Runes are the letters used to write by some Germanic peoples during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, mainly in Scandinavia but also in other areas where these peoples settled.

The oldest known runes date back to the 2nd century AD. The first chronologically would be the comb inscription found on the Danish island of Funen, which precisely says comb (harja).

Gradually, they would be progressively replaced by the Latin alphabet, so that by the year 1100, their use had practically disappeared.

Dalecarlian runes / photo Taxelson on Wikimedia Commons

We say practically because, in reality, a region of Sweden continued to use them well into the 20th century: the current province of Dalarna, which almost entirely coincides with the ancient region of Dalecarlia.

It is a historical province located in the center of the country, bordering Norway, traditionally isolated both politically and socially from the rest of Sweden (in fact, its inhabitants speak a language, Dalecarlian or Elfdalian, which is as different from Swedish as Norwegian or Danish), amidst lush forests and rugged mountains.

The area is currently famous for its traditional craftsmanship, ranging from woodworking, ceramics, and metalwork to textiles, including a peculiar technique that uses woven hair.

Location of Dalarna / photo Weredragon – Shutterstock

It is also the birthplace of one of Sweden’s national symbols, the Dalecarlian Horse, which originally was a toy for children carved from leftover wood used to make clock cases.

The curious phenomenon occurred in Dalecarlia when the use of runes began to decline in the rest of the Nordic world. Instead of following the trend of substitution by the Latin alphabet, they began to use runes to transcribe the Latin spelling of the Swedish language, using some Latin letters to represent the sounds missing in the runes.

This transition, according to researchers, occurred in the second half of the 16th century, forming a new runic system, derived from the medieval one but with differences.

Dalrunor or Dalecarlian runes / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Over time, the replacement of runes with Latin letters became more and more common, until at the beginning of the 20th century, runes disappeared completely. The famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, after visiting Dalarna in 1734, wrote in his diary:

The peasants of the community, in addition to using runic calendars, still write their names and property marks with runic letters, as can be seen on walls, cornerstones, bowls, etc. Something I was unaware of being done anywhere else in Sweden

The oldest inscription using these Dalecarlian runes dates back to the late 16th century. It is a bowl found in the village of Åsen that says, in runes, Anders made this bowl in the year 1596.

A Dalecarlia horse of monumental size / photo Angelica Brockne on Wikimedia Commons

In total, more than 250 Dalecarlian runes have been inventoried in the area, mostly in the municipality of Älvdalen, carved on wooden objects, buildings, furniture, bowls, and even on rocks. There are also letters partly written in runes. Their content varies, from simple everyday phrases to religious hymns and official documents.

Henrik Bruun Williams, a professor of Nordic philology at Uppsala University and an expert in runes, has proposed that the famous Kensington Runestone would be written precisely with these Dalecarlian runes.

This is a 92-kilogram slab discovered in 1898 in Solem, Minnesota, by a Swedish immigrant named Olof Ohman. It is covered with runes on one side and on one side, recounting the journey of Scandinavian explorers in North America during the year 1362.

The Kensington Stone / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Currently, most experts believe that the stone is a 19th-century forgery, although some still defend its authenticity. The text says:

Eight Goths from Scandinavia and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We have established shelters on two rocky islands one day north of this stone. We fished for a day. When we returned, we found ten of our men bleeding and dead. AVM (Ave Maria) save us from demons. We have ten men by the sea to take care of our boats, fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362

The experts attribute the preservation of runic writing until such recent times to the isolation of the Dalecarlians (to reach the area before the existence of roads, a 100-kilometer journey by the river was necessary, the most direct route).

And also, until the mid-19th century, it was not mandatory to send children to school. Once children started going to school, where only the Latin alphabet was used, runes gradually began to disappear.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 15, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Dalrunor, las runas nórdicas que se usaron hasta el siglo XX en una región de Suecia


ScienceNordic / Wight of The Nine Worlds / Dalecarlian Runes (Helmer Gustavson) / The non-enigmatic runes of the Kensington Stone / Wikipedia.

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