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Viking runestone reveals fear of climate catastrophe, scholars find

Several passages on the Rök stone – the world’s most famous Viking Age runic monument – suggest that the inscription is about battles and for over a hundred years, researchers have been trying to connect the inscription with heroic deeds in war. Now, thanks to an interdisciplinary research project, a new interpretation suggests the inscription deals with an entirely different kind of battle: the conflict between light and darkness, warmth and cold, life and death.

The Rök runestone, erected in Östergötland around 800 CE, is the world’s most famous runestone from the Viking Age, but has also proven to be one of the most difficult to interpret. This new interpretation is based on a collaboration between researchers from several disciplines and universities.

“The key to unlocking the inscription was the interdisciplinary approach. Without these collaborations between textual analysis, archaeology, history of religions and runology, it would have been impossible to solve the riddles of the Rök runestone,” says Per Holmberg, professor in Swedish at the University of Gothenburg, who led the study.

The study is based on new archaeological research describing how badly Scandinavia suffered from a previous climate catastrophe with lower average temperatures, crop failures, hunger and mass extinctions. Bo Gräslund, professor in Archaeology at Uppsala University, points to several reasons why people may have feared a new catastrophe of this kind:

“Before the Rök runestone was erected, a number of events occurred which must have seemed extremely ominous: a powerful solar storm coloured the sky in dramatic shades of red, crop yields suffered from an extremely cold summer, and later a solar eclipse occurred just after sunrise. Even one of these events would have been enough to raise fears of another Fimbulwinter.”

According to the researchers’ new interpretation published in Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies, the inscription consists of nine riddles. The answer to five of these riddles is “the Sun”. One is a riddle asking who was dead but now lives again. The remaining four riddles are about Odin and his warriors.

Rök runestone. Photo by Helge Andersson

Part of the text from the Rök runestone:

Second, let’s say this, who, nine generations ago, lost life to the East but still rules? The bold warrior, the men’s chief, rode on the horse across the horizon to the east. Now sits, the foremost of the famous, equipped on his horse with the shield prepared.

The answer: The Sun – translation by Per Holmberg, Henrik Williams, Bo Gräslund and Olof Sundqvist

“The powerful elite of the Viking Age saw themselves as guarantors for good harvests,” explains Olof Sundqvist, professor in History of Religions at Stockholm University. “They were the leaders of the cult that held together the fragile balance between light and darkness. And finally at Ragnarök, they would fight alongside Odin in the final battle for the light.”

According to the researchers, several points in the inscription have clear parallels with other Old Norse texts that no one has previously noted. “For me, it’s been almost like discovering a new literary source from the Viking Age. Sweden’s answer to the Icelandic Poetic Edda!” says Henrik Williams, professor in Scandinavian Languages with a specialty in Runology at Uppsala University.

Click here to read the article “The Rök Runestone and the End of the World” by Per Holmberg, Bo Gräslund, Olof Sundqvist and Henrik Williams.

Top Image: Rök runes. Photo by Helge Andersson

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