The land-taking of Iceland took place while Norse culture wrote short texts such as inscriptions using runes (during the transition from the Elder to the Younger Futhark). Runes are closely identified with the Old Norse religion, and the Poetic Edda, an Icelandic work describing Norse tradition, calls them divinely inspired. Despite the runic letter thorn being revived in Rask's orthography for Icelandic, Byock's book "Viking Age Iceland" does not mention any runic inscription, nor does my web search reveal any.

Volcanic rock is hard to work and wood was scarce, but the Vikings did have enough smooth stones for pavers, and enough wood for interior paneling. There are several Faroese and Irish runestones, and those were from smaller colonies. Admittedly runestones were more popular in what is now Sweden than in Norway, from where most Icelandic settlers embarked, but were there none at all, or so few there that none survive?

3 Answers 3


Runes are primarily designed for being carved in wood (which is why there are so many vertical, straight lines, but no horizontal lines and very few curved ones). Wood does not survive very well, but sometimes it reaches us, there have been huge finds of pieces carved with the most mundane things - messages from telling people to go home, prayers and love letters (see e.g. Bryggen inscriptions). Thus, runestones were never the only or most common useage - they are just what has survived best. There are many ideas of why there were a wave of runestone's starting in Denmark with Harald Bluetooth and moving into Sweden and then continuing for several decades in the area around modern Stockholm, but it never reached Norway or Iceland (still, there are some Norwegian runestones, but not as many as in Sweden or even Denmark). It is possibly linked to the conversion to Christianity in some way, as the majority of stones with clearly religious symbols has them in the form of a cross.

Runes were certainly known to the settlers on Iceland - Egil's saga contains a passage about a boy trying to use rune magic to make a girl fall in love with him, but so unskilled made that it made her sick. Egil finds the reason and cures her. Rune magic is well attested also in other Icelandic manuscripts, and seems to have been the suriving useage on Iceland after the transition to latin script. Snorri Sturluson once recieved a message warning him of an conspiracy which was written with cipher runes. He either could not translate them or ignored the message, but at least it shows that knowledge of runes where not uncommon on Iceland in the middle of the thirteenth century. In some parts of Sweden, runes continued to be used for real text into the 18th and 19th centuries.

Finally, the "m" rune was used in manuscripts, both on Iceland and in mainland Scandinavia, as a shorthand for "man" well into medieval times.


It looks like they were in fact in use as late as the 17th century by rural folk, although there is some doubt as to how ancient at least some of those runes were. The more practical ones seem to center on fishing and herding activities, which indicates the kind of people who were using them.

Since the finds are in relatively recent books, you could argue the practice may not be that old. However, it indicates a persisting belief in the power of runes, and the simplest explanation for that is that its a holdover from the beliefs Icelanders held and practiced at the time of colonization.

  • i don't think those magical staves are closely related to runes, but i could be wrong. Jun 11, 2016 at 4:27

By the end of the ninth century CE, the Icelanders had an "alphabet" of 16 runes, according to this source. So, yes, "medieval Icelanders could have written with runes.

Texts written in "runic" (reduced to paper) have survived several hundred years. But the "original" runes did not, because they were made of wood and stone that did not survive the elements.

  • I believe that is the Younger Futhark. Dec 3, 2016 at 2:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.