The Rök runestone has one of the longest runic inscriptions engraved in stone; however, the interpretation of the text, and its meaning, is still subject to academic debate. With a mention of Thor and a Western Roman Emperor, it gives us a fascinating insight into the early beliefs and stories of the early medieval period of Sweden.

Uncovered during renovations

The Rök kyrka (Rök church), renovated in the 19th century to give its beautiful design and white color, takes pride of place in the nearby town that provides the church with its name. It was during these renovations, however, that workers found more than they bargained for. 

In a side of the church wall, they found what, at first glance, appeared to be a huge rock. On closer inspection, the workers had uncovered what would make the town famous for historians, academics, and lovers of the Vikings the world over. They had uncovered a runestone with the longest known runic inscriptions carved into it more than a millennium before.

The runestone stands about 2.4 meters (8 feet) tall and weighs in at just over 4.6 tonnes (5.1 tons). Despite its hulky size, the runestone has a special place in Swedish history and culture as it is, academics believe, the first instance and example of the written Swedish word. The runestone marks the beginning of the history of Swedish literature.

A (rocky) riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Since its discovery, historians and academics have dated the stone to be from about the early 9th century CE. This was at the very dawn of the so-called "Viking Age," where Sweden was the very epicenter of the export of Viking raiders, traders, and colonizers. The runestone, with over 760 characters, is believed to be part of a lost piece of Norse lore and legend.

The runic inscriptions are themselves part of two ways in which the message has been decrypted. The use of special cipher runes (a cryptographical replacement of the letters of the runic alphabet) along with the more traditional runes has made the inscription particularly hard to read and understand. 

Furthermore, the use of kennings – a figurative figure of speech closely associated with old Norse skaldic poetry – adds to its complexity. What can be ascertained is that the message on the runestone was meant to be particularly hard to read.

Who wrote it, and what does it say?

The discovery of this runestone provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a Swedish Viking society in the early medieval period. For many years, historians and academics more or less agreed that the runestone had been erected as a memorial for a dead son (Vámóðr) erected by his father (Varinn). 

There has been much speculation that Varinn was a local chieftain who sought to influence his power by erecting this huge stone or to commemorate a battle in which his son died. Whatever the reason, the inscription makes for powerful reading. The structure, unlike the message, however, is simple enough to fathom, containing three parts of equal length, two questions, and one poetic answer to those questions.

An Old Norse language translation (the language spoken by peoples in this area of Sweden from the early into the high medieval period) of the inscriptions is as follows:

Æft Wǣmōð/Wāmōð stąnda rūnaʀ þāʀ. Æn Warinn fāði, faðiʀ, æft fæigjąn sunu. Sagum mōgminni/ungmænni þat, hwærjaʀ walrauƀaʀ wāʀin twāʀ þāʀ, swāð twalf sinnum wāʀin numnaʀ at walrauƀu, bāðaʀ sąmąn ą̄ ȳmissum mąnnum. Þat sagum ąnnart, hwaʀ for nīu aldum ą̄n urði fiaru meðr Hræiðgutum, auk dō meðr/dœmiʀ hann/enn umb sakaʀ. Rēð Þiaurikʀ hinn þurmōði, stilliʀ flutna, strąndu Hræiðmaraʀ. Sitiʀ nū garwʀ ą̄ guta sīnum, skialdi umb fatlaðʀ, skati Mǣringa. Þat sagum twalfta, hwar hæstʀ sē Gunnaʀ etu wēttwąngi ą̄, kunungaʀ twæiʀ tigiʀ swāð ą̄ liggia. Þat sagum þrēttaunda, hwariʀ twæiʀ tigiʀ kunungaʀ sātin at Siolundi fiagura wintur at fiagurum naƀnum, burniʀ fiagurum brø̄ðrum. Walkaʀ fimm, Rāðulfs syniʀ, Hræiðulfaʀ fimm, Rugulfs syniʀ, Hāislaʀ fimm, Hāruðs syniʀ, Gunnmundaʀ/Kynmundaʀ fimm, Biarnaʀ syniʀ. Nū 'k m[inni] m[eðr] allu [sa]gi. Æinhwaʀʀ ... [swā]ð ... æftiʀ frā. Sagum mōgminni/ungmænni þat, hwaʀ Inguldinga wāʀi guldinn at kwą̄naʀ hūsli. Sagum mōgminni/ungmænni, hwæim sē burinn niðʀ dræ̨ngi. Wilinn es þat. Knūą/knyią knātti iatun. Wilinn es þat ... Sagum mōgminni/ungmænni: Þōrr. Sibbi wīawæri ōl nīrø̄ðʀ.

The Rök runestone can be seen beside the church in Rök, in Ödeshög Municipality, Sweden. Source: Arkland / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

For those that didn't pay quite enough attention in their Old Norse language lessons at school, fear not because the Department of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University has provided an English translation:

In memory of Vámóðr stand these runes. And Varinn colored them, the father, in memory of his dead son.

I say the folktale / to the young men, which the two war-booties were, which twelve times were taken as war-booty, both together from various men.

I say this second, who nine generations ago lost his life with the Hreidgoths; and died with them for his guilt.
Þjóðríkr the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores
of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed on
§B his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings.

§C I say this the twelfth, where the horse of Gunnr sees fodder on the battlefield, where twenty kings lie.

This I say as thirteenth, which twenty kings sat on Sjólund for four winters, of four names, born of four brothers:
five Valkis, sons of Ráðulfr,
five Hreiðulfrs, sons of Rugulfr,
five Háisl, sons of Hǫrðr,
five Gunnmundrs/Kynmundrs, sons of Bjǫrn.

Now I say the tales in full. Someone…

I say the folktale / to the young men, which of the line of Ingold was repaid by a wife's sacrifice.

I say the folktale / to the young men, to whom is born a relative, to a valiant man. It is Vélinn. He could crush a giant. It is Vélinn…

§D I say the folktale / to the young men: Þórr.

§E Sibbi of Vé, §C nonagenarian, begot (a son).

So there is talk of sea-warriors, war booty, battles, and twenty kings… which makes it sound like something ripped straight out of the page of a Norse saga. However, is there any historical basis for the inscription?

Gothic kings, climate change, and Ragnarok?

The mention of the Hreidgoths is interesting as they are assumed to be a poetic name for the Ostrogoths – a tribe of Germanic peoples who settled in the Balkans and then established the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy during the late 4th to 5th centuries CE. 

This kingdom would reach its zenith under Theodoric the Great before being absorbed by the Lombard Kingdom of Italy. It is also believed that the mention of the figure sitting on the horse is a reference to a statue of Theodoric the Great moved, by Charlemagne (King of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor), from Ravenna to his capital at Aachen shortly after his coronation in 800 CE.

What is also interesting is the mention of the battlefield where "twenty kings lie." Some historians have connected this with the legendary Battle of Brávellir. This battle, described in many of the later Norse sagas, was said to have taken place between Sigrud Hring, King of the Swedes and the Geats of Västergötland, and his uncle, Harald Wartooth, King of Denmark and the Geats of Östergötland. Traditionally this battle took place around 770 CE. Furthermore, the battle is believed to have taken place in the vicinity of Rök. Sigrud would win and become the ruler of both Sweden and Denmark.

Finally, three Swedish universities have interpreted some of the inscriptions to allude to extreme weather conditions. During the sixth century CE, volcanic eruptions saw average temperatures drop, causing ruined crops and mass hunger. Some academics have estimated that this caused the population of the Scandinavian peninsula to decline as much as 50% due to this climate change. 

Researchers have argued that the anxiety and trauma associated with the death of Vámóðr may have triggered larger concerns about a new period of climate crisis like the ones experienced during the mid-6th century. This period of global cooling could have been enough for peoples in Viking societies to believe that Ragnarok (the end of times) was coming. Ragnarok was said to begin with a cold winter lasting three years, Fimbulwinter.

Whatever the meaning behind the runic inscriptions, they offer a window into the world of an early Viking-era Swedish society. It has also carved out a niche tourist location for the small village of Rök and its world-famous runestone.

For more on the Rök runestone, Vikings, and climate change, read a Daily Mail article here.

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