Deciphering ancient runic messages
25 January 2022
Henrik Williams’ speciality is deciphering runic inscriptions. He is the world’s only professor of runology, which may be the smallest academic subject in the world, but is now expanding at Uppsala University. Currently, he is attracting attention with a new book about the Rök Stone (Rökstenen), a famous runestone in Östergötland bearing a message from 9th-century Sweden.
The book describes the process of reaching a new interpretation of the rune inscription on the Rök Stone, which has puzzled researchers for 150 years. This new interpretation, based on previous research but with a completely new approach, was presented two years ago.
“Doing this kind of research is like having a thousand puzzle pieces, but the puzzle has only a hundred. I think being the first person in 1,200 years who can actually read and understand the Rök Stone is amazing,” Henrik Williams says.
The Stone was erected on the Östgöta Plain in the 9th century CE by a minor king (“kinglet”) called Varin. The majestic runestone, 2.5 metres (about 8 foot 2 inches) high above ground, bears runic inscriptions on all sides. Totalling 760 characters, they make up the world’s longest runic text. Four ciphers (special encrypting runes) have been used.
Even without ciphers, the meaning of runic inscriptions is difficult to understand. The runic alphabet has only 16 letters and the sentences are written without spaces between the words, Williams explains.
“It has to be linguistically and grammatically correct. Squeezing in a word is impossible because the words have to be connected in ‘syntactic units’, as they’re called. There have to be sentences that make sense and a story that’s consistently constructed.”
By finding parallels with Icelandic mythology and two poems in the Edda, Williams and his research colleagues arrived at an entirely new interpretation of what the runes on the Stone say. It is the story of a son’s death, but also the final battle between Odin and Fenrir the wolf, and a sixth-century climate disaster.
“It’s not for me to decide how credible this is, but at least it’s a coherent interpretation. It’s all connected,” Williams says.
As many as 80 per cent of the world’s runestones are in Sweden, but interest in them is greater abroad. Williams says this reflects what Swedes call “home blindness” (hemmablindhet) – taking familiar phenomena for granted, instead of fully appreciating them. This was something he suffered from as a student.
“I’d seen runestones and studied runology here in Uppsala, and thought it was all quite commonplace. It was only when I went to an American university for the first time that a professor opened my eyes to how unique this heritage is.”
From the start, what intrigued him most was the language itself, and he wrote his thesis on a single rune that can be pronounced in eight different ways and was used to date runic inscriptions. However, Williams’ research showed that the method did not really work.
In the early 1990s, he took part in a project about Sweden’s Christianisation that focused not on the language, but on what the runic inscriptions say about the country’s conversion to Christianity.
“That was my salvation, since I was forced into seeing them from a different angle. Since then, I’ve increasingly taken the view that the texts and what we can learn from them are what matters. For me, knowing the language is mostly a tool for deciphering them.”
Williams has responded to the keen interest in runes and runology in the US with ten lecture tours during the 2010s. One outcome was a donation for the world’s only professorship in runology, which he himself took up in April. At the same time, Uppsala University made a strategic investment: an assistant senior lecturer is now to be appointed. The Department already has runologist Marco Bianchi, so the group will soon be three strong.
“We’ll be the new rune research centre in the world. I’ve had six PhD students who have spread out around the world and that’s great. There are runologists in Denmark, Norway, Germany, the UK, Austria and Switzerland. Wherever there are runic inscriptions, there’s also research.”
From now on, Williams will focus on teaching and acquiring more PhD students, but also on various collaborations –with the American Association for Runic Studies, which has visited Uppsala several times, for example. In partnership with the Swedish National Heritage Board and the County Administrative Board of Uppsala, the runestones in the University Park are to be cleaned.
“The idea is that we’ll take one of the stones and move it into Gustavianum, the University Museum, when it reopens after its renovation. Tourists visiting Gustavianum often ask, ‘Where are you keeping the originals?’ They can’t believe we’re letting millennium-old original artworks stand outdoors in the acid rain, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
He also hopes that the Uppsala guides will start saying more about the runestones when they show tourists the sights.
“A little plaque telling you what it says on the stones just won’t do. You have to tell them the background story. This is a portal into the past – a way of finding out how people spoke, what they thought and what their names were.”
According to the new interpretation, the Rök Stone is not only about a son’s death. It is also about a climate catastrophe in the sixth century, when the Sun went dark and there were 11 years of disastrous harvests. The text tells of the last battle when the Sun was swallowed up by Fenrir, but also of the “Sun’s daughter” who gives hope for the future. What can we in this day and age learn from texts like these?
“That we’re so similar to them. Essentially, people have the same notions of death as they had back then. Like them, we seek solace. The language is very beautiful, and it also shows the importance of wording that’s repeated over and over again. These days, it’s not poetry but song lyrics that have superseded runic inscriptions as a cultural expression.
Facts: Henrik Williams
Title: Professor of Runology.
Most recent work: his book Rökstenen och världens undergång (“The Rök Stone and the End of the World”).
Hobbies: fiction, Bible translations and golf.
Currently reading: Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers.
Favourite dish: tuna burgers.
Latest cultural experience: the tribute concert Brel meets Piaf.
Hidden talent: knows a lot about old cameras.
Driving force: interpreting ancient texts.
Inspired by: people with passionate interests.