New book gives insight into Rök Stone’s runes

27 januari 2022

Henrik Williams holding a model of the Rök stone

Henrik Williams hopes to make more people aware of the Rök Stone, erected on the Östgöta Plain in the 9th century CE.

The magnificent Rök Stone (Rökstenen), a runestone in the county of Östergötland, bears the world’s longest runic inscription: a message about death and fear of climate catastrophe from 9th-century Sweden. More people can now discover the story, thanks to a new book by Henrik Williams, Professor of Runology at Uppsala University.

The book addresses a wide audience. The first 270 pages can be read without specialist subject knowledge, but the next 50 contain notes and references for fellow scholars wishing to dig deeper.

“This book isn’t popular science, but its content is both popular and scientific,” Henrik Williams says.

He hopes to make more people aware of the Rök Stone, erected on the Östgöta Plain in the 9th century CE. Two and a half metres tall, it is engraved on both sides. It bears the world’s longest runic inscription, comprising 760 characters and using four different ciphers (special encrypting runes).

“It’s one of the world’s greatest ancient monuments, and it’s odd that it hasn’t received more attention.”

New interpretation of the Rök Stone

Williams and his research colleagues presented a new interpretation a couple of years ago, and readers of his book can follow how the interpretation emerged. The Stone was already known to have been erected and engraved by Varin, a minor king (or “kinglet”), in memory of his son Våmod, who had died far too young.

Williams and his colleagues have found links to religious beliefs and Icelandic mythology. There are, for example, major similarities to two poems in the Icelandic Edda, a collection of ancient writings contained in two 13th-century books, written nearly half a millennium later. One is that the son, called by Odin to take part in the last battle, was doomed to die (“marked with death”). There, Fenrir (the monstrous wolf of Norse mythology) was to fight against Odin and, afterwards, the warriors would all arrive in a new realm of the dead: Gimlé.

Sixth-century climate disaster

the book cover
The texts relate to a climate catastrophe that began
in 536 CE, when volcanic gas clouds blocked out
the Sun. (Photo of the book cover.)

The texts relate that Fenrir devoured the sun – an allusion, the researchers think, to a climate catastrophe that began in 536 CE, when volcanic gas clouds blocked out the Sun. This led to 11 years’ crop failures and the death of half the population of the Nordic region.

The memory of that disaster was still strong when the Rök Stone was erected 270 years later. However, the text also contains hope for the future, and ends with Sol, the goddess of the Sun, giving birth to a daughter who lives on to tread her mother’s path

Several factors explain why it took as long as 150 years to come up with a coherent interpretation of the runic inscriptions on the Rök Stone, Williams says.

“They had only 16 letters, which means we sometimes have to test masses of different interpretations. Nor did they have spaces between words; and they and had various other writing conventions that make reading a runic text quite tricky.”

Parallels with other texts

Another difficulty is that so little is known about the society of the period. Researchers have therefore focused on finding parallels with other texts.

According to the earlier interpretation, the Stone was a kind of catalogue of various myths, erected by Varin to impress others. However, such an ambitious project suggests that he also had an important message, Williams says.

“It probably took three months to carve this stone, so it was rather a lot of work. The stone material had to be dragged a couple of kilometres from a nearby quarry. The ciphers had to be planned and all stone surfaces covered.”

Resting on 150 years’ research

One breakthrough was when researcher Bo Ralph found a riddle in Old English that can explain the Runestone text. It is about war booty exchanged between two people, a symbol of the light exchanged between the Sun and Moon. This became a key to the new interpretation: that the themes of the text are the Sun, her daughter and the climate catastrophe.

“We’ve arrived at a story that’s coherent and consistent. In the humanities, we often work on credibility. The explanation that’s simplest and has high informative value is also the best,” Williams says.

Simultaneously, he emphasises that the interpretation rests on the foundation of 150 years’ scholarly efforts.

“Everyone’s come up with their own little piece of the puzzle. It’s just as I write in the book: doing research on this is like having a thousand puzzle pieces, but only a hundred are part of the puzzle.”

New interpretation of the Runestone

The Rök Stone, close to Lake Tåkern in Östergötland County, bears the world’s longest and most complex runestone inscription.

The stone has been known since the 17th century. In studies dating back more than 150 years, no one has succeeded in reaching an unequivocal interpretation of the intricate text that, moreover, is also written partially in ciphers.

In January 2020, a whole new interpretation was presented by a group of researchers:

  • Bo Gräslund, Professor of Archaeology, Uppsala University
  • Per Holmberg, Professor of Swedish, University of Gothenburg
  • Olof Sundqvist, Professor of History of Religions, Stockholm University
  • Henrik Williams, Professor of Scandinavian Languages, Uppsala University