Legendary runestone bears witness to climate anxiety 1,200 years ago
8 January 2020
After more than 1,000 years, one of the greatest mysteries of the early Viking Age, the Rök runestone which bears the world’s longest runic inscription, appears to have been solved. According to four Swedish researchers, the puzzling inscription hides fears about climate change and forebodings about the end of the world.
The Rök runestone, which is probably the best-known runestone of the Viking Age, has mystified researchers and historians alike for centuries. Now, more than 1,000 years after the stone was raised in the parish of Rök in Östergötland, Sweden, an interdisciplinary group of experts has presented an interpretation that tells of a doomed son, a grieving father and above all anxiety about the climate and an impending natural catastrophe.
“We are four researchers who have worked together for two years, and the picture that has gradually emerged out of the meeting between our different academic disciplines – archaeology, the history of religions, runology and the Swedish language – reveals an ageing man’s meditations on his dead son,” says Henrik Williams, Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University.
The researchers who participated in the analysis of the Rök runestone were:
- Bo Gräslund, Professor of Archaeology, Uppsala University
- Per Holmberg, Professor of Swedish, University of Gothenburg (project director)
- Olof Sundqvist, Professor of History of Religions, Stockholm University
- Henrik Williams, Professor of Scandinavian Languages, Uppsala University
According to the researchers, the text recounts the father’s quest for consolation in the thought that his son, a successful military leader, has been called to Odin to fight at his side at Ragnarök, the final battle that will be followed by the return of the sun and light. The contents are in line with the Old Norse mythology of the time, and when the runestone was created in the early ninth century, the prospect of the world ending was spreading fear in the wake of a series of devastating catastrophes and celestial phenomena for which the people of the time could find no explanation.
“We can place the origin of the Rök runestone relatively confidently in time, but fewer than 100 runestones are known from that period. And unlike later runestones, which often have similar contents, the message of these early creations varies, which in general makes them more difficult to interpret,” explains Professor Williams. “Moreover, the Rök runestone in particular is inscribed in various forms of codes, which must certainly have made it a challenge even for contemporary readers.”
Only the select few were intended to understand
The 760 characters of the Rök runestone make it the world’s longest runic inscription. The fact that the inscription names several kings indicates that the family that had it erected belonged to the highest levels of society, and a desire for exclusivity is a likely explanation for its complex structure: only the select few were intended to understand the meaning of the text in full.
As interpreted by the researchers, however, the framework consists of nine riddles, five of which refer to the sun and the remaining four to Odin and his warriors. Professor Williams also points out previously undiscovered links to other Old Norse texts.
“We know relatively little about this period. What we do know largely derives from the Icelandic Edda. In my opinion, our work identifies clear parallels with the Edda, which corroborates hypotheses about a shared treasury of mythological tales. Similar finds have been made on Gotland, which date even further back in time, but for me, this is like finding a new literary source from the early Viking Age.”
The group’s scholarly feat started out from previous research. Several key contributions came from Professor Bo Ralph, a member of the Swedish Academy, who in 2007 questioned the previously prevailing interpretation that the Rök runestone states that Theodoric the Great died nine generations before its creation. However, according to Professor Williams, it was the interdisciplinary interaction between representatives of different universities that finally produced the key to the 1,200-year-old secret.
“Taking an impartial approach and using our different skills, we have compiled, analysed and developed existing source materials,” says Professor Williams. “After exploring several dead ends, by combining forces we reached our goal at last. This is a quite unprecedented approach for runology which has already given us important clues to other Viking Age mysteries, and I am sure we will return to the path we have begun before long.”
About the Rök runestone
- At the time when the Rök runestone was made, around 800 AD, the runic alphabet consisted of 16 runes, so that the T-rune was also used for D, for example.
- No gaps were left between words and if the same rune ended one word and began the next, it was only written once.
- Press release
- Publication: The Rök runestone and the end of the world (Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies)
- Transcription of the text on the Rök runestone
- English translation of the inscription
- Listen to a reading of the Rök Runestone inscription
- Researcher profile Henrik Williams – Rune expert with an international audience
- See an example of runic characters
“Most people can relate to music”
06 juni 2023
Mattias Lundberg’s area of research is liturgical music from the Renaissance. However, as a professor of musicology, he is used to covering the history of music in its entirety, and in recent years he has done precisely this in radio broadcasts fr...
Music Professor Mattias Lundberg receives Royal Medal
06 juni 2023
Mattias Lundberg is familiar from several series on Sveriges Radio’s channel P2, most recently “Fråga musikprofessorn” (“Ask the Music Professor”). Now he is being awarded a royal medal. “I’m pleased that musicology and the humanities are receivi...
“The public is generally poorly informed”
29 mars 2023
Hello May-Britt Öhman, researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism and expert contributor to the Government's Committee on Reindeer Lands.What is the purpose of this inquiry?
From living heritage to zombie churches
22 mars 2023
Churches are preserved by an antiquarian system that risks killing them instead of keeping them alive. The Swedish State and the Church of Sweden therefore need to define new joint visions and goals to enable the ecclesiastical cultural heritage t...
Democracy researchers to participate in literature festival
22 mars 2023
War, crime and literature as a path to reconciliation is the theme of the Uppsala International Literature Festival on March 23–25. One of the organisers is the Democracy and Higher Education research programme at Uppsala University. Christina Kul...
ERC grant for research into Swedish slavery
03 februari 2023
Fredrik Thomasson, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University, has received the ERC Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This grant relates to a project on Swedish colonial history on the island of Saint ...
The names given to the clouds, an important part of the university's history
04 januari 2023
The book “Molnspanare– en meteorologisk historia” (Cloud spotters – a meteorological history) tells of the emergence of meteorology as a scientific subject. Among other things, you can read about how the Latin names and classification of the cloud...
The history of Easter Island can teach us about sustainability
08 december 2022
Tourism has exploded on Easter Island over the last twenty years – something that has led to both financial gain and major encroachments on the island's environment. Researchers from Uppsala are now studying how history can teach us to build a mo...
Nobel Prize-winning literature often published by small publishing houses
05 december 2022
During the Christmas trade period, books written by the latest Nobel Prize laureate tend to sell at least as well as the more traditional bestsellers. It is very important for publishers to have Nobel Prize winners on their lists, according to res...
Conference: 30 years of EU citizenship
21 november 2022
This year marks 30 years since European Union citizenship came into being. It will be highlighted at an international, interdisciplinary conference in Uppsala on 22–23 November. Both researchers and all those interested are welcome to attend.
New honorary doctors in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences
03 november 2022
The faculties at Uppsala University have decided on the award of honorary doctorates for 2022. Among the new honorary doctors at faculties in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences are researchers in economic geography, family l...
The vulnerability of surrogate mothers in a global market
17 oktober 2022
A new dissertation on surrogacy highlights Thai women's experiences of having acted as surrogate mothers. The dissertation shows the women's vulnerability in a global surrogacy industry, but also provides a more nuanced picture of what makes women...
Historical discoveries as Linnaeus Garden is excavated
07 oktober 2022
Unique pots, eighteenth-century porcelain and the bones of countless fish and birds: archaeologists who have been excavating part of the Linnaeus Garden have come across a wealth of exciting objects that can tell us more about the people and anima...
Popular 18th-century medicine in a new form
05 september 2022
Hello to Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, PhD pharmacist and visiting researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences. Together with the historian of science Hjalmar Fors, you have developed a reconstruction of the 300-year-old medicine Hjärnes Testa...
Torgny Segerstedt Medal and Geijer Prize winners announced
05 september 2022
This year’s Torgny Segerstedt Medal has been awarded to Mikael Stenmark, professor in philosophy of religion at the Department of Theology. The Geijer Prize goes to Viktor Persarvet and Astrid Wendel-Hansen.
Digging from the present down to antiquity
30 augusti 2022
Welcome to the Viking Age! The archaeology students, with their trowels and their scrapers, have dug past the medieval layers and made their way down to the 11th century, approximately 30 centimetres below today's ground level. During the seminar ...
The sheep – Gotland’s symbol of sustainability
14 juni 2022
Sheep are the strongest symbol of sustainability on Gotland, according to Gurbet Peker. Not only do real ones graze all over the island, you can even find sheep sculpted in concrete in Visby. Peker researches the day-to-day lives of lamb farmers i...
Can democracy solve the climate crisis?
13 juni 2022
Hello Linda Wedlin, organisor and moderator of a panel discussion during Almedalen Week with the theme ‘What knowledge and what kind of democracy is needed for a successful climate transition?’ What are you going to be discussing?
Mapping people of the past by means of their bones
09 maj 2022
What is the best way to find out about a human being or animal that has been dead for perhaps several centuries? “Study the bones” is what Sabine Sten, professor of osteoarchaeology, would say. They can reveal an individual's age, body length, DNA...
Transforming space and society in Kiruna
24 mars 2022
State and corporate ideas about nature, people and the future played a decisive role in the development of Kiruna as a mining town over a century ago. Since 2004, when 6,000 Kiruna residents were informed that they would have to move because of gr...