Närbild på runorna på Rökstenen
Photo: Helge Andersson

Rök runestone revisited

Research project
Active research
Project size
2 682 000 SEK
Project period
2017 - 2020
Project owner
Department of Swedish, Multilingualism, Language Technology


Short description

The Rök runestone in central middle Sweden is the most famous Viking Age runestone in the world. It is known for its long and enigmatic inscription, but maybe most of all for its supposed reference to the Gothic emperor Theodoric the Great.

The Rök runestone in central middle Sweden is the most famous Viking Age runestone in the world. It is known for its long and enigmatic inscription, but maybe most of all for its supposed reference to the Gothic emperor Theodoric the Great.

However, the Swedish scholar professor Bo Ralph showed in an article 2007 that the passage is more likely a riddle about the sunlight. In a later article, which presents a pilot study for this research project, I suggested how a riddle about the sunlight may fit into a new interpretation of the whole inscription (Holmberg 2016).

The research project Rök Runestone Revisited investigates how the old Theodoric interpretation could survive for so long and what ideas should now be rethought from the perspective of the new interpretation. 

The project studies

The project examines five key analyses that may be necessary for understanding a runic inscription from early Viking Age:
• Analysis of spatiality of the reading act
• Analysis of ideological bias of previous research
• Analysis of the inscription’s intertextuality
• Analysis of the monument’s relations to its landscape
• Analysis of the ”pre-Christian” status of the inscription

Each analysis can profit from cross-disciplinary collaboration, and therefore it is an aim of the project to establish such contacts over disciplinary boarders.

View over Tåkern and the landscape of Rök runestone. Image: Helge Andersson.
View over Tåkern and the landscape of Rök runestone.
Photo: Helge Andersson

The spatiality of the reading act: Placing the reader of the Rök runestone (pilot studies)

The research project is based on two pilot studies that investigate how the Rök runestone places and moves its reader, and the spatial implications for interpreting the inscription. In the first pilot study I analyse how the Rök runestone attracts an observer and almost keeps him or her trapped in the labyrinth of the inscription (Holmberg 2013). In the following pilot study, I investigate the consequences for the interpretation of the inscription. The conclusion is that the inscription does not refer to persons or events at other places. Instead, all riddles of the inscription concern what the reader can see from a position in the vicinity of the stone. The analysis distinguishes eight riddles in the inscription and suggests answers to seven of them. (The two lines with cross-cipher are taken to be one riddle, but they are left without lexicogrammatical interpretation.) The suggestion is that the answer to the three first riddles is the sun (Holmberg 2016).

The pilot studies apply the theory Social Semiotics, and I have presented preliminary results at Scandinavian conferences for this theory in Odense (2011) and Oslo (2016), as well as in a plenary speech at the conferences Svenskans beskrivning i Lund (2013), and in a workshop on spatiality at the Sociolinguistics Symposium 21 in Murcia, Spanien (2016).

Holmberg, Per 2013. Placing the reader. On the connections of text, body and space. RASK – International journal of language and communication, 2013:38, 9–29.

Holmberg, Per 2016. Svaren på Rökstenens gåtor. En socialsemiotisk analys av meningsskapande och rumslighet [Answers to the Rök runestone riddles: A social semiotic study of meaning-making and spatiality. Summary in English]. Futhark. International Journal of Runic Studies 6 (2015, publ. 2016), 65–106. 

Per Holmberg visiting the Rök runestone
Photo: Helge Andersson

The ideological bias of previous research: Deconstructing the Rök – Ravenna connection (project study 1)

The first study of the project investigates how the idea of a reference to the Gothic emperor Theodoric the Great was established in the previous Rök runestone research. The analysis focuses on two scholars: Elias Wessén, Swedish professor in Scandinavian Languages, who in the middle of the twentieth century published what still counts as the standard interpretation of the Rök runestone inscription, and Otto Höfler, Austrian professor in the German Language and Folklore, who argued that the Theodoric of the Rök runestone appears as an object for Germanic cult of the leader. The analysis shows how Wessén’s interpretation can be understood as a part of the long and hard debate against Höfler. Wessén’s position is that we cannot know why Theodoric is mentioned in the inscription. Although this skeptical attitude has been efficient to prevent further nationalistic readings, it has made it more difficult to question that Theodoric is mentioned (cf. Holmberg forthcoming 2020)

The work with this study has been supported by discussions at seminars with scholars in different disciplines of the humanities in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Uppsala (2017–2018). A follow-up study about the relation between the discipline of Scandinavian Languages and nationalism is being conducted together with Anna-Malin Karlsson, professor of Swedish at Stockholm University, with contributions at the conferences Svenska språkets historia [The History of the Swedish Language] (Lund 2020) and the Fifteenth International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences (Milano 2020).

Holmberg, Per (forthcoming 2020) Nation and race in the twentieth century scientific discourse on Viking Age runestones [Author Submitted Manuscript 2018]. In: E. Aussant & J.-M. Fortis (eds), History of Linguistics 2017. Selected papers from the 14th International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences (ICHoLS 14), Paris, 28 August–1 September. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

The inscription’s intertextuality: Labyrinths of riddles (project study 2)

The aim of the second study is to examine how the Rök runestone inscription can be understood against the background of other early Old Norse texts. In the previous research tradition that supposed a connection to Theodoric and other now forgotten heroes, it has been natural to search for parallels in heroic narratives. If the inscription is composed of riddles, relevant parallels should be searched for in the enigmatic literature. The study shows that the inscription has a close relation to one text in this genre, the Eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál. The analysis distinguishes nine riddles in the Rök inscription. (The two lines with cross-ciphers are, versus Holmberg 2016, read as two separate riddles.) All riddles are analysed as concerning the sun, either directly or indirectly, and with one exception the stanzas of Vafþrúðnismál offer parallels. The choice of sun riddles for the inscription is explained with some events that occurred before the erection of the stone. A powerful solar storm with red skies, an extremely cold summer, and a solar eclipse could have raised fears of the sun losing its power (Holmberg, Gräslund, Sundqvist and Williams 2020).

I have conducted the study together with Henrik Williams, professor in Scandinavian Languages with a specialty in Runology at Uppsala University, Bo Gräslund, professor emeritus of Archaeology at Uppsala University and Olof Sundqvist, professor of History of Religion at Stockholms University. Moreover, I have discussed preliminary results at seminars in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Uppsala (2018–2019), and the Ninth International Conference on Multimodality in Odense (2018).

Holmberg, Gräslund, Sundqvist & Williams 2020. The Rök runestone and the end of the world. Futhark. International Journal of Runic Studies 9/10.

English translation of the inscription with parallels (modified from Henrik Williams, Per Holmberg, Bo Gräslund & Olof Sundqvist 2020).

Reading of the inscription (CC-BY: Henrik Williams).

The monument’s relations to its landscape: Reading runes by the roads (project study 3)

Photo: Helge Andersson

The third study of the project reconnects to the interest of the monument’s spatiality that was a central issue in the pilot studies. The spatial scale, however, is widened from the close vicinity of the stone to the landscape in which the stone was erected. The study investigates if relations to grave monuments and other erected stones in the landscape might be a key to the function of the Rök runestone monument. How did the sunlight shine over the stone at different times in the cycles of the year and the day? And how may the movement of the sun over the firmament have interacted with the reading and interpretation of the inscription?

The study is ongoing. At seminars in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Linköping (2019), I have discussed suggestions on the potential meaning of the relationship between the monument and the landscape. I will present the study at the Ninth International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Akademie Sankelmark, Germany (2020), and my plan is to publish in a journal for archaeological studies.

Rök runestone
Photo: Helge Andersson

The ”pre-Christian” status of the inscription: Meeting point for mission? (project study 4)

The final study of the project aims to deepen the understanding of the inscription by comparing its so called pre-Christian world view with the Christian message that would soon be preached by missionaries who would pass the stone and would lead to a church being built on the site. How was the sunlight thematized in the daily reading of these monks and priests? What meanings did the give to for example sunrise and sunset?

The study will be published in a scientific journal.

Photo: Helge Andersson