There’s new research from Sweden to suggest that inscriptions on the famous Rök runestone from the early Viking era were as much about climate change fears as they were the history of ancient battles.
The study incorporates new archaeological research that captures the catastrophe that Scandinavia endured during extreme climate impacts that caused low temperatures, crop failures, hunger and mass extinctions. Researchers from University of Gothenburg, Uppsala University and Stockholm University also brought together expertise in history of religions, Swedish languages and the runes, to deliver a new interpretation of the stone’s riddles and clues – and a story that links to Ragnarök, the end of the world.
The five-ton granite slab has five sides and stands about 2.5 meters high from the ground. It is covered in 760 characters, making it the longest-running runic inscription in the world. There are nine riddles, five of which discuss the sun while four of them refer to the god Odin and his warriors. The scientists say it was erected by a high-status family and intentionally designed so that “only the select few were intended to understand the meaning of the text in full.”
Uppsula language expert Henrik Williams, above, said the integrated work made it possible to see patterns and motifs in the 1,200-year-old rune. These link to oral traditions about Odin and eschatological themes that echo in patterns through the centuries, which they believe are reflected in later poetry but set in the context of more recent climate calamity at Rök.
“The key to unlocking the inscription was the interdisciplinary approach,” agrees Per Holmberg, a professor in Swedish at the University of Gothenburg who led the team on “The Rök Runestone and the End of the World” study. It was published last week in Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies.
Scandinavia had suffered catastrophic climate impacts during the sixth century, with scientists linking the decline in agricultural productivity to volcanic eruptions from 536-547 CE in the Global South. “On the basis of the decline of cultivation, settlements, graves and other archaeological data, it has been estimated that the population of the Scandinavian peninsula decreased by 50 percent or more,” the authors wrote. “The region around Rök was a highly specialized agricultural area, and seems to have had relatively low resilience.”
While there are a few centuries between those events and the erection of Rök at Östergötland around 800 CE, the climate catastrophe likely lived on in the cultural memory of generations that followed.
Experts have been able to read the Rök for more than a century, and there are several theories about its significance. With this new work, the researchers think the real mystery is about the death of a beloved son that the grieving father, Varinn, placed into the mythological narrative of Ragnarök, in an era influenced by the darkness of the past climate disaster.
“The study shows that it deals with an entirely different kind of battle: the conflict between light and darkness, warmth and cold, life and death,” the researchers said.
The expectations of a final battle against destructive cosmological powers — in which Varinn’s son was supposed to take part — were connected to a memory of climate crisis and probably to the anxiety over a new one.
“The powerful elite of the Viking Age saw themselves as guarantors for good harvests,” says 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.”
Want to hear a short clip of the ancient Rök text read aloud? Check the link here.
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