The Brothers Magnus - 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 Brothers Magnus
From the Renaissance to the Baroque

The Revival Phase I: 1500—1700

The Western world underwent tremendous cultural changes about the year 1500. Historians identify this approximate date as the beginning of the Modern Age. The Middle Ages, which were marked by popular faith and the prevailing influence of the church over many areas of life, thought, and politics, were passing away and a new world, more rooted in reason and science, was rising up. The Western Hemisphere was “discovered” by Europeans (1492), Copernicus demonstrated the heliocentric model of the immediate cosmic order (1543), and Martin Luther successfully challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church (1521). These and other developments sent the world into a flurry of changes and brought many centuries-old assumptions into question.

In northern Europe these changes were most profoundly felt because it was there that the existing church authority was first broken and a new spiritual model established in the form of Protestantism. There was a new emphasis on nations, as each Protestant country was to have its own church organization with the monarch as its highest officer. Protestantism also promoted widespread education and literacy: the Bible was being translated into the vernacular languages and the people were expected to be able to read it. Furthermore, because of the earlier invention of the printing press by the German Johannes Gutenberg (1436), literature of various kinds also began to flourish.

In the northern Italian city-states such as Florence, a Renaissance had already begun a few decades earlier. This was a rebirth and a renewal of interest in classical antiquities as a source for new human values. A handful of elite Italian thinkers, such as Marsilio Ficino (1433—1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463—1494), and artists, such as Sandro Botticelli (1445—1510), turned to ancient Greece and Rome for a renewed identity and direction that set them apart from the orthodox Christian mores traditionally promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church. This movement was fueled by the rediscovery and study of ancient texts, such as the dialogues of Plato and the recently acquired Corpus Hermeticum. The latter is a body of texts in the Greek language that reflects Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and Hermetic ideas from pagan late antiquity. This zeal for the past was imported into northern Europe, where it was expressed as humanism; that is, an interest in perennial human values, scientific knowledge, and the cultivation of classical studies.

The perfect storm of influences in northern Europe led to the Protestant Reformation, interest in national traditions, and a new dedication to intellectual pursuits. In the North, Renaissance ideas were more widely disseminated throughout society and tied to a more liberal and practical application of emerging science and technology. There was a pronounced sense of turning inward—to individuality and hence to nationalism—as interest grew in one’s own natural culture and to the values of the more “common man.”

In Italy the old gods of Rome could be revived quickly and easily, a process that has been studied in works such as Jean Seznec’s The Survival of the Pagan Gods (1961). The source material for this revival was readily available in the form of pagan Latin literature, and all educated men could read the texts. In the North the situation would be very different. First of all, the source material that would be needed had mostly been destroyed by the church, or was never recorded. The treasure trove of Icelandic texts that did exist had not yet been discovered in any comprehensive way by European humanists. That development would have to wait until the seventeenth century. Secondly, the languages in which the old material was recorded would have to be learned and decoded by a new generation of scholars. Methods of understanding them would require significant philological work that would take centuries to develop. Finally, there had developed a certain prejudice against all things Northern, which even the Northerners themselves had often adopted in favor of Greco-Roman learning. This latter bias is generally a by-product of Christianization.

One of the greatest intellectual heroes of the Northern Renaissance was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493—1541). He pioneered methods of scientific inquiry as applied to medicine and pharmacology, two disciplines of which he is considered the modern “father.” He was also a magician, alchemist, and astrologer. Paracelsus would greatly influence the general thought of men such as Johannes Bureus a few years later. This topic was the subject of Sten Lindroth’s 1943 book, Paraceslismen i Sverige, till 1600-talets mitt (Paracelsism in Sweden to the Mid-Seventeenth Century).

The rediscovery of the runes by the learned elite of northern Europe, and the subsequent publication and teaching of these discoveries to a wider public, begins at this time, but it would be a long and winding pathway over several centuries. Once forgotten by the cultural elite that first dealt with them, the deeper secrets of the runes would not reveal themselves again without a significant and prolonged intellectual and cultural ordeal.

The Brothers Magnus

A pair of brothers, Johannes and Olaus Magnus, who were two of the last Catholic archbishops of Sweden, found themselves in exile in Rome due to the growing Protestant Reformation in their homeland. Their work was essential in the process of the runic revival. Although they were largely driven by a desire to save the prestige and reputation of their country in the eyes of Catholic Europe, their historical volumes were among the first to bring the ancient runes to the attention of a learned public. As a result, they were among the earliest writers to publish in printed form a reference tool for the renewal of runic writing beyond the limited areas where it had survived in Iceland—Dalarna, and Gotland. In 1554, Johannes Magnus (Johan Store, 1458—1544) published a compendium of Gothic and Swedish royal biographies from biblical times to his present day titled Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque Regibus (History of All Kings of the Goths and Swedes). A Swedish translation did not appear in print until 1620. Olaus Magnus (Olof Store, 1490—1557) published another history of the Nordic peoples entitled Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples) in 1555. There he presented his “Gothic Alphabet” along with its corresponding sound values. The brothers Magnus considered the many runestones that dotted the Swedish countryside as proof of the extreme antiquity of Swedish civilization, maintaining that the Swedes were literate before the Romans knew how to read or write. They also claimed that the ancient Northmen used birch bark as paper. The runestones, they thought, must have been erected by giants in some antediluvian age. Olaus Magnus had the Carta Marina, one of the earliest accurate illustrations of the Scandinavian peninsula, printed in 1539. On this map was the image of the saga-age hero Starkaðr holding two runic tablets. The runes depicted are of the same style as would appear in the later woodcut of the “Gothic alphabet” from 1555. This is a runic alphabet (in ABC-order) with Latin transcriptions over each of the runes. According to the brothers Magnus, runes were used as a cryptic mode of communication in times of war, but no special mention is made concerning their esoteric value or connection to the pre- Christian religion (although such is implied by the fact that they were considered to have existed before the time of Noah).

The brothers Magnus were among the earliest contributors to a new Gothic mythology that would come to be known to historians as Storgöticism (Meglo-Gothicism). Although these brothers laid some of the foundation for Storgöticism, this would historically become a movement connected to the Protestant wave of thought interested in demonstrating the cultural and intellectual achievements of the North and separating it from the Roman and Latinate world. For the brothers Magnus, however, these general concepts were conceived of as a way of showing that the North had a venerable culture worthy of respect in the family of nations. I will return to the topic of Storgöticism later in this chapter.


Fig. 3.1. The “Gothic alphabet” published by Olaus Magnus in 1555