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
Saying and doing are two different things
18 januari 2022
COLUMN. While more and more people say Yes and Amen when you ask them about the importance of living in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable way, few actually change their behaviour, writes Katarina Graffman, PhD in cultural anthropology.
Telling the story of Sweden’s Jews
11 november 2021
"There are many ways of being Swedish, and being Jewish is one of them." These words set the seal on Carl Henrik Carlsson’s history of the Jews in Sweden (Judarnas historia i Sverige). Carlsson is a researcher at Uppsala University, and his book h...
Campus Gotland students unearth Iron Age warrior
10 september 2021
Uppsala University archaeology students’ summer excavations on the island of Gotland turned up an exciting surprise: they found a warrior, with sword and spurs, in an Iron Age grave in Buttle Änge. Now the skeleton and grave goods will be analysed...
How Linnaean learning spread far and wide
07 juni 2021
An inspiring middle-school teacher sparked Linda Andersson Burnett’s interest in history. Now a researcher in the history of science and ideas at Uppsala University, she is currently studying Carl Linnaeus and his influence, which extends far beyo...
Elly Griffiths is giving this year’s Adam Helms Lecture
03 juni 2021
Each year, Uppsala University and the Swedish Publishers’ Association arrange a lecture in memory of the publisher Adam Helms. This year’s lecture will be given by the internationally renown British crime novelist Elly Griffiths on 16 September 20...
New thesis: Finery for fashionable ladies
11 maj 2021
When the first descriptions of knitting and crochet were published in Swedish, in the mid-19th century, such handiwork was described as the finest of all feminine handicrafts, for the benefit and pleasure alike of the trend-conscious, diligent mid...
Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism
07 maj 2021
Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the dis...
Conspiracy theories characterise views in and about Europe
03 maj 2021
Conspiratorial narratives of internal disintegration and external threats affect views in the European Union and Europe to an increasing extent. Our trust in society is put to the test in crises such as COVID-19 when various groups are singled out...
Nordic conspiracy theories through the ages
01 mars 2021
Conspiracy theories are becoming more common in the world, and the Nordic countries are no exception. Are some conspiracy theories unique to the Nordic countries? What typical narratives are disseminated? And when did this really start? A new book...
The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year
24 februari 2021
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, res...
Sustainable development the focus of new graduate school at Campus Gotland
21 januari 2021
On 18 January, Uppsala University’s new multidisciplinary graduate school opened at Campus Gotland. Its focus is on sustainable development. This involves research on key societal challenges within changing energy systems, sustainable consumption,...
Archives crucial for Freemasons’ identity
22 december 2020
The Order of Freemasons’ meticulous archives are fundamental to their identity. The unique structure of the masonic archives reinforces the secrecy and mystique of the self-image that has been fashioned by the Order — and characterises it in the e...
Grants for research on the impact of AI on people and society
15 december 2020
In a major 10-year national research programme, two Wallenberg Foundations are supporting research on the impact of the ongoing technology shift, involving digitalisation and artificial intelligence, on our society and our behaviour. Two of the gr...
Linnaeus and Rudbeck medallists chosen
10 december 2020
This year the Rudbeck Medal is awarded to Professors Olle Eriksson, Inger Sundström Poromaa and Maria Ågren, while the Linnaeus Medal is awarded to Professor Kerstin Lindblad Toh and Chairman Dai-Won Yoon at Hallym University in South Korea.
Turkic cultural heritage in Uppsala
07 december 2020
Uppsala University has a rich collection of manuscripts, printed material, art objects and maps related to the Ottoman Empire and other Turkic cultures. How did they come to Uppsala? This story is told in a new book “Turcologica Upsaliensia. An Il...
Fallen in battle, these Swedish Vikings are part of a larger genetic puzzle
17 september 2020
In a recently published article in the journal Nature, 90 researchers from various countries have collaborated to develop new knowledge about the Viking-era population. Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, has contrib...
The VR game that takes you to medieval Visby
14 augusti 2020
Using a VR helmet, you can try your hand at archery in 14th century Visby. This new VR game has been developed by the game company Disir, which was founded by a game developer and three archaeologists, of which two research at Uppsala University.
“The American dilemma is far from resolved”
15 juni 2020
The police violence in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd has once again thrust relations between black and white Americans onto the agenda, a dilemma that will most likely play a central role in this autumn’s presidential elec...
Social graces and etiquette vital for Carl Linnaeus
04 juni 2020
What would have become of Carl Linnaeus if he had remained single? Would science have missed out on one of its major lodestars without his well-functioning household? And was his son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger, really the ne’er-do-well he was repu...
Medieval manuscript fragments acquired
26 maj 2020
A group of fragments of medieval manuscripts has been acquired by Uppsala University Library. Among these there is a fragment related to Saint Bridget of Sweden. This particular fragment may have been written at or owned by the Vadstena Abbey.