Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: runes

How to Tweet from Another Century

Pretty interesting talk about how the modern Twitter phenomenon has its antecedents in Medieval Scandinanvian rune-sticks, which were used to jot down little bits of information such as:

  • “Gyða says you should go home.”
  • “They are both living together, Clumsy-Kari and and Vilhjalm’s wife.”
  • “Ingebjorg loved me when I was in Stavanger.”
  • “Arni the priest wants Inga.”
  • “I love another man’s wife so much that fire seems cold to me.And I am that woman’s lover.”
  • “I would rather visit the mead-houses more often!”

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’…

Runology, Part 1: One Man’s Futhark is another’s Futhork

When they think of “the runes”, most non-Heathens will immediately think of a set of 24 runic symbols, each of which has a set form (perhaps with very minor variations) and a “meaning”. These runes are used for divination and decoration mostly, and as such are one of a large number of divinatory tools including tarot cards and the like.

The reality is a lot more complex.

Taken as a whole, a runic system is referred to as a futhark, a word that is derived from the names of the first six runes (in much the way that the word “alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet; alpha and beta). What many people don’t realize is that there is no single “correct” futhark, that most of them have a number of runes other than 24, and that the meanings that are commonly attributed to the 24-rune futhark come, in fact, from other futharks that are found much later in history.

The 24-rune futhark with which most Pagans are familiar is called the Elder Futhark. It was used from approximately the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE. However, the order in which the runes are found is not fixed; there are inscriptions of the full runic futhark with either the runes othala or dagaz in the final position. It’s impossible to say definitively which is correct, or even if there is a “correct” ordering. There is also no single correct form for many of the runes of the Elder Futhark, and some that stand for the same rune phonetically have drastically different forms. (Amazingly, no “blank runes” are ever found among those variant forms.)

There are many other futharks, however.

The Anglo-Saxon futhork, for example (it is called a futhork rather than a futhark because the sound of the fourth rune changed from an “a” to an “o”) was used from the 5th to the 11th centuries CE, mostly in Anglo-Saxon England. It, like all futharks, was used for both Christian and Heathen inscriptions. It had anywhere from 29 to 33 runes, and again their forms could vary greatly.

The Viking Age saw the rise of the Younger futhark (9th – 11th century), which was trimmed down to 16 runes (many of the runes doing double-duty phonetically to allow for all the sounds that the language still retained). There were very dramatic differences in the way the Younger futhark runes could be engraved, such as the short-branch and long-twig variations. After that, the 27 Medieval Runes were used through the 15th century, but the order was changed to make them much more in line with the conventional Latin alphabet. There were, of course, many other runic systems in use; these are just the major ones. Some even mixed runic and Latin characters together, and others would be quite unrecognizable as runes to most Pagans (and Heathens, for that matter), such as the “staveless runes” pictured above.

The way the meanings of the runes are known is probably something of which most Pagans are unaware. There exist several runic poems, found in manuscripts from the early to late Medieval period, which present either 33 runes of the Anglo-Saxon futhork or three different variations on the 16 Younger futhark runes.

Notice what we don’t have a poem for? That’s right— the 24 rune Elder futhark. The esoteric meanings that one sees today associated with those 24 runes are lifted from the other rune-poems, usually starting with one of the Younger futhark poems and then filling in the gaps from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem.

The trouble is, each rune poem is a self-contained entity, and advanced runic practitioners can use the meanings encoded into the poems themselves. When they are picked apart, there is a certain level of meaning that is lost. Truth to tell, we simply don’t know what esoteric meaning the runes of the Elder futhark might have had. We can conjecture, but that’s all it is. (As an aside, it should be pointed out that the whole notion that the runes had any esoteric meaning is itself conjecture; many academic runologists maintain that the rune poems are merely mnemonic devices to aid in learning the futharks in a given order, rather than a mystical encoding of their deeper meaning.)

To take one example, consider the first rune in most futharks; fe. Each of the four rune poems gives the following for it:

Abecedarium Nordmannicum: “Feu first”

Icelandic Rune Poem: “Source of discord among kinsmen / and fire of the sea / and path of the serpent.”

Norwegian Rune Poem: “Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen / the wolf lives in the forest.”

Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem: “Wealth is a comfort to all men / yet must every man bestow it freely / if he wishes to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”

So is wealth a good thing or a bad thing? A comfort or a source of discord? What’s the significance of the fire of the sea, serpent, and wolf imagery? One can see that among the different poems, there are differences not only in meaning but in associated symbolism.

According to some interpretations of the situation, taking the meanings of the runes out of context (and even out of order, if there is a correct order) is problematical. According to others, one should take an amalgam of all the various interpretations. When even agreement on the fundamental approach for studying the runes can’t be reached, the situation is indeed messy.

Don’t let the messiness of the various futharks fool you, though. There is meaning there, but it is contextual and defies our modern attempts to systematize it for easy consumption. That should not be seen as an excuse to make up meanings of the runes that have nothing to do with any historical notion of their meaning.

Runa-Raven Press Closing their Doors

Well this is something of a surprise. Venerable publisher Runa-Raven Press, outlet for many works by the Rune Gild and its members, will be closing its doors on September 20, 2012:

Unfortunately Runa-Raven will be going out of business as of September 20, 2012. We will honor all orders that have already been made and we still encourage everyone to buy the books still available before September 20. They are bound to be collectors items in the future.

Definitely take advantage of this last opportunity to pick up any titles that look interesting. I’ll be plugging any gaps in my own collection, to be sure. I most highly recommend:

  • A Book of Troth (one of the best “beginners books” ever, and remains so today)
  • Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic (Edred’s first, and best, book on runes)
  • Grave and Gallows (a collection of Latin and Greek sources relating to early Germanic religion)
  • True Hearth (a companion to A Book of Troth dealing with household rites and family worship)
I’d avoid the titles relating to Third Reich occultism and Satanism unless you have a special interest in those topics. But the catalog is certainly worth going through in its entirety, at least for the next month or so!

Dr. Charlotte Pipes: misguided fluffy-bunny or just opportunistic idiot?

It so happens that I read most of the essays on Witchvox.com as they come out. Many of them will have some broad applicability to paganism in general, and occasionally one will have some more specific applicability to my interests, such as traditional witchcraft, Asatru, or … runes.

This week, we are treated to The Origin of Runes by one “Brunehilde”. A quick game of follow-the-links brings us to her real name, which is Dr. Charlotte Pipes, a professor of music at a university in Louisiana, and affiliated also with the “Psychic Schoolhouse“. Turns out this lady has also been featured on the Lamplight Circle podcast, wherein she graced the world with a brief talk on the Elder Futhark.

In the latter, she leads off with the gem that there are runes to be found in neolithic cave paintings (4:50 into the podcast). It gets worse from there. Those cave-paintings are examples of operative magic, and are “prayer centers”. Runes are not an alphabet. Those little lights you see when you rub your eyes? Those “have got to be some kind of energy signature” built into the human brain (6:00 in the podcast), rather than just random firings of the optic nerve-endings, like every neuro-scientist on the planet seems to think. And “we think this may be how some of the early rune symbols came about” (7:00 in the podcast). We who? I don’t know of anyone who has been using runes in a serious manner for any amount of time who believes this drivel. Oh, and the runes were given to mankind by Odin. Sorry, Rig/Heimdall… Dr. Pipes just wrote you out of the picture. Oh, and magic? Nononono… that’s “just prayer” (8:45 in the podcast).

You get the point.

There is most certainly a magical tradition associated with the runes, and its workings were well understood by the ancient Germanic peoples. This is well attested-to in surviving inscriptions, literary evidence, and so forth. However, that does not mean that anyone is free to make wild associations willy-nilly about it. The magical tradition of the runes has its own internal logic, and trying to link it with whatever the latest fad in Newage pop culture is, is not only doing that tradition a disservice, but is also a disservice to those who think they’re getting information rooted in historical practices.

Thoughts on the Elder Futhark

I confess to being something of a maverick within the Heathen community (a shock, I know). In my rune-work, I do not use the Elder Futhark of 24 runes. Instead I use the Younger Futhark of 16. This was not a choice made lightly, or out of caprice.

That the Elder Futhark was used by the early Germanic peoples is beyond question; we have archaeological evidence that seals that question convincingly. So, too, we know that the runes of that Futhark were used for magical purposes; Dr. Stephen Flowers’ doctoral thesis (subsequently published, and which I have had the wonderful opportunity to read) makes a very convincing case for such as well. However, I still feel that one thing is missing that makes the use of the Elder Futhark in modern magical practice somewhat problematical.

Specifically, we do not know the names, let alone the esoteric meanings, of the individual staves of the Futhark.

Bear in mind that our knowledge of the historical esoteric meanings of the various Futharks comes to us from the various rune poems. There’s an Anglo-Saxon poem, an Icelandic Poem covering the Younger Futhark, and a Norwegian Rune-rhyme covering it as well, and a few other bits and pieces hither and yon. Between them, they form a coherent corpus of esoteric meaning which is internally consistent for each Futhark.

Unfortunately, we do not possess any rune poem which covers the Elder Futhark from start to finish. What knowledge we do have, and which has been passed along in various books on the subject for decades, is a patchwork of meaning derived from a combination of the Icelandic/Norwegian poems and the Anglo-Saxon poem. Separated by centuries and oceans, they attempt to assume that the “missing” runes from the Younger Futhark had an identical meaning to those from the Anglo-Saxon Futhark. While this is certainly possible, it is by no means certain.

The problems of such a patchwork approach are obvious, and not the least confined to the notion that any given Futhark is intended to be a whole. That is, an encoding of the understanding of a given Germanic group as to the nature of the universe around them.

One need go no further than the second rune in the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poems. In the latter, the ur-rune is the mighty Aurochs, the ranger of the moors. In the former, it is drizzle, the cold wet rain. It is also, puzzlingly, both shadow and leader. The exact metaphysical impact of those meanings is beyond the scope of this particular post, but the point is made. The runes have different meanings in the different poems. (I should point out that the ur-rune is only one example of many; it is not an isolated case.) If each poem encapsulates the knowledge of its attendent culture and runological lore as a coherent whole, then how could we possibly make sense of a system of runes for which no such poem or other system of encoding is extant?

Many worthy folk and good scholars have made the attempt, and I by no means intend to diminish their efforts. Such a thing as the choice of a futhark for esoteric work is most definitely a personal thing, and if someone feels called to use the Elder Futhark with interpretations stemming from various sources into a whole, I will not gainsay them. However, neither will I follow them in the endeavor.

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