Varangian Guards and Their Traces in Istanbul: Runic Inscriptions in Hagia Sophia

Since its foundation in around 657 BC by the colonists of the city-state of Megara in Greece, the city of Constantinople was inhabited by people from different ethnicities and cultures. One of the most interesting inhabitants of the city could be worded as a group of “northern” mercenary soldiers who were later assigned as the personal guards of the Byzantine emperor. Several primary sources from the tenth and the eleventh centuries tell about their military and socio-political activities in the Byzantine empire in general and in Constantinople in particular. Although the Byzantine historians and chronicles regarded them as the “axe-bearing” barbarians who descended from the freezing regions of the northern countries, they also had an implicit—and sometimes explicit—admiration for these soldiers regarding their “unshakable courage” and “strong loyalty” to their patron, the Byzantine emperor.

The earliest records about the presence of the Varangian guards in the Byzantine army date back to the end of the ninth century. In this period, the Kievan Rus tribes, which crossed from Scandinavia to Northern Russia and then poured into the Dnieper region, established their first settlements north of the Black sea. Although they came into conflict with the Byzantines by besieging the city of Constantinople on two separate occasions, as time went by, these northern warriors also built political and merchandise ties with the Byzantines. As a result of growing political relationships, the Byzantines began to import a considerable number of Kievan Rus soldiers who were gradually employed as the personal bodyguards of the emperor.

The Varangian guards’ functions differed in times of war and in times of peace. It is possible to see in tenth and eleventh century Byzantine sources that these units were often used in campaigns against the Muslim political entities in the east. In a campaign season, since they were the most valuable and important military units in the Byzantine army, they intervened in a battle during the most critical moments. In times of peace, however, they stayed mostly in the capital and at other strategic points, serving as a police force to provide security.

The Varangian guards who were employed in Constantinople as security forces appear to have left their remarks in the city. Today it is possible to encounter the vestiges of their existence in the former Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia. In Hagia Sophia, there are two partially readable inscriptions, written in runic form. The first one is called the Halfdan Inscription. Unfortunately, the inscription is so worn down that only a portion of the name can be clearly read. In her article, Elisabeth Svärdström deduced that the readable part “-ftan” must indicate the Nordic name “Halfdan”. She further noted that the remainder of the inscription is illegible, but it probably followed a common formula such as “X carved these runes.”

Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes.
Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes. Public domain.

A second inscription was discovered by Folke Högberg in 1975. An article regarding this new discovery was published by Mats G. Larsson in his article “Nyfunna runor i Hagia Sofia.” According to Larsson’s interpretation, the inscription could be identified as follows: “Ari m(ade these runes).” Later, an archeologist from the University of Bergen, Svein Indrelid, announced the discovery of five other Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia, although these have not yet been published. She further stated that it is within the boundaries of possibility that there may well have been more inscriptions in Hagia Sophia that await discovery.

Hagia Sofia runic inscription
The “Halfdan inscription,” photographed by Hermann Junghans, 2014.

With the relative weakening of the Byzantine political, economic and military systems throughout the thirteenth century, we encounter the traces of the Varangian guards rarely compared to the previous periods. It is known that the Varangian guards were the main components of the defensive army which was employed by the Byzantines in Constantinople during the siege of 1204. Although it has been argued that the Nicaean emperors, who took refuge in the west of Asian minor after the 1204 catastrophe, tried to raise up a Varangian unit to boast their legitimacy against other rival Greek states such as the Despotate of Epirus—if it genuinely existed—it might have been just a mere ceremonial company since they played no important role in ongoing military encounters. Unfortunately, we know very little about the structure of the royal guard units in the Byzantine Empire after the recovery of the city from the Latins in 1261; however, several scholars including Savvas Kyriakis assert the idea that the some of the Cretan refugees, numbering less than 500, who escaped from Venetian rule and took refuge in Byzantium in the fourteenth century, were employed as royal guards who protected city gates and strategic locations in the capital. Also, there are several reliable reports that these troops were employed in the defense of Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1453. Further, in the late 1300s and the early 1400s, some people still identified themselves as Varangians in the city of Constantinople.

Image of the Hagia Sofia

In conclusion, the runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia still stand as witness to the existence of the Varangian Guards in Constantinople. Located on the parapet on the top floor of the southern (the first one) and the northern gallery (the second one), these inscriptions gives their visitors an exclusive opportunity to perceive Istanbul’s unique cosmopolitan and cross-cultural historical heritage.

Husamettin Simsir
Ph.D. Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles

Riddles and runes go together, at least in some of those found in the medieval codex known as the Exeter Book of Old English poetry (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).

J. R. R. Tolkien puts their cryptic association to creative use when, in The Hobbit, the dwarves’ map reveals to Elrond in runic ‘moon-letters” a riddle describing how King Thorin Oakenshield’s company will discover the secret door and enter the Lonely Mountain of Erebor once they arrive to reclaim their stolen treasure-hoard from the dragon Smaug.

Moon-letters revealing the riddle of the secret door into Smaug’s lair from Peter Jackson’s film adaption, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).

As with Tolkien’s moon-letters, runes found in the Exeter Book Riddles serve to both obscure and illuminate their riddle and its solution. This is to say—if you are literate and can read the runic alphabet—you have an important clue to solving the puzzle. If not, the riddle’s solution is even further obscured from the solver.

While certainly not every Exeter Book riddle contains runes, and indeed most do not, there is a higher frequency of runes in riddles than elsewhere in the extant corpus of Old English poetry, suggesting that perhaps runes offered something useful to the playful, puzzling, at times comical, Old English riddle.

Moreover, there is a general instability in the consistency of runic characters, and this further adds another enigmatic layer of obscurity to a riddle, since no runic standard of writing—or carving—ever truly existed in any standardized form. Rather, form and style of runic inscriptions (as well as the orientation of runic characters) varied wildly in medieval England and Scandinavia, which makes reading runes especially difficult even to those with some runic literacy.

So how do runes enhance a riddle? If one can determine what letter a given runic character corresponds to in the Latin alphabet, how does this knowledge illuminate the riddle and its solution? By looking carefully at Exeter Book Riddle 19 and Riddle 24, we will now explore how runes operate within a broader riddling framework.

Riddle 24 on folio 106v, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,         wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,         hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,         hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge         þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor,         hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,         hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.         G mec nemnað,
Swylce. A ond R         O fullesteð,
H ond I.         Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas         sweotule becnaþ.

“I am a wondrous thing—I change my voice:
sometimes I bark like a hound
sometimes I bleat like a goat,
sometimes I squawk like a goose,
sometimes I screech like a hawk,
sometimes I imitate the grey eagle,
the sound of birds of prey,
sometimes I utter with my mouth the kite’s voice,
sometimes the gull’s song,
where I gladly sit.

G names me,
also A and R.
O supports me,
H and I.

Now I am called as those six letters clearly show.”

The solution to Riddle 24 is higora, or ‘magpie’ in Old English, as the runes indicate when spelled out. In this riddle, runes function to obscure the solution from anyone unable to read these cryptic characters, but paradoxically they function also to illuminate the solution for the literate solver able to read the runes. However, as mysterious as the runes might appear to some, for those who understood them they aided in solving the puzzle.

Another riddle that uses runes is Riddle 19. In this enigma, there is a game of misdirection:

Riddle 19 on folio 105r, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic seah on siþe    S R O
H hygewloncne,         heafodbeorhtne,
swiftne ofer sælwong         swiþe þrægan.
Hæfde him on hrycge         hildeþryþe
N O M         nægledne rad
A G E W.         Widlast ferede
rynestrong on rade         rofne C O
F O A H.         For wæs þy beorhtre,
swylcra siþfæt.         Saga hwæt ic hatte

“I saw, on a journey,
S R O H,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
N O M,
A nailed road,
A G E W.
Traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
brave C O F O A H.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

Riddle 19 contains one of the prosopopoetic riddling challenges, enigmatic formulae which conclude many in the Exeter Book collection and prompt the reader to solve the puzzle: saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called.”

In order to answer this enigmatic challenge, one must first understand the riddle of the runes. In this case, if one deciphers and reverses the runic characters, the letters spell out a number of Old English words that allows the solver to understand the riddle in its entirety. The runic words are decoded as follows:

S R O H = hors (horse)
N O M = mon (man)
A G E W = wega (way)
C O F O A H = haofoc (hawk)

Now the riddle becomes more comprehensible, though not totally, as the runic words create syntactic breaks in the poem:

“I saw a horse on a journey,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
a man.
A nailed road,
the way
traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
a brave hawk.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

With these words semantically integrated into the riddle, some resemblance of sense is gained. The solver of Riddle 19 may now better comprehend the riddle’s meaning; however, its solution is by no means as clear for the literate rune-reader as higora is for Riddle 24. With the runes deciphered, Riddle 19 presents an image of a man riding a horse along a nailed road with a brave hawk. But this image seems to fall short of a proper solution to the riddle. Although answers have been put forth, none has proven satisfactory. Riddle 19 remains unsolved, a puzzle yet to be fully unriddled.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Spurkland, Terje. “Literacy and ‘Runacy’” in Medieval Scandinavia in Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict and Coexistence, ed. Jonathan Adams and Katherine Holman. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2004.