Myths of the Runestone / David M. Kruger
University of Minnesota Press | 2015 | 224 pages | $36.99 paperback / $130.99 cloth
Since the 1830s, scholars have accepted that the Norse were likely the first Europeans to have reached North America, around 1000 CE, and after the discovery of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada, this conclusion was all but certain. This fact has appeared in American textbooks since the mid-1800s, and yet this hasn’t been good enough for generations who sought a grander role for America’s Nordic explorers. In his new book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), scholar of religion David M. Krueger explores why so many have become so devoted to the Kensington Rune Stone (KRS), an alleged record of a Norse expedition to Minnesota in 1362, which, if genuine, would change very little about our understanding of the tides of history.
The Kensington Rune Stone (the spelling Runestone apparently was later adopted for complex reasons that Krueger said involve divorcing it from an ethnic context) was discovered in 1898, and it has remained controversial ever since. The runic text reads, in translation,
Götalanders and 22 Northmen on an exploring (or acquisition) expedition from Vinland west. We camped by 2 skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were afishing one day; after we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. A.V.M. (= Ave Maria) Save from evil.
Krueger’s analysis isn’t dependent on the authenticity of the artifact. Indeed, he does not take a position on whether the stone is a genuine medieval carving or a modern hoax, though his arguments imply that he favors the hoax conclusion. Instead, Krueger’s goal is to examine the ways in which various social groups utilized the KRS in their attempts to navigate American life, and the different and sometimes contradictory results of these attempts. He sees belief in the KRS as a type of “civic religion” in Minnesota, comparable to the fetishizing of the Founding Fathers or the Pilgrims in other parts of the country.
Krueger locates the first set of arguments about the stone’s purpose and utility in the aftermath of the Indian Wars and their particular effect on rural Minnesota, where some especially bloody battles were fought during the Dakota War of 1862. The consequence of the defeat of the Dakotas was their expulsion from the state and replacement with Scandinavian immigrants. By 1890, the closing of the frontier, Krueger said, led to a crisis of masculinity in which new ways to demonstrate and sustain virility and manliness were sought when warfare and physical labor were less certain paths to status. At the same time, new immigrants were attempting to locate themselves in the American context and find a way to tie their new home to their ancestral homeland in Scandinavia. This established the two essential traits of the KRS that remain stable through nearly all interpretations of it: That it established a Scandinavian claim to Minnesota that predated the British, the French, and even Columbus, and that it glorified the virile manly men who ventured into the unknown.
One other theme follows through nearly all interpretations, and Krueger does not shy away from it: The KRS has been consistently used as a tool for promoting white hegemony, specifically through glorifying Nordic/Aryan people, often in opposition to non-white groups. (The Viking statues made to celebrate the stone, like Big Ole, were routinely described and depicted in homoerotic terms focusing on white masculine grandeur.) At first this took the form of arguing for Nordic equality with the Anglo-Saxon, and then for the continued supremacy of Northern Europeans against all others. In the various narratives used to defend the KRS, Nordic/Aryan adventurers are routinely contrasted against bloodthirsty, uncivilized Native Americans, who over time became stand-ins for a variety of perceived enemies, from racial minorities to godless communists. In the mid-twentieth century, a nun said that the KRS “is a pointer for us who live under an atomic cloud as they lived in terror of unknown Indians, what we should do and say. AVE MARIA. SAVE US FROM EVIL.” These last words were taken from a popular translation of the KRS. The ten men the stone said died in Minnesota became “martyrs” who gave themselves for Christ and America, useful symbols of Christianity and patriotism.
The stone’s fame was always greatest in Minnesota, and for the most part the stone was a regional curiosity, despite its famous trips to the Smithsonian and the New York World’s Fair, both of which ended in humiliation as initial enthusiasm and positive reception curdled into rejection the more that experts had a chance to examine the rock. The retrenchments that followed these two gambits for mainstream acceptance embittered the stone’s most prominent supporters, particularly Hjalmar Holand, who set the template many others would follow in combining self-aggrandizement, questionable scholarship, and accusations that an academic conspiracy is suppressing the truth. Ultimately, the conspirators’ case makes little sense, as Krueger reveals, for powerful organizations tried valiantly to promote the KRS as authentic. Among these were Freemasons, who saw the “AVM” carved on the stone as the Hindu “AUM,” an early transliteration of the syllable Om used in nineteenth century Masonry; the Catholic Church, which declared the stone the earliest evidence of a Catholic presence in Minnesota; and various civic and government bodies, which saw the stone as a way of raising Minnesota’s profile and establishing the Midwest as the center of America’s and its foundation spot. This hardly stands up to conspiracy theorists’ claims of a vast effort to suppress the truth about the stone. Instead, what emerges is a sustained effort by self-interested parties to promote the stone as authentic, in the face of and despite slowly mounting evidence that it is a modern hoax.
Krueger’s book is a thoughtful examination of the competing claims of Nordic-Americans, Catholics, Christian fundamentalists, and Minnesotans in general to turn the KRS into a foundational support for their various efforts to find a place atop the American social hierarchy. It is well worth the read and a rewarding reading experience.
However, readers should be warned that this is not an introductory text to the KRS, and parts of it were rather confusing without deep background on the rune stone saga as well as more than a century of Minnesota history. This is understandable since the book is from the University of Minnesota Press. The KRS is intimately tied with Minnesota, and as such much of the material is rather parochial to the people, places, and events of that state. The book is written as a cultural study rather than a narrative history, so at times it presupposes background that casual readers may not have. Given how interesting the interpersonal drama of the various proponents and opponents of the KRS became, I almost would have liked to see this very slim volume (the body of the book is scarcely 150 pages) expanded into a fuller and richer narrative with more characterization and background.
The book is also marred by some small but important errors. For example, in making the case that the Catholic Church retains an interest in the KRS as evidence of a pre-Columbian Catholic claim to the Midwest, Krueger asserts that the Catholic Encyclopedia “still” endorses the authenticity of the stone “as of 2014.” He cites the NewAdvent.org web page as his source, but that webpage is (a) not an official Catholic Church site, and (b) merely reprinting the 1907-1912 edition of the encyclopedia. Other similar but small errors crop up from time to time.
This should not detract, though, from Krueger’s achievement in documenting and placing into context the similar and overlapping ways that groups that perceived themselves as outsiders to elite East Coast WASP culture—immigrants, Catholics, evangelical Christians, the rural working class, Midwesterners—used the stone as a more or less literal foundation stone for their claim to be part of the American hierarchy. Scott Wolter, who warrants only a few paragraphs at the end of the book, is merely the latest in a long line of claimants, interesting only because his version is a sort of reversal of the earlier versions of the KRS myth, this time seeking not to establish but to protect the hard-won hegemony of Euro-Americans by reinforcing their cultural heritage against a Catholic Church that is still seen in some quarters as a distant, foreign, and vaguely threatening power.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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