The Nine Runes of the Oseberg Viking Ship
October 23, 2019 — This picture, taken in 1904 by Norwegian photographer Olaf Væring, shows the Oseberg Viking ship excavation in Norway. The placename Oseberg literally translates to “Ásmountain” which in this context means “Burial Mound of the Æsir.” The Oseberg Viking ship is famous for many reasons, such as its beautifully carved ornamentation and possible connection to the mythological (but widely attested) Yngling dynasty.
However, one of its lesser-known secrets puzzles renowned historians, linguists, and self-taught Viking Age scholars to this day.
Did you know the Oseberg archaeologists found a short round stick, that could have been a piece of an oar or perhaps fitted to the prow or stern, carved with nine unusual runes?
Translated left to right, the first five runes form an Old Norse word “litil” which means little. The next three runes read “uis,” which when spoken aloud sounds like “vís” and translates to wise in modern English. The final and ninth rune could, with some imagination, be translated to maðr, which suggests “man” or “mankind.” Moreover, “Vit-lítill” is an Old Norse word that frequently appears in the Icelandic sagas, its direct translation is “witless,” suggesting unintelligence or having “little good sense.”
So, what do we get if we attempt a full translation of the nine Oseberg runes when reading them from left to right? There are two potential and highly likely interpretations. “Mankind knows little” or “man knows little.” Both translations indicate that whoever carved the runes might have been a heathen priest or a volva contemplating the more important questions in life.
Philosophy aside, one might wonder whether an oar of a Viking ship was the best place to record daily musings on cognitive philosophy. But, on the other hand, if the piece of runic wood comes from the ship’s prow, or perhaps even from the Scythian-like horse cart or one of the four sleds that were found inside the ship’s burial chamber, the philosophical meaning of the runes makes more sense, since Vikings were known to carve runes on buildings, weapons, objects, as well as the prow and the stern of their warships, in many cases for protection and to ward off the evil eye, but other times for good fortune, successful raiding, or pure fun.
Notwithstanding the above, reading the runes from the opposite direction, right to left, results in a slightly different, more imaginative translation. We will share our alternative interpretations of the Oseberg’s unusual combination of Futhark and short-twig runes when we feel the time is right.