Olof Rudbeck - 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

Olof Rudbeck
From the Renaissance to the Baroque

A visionary and latter-day Renaissance man named Olof Rudbeck (1630—1702) became one of the most radical Storgöticists in history. Rudbeck’s father was Bishop Johan Rudbeck, personal chaplain to King Gustav Adolph, and his son, Olof Rudbeck the Younger, was a botanist and teacher of Carl Linnaeus. Olof Rudbeck was a physician, scientist, and linguistic historian, who was accomplished in many fields. He was a professor of medicine at Uppsala University but is perhaps best known today as a visionary historian.

Between the years 1679 and 1702, Rudbeck worked on the production of works of linguistics, history, and national mythology, which resulted in the publication of the four volumes of his magnum opus Atlantica (Swedish version: Atland eller Manheim). In this work he endeavored to show that the fabled land of Atlantis mentioned by Plato was actually located in Sweden and that Sweden was the land of the original Paradise and the origin of all civilizations and languages. The runes and runic inscriptions were a pivotal aspect of his theories.


Fig. 3.12. An illustration from Atlantica (1689), in which Rudbeck depicts himself in the company of Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Apollodorus, Tacitus, Odysseus, Ptolemy, Plutarch, and Orpheus

Rudbeck, following in the footsteps of Bure before him, went into the countryside around Uppsala and learned how to read runic perpetual calendars carved on long staves by often illiterate peasants who had preserved ancient knowledge.

Rudbeck also plumbed the depths of classical works to discover that the Roman historian Pliny had determined that the original Greek alphabet consisted not of twenty-four, but of only fifteen letters: Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε, Ι, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ο, Π, Σ, Τ, and Υ.

The other eight letters were added later over time. This led Rudbeck to conclude that the ancient Greek alphabet and the runic futhark were one and the same. He also began to note the similarities between Greek and Old Swedish words, taking into account certain systematic changes (for example, Swedish /h/ corresponds to Greek /k/, as can be seen with Sw. hiarta and Gk. kardía, both meaning “heart”). Rudbeck was recognizing what would become established linguistic science some years later with the discovery of the Indo-European family of languages. For Rudbeck, however, these relationships were taken as proof of the Swedish origin of all alphabets and languages.

Like every other scholar of his day, Rudbeck thought that the sixteen-rune futhark was the original runic system, but in his own visionary way he saw them as being derived from the shape of the caduceus of Hermes/Mercury.


All the runes can be derived from this shape using the numbers as guideposts. For example, the ᛏ-rune can be made by connecting 2 to 5 and 10 to 9. This schema was the instrument by which the Swedish god Heimdall (= hem-taler: “secret speaker”) taught writing to the Greeks. The fact that Hermes was considered the originator of writing among the Greeks served to further substantiate the theory in Rudbeck’s vision.

Rudbeck’s theories gained little respect outside of Sweden, but in his native land they made him immortal. In May of 1702, a fire broke out in Uppsala that destroyed two-thirds of the city, including Rudbeck’s home and library. While the fire raged, Rudbeck attempted to direct firefighters from his rooftop. Rudbeck’s biographer, David King, describes the aftermath of the fire in this way:

As his life’s work turned to embers and ash, Rudbeck showed all the strength for which his long journey had prepared him. In some ways this was his finest moment. Far from complaining, losing hope, or succumbing to bitterness, Rudbeck showed the inner strength and wisdom that he always believed had existed long ago in a golden age under the North Star. (King 2005, 250)

True to form, two weeks after the great fire had ravaged three-fourths of Uppsala, Rudbeck entered the council chamber with drawings of plans to rebuild his beloved town.

Just four months later Rudbeck would die peacefully in bed. He would be entombed in Uppsala Cathedral at the transept. Subsequent Swedish monarchs were often crowned atop his grave.

Rudbeck’s descendants would carry on some of his more fantastic work, as his son Olof the Younger theorized about the reasons for Sweden’s great political and military power, and also sought to show a relationship between the Sámi language and Hebrew. A nephew, Petter Rudbeck, also wrote books trying to show that the events of the Trojan War actually took place in southern Sweden.

An objective yet sympathetic picture of Rudbeck is provided in David King’s book Finding Atlantis, where he points out that although Rudbeck’s specific theories about history and language (and the runes) were inaccurate, many of his operating assumptions—for example, that ancient artifacts could be dated according to how deep they were buried in the ground, or how distant languages might be related to one another despite how different they might seem to be—anticipated new scientific breakthroughs in the fields of archaeology and linguistics. It does appear that Rudbeck was a true visionary and that his mythic vision acted as a sort of potent national magic in Sweden.