The Life of Johan Bure - 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 Life of Johan Bure
From the Renaissance to the Baroque

Johan Bure was born on March 25, 1568, at Åkerby, about one mile northwest of Uppsala, Sweden. The child was christened Johannes Thomæ Agrivillensis Bureus. His father was the Lutheran parish priest of Åkerby, and his maternal grandfather had also been a priest.


Fig. 3.3. A portrait of Johan Bure from 1627

In 1570, Johan’s father died and his mother remarried another parish priest that same year. But she, too, would die just ten years later. Johan’s stepfather was kind to the boy and supported him in his early schooling.

By the time young Johan was nine years old, he was in school under Magister Olaus Andreæ in Uppsala. At the age of fifteen he went to Stockholm to study at King Johan’s Collegium under Ericus Schepperus. In 1590 he received a position in the chancellery of the collegium.

Throughout the years he continued to learn various languages: besides the Latin that was basic to all education at the time, he learned Hebrew (beginning as early as 1584) and Greek. He even began teaching himself Arabic at the age of sixty.

At the time when he received his position in the chancellery, his interest was piqued in all sorts of antiquities. By the next year, 1591, these interests had developed a mystical tendency. In the summer of that year he read the Latin grimoire known as the Arbatel or De Magia Veterum (On the Magic of the Ancients), and he developed an enthusiasm for the Kabbalah. Perhaps it was contact with the family of his first wife, Margareta, whom he married in January of 1591, which set Bure’s mind in this direction. Margareta’s father, Mårten Bång, was involved with certain occult pursuits. These ended badly for him as he was beheaded for heresy in 1601. Bång had instructed a certain woman on occult teachings, who then began to report publicly on her “heavenly journeys.” The contents of these reports were judged to be heretical so she was burned and Bång, who was charged with being her instructor, was beheaded. This story demonstrates the mortal danger from established authorities that such interests could incur at this time.

In 1593, Bure received a new position as corrector (editor) of religious publications. This necessitated a move from Stockholm to Uppsala. But just before he left Stockholm, he visited the Franciscan cloister on Riddarholm (a small island that lies within Gamla stan, the city’s old town area) to assess material in the library there. While on this visit, he caught sight of an ancient runestone that had been set in the threshold of a door. The practice of removing stones from their original places to be used as building materials (especially for churches) had been fairly common in medieval Sweden. Of course, Bure had been familiar with the sight of runestones in the countryside from his childhood, as the region around Uppsala is scattered with hundreds of such stones. But when he saw this stone it is said that “his curiosity was awakened” (Hildebrand 1910, 75).

From that time forward Bure focused much attention on learning the language reflected in the stones and on the mystical significance of the runic characters themselves. It is said that he went into the “backward”—or culturally conservative—province of Dalarna to the northwest of Uppsala and there learned to read runic characters from the farmers in the region. This is quite credible because farmers in that region were still known to be using runes into the nineteenth century, three hundred years after Bure’s time.

Throughout the period of his government service, which was not a well-paid position, Bure earned extra income with handicrafts—he made copperplate engravings, inscriptions in stone, and repaired clocks.

By 1595, at the age of twenty-seven, Bure formally entered the university at Uppsala, where he began to study theology. He was promised the parish of Börstil in northern Uppland, but he never took the final step of becoming a priest. During the time of his studies, he traveled to the south, visiting both Germany and Italy. Bure also began an extensive expedition to record runestones in the Swedish countryside. He set out on August 8, 1599, and concluded the trip on April 5, 1600. In 1602 he was named professor in the artes liberales by Duke Karl. His teaching fields were to be runska (Runic Studies) and Hebrew.

The following year Duke Karl ascended to the throne of Sweden and became King Karl IX. The king then named Bure as his “antiquarian,” although no formal government post had previously existed for this function. Karl was intensely interested in Swedish prehistory, both for its own spiritual sake and for the political advantages that could be derived from the results of such studies.

An example of this latter use of prehistory can be seen in connection with the Mora stones from a parish southeast of Uppsala (fig. 3.4). Karl sent Bure to investigate this group of carved stones that bore not only runes but also a representation of the triple crown insignia of the Swedish monarch. The legitimacy of such a find would demonstrate the great antiquity of the Swedish royal house (since it was believed that the runes were, or could be, antediluvian) as well as the ancient hegemony of Sweden over the other two Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Norway). Such a stone monument indeed exists, but the crowns were obviously carved at a much later date than the runic inscription.


Fig. 3.4. The Mora stones

In 1604, Bure began taking part in the instruction of the young crown prince, Gustav Adolf, and thus a friendship was inaugurated that would last for three decades.

Throughout the first few years of the 1600s, Bure’s work on the exoteric interpretation and esoteric significance of the runes was intense. By 1599 he had completed a copper engraving titled Runakänslones lärospån (Runology Chart), which was meant to instruct on how to read runic inscriptions (fig. 3.5). This was followed with several other manuscripts, culminating in 1603 with the Runaräfst (Rune Investigation), a scientific study of runelore. By 1605 the first version of his masterpiece of runic esotericism, Adulruna Rediviva (Noble-rune Resurrected), was complete. However, it must be noted that this, like so many of Bure’s other works, was never published in the conventional sense. Over the decades that followed he would revise this text many times until 1642, when he himself deemed it ready to go to a printer.

To appreciate fully the pioneering character of Bure’s work, one must realize that relatively little was known about the runes or Norse mythology at the beginning of the 1600s. Bure and his contemporary rival, the Dane Ole Worm (Olaus Wormius), had virtually initiated the academic study of runes, and, as far as mythology was concerned, the Codex Regius, a manuscript containing the corpus of poems that would come to be called the Poetic or Elder Edda, would only be discovered in 1643. For these reasons, as well as the general cultural and religious climate in which Bure found himself, we can perhaps forgive him what now might seem to be wild eccentricities. It was simply a matter of not having quality primary sources readily at hand.


Fig. 3.5. Detail of Bure’s runology chart, Runakänslones lärospån (1599), with illustrations of runestones and runestaves together with interpretations of rune rows

One conclusion reached by Bure in his studies during the first decade of the 1600s was that the runes had been suppressed by the Christians and that a return of the use of the runes was tantamount to a return of the Swedes to a place of honor. In this idea there is an implicit neo-heathenry. Bure went on to write and have published Runa ABC-boken (The Rune ABC Book; 1611), which served as a handbook to teach contemporary Swedes how to write their language in runes.

It is at the time of the publication of Runa ABC-boken that Bure becomes a regular companion of Gustav Adolf (Gustavus Adolfus). He continued to instruct his royal patron on matters of both Swedish prehistory and esoteric matters until the latter’s departure for battle in Germany in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War in 1630. This book may have aided Swedish forces in using runes as a military code in Europe during this war (Enoksen 1998, 184).

The second decade of the 1600s saw a deepening of Bure’s work in the esoteric. He mysteriously refers to the year 1613 as the time when he says that he “received knowledge concerning the hidden truth, and when I found it, I knew it to be my duty to become its apostle” (quoted in Hildebrand 1910, 75). Evidence seems to point to the Rosicrucian nature of his enlightenment.

Historians of the Rosicrucian movement will not be disturbed by the dates here, for although the first Rosicrucian manifesto, the Fama Fraternitatis (The Story of the Brotherhood), was not published as a printed document until 1614, it had circulated in manuscript form at least as early as 1612 (see Yates 1978, 41). It is not necessary to assume that the contents of the Fama alone exercised this influence on Bure. It is more likely that since Bure was intimately connected to the international Protestant esoteric intelligentsia through his personal relationships with Kings Karl IX and Gustavus Adolfus, he was exposed not only to potent manuscripts but also to oral teachings of what might best be described as proto-Rosicrucianism.

Let me hasten to add that we are not left to speculate as to Bure’s Rosicrucian connections. In 1616 there appeared a Latin poem under the title Ara foederis theraphici F.X.R. assertioni Fraternitatis R.C. quam Roseæ Crucis vocant, consecrata (Altar of the Theraphic [= Physicians’] Brotherhood F[raternitatis] C[rucis] R[oseae], dedicated to the Assertion of the Fraternity R. C., which they call the Rosy Cross). On the last page of the eighteen-page document there appeared a text actually signed by Johannes Bureus.

It would, I think, also be a mistake to assume that Bure and his royal companion were passive participants in the Rosicrucian adventure. However, Bure’s version of these teachings seemed, at their deepest levels, to be related to the symbolism of the runes.

According to Bure there was something exalted and hidden about the runes—there were ordinary runes (as used to carve on stones), but there were also adulrunor (or adelrunor), “noble-runes,” which behaved in ways he compares to Egyptian hieroglyphics or Hebrew letters. A good idea of how this system worked can be gained from the synopsis of the contents of Adulruna Rediviva in the next section of the present work. The essential idea of the adulrunor was in place by 1605, but the esoteric realizations of 1613 in a certain way completed the picture for him. Many of Bure’s ideas appear related to those of the English philosopher John Dee (1527—1593) on a multiplicity of levels.

In 1616 he delved deeper into the mysteries with the production of a short text titled Buccina veteris iubilei (The Old Jubilee Trumpet). This is an esoteric text that Bure used as a focus for his teachings. He began to gather group after group of students to whom he transmitted the mysteries of the text. Students even came from Germany, which brought him in direct contact with Prince August of Anhalt in Saxony, who is known to have had interest in the secret sciences.

The 1620s were a period of intense scholarly activity for Bure. In 1624 he published the first edition of Monumenta Sveogothica hactentus exculpta (The Hitherto Carved Suedo-Gothic Monuments), which was the first attempt to create a scientific collection and edition of the vast corpus of runic monuments in Sweden.

This period was, of course, also rich with esoteric discoveries and explorations. Bure came under increasing attacks for his heretical ideas, but he was solidly supported by the royal house against any and all critics, the majority of whom were members of the Lutheran clergy.

A fair amount of Bure’s new esoteric work at this time centered on dreams and their interpretation. One interesting anecdote reported in Bure’s diaries, which are fairly extensive and detailed for this period of his life, relates how Gustav Adolf told Bure of a dream he had in which one of his boyhood tutors by the name of Henrik Horn appeared and the king took him to be Satan himself. In the dream the king asked “Horn” if he believed in Jesus Christ, and the figure answered “No” and said he had received a new revelation. What is most interesting is that Bure interprets the dream figure of “Horn” as a stand-in for himself. This darkly reveals Bure’s own self-conception.

In 1626, Bure’s first wife, Margareta, died. Together they had conceived eight children—almost all of whom died in childhood. The sad circumstances of his children’s mortality grieved him greatly. Bure was a man of emotion and sentiment. His diaries reveal his grief over his dog, Sultan, who was killed by wolves.

On May 20, 1630, King Gustav Adolf officially created the Riksantikvariet, the National Office of Antiquities, and named his friend and mentor, Johan Bure, as its first head, the riksantikvarie (National Antiquary).*3 Just a few weeks later the king departed for the battlefields of Germany, where he and his Swedish troops would turn the tide of fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. The antiquarian-mystic was with his friend and student up until just a few hours before the warrior-king departed. Sadly, Bure would never see his friend again, as the king was killed at the Battle of Lützen in 1632.

In 1636, when Bure was sixty-eight years old, he remarried. He and his new wife had one child, whom he named Margareta. But she, too, was to die in childhood.

Bure remained active as riksantikvarie until 1648, when he had to leave his post due to failing health. He spent the last years of his life as an invalid, though he continued to dictate works to the last. He died at his longtime home at Vårdsätra on October 22, 1652.