Poetry in runes
Runic inscriptions in verse have been quoted at several points in the text above, and it may be not inappropriate here to give a brief survey of what may be learnt from the rune stones about early Swedish poetry.
One of the most impressive of runic poems is the stanza about Theodric inscribed on the Rök stone (pp. 32 above). It consists of an eight-line strophe in fornyrðislag, the narrative metre in which most of the eddaic poems are composed. Practically all the verse preserved in our runic inscriptions follows, more or less strictly, the rules of this metre.
All things considered, it seems most likely that the subject of the Rök stone stanza is Theodric the Great, legend-crowned king of the Ostrogoths, who died in AD 526. But here I shall only offer a few comments on the diction of the verse.
The phrase stilliR flutna, which describes Theodric in the poem, will probably sound familiar to any reader of Norse poetry: stilliR is one of the many words for “king, ruler” often found in eddaic and scaldic verse. The phrase stillir lýða “lord of men” occurs in a stanza attributed to Brage the Old who, tradition says, flourished in the ninth century—about the same time, that is, as the rune-master of the Rök stone; and in the eddaic poem, Guðrúnarkviða III, we find stillir herja (oddly enough, it is precisely of Theodric that the phrase is used in this poem).
The word that qualifies stilliR is flutnaR “sea-warriors” (ON flotnar), and this too is a term that belongs to the language of poetry. It will be enough to refer once more to Brage the Old. He uses the word in his Ragnarsdrápa, in which he describes pictures on a shield:
Þat segik fall á fǫgrum
“I tell the fall of sea-warriors [pictured] on the beautiful shield”.
Exactly the same kind of phrase as the Rök inscription’s stilliR flutna is used, for instance, by the early eleventh-century scald, Óttarr the Black, who calls the “chief of sea-warriors” gildir flotna.
According to the Rök stanza, Theodric reð... strandu Hræiðmarar “ruled  over the strand of the Reid-sea”. This is a name which also belongs to the poetic style. It means no more than the “land of the Reid-Goths”, a tribal name frequently attested though of uncertain sense. The hero-king sits a gota sinum: goti is a word used in poetry for “horse”. In the last line of the stanza he is called skati Mæringa “prince of the Mærings”, and a parallel to this is found in the Old English Deor, where it says:
“Theodric held / for thirty winters / the Mærings’ fortress: / that was known to many.” There was probably no great lapse of time between the inscription of the Rök stone and the composition of the Anglo-Saxon poem.
On the whole, it may be said that the rune-stone verse of Sweden, both in form and diction, is completely at home in the literary milieu which we know so well from early Norwegian and Icelandic poetry. It is a happy chance that at least this one example of the poetry made in Götaland in the ninth century was recorded in runes and, thanks to the durability of the material on which it was inscribed, has been preserved to our time. And we should perhaps not forget to note that our record of this little Swedish poem is older by several centuries than our sources for the old poetry of Norway and Iceland, which, as will be well known, is mostly extant only in manuscripts from late medieval times.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rök inscription opens with some particularly impressive runes. The alliteration and ceremonious rhythm give an impression of highly-wrought artistic prose: Aft Væmoð standa runaR þaR. En Varinn faði, faðiR, aft faigian sunu “In memory of Væmod stand these runes. And Varin wrote them, the father, in memory of his dead son”.
In the text itself are also many examples of phrasing and word-order characteristic of poetic style. A well-known type of kenning occurs, for instance, in the sentence, with its calculated rhythmical effects, which immediately follows the Theodric stanza: Þat sagum tvalfta, hvar hæstR se GunnaR etu vettvangi an, kunungaR tvaiR tigiR svað a liggia “That I tell twelfth where the horse of Gunn [= the horse of the Valkyrie, the wolf] sees food on the battlefield, where twenty kings lie”.
The Rök stone is of course a unique literary monument but, as we have seen, the rune stones of the eleventh century also offer many specimens of poetry, albeit of a more ordinary kind and easier to understand.
In this connection our interest will naturally be attracted by the signature of the rune carver at the end of the long inscription on the Hillersjö rock (p. 97 f.  above): Þorbiorn skald. He is not the only rune-master to give himself the cognomen skald “scald, poet”—we know a GrimR skald in Uppland and an Uddr skald in Västergötland. We wish we knew what the poetry was like which gained this honourable title for Torbjörn, Grim and Udd.
We should remember that the word skald by no means had the specialised sense which modern literary historians give to the terms “scald”, “scaldic poetry” and “scaldic poem”—this specialised reference is sometimes conveyed by terms like English “court-poet”, “court-poetry”. The adjective “scaldic” is a modern technical term generally used to denote types of Norse poetry which, in part because of their more intricate artistry, stand in some contrast to the simpler, more popular, and anonymous eddaic poems. This restricted sense of the word skald did not of course exist when the rune stones were inscribed. The word meant “poet” and gave no indication of what kind of verse a man composed. Thus, the appearance of the word in runic inscriptions is not in itself evidence that scaldic poets, in the technical sense of the term, flourished in Sweden, although there are other good grounds for believing that they did.
It is indeed evident that in their time Swedish audiences also strained respectful ears to catch the full import of the highly-wrought diction of scaldic poetry, with its involute kennings and images often rich and intricate, its strict metrical rules governing the number of syllables to the line and the obligatory alliteration and assonance. For we know that many practitioners of this characteristic Norse art-poetry visited Sweden, where they recited their poems in the presence of kings and noblemen. Icelandic tradition says that Brage the Old, the first scald, visited King Björn in Birka and made a poem in his honour—that would be at about the same time as St Ansgar visited King Björn on a different errand. Óttarr the Black made poetry in praise of King Olav the Swede (died c. 1020) and, according to Snorri, Hjalti Skeggjason and Gizurr the Black also visited his court. Other Icelandic poets who are said to have come to this Swedish king are Hallfreðr the Troublesome Poet, Hrafn Önundarson and Gunnlaugr Snake-Tongue, while Olav’s son, King Anund Jakob, was eulogised by Sighvatr Þórðarson and Óttarr the Black. Visits from Icelandic court-poets continued for a surprisingly long time: Sturla Þórðarson, Snorri Sturluson’s nephew, was able to compose a poem in honour of Birger Jarl (died 1266) before this aristocratic and traditional formalistic poetry finally lost all its public appeal.
The inscription on the copper box from Sigtuna, described on p. 56 above, includes a couplet in the favoured scaldic metre called dróttkvætt. The lines may be rendered thus:
Fugl velva slæit falvan,
“The bird tore the pale thief. I saw how the corpse-cuckoo swelled”.
The word velva (acc.) is probably the same as Gothic wilwa m. “robber”. The phrase nas gaukR “corpse’s cuckoo” is a kenning for the raven, chief of “  carrioncrows”. Comparable expressions are found in Icelandic scaldic verse, e.g. hræva gaukr “carrion’s cuckoo”. That the raven should gorge on the corpse of the thief is an idea completely in harmony with the poetic imagery we met on the Gripsholm stone (p. 64 f. above) and on the Rök stone, where the “horse of the Valkyrie” was gladdened by the dead bodies on the battlefield.
A fact that deserves notice is that the only complete dróttkvætt stanza of which we possess the original text—i.e. one recorded in the Viking Age itself—is to be found on Swedish territory. This is the strophe which forms the last part of the inscription on the Karlevi stone (Öland). The stone was set up about the year 1000 in memory of a chieftain, Sibbe Foldar’s son, who was buried on the west coast of the island. The stanza reads: fulkin : likr : hins : fulkþu : flaistr : uisi : þat · maistar · taiþir : tulka þruþar : traukr : i : þaimsi · huki : munat : raiþ : uiþur : raþa : ruk : starkr i : tanmarku : ąintils : iarmun · kruntar : urkrąntari : ląnti. Or put into an Old Icelandic form:
Fólginn liggr, hinns fylgðu
A relatively literal version gives the following not entirely perspicuous text in English: “Hidden lies the man whom the greatest virtues accompanied—most men knew that—executor of the goddess of battles—in this mound. A more honest battle-strong god of the wagon of the mighty ground of the sea-king will not rule over land in Denmark.”
The Karlevi strophe complies with all the strict rules of dróttkvætt and makes the classic demands of this metre and style on the reader’s familiarity with the tradition and his literary alertness. (The term dróttkvætt, dróttkvæðr háttr means, we recall, the “metre suitable for verse made for delivery before the court of a king or chieftain”. The word drótt f. is an old collective for the sworn retainers, the picked warriors, of a leader, the later hirðmenn. Cf. Runic Swedish trutin, OSw. drotin, ON dróttinn “lord”; OSw. drotseti, ON dróttseti “marshal”.) We see that the Karlevi stanza has the regular eight lines composed in two quatrains, each line with three stressed syllables, internal half-rhyme (skothending) and full rhyme (aðalhending) in alternate lines, and impeccable alliteration.
Imagery and phrasing throughout are also typical of scaldic style. The very first word—folginn—has interesting correspondences in West Norse poetry. It is
The Karlevi stone on Öland is the only rune stone in the world with a complete dróttkvætt stanza on it.  the past part, of the strong verb fela “hide, conceal”, which in Ynglingatal is used to mean “bury”:... ok buðlung / á Borrói / sigrhafendr / síðan fálu “and those with the victory afterwards buried the king at Borre”. The chieftain buried at Karlevi is then called dólga Þrúðar draugr. The last word, draugr m., is often used in kennings for “warrior”; dólga draugr would be the “doer, performer of battles”.
The word draugr appears to be a nomen agentis from the strong verb driuga (Gothic driugan) “struggle, accomplish; do, perform (work of some kind)”. It is worth noting that this verb, which fell out of use early in the Nordic languages, is attested in the pret. sg. in the verse of the eleventh-century Fagerlöt inscription (Södermanland): Hann draug—trauh—orrustu i austrvegi “He did battle on the eastern route”. See p. 140.
The two other words in the kenning referring to the dead leader, dólga Þrúðar, are also well known in eddaic and scaldic verse. Dólg n. means “hostility, strife, battle”, cf. dólga dynr in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, “din of battle(s)”. Þrúðr is the name of a goddess, said to be a daughter of Thor—he is referred to as faðir Þrúðar.
The whole expression dólga Þrúðar draugr consequently means something like “executor, performer of the goddess of battles”, i.e. warrior or war-lord.
Another periphrasis for “leader, chieftain” is found in the words Endils iǫrmungrundar reið-Viðurr. Endill is the name of a sea-king, iǫrmungrund means “mighty ground, vast expanse”—a sea-king’s “mighty ground” is simply a kenning for “sea”. The compound reið-Viðurr means “wagon- (or chariot-) Vidur”—Viðurr is one of Odin’s many names. The “wagon” one uses on the sea is a ship, and the Odin or god of the ship is her powerful commander.
The word iǫrmungrund in the Karlevi kenning ąintils : iarmun · kruntar : raiþ : uiþur is also found for example in Beowulf—eormengrund—and in the eddaic poem, Grímnismál, where it says: Huginn ok Muninn / fliúga hverian dag / iǫrmungrund yfir—“Huginn and Muninn [Odin’s ravens] fly each day over earth’s wide surface”. The word thus suggests a homogeneity in the early poetic language, not confined to the Norse area.
A number of inscriptions in verse have been quoted above to illustrate various aspects of life in ancient Sweden. A translation of the inscription on the Bällsta stones was cited, for instance, in connection with the discussion of assembly places (p. 121 above). The fourteen lines of verse there offer much of interest but I shall only pause to consider the last pair:
Þy man i grati
The Icelandic scholar, Jón Helgason, has suggested that the words i grati, literally “in weeping”, should be interpreted as meaning “in a lament”—cf. the titles of poems like Oddrúnargrátr, Máríugrátr, “the weeping of Oddrún”, “the weeping of Mary”. In this there would be support for the assumption, in itself not unnatural, that laments or dirges, related in kind to the West Norse Eiríksmál and Egill Skalla-Grimsson’s Sonatorrek, were also composed in Sweden in the Viking Age. One must however hasten to add that we should be presuming too far if we thought that Ulv’s wife and sons could command the service of Swedish poets comparable in genius to the creators of these two West Norse masterpieces. Nevertheless, we would give much to know just how this postulated gratr sounded, this unrecorded song of lament that was to keep Ulv’s memory alive. But we must rest content with the simpler runes inscribed to his memory that are still to be read on the stone.
These last words at Bällsta, Þy man i grati / getit lata, are paralleled in some degree by lines on the Nöbbele stone (Småland): Þy mun goðs mans / um getit verða “Therefore the noble man shall be spoken of’. But this entire inscription is in verse and deserves quotation as a whole:
A whole strophe in fornyrðislag is found on an earth-embedded rock inscribed with runes at Fyrby (Södermanland):
|The Fyrby inscription from Södermanland tells of the custom of placing “stone and staves” as a memorial.|
With every sign of self-confidence, the brothers describe themselves as mænnr rynasta a Miðgarði. As we know, the term Miðgarðr “the middle world”—i.e. the home of mankind, protected by the gods—is a highflown expression, familiar from other Germanic languages besides Norse—Gothic midjungards, OHG mittingart, OE middangeard.—The adj. rynn “rune-skilled” also occurs in the stanza on the Ågersta stone (p. 97 above) and in a runic inscription in Orkney. In this third instance (Maeshowe 18) the carver merely takes credit for being the most rune-skilled man “west over the sea”:
He is too modest to claim that he is rýnstr á Miðgarði.
Another inscription composed in verse throughout, like that on the Nöbbele stone, was on the rune stone at Hagstugan (Södermanland), but the end of it is now damaged:
“Four sons made / for noble father / manly a memorial, / for Domare, / gentle in word / and generous with food...”
The rune sequence tyrþ can hardly represent anything but ðyrd f., ON dýrð “splendour, glory”. The word occurs nowhere else in Runic or early Swedish. In the seventeenth century it was borrowed for purist reasons (Stiernhielm) and dyrd was then used by a number of later authors, Viktor Rydberg and Karlfeldt among them. It is difficult to say what the precise sense of the word in the Hagstugan inscription is, but it seems likely that it was intended to refer to the rune stone itself: in its fresh state it would appear a sufficient splendour. (We may note too that the verse-maker needed a word that would alliterate with Domari.)
The inscription on the rune stones at Tjuvstigen (þiuðstigr? “public path”) in Södermanland consists of twelve lines, making three half-strophes in fornyrðislag:
The Tjuvstigen stones were thus set up by the mother and brothers of the lost eastern voyagers brautu næsta “next to the road”. A closely similar expression is used by Balle on the Ryda stone (Uppland), set up beside the main road that leads to the royal estate there:
Reading these inscriptions and seeing rune stones by the wayside bring readily to mind the words of Hávamál:
“Seldom bauta-stones stand near the road, if kinsman does not raise them after kinsman.” These same lines are also called to mind by the inscriptions on two rune stones in Småland, at Bräkentorp and Skaftarp, in both of which we are told that the memorial—vitring þessa—stands “at the road-junction”—a vægamoti.
In speaking of journeys to Langbarðaland (p. 73 above), I cited the Djulefors quatrain, whose lines of intricate artistry tell us that the dead man austarla arði barði ok a Langbarða landi andaðis. The figurative “plough with the ship’s prow” is found in an anonymous Icelandic fragment: Sá’s af Íslandi / arði barði “He who from Iceland / ploughed with the prow”; and Rögnvaldr Kolsson, twelfth-century earl of Orkney, uses the same image as the rune-carver of Södermanland: Erjum úrgu barði / út at Miklagarði “Let us plough with wet prow / out to Micklegard”.
Parallels to West Norse poetry can also be found on the Fagerlöt block (Södermanland). It has the interesting expressions, driuga orrostu (cf.p. 136 above) and folks grimR, “do battle” and “chieftain”:
As we have seen from the passages and parallels quoted earlier, this kind of correspondence is by no means a rarity.
Reading some Swedish inscriptions we now and then have the feeling that we have stumbled on fragments, “quotations”, from larger poems that are otherwise completely lost. Perhaps the best example of this is offered by the Skarpåker stone (Södermanland). After the introduction, “Gunnar raised this stone in memory of Lydbjörn, his son”, come two lines in fornyrðislag, cut in the staveless runes that were developed for practical everyday notation (see pp. 28 f., 100 above). The lines read:
(We may note that the alliteration here is in full accord with the metrical rules: an initial i-sound like that in iarð ( now written j in the Scandinavian languages and pronounced like English y) should alliterate with a vowel, preferably one of different quality, as in upphiminn.)
It is tempting to regard these stray lines on the Skarpåker stone as a quotation from a Swedish poem on the “doom of the gods” (ON ragnarǫk), so well known at the time the inscription was written that everyone would understand their message—a poem which a father’s grief found fitting to call to mind by these two allusive lines.
The antithetic word-pair, iarð—upphiminn, is well attested in other Germanic poetry. We find them in the Vǫluspá’s famous lines on the creation of the world:
The words occur elsewhere in the Edda. In Vafþrúðnismál Odin asks the all-wise giant:
In Þrymskviða Thor breaks the disturbing news of the theft of his hammer:
And finally we read in Oddrúnargrátr:
A recently discovered inscription contains the same pair of words. A little wooden stick, found during excavations at Ribe in Denmark, has a runic charm against sickness (malaria) on it. The inscription, of interest from many points of view, begins with a fornyrðislag strophe, whose first lines read:
This Ribe inscription is probably from the thirteenth century, but charms of this type have very ancient roots. The same formula is found, for example, in an Anglo-Saxon charm from the eighth century:
eorðan ic bidde
In conveying the cataclysmic atmosphere of the doom of the gods, the poet of Vǫluspá at one point uses words that bear a certain resemblance to the image in the Skarpåker inscription of the rending of earth and heaven:
(On a picture portraying the last battle between the gods and the giants, see p. 152 below.)
Other stanzas that might well be thought to contain “quotations” of this kind are those on the Rök stone and the Gripsholm stone (pp. 32, 65 above).
In the porch of the church at Vallentuna there is now a rune stone which has an inscription of great interest for the history of literature. It ends with these three lines of verse:
It is the verse form which is especially noteworthy. It is unique among runic verse of the Viking Age by reason of its end-rhyme. It represents the oldest known Swedish example of this novel metrical feature, which in the middle ages was to become the general rule. End-rhyme and imported metres were to replace alliteration as the basic and binding element in Swedish verse. Alliteration was indeed ousted throughout the Germanic world, although it lived till late in the middle ages in parts of England and has never died out in Iceland, where men keep faith with their traditions. Our rune-writers’ age-old convention of fornyrðislag was superseded by the loose octosyllabic couplets of rhymed knittelvers and the pliant forms of the ballad. Here it is interesting to note that the poet of the Vallentuna verse used both modes—alliteration and end-rhyme.
In itself, after all, there is nothing surprising in the appearance of end-rhyme in a verse from the end of the eleventh century. Nearly two hundred years earlier, ringing rhyme had been produced in sensational circumstances in the hall of King Erik Blood-axe in York, when Egill Skalla-Grimsson “bore Odin’s mead over the Angles’ land”. But the three lines of the Uppland inscription show the first known Swedish attempt to make use of this up-to-date continental verse form. End-rhyme occurs later in runic verses on gravestones, but runic memorials of that kind belong not to the Viking Age but to the medieval culture of the Swedes.
Many of the runic strophes cited above form part of inscriptions which have  been signed by the rune-masters. This is a remarkable fact, not least because we otherwise have to wait several centuries before any pieces of Swedish writing emerge from the darkness of anonymity. Indeed, right down to the middle of the fifteenth century all other Swedish literature in the vernacular is anonymous.