31 December 2015

Runic Yule

Before we completely let go of the Christmas season and turn our thoughts to the New Year, I thought I'd mention a few runic inscriptions where the festive season makes an appearance. The harvest of examples is not as rich or varied as in skaldic verse (as discussed in my previous post), but still has its interest. In addition to the splendid depiction of the Nativity on the Dynna rune-stone from Norway, pictured in that previous post, there are I think only two references to jól in the inscriptions themselves, neither of them especially Christmassy!

Both are graffiti from the walls of Norwegian stave churches, both are probably from the twelfth century, and both state that they were carved on the Sunday after Christmas (the texts below are taken from the Scandinavian runic database, with some necessary modifications). One is from Borgund, in Sogn og Fjordane (pictured), everyone's favourite stave church, and the most 'runic' of all the runic stave churches, and this one says:

klemetr · ræist ru(^n)ar þesar sunutah þan er nestr e^r æpt(e)r iol guþ gæte (h)ans o^k in hælka m(æ)r
Klemetr reist rúnar þessar sunnudag þann, er næstr er eptir jól. Guð gæti hans ok hinn helga mær.
Klemetr cut these runes on the Sunday which is next after Christmas. May God and the holy maiden protect him.

The other inscription is from the church in Atrå, in Telemark, and it has a very similar message:

þostæin bengæir ræit runar þessar sutah þan er nesr net iolom
Þorsteinn Bengeirr reit rúnar þessar sunnudag þann, er næstr ... jólum.
Þorsteinn bengeirr wrote these runes on the Sunday which is closest ... Christmas.

One can only speculate why Klemetr and Þorsteinn felt the need to write these banal statements on the walls of what was presumably their local church. Were they just bored? Were they suffering the after-effects of Christmas eating and drinking? We don't know where the plank with Þorsteinn's runes was originally placed in the church, but Klemetr's graffito is in the covered walkway that surrounds the church, so perhaps he was just waiting to go in, or hanging about after church while his wife indulged in gossip with the neighbours. As Annette Jones once wrote, 'Before or after services was a likely time for people to have written runes'.

At least Klemetr followed his signature with a prayer, and that is in line with most stave church graffiti, which tend to the pious. One of his s-runes has a little cross on it, making it look a bit like the IHS monogram (rune 22 in the drawing below, taken from volume 4 of Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer 1957):

Þorsteinn, on the other hand, not only didn't have much to say apart from documenting his vandalism, but also struggled a bit with his orthography. More interesting than his banalities is his by-name, which means 'wound-spear' and was perhaps intended to suggest his warlike nature. Or perhaps it was just a joke, as so many by- and nicknames were. Although bengeirr is not recorded elsewhere as a byname, it does occur once as a given name for one of the followers of King Sverrir, a man called Bengeirr langi 'the tall'. Since the name is so rare, Magnus Olsen speculated (in volume 2 of Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer) that our runic Þorsteinn bengeirr was the father of Bengeirr langi, since it was not unknown for the father's byname to become the given name of his son or a later descendant.

The pious, the mundane, the violent and family feeling, it's all there in runic inscriptions.... 

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