I spent the weekend with friends near Kensington, Minnesota, about 2-1/2 hours northwest of the Twin Cities. In 1897, a great slab of stone with carved inscriptions, the Kensington Runestone, was discovered entwined within a tree’s root structure by a farmer clearing his field down the road from where we visited.
Runes are letters in Germanic alphabets. Norse mythology originates them with Odin, who was said to have received them and their magic in self-sacrificial ritual. Memorial runestones are an ancient tradition in Norway and Sweden, dating from at least the 4th century, following the Norsemen in their explorations and settlements. Most inscriptions have Christian references, attempt to glorify dead kinsmen and tell of important events.
The authenticity of the Kensington runestone is in dispute, although proponents point to the voyage of Paul Knutson in 1360, sent by the King of Norway to find fellow countrymen who had given up their faith. This voyage ostensibly led west from Greenland, through Hudson’s Bay, down tributaries through Lake Winnipeg and further south into Minnesota.
In fourteen hundred ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
but Knutson took the royal knorr
a hundred thirty years before
The Kensington inscription translates as:
8 Goths (Swedes) and 22 Norwegians on acquisition expedition from Vinland far west. We had traps by 2 shelters one day’s travel to the north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Maria) Deliver from evils.
The lateral (or side) text reads:
(I) have 10 men at the inland sea to look after our ship 14 days travel from this wealth/property. Year [of our Lord] 1362
Nicholas of Lynn, a Franciscan friar who invented the astrolabe, supposedly mentions a voyage to sub-arctic America around 1360, in a lost book entitled Inventio Fortunate. This book appears to have been a marvelous travelogue that Ferdinand Columbus references as encouraging to his father, Christopher, when planning his explorations. In map annotations, including Mercator‘s, the Inventio Fortunate is associated with the discovery of the magnetic pole. In a map dated 1507, it is the reference for the description of a great sea (Mare Sugenum) which pours out waters from four mouths – Hudson Bay.
The Kensington inscription indicates the distance to this sea from the south as “14 days travel.” Day-voyages were a contemporary nautical unit equal to about 75 miles. In a narrative on Frobisher’s voyage, Nicholas is referenced as saying the land to the southwest of Hudson Bay is “fruitful and holesome.” There is also an excellent map of Hudson Bay (Mare Glaciale) appearing on the German Frisius globe of 1537, even though Henry Hudson himself didn’t arrive there until 1610.
Mercator’s Cosmographic states only eight men returned from the voyage, and Nicholas reported to the King of Norway in 1364, as well. All in all, there are many physical indications that would appear to support the existence of the expedition: the discovery of the magnetic pole, the inscribed stone, campsites along the route to the stone, as well as weapons and implements marking their lengthy course into unknown lands.
I got to thinking about the reason for writing the runes when I read an entry in an online compendium of information and analysis on the Kensington Runestone. “I agree with your interpretation about why the group would leave the marker even though there was little likelihood anyone would find it. I think that it is an affirmation to the group members of their existence and mission. If one wants to look at this from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps there is a biological or other drive to perpetuate one’s species or identity; so too, a group . . . can communicate to others some meaning in their endeavors, as well as a last goodbye.”
Thousands of miles from home, in the midst of a journey into the unknown, the travelers declared their existence by chiseling letters in a descriptive memorial. Whether their need was derived out of biology or tribal bond, the record was still made. In a marriage of derivation, the rune combined the magical, in a religious appeal, with the literary.
The Kensington Runestone’s timelessness lies in its humanity. I realized it didn’t matter to me whether it was authentic, although I believe it to be. The artifact transcends arguments against its linguistic and runic legitimacy because it commemorates and chronicles a passage.
We do the same today. We’re all compelled to leave our mark, a legacy attesting to our being here. We do this in our journals, privately. We do this in our weblogs, publicly. We write letters marking milestones. We create scrapbooks and photographic archives, all to commemorate our own journeys.
These creations are our modern-day runes. Strip away the differences in technology and pare our language, and today’s stories are remarkably similar to the one on the stone from 1362. “We are this many. We have come this far. We have won and we have lost. We appeal to a higher being.”
Like the Norse tribes who used their magical alphabets as talismans, miraculous inscriptions, and divine predictions, we have our runic touchstones, too. We rely upon them. We ground ourselves in the writing and the telling. We carry memory forward, and we leave our trace.
I wonder what will be said of our runes 600 years from now.