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Just What Does The Rök Runestone Actually Say?

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One popular news item floating about the Heathen networks recently has been this new theory on the interpretation of the Rök Runestone, in Sweden. Previously believed to be an unusual account of heroic deeds and past rulers, Rökstenen stood out from amidst it’s peers because of the difference in writing style as well as its unusually lengthy text. Despite being well preserved and relatively easy to read, interpreting the stone has always been fraught with issues. The text was jumbled, jumping around in a disorderly fashion that made the narrative of the kingly figures being discussed difficult to follow.

Per Holmberg’s (Professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Gothenburg) entire theory rests on the idea that the text is not jumbled at all, rather that researchers with a pre-established idea of what they were looking for have been reading it out of order in order to support the standing theory of a literary narrative. Holmberg points out that such a narrative is unheard of in pre-christian runic inscriptions, and that the stone makes more sense when read in the context of it’s contemporaries.

rune reading
A traditional breakdown of the text into lines, dividing the stone into seven ‘chunks’.

 

The reading order of the lines on the Rök runestone is examined according to the labyrinth principle. It is first noted that the inscription can be divided into seven text elements on the basis of the choice of writing system, and partially on the size of the runes. The problem has been to determine the reading order of these text elements. While earlier proposals, among them the influential proposal in Wessén 1958, accepted spatial gaps between the text elements, the analysis here shows how such gaps can be avoided. At one point this leads to a connection between text elements that have not previously been suggested to be connected: the text about a woman’s sacrifice on the reverse is read immediately after the text about the two war-booties that covers most of the broad front side, ending on a narrow side. While Wessén collected all three numerical ciphers towards the end of the inscription, the application of the labyrinth principle produces a structure whereby the reader meets the numerical ciphers at three different points (the comparison showed by fig. 2). This indicates that the inscription (after the two introductory lines) has three main parts, each ending with a numerical cipher. -Per Holmbeg

This new organization creates an entirely different interpretation of the stone that’s much more in line with how other inscriptions in Sweden (and across Northern Europe) were written at the time. According to Holmberg: “The riddles on the front of the stone have to do with the daylight that we need to be able to read the runes, and on the back are riddles that probably have to do with the carving of the runes and the runic alphabet, the so-called futhark.”

Taken this way, the ‘kings’ referenced in the text are not historical leaders, but the actual runes themselves. Thus the stone is not commemorating great deeds and past heroes, but instead proclaiming the power of the written word. Given some accompanying archaeological evidence for the almost mystical status of written inscriptions, such a declaration would seem to be fairly in keeping with the perspectives of the culture at the time.

For those interested in reading the actual source material for this discovery, the original academic article was published in “Futhark. International Journal of Runic Studies 6 (2015, publ. 2016).” (See Below)

The original article was written in Swedish, and is rather lengthy; however there is an English summary on pages 41-46

Answers to the Rök runestone riddles. A study of meaning-making and spatiality.

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