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
Vice-Chancellor Eva Åkesson to receive King’s Medal
08 juni 2018
H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf has decided to award Uppsala University’s Vice-Chancellor Eva Åkesson and Johan Svedjedal, Professor of Literature, H.M. The King’s Medal.
This year’s Distinguished Teaching Award winners chosen
04 juni 2018
The 2018 Distinguished Teaching Award winners at Uppsala University teach subjects related to art history, informatics and media, pharmaceutical biosciences and information technology. The free Distinguished Teaching Award was presented to Senior ...
Human diversity as a research area
29 maj 2018
Human diversity abounds in language, culture and biology. An understanding of this diversity is central to a lot of research, but it is important to address the ethical issues raised by this research. The Human Diversity Research Network takes an ...
Shared meals important for wellbeing
29 maj 2018
How, where and when we eat are key issues for human health and wellbeing. A multidisciplinary research network at Uppsala University aims to deepen knowledge about the significance of meals.
Is citizenship necessary for being part of a democracy?
26 april 2018
Nowadays, civil rights are usually connected with citizenship of a country. But how do growing globalisation and more mobility affect this?
Mobilising for research on higher education
26 april 2018
Remarkably little research is conducted on higher education in Sweden, but a large share of existing research on the subject is at Uppsala University. Through a research network for research on higher education, researchers are now mobilising to d...
Two Uppsala researchers elected at American Academy
25 april 2018
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently elected new members. Two Uppsala researchers were elected as international honorary members.
The Well-Laden Ship: Viking exhibition soon to reach America
11 april 2018
In late April, a ship will reach New York bringing the exhibition “The Vikings Begin” which will embark on a two-year tour of the US. On display will be a selection of 1,300-year-old items from the pre-Viking Age. Usually in storage at Gustavianum...
Art historian receives award from Vitterhetsakademien
09 april 2018
Every year, Vitterhetsakademien (The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities) confers prizes for outstanding scholarly achievements. PhD Hedvig Mårdh at Uppsala University was one of the 2017 prizewinners.
New Oscar Prize winners announced
21 december 2017
Uppsala University’s Oscar Prize for young researchers has been awarded to Eric Cullhed, Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Linguistics and Philology and Oskar Karlsson, Doctor of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences.
New thesis on 21st-century Swedish crime fiction: A Market of Murders
20 december 2017
Why have Swedish detective stories become so immensely popular in our century? What murder motives and weapons are most common in the genre, and why? And is it true that Swedish crime fiction is characterised by social criticism? A new thesis from...
Collaboration for new knowledge in culture and society
09 december 2017
Uppsala University is aiming to develop new research collaborations spanning different research subjects. The newly created Centre for Integrated Research on Culture and Society at the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences will fac...
Ola Larsmo and Quentin Skinner new honorary doctors
16 oktober 2017
Author Ola Larsmo and Professor Quentin Skinner, University of London, have been appointed new honorary doctors at Uppsala University’s Faculty of Arts.
Equal Opportunities Award goes to Anita Hussénius
12 oktober 2017
Anita Hussénius, head of the Centre for Gender Research, has received the 2016 Equal Opportunities Award for her gender-equal and inclusive leadership.
Exhibition: Viking Age patterns may be Kufic script
03 oktober 2017
What was previously thought to be typical Viking Age, silver patterns on woven silk bands, could in fact be geometric Kufic characters. As part of an exhibition at the Enköping Museum, ongoing research is presented where a textile archaeological a...
First genetic proof that women were Viking warriors
08 september 2017
New DNA evidence uncovered by researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University shows that there were in fact female Viking warriors. The remains of an iconic Swedish Viking Age grave now reveal that war was not an activity exclusive to m...
Gustavian style – a Swedish style?
05 juni 2017
Why has the neoclassical Gustavian style become so prominent in the Swedish self-image? A new dissertation from Uppsala University shows how researchers in art history, along with museums, commercial enterprises and the monarchy, have contributed ...
Mandelgren Prize to Michael Neiß
13 april 2017
Svenska fornminnesföreningen (the Antiquarian Society of Sweden) has decided to award PhD student and archaeologist Michael Neiß the 2017 Mandelgren Prize for his research on Scandinavian animal art.
Archaeologists at the vanguard of environmental and climate research
26 februari 2017
The history of people and landscapes, whether natural or cultural, is fundamentally connected. Answering key historical questions about this relation will allow us to approach our most important environmental issues in novel ways. Today in the ope...
New database of Swedish archaeological research in Greece
09 januari 2017
In a recently completed project at the Swedish Institute in Athens, materials from more than a hundred years of Swedish archaeological research in Greece has been made available through the database PRAGMATA. The database includes, among other thi...