Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America

By David M. Krueger. 2015. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8122-9691-8 (hard cover), 978-0-8166-9696-3 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Pamela Dearinger, University of Washington, Seattle

[Review length: 986 words • Review posted on April 27, 2016]

[Cover ofMyths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America]

This book, a revision of the author's doctoral thesis, provides a fascinating insight into the motives of those who have promoted the story of a carved flat rock that came to be known as the Kensington Rune Stone. Supposedly unearthed by a Swedish-American farmer in the summer of 1898, the rock itself is about thirty-six inches long by fifteen inches wide, and weighs about two hundred pounds (17). Its inscription indicates that it was carved in commemoration of a tragedy that befell a group of Viking explorers in the year 1362 (some members of the group died violently, presumably at the hands of the local skrælings, a derogatory term for the Native Americans). The “runic” inscriptions carved into the rock were almost immediately denounced as fake, and since then numerous authorities have determined the stone to be a hoax. Yet, despite all the evidence against it, the Kensington Rune Stone has continued to have its defenders. For a variety of reasons, the stone has been championed over the years by what might be considered a cult-like following. One of the first, and definitely one of the most fervent and tireless promoters of the stone, was a self-styled historian named Hjalmar Holand, who built an entire career around the promotion, defense, and continued embellishment of its story as an authentic article of Scandinavian-American history. Others followed in his footsteps, further building on the legend to meet their own agendas.

More than just a history lesson about Scandinavian immigrants and the controversy surrounding Minnesota's own rune stone, Krueger's book unearths the motivations of those true believers who have been the most ardent advocates for the stone. The author portrays the rune stone as a kind of touchstone that has been used to remind the white population of their history in Minnesota, to legitimize their endeavors, and to strengthen their resolve in the face of adversity and perceived threats from outside influences. Communities are said to be imagined and traditions invented, and apparently history can be the product of inventive imaginations as well. This appears to be the case with the stories supporting the Kensington Rune Stone.

The author explains how some characteristic mythologies associated with immigrant populations, which are aimed at legitimizing their presence in their new homelands, can be identified in relationship to the stone. The five chapters tell the saga of the stone in chronological order and the author makes a convincing case that a combination of immigrant myths and opportunism has created a civil religion centered on this controversial object. In the first chapter, he makes the case that belief in the Kensington Rune Stone exemplifies a “foundation myth” (18) because, if legitimate, this artifact would prove that Scandinavians had arrived well before Columbus, and therefore they had been the ones who actually “discovered” America. This is an example of “a long tradition of marginalized groups in U.S. history making the claim that their ancestors had traveled to North America prior to Columbus” (166). Such stories of discovery tend to downplay the fact that North America was already inhabited. Certainly there were Native Americans in Minnesota when the Vikings supposedly arrived there in 1362. They were apparently an unseen, but deadly, presence. While “homemaking myths” (18) may contribute to community histories and are used to create a sense of belonging for some, it seems they will inevitably exclude certain “others” who remain marginalized.

Chapter 2 details how it came to be that the Vikings who allegedly carved the rune stone as a memorial to their fallen comrades were portrayed as white Scandinavian martyrs and as Christian martyrs. Krueger does not believe it is mere coincidence that the stone is dated 1362, exactly five hundred years before the Dakota War of 1862, the memory of which no doubt still haunted Scandinavian-Americans in 1898. The date seems to imply that skrælings had been a danger hundreds of years earlier and that things hadn't changed much over the course of time. Chapter three describes how economic factors and elitist criticism of small town life led people once again to turn to the Kensington Rune Stone to symbolize small town values as the bedrock of American culture. In chapter 4, Krueger depicts how Catholics in the area, feeling themselves to be a marginalized group, co-opted the story of the rune stone as a means of increasing their social capital. In this scenario, the Vikings were not just Christian martyrs but Catholic martyrs. Catholic leaders even created a shrine to “Our Lady of the Runestone.” (Happily, the book contains numerous illustrations, as some things must be seen to be fully appreciated.) Chapter 5 deals with the Cold War and how, once again, the stone was used as a symbol of strength, faith, and determination.

The desire for inclusion, justification of white settlement, and an appeal to belief in God and country (no doubt accompanied by a fascination for Vikings), all account in some measure for the continued interest in the Kensington Rune Stone. Krueger, who grew up in the area where the stone had its beginnings, has done extensive research and he makes well-crafted arguments about the nature of the appeal of this artifact that has been so widely discredited. The real story here, of course, is not the authenticity of the stone, but rather its enduring ability to inspire and to become whatever some particular group needs it to be at any given time. One might wish for a single concrete answer to explain its popularity, but ultimately the explanation seems to come down to a matter of faith. If people really want to believe in something, they will find a way to justify that belief. The recurring themes behind the myths can be identified and classified, but the influence of faith can't be denied. This book should be of interest to students of folklore, Scandinavian-American history, religion, or just human nature in general. It's an entertaining and informational read.

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