-pen, another of the great moments of climax in the Völsung story, also introduce us to the literary background of ancient Scandinavia. The hero appears in several pictures, not only on stones, wreathed about with snakes and trying to defend himself against them. The theme was undeniably well suited to artists of the Viking Age, who had a deep-rooted love for patterns of entwining serpents. The Västerljung stone (Södermanland) is carved on three sides. On one of them a recently discovered picture shows a man with his arms and one of his legs trapped by twining snakes. He holds his arms stretched out in front of him and has a large object in his hand. It is at least possible that the object is a harp, but the surface of the stone has flaked near the edge of the stone where it was carved and the lines of it severely damaged. If this does represent Gunnar in the snake-pen, we can say that he is not playing his harp with his toes—which is the version found in
Above: The pictures of the Ramsundsberget carving shows episodes from the legend of Sigurd, the slayer of Fafner the dragon. Below: Left. Sigurd thrusting his sword through the dragon’s body. Right. Sigurd roasting the dragon’s heart over the smithy fire. Atlamál (and from there in Völsunga saga) and on the Norum font (see p. 170 below), as well as in a number of scenes on Norwegian stave-churches. He is playing it with his fingers, in the same way as in the archaic eddaic poem, Atlakviða. Besides being the most practical method, this is almost certainly the original form of the motif in the legend of Gunnar’s death. As far as that goes, it seems likely in any case that the harp was introduced comparatively late into the 
The legend of Sigurd is also the motif on the Drävle stone from Uppland. story. At least, the carving on the Oseberg cart shows Gunnar defending himself without the aid of any instrument—and that carving can be dated to the mid-ninth century, some 200 years before the Västerljung stone was inscribed. It is also worth noting that here Gunnar—if Gunnar it is—sits on a chair in the snake-pen. That seems a feature which is too idyllic—too much in keeping with a cosy Södermanland outlook—to be suitable for the pathos and high heroism of the Völsung epic—which hardly has room for creature comforts.
The moving, grim story of Völund the master-smith was also known, as we see from the pictures on one of the Ardre stones (Gotland). There we make out his smithy with hammer and tongs, the headless bodies of King Nidud’s young sons, Bödvild, the ravished princess, and Völund’s bird-shape.
These figures are familiar to us primarily from the eddaic poem, Vǫlundar-kviða. As we recall, it describes how Völund sits solitary in Wolf-dales, vainly waiting for the return of the mysterious swan-maiden who had once put her arms round his neck and lived with him as his wife. He is suddenly attacked and captured by King Nidud, who forces him to make treasures for him—to prevent his escape the king has his knee-tendons severed. In revenge Völund kills the two young sons of Nidud and makes jewels from their skulls, eyes and teeth for the royal family; then he rapes the king’s daughter, Bödvild, who trustingly brings him a gold ring for repair. Finally Völund flies away from his captivity with the help of wings which he seems to have made in secret—a Germanic Daedalus, hovering inaccessible among the clouds.
That this was a favoured theme in the early English world is evident, among other things, from the fascinating and famous whalebone box called the Franks Casket. One of the front panels has dramatic scenes from Völund’s career carved on it. The pictures on this side of the box are framed by alliterating verse cut in runes, though their subject-matter bears no direct relation to the illustrations. The casket was probably made at the end of the seventh century. Left: This picture of one of the sides of the Västerljung stone probably shows Gunnar in the snake-pen playing the harp.Right: The font at Norum in Bohuslän was made in the early twelfth century. Below the runes there is a picture of Gunnar in the snake-pen playing the harp with his feet.
If Sigurd the slayer of Favner was one of the most admired heroes of ancient legend, it was evidently Thor and his adventures that were the most popular of all the gods and myths. His fight with the “World Serpent” was a theme particularly favoured by poets and artists. One of the pictures on the rune stone The stone from Ardre on Gotland stands on the borderline between the two types of stones that were erected, picture stones and runic stones.
 at Altuna church (Uppland), carved by “Balle and Frösten, Livsten’s team”—Balli, Frøystæinn, lið Lifstæin[s ristu]—must be an illustration of the old tale of Thor’s great expedition to fish for the Midgarth Serpent. The stone was set up in memory of father and son, Holmfast and Arnfast, who “were both burnt in their house”.
On the lower part of this side of the stone there is a picture of a man standing in a boat which has a very high stem and stern and a massive rudder. The man in the boat stands face-on to the spectator. In his right hand he has a lifted hammer, while from his left a very thick rope runs down into the water. At the other end
Left: One of the pictures on the rune stone at Altuna church in Uppland must be an illustration of the old tale of Thor’s great expedition to fish for the Midgarth Serpent. Right: This witch-woman riding a wolf and using a snake for reins is on one of the Hunnestad stones in Skåne.
 of the rope hangs a clumsy-looking object, which must certainly be intended to represent a piece of bait of unusual size. Below and beside the bait a sea-monster is coiled. There can be no doubt but that the man in the boat is Thor, the hammer is Mjölner, the bait is the ox-head, which Thor wrenched off one of the giant Hymer’s beasts, and the monster is the “World Serpent”. The agreement between the picture on the Altuna stone and the description of this episode in West Norse literary sources is very close. The story told by Snorri Sturluson in his Edda (c. 1220) may serve as an explanatory text to the Uppland rune-stone picture carved some two centuries earlier: “The Midgarth Serpent bit at the ox-head and the hook caught in the roof of its mouth. When it felt that, it started so violently that both Thor’s fists went smack against the gunwale. Then Thor got The scene depicted on the Ledberg stone from Östergötland is probaly from the Ragnarök drama.
 angry, assumed all his godly strength, and dug in his heels so sturdily that his feet went right through the bottom of the boat and he braced them on the seabed.” The drastic detail about Thor’s legs, shoved through the ship’s bottom as a result of his enormous exertion, is not omitted on the rune stone. We see there how Thor’s left leg is driven halfway through the planks.
There is evidence to suggest that the scene depicted on the splendid Ledberg stone (Östergötland), with its carvings on three sides, is from the Ragnarök drama. At the top of one side a huge helmeted warrior can be seen. Below the warrior a beast is tearing at his foot. The beast is probably the Wolf Fenrer, the brother of the Midgarth Serpent, and in that case the warrior attacked by the fearsome quadruped must be Odin. The bottom figure on the stone is that of a half-prostrate helmeted man. He has no legs and his arms are held out feebly in front of him. A striking parallel to the Ledberg picture is found on a tenth-century stone cross at Kirk Andreas in the Isle of Man: Odin, armed with a spear and with one of his ravens on his shoulder, is being attacked there in exactly the same way by the monstrous wolf. (We may note too that the Ledberg inscription ends with an interesting magic formula which is known from all over the ancient Norse world.)
There are other pictures that can lead our thoughts into the realm of early myth and poetry. Thus, on one of the Hunnestad stones (Skåne) we see a witch-woman riding on an animal—undoubtedly meant to be a wolf—and using a snake for reins. This might serve as an illustration to accompany the description of Hyrrokin, “the fire-wrinkled”, when the gods summoned her from the world of giants to launch Baldr’s ship, Hringhorni, too heavy for them to move: “And when she came, she rode on a wolf and had a snake for reins” (En er hon kom ok reið vargi ok hafði hǫggorm at taumum), as it says in Snorri’s Edda. It was a wolf like this, moreover, which the Rök inscription refers to as “the Valkyrie’s horse”, who spies food on the battle-field where twenty kings lie.
Sometimes more everyday scenes are depicted on the rune stones. The rune carver of the Böksta stone (Uppland) has given us a picture from an elk-hunt in winter (see p. 154). The stone has been damaged, but the subject of the illustration is quite clear. In the middle of the carved face there is a horseman with a spear in his hand, and in front of him two dogs give chase to an elk; at the extreme left a man is standing on skis, ready to let fly his arrow at the fugitive game. A large bird is depicted at the top, and another bird has struck his talons into the elk’s head. If the whole simply represents a hunting scene, then these birds must be decorative hawks, birds trained for falconry.
In this very brief discussion of pictorial and decorative elements on rune stones, it is not inappropriate to recall that the inscriptions were originally painted in different colours. The use of colour must have meant a remarkable addition to the beauty and artistic effect of the monuments. Painting also served a practical purpose, for without colour the runes themselves would in most cases have been all too difficult to pick out and the often intricate ornament difficult to follow. Once upon a time, then, the runes, the decorative motifs, and the pictures all shone in bright colours. That this is historical fact and not an assumption based on any a priori notions about the Vikings’ love of rich colour has been most strikingly demonstrated by recent runic discoveries. Some rune stones, moreover, tell us themselves that they were painted.
Of particular interest in this connection is the stanza on one of the stones at Överselö church (Södermanland): : hir : skal : stenta : staena : þisiR : runum : ru[þ]niR : · · raisti : k[uþl]auk : at syni : sina : auk : hielmlauk : at bryþr : sina ·
The phrase stæinaR, runum ruðniR, may be compared with the words, stafir, ristnir ok roðnir, in the eddaic poem, Guðrúnarkviða II:
Thus according to the rune-writer’s own account the Överselö stones were “reddened with runes”— reddened as far as the runes were concerned. This construction with the dat.—runum ruðniR—is usual in the old language. The word ruðniR is nom. pl. masc. of the past part, of riuða (ON rjóða) “to redden”. The alliterative riuða odd ok egg “redden point and edge” (of a weapon, with blood) is found in OSw. (and Old West Norse) law-language. In the manslaughter section of Yngre Västgötalagen it says: þu røt hanum oð ok æg. ok þu æst sander bani hans “you reddened point and edge on him and you are his true slayer”. In the immunities section of Upplandslagen it says that an oath swearing misadventure is necessary at rinnændæ bloþi ok riuþændæ sari “at running blood and reddening wound”.
The Överselö inscription gives us an early example of lack of congruence in the sg. verb and pl.
Right: The Böksta stone is now somewhat damaged but it no doubt depicts a hunting scene. Left: The hunter is ready to let fly his arrow. subject Her skal standa stæinaR þessiR. The reason is naturally first that the verb precedes the subject, and second that the expression more or less repeats a formula in which the sg. verb was normal.
It is not only in the poems of the Edda that runes play an important part. Scaldic poetry and sagas of Icelanders can also tell us much about their use. The best-known example of a poem recorded in runes is found in a famous episode in Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, where a poem of considerable length by Egil is said to have been cut on a wooden staff. This poem, the Sonatorrek, composed c. 960 according to the saga’s chronology, is the most beautiful and most passionate of all scaldic poems.—Red-coloured runes are also mentioned several times. Such runes, correctly inscribed, saved Egil’s life in a great drinking bout on Atley. He cut “ale-runes” in the horn to see whether his drink was poisoned. The runes he coloured with his own blood—í dreyra—and they caused the horn to break:
Red runes also decided the fate of the outlaw, Grettir the Strong: runes which the sorceress, Þuríðr, cut on a tree-root and then coloured red were the cause of his death. She made part of one side of the root level and smooth: síðan tók hon kníf sinn ok reist rúnar á rótinni ok rauð í blóði sínu ok kvað yfir galdra—“then she took her knife and cut runes on the root and reddened them in her own blood and uttered spells over it”.
Two other rune stones from Södermanland also say explicitly that they were painted. Thus, the inscription on one of the Gerstaberg stones in Ytterjärna  parish ends with the words: : esbirn · risti · auk · ulfr · stainti : Æsbiorn risti ok UlfR stæindi “Äsbjörn carved and Ulv painted”. The verb stæina (OWN steina, cf. English “stain, stained glass” etc.), “to paint, colour”, was soon superseded by the loan-words måla (Low German malen) and skriva (Latin scribere)—the latter also had an original sense of “paint”. We still find stæina used, however, in the verse romance Konung Alexander, composed at the end of the fourteenth century, where the sunlit sea is described as faghert ok reent / som thet ware medh blomster steent “as fair and pure as if it were painted with flowers”. We may note too the eddaic poem, Atlamál, where Gudrun promises Atle a fitting burial: among other things she will buy him kisto steinda “a painted coffin”. Once upon a time the rune stones shone in bright colours, a remarkable addition to the beauty of the monuments. This stone from Öland is painted as it might have been originally.
The same word appears on the Nybble stone in Överselö parish which, as far as we can see, was carved by the Äsbjörn who signed the Gerstaberg stone. Here we meet the past part. adj. stæindan: stain : hiuk : esbern : stintn : at : uitum : bat miþ : runum : raisti : kyla : at : gaiRbern : boanta : sin : · auk · kofriþ : at : faþur : sin : han uaR : boanti : bestr i : kili : raþi : saR : kuni :
Painting of the carved surface is possibly also referred to on the Hogrän stone (Gotland): : hier : mun : stanta stain : at : merki bietr a : bierki in bro furiR roþbiern risti : run[aR þ]esa kaiRlaifR sumaR aR karla kan
When the rune-master says the stone is bie[r]tr a : bierki, he may well be referring not merely to the pale surfaces of this magnificent monument but also to the bright colours with which the runes and ornament were painted. On another Gotland rune monument, the Ardre stones, traces of the original paint were still clearly visible.
An ancient connection between painting and runic writing is also demonstrated by the use of the verb fa (pret. faði). It originally meant “to paint”, though it is evident that even in the earliest inscriptions it had already acquired a more general sense of “write” and is more or less synonymous with the verbs writan “write” and wurkian “work, make”, which are also used in Primitive Norse inscriptions. Fa (< faihian) is still found in a few Viking Age inscriptions, but as a rule it has been replaced by the verbs haggva “hew, cut”, rista “cut, incise”, or marka “mark”.
On the Hogrän stone from Gotland the Archangel Michael is invoked. Painting of the carved surface is possibly referred to in the text.
Two interesting illustrations of the custom of colouring incised runes can be culled from Hávamál. At one point in the poem, the rune-wise Odin says:
— and in another place these questions are asked:
The oldest direct allusion to painted runes comes, however, from a source outside the Norse sphere. I refer to the well-known line by Venantius Fortunatus in a poem written towards the end of the sixth century:
Barbara fraxineis þingatur runa tabellis.
“The runes of the barbarians are painted on boards of ash.”
These literary references to the painting of runes have, of course, their own special interest, but they cannot supply any detailed information about the appearance of monumental stones when fresh from the hands of the rune-master. Fortunately, a whole series of Swedish finds can now throw light on this hitherto obscure matter.
A number of rune stones have been discovered with their original colouring still on them. These stones have come to light in places where they have been protected for many centuries from sunshine and severe changes in weather. Most of them have been found embedded in the walls of medieval churches.
There is no doubt that the commonest colours used were red (red oxide of lead) and black (soot), although brown and white paints have also left definable traces.
In at least some cases it is clear that stones were painted in many colours. A find made in Köping church (Öland) in 1953—4 is especially noteworthy. Some sixty larger and smaller fragments were found, and they reveal that not only were the incised lines of the inscription picked out in colour but the intervening surfaces were also painted. This applies both to the ribbon along the edges of the stone, in which the runes themselves are enclosed, and to the coiling traceries within the inscribed lines. Further finds of painted stones, fragments of “Eskilstuna sarcophagi” (cf. p. 162 f. below), were made in 1959 and 1972 at Fors church (Eskilstuna) and in 1963 at Sundby church (Södermanland).
As for the painting of the runic inscription itself, the Köping find shows that sometimes colours were used alternately, so that the odd words were red, for
Nearly 1200 inscriptions are reproduced in the famous work entitled “Bautil, det är: alle svea ok götha rikens runstenar”, published in 1750. The illustrations, chiefly drawn from the collection of Johan Hadorph (1630—93), were put together by the antiquarian Johan Göransson (1712—69). The one given here shows the Aspö carving (Södermanland), with a large human figure traced among the rune bands. example, and the even words black. This method of indicating the division between words must have made it much easier to decipher the inscription. In one instance I have been able to demonstrate that the rune carver did not mechanically alternate his colours word by word, but used different colours for different parts of the sentence. When the subject comprised two words (þæiR brøðr) for example, the same colour was used for both, while the following predicate (letu ræisa), also comprising two words, had a different colour, and so on. The colouring thus served not only as an embellishment but as an effective guide to the sense. By painting in the runes, the writer also had an opportunity to correct errors he might have made with his chisel. If, for example, he had contrived to cut a ᛅ-rune instead of a ᚾ-rune, he would, after noticing his mistake, cut the correct diagonal stroke over the faulty letter. The result would then be an h-rune (ᚼ), but when he came to paint the inscription, he would pick out only the  correct form of the rune and his error had vanished. There is one Uppland stone on which it can be shown that the end of the inscription was never cut at all, but only painted. That stone was carved by Öpir—a very productive rune-master but at times rather careless.
With stones carved in relief, it was probably most usual for the chiselled-out plane surfaces to be painted black, while the ribbon of runes and the ornamental traceries, which appeared in relief against this black background, were either painted in red or white or else left in their natural stone-colour.
We need have no doubt that people’s love of colour in the Viking Age, attested as it is in so many ways, also found opulent expression on the rune stones. Painting brought out more clearly the intricate coils of the serpentine ornament and made the rune sequence easier to decipher.
The pride of the carvers and of the men and women who commissioned their work and their confident hope that the memory of the dead would be kept alive by their runes often find expression in the inscriptions:
“Always shall stand
The grand monument (dyrð drængila, kumbl kenniligt) will preserve the memory of a good man or woman
“as long as the stone lives
In 1982 a badly mutilated grave-slab was found in St Hans church in Visby (Gotland). Elegantly decorated in rune-stone style and inscribed with many runes, it was made about 1050 or, perhaps more probably, a decade or two later. In its message the inscription voices in this case an all too optimistic expectation that the memorial will escape the ravages of time. The ringing alliterative clauses may be reproduced thus in Runic Swedish:
æi meðan verald vakiR
“Ever while the world wakes lies here over the man the memorial which his heir made in his memory.”
The rune-masters of the Viking Age sometimes succeeded in creating lasting monuments. The anticipation of the carver of the Runby block, for example, has—so far at least—proved true: his runes will remain, he says, “in memory of the men as long as mankind lives”:
Þat skal at minnum manna