Understanding Swedish Rune Stones

Rune stone in Sigtuna, Sweden

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Wherever you go in southern Sweden you are likely to find runestones. These ancient Viking stones with their distinctive red patterns and cryptic markings seem to be everywhere. But what are Swedish rune stones, and where are the best places to see them?

Rune stone in Sigtuna, Sweden
A rune stone built into the wall of St Olof’s Church, Sigtuna

What Were Viking Runestones?

Runestones were created by the Vikings as memorials to the dead. Unlike modern tombstones they were rarely placed next to graves; indeed they often commemorated great warriors who had died overseas. In some areas stones were also raised for family members, both men and women. In a few instances people even raised stones for themselves as a form of self-aggrandisement!

Rune stone in Sigtuna, Sweden
This rune stone in Sigtuna was raised by a man named Anund in memory of himself!

Although some rune stones have been found dating back to the 4th century they first became common in Denmark during the late 900s. From here they spread to Sweden and other countries where the Vikings had settled, including the British Isles (read about runes in the Isle of Man). More than 2,000 stones were erected in Sweden between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Reading The Runes

Most of these memorials are free-standing but occasionally they were carved into bedrock or large boulders. They tend to follow the same format, with an intricate red-painted pattern often incorporating snakes or crosses. Around the edge would be an inscription using the letters of the runic alphabet. This alphabet was used by most of the ancient Germanic languages; rune stones are the oldest surviving examples of written Swedish.

Rune stone in Uppsala, Sweden
Pinnable image of a runestone in Uppsala. Note the runes around the edge of the stone – these give information about the deceased person

The inscriptions included the name of the deceased and an account of their exploits and achievements. Most stones were from the Christian era and they sometimes included details of the person’s conversion and baptism, or of their pious deeds. The names of the people raising the stone were also recorded.

Where Can You See Swedish Rune Stones?

The greatest concentration of Swedish rune stones is in the district of Uppland, although you don’t have to look very hard to find them elsewhere in the southern part of the country (I found some on the island of Gotland when I was looking for something else!). But the best places within easy reach of Stockholm are Sigtuna and Uppsala.

Rune stone information board in Uppsala
Information boards in Uppsala and Sigtuna translate the runic inscriptions into English

In Sigtuna you can follow the Rune Stone Walk, with 15 stones. Each has an information board where you can read the runic inscription translated into English. There are more stones in the Town Museum, as well as other articles carved with runes. In Uppsala you will find a grassy area behind the Cathedral with nine rune stones, again with information boards. There are more stones outside the Cathedral itself.

Rune stone in Stockholm
Swedish rune stones are everywhere – like this fragment built into a wall in Stockholm

But keep your eyes open and you’ll find rune stones just about anywhere in the Stockholm area. In Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, I found one built into the base of an old building. Its use as construction material served as a reminder of how commonplace these stones once were.


5 thoughts on “Understanding Swedish Rune Stones”

  1. The rune stones are really cool. Someone once gave my husband a set of miniatures with a book that explained them.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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