Runology’s Epic Fail – The Gandersheim Rune-Casket

Last year I had the pleasure to spend a day in the lovely German city of Braunschweig, and took the opportunity to visit the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum there. To my delight I discovered that their collection includes a wonderful Anglo-Saxon carved bone casket. On the underside of the casket appears an inscription in Old English runes.

Now I can’t say I normally care too much for runes, as the inscription corpus outside of Scandinavia is rather meagre and the contents not exactly rivetting. But I had recently been reading the poem The Husband’s Message, which contains an intriguing rune-puzzle, so I had read up on the runic script and was pretty keen to know what the inscription said. Strangely, there was no translation on the exhibit case. However, I was delighted to find in the Museum shop a handsome volume dedicated to the proceedings of an International Symposium on the Casket which took place in Braunschweig in 1999. (“Das Gandersheimer Runenkästchen : internationales Kolloquium, Braunschweig, 24.-26. März, 1999”, ed. R. Marth; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 2000.)

On reading the book, I found that, in general, the standard of the contributions was pretty good, although a couple of things caused me to raise my eyebrows even before I came to the papers dealing with the runes. There is a dispute between the Berlin Museum of Natural Sciences (study used by Pape) and the British Museum (supported by Webster) as to whether the cask is made of whale-bone or walrus-tusk. The Brit calls the Berlin museum by its pre-war name making it look like it’s a department of the zoo! Charming!

Then there is an American academic by name of Carol Neuman De Vegvar. In an untintentionally amusing paper, she starts out by quoting Hamlet Act 3. Scene 2:

HAMLET Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
H. Methinks it is like a weasel.
P. It is backed like a weasel.
H. Or like a whale.
P. Very like a whale.

The point, apparently, is that you can see what you like in abstract shapes. She tells us that most observers have carefully avoided identifying the animals in the casket’s designs. She then argues that one can, in fact, sometimes identify the animal referred to in a medieval design on the basis of distinguishing features. She proceeds to demonstrate exactly why others have been so reticent by finding “creatures which may perhaps be identifiable as foxes” among the designs on the casket. Now they don’t actually look anything like foxes, but by the end of her argument they have become “the ensnared foxes of the Gandershem Casket”. Apparently they represent heretics and hell. Or perhaps they are weasels. Or perhaps the lady from the British Museum could tell us that they’re really whales….

The two papers covering the runic inscription are by Elmar Seebold and another by Tineke Looijenga and Theo Vennemann. Both sets of authors give us revealing insights into the processes which went into preparing the papers. Seebold confesses that on the subject of the last two letters, he struggled grimly for several weeks to come up with an answer. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the mountain seems to have given birth to a mouse…

The second pair of authors were similarly under pressure. Ms. Looijenga, who is a runologist of some note, had a bright idea shortly before the symposium that part of the inscription means “holy oil”. She managed to convince Theo Vennemann over dinner during the conference and they whipped their paper up at the last minute. Unfortunately, like many great ideas developed over dinner, the final results were less than overwhelming.

Seebold’s interpretation, with the exception of his efforts to interpret the final two runes, is well-argued and consistent with previous interpretations. In a review of the book, Alfred Bammesberger demolishes Seebold’s arguments for the final two runes and I see no reason for arguing with him on this point. However, his suggestion that the inscription might be encrypted and primarily decorative seems to go too far.

As for Looijenga and Vennemann, their interpretation requires reading an ambiguous rune which occurs twice in two different ways and inserting a “missing” letter to make one of the words. Even with the aid of these devices their interpretation of the resulting text is stikingly unnatural.

The thing that immediately struck me was that, with the exception of the last two letters, Seebold’s interpretation is by far the more convincing. More importantly, the unacceptable part of his interpretation is severable. In this respect, the words of Otrid von Weißenburg in the conclusion to his great work spring to mind:

Ther holdo thin ni mide,    nub er iz thana snide
ioh er iz thana scerre,    thaz ih hiar ni merre.
Zi thiu thaz guati sine    thes thiu baz hiar scine
ioh man uuizzi follon    in thiu then guatan uuillon.
Vuant er thaz guata minnot    ioh hiar iz lisit thuruh got,
thaz arga hiar ouh midit    ioh iz thana snidit,
Noh thuruh eina lugina    ni firuuirfit al thia redina,
noh thuruh ungiuuara min    ni lazit thia fruma sin
Suntar thaz giscrib min    uuirdit bezira sin,
buazent sino guati thio    mino missodati.
(V, 25, 37-46.)

(BTW, for more Otfrid, see the link on the Resources Page.)

In October last year, I wrote to Dr. Regine Marth, the Curator at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum regarding the problem, expressing my support for Seebold’s interpretation and putting forward my own suggestion for the meaning of the last two letters as follows:

It is true that Prof. Dr. Seebold’s interpretation comes with its own difficulties, but I believe that the essential reading can stand if we consider the following points:
In my view his reading of ‘muz’ = ‘almucia’ for the final symbols cannot stand.
However, if we assume, as apparently do most experts (see Waxenberger at p.93), that the signs at AB23 are merely decorative or indicative of a line ending, there is a perfectly simple explanation for the runes AB21 and AB22. Reading them, as one must, as ‘mu’, they can be taken as a Latin abbreviation for ‘Maria Virgo’. This would be completely consistent with Seebolt’s contention that the text refers to the use of the casket as a repository for relics in the form of the clothing of the Virgin Mary. I take the use by Looijenga and Vennemann of Latin abbreviations in runic form as part of their solution as an indication that there is nothing objectionable in positing this.

The testimony of Herman Riegel in his catalogue, reported in the contribution of Prof. Dr. Zahlten at p. 141, that a label formerly attached to the casket stated that it had held relics of the Virgin Mary’s clothing is strong evidence. Taken together with Prof. Dr. Seebold’s interpretation of the runic text, it would be reasonable to conclude that the casket was used as a reliquary to contain clothing of the Virgin Mary and that the inscription can be read as follows:

hælïg æli gewritne þii sie hïræ liin MV
Deutsch: ‘Heilig sei ihr Leinen Jungfrau Maria im geritzten Tempel’
English: ‘Holy be the linen of the Virgin Mary in the carven temple’

Dr. Marth was kind enough to reply to me, correcting me for an erroneous characterization of the casket’s display case. She thanked me for my interest and advised me of a study by Dr. Gaby Waxenberger published in 2003, stating: “It was Gaby Waxenberger who succeeded in solving the mystery about the inscription in 2003 and identified it as a sophisticated pious makers formula […]. For my part, I am quite content with this and did not heard any objections so far”.

Waxenberger’s study (published in “Bookmarks from the past. Studies in Early English Language and Literature in Honour of Helmut Gneuss”, ed. by Lucia Kornexl and Ursula Lenker, pp.143-176), however, far from “solving the mystery”, dragged us even deeper into the mire.

[Update: Waxenberger’s article can be read on-line here. When viewed in March 2016, the entire article is shown in the preview.]

Waxenberger’s reading of a “pious maker’s formula” is based on reading two of the runes in a different way from anyone before her. In fact Waxemberger herself, also a runologist by trade, contributed a paper to the 1999 symposium where she read these runes the same way as other scholars. Such a rereading would only be justified if no straightforward reading to the inscription were otherwise possible. I hope to have shown already that this is by no means the case.

Accordingly, I replied to Dr Marth, setting forth my concerns. She replied thanking me for the work I had put in and there we left it.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether this is a satisfactory situation. Naturally no criticism can in any way attach to Dr Marth, who has done all that could be reasonably expected to obtain a reading from professional germanists and runologists. The only people who should be concerned about this state of affairs are members of the relevant professions, who have spectacularly failed in their part of the multidisciplinary effort of understanding the nature and use of this artifact.

Links to my two letters can be found on the Resources Page.


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