Viking Runes as Encryption in the 1500s

This is an interesting historical use of Viking runes as a secret code. Yes, the page is all in Finnish. But scroll to the middle. There's a picture of the Stockholm city police register from 1536, about a married woman who was found with someone who was not her husband. The recording scribe "encrypted" her name and home address using runes.

Posted on January 12, 2015 at 1:26 PM • 26 Comments


Bill StewartJanuary 12, 2015 2:40 PM

So it was their equivalent of doing spoilers in rot13?
(BTW, Google Translate seems to fail pretty badly on ca-1500s Swedish :-)

Aaron ToponceJanuary 12, 2015 2:42 PM

When I was 11-14 years old, my friends and I created a J.R.R. Tolkien group, where we read his works, studied elvish, and learned Cirth.

As a result of learning Cirth, we used this as our primary writing system when passing notes in class. A few times, the note was intercepted by the teacher, who threatened the read it in front of class. Every time, they saw the runes, and didn't bother. Instead the note would be thrown away, and class continued.

We found this to be a great way to pass notes if we didn't want anyone translating it. We could read and write Cirth without at intermediate translation, although it decrypted directly to plan English.

It was this group of friends and Tolkien that got me interested in cryptography. If only we took our efforts further at that time.

Markus KoskinenJanuary 12, 2015 3:34 PM

Possible spoiler warning in case you're a reader looking at deciphering it!

m-(aäe)-th (aäe)-l-(ieäyj)-n på (kg)-(ieäyj)-n-th-(aäe)-s-(td)-(aäe)-gatan

My guess would be:

Mätta Alén på Kindstugatan

I'm not at all confident about the surname, but feel fairly good about the street and the first name. My apologies to the lady if I got it wrong!

Clive RobinsonJanuary 12, 2015 3:39 PM

@ Aaron Toponce,

For my sins I used to write poetry in Tolkien runes, where not only did the words have to form good poetry according to the usual rules, but also the runes had to have a certain stylistic art form.

I had a notebook of them I had written, and foolishly, loaned it to a young lady I was seeing at the time. When we broke up due to work commitments, for some reason she said she had lost it... The fair sex can have their dark side from time to time, especialy as she had joined the British Transport Police...

ThothJanuary 12, 2015 8:17 PM

I was encoding my personal notes in runic alphabets and other self invented scripts for a long time. Quite a common way to prevent people reading your notes unless it's a more serious threat where you create a codebook and scramble it with a key of sorts but still .. it's easily broken like the above runic "encrypted" message.

JarmoJanuary 12, 2015 8:58 PM

@Markus Koskinen

Mätta Alén på Kindstugatan

Looking at the "rune key" (the last image on the page linked by Bruce) that seems like a probable interpretation.

Just wanted to add (for those who may not be from the Nordics) that "Mätta Alén på Kindstugatan" would in English be "Mätta Alén on Kindstugatan". Mätta is a probable first name of the person, Alén is the last name, and Kindstugatan is a street that is still around in the Old Town of Stockholm.

On a side note, I first thought that "Mätta Alén" was instead to be interpreted as something similar to "Magdalene" (the pronunciation is approximately similar) because I was not sure how common non-patronymic last names (such as Alén) were in Stockholm around 1536. According to the article the runes were used to protect the upper classes, though, and perhaps some of them had "modern" last names already around that time.

Wesley ParishJanuary 13, 2015 12:30 AM

The futhark's just another example of "security through obscurity". Much like the use of the Kok Turki "runes" or the Early West Semitic alphabet to write stuff in - it only works when there's a limited nuber of people who know the alternative alphabet, and doesn't when people know how to analyse it and crack it.

It doesn't surprise me though that the futhark was used in that way: alchemists in Europe used Greek and Hebrew alphabets to hide the "secrets" they were supposed to have had, away from the snooping authorities.

Treasure of the Silver DragonJanuary 13, 2015 3:29 AM

If I recall correctly, in 1980, a little RPG/boardgame adventure "Treasure of the Silver Dragon" (which had a real-life hidden treasure worth $10000, which was successfully found) used viking runes as encrypted/coded/obscured clue text in the book, which was my first exposure to the idea.

jhuJanuary 13, 2015 5:16 AM

@Markus Koskinen

I think it's just the first name, Madalin (i.e. a variant of Madeleine/Magdalene) like Jarmo also suggested.

I remember as a kid learning Tolkien's dwarven runes from The Hobbit, and a futhark set from Ultima V manual. Then one day in history class, we were going through Scandinavian history, and a picture of Thor pops up, with runic writing all over it(I assume it was from some later-day illuminated manuscript). I was surprised that i could make sense of the letters, although the actual deciphered words I couldn't understand. The reactions were priceless.

Legislating in AngerJanuary 13, 2015 5:22 AM

It's a sad world when a terrorist attack allows governments to force the anti-privacy laws they had on the back burner right down our throat unchallenged. When a pair of nutcases with a rifle provide our politicians with a good excuse to make our society a dystopian nightmare, terrorists win, authoritarian politicians masquerading as democrats win, we lose. It's Patriot Act all over again, this time in Europe.

upbackJanuary 13, 2015 5:37 AM

@Legislating in Anger

Actually, that's just the latest development in a long trend. For example, if you've been following the news, the UK is well on its way to becoming the new Iran as far as the Internet is concerned.

1. ISPs forced to block access to "undesirable" sites (e.g. torrent exchange)
2. ISPs forced to block by default access to "immoral content" (i.e. porn), making anyone who doesn't want their internet censored to sign their real name to a "I want porn" list.
3. Cameron hints that he would like to ban online encrypted communication

Makes Kim Jong un look tame by comparison. The irony is that these guys go abroad giving speeches, wagging their fingers and beating their chest about their democratic values.

LuxJanuary 13, 2015 6:41 AM

@upback, Lock&Key

What is most surprising about these law proposals is the hypocrisy with which they are drafted . We know thanks to Snowden, Manning, & co that governments are ALREADY cracking encryption and backdooring our hardware. These laws are not really talking about something that they would LIKE to do. What these laws seek is the legal go-ahead to use the data (most of which is deemed unconstitutional nowadays in modern democracies) in court.

Markus KoskinenJanuary 13, 2015 7:53 AM

@Jarmo, @jhu

Good points! I was looking at the dot inside the "th" symbol as a separator, but it could be something else (or nothing).

The name just being the first name, Madalin or a Madeleine variant, does make a lot of sense - you guys are probably right.

Plan AheadJanuary 13, 2015 11:32 AM

@Legislating in Anger

If the deep state is coming for encryption, then it's time to stockpile source code for crypto tools.

Once the exits close, it will be harder to find the code needed to build secret paths around tyranny.

Ray DillingerJanuary 13, 2015 8:36 PM

I don't know how common this is, but I keep a diary in a made-up language. So far six volumes of handwritten gibberish.

It has its own peculiar orthotactics/phonotactics, grammar, and vocabulary. I use the standard roman alphabet, because I wanted to be able to type it easily if I ever have cause to use it in an electronic medium, So far though, I haven't.

It's interesting as a hobby -- deciding what I need to coin words for and how to 'evolve' or 'derive' them from words I already have, as well as working out a nice grammar that allows concise expression of reasonably complex relationships between ideas and sufficient redundancy/inflection to make it easy to keep track of what's what, but is still just 'slippery and vague and ambiguous' enough to think fluently with. There's a balance that I think is kind of fun.

As a hobby it also raises philosophical questions. For example, it's not really a language because I'm the only person who uses it. Languages are for communication, yes?

It's not really a 'cipher' as such, nor a code. But I don't know how anyone would get very far with it in the absence of any illustrations or anything that links the writing to any particular set of ideas.

paulJanuary 14, 2015 1:03 PM

There's a sort of "everything changes" irony in using runes to encode things, much as the old practice of using latin for obfuscation in medicine or scholarly discussions of pornography. Those systems of writing and language were originally chosen and used precisely so that they could be universally understood, but turn into the opposite.

Wesley ParishJanuary 14, 2015 6:14 PM

@Ray Dillinger

It's not common, but it does have a name: conlanging. To wit: is a site for conlangers, would-be conlangers, those interested in or curious about conlangs, and anything else to do with conlanging.

I myself have done a little bit of that myself. This is a song from a story I wrote a few years ago:

"aie, shailyain ili, shailyain ili, shailyain ili ri ne rau!
"aie, waya wehi ri ne, waya wehi ri ne, ne wa shailyain!"
Alas, broken the walls, broken the walls, broken the walls of my heart!
Alas, gone my love from me, gone my love from me, I am broken!

One thing regarded with much disfavour by conlangers is "relexing" - making up words to replace English words, without paying any attention to grammatical categories and syntax. A language with hypothetical speakers is going to have its own history of speech habits otherwise known as grammar. One grammatical matter that might be immediately obvious from the above is that ne can be used as a pronoun in both subject or object positions or an adjective: I, me, my. And it doesn't have a definite article eg "The".

ArktosJanuary 15, 2015 3:01 AM

Not being very good at Finnish I just skimmed the article and trusted that the Finnish readers has got the gist right! However – I am a historical linguist (specializing in runes no less) by education if not by occupation and might therefor clarify some points made above.

The runes should be transliterated as 'madalin [på] kindasin' (latin characters in angle brackets) – stricken runes most often denotes voiced sounds. Now – I have never heard of this use of runes (but I didn't specialize in medieval runes either) – but as a cipher runes wouldn't work very well. Even though literacy was low in the lower classes – the use of runes were more common in the lower classes than in the upper. The use of the latin letters would be more of a comprehension barrier for the lower class than the runes – even as late as the sixteenth century!

Of course I do now speak of the rural population or any population with a scandinavian mother tongue. The cities were at this time dominated by german speaking people. For those – the situation would probably have been the other way around. This is perhaps hinted by our evidence – no one would be so stupid to use an altogether ineffective cipher – would they?

RusstopiaJanuary 15, 2015 10:48 PM

Since there's lots of interest in constructed languages in this thread, you should all also consult for its large set of user-contributed invented writing systems. Some really fun alphabets and strange constructions there, and not just for English.

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