Standing Stone: Kinship

kinship

Memory-stones

seldom stand by the road

Save when kinsman honors his kin.

Hávamál

Runic writing first appeared in the second century AD in the Germanic parts of continental Europe. It was initially used to adorn various status objects, such as brooches, helms, or spearheads, the oldest datable runic find being a comb with the legend harja (ᚺᚨᚱᛃᚨ) dating to 160 ADfound in the Vimose bog on the Danish island of Funen.[1]

Although the origins of runic writing are still subject to debate, the two most accepted theories are that the elder fuᚦark[2] alphabet was developed from either the Latin or Greek alphabets.[3] According to Jantina Helena Looijenga it seems most likely that the runic alphabet was a development of the overlap between northern Roman settlements (limes) and the Germanic tribes around the Rhine river, specifically the Ubii and Batavi tribes. The Germanic migration period (350 – 500 AD) which carried similarly inscribed objects across the wider continent makes the exact place of origin difficult to trace. Looijenga writes that these border zones “where Roman and Germanic cultures met and were able to amalgamate” were an “eligible region for Germanic peoples to adopt and adapt an Italic alphabet in order to develop a suitable writing system for the Germanic languages.”[4] The development of the elder fuᚦark (ca. 150 – 700 AD) seems to have been prompted by the need to devise a writing system which would represent the Germanic vernacular spoken at the time better than the Latin alphabet. This is the basis for Looijenga’s West Germanic Hypothesis of the origins of runic writing.[5]

Apart from exchanging writing systems, these border settlements, or oppida, constituted the shadow of Empire in the form of what James C. Scott calls the “barbarian twin.”[6] This twin hinterland lived off the spoils of the Roman empire while engaging in complex and tenuous relations with it. Such relations would include trading, warring, raiding, becoming mercenaries in Roman legions, as well as selling slaves to the Empire.[7]  

During the early period of the elder fuᚦark alphabet, runic writing was most often found on objects associated with the Roman or Germanic aristocracy or military.[8] The inscriptions most often denoted the object’s creator and thus served as a brand for established artisans, carrying their fame throughout the upper echelons of then-contemporary Germanic society. The richest excavations were found for example in the Danish bogs Thorsberg, Nydam, Ejsbol and others, although the earliest finds come from a much wider region, such as Dahmsdorf (Germany), Kowel (Ukraine), and Rozwadów (Poland).[9] Such bog deposits would often contain substantial offerings which furthermore seem to have been made at times when trade and import was weak, meaning that these luxury objects were most likely used as offerings during times of war. Oftentimes including also Roman objects, runic finds thus again seem to emerge from either a “military […], or a luxurious, aristocratic context.”[10]

The objects of luxury and war might have been the first object which sported runes, but there is another type of object which is associated with runic writing – the rune stone. In terms of runic media, the chiseling of runes on stones as petroglyphs was a later development, as the first rune stones appear in the 8th century AD. The largest concentration of these stones can be found in the locale of contemporary Sweden, and there are some 3000 rune stones scattered around wider Scandinavia.[11]

The runestone is a fulcrum which intersects two matrices – ontology and semiology. It is a speaking stone, one which was raised in physical exertion, while at the same time being a marker, an index to the semiotic matrix which inscribes it into the maelstrom of language. Kinship begets language and language begets writing – lineality is an effect of linearity establishing a particular, trans-generational construction of community. It is a palimpsest which melds the historically determined writing of the human and the traces of geological and evolutionary time. Stones are a perennial mystic writing pad where the language of the Real and that of the Symbolic knot together.

Rune stones most often commemorated deaths of family members or notable people, the construction of a landmark, the Christianization of certain individuals, and praised the people who had the stone raised as a type of marker or memorial. Some examples of rune stone inscriptions include:

U 1011: “Vigmund had this stone carved in memory of himself, the cleverest of men. May God help the soul of Vigmund, the ship captain. Vigmund and Åfrid carved this memorial while he lived.”

N 68: “Gunnor, Thythrik’s daughter, made a bridge in memory of her daughter Astrid. She was the most skilful girl in Hadeland.”

Odendisa Runestone, Vs 24: “The good husbandman Holmgautr had [the stone] raised in memory of Óðindísa, his wife. There will come to Hassmyra no better housewife, who arranges the estate. Red-Balli carved these runes. Óðindísa was a good sister to Sigmundr.”[12]

Stone mysticism is tempered by the muscle memory of slavery – the body which carried stones was a surplus body, one which does not have a tombstone raised in its honor but collapses under its weight like wicker. The fine line between unfree labor in service of empire and its various “mining, quarrying, [and] monumental construction”[13] projects and the congenial expedition of energy marking a an event of kinship must be seen as a limit difference, but a difference nonetheless. Monumental construction within a community smaller than the Dunbar number is a qualitatively different from that of monumental state-enforced slave labor; but where to draw the line – what of an extended family raising stone, a parish consisting of a few homesteads, a war party in a foreign land, a brother honoring a sister? 

Oftentimes runic inscriptions consist of non-sensical strings which are speculated to have been used for magical purposes. These incantations may have been used in ritualized contexts the exact sense of which is unknown to contemporary runologists and archeologists. This popular understanding of runes as magical incantations or formulae seem to be corroborated by archeological evidence – an illustrative case can be found in the graves from Norway and Sweden from the era of the 5th to 7th centuries AD when runic inscriptions were placed in tombs with the writing facing towards the corpse’s face, implying that the inscribed string was intended for the eyes of the deceased.[14]

Stones have a center of mass and a center of gravity. The center of mass is what Graham Harman calls the “volcanic core.“[15] How to otherwise define ‘the [sublime] object’ if we problematically move beyond the frame of semiotics? To move stone, the center of gravity must be displaced by a similar volcanic core – the hara of the pelvis, that great mill stone we carry within our waist and which tilts the stone’s center of gravity to put the stone into motion. On carrying, the stone’s center of mass must meld with the pelvis carrying it. The center of mass contains the object, while the asymmetries of its center of gravity (defined by its relation to the ground on which it stands) make it actionable.

This epistemological question regarding the function of runic writing also opens the door to appropriation and motivated abduction. It is common knowledge that runes have, in the last decades, become associated with Neo-Nazism.[16] This regressive development extrapolates from the yet older appropriation of runic writing by Hitler’s ideologues who, in line with the theories of Aryan supremacy, considered runic writing to be the oldest writing system on the planet and the source for all others. [17] They for example appropriated the runes O,T and S as insignias for the Blut und Boden ideology (Blood and Soil), the warrior cult of Tyr, and the Sturm Staffel, respectively. The R-rune became the symbol of life or death, depending on whether its diagonal lines were facing up or down.[18]

Moving stones work to sediment the mind – rocking back and forth to ease the tension between stone and earth, displacing, extending the haunches to lift with the Erector Spinae. It is an exercise in spinal catastrophism, straining to strengthen what must inevitably fall.  

This hyper-reality of runic writing built on false science and genocidal rapture must be severed from its archeological real – this acceptance of partiality and the indeterminacy of the artefact can rehabilitate the runic writing system and vicariously spin, displace and queer the violent and dogmatic ideology which aspires to abduct and totalize it. The gesture of material archeology integrates runic writing into its proper historical context – ‘proper’ here being understood not as a motivated form of reasoning and betting on its ideological propriety or utility, but rather as an honest reading into the multi-centric material histories through which it is woven.

We can consider runic writing as a hack to the older Latin (alternately Greek) alphabet which was made to serve the intentions of the Germanic tribes whose southern borders were being tended by Empire. There is a narrative of democratization and of using the master’s tools against himself and against the imperial fasces. Such a reading makes runic writing inoculated against an imagined genealogy which caters to contemporary right-wing reactionism or the clamor for politically motivated aggression hiding behind the maxim of ‘free speech.’ Runic writing has been circumscribed and the challenge is to liberate it into ‘free writing,’ into a script for the free. In its constant semiotic drift, all script is nomadic in time, and the human functions as its carrier in space. Any fetishization of script is based in misunderstanding.

One moves her frame to move the bones of the earth. Both are constellations within the sedimentation of time, moving through and devising crystalline ossification which inevitably turns to dust. Roughed around the edges, stones inscribe the carrier to a “mysticism of matter.”[19] This immanent transcendence works as subterfuge to the modern economies of time. Such an exit through deep time is an exit which indexes the body’s terminal death postponed, transporting only on the symbolic level of the ego. This death of self in turn brings ‘life’ into focus as an effect of a geological and inhuman (i.e. human-at-one-remove) ground. One must move on.

The refashioning of code and system to serve local purposes must be reclaimed as a productive method of linguistic appropriation, one which supports heteroglossia and systemic openness. Reading runes as a peon for a reactionary, neo-fascist ‘free speech’ is possible only under the condition that the archeological facts are skewed, omitted or evacuated – numerous nuanced narratives must indeed be allowed, alternate readings mustn’t be stomped out by a gesture of muzzling or cancellation, but only if one logic to the discourse remains shared and intact: that of irreversible and material sedimentation, accretion, stratification. There is a real world and we are living within it. Such an approach in turn requires the applied science of excavation, analysis and speculation, but such histories must indeed be supported by the stones which lay by the wayside and must never be conjured from the psyche of demagogues, for this breeds monsters.

Moving stone unearths deep tempos which extend the body into a depersonalized temporality. One must be smart to avoid pain – the flesh trembles and fibula strain under the weight. But the body must also remain dumb and fluid and ease itself into patterned choreographies which lie hidden deep beneath the strata of civility. How many myriad forebears crumpled under heavy stonework? How many of them moved on? Moving stone is glacial and inscribes itself on deep evolutionary histories, defining kin and family by subtraction – the choreography of stonework as eternal return. This sedimentation of mind is nested in the straining flesh of an ancient multitude.

Oftentimes it is not the lines of flight or fancy which define a robust ethics and politics, but rather the meticulous reflection of the material strata and their structural overlaps, aporias and delimitations as sedimented in matter. The materialist turn is thus not a moment of closure, but rather a moment when we reflect on the blind spots of fancy and accept the constraints which in the setting twilight works through the careful consideration of the limits to embodied knowledge.

While moving through the Earth’s dark forests, sharing time with kin and stranger, dispensing time for the generations which come we must above all be kind, be kind, be kind.

ᛖᛚᛚᛁᛟᛏ ᚱᚨᛁᛊᛖᛞ ᚦᛁᛊ ᛊᛏᛟᚾᛖ

ᚹᛁᚦ ᚺᛁᛊ ᚠᚨᚦᛖᚱ

ᚷᛟ ᛏᛖᚾᛞ ᚠᛟᚱᛖᛁᚷᚾ ᛇᚢᚲᚲᚨᛊ

ᚨᚾᛞ ᛊᛈᛖᚨᚲ ᚠᛟᚱ ᚦ ᛞᛊᚨᛞ


[1] Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Brill, 2003) 9.

[2] /fuᚦark/ – the first runic alphabet of 24 characters from which stemmed the Anglo-Saxon fuᚦark and the younger fuᚦark. The name is derived from the first graphemes of which it consists – F, U, ᚦ, A, R, K (or ᚠ, ᚢ, ᚦ, ᚨ, ᚱ, ᚲ)

[3] Looijenga 4.

[4] Looijenga 81.

[5] Loojienga 94.

[6] James. C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (USA: Yale University press, 2017) 35.

[7] Scott 35.

[8] Loojienga 10.

[9] Loojienga 12.

[10] Loojienga 89.

[11] Rune stones have been found as far as Bulgaria – the Berezan runestone was most likely erected by a trader from Gotland in memory of his partner Karl. The two men were most likely joined in the bond of félag (Old Norse)meaning they were business partners in a joint venture.

[12] ‘Runestone,’ Wikipedia< https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runestone#cite_note-Harrison192-7>.

[13] Scott 29.

[14] Loojienga 5.

[15] Graham Harman, “The Volcanic Structure of Objects: Metaphysics After Heidegger,” Sophia Philosophical Review (Vol. 1, 2008) 63-86.

[16] “Runic Writing (Racist),” ADL, accessed 19 July 2020<https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/runic-writing-racist>. For a brief musing on Viking symbolism and contemporary right-wing politics see: Richard Martyn-Hemphill and Henrik Pryser Libell, “Who Owns the Vikings? Pagans, Neo-Nazis and Advertisers Tussle Over Symbols,” NY Times, 17 March 2018, accessed 19 July 2020<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/world/europe/vikings-sweden-paganism-neonazis.html>.

[17] Lisbeth Imer, “How the Nazis Abused the History of Runes,” ScienceNordic, 13 October 2018, accessed 19 July 2020<https://sciencenordic.com/denmark-forskerzonen-history/how-the-nazis-abused-the-history-of-runes/1459227>.

[18] Imer

[19] Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones (University press of Virginia, 1985).

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