[This series of blog posts on the runes is based on a talk I gave at the Black Flame PDX event in Portland, OR on April 27, 2019]
[Part I can be found at https://infernalgeometry.com/2019/12/27/runes-I.html]
With the Christianization of the Germanic countries which concluded in the thirteenth century, the practice of runelore and rune magic passed out of regular use along with the majority of pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Contrary to many other parts of Europe where anything pre-Christian was aggressively suppressed, the Germanic areas – especially Sweden – for some time regarded the runes as part of their national heritage. Thus, it should be no surprise that a runic reawakening began in the last place where work with the runes was still widely practiced.
This is more of a reawakening than a revival or rebirth, as knowledge of the old customs never went away in these regions but was merely slumbering beneath the weight of Christianity as a parasitic force that gradually overtakes its host culture. That these areas resisted Christianity for so long enabled them to retain more robust and steadfast roots which could easily grow and flourish again.
Modern runology began in Sweden, the last kingdom in western Europe to be Christianized, in the 16th century. A prominent ideology of the time, storgoticism, romanticized many prominent elements of Sweden’s past including their connection to the Goths and the runes. By the time the Reformation swept into Sweden, storgoticism was a virtual religion, and one of its major proponents, Johan Bure, became the first great runic revivalist. Bure systematically recorded runic inscriptions found throughout Sweden and interpreted many of them as well using the linguistic standards of the time. Such was his renown for his knowledge of runes, when he was named chair of the history department of the University of Upsalla, it was decreed by the University that all later holders of that chair must be able to read and interpret runes.
Interest in the runes remained long after they had ceased to be used among the Scandinavian and Icelandic peoples. As mentioned before the manuscripts that contain the various rune poems date from as late as the 17th century, even though linguistic evidence shows the lore they contain is many centuries older. This shows that these gateways to Mystery called to those with an interest in the deep past, and that these pathways of knowledge helped to keep themselves open until a true runic revival would take place beginning in the early twentieth century.
The Runes From the Twentieth Century Onward
The history of the runes in the 20th and 21st century is fairly well-documented. The Austrian mystic Guido von List was at the forefront of a revival of runework in the German speaking countries in the early- to mid-20th century. In 1906, when his eyes were bandaged for nearly a year due to a cataract operation, he experienced the set of revelations that led him to formulate what he called the Armanen runes. The Armanen runes were an 18-rune row based on the Younger Futhark, with some modifications to the names and meaning of the individual runes plus two additional staves. The additional staves completed what List interpreted as references to an original 18-rune futhark in the Poetic Edda. His formula for working with the cyclical nature of the runes, was entstehen – sein – vergehen zum neuen entstehen (“arising, being, passing away to a new arising”). The German rune magicians influenced by him included Friedrich Bernhard Marby, Siegfried Adolf Kummer, Karl Maria Wiligut, and Karl Spiesberger; their rune work was not solely based on traditional lore, but also included elements from Theosophy, yoga, and other occult practices. Their work on the whole is very resonant with the Left Hand Path, as it focuses on the development of the individual with an emphasis on self-directed magical work.
The infamous use of runes by the Nazis stems from the influence of Karl Maria Wiligut, who under the alias Weisthor (used to conceal his past residency in a mental institution) was a personal advisor to the head of the SS, Heimrich Himmler. The Nazis’ interest in the runes did not stem from interest in their lore, but merely from their power as symbols of the past; the runes were used solely in service of the mythologizing of a Germany that never really was. Wiligut’s interpretations of the runes and German history were very idiosyncratic, and outside of Himmler’s influence the runes were of little consequence in the symbology and ideology of the Third Reich. Other runic writers were suppressed along with the general prohibition on occult groups by the Nazis after 1933, some severely if they persisted in openly teaching; for example, Friedrich Bernhard Marby spent 99 months in Dachau and other camps until he was liberated in 1945.
The academic study of the runes began in Germany in the twentieth century as well. Wolfgang Krause, of the universities of Königsberg and Göttingen, essentially founded the field of academic runology. Krause’s work was continued at Göttingen by Klaus Düwel. Other significant academicians who have studied and written about the runes from historical, linguistic and magical perspectives have included Ralph Elliott, R.I. Page, Maureen Halsall, Elmer Antonsen and Michael Barnes. It was Page who advocated for a distinction between runologists who saw the runes as essentially just a mundane form of writing and little more – which he called ‘skeptical’ runologists – and those saw them as being part of a larger cultic understanding including their uses in magical acts – whom Page termed ‘imaginative’ runologists.
The two most significant figures in runology from the late twentieth century onward bring a solid academic background to an approach to the runes that decidedly falls into the realm of ‘imaginative’, or ‘radical’, runology. These are the British Anglo-Saxonist Stephen Pollington, and the American scholar-magician Stephen Edred Flowers (who has also written works under the name Edred Thorrson).
Flowers had been a self-described “occultizoid nincompoop” engaged in various aspects of the “New Age” and occult interests popular in the early 1970s. After an experience in 1974 where he was introduced to the concept of Rûna under appropriately mysterious circumstances, he embarked on an academic and practical study of the runes and their cultural and linguistic background that culminated in earning a Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Medieval Studies from the University of Texas-Austin in 1984. His dissertation was entitled Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition. He has gone on to write a number of books on the runes and related topics, uncovering both essential and sometimes hidden aspects of their history and development, and always with a focus on practical application.
Magical Uses of the Runes
The definition of magic I’m using in this talk describes it as the process by which perceptual changes are created and made permanent within the inner world of the individual, and which may when needed create phenomenal change in the outer world.
The visual and linguistic nature of work with the runes is an application of the semiotic theory of magic, which posits that results depend on finding the proper symbols and mode of address/communication, combined with ascriptive thinking (assignment of meaning) regarding the otherwise hidden aspects of reality and their influence on the results you desire. The semiotic theory of magic is a postmodern replacement for the previously in vogue sympathetic theory of magic (popularized by James Frazer and others); the sympathetic theory was predicated on the assumption that magic was flawed thinking – or ignorance of science – and thus ineffective. The semiotic theory proceeds from the assumption that magic does work, and attempts to quantify the means by which it is an effective thought process and model of reality; magic is situated as a means of effective symbolic communication between the practitioner and that which is to be affected.
But we can be more precise than simply using the term magic, especially as it is loaded with various associations and assumptions that do not apply to work with the runes. A better approach with regard to the runes is to use the term operative communication, which captures the essential linguistic and communicative aspects of their use, and also frames their effectiveness in terms of being a particular type of symbolic speech act that produces quantifiable results.
Literacy and the technology of writing in the ancient Germanic world were reserved to an elite few. Writing was only done when the intent behind a particular act of operative communication needed to be impressed directly onto the observable world. There is not a single remaining inscription in the Elder Futhark that can be definitively shown to have only a mundane purpose. This approach to literacy and writing changed, of course, by the time of the advent of the Younger Futhark in the mid-eighth century. This is likely one of the reasons behind the creation of the Younger Futhark with a smaller inventory of staves, to refocus runic writing on magical acts knowing that the results are less legible due to the use of single runestaves to represent multiple vowels. The encoding through writing was the focus, not the ability of others to read the inscription after the fact, as the runemaster had already communicated what was needed to the phenomenal world and would receive a response through different means.
Now let’s examine how this relates to modern perspectives on the Left Hand Path.
The Runes and the Left-Hand Path
To have any meaningful understanding of the Left-Hand Path and how the runes may relate to it, we must first establish what we mean by Left-Hand Path. Without definitions and parameters, the term easily devolves into a meaningless catch-all for things that are really more about aesthetic and image than genuine spiritual practice.
There is not just one valid definition of course, but we can establish a framework of attributes that any set of practices or philosophies can be evaluated against. This is necessary since while there is a well-documented historical concept of the Left Hand Path, the vamachara of India, the practices and philosophies that lead to aims resonant with that historical form need not adhere strictly to it nor be tied to just one specific cultural matrix.
Because it reflects the scholarly rigor of the work that presents it, I am drawing on the set of qualities of Left-Hand Path practices suggested in Lords of the Left-Hand Path by Dr. Stephen Flowers. These qualities are in two broad categories, that of deification of the Self and antinomianism.
- Deification of the Self
- Self-deification: the attainment of an enlightened (or awakened), independently existing intellect and its relative immortality
- Individualism: the englightened intellect is that of a given individual, not a collective body
- Initiation: the enlightenment and strength of essence necessary for the desired state of evolution of self are attained by means of stages created by the will of the magician, not because or she was ‘divine’ to begin with
- Magic: the practitioners of the Left-Hand Path see themselves as using their own wills in a rationally intuited system of spiritual technology designed to cause the universe around them to conform to their self-willed patterns
- Antionomianism: the practitioners think of themselves as “going against the grain” of their culturally conditioned and conventional norms of “good” and “evil”.1
Working with the runes involves the process of reconfiguration of the Self and its relationship to the world outside itself through the ‘entry points’ and structured relationships of the runes themselves. This work is thus first and foremost about self-transformation, an essential Left-Hand Path idea. The quest, guided by work with the runes to comprehend and enact their Mysteries, is an individual one; while many will reach similar understanding by virtue of being guided by the same tradition, the individual runer must find his or her own way through the darkness and by using the runes as both operative and reflective magical tools. The antinomian aspect of working with the runes stems from Western society’s growing distrust not just with traditions with deep roots in the Germanic world in general, but also acts independently by deliberately removing ourselves from the obsession with the new, the shallow and the fleeting that fuels our economy and our culture. The Quest inspired by the runes is open to all those who seek to dig beneath surface appearances and reject the mindless enthusiasm that substitutes for thought and true dedication.
Ultimately, however, the distinction between inner and outer Mysteries is an illusion. To this end, the runes are studied not only in isolation but also as parts of a whole. Certain formulas are found again and again in documented historical uses of the runes. These formulas may be words or phrases (such as ek erilaz and alu), the repetition of certain runes three times or eight times, or even non-linguistic formulas which appear as random collections of runestaves that combine the meanings and intent of several runes as part of the operative act.
The formulas themselves then become runes – that is, Mysteries that lead to greater understanding thus revealing further Mysteries – and serve as building blocks for operative acts. The Elder and Younger Futhark are each traditionally divided into three groups – the modern coinage for the name of one of these groups is ætt (Old Norse; plural ættir). Each of the ættir can be interpreted as a coherent and self-contained set of runes that encapsulate a progression and relationship of mysteries analogous to the same story communicated by the runes as a whole. The rows of the three ættir of the Elder Futhark end with a rune signifying fulfillment: wunjo (inner joy), sowilo (the visible sun that nourishes life and symbolizes the highest aspiration), and othila (homeland and sovereignty, the place where all works begin).2 The three ættir of the Elder Futhark can also be seen as respectively illuminating the path to 1) the necessary components to build the foundation of a self-sufficient, heroic existence, 2) the cosmic journey of one gaining proficiency at transcending the limitations of the inner and outer worlds, and 3) the essential elements of true sovereignty arising from a mastery of delving into the deep Mysteries of the mindfully evolving Self.
In a sense then, each ætt, plus the Futhark as a whole, become operative formulas.
Ódinn and the Runes
It is not possible to separate the study of the Runes from knowledge of their patron, Ódinn. I opened this talk with a recitation of the key section lines 138-139 of the Hávamál in the Poetic Edda that describes Óðinn’s winning of the runes. Hávamál means “sayings of the High One” (that is, Óðinn). The main surviving text of the Poetic Edda is in an Icelandic manuscript called the Codex Regius from the thirteenth century. Most of the poems in it can be dated to the early 10th or late 9th century going by linguistic features and parallels of phrasing in other reliably dated texts. This places the lore within the Poetic Edda definitively before the Christianization of Iceland (which officially began in the year 1000).
It is important to note that Óðinn does not invent the runes, he discovers them in his moment of deepest despair on the edge of the spear point that separates being from non-being. The discovery of the runes revitalizes his nearly dead form, and he immediately knows that this knowledge is worthless if he merely hordes it for himself; as he fell back to the ground of Midgard, thus ending his ordeal, he immediately begins to work to reshape the cosmos as he knows it. He does this not on whim but based on his new-found understanding and makes these tools available for use by those who aspire to the same knowledge and potency. It’s likely that the description of Óðinn’s ordeal of winning the runes reflected an initiation ritual or rite of passage associated with becoming a runemaster.
Furthermore, in line 80 of the Hávamál, the runes are called reginkunnr (“of divine origin”). But again, the runes are not revealed, but rather represent a sudden resonance of internal understanding with external realities. Mastery of the runes suggested godlike powers on the part of the individual runemaster, who then acts in the name of Óðinn himself by using the same operative technology. This particular phrase stating the runes to be “divine origin” is found in other texts going back as far as beginning of the seventh century, adding further support to the idea that this association was a long-standing one by the time of the composition of the Poetic Edda.
To be continued…