This past week Red Ice Creations, the fringe radio and web network with a penchant for hosting white nationalist figures, posted a machine translation of a Danish article from last year which described academic research into isolated Swedish communities that continued to use an archaic tongue related to Old Norse and to write in runes down to 1906 or so. This article caused quite a stir on social media for a mixture of rather incoherent reasons, ranging from Aryan supremacists who lauded medieval Aryan culture surviving against the onslaught of non-Aryan influence from the south, to fringe historians who seemed to read into the story proof of a vast conspiracy of uncertain dimension.
“You know the habits of the anonymous skeptics who will be absolutely silent about an article like this that they can't assail,” fringe figure Scott Wolter said on his blog. “This is exactly what I've been trying to articulate (not very well apparently) for a long time; that there is essentially a government mandate in Sweden that the Kensington Rune Stone is a hoax.”
Wolter’s logic escapes me; evidence that runes were in use in the early 1900s should make it more likely, not less, that the Kensington Rune Stone could have been faked. (Personally, I’d say it’s irrelevant since the likely hoaxers weren’t part of this isolated rural community in the parish of Älvdalen, nor did they write the Rune Stone in Elfdalian, the community’s well-known and well-studied language.) The only connection to a conspiracy is that the Swedish government long had a policy of encouraging the use of standardized Swedish among speakers of Elfdalian, but even this is now changing. Älvdalen, for example, runs its kindergarten entirely in Elfdalian to help its children speak the language.
I’m also unsure why skeptics would want to “assail” academic research into the use of runes among speakers of Elfdalian around the turn of the twentieth century. This kind of discovery is pretty much exactly what I would have expected. It was, after all, the last period before modern transportation and communication systems, and the flattening effect they had on local cultures and traditions. It was in this period that James Frazer’s Golden Bough, Edwin Sidney Hartland’s Legend of Perseus, and similar ethnographic omnibuses catalogued thousands of local survivals of medieval and antique customs, preserving them in amber just before they vanished forever. The use of runes is entirely of a piece with the broader survival of medieval and early modern ways of life in the more isolated extremities of Europe.
I checked the academic literature, and I found discussions of the use of runes in Älvdalen dating back as far as I cared to look. References occurred in the eighteenth century in the works of Johan Ihre and also Carolus Linnaeus and in academic papers published from the 1970s to today. This isn’t, in other words, new information. The only new(ish) claim is that the use of runes lasted past 1900 instead of dying out a decade or two earlier.
Anyone with academic integrity might have tried doing a literature search before accusing academia and skeptics of trying to hide the facts.
But since we’re talking about forgotten survivals from the past, this is as good a time as any to share a very interesting bit of nineteenth century reportage about the survival of Greek mythology among the peasants of Greece, people who had barely been touched by the coming of Orthodoxy and then the Ottomans over the course of millennia:
We may consider the existence of the modern saints, as representatives of the ancient gods, under three separate heads. First, those whose names and attributes have been but slightly changed, and amongst these we will first consider St. Dionysios as the modern representative of the god Dionysus. This is particularly noticeable on the island of Naxos, which was in antiquity the recognized home of the great wine-god, and where the ruins of his great temple are still to be seen. Place-names, too, point to the ancient cult: one of the mountains on Naxos is still called Koronon, recalling the name of Koronis, the nymph, and the infancy of Dionysus, and the name of the best wine on the island is ‘the wine of Dionysos.’ The continuity of the myth is embodied in a legend now told on Naxos about St. Dionysios, to the following effect. The saint was on a journey from the monastery on Mount Olympus to his home on Naxos. By the way he saw a pretty plant, which he wished to take with him; so to protect it from the heat of the sun he put it into the leg of a bird. Having proceeded further, he was surprised to find the plant so rooted in the bone that he could not remove it, so he put it, bone and all, into the bone of a lion; again the same miracle occurred, so he put his treasure into the leg-bone of an ass. On reaching Naxos he found the plant had rooted itself into all the bones, so he planted them all. From this came the first vine, from which the saint made the first wine. When he had drunk a little, he became as gay as a bird; when he had drunk more, he became as strong as a lion; and when he had drunk too much, he became as stupid as an ass.
The above text comes from a review of J. Theodore Bent’s The Cyclades; Or, Life Among the Insular Greeks (1885). Incidentally, Bent reported that on Naxos he found families that still spoke Italian, five centuries after Italian rule of the island ended before the Turkish onslaught. Medieval survivals are easy to find if you know where to look for them.
I found one of Bent’s popular articles on the subject of the survival of Greek mythology (promotion for his book, really), and if I have the time, I’ll try to put it up in my Library later today and update the post when it is ready. [Update: Here it is.]
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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