Spotlight on runes and Vikings in Seattle

14 February 2019

Professor Henrik Williams gave an appreciated lecture at the Nordic Museum in Seattle.

The spotlight was on runes, Vikings and Swedish–American relations when Uppsala University welcomed alumni and friends to a lecture event at the Nordic Museum in Seattle on February 10. Uppsala professors Dag Blanck and Henrik Williams spoke under the heading “The Vikings begin – with runes”.

The fascination with runes and Vikings throughout Europe and America, and not least in the United States, was plain to see when the Vice-President of Uppsala University, Anders Malmberg, welcomed the evening’s guests. Even though a snowstorm in Seattle that day had led to a state of emergency being declared, over fifty guests, including Lars Jonsson, Honorary Consul of Sweden in Seattle, and his wife Laurie McDonald Jonsson, made it to the event to listen to the two speakers: Dag Blanck, expert on American affairs, Professor of North American Studies and Director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies at Uppsala University, and Henrik Williams, Professor of Scandinavian Languages and an internationally leading researcher on runes.

Research shatters myths

The Vikings Begin is the title of Museum Gustavianum’s Viking exhibition, which is touring the United States and is currently attracting visitors to Seattle’s Nordic Museum. In his lecture, Professor Blanck described the part Vikings have played in shaping the shared identity and sense of historical roots among Scandinavians in the US. However, the image of Vikings has been interpreted in many ways and used for different purposes, said Blanck, who gave many examples of historical and modern-day reinterpretations of the Vikings’ lives and history in his lecture.
“Vikings and their symbols have played a part in shaping the American and Swedish–American identity. That’s why it’s so important to debunk false myths. Research is an essential counterbalance here,” Blanck emphasized.

Runes not magic

There is great interest in runes and Vikings in the United States, not least among Americans with Scandinavian forebears. Thanks to settlement discoveries, we know the Vikings were in eastern Canada, but no Viking Age runes have yet been found in North America. Henrik Williams has studied the roughly 100 runic inscriptions considered to exist in the United States and has concluded that none of them date from the Viking Age. They were all created later, when an interest in runes arose in the 19th century.

Many myths surround runes as well, Professor Williams noted. He began his lecture by debunking some of them.  

“If there’s one thing I would like you to remember from this evening, it’s that runes are not symbols, they do not have any magical significance and they are not pagan,” Williams said. “Runes are written characters, just like the letters of our alphabet.”

In the popular imagination, runes are associated mainly with the Viking Age, but runes from as early as the 2nd century and as late as the end of the Middle Ages have been found all over Europe. The greatest concentrations occur in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and most of all in the Uppland region around Uppsala. Runes have been studied at Uppsala University since the late 16th century and the University is an international leader in the field.

Learn about our history and culture

One of the guests at the event was Swedish–American Myrna G. Smith, who is a member of the board of the American Association for Runic Studies, an organization in the United States founded to promote education and research on runes and runestones in North America and Europe. Smith rounded off the evening by explaining to the audience why she is so committed to runology.

“The way I see it, we have much to learn from runic studies, a tiny field of immense importance for its insights into our history and culture. For that reason alone, we must ensure that runic research thrives. I take great pride in my Scandinavian heritage, and here is why I have chosen to support the establishment of an endowed chair in runology at Uppsala University: First, it sits right in the midst of the greatest concentration of runestones (mostly Viking-age) in the world; and second, it is home to the discipline's preeminent runologist Henrik Williams,” Smith explained.

Related pages:

About the exhibition The Vikings Begin

About Dag Blanck

About Henrik Williams

About runic research at Uppsala University