“Bite me” runestones

The runestone at Tullstorp church (DR 371). Photo: Magnus Källström.

Recent postings have perhaps been too long. Now, in the middle of the summer vacations when all Swedes are at their laziest, I will make only a short posting, almost entirely relying on the research of a colleague, Associate Professor Magnus Källström, chief runologist at the Swedish National Heritage Board.

In October 2016 Magnus Källström paid a routine visit to the south of the Sweden to repaint some runestones. Not everybody knows that runic inscriptions in the southernmost provinces of Skåne, Halland, and Blekinge fall under the responsibility of both Swedish and the Danish runologists. This is because the area belonged to Denmark until 1658. One of these monuments, the stone at Tullstorp church (DR 371), is particularly interesting.

The pictorial elements on the stone are quite intriguing

For once, it is not the inscription which fascinates the most since it consists of a simple formula mentioning a man and a woman raising a memorial for a man, the relationship to whom is not specified. Perhaps it was made clear on another stone as the inscription mentions “these monuments”.

DR 371. The animal head’s teeth. Photo: Magnus Källström.

The pictorial elements on the stone are quite intriguing. They consist of a framing text band with curly ends, a ship below with an animal head-shaped prow, and a fierce canine above. In his Swedish-language account of this scene Källström convincingly demonstrates that the beast is Fenrir, the terrible wolf that slays the god Odin at the Final Battle. The ship below must be Naglfar, the likewise apocalyptic ship of the dead.

The end of the world is alluded to on some stones and could be inspired by both Biblical texts and Heathen mythology. The death of an individual was also a forecast of everything’s termination.

Here, I would only like to pay attention to a detail of the ship prow’s animal head: its “rat-like” teeth.

This may not have any particular significance, but I notice that an even more impressive set of needle-like teeth is found on the Grällsta runestone (Vs 27) in the province of Västmanland. The inscription is carved by one of my favorite runographers, the not-so-clever Litli (‘the small one’) after a father who “died on a voyage”, presumably in unknown parts. Let us all fare better this summer!

The Grällsta runestone (Vs 27). Photo: Henrik Williams, CC BY.

4 thoughts on ““Bite me” runestones

  1. Terrific article, thank you Henrik. I’m intrigued by the painting of the stones, they look great. I’m curious as to if there is a purpose in painting them other than visibility. Does the paint in any way protect the inscriptions? Also, how is it done? Is it simply done with a fine brush by hand or? What type of paint do you use?

    Have a relaxing summer!

    • Hi Debra,

      The modern paint you find today is mainly intended to make the runic inscriptions easier to read, but also the monument more visible. Many runestones stand very close to roads, and if people cannot see the carving the stone risks being damaged by cars or trucks passing too

      The painting is done with a artists’ brush and modern paint, but only by a very few people approved by the National Antiquities Board. I, for one, am not entrusted with this task, although I have been permitted on several occasions to participate under the supervision of someone at the runic department of the Board.

      Runic inscriptions were painted in ancient times, too. We know that for a fact because some monuments were broken up and used in stone churches early enough for remains of paint to be preserved. By analysis of the pigments we can tell that at least red, white and black was used. The whole surface could be painted black, the text band and runes white and red. See for example these two examples of attempts to recreate the ancient effect: http://www.kringla.nu/kringla/objekt?referens=raa/kmb/16000300013020 and http://www.kringla.nu/kringla/objekt?referens=raa/kmb/16000300014000. I should also mention that in a couple of cases the runic text itself tells us that so-and-so painted the runes.


      • Fantastic information and thank you, Henrik! Those photos of the painted stones really bring them to life. Was the red an iron oxide, mercury, ochre or other? Do you happen to have a link to any published web information available on the paints themselves? What did they use for brushes… horsehair? Fascinating stuff. I’m always interested in how and why cultures used things available in their own geographic environments.

        • Hello again Debra,

          There have been chemical tests done on paint residue and we know that red and white colors were based on lead oxide pigments and black on soot. Other colors used were brown, green and blue (indigo in one case). Unfortunately, we do not know what type of brushes they used. The only English-language text on runestone colors I know of is an article in the volume Rune stones – a colourful memory (Museum Gustavianum 1999). If you cannot get hold of a copy, I could scan the article and send it to you.


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