An expert study of gold jewelry discovered in the Vindelev hoard has just revealed that the Danes believed in Odin – and, therefore, Norse mythology – 150 years before our previous assumptions.
Analyzing a thin bracteate, unearthed at Jelling in southeast Jutland in 2021, specialists can now confirm that the text in runic inscriptions reads: "He is Odin's man'.
It refers to the portrait depicted on the small gold disc, and dates back to the early 400s. The earliest previous evidence of Norse mythology was linked to the mid-500s.
The gold bracteate with the Odin inscription. Photo: Arnold Mikkelsen, The National Museum of Denmark
The Vindelev hoard is currently being kept at the National Museum of Denmark, where specialists in their field made this astounding discovery:
"The runic inscription was the most difficult I have ever had to interpret in all my years as a runologist at the National Museum of Denmark," said Lisbeth Imer.
"But the discovery is also absolutely amazing. It is the first time in the history of the world that Odin's name was mentioned. This means that Norse mythology can now be dated all the way back to the early fifth century. This just makes the Vindelev hoard even more spectacular. Since the golden horns, I've never seen such well-executed runes and such a long text on a Danish find from this period. It may help us understand other prehistoric runic inscriptions, which we haven't yet been able to read".
Imer's colleague Krister Vasshus, an authority on ancient Scandinavian languages who also worked on the study, underlined its importance: "We have black-and-white evidence. It's a huge discovery. I'm simply ecstatic. This type of inscription is extremely rare. We may be lucky to find one every 50 years. This one turns out to be a chapter in world history".
The many gold pieces from The Vindelev hoard. Photo: Joakim Züger, The National Museum of Denmark
Reading the runes
Bracteates are thin, single-sided gold medals worn as jewelry across Northern Europe during the Migration Period of the Germanic Iron Age.
More than 1,000 bracteates have been found across the region, more than 200 with inscriptions.
As these runes are tiny, around 2-3mm high, and inscribed close together with no gaps between words due to lack of space, they have made little
linguistic sense until now.
Often the bracteates are quite worn, with texts hard to read, as they would have been part of someone's attire for many years.
Until today, the oldest inscription referring to the Norse God Odin was on a brooch found in Nordendorf, southern Germany, and dated to the later 500s.
The bracteate interpreted by Lisbeth Imer and Krister Vasshus is one of 22 gold objects uncovered at Jellling, weighing a total of 800 grams. This particular text proved a difficult nut to crack: "Not only has the structure of the language developed tremendously since the 5th century, but many words have also fallen out of use," said Vasshus.
"Generally, we find short runic inscriptions with fairly comprehensible content, but this time the text is long and consists almost entirely of new words. That made it extremely difficult to interpret. In itself, the interpretation is quite a major achievement, which will help us understand other runic inscriptions – on other bracteates, for instance".
Rane Willerslev, Director of the National Museum of Denmark, stressed the importance of the find: "The discovery is yet another breakthrough, providing us with vital new knowledge about the history of Denmark. It's an incredible discovery that provides us with new insight into the past, nuancing and rewriting the history of Denmark – in this case, the history of the world too. It's wonderful that once again, this museum's researchers have achieved results that will attract the attention of the entire world".
The team at the National Museum is currently analyzing other bracteates in the Vindelev hoard, with distinct similarities to one found at Bolbro in 1852 and kept in the collection here for 170 years. Watch this space!
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