Sunday, September 21, 2014

The problem with most modern "Rune Experts"

It seems almost every new book you find on runes these days is about ever fancier and more complicated ways to do runic divination, i.e. rune-casting. One term I particularly hate seeing bandied about is “rune spreads” - as if runic divination is somehow in any way related to the “spreads” in Tarot cards or other such neo-Hermetic foppery.

However ancient Indo-European peoples used divination tools - whether runes, lots, magick staves, sticks carved with symbols, etc. for divination (and yes, I said Indo-European, not just Germanic – Herodotus records the Scythians doing the same thing) - we can know for sure that this had nothing whatsoever to do with post-Christian Renaissance inventions such as Tarot or reformed Hermetica. So no “spreads” please.

But whatever you call them - “casts”, “methods”, or something else, the means of runic divination are essentially modern interpretations of alleged ancient practices. Because at the end of the day, we simply have to take Tacitus, Herodotus, Pliny, etc. at their word – and they weren't particularly honest fellows from what we know. Herodotus is even nicknamed the “father of lies” since there is so much dishonest and divisive micro-racist propaganda in his writings, most of which were meant to indicate how Greeks were “superior” and to denigrate “barbarians” (i.e. the other 99% of Aryan-descended peoples – Persians, Scythians, Dahae, Getae, Guti, Celts, Hyperboreans/Germanics) as stammering vermin only fit to be slaves. The very tolerance of slavery itself as “acceptable” in the minds of Tacitus and Herodotus was in fact the antithesis of all genuine Arya-derived culture, but that is a long and complicated matter for another day.

So what do we really know about the usage of runes in ancient times, from sources other than old Greco-Roman propaganda writers, the rather cryptic Lore of the Eddas, surviving linguistic rune-cognates and root-words, or the (sometimes reliable) visions of modern mystics?

There are no proper historical texts (at least not by modern definitions of the word 'historical') regarding how the runes (i.e. specifically the symbols known as Futhark) were used, other than the clearly altered and partially Christianized rune poems of the 8th-13th centuries CE. The only mentions of runes in the Eddas are either used to mean 'secrets' (the literal meaning of rune) or the cryptic carved symbols encoding them (which we call “runes” today). The Eddas and even the more “down to earth” Sagas, which refer to family histories and more worldly events including the use of magick by known historical figures, still do not make mention of runes being carved on pocket-sized stones or wood “lots” and thrown or drawn from a bag for divination. The 18 rune-verses of the Havamal describe “songs” and do not literally refer to these magickal spells or devices as “runes”, though the preceding verses are all about the origin of the Odinic runes, and thus it is usually understood that the 18 spells are a reference to these same runes that Odin discovered through his self-sacrifice on the World Tree Yggdrasil. Does that mean that they must refer to the Futhark or letter-runes that we commonly know as “runes” today? No, but it's the best we have to go on.

The historical uses of runes that we do have surviving physical evidence for are from archaeological finds such as large standing rune-stones, weapons and household items carved with runes, a few rare wooden inscriptions, votive metal objects buried with the dead, etc.

So where does the idea of small wooden rune-tiles or portable “rune-stones” come from? And where do we get the idea of using them as tools for divination? The answer may surprise you – modern authors.

Writers like Edred Thorrson (Stephen Flowers), Freya Aswynn, Diana L. Paxson, Nigel Pennick and (*cringe*) Ralph Blum, have written many books about rune divination, consulting the runes to resolver personal dilemmas, and all manner of questions.

Did they base their methods on historical works? Unfortunately, no. Could they have done so in the first place? Again, sadly, no. There just isn't any ancient text offering a detailed explanation of portable rune sets being used in these ways. When Tacitus talks about the Germanic tribes cutting branches into lots inscribed with symbols, or when Herodotus mentions the Scythians (whom we can tie in with the origins of proto-Celtic, Cossack, Gothic, and some Indo-Iranian groups) using “linden tree branches” as lots for divination – we really do not have any proof, in a literal sense, that these were “rune sets” as we understand them today. The symbols are never described in these accounts, nor are their meanings.

So with these Greco-Roman accounts (which, even discounting the agendas and bigotries of their authors, were still based on third-hand hearsay in most cases), what we are seeing might be observations of runic divination similar to modern methods – or it may be something else, some other symbolic system or practice entirely. And the Greco-Roman sources are notoriously vague with the details. You could almost imagine Tacitus and Herodotus like modern border guards spying on their “barbarian” foes with binoculars, or playing a game of “telephone” with a long string of underground contacts, trying to figure out what the “barbarians” are actually doing without having seen any of it personally!

So of course the current batch of “rune experts” writing books have to look to more recent sources for their ideas.

The basic idea of specifically using Futhark runes, i.e. letter-runes, as a magickal medium for divining the flow of Wyrd, and what may be coming in the future, is a concept that comes from early 20th century writers like Guido von List, who claimed to have received the divinatory meanings of the runes, and at least part of Odin's secret esoteric rune wisdom, in a series of dreams and visions. It was largely List and his early followers (such as Kummer, Marby, and Gorsleben) who developed the idea of rune-casting as an actual magickal practice using the 18 Armanen runes promoted by List as a reconstruction of the original 18 Odinic “rune-spells” of the Havamal.

The most basic concepts of modern rune divination, such as splitting the runes into three “aetts”, carving them on small tiles of wood (or bone, or even stone), interpreting upside-down or sideways positions as “murk-stave”, “merkstave”, or “negative” meanings, and even the idea of the three-rune “Norns' cast” symbolizing the past, present, and future of a particular problem or matter, are all derived from the writings and practices of the Armanists. Even if more recent authors and books using these concepts don't mention the Armanen rune row at all (and often they don't, preferring to only work with the “Elder” Futhark despite their meanings being far more vague), they still copy many Armanen ideas.

Really, if one wants to understand how modern German rune-masters understood the Runes in the context of their own Germanic culture and language and its ancient roots, these early 20th-century authors would be the ones to read – not the watered-down books of far more recent writers like Paxson or Pennick, or even the far more scholarly books of Thorsson. Though this isn't a guarantee that you're 100% accurate to how the ancient Teutons used runes, and even though one could perhaps arrive at other divination methods by looking at runes from a Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, or Frisian cultural context, one can still argue that the “Armanists” of the Guido von List society at least had that cultural awareness, and in some cases secret family connections with the old ways, which many of the eclectic pop-paganism “rune experts” of today (predominantly British and American) lack entirely, and worse yet, make no effort to research and respect.

Thus what you get with Pennick, Paxson, and even Kvedulf Gundarsson in regards to runic divination, is a bit of a mishmash of ideas from both Armanist sources and still more recent (and far less culturally informed) “neo-pagan” sources, which are sometimes in open contradiction to one another. And in those instances the recent authors seem to just pick and choose as they see fit – and then call it “Viking” or “ancient” divination. Sure it is... if you think a photocopy of a photocopy is equal to an original!

Then we have the “every rune does everything” attitude of even lower-quality authors of “Wiccan” or “Druid” leanings. I have seen so many of these self-proclaimed “experts” make statements that are so far off-base regarding the history and meanings of the runes, with such assertiveness, that I could have easily puked every time I saw one of them in a video “lecturing” on their totally false suppositions about runes. I can't even count how many self-proclaimed “Druid shamans” or “wolf spirit shamans” I have seen, claiming to know the true uses of runes, inventing all sorts of New Age nonsense about “Celtic runes” or Druids having used runes (different culture, different symbols, no runes - how hard is that to understand?). And many of these pop-pagan “experts” even try to mix in Native American and Siberian concepts and motifs into their rune-casting techniques, and then claim this is “authentic rune magick”.

Mein arsch it is. It's about as authentic as claiming Taco Bell is real Mexican food. Or claiming that real Italians make pizza just like Domino's. Not that there's anything “wrong” or “bad” about Native American spirituality per se – what's bad is when people copy bits and pieces of it and call it something else entirely, usually for profit. What's bad is when people claim it's for “everyone” and then try to market it in over 200 countries by mixing it with whatever culture they think will sell in those countries. It's not “cultural appropriation” when you sincerely practice a culture in its context and respect the customs and interpretations of its native people, even if it's not your ancestors' culture. It is cultural appropriation when you recklessly rip off parts of it for a quick buck – when you steal Native American myths and claim they are Germanic, or when you stick runes on a Navajo medicine wheel or an Aztec calendar and claim that this is a “Nordic wheel of fate” or some other such syncretistic psycho-babble. And that's precisely what many of these “neopagan” cranks dumping worthless misleading “rune books” on the market are up to.

And then just when you think things can't get any sillier, you have the complete pop-spirituality conmen like Ralph Blum – who are on a whole different level of crazy. For these people, no amount of rampant syncretism and dilution of cultures and practices is off limits. Inventing fanciful rune “spreads” based directly on complicated Tarot card layouts? Acceptable! Imagining totally new and baseless rune meanings based on a random selection of quotes from the I-Ching? Encouraged! Inventing your own extra “blank rune” and cannibalizing the meanings of Ansuz, Uruz and Perthro in the process? You can be the first! Ripping off Christian prayers and even the Alcoholics Anonymous “serenity prayer” and claiming they are somehow runic or even compatible with rune-casting and a (Heathen) runic spirituality? Hey, why not claim that Odin wrote the Ten Commandments while you're at it! No lie or cultural travesty is off-limits, right?

Blum claimed he completely changed the modern reconstructed meanings and even the order of the “Elder” Futhark (which in turn are based on a mix of List's cultural theories and a lot of more recent speculations) to suit his own feelings and whims, because he felt that the runes “resembled” the I-Ching and its workings and were thus an expression of the same ideas (a concept which has no basis in List, rune poems, or any Indo-European source!)

Other pop-spirituality hacks have reinterpreted the runes as a “Nordic Tarot” and mostly copied off the work of Blum and modern Hermetic and quasi-Masonic orders. Some of these writers even throw in zodiac horoscopes, Voudou, Santeria, Kabbalah, UFOs, “ancient astronaut theory” and Nostradamus, and at the end you are left scratching your head and wondering what any of this has to do with runes, Odinism, or Germanic spirituality! Thus what you get with most modern self=proclaimed “rune-experts” is pure speculation and frivolous window-shopping from all sorts of non-runic and non-Indo-European sources. But of course they claim it's all legit since they all use the “Elder” Futhark (as if any one runic system is some sort of gospel – ironically a very Christian and un-runic perspective).

Now just to make things clear, despite all the BS that is written about runic divination, I do not believe that runic divination per se is invalid. Not at all! I don't claim that the runes cannot be used for divination or that they never have been – indeed it's always possible that Tacitus was referring to some sort of carved Futhark runes in his account of wooden divination lots – the key word being possible. It's just that the idea of using runes for divination may also be a purely modern one, no older than Guido von List, and not, as some authors would have you believe, a well-established ancient tradition. And to truly be an honest practitioner of runic divination, you have to be comfortable with this fact.

That said, you can still honor the ancient Lore and customs while using a modern magickal practice or format. Indeed this is what the Armanen system was meant to do – the work of List and the other early 20th century Armanists is positively ancient and “traditional” in content compared to all of the eclectic super-syncretic “rune books” of aimless psychedelic new-age authors flooding today's bookstores! List and his followers, whatever else they did, were at least culturally conscious about the runes, tying in everything they could find in runic root-word etymology with the Eddas and other Germanic Lore, and keeping their extra-Germanic mystical inferences limited to Indo-European sources only.

What the Eddas, Sagas, and other ancient sources say regarding Germanic divination, mentions the consultation of Volvar (clairvoyant women in touch with the flow of Wyrd), the use of Seiðr (channeling the spirits of other beings to gain hidden knowledge of the past or future), and the reading of omens or signs in nature itself – from the movements of a flock of birds after an inquiry to the Gods or wights, to the behavior of nearby wild animals, to the direction in which harnessed horses would run when given no directions or prodding from a charioteer. There are many methods of divination described in these ancient texts and none of them explicitly mention the casting of runes in the sense of Futhark runes. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, or that the Sagas include everything there was to know about Norse divination, let alone all of Germanic divination – just that divination may not have been the primary purpose of the runes. The runes are mentioned in the Eddas and Sagas as being used for some very different purposes.

Divination and augury is, at its very heart, a personal experience. So long as there is a sufficient cultural basis for you to relate to, some sort of context that on a mystical level helps you tap into the experiences, archetypes, and ideals of an ancient path, so that at least it does not feel totally made-up and contrived, there does not need to be a 100% historical background for it to work for you. But I wonder if this realization is too painful for some people to wake up to. Or if people using “mainstream” modern “Elder” Futhark divination practices are aware that at best they are copied from methods developed only about a century ago by the Armanen masters – and often times they are not even that old or culturally informed.

It always annoys me when people refuse to do divination with the Armanen Runes or call them “less real” simply because they are a modern reconstruction with a largely esoteric source, yet continue to fanatically claim that “Elder” Futhark divination is somehow an established historical practice dating to the dawn of man.

If anything, it's the Armanen runes that were actually designed for divination, while still preserving the essence of ancient Germanic Lore and revealing a great deal about the esoteric underpinnings of rune meanings that only survive in fragments in the Eddas, Sagas and rune-poems. The Armanen system draws heavily on the Havamal, the skaldic works, the tripartite Germanic (and indeed, pan-Aryan) cosmology, and the multi-layered linguistics of the Germanic tongues themselves, and concentrates all this knowledge into a simple and powerful magickal system which does not even need to borrow from any eclectic or non-Indo-European system. In many ways the Armanen meanings are far less speculative, in a cultural sense, than the cobbled-together modern “meanings” attributed by so-called historical purists to the “Elder” Futhark, for which no lore or poems survive at all.

Indeed, the fact that no historical runelore survives for the “Elder” Futhark is precisely what makes it such a tempting target for all these two-bit pop-spirituality hucksters. They can stick any meanings or divination methods they want on it, no matter how fraudulent or plagiarized from other cultures, and nobody can ever logically disprove them because “you don't know that the runes couldn't have meant this!

Nevertheless the only truly ancient mythology in the Germanic tradition which actually numbers a set of runes, or rune-spells, or even anything approximating runes, in verse, mentions 18 of them, which would, esoterically at least, make the 24 runes of the “elder” Futhark a redundant later expansion. This was also apparently the view of the Viking-age skalds themselves, who only produced the “Younger” Futhark out of concern that the “Elder” Futhark was not the Eldest, and needed to be refined back to its original and simpler Odinic/Eddic form to avoid a decay of the magickal language and a dilution of Odinic spirituality itself, as had long since happened with the Christianized Anglo-Saxons they conquered. Interestingly the 16-rune “Younger” Futhark is almost as ignored by “mainstream” rune-casters as the 18-rune Armanen system, which is simply its modern Lore-based completion.

So there you have it. Once you can sort out the culturally-based methods from the totally nonsensical paperback-profiteer-made ones, runic divination is a perfectly fine practice for someone who wants to honor the old ways. Especially if you use a runic system that actually channels Eddic, skaldic, and linguistic strands of meaning in a culturally valid way – even if it's a new or reconstructed system. The concept of runic divination is basically a modern practice anyway, so bashing a reconstructed rune row simply because it's not "ancient" (while totally ignoring the deep cultural validity and ancient roots of its meanings and literature) is pointless.


Obviously there were other methods of divination with far more historical documentation, but so long as you don't fool yourself that you're doing exactly the same thing as the Vikings, Saxons or Goths did centuries ago, culturally informed runic divination (such as that of the Armanen system) is just fine. And it's a heck of a lot better than the misleading and confused “every rune means everything” BS that pop-spirituality charlatans try to pass off as “ancient and authentic” by hiding behind the “Elder” Futhark and using it as a cover to justify nearly anything their whims can cook up.  

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