Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: December 2012

Runology, Part 2: On Runic Divination

One of the most common uses one sees for the runes in modern Pagan and Heathen literature is divination. There are “runic spreads” that are obviously based on Tarot cards, which can range from a simple “draw three runes for past, present, and future” to complex patterns of a dozen or more, each of which is drawn blindly and represents a specific aspect to a given question. What most don’t realize is that the question of whether the runes were historically used as a divinatory tool is actually hotly disputed among both scholars and modern-day Heathens. The origin of the claim that the runes were used as a divinatory tool comes from a passage in Tacitus’ Germania:

Auguries and Method of Divination. Augury and divination by lot no people practice more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes toward heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them. If they prove unfavorable, there is no further consultation that day about the matter; if they sanction it, the confirmation of augury is still required. – Tacitus, Germania, A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans.

The sticking point here is the term “certain marks”, which in the original Latin is given as notae. “Notae” can mean anything from an alphabetical letter to a simple X. It could well be that the ritual described above simply involves seeing how many of the pieces of wood landed face up. On the other hand, it certainly could mean that runes (or a sort of proto-runic alphabet that would have been used in the 1st century CE) were used. The simple fact is that we don’t know, and until we do, we can’t really make any assumptions about what Tacitus meant by notae. That said, we need to move on to the other historical examples of runic divination.

The problem is, there aren’t any.

In all the sagas, Eddaic poems, runic inscriptions, surviving folklore, accounts of Germanic societies from outside observers, grave finds, archaeological digs, numismatics, etc. etc. etc. there is not a single account of runes being used as tools to divine the future or seek to know the will of the Gods. Not one. Oh, there are plenty of examples of divination in the lore. There’s a fascinating account of dropping coins onto a balance-type scale to determine the answer to a question. We read of Icelanders interpreting the snorting of horses, others reading the flight and songs of birds, many accounts of interpretation of dreams, inviting land-spirits to attend and answer specific questions, and on and on. But nothing about runes as divination tools. Surely somewhere, someone, would have mentioned it even in passing, if it were a historical practice.

Which is not to say that we don’t know that the runes were used for magical purposes, either. We do indeed; they were used to inflict curses on others, for healing, to drive out land-spirits and thus attack the luck of a land, to protect ships, to aid with eloquence, to help with childbirth, and many other uses. So the runes were indeed used in magic. Just not in divination.

Does that mean that those who advocate runic divination today are charlatans? Certainly not. It just means that runic divination cannot be said indisputably to be an historical practice. Reputable sources that discuss the practice should make it clear that the historicity of the art is in dispute, and is something for which no definitive proof can be offered. It doesn’t make it any less valid (in the sense of working as a practice), but one should always go into such things with both eyes open, and not fool oneself into thinking a given practice is two thousand years old when it is just as likely to be a modern invention.

And, as always, any book that burbles about a “blank rune” (as shown in the image above; irony intended) should be thrown into the nearest wood-chipper. Just sayin’…

Grendel as the Grinch

Every Scylding in Heorot liked mead a lot,
But Grendel the beast, roaring outside did not.
Grendel hated Scyldings, the whole Danish clan.
Can I say why? I don’t think I can.
He spied on the Scyldings, he fumed and he wailed.
He watched as in Heorot they drank mead and drank ale.
“How can I hurt them, the king and his thanes?”
Alone in his barrow, it drove him insane.
Then he got an idea! An awful idea!
Grendel got a horrible, awful idea!
That fiendish old monster was up to no good.
He decided to kill them and gorge on their blood.

You can continue to read this amazing parody (I might say homage) over at The Heretic’s Mirror. It gets better and better!

Asatru in Iceland

Iceland Review has a nice little article about the Ásatrúarfélagið (Association of Asatruar) in Iceland. Specifically, it discusses their Yule celebration a few days ago. What I found most interesting was the bit about their numbers; they’ve gone from 280 to 2,200 since 1998. Plus they have plans to build “the first pagan temple to rise in the Nordic countries in more than a millennium.” Way to go!

Inn Draugar

Today, Medievalists.net gives us an article from a SCAdian on the “living dead” of the Icelandic sagas, the in draugr. Very different from traditional non-corporeal ghosts, much more akin to what we think of today as zombies. Great overview of the source material.

Smoking Bishop

“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

One of the Yuletide traditions that my family has enjoyed for many years is the making of the traditional bowl of Smoking Bishop. Smoking Bishop is a drink (a very alcoholic drink) from Victorian times that is served hot and mixes fruit, spices, and sugar for a heart-warming drink perfect for cold winters’ nights. It’s particularly good for families such as ours that celebrate both Yule and Christmas. Here’s how I make it.

Take five oranges and one grapefruit with the peel on, and bake in a 350 degree oven until the skin turns slightly brown. Let cool.

Stud each fruit with cloves, place in a pot and cover with two bottles of red wine and half a pound of sugar. If desired, add a stick of cinnamon and/or a few sprigs of star anise. Let sit, covered, for a day.

Remove the fruit, cut in halves, and squeeze into the wine. Strain and pour into a slow cooker. Add a bottle of ruby port. Best to do this several hours before you intend to serve the mixture.

Let the slow cooker go on low for four hours minimum (you should see slight wisps of steam). Then serve with dessert.

Since my family celebrates Yule as well as Christmas, this recipe serves double duty. I make it for Yule, then pour what’s left into a container and save in the fridge for four days or so until Christmas, when I pour it back into the crock-pot and reheat to serve again. I’ve never had to reheat it more than once.

It has a very “Victorian” flavor, almost medieval, because of the cloves. Glad Yule, Merry Christmas, and enjoy!

The Pagan Heritage of St George

Today Medievalists.net presents us with a paper originally presented at last year’s International Medieval Congress entitled The Pagan Heritage of St. George. It’s a fascinating exploration of pre-Christian motifs that have been incorporated into the traditional Medieval legend of St. George and the Dragon. While I’m dubious of some of the claims in the paper that link the legend to those of ancient Mesopotamia (except as a more universal “man vs. beast” motif), I find the parallels with the Green Knight legend very compelling. All in all, a good read. 

Subjective Ethnicity

Medievalists.net today calls our attention to a fascinating paper from Scandia 2008; Dark Age Migrations and Subjective Ethnicity: The Example of the Lombards. Wow.

The premise is that most of what we today consider to be tribal and ethnic groupings from Classical writers aren’t really so. They’re “subjective” groupings based on the personal followers of a particular warband leader, or a particular grouping of war-leaders. It was only later that the cultural identity of these tribes emerged, resulting in linguistic and cultural differences that could be readily used to identify one tribe or the other.

To say that this has implications for tribalist Heathenry is an understatement. Definitely worth reading.

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