Book review: “Myths of the Rune Stone”
Did Viking missionaries traverse North America to Minnesota in the 14th century, about three centuries after Leif Erikson’s Vinland settlement and predating Columbus by some 130 years? And did they leave behind a large 200-pound rock etched with runic writing describing their journey?
When a Swedish immigrant farmer announced the discovery of the rock, dubbed the Kensington Rune Stone, in his Minnesota field in 1898, he set in motion a wave of enthusiastic belief that became a central aspect of regional Nordic identity and civic celebrations.
The rune stone’s inscription is translated as follows: “8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362.”
Though scholars, scientists, and historians have repeatedly debunked the stone’s authenticity on various grounds (for example, the text has Swedish terms that were not in use until a later period), the stone is nonetheless stoutly defended by believers in the runes, with debate still raging on the internet, on television, and in print.
A book that only tells the history, the analysis of the stone, and its defenders and debunkers would be fascinating indeed. But Krueger does not stop there. What also interests him is the “why”: Why Americans are so intrigued by the concept of a pre-Columbian European presence on this continent. The stone, he explains, became a symbol of regional and civic identity, celebrated in festivals and pageants, and acclaimed as a religious touchstone. It traveled to both the Smithsonian Institution and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
But the Kensington Rune Stone also symbolizes “the American fascination with a pre-Columbian presence of Europeans” in a way that renders “invisible, or at least marginal, the region’s first inhabitants.”
Over time, various groups and leaders—including Scandinavian immigrants, small-town Midwesterners, and Catholics—have used the stone to advance “persecution narratives,” Krueger notes, that have ignored these groups’ privileged status as white, Christian Americans.
This fascinating book is thoroughly researched (48 of its 208 pages are devoted to endnotes and bibliography). It is also highly entertaining, as when Krueger tells us about the contemporary rune stone enthusiast Scott Wolter—who told History Channel audiences that the rune stone’s inscription was carved by the Knights Templar when they came to America to establish their order and hide treasure (including the Holy Grail) amassed during the Crusades. One can almost imagine Krueger’s eyes rolling as he recounts this story, telling us it should be “relegated to the genre of mythic literature rather than history.”
Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the UW, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 11, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.