Sitting down with Henrik Williams

Professor Henrik Williams is a professor in Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University in Sweden. He has authored scholarly papers in both Swedish and English and published a variety of pieces including a book on the language in Viking-age Swedish runes stones. He is also co-editor of the scholarly periodical Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies and the director of the Uppsala Runic Forum. Recently, he was awarded the Rudbeck Medal for his ground-breaking work in runology. Immediately before talking to the Herald, he visited the Newport Tower, a ruined tower-like structure that some local historians claim that the Vikings built. On this tower are some scratches purported to be runes, so Professor Williams climbed up the ladder and felt the scratches with his hands to see if they were in fact runes. He concluded that they were not.

YH: The job of a runologist sounds pretty exotic, like something out of an “Indiana Jones” movie.

Williams: It is.

YH: Can you explain what a runologist actually does on a daily basis?
Williams: A runologist reads and interprets runic inscriptions. Runic inscriptions are written with runes, which are an alphabetic script from about 2000 years back and until very recently—as a matter of fact the last remnants of runes were carved in the late 19th century. And so the runologist will read these and decipher them and make a primary interpretation of what it says. There are about 7,000 of these inscriptions in northwestern Europe, primarily Scandinavia. Sweden is the hotspot—it has more than half of the entire total and between Stockholm and Uppsala alone there are more than 1,500 runic inscriptions. Since they’re so common everywhere, as a Swede I was not the least interested, and most of my compatriots are not that interested, so it took coming to this country in 1983 to make me realize just how unique this material is. Sources that will tell you stuff that no one else will—there is absolutely no human activity that is not reflected in runic inscription. Well, if you say space travel, I can’t answer that…But they write about things that you just would not imagine. For example yesterday I gave this talk at Harvard on sex, drugs, and rock and roll in runic times. I have to admit that I stretched the truth a little bit when it came to the rock and roll, because it’s not technically rock and roll, but you have runic inscriptions mentioning music, mentioning musicians on musical instruments, they’ll give you the name of the instrument and even in a manuscript from the Middle Ages there is a little runic song. It has the text with runes and the notes, so it’s been recorded. And it’s the first recorded song in Scandinavia.

YH: What would you say is the most interesting inscription you’ve studied?

Williams: There is a runestone in south of Stockholm in an area with lots of runestones, but this one stands out because it’s probably the ugliest runestone in the world. It is Viking age, it is genuine, it has a very short inscription that previous runologists just hadn’t been able to interpret. The reason they couldn’t is because they were so prejudiced they thought it was so ugly, they didn’t want to have to deal with it, so they said this was written by a totally illiterate person. But once you start looking at it you can actually make out the message very simply—it’s “a man raises this stone after another man” period, that’s it. And that doesn’t sound very exciting but the point is that the location of this stone, the names of the people involved, the poor writing, and certain other aspects allow me to identify this as the runestone of a newly freed slave. You know, being perhaps the first person in a thousand years that can actually read something, the sense of power that gives you it’s really something.

YH: You’ve mentioned being concerned about how genuine a runestone is. How common is it for people to fabricate runestones?

Williams: It’s common. We even think there’s some very old fabrications. People in the early Middle Ages tried to emulate an older style, but is that fabrication or is it imitation or recreation? And almost all Swedish schoolkids pick up runes some time in grade school. They’ll be taught [about runes] in third grade or fifth grade and many become fascinated with it, and they will start usually just writing runes on paper but sometimes they will be carving them. Really ambitious ones go out into nature and carve them into stone and leave their mark, and sometimes these things then are covered by moss and we find them decades later. One such stone was found in the early 90s and the most experienced runologists in Sweden went down and looked at it and pronounced it genuine, and so it made the news. And then it turns out that there’s sort of a high school type educational facility nearby and the people there carved the stone, I think 31 years earlier, and this stone had weathered so that it looked old and conformed pretty well to what a runestone should look like. It’s not a fake, they had no intention of fooling anybody. They wanted to do this just because they’d read about the Viking age.

YH: Have you ever communicated with runes for fun?

Williams: Oh yes. I teach classes on runes and I’ve done so for 20 years, and usually over the summer break afterwards students will send me postcards with cryptic messages. The big problem I have is that I never know what language they use, because the runes are just writing, you can write any language you want, and I need to decode this, and also there’s a problem because in the Viking age they only had 16 runes, 16 letters. That means that a lot of sounds had to use the same letter—T and D for example—so it’s easy to write because you can reduce, say the word land, you just write L, A, and T, you can even skip the N because the N is hidden in the vowel, and so then it says LAT, and how are you supposed to know that that says “land”? You can almost always determine by context—it’s rather limited in vocabulary and runestones follow certain phrases. “So-and-so raised the runestone after so-and- so his relative,” that’s the basic format, and then you can have something about where they died, a prayer— very common, most of the runestones are Christian— and/or a signature by whoever carved it.

YH: What makes a runestone stick out to you?

Williams: It could be anything actually—they can look strange, they can have strange spellings, they can have strange contents unexpectedly, they can be situated in strange places. You would think that a runestone is a stone with runes on it, right? But it’s not, a runestone
is more like the Internet—it’s a multimedia concept, because it’s a physical object placed somewhere with a meaningful relationship to the landscape around it— roads, forts, bridges, fields, and so forth. Almost all the stones have artwork layout that can be dated, which is very important to us, and the text interplays with its layout…I also compare runestones to Twitter because it’s a social network, and actually what’s the most important thing about Twitter isn’t communication, it’s showing what a neat guy you are, and runestones are about exactly the same thing. It starts off with a person—not dead, they don’t care that much about
that person, the person paying for the monument comes first—“Henrik had this stone raised after Tom”— and they’re about equal length. Twitter is only 140 keystrokes and a runestone is usually shorter than that. It’s usually very short texts and it’s very much a manifesto of who you are and that you can do this and that you’re literate and so forth.

YH: Would you have any advice for someone who wants to pursue really any unconventional career like runology?

Williams: You should always follow your heart. You should do what you’re best at. I probably have the only job I could ever get in the entire world—it’s a good job—and getting a job just to earn your bread is not that satisfactory. And okay, doing the humanities is a rougher road and a less direct road but in the end ultimately much more fulfilling. I think that studying language is enormously enriching because you become smarter by doing that. So I don’t know what you’re going to do in the future, but I don’t think you’re ever going to regret reading Icelandic sagas in the original listening to Roberta Frank. You’ll be the head of some big company and you’ll say, “Well, once I knew how to live.”

YH: Were people skeptical when you were starting out and deciding to make a career out of runology?

Williams: Oh yes. My maternal uncle said on my high school graduation party, “Whatever you do, do not go to Uppsala and start studying Swedish.” So of course, being a contrary person that’s exactly what I did. Never looked back or regretted it since.

—Interview condensed by the Herald

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