A rune stone.

Meet Norse Rune Expert, Jackson Crawford, PhD

By Michael Mozdy

2023 has been a big year for Norse runes. In January, the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History announced the discovery of the oldest rune stone, up to 2,000 years old. In March, Scandinavian scientists in Denmark announced the discovery of the oldest known runic reference to Odin, on a golden coin from the 5thcentury.

A golden bracteate inscribed with runes.

The inscription “He is Odin’s man” is seen in a round half circle over the head of a figure on a golden bracteate unearthed in Vindelev, Denmark in late 2020. It is the oldest-known reference to the Norse god Odin. Image Creator: Arnold Mikkelsen, The National Museum of Denmark | Credit: AP

Runes have fascinated scientists and the general public alike for centuries. Late medieval Scandinavians ascribed magical qualities to them, and a mystical aura surrounding runes survives to this day.

Yet runic is an alphabet, not a set of magical symbols. And one person at the forefront of runology in the English-speaking world, linguist Jackson Crawford, PhD, is helping to correct some long-standing misconceptions.

“A lot of what is preserved is storytelling,” Crawford states. “Icelanders in the 1200s were very interested in writing down their oral literature – stories of the bishops, of the kings of Norway, of the gods in poetry and prose, and stories of the pioneers in Iceland, which resemble our westerns.”

Crawford notes that plenty of workaday runes have been discovered. “Most of them are short,” he notes, “such as a name, a title, or a statement of ownership.”

Nevertheless, in recent years, Old Norse and runology have attracted thousands of enthusiasts, many of whom ascribe mystical value to the alphabet and go as far as seeing Norse as their personal religion. Crawford brings a career of academic study and teaching to the public, spreading the truth about runes.

A photo of Jackson Crawford standing before a rune wall.

Crawford describes a natural path in his life that led him to this field of study. “I was a big dinosaur kid, really,” he laughs. He grew up west of Denver, near a lot of fossil sites. “In middle school, when we got to choose a foreign language to study, I chose Latin because of the dinosaur names I knew.” He became interested in how languages change over time. The field of linguistics was a natural fit.

After his undergraduate years in Texas, Crawford received a Master’s degree in Georgia and his PhD from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studied many languages in school, but specialized in Old Norse, partly, he quips, “because there were a lot of cool stories to read.”

From there, he taught at several prestigious universities, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has published four books of translations and is working on an educational text for helping readers learn how to read Old Norse literature like the Eddas and sagas.

During these years, Crawford also started a Youtube channel and quickly found a large public audience hungry for information about runes. Crawford has been a prolific creator of educational videos, boasting over 730 videos on his channel. To say it has been well received is an understatement; as of July 2023, he has 265,000 subscribers.

Crawford describes his Youtube channel as “real expertise in Norse language and myth, free of both ivory tower elitism and the agendas of self-appointed gurus.” He is passionate about cutting through pseudo-science and untruths.

“I always look forward to answering questions about runes and Norse myths, as well as sharing new discoveries and their context,” he says.

Crawford has transitioned to a career outside of academia as a writer, translator, consultant and educator. He is very grateful to his Patreon supporters for enabling this shift in his career. His consulting work includes working for movies like Frozen (he wrote the runes you see in the movie), television, and video games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

NHMU is proud to have welcomed Jackson Crawford, PhD, to speak on July 12, 2023. See a full list of all upcoming events at the Museum in Salt Lake City.

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