Legendary runestone bears witness to climate anxiety 1,200 years ago

8 January 2020

Runologist Henrik Williams, Uppsala University, is one of the researchers in the interdisciplinary project on a new interpretation of the famous Rök runestone.

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.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

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.