Secrets of the Runic Lion

The Lion of Pireus is a large 4th century BC marble statue that was moved from Pireus, the port of Athens, to Venice in 1688. It is now at the city’s Arsenal. The Lion has unmistakeable Swedish 11th century runic inscriptions which have been known to Scandinavian scholars since 1798/99. Clearly they have something to do with the Varangian Guard, Swedish soldiers in the employ of the Byzantine Emperor from the 980s onward. But due to poor preservation, the message carried by those runes has been believed lost.

There is a cast of the Lion at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, and I’ve often pondered its silent message and felt frustrated. But frustrated I am no more! Thorgunn Snædal has done what every really good runologist must do: gone to the original and studied it. And re-studied it. And re-studied it again. She’s visited the Lion in Venice four times and spent a total of ~85 hours with it. And now she’s published her new reading in an Open Access report from the National Heritage Board (in Swedish).

Åsmund's inscription, late 11th century.

Åsmund’s inscription, late 11th century.

Left side, early 11th century.

they carved, the troopers … and in this harbour, these men carved runes after Horse the farm-owner … Swedes had this done on the lion. Fell before he could take a ransom.

Left thigh, prob. 11th century.

Young warriors carved the runes.

Right side, late 11th century.

Åsmund carved … these runes, they Æskell … Þōrlæifr and …

Snædal emphasises the skill with which Åsmund composed the third inscription, judging that he was actually a better rune master than e.g. Uppland’s prolific Öpir (though there may have been two masters of that name). She hopes that one day we will find a signed stone by Åsmund at home in Svealand. This is not by any means casual graffiti.

The new reading says a lot about the men who made the inscriptions. The first group is commemorating Horse, who has died early during his tour of duty, much in the same way as his family would on a runestone back home. But they’re also emphasising their own identity in the alien environment in ways that we never see at home. They juxtapose Horse’s Swedish farm-owner status with a comment on the amazing ancient naval harbour, no likes of which could be seen in Sweden, then explicitly identify themselves as Swedes. It is a highly martial monument, re-using a huge fierce lion and created by men who identify themselves as troopers and young warriors who can’t be certain that they will live to ever see Sweden again. Over a period of at least 50 years, two other groups of Varangians take the time to add inscriptions to the lion, suggesting that it was painted in, remembered and talked about as a must-see sight for any Swede in Pireus. As it should be today for any Swede in Venice.

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Messrs Silk, Licker and Ball Carve Some Runes

We interrupt this transmission for a puerile message from Medieval Bergen. It was found carved with runes on a stick at the Hanseatic docks.

ion silkifuþ a mek en guþormr fuþcllæikir ræist mik en : ion fuþkula ræþr m(e)k (N B434)

“John Silkencunt owns me and Guttorm Cuntlicker carved me and John Cuntball reads me”

Philologists are not certain as to whether fuþkula, “cuntball”, means clitoris, or a well-padded mons veneris, or “cunt cavern”. All the three mentioned men are historical figures known from other sources, but apparently they are usually referred to there as John Silk, Guttorm Licker and John Ball. Possibly a young Guttorm is making fun of all three names here by adding fuþ to them.

For some good, solid and frank scholarship on this theme, I recommend Carita Holm’s recent MA thesis in runology from Uppsala (written in Swedish).

Changing Fates of the Sälna Runestone

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The Stone of Sälna

The Stone of Sälna is a runestone (U 323) erected about AD 1000 at Sälna hamlet where a major road crossed Hargsån stream in Skånela parish, Uppland. (This is not far from where Arlanda airport now sprawls.) None of this is unusual. But the stone’s great height, its inscription and its later fate are. Here’s what can be made out of the runes as they survive today and as documented by a 17th century antiquarian.

Østeinn and Jorundr and Bjorn, the brothers, erected [this] stone [after] …steinn drums, their father. God help his spirit and soul, forgive him his crimes and sins. Forever shall remain, while there are people, the bridge compactly paved, wide, for the good man. Young men made it after their father. There cannot be a better road memorial.

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With almost 200 runes, this is one of the longest inscriptions we have, partly composed in fornyrðislag metre, and it is far from the terse formulaic language that characterises later runestones from the boom decades after about 1050. What drums means is uncertain, but it was apparently the dead father’s byname. The bridge in question was an earthen causeway.

The Stone of Sälna was left alone until 1820, when the owners of nearby Skånelaholm manor were laying out an English landscape park across a couple of hills. Such a park had to have visit-worthy sites, such as gazebos, waterfalls, lily ponds, fake ruins, why not a fake cave in which a fake hermit could sit during parties and dispense gnomic utterances to passersby. Or why not a runestone. So Mr. and Mrs. Jennings had the Stone of Sälna hauled by oxen from the stream to the top of a wooded hill next to the manor. It proved so heavy that the workmen decided to break it into pieces, losing bits of the inscription in the process. One part of the stone was erected at the end of a path in the park and given an ornamental flower fringe, while two others functioned as gate posts. Such treatment of runestones was not condoned by antiquarians at the time: in 1857 Richard Dybeck would rail against it.

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The Jenningses also had an enigmatic inscription added to the stone’s back side. The literature I’ve used suggests that it should be understood in the context of the Romantic era’s “companionate marriage ideal … romantic friendship and the cult of true love” (in the words of Axel Nissen).

For
Hedvig Margareta Hamilton
John Jennings’
Beloved departed wife
By
His present happy
Sophie Eleonore Rosenhane
The stone was erected in
1820
After 18 years’ marriage

So we have a second wife commemorating and thanking the short-lived first wife. For what? For dying conveniently? Dybeck characterises the inscription as “meaningless”. My guess is that the incongruous message has something to do with the stone’s new function as an easter egg in a landscape park, a humorous curiosity to reward a guest who took the trouble to walk up onto the hilltop. Though semi-public, this message was never intended as a main part of the Jennings’ family’s public face.

In 1940 the stone was reassembled and re-erected on the park hill – its exact original site having been forgotten. The top piece with half a cross, extant in the 17th century and probably lost in 1820, is still missing.

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My friend Howard Williams takes great interest in commemoration, monument re-use and antiquarian attitudes to the archaeological record. Check out his blog with the suitably metal title Archaeodeath!