What the Rok Runestone Tells Us about Ragnarok


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

An ancient German poem preserves a very old memory of a tradition like Ragnarok. And, as recently as 2019, a new reinterpretation of a long-famous runestone from Sweden has suggested that there might be an even more ancient reference to the myth of Ragnarok than that. The longest known pre-Christian inscription in runes is the Rok runestone.

Volcanic eruption
Volcanic eruptions that threw dust and ash into the air may have something to do with the enigmatic message on the Rok runestone. (Image: Buyung_Kunt/Shutterstock)

Fearing the Myth of Ragnarok

Carved around AD 800, the Rok runestone’s enigmatic message is partially obscured by the use of difficult rune codes. The authors of a study published in 2019, including leading runologist Henrik Williams, believe that the carving’s deliberately enigmatic message relates to a catastrophe hundreds of years before that had lived on in orally shared memory, and shaped the notion of the coming Ragnarok.

This long-ago catastrophe included a documented total solar eclipse immediately after sunrise in Sweden in March 536, a year recorded around the world for having some of the worst weather in known human history. 

A large volcanic eruption or series of volcanic eruptions, probably in Central America, threw massive quantities of dust and ash into the atmosphere during this period, obscuring the sky all over the world, as recorded in, for example, Byzantium and China.

Famine followed. What this must have been like for the people of northern Europe at the time may seem impossible to know, but Williams et al. believe that the Rok runestone—and the Ragnarok story—preserve a memory of famine seared into the culture of its Scandinavian sufferers’ descendants.

A Trauma Lasting Centuries

These memories, according to the new interpretation, are coded into the runestone in the form of riddles. For example, this one: “Who was it, nine generations ago now, who died in the east, but is now active?”

Now, the answer, say Williams et al., is the sun—with nine generations being about the time between the year AD 536 and the time when the Rok runestone was carved around AD 800.

It is not inconceivable that memories of such a traumatic event as the sunless famines of 536 would last through many subsequent generations, and after all, something that happened nine generations ago is being referenced. Why not one of the greatest documented calamities in earth history?

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse MythologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Fear of Ragnarok

In fact, the authors further argue that the specific, near-hand stimulus for erecting this particular monument was the death of a son of the monument’s sponsor—this son’s death is referenced in the monument itself—together with a near-total solar eclipse in AD 810.

Now, when the sun was eclipsed in 810, memories of the worse catastrophe nine generations before were called to mind. And the loss of the monument-maker’s son must have called to mind the death of Balder. All this together might well have been enough to trigger the fear of Ragnarok in the people of central Sweden of the time.

Living While Anticipating Ragnarok 

The Rok runic monument stands alone, if this interpretation is correct, as a testament to the notion that Ragnarok might be coming soon in terms of human history. We see no evidence in texts or archaeology for Norse doomsday cults that might have preached the inevitability of a near-term Ragnarok. But Rok suggests that some people did live in anticipation that it was just over the horizon.

And oftentimes, Ragnarok does seem near at hand for the gods, if not for us. In the dinner gathering of Lokasenna, where Loki insults all the gods, the murder of Balder is a recent memory, and Ragnarok seems very near at hand.

A black and white painting of the 'Battle of the Falling Gods' where men on horseback are seen fighting each other
Ragnarok itself is presented as an imminent event for the gods, just like the inevitable death that awaits every human. (Image: Friedrich Wilhelm Heine/Public domain)

But if Ragnarok is somewhat ‘imminent’ for the gods, this is probably parallel more to the way that the inevitable ‘one day’ of death is inevitable for human beings. We live in the shadow of extinction. Yet without any means of preventing it, we are better off focusing on the time we have, rather than on futile measures like Odin’s to try to forestall the end.

The Rok Runestone

By the way, the name of the Rok stone is not related to Ragnarok, but in fact, is an ancient word for ‘rock’—the community around the stone was named for the stone, and then the stone was named for the community.

The Old Norse term Ragnarok, which occurs in poems such as Voluspa and Vafthruthnismal, is a compound. Ragna means ‘of the gods’, and rok is a plural meaning ‘events, fates’—so roughly ‘fates of the gods’. Snorri, and the text of the Eddic poem Lokasenna, use a different ending, rokkr, which means ‘twilight’, so ‘twilight of the gods’.

And this inevitable cosmic horror story stands at the end of every other story, effectively making not just every human endeavor, but every divine endeavor, futile. And yet, the Aesir gods persist in their purposes, just as we must, even as we live under the shadow of knowing that we will inevitably die.

Common Questions about What the Rok Runestone Tells Us about Ragnarok

Q: What does runologist Henrik Williams believe to be the reason behind the inscriptions on the Rok stone?

Henrik Williams believes that a catastrophe that happened nine generations ago helped shape the notion that the myth of Ragnarok was actually happening. The catastrophe apparently included a total solar eclipse after sunrise and massive quantities of dust in the air because of volcanic eruptions which also led to famine. These memories influenced the message on the Rok runestone.

Q: What evidence do we have that Norse people actually anticipated Ragnarok?

The Rok runestone is the only piece of evidence that suggests some people anticipated Ragnarok to come to life. The imminency of Ragnarok is suggested in Norse mythology but that is more likely to be linked to the imminency of death in human beings since they can never know when it will happen.

Q: What does the term ‘Ragnarok’ mean?

Ragnarok refers to the end of times in Norse mythology. The word Ragnarok itself is made up of ‘Ragna’ and ‘rok’. ‘Ragna’ means ‘of the gods’ while ‘rok’ means ‘events’ or ‘fates’. So Ragnarok can roughly be translated as ‘the fate of the gods’. This has nothing to do with the name of the Rok runestone.

Keep Reading
Why Are There So Many Plot Holes in Norse Myths?
How Odin Got the Mead of Poetry
How the Poetic Edda Is Different from the Prose Edda