From Chapter Three. From the Renaissance to the Baroque
The Revival Phase I: 1500-1700
The Western world underwent tremendous cultural changes around the year 1500. Historians identify this approximate date as the beginning of the Modern Age. The Middle Ages, with roots in faith and the Church, are passing away and a new world more rooted in reason and science is rising up.
The rediscovery of the runes by the learned elite of northern Europe and their 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 which 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
Two brothers, Johannes and Olaus Magnus were two of the last Catholic archbishops of Sweden, who found themselves in exile in Rome due to the growing Protestant Reformation in their homeland. Their work is essential in the process of the runic revival. 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. They were, however, very interested in attempting to save the prestige and reputation of their country in the eyes of Catholic Europe. In the process of writing their works they were among the first to bring the ancient runes to the attention of a learned public. In 1554 Johannes Magnus (Johan Store, 1458-1544) published a history of the kings of the Goths and Swedes, Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque Regibus. A Swedish translation did not appear in print until 1620. Olaus Magnus (Olof Store, 1490-1557) published another history of the Nordic people entitled Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus in 1555. There he presented his “Gothic Alphabet” with their sound-values.
The Brothers Magnus considered the many runestones which dotted the Swedish countryside as a proof of the extreme antiquity of Swedish civilization. The brothers maintained 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 printed in 1539. On this map was the image of the saga-age hero Starkar holding two rune-tablets. The runes depicted are of the same style printed in 1555 on a woodcut called the “Gothic alphabet.” This is a runic alphabet (in ABC-order) with Latin transcriptions over each of the runes. It is mentioned by them that runes were used as a sort of cryptic mode of communication in times of war, but no special mention seems to have been 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 which would come to be known to historians as Storgöticism (“Meglo-Gothicism”). Although these brothers laid some of the foundation for Strogöticism, this would historically become a movement connected to the Protestant wave of thought interested in separating the North from the Roman and Latinate world, and in demonstrating the cultural and intellectual achievements of the North. But for the Brothers Magnus 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 presently.
The Brothers Petri
Like their predecessors, the Brothers Magnus, two other brothers, Laurentius Petri (1499-1573) and Olaus Petri (1493-1552), who succeeded them in their ecclesiastical offices also wrote on runes. The Brothers Petri were both essential contributors to the process of turning Sweden into a Protestant, and then specifically Lutheran, realm. Their real, non-Latinized, names were Lars and Olof Petersson, and their interests included the promotion of Swedish national identity and the use of the Swedish language for all purposes. They were instrumental in producing a Swedish translation of the Bible. Part of the shaping of a national church, with the king as its head involved rehabilitating the view of the national, and hence pagan, past.
Olaus began to study the pre-Christian monuments in the Swedish countryside and wrote about the pagan names of the weekday names. Both brothers wrote manuscripts that remained unpublished, but which were archived and used by subsequent generations of Swedish scholars. They noted that runes had continued to be used in a fashion parallel to the Latin script and Laurentius wrote a manuscript later referred to as “Mäster Larses Runekänsla”--Master Lars’ Runology.
Rudimentary studies and passages such as those produced by the Brothers Magnus and Petri only served to point out how the general runic tradition had fallen into relative obscurity and disuse, even in the areas of the North where they had best survived. So once the runes had largely fallen into obscurity over almost all of the Germanic world, and only remained a limited part of life in certain areas of Scandinavia--Iceland, the Swedish province of Dalarna and the island of Gotland--the stage was set for a true revival of runic knowledge as we will see in the work of Johannes Bureus. But the mystical aspect of his efforts will only be part of his contribution. Perhaps more important was the revival of runic knowledge that was being redeveloped in the halls of academia throughout Europe. The story of the scholarly runic revival is every bit as fascinating as that connected with magic and mysticism--and eventually, as we shall see these two worlds will begin to reconnect with one another.