Researchers have been trying to interpret the Rök runestone inscriptions, which date back to 800 CE, for more than a century. While multiple interpretations claimed passages referred to battles and war (including an alleged reference to the Gothic emperor Theodoric the Great), interdisciplinary research in 2020 claimed that the inscription deals with the conflict between warmth and cold or life and death.

At the time, researchers behind the new climate-related interpretation credited their findings to interdisciplinary collaboration between textual analysis, archaeology, history of religions. They based the study on archaeological research that portrayed the impact of a previous climate crisis on Scandinavia, including hunger, lower temperatures, and extinctions.

Professor in Archaeology at Uppsala University Bo Gräslund stated that, before the runestone was erected, "a number of events occurred which must have seemed extremely ominous: a powerful solar storm colored 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."

Interpreting the riddles

The 2020 study stated that the inscription consisted of nine riddles and that the answer to five of them was "the Sun." Out of the remaining five four, four were about Odin and his warriors, and one asked who was dead but now lives again.

"The powerful elite of the Viking Age saw themselves as guarantors for good harvests. 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," Olof Sundqvist, professor in History of Religions at Stockholm University, explained at the time.

The study also pointed out parallels between parts of the inscription and other Old Norse texts – the edda poetry. 

Reactions to the study

Two years after the study was published, The Viking Herald reached out to professor Per Holmberg, the leader of the study, to see how the study was received by the scientific community and the broader public.

TVH: In 2020, you led a study that resulted in a new interpretation of the Rök runestone, which is notoriously difficult to interpret. How did the scientific community and the broader public react to your findings?

PH: Most scholars seem to find our arguments for a sun theme in the inscription convincing. It makes the text more coherent and gives it stronger intertextual support. Those who still defend a Theodoric reading – there are some – have pointed out that the traditional reading is better adapted to later standards for the so-called fornyrdislag meter. 

This argument is, I think, difficult to evaluate as this is the only stanza we have from the ninth century. When I have lectured to the general public, I have met many people who find it exciting that the text now sticks together. But not anyone who really misses Theodoric.

TVH: Looking back, what was the most exciting part of the study that you led on one of the most famous runestones in the world?

PH: The cross-disciplinary approach in itself was very exciting for all four of us. It is difficult to be creative if you are isolated in your discipline. The biggest surprise was that we found so many connections to the edda poetry, especially to the mythological quiz in The Lay of Vafþrúðnir.

TVH: Were your findings - connecting the runestone inscription to a fear of a climate catastrophe – supported by later research of the Rök runestone?

PH: Yes and no. The fear of a worse climate is certainly nothing new, and we learn more and more about that. However, our conclusion that the inscription explicitly references the climate catastrophe after the volcanic eruptions of 536 CE has been criticized. And on that point, I have actually joined the critics. When the stone speaks about the death of the sun, it is more reasonable to understand it as a riddle about the yearly midwinter darkness.

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