Johan Göransson - The Enlightenment

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

Johan Göransson
The Enlightenment


The historical period most commonly referred to as the Enlightenment is also sometimes known as the Age of Reason. This period roughly encompasses the years 1650 to 1800. The Enlightenment was a radical critique of the Renaissance, in that the Renaissance tended to look for new and alternative sources and authorities for knowledge, whereas the Enlightenment ideal was the questioning of all sources and the rejection of authority on principle. This led to a relative disinterest in the past and a striving for more universal truth as based entirely on rational models.

The cultural roots of this period stem from three main sources. First, there was increased religious or sectarian tolerance. This followed the fiasco of the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648), which had essentially been a civil war within Christendom between Catholic southern Europe and Protestant northern Europe. Secondly, there was a continued growth in strong nation-states, which led to political nationalism. Finally, there was a general acceptance of the idea of rationalism as a way forward for humanity. Both orthodox Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy were increasingly doubted as being dogmatic authorities based on tradition. The Enlightenment looked to subject all such “received knowledge” to an empirical test.

The Enlightenment was marked by a desire to attain new kinds of intellectual and artistic achievement, free from traditions and cultures of the past. With the passage of time, however, there was a return to the more open admiration and imitation of classical (Greco-Roman) forms in art and literature. In its latter phase of development, the Enlightenment became what is known as Classicism or Neoclassicism. This is distinguished by the use of the aesthetics of the Greeks and Romans with an emphasis on clarity, precision, and simplicity.

Generally, this phase in the history of ideas meant that interest in the spirit and aesthetics of the “barbarian” past of the nations of northern Europe became greatly reduced. This was the time of hyperrationalism and the past was only admired insofar as it corresponded to a (largely fictionalized) version of Greco-Roman culture and aesthetics. However, tools of science were developed, and methods of observation were pursued that would be of great use later as interest in the indigenous pasts of the various nation-states of northern Europe redeveloped in the Romantic period.

Johan Göransson

Considered to be the last of the great Storgöticists, Johan Göransson (1712—1769) is also often called the last Rudbeckian. Born into a farming family, he became a Lutheran priest, runologist, antiquarian, and archaeologist. He entered the University of Lund in 1740 and graduated in 1744 with a dissertation on the topic of Skadinaviens urgamla inbyggare (The Ancient Inhabitants of Scandinavia). The next year he enrolled in Uppsala University, and it was there that he became especially enamored with the teachings and theories of Olof Rudbeck. In 1745 he began to teach at Lund University, and in 1747 he became a priest in Karlstad. He later continued his career within the church, earning more academic and ecclesiastical offices (in this early modern period, church offices and duties within the Lutheran Church were alternatives to university life for scholars). Göransson developed a great reputation for his intelligence and mental powers—so much so that he came to be referred to as Sveriges ljus, the “Light of Sweden.” He wrote an unpublished academic study of the Hebrew language, but mainly he devoted himself to the history and ancient traditions of Sweden and Scandinavia in general.

The influence of Rudbeck’s ideas are evident in his works such as De genealogia regnum Suioniæ (On the Genealogy of the Royalty of Sweden; 1746), in which he claims that Sweden’s earliest kings are descended from Saturn and Jupiter, while in the introduction to his edition of the Edda titled De yfverborna Atlingars eller Sviogöters ok Nordmänners Edda (Edda of the Hyperborean Descendants, or Swedo-Goths and Northmen; 1746) he maintains that this text was written at a time contemporaneous with Moses and discovered in Sweden during the reign of Queen Disa, three hundred years prior to the siege of Troy, and that they were originally written on brass tablets.

Göransson was also an important editor and translator of Icelandic sources in Sweden. He published parts of Snorri’s Edda, translating the passages into both Latin and Swedish. Similarly, he edited the first poem of the Poetic Edda, the “Völuspá,” also attempting a Swedish translation.

As far as runology is concerned, Göransson made two important contributions: one scholarly and exoteric (for the most part!), and one thoroughly esoteric and in the Rudbeckian tradition.

Göransson not only continued in the spiritual track of Rudbeck but also that of Bureus, Peringskiöld, Hadorph, and others whose unpublished manuscripts became sources for his scholarly work with runic inscriptions. In the realm of more scientific runology, Göransson produced his volume Bautil, det är Svea ok Götha rikens runstenar (“Memorial Stone,” that is, Runestones of the Kingdom of the Swedes and Goths) in 1750. This was the largest collection of runic inscriptions made up to that time and encompassed 1,173 artifacts. In the introduction to this work, Göransson put forward the idea that Swedish was older than Latin and that the northern tongue was actually the mother of the language of the Romans. In the production of the volume he made use of material found in storage at the archives of the University of Uppsala that had been created and collected by previous generations going back to Bureus. When Göransson published this material under his name it caused considerable controversy, which soured him on the academic life. Although this work is filled with ideas stemming from Stogöticism and the Rudbeckian school of thought, the work remains valuable for its publication of many Swedish runestones now lost.

His most striking esoteric work is a book from 1747 titled Is Atlinga; Det är De Forna Göters, här uti Svea Rike, Bokstafver ok Salighets Lära, Tvåtusend Tvåhundrad år före Christum, utspridd i all Land; Igenfunden af Johan Göransson (Descendants of Is [i.e., the runes]; That is, the Letters and Doctrine of Salvation of the Ancient Goths, Hereafter the Kingdom of Sweden, Two-thousand and Two-hundred Years Before Christ, Distributed to Every Land; Rediscovered by Johan Göransson). For the most part he identified the sixteen-rune futhark as the original system and tied each of the runes to an epoch in biblical “history.” The runes were used as tools for a biblical exegesis: as Göransson is well known for saying, “Every rune is a sermon.” This book posited the runic order of signs as an outline of history, with different epochs being ruled by different runes. With this method Göransson could discover the secrets of the past and predict the future. In this he was again following in the footsteps of Johan Bure.

Göransson continued the ideas of the Storgöticists that Swedish civilization was the most ancient known to man and that all the gods of all people are really derived from the original gods of Sweden (Odin, Thor, and “Bore”). These were originally men who were so powerful and perfect that they came to be worshipped as gods, although they themselves were said not to be “heathens” but rather pious proto-Christians who foresaw the coming of Christ millennia before he even lived on earth. Göransson shaped an elaborate secret and mythical prehistory for Sweden, which posited the grandson of Noah, Gomer, as the first ruler of the country. It was this Gomer, brother of Magog, who invented the runes. Göransson saw these sixteen signs as the origin of the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan alphabets.

A number of fantastic legends grew up around the personality of Göransson. He was thought to be a magician and a man of great wisdom (as we noted earlier, he was even referred to as “the light of Sweden”). Some believed he had power over the winds, the harvest, and sickness. His legend only grew after his death. A hundred and fifty years after his passing, people would still draw attention to a cypress tree in front of the church at Gillberga that had allegedly served as the site of a magical ritual done by him to bind the plague.

In discussing this last representative of the Storgöticists, it is a fitting place to point to a general feature in the esoteric thinking of individuals in European culture. Once Christianity had been firmly accepted for a few hundred years, and especially in the wake of the Reformation, it became almost impossible for individuals to entirely reject that religion and its theology and traditions. Broadly speaking, a bold religious revolution of that sort would only be possible for those coming of age in the twentieth century in the wake of figures like Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche. But in earlier times there were two apparent options in men’s minds: to Christianize the pagans (like the Storgöticists did, for example, by insisting that the national traditions of the North were older than those of Christianity and that the ancient Northmen actually prefigured or established at an earlier date what would become Christianity) or, as Guido von List would do later, to show that the ancient Northern or Germanic way was not destroyed by the coming of Christianity but rather that Christianity had to absorb and accommodate the secret teachings of the ancient Northmen and Germanic initiates (the Armanen, in List’s terminology). In this latter case, we could say that Christianity, as it was practiced in the Germanic world, was a new form of the religion that blended the “Armanic” and Christian traditions. Both of these modes of understanding, which at first appear insane, have gains of truth to them. Indo-European myth and ritual had a decisive effect on Judeo-Christian religion from the beginning, and certainly the Roman Church did indeed have to accommodate the Germanic peoples of the early Middle Ages in a way similar to how, more than a millenium later, it would locally absorb indigenous religious features in the course of its missionary work in the Afro-Caribbean region (which simultaneously caused syncretized religions such as Vudoun, Macumba, Santería, and so on to form). This being said, the neomythologies created by men such as Rudbeck and Göransson can only be fully understood in their cultural and historical contexts.

What was noteworthy about the runic studies carried out in the Renaissance period and during the age of Storgöticism is the degree to which the esoteric dimension was somehow unified with the scientific study. This is what some critics have called the “heroic modern” approach. As the modern age progresses, however, an increasing rift will develop between these aspects of human thought—the esoteric and the scientific—and eventually an absolute division will be established between the signifier and the signified. When this occurs, the intellect has become dis-integrated, at least in the world of conventional thought.

In the half century that followed the publication of Göransson’s Bautil, runic studies declined to a nadir of interest in Sweden. This was largely because the whole field of study was seen as the province of dilettantes and fantasists by the more sober-minded and anti-Rudbeckian antiquarians of the Enlightenment era such as Nils Brocman (1731—1770) and Olof von Dalin (1708—1763). The former held that runes and runic inscriptions were largely a Christian phenomenon, while the latter was an outspoken critic of the unreason displayed by the Rudbeckian school of thought.

As we will see, this period of skepticism was one more prelude to a rebirth of deeper interest in the runes and the ancient Germanic culture that would bloom in the time of European Romanticism.