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Mar 12, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Viking graffiti

The Vikings traveled far. From their homeland in Scandinavia they reached across the Atlantic to North America, penetrated deep into what is now called Russia, circled the west coast of Europe and sailed all around the Mediterranean. Their longship was feared and their knörr was welcomed. If you saw the first, you were about to get raided. If you saw the second, that meant traders were bringing you goods from distant lands.

The Vikings left traces of their passage. The photo above shows Runic graffiti in the Hagia Sofia, the main church of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). It was probably made by a Varangian, one of the Byzantine emperor's personal bodyguard. Byzantine politics was a deadly game and the emperor liked using foreign mercenaries who were loyal only to him, or at least his ready supply of gold. I can just picture poor Halvdan standing bored through a long Greek Orthodox service and inscribing his name on the railing.

Several other Runic inscriptions have been found in the Hagia Sofia. Like Halvdan's inscription, they're faint and hard to read. If you ever visit, take a good look at the walls and you might discover more!

Next we have this crude carving of what many believe is a Viking ship, found on the wall of a palace in Palermo, Sicily. It may not have been made by a Viking since Viking ships were a common sight in the Mediterranean. It's still a tantalizing image.

Of course, Viking graffiti is more common in places where the Vikings actually settled. In the Orkney Islands, a neolithic chamber tomb is covered in runic graffiti. We actually know who did some of these carvings and when, because the event is preserved in the Orkneyinga Saga as well as the runes themselves. A group of Scandinavian Crusaders, either leaving for or coming back from the Crusades, broke into the tomb to hide from a storm at Christmas time 1153.

The longest inscription chronicles the event: "Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl's cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound (signed) Simon Sirith"

What was this treasure? Nobody knows. Some Neolithic tombs contained gold ornaments, which would surely have warmed the Vikings' hearts on that cold Christmas.

Other inscriptions were a bit earthier: "Thorni fucked. Helgi carved." Interestingly, Helgi is a male name, and I believe Thorni is as well. Is this evidence of gay Vikings?

Here's another boast: "These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean."

Most of the rest of the 30 inscriptions are more prosaic, simple names or the common formula of "so-and-so carved these runes." You can find the whole list of them here.
Photos courtesy Wikipedia.


  1. I'll be going to Orkney in July for a week! I'm looking forward to seeing all of these sites.