The Birth of Modern Runology - From the Renaissance to the Baroque

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

The Birth of Modern Runology
From the Renaissance to the Baroque

Since the runes had largely fallen into obscurity over almost all of the Germanic world, and remained only a limited part of life in certain more remote areas of Scandinavia, the stage was now set for a true revival of runic knowledge as we will see in the work of the Swedish Storgöticist and Rosicrucian Johannes Bureus. But the mystical aspect of Bureus’s efforts was only one part of his contribution. His role as what can rightfully be called the first modern runologist is perhaps more important, as he planted the seeds for the growing interest in the runes that would take hold in the halls of academia throughout Europe. The story of the scholarly runic revival is every bit as fascinating as the revival connected with magic and mysticism—and eventually, as we shall see, these two worlds will begin to reconnect with one another.

In the two centuries between 1500 and 1700, the initial ground-work for the scientific study of runes was laid. During this period, academic study was still significantly clouded by superstition and medieval prejudices. These hindrances would be able to be overcome only with the development of better scientific tools and the moderate loosening of the grip of the church and the state over freedom of thought.

As Klaus Düwel (2008, 217—18) points out, the study of runes during the earliest part of this time was dominated by certain ideas that would only be disproved over time. One was that the signs were of extreme antiquity, going back to biblical times and even antedating the Great Flood described in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. Most thinkers at this time still accepted the medieval idea that Hebrew was the oldest language, or the original language of mankind, and therefore the runes and all other forms of writing must have somehow derived from the Hebrew letters. Because the most commonly found runes—and the ones with the most magnificent monumental presence, appearing as they did on the great memorial stones of Sweden—were written with the signs of the sixteen-rune futhark, it was believed that this was the older system, whereas the few inscriptions that had been found and identified with various additional signs (many of which bore a greater resemblance to the Latin alphabet) were assumed to represent a younger and more recent system.

As we have already noted, the whole study of runes in Scandinavia was also made part and parcel of that great political and cultural movement known as Storgöticism. In connection with these ideas, the study of runes gained a symbolic value in the political and economic struggles taking place between the two great Scandinavian powers of the time: Denmark and Sweden. This seems to have been much more important to the Swedes than the Danes, which was mainly because the Swedes became the power rising in the North after their victory in the Second Northern War (1655—1660), whereas the Danes had historically held the upper hand. From the Swedish perspective, they identified the ancient Goths with the inhabitants of their country known as Götar (in Väster- and Östergotland, for example) and on the island of Gotland. The ancient tribes known as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, together with the kindred Vandals and Burgundians, had all gained great historical prestige in the Migration Age (300—550). Their histories became the stuff of legend, and their leaders and kings, such as Alaric and Theodoric, achieved mythic status. Although the Goths had disappeared from history after about the eighth century in Spain, their legendary prestige could be harnessed as a source of political power. The history and legends surrounding the Goths thus became intertwined with the runic symbols in a new and powerful modern mythology.

The deep roots of Storgöticism go back into the Norse Viking Age when the Goths entered the world of myth and legend. In the Poetic Edda the plural designation gotar is used honorifically to mean men of great power and the word goti is used for a valuable horse, as Gothic horses were highly esteemed. So by the time Nicolaus Ragvaldi, the archbishop of Uppsala in the mid-1400s, made his famous speech at the Council of Basel in 1434 extoling the virtues of the Goths, the traditions of giving a high place of honor to the Goths, and of the Swedes identifying with this people, was already well established (see Svennung 1967). Gothicism spans over several centuries of Swedish and Scandinavian history, and some might say that glimmers of it still exist today. Generally summarized, Gothicism is a combination of the belief in the special antiquity and prestige of the Goths, their identity with various local populations (Swedes, English, Spaniards, and others), and the attempt to harness this identity and ideology in the service of greater military and political power for the nation. As we will see in the case of Bureus, Gothicism could also go in a quite mystical direction. The apex of Swedish Gothicism was probably reached in the works of the Swede Olof Rudbeck (1630—1702).

The chief effect of Storgöticism on the history of runology is that the belief arose that the Swedish runestones, which number in the thousands, were somehow the most splendid and ancient examples of runic activity and so the sixteen-rune futhark that they bear must, for this reason, be the oldest and most original form of the runic tradition. This false assumption prevailed for a number of years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. How do we know it is false? Simply because the language represented by the Older Futhark, Proto-Germanic or Primitive Norse, is closer to the Indo-European root language than is the language of the Viking Age, which is represented in the Younger Futhark inscriptions. Archaeological contexts also clearly show that the Older Futhark of twenty-four runes occurs in environments older than that of the sixteen-rune system. Moreover, the runic alphabet developed in the Middle Ages is directly based on the Younger Futhark.