Can you spell ‘man bun’ in Futhark?

THE FIFTH COLUMN

I don’t know whether the TV series Vikings has changed public perception of that warlike, exploratory people — I didn’t watch beyond season two, the violence having declined in favour of character development by that point. The series certainly didn’t enlarge general knowledge of Viking hairstyles, as far as I can see, except to change the perception that Viking hair was usually long and unkempt; in the series, various fancy hairdos, with braids, ponytails, man buns and so on, were to be seen. The historical accuracy of this is unknowable.

A recent archaeological find, however, sheds some light on the matter. Well, it sheds most light on the Vikings’ literacy, but first it supplies information about hair. The find, a 1 200-year-old comb, discovered in Denmark last year, is one of many such combs found in the areas inhabited (often colonised) by the Vikings.

In fact, combs are among the most frequently discovered relic of Viking society, indicating that they paid a lot of attention to their hair. Even if it wasn’t kept in the cornrows-and-man-bun style shown in the TV series, their hair was, it seems safe to argue, not simply left to grow willy-nilly into a tangled mess.

What’s important about this comb, however, isn’t hair-related. It has to do with writing. The comb was found at Ribe, thought to be Denmark’s oldest town, and dates from about 800 CE. On the comb are scratches that, it turns out after careful examination, are letters using the runic system that was the Viking alphabet of the day.

That alphabet developed round about the eighth century CE, being a refinement of the earlier writing system used by the Vikings (and, in fact, by most of the Northwest Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxon bunch) and known as the Elder Futhark. The name Futhark is constructed much like our word “alphabet”, which is based on the first two letters of the Greek alphabet from which our (Roman) alphabet descends — alpha and beta. Futhark comes from the first six letters of the Elder Futhark, with the “th” being one letter (as in the Greek theta).


The comb shows the development from the Elder Futhark into the Younger Futhark, when the older 24-character alphabet was refined down to 16 runes. This, technically, signals the beginning of the Viking era proper. Before that, you’d have to call them proto-Vikings and their language Proto-Norse. There are about 6  00 runestones across Scandinavia with inscriptions in Younger Futhark, whereas a mere 350 or so with Elder Futhark runes survive.

The implication, says the Vintage News website where I first saw this story, is that more Vikings were literate than previously thought. It quotes the British Museum’s Gareth Williams, who said: “As more finds like this are discovered, it becomes more likely that a significant proportion of the population in the Viking Age could read and write.”

Add this to the other innovations we owe to the Vikings: tweezers, razors and earwax removers. They weren’t unkempt raiders, clearly; they were literate, well-groomed raiders. I feel a man bun coming on.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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