Olaus Wormius - 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

Olaus Wormius
From the Renaissance to the Baroque

Olaus Wormius (Ole Worm, 1588—1654) was a Danish physician, natural historian, and antiquary who was a true Renaissance man. His father, Willum, was wealthy and at one time the mayor of the city of Aarhus. Wormius studied widely—first theology in Marburg, Germany, and then medicine in Basel, Switzerland, where he was promoted to doctor of medicine in 1611. In 1617 he received a Master of Arts degree in Copenhagen, where he taught Latin, Greek, physics, and medicine for the rest of his life. He eventually became the personal physician to King Christian IV of Denmark.

Although both Bureus and Wormius can be considered the contemporary grandfathers of modern runology, they were men of very different temperaments: Bureus was a mystic at heart; Wormius was more purely scientific in his approach. Another practical contrast between the two is that Bureus produced much of his work in manuscript form only, whereas Wormius published a good deal more of his work in printed books.

In general, Wormius made many important contributions not only to the field of antiquities, such as runic studies and medieval literature, but also to medicine and natural history. The small bones that fill the gaps in the human cranial sutures—the Wormian bones—are named after him. He collected fossils and specimens of animals from around the world. He had a pet great auk bird from the Faroe Islands, his illustration of which is the only known depiction of this now extinct animal drawn from a living model. He also famously disproved the existence of the unicorn and showed that the horns widely attributed to them were actually from a sea creature, the narwhal.

The contributions of Wormius to runology were significant. He traveled widely in Denmark and Norway in search of runic monuments. In 1626, Wormius published the Fasti Danici (Danish Chronology) containing the results of his researches into runic lore; ten years later he came out with the ᚱᚢᚿᛁᛦ seu Danica literatura antiquissima (Runer, or the Most Ancient Danish Literature; 1636, with a later edition appearing in 1651). In this work he tried to explain the origin and development of runic writing. Generally, he maintained that all scripts originated from the Hebrew alphabet as it was the oldest of all scripts. The similarities between Greek, Latin, and runic signs were taken as evidence that all of them were descended from a common archetype, identified with the Hebrew alphabet. He did note that he believed that the runes were older than either the Greek or Latin systems. His Danicorum Monumentorum (Danish Monuments) appeared in 1643 and was the first printed collection of transcribed runic texts taken from runestones and presented in any sort of systematic way. Some of the work of Wormius, like that of Bureus, contains depictions of monuments that have since been “lost.” In such instances, these illustrations and descriptions may be our only evidence for their existence. He wrote his works exclusively in Latin.

Wormius himself succumbed to the plague in Copenhagen while treating the sick during the epidemic.*8