The talking stones of Uppsala

There are many myths surrounding the Vikings. Rune stones are one of the few original sources that tell us about the life of the Norsemen. However, the Viking runic alphabet never developed into a common language. Nevertheless, some rune stones tell of human destinies and adventures. In Uppsala, around 80 kilometers north of Stockholm in the province of Uppland, there are a particularly large number of these speaking stones. They were collected from all over the country and placed in Uppsala, Scandinavia’s oldest university town. Today, some of them stand in the university park, just a few meters from the cathedral. We learn the best stories about the rune stones on a city tour.

View from Uppsala University Park to Gustavianum with new dome and the cathedral spires / © Photo: Georg Berg
View from Uppsala University Park to Gustavianum with new dome and the cathedral spires / © Photo: Georg Berg

Tragedies and fates along the way

Rune stones were often erected by families to commemorate the deceased. The inscriptions mention the name and tell of the deceased’s deeds or describe their heritage, the journeys they undertook or their legendary courage. Rune stones were expensive and were usually commissioned from rune masters by men, but sometimes also by women. Despite the effort and cost of a rune stone, the location was also crucial. The rune stone should be visible at a road, a crossroads or a waterway where many people passed by.

Rune stone in Uppsala University Park. There are a total of 16 original rune stones from the Viking Age here. These include special examples such as this stone, which tells the story of Güllög having a bridge built in memory of her deceased daughter. Rune stones were expensive and were usually erected for men / © Photo: Georg Berg
Rune stone U 489 in Uppsala University Park. There are a total of 16 rune stones from the Viking Age here / © Photo: Georg Berg

Rune comes from whispering

Most rune stones follow a fixed structure. Who commissioned the stone and from whom should be just as clear as the deceased person being commemorated. Sometimes the inscriptions reveal more. It is fitting that the word “rune” in Old High German “runa” means secret or whisper and has been preserved in the German verb “raunen”. A particularly beautiful rune stone is dedicated to Gillög, the daughter of Güllog. Her mother had a bridge built for her daughter and commissioned the stone from rune master Öpir. The rune stone for Gillög bears both the pagan symbol of the serpent in the shape of an eight and a Christian staff cross. Sweden experienced the heyday of rune stones in the 11th century. This is when most of the country’s more than 2,800 known inscriptions were created. However, it was also the beginning of Christianization and more and more people converted from the old Nordic faith to Christianity. The Icelandic alphabet preserves a legacy from the time when Latin and runic writing existed side by side. It still contains a character that was once a rune: Þ (thorn) and stands for the unvoiced th sound as in the English word “thing”. A thing or thingplace is the Germanic term for a popular assembly or a court of law, as it existed in many Nordic countries, including Gamla Uppsala.

Display board with three examples of rune stones at Gamla Uppsala Museum / © Photo: Georg Berg
Display board with three examples of rune stones at Gamla Uppsala Museum / © Photo: Georg Berg

Entertaining rune stones

You could easily walk past the large stones with their inscriptions, most of which are colored red. But deciphered and translated into our Latin characters, they are full of wit and entertainment. The Vigborg stone with the number 1011 is the superstar among the runic inscriptions in Uppsala’s small university park. Its story took crazy turns centuries after the death of the imaginary Vigborg. Vigborg was a Viking with his own ship and was so concerned about his reputation that he made this stone in memory of himself during his lifetime. He praises himself for his skill and asks God for help for his captain’s soul. We do not know whether Vigborg’s soul received help, but the old Viking must have been very pleased with his lasting fame. More than 1,000 years after he carved the stone, his fame increases with every further mention on the internet. And this is also due to the journey that Vigborg’s rune stone undertook after his death. Found in Örby, scientists brought it to Uppsala in the 17th century, where it was first placed in the castle park and later in front of the Museum of Nordic Works of Art. In the 19th century, Vigborg’s stone was even presented to an international audience and was exhibited together with Güllog’s stone at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867. While Güllög’s stone returned to Sweden undamaged a year later, Vigborg’s rune stone fell into the harbor basin in Le Havre during reloading. It took almost 30 years before it was found by chance in the mud of the harbor estuary and returned to the Swedes. Since then, Vigborg the Imaginary has been back in Uppsala.

Rune stone in Gamla Uppsala Museum. The inscriptions and symbols were in color. The location was important. The rune stone should be visible and placed on a road or waterway where many people pass by / © Photo: Georg Berg
Rune stone at Gamla Uppsala Museum. The inscriptions and symbols were designed in color. The location was important. A rune stone should be visible and placed on a road or waterway where many people pass by / © Photo: Georg Berg

Rune tour between the cathedral and the university

There are numerous original rune stones in Uppsala University Park. City guide Katja Jahn explains that rune stones were erected in memory of someone's family. The inscription gives the name and deeds of the deceased as well as the name of the person who commissioned the stone and the craftsman who carved it / © Photo: Georg Berg
Katja Jahn at a rune stone © Photo: Georg Berg

There are numerous original rune stones in Uppsala University Park. Archaeologist Katja Jahn tells the stories of the stones on an entertaining city tour and draws attention to the symbols and special features of the stone inscriptions.

The meeting point for the guided tour is, fittingly, in front of the cathedral. Uppsala Cathedral stands for the Christianization of the country like no other building in Sweden. However, the Swedes have managed to preserve the history of the old Nordic faith and the Viking era as a cultural asset. Viking faith and Christianity not only meet on rune stones, but also in today’s cityscape of Uppsala. The Bishop’s Road crosses Odinslund right next to the cathedral.

A visit to Gamla Uppsala is also highly recommended. This is the name of the town that had to give up its name to today’s Uppsala and still has great significance in the history of Sweden. Until the 13th century, today’s Uppsala was still a small village and was called Östra Aros. However, when the large cathedral was to be built in Östra Aros, the name Uppsala had to be moved along with the bishop’s seat by order of the Pope. The former Uppsala became Gamla Uppsala. Here are the most important sights in Uppsala and Gamla Uppsala.

The research was supported by Destination Uppsala

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