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Use of Runes Survived Introduction of Christianity

The year is 1023 and Christianity is introduced as the official state religion of Norway by Olav the Holy. Now, Odin and Thor will be replaced by the doctrine of a new God, and pagan runes replaced by the Latin alphabet – in theory.

But the runes were used in Norway until the end of the 1400s. For nearly 500 years after the introduction of Christianity, the Latin and runic alphabet (and religions?) lived side by side.

In some remote places in Scandinavia, runes were used until the 1800s, and in Dalarna in Sweden you could meet people who knew the magical characters as late as the start of the 1900s.

Runes Were Carved

Runic inscriptions tell us how the first Norwegians spoke. They also provide knowledge about how our ancestors dealt with higher powers, trade, love and war.

The runes on the Åmodtsdal church bell tell: ”UNNULFER PERÞE (GERÞE) KLOKO ÞESSA”, or: Unnulf made this bell. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark/ Wikimedia Commons) This church bell with runes from about the year 1200 originates from the old stave church in Åmotsdal in Telemark, Eastern Norway. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark/ Wikimedia Commons)

Runes were not written but carved into weapons, tools, jewelry, wood and stone. The most active rune stone period was from the 900s to the 1100s. In Sweden there are found 1,750 stones from this period, in Denmark about 200, and in Norway about 50.

The most intense rune period in Norway was in the Middle Ages, from about 1150 to the mid 1400s, but runes were no longer carved into stones, but wood. Until now, it is found about 900 inscriptions on wooden sticks where the content varies from the deeply religious to the trivial.

Religious Mystery

In the sagas we find the word “rune” used to signify a song, a spell, a magical symbol, a mystery, and secret knowledge.

The many meanings of the word have led to a number of theories linking the origin of the runic alphabet to cultic use. When the missionary bishop Wulfila in the fourth century translated the Bible from Greek into Visigothic, he translated the word mysterion to runa.

One theory is therefore that the oldest Proto-Norse or Proto-Germanic meanings of the word may have been “religious mystery” or “secret religious formula”.


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