Modern Rune Magic: History

The Rune Reading That Never Was

Around fifteen years ago I was sitting in a pub at a Pagan moot. It was the final moot I would attend before moving to Korea. I’d gone there to meet up with my co-host to discuss the moot we ran together (a different moot from the one I was at), and basically do the handover of my end of things. But at one point, a woman on another table called me over to her. She’d decided I needed to have a rune reading from her, and I, several pints into the evening, decided to go along with it.

So I pick up my pint and go over to this individual’s table. Because that’s another “funny” thing about this interaction – I didn’t even know her. But she’s getting out her runes, and soon those runes also include various crystals that she arranges around the table.

“These are amplifiers,” she informs me, then pulls out some jewelry that she starts to don. Before long, she’s wearing some kind of circlet and a bracelet. “Dampeners,” she says, as though it’s the most logical thing in the world.

I give her a puzzled look and ask “Why not just get rid of the amplifiers so you wouldn’t need the dampeners?”

That earns me a look that leaves me in no doubt that she thinks I’m an idiot. I work hard to keep the growing look of amusement off my face and she continues to set up, now making all kinds of spurious claims about runic ancestral teachings as she does so. Her mother apparently was taught this at her grandmother’s knee, and then there was non sequitur about illuminated manuscripts thrown in there too.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see where this whole thing would go as my fellow moot organizer chose that moment to come find me for our meeting and I left shortly afterwards.

History vs Story

Despite having practiced runic divination for years with some startling results, I was full of skepticism for what this reader was bringing. I knew there was no historical evidence solidly linking the runes to divination and that claims of hereditary rune reading going back to the 12th century (or whenever she claimed) were bunk. But what I wasn’t paying attention to (and what I have come to realize over the years), is that it’s not the history that makes a practice useful, but our abilities to connect with and buy into the stories surrounding that practice.

And runes, with their long inclusion in fantasy and slew of occult writings, have plenty of stories to connect with and buy into as tools for magical and divinatory practice.

Now, I would probably see that reader in the pub with her amplifiers, dampeners, and spurious claims as a weaver of stories. Her stories just weren’t any I could personally buy into.

Ruining the Runes I: Guido von List

But it would be wrong to consider modern rune magic and divination to have no historical precedent whatsoever. If anything, the early history of modern rune magic can serve as a cautionary tale that we should also be careful of the stories we tell – even with modern things/old things repurposed for modern use.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the vast majority of what we

List’s Armanen runes. From: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/Armanen_Runes.JPG

consider to be modern rune magic actually comes from early 20th century ethnonationalist (or völkisch) occultists who had originally been inspired by Theosophy. For them, as members of the “Aryan root race” (a concept they drew from Theosophy), it was from the purported wisdom of Germanic ancestors that they should draw instead of India. One of the first proponents of this racial mysticism was Guido von List who claimed to have tapped into ancestral memories of the Armanen, the alleged priesthood of the “Aryans” (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp232 – 233).

Eventually, List put forth an 18 rune futhark known as the Armanen runes, to which he ascribed complex symbolism and that was contained within a Kabbalah-like system (that List would go on to falsely claim was originally of Germanic origin but preserved by Jewish Rabbis in Cologne). Despite this, List would never go on to develop a system of runic practice (outside of some lame rip off of the New Aeon English Qabalah gematria).

Ruining the Runes II: Marby and Kummer

List died in 1919, but unfortunately völkisch mysticism would stick around for a while yet. The next two people of note were followers of List: Friedrich Bernhard Marby and Siegfried Kummer. This is when we see the development of “Runic yoga” and the use of “runic mudras” as well as chanted runes as a form of “mantra”. For Kummer, who developed these chants, runes were energy fields permeating the cosmos that could be tapped into. ( (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp233-234)

Now there’s a lot we could say about the whole “chanting runes as mantras” thing. Mantras are ancient (the earliest dating back to the Vedic period) and enough common elements have been found between different Indo-European cultures that comparativism is an established methodology. But the fact of the matter is that we simply can’t make the argument the ancient Germans or Scandinavians had mantras or what they would have been. Some modern esotericists might make an argument for “ALU” based on personal gnosis, but again, that’s not something we can prove.

As it happens though, this story did not end well for either Kummer or Marby. And ironically, it was their fellow racists that took them out. Because once the Nazi Party got into power, they were all about suppressing those weird pagan and occult groups. Marby was imprisoned from 1937 to 1945 and Kummer disappeared. And in 1941, the Gestapo was ordered to take out “secret doctrines and fringe societies” (Our Troth, vol. 1, p244-245).

Which makes you wonder why any modern Heathen would ever find sympathy with racist ideologies really. And despite racist Heathen talk about the primacy of “the folk” and “no more brother wars”, comments from non-Heathen far right spaces reveal a desire to stamp out far right Heathens almost as much as anyone else. Patterns repeat, people! Mark this one well if you are “folkish”, your fellow “brothers” will take you out if they ever gain power.

Ruining the Runes III: Edred Thorsson and the Modern Movement

But unlike Kummer, the ideas about runes developed by the völkisch mystics wouldn’t disappear for long – at least not in the grand scheme of things. If the ideas surrounding runes and the practices surrounding them (such as chanting) sounded familiar to you when reading through the section on Marby and Kummer, you can largely thank Edred Thorsson for that. Because it’s from Marby and Kummer that he largely drew his material (albeit adapted to the 24 rune futhark) (Our Troth, vol. 1, p 234).

The influence of Marby, Kummer, and to a lesser extent, List’s work on modern rune magic is pervasive. Which is unsurprising given how prolific Thorsson is and how influential he has been over the years. The chances are that if you pick up a book on modern rune magic, Thorsson’s influence is present.

Uncomfortable Histories and Bad Stories

There’s no doubt that the origins story of modern rune magic is bad. Some of us might also feel that the practices initially developed by Marby, and Kummer were poisoned by the ideology of the same racist movement that would eventually turn on Marby and Kummer.

But the fact of the matter is that modern runic magic has been with us for around forty-five years now, in a religious movement that’s not really been around for a whole lot longer. In many ways, the origins story of modern rune magic parallels that of Heathenry itself in that many of the early founders of modern Heathenry were also folkish/völkisch. (Btw I really recommend you pick up Our Troth Vol. 1: Heathen History or check out the Heathen History Podcast and learn about the early history of the modern Heathen movement.)

Yet though there are some outside of Heathenry who feel that no one should be Heathen because of this history, the majority of us stick around. Why?

The same reason as always: We found something within Heathenry that made sense to us and made our souls sing (whatever a “soul” is). And as someone who has been a Heathen since roughly 1997, this is the first time I’ve seen anything approaching a coherent inclusive movement within Heathenry that is based in relationship and ideas of interconnectedness, and it is beautiful. More importantly, it has the potential for growth.

The far right may have had a heavy hand in its creation (especially in the Anglosphere), but it’s our Heathenry now. It’s what we do now that matters.

Stories for Runes

As mentioned above, I find it ironic that it was the poisonous part of Marby and Kummer’s ideas that eventually came back to bite them. I also find it meaningful and a potential lesson. Because here’s the thing about magic: It doesn’t matter how new or old it is, if you are getting results and seeing change then you are interacting with “something bigger”. And whatever that “something bigger” is, however you experience it within your paradigm, you will find out when you fuck up (and usually in a way that highlights the nature of your fuck up). So to me, the fate of Marby and Kummer suggests that their völkisch beliefs were the fuck up.

Now this is clearly only my personal gnosis. And just to be clear, the magical slap downs I’m referring to here tend to come from angered deities/spirits and/or broken oaths vs the threefold law or the pervasive (and inaccurate) Western idea of Karma.

So where do we go from here with modern rune magic (for those of us who do find value in it)?

Inclusive Runes for Inclusive Heathens

The first thing is to be aware of the origins story of modern rune magic. We cannot erase that story, but we can damn well decide where we take it from here.

And there are people out there who are creating new/old stories for the runes,

The Sacrifice of Odin by Frølich

stories that reflect their own ideas of interconnectedness and connection and who connect those ideas and their practice with mythological elements. Such as the story of a hanged god who gave all beings breath snatching up the runes from Hel. Or the Nornir who carve the ørlög of every person on slips despite having no way of knowing whether the Nornir do actually carve in runes. They’ll take inspiration from Hávamál, Sigdrífumál, and Egil’s saga for their magic. Chant “ALU” from the bracteates and derive their meanings for divination from the rune poems.

These aren’t historically accurate stories, but that doesn’t really matter. Because they’re good stories, and more importantly, they’re stories they can buy into.

Just don’t try to pass them off as something they’re not. Be clear that your practice is modern. Embrace that.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about my modern rune magic practice and how I see what I do when I am working with the runes in this way. I’m also going to talk about the ways in which I use it, and especially how useful it’s been for my daughter.

Be well everyone.

Lessons from the Winds: Óðinn and Breath

I stand on a path on a rocky moor, the clouds like steel overhead. Below me the wild, deep azure of the river cuts through the valley. It’s cold here, and noisy as I walk. I hear the rush of the water and feel the wind beating against my ears.

I follow the noise to the source – a waterfall, but it isn’t just any waterfall.

Goðafoss sits like a watery giant reclining against the hard rock face of the valley to stretch out feet into the land around. There is a sense of expansiveness, but also layers of story stored in the depths.

Þorgeir and his Cloak

One of those stories is that of the godposts of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson. Þorgeir you see, was a lawspeaker who lived around 1000 CE, a time when Christianity was putting down roots in the north. The crisis faced by the people of Iceland was one of conversion, and it had fallen to Þorgeir to decide how to proceed as he was the one person trusted by both Heathen and Christian alike.

Þorgeir’s decision was unenviable. On the one hand, there was growing pressure from Norway for the Icelanders to convert, and many Icelanders had already converted. But on the other, those who remained Heathen in Iceland wished to continue to worship the gods of their forefathers.

Now that’s a very condensed version of what was going on when Þorgeir elected to go under the cloak to see what was to be done.

Going under the cloak is one of those Heathen period magical practices that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention by modern Heathens. (There are a few Óðinn - cloakpractices like that though, if I’m being honest.)

Part of the problem is that we don’t really know a whole lot about the practice. But we can be reasonably certain that for Þorgeir, on that fateful day at Þingvellir, it was a method of seeking wisdom about a seemingly impossible situation.

And so he went under the cloak, lying as though sleeping or dead for long hours until he surfaced and made the announcement that a decision had been reached: the Icelanders were to publicly become Christians, but were able to keep their ancestral ways privately.

What’s in a Name?

It’s hard to imagine how Þorgeir must have felt after making that decision. He himself was a Heathen, and yet one of the first things he did on leaving the Allþing was to cast his godposts into the rushing depths of Goðafoss.

This is why it’s called ‘Goðafoss’; it’s the waterfall of the gods (though some say ‘goði’ as Þorgeir was a goði).

The Lone Weirdo

I’d gone to Goðafoss as part of a Land Sea Sky tour group. I was a presenter on the tour, along with the incomparable Morgan Daimler, and I’d been experimenting with a method for going under the cloak that had been yielding interesting results.
That was my plan at the waterfall of the gods, and that’s what I did.

I’m probably in the background in a bunch of tourist photos – a lone weirdo hooded and wrapped in a shawl of serpentine patterns lying down as though to take a nap.

But that’s okay, I hope they found the falls as special as I did.

Now I’m not here today to talk about the experience of going under the cloak, or how I do that. I have a description of my entire process (as well as how I came to practice in that way) in my upcoming book that’s coming out at the end of this year/early next year.

(Did I mention that yet? I don’t think I did. Btw guys, I’ve got a book coming out on Heathen magic.)

No, today I’m here to talk about what happened after I got up from the cloak and the practice I discovered from that experience. That is what I would like to share today – what I’m being nudged to share.

Óðinn Gave Breath

So I get up from the ground and dust myself off. But suddenly, I become aware of the sound of heavy wing beats even above the din of the waters. I feel them in my heart even, and search them out with my eyes.

Two ravens fly the breadth of the waterfall and come up the opposite side of the river to draw level with me.

Time slows, becomes weighty with presence and I know that I’m being shown something.

I feel my breath mingle with the wind – with Óðinn, the god who first gave breath-soul to humans. For a long moment there is a communion of sorts. But this isn’t just a connection with a god. He’s there too but it’s bigger than that. Instead it’s like my sense of self falls away, expanding to include the world and people around me, and it’s wonderful. A true place of potential.

Connecting With Óðinn Through Breath

Think about every breath you take. From the beginning of life when a baby takes that first breath before releasing a scream into the world, to the end when those borrowed breaths are finally released back to the winds, breath is our constant companion. This is life, death, interconnectedness, and the mother of spoken sounds.

Some say the Old English Rune Poem credits the Old Man as the source of all speech. I think in a sense he is.

This is how I like to check in with Óðinn, and I think some of you might like it too.

The best place to do this is outside, preferably in a high place where the winds blow wild. Those have always been the places where I’ve felt his presence the strongest.

For a Heathen, relationships are built with gifting, so bring a gift with you (wine is good). Prayers don’t hurt either. Then simply sit and focus on your breath.

This works best when you can forget about all the things that keep you separate and different from the rest of the world. Óðinn is a mutable god. He is a god of masks and becoming other people as needed. Hell, even his name refers to temporary states of being! It’s a lot easier if you try to become mutable too.

You won’t always experience his presence when you do this. But there are worse ways to spend a morning or evening than exploring the interconnectedness of breath and wind on a hill somewhere so it’s no loss.

Just be sure to dress for the weather.

And that’s it.

Happy Wednesday, all!

The Gold in Heathenry

heart - gold

I haven’t had the chance to blog for a while. I was going to do a whole Q&A about the dead and ancestor veneration. But sometimes, a topic comes up that is just so front and center in the old noggin that you just can’t ignore it.

I’d like to talk (rant?) today about Heathenry. Or rather the bullshit that drags Heathenry down and sullies its gold.

I’ve been a Heathen for a long time. Honestly, I’ve been Heathen longer than some of you good folks have been alive. I’m married to a Heathen too, and magical adventures aside, our collective hearth cult is predominantly Heathen.

For me, Heathenry is, as my friend Andrea would say, “a heritage of gold”. The stories you find in the Old Norse and Germanic sources hold true beauty and wisdom if you have eyes to see it.

But the problem is, not everyone has eyes to see that gold, and all too often, those stories become tainted by the toxic filters we ourselves can bring to those texts.

The Eyes and Hearts We Bring to Myth

In many ways, these stories can be like a Rorschach test that reveals the inner insecurities and fears of a person. This is what is really at the root of the incessant fapping off over Vikings, and toxic ideas about tribe and ancestry. The people who fall into these traps want to feel anything but what they actually feel. They don’t want to feel all those insecurities and fears, and so they try to mask it with what they perceive as “strength”. This is the core of what is at stake for a fascist. This is why they fight so hard against anything resembling sense.

In doing this though, they only achieve the opposite. It’s no kind of strength to run or hide from one’s feelings, or to hate people who look different to you. Hate isn’t strength. The ‘separate but equal’ nonsense that’s often dressed up as ‘I just want to be with “my folk” (but don’t really hate others)’ isn’t strength either. ( Hot tip: If that’s an explanation you’re going with, you’re just in the phase where you’re still trying to find “polite” ways of saying “POC scare me and/or give me an inferiority complex”.)

Whereas my Heathenry is expansive and wondrous, theirs is reductive and cuts out anything that discomforts them. Where they only see trees in tree - goldisolation, mine sees each tree as it is: connected through roots and mycorrhizal fungi to other trees. Trees that have been found to provide mutual aid to each other regardless of tree ‘type’.

In Völuspá, the story goes that people come from trees. This isn’t scientifically true but we could learn a lot from trees all the same.

Just don’t try to give me that tired old adage about how ‘a tree without roots will fall’, and act like it somehow sensibly explains the obsession with DNA and skin color. Because the Hávámál the far right Heathens like to quote so much says nothing about tree roots and ancestors.

You know what it does talk about though? Having people who love you:

The withered fir-tree which stands on the mound,
neither bark nor needles protect it;
so it is with the man whom no one loves’
why should he live for long?
Hávámál 50, Larrington trans.

Without love, every person falls.

The Groaning Tree

Yggdrasil shudders, the tree standing upright,
the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose.
Völuspá 47, Larrington trans.

In all honesty, I’m tired of trying to keep the gold clean, but it’s important to keep trying all the same. This is a sacred duty, and for too long we Heathens have allowed the ill to define us. Worse still, when we form communities, we often do so by defining what we are not as opposed to what we are, and in this way they shape us too. I don’t know that this is the same in other parts of the world, but this has very much been my experience in the US Heathen scene.

However in my opinion, this is entirely the wrong way to build community and/or counter the far right elements in our faith.

We need to begin by naming these people for what they are.

These are not people who are hale and whole. They’re damaged and broken on the inside. They are not inheritors of that gold, and no amount of DNA-testing, ‘pure-blood’ anything will make them so.

the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose

giant - goldThe word Jötunn is thought to come from the Proto-Germanic *etunaz, which is in turn thought to be semantically connected to the Proto-Germanic *etanan, or ‘greedy’, ‘voracious’, ‘gluttonous’, ‘consuming’. Although the above snippet from Völuspá pertains to Ragnarök, it is also relevant here.

Fascism is inherently greedy. It always requires an ‘other’ to sacrifice, then turns on people in the in-group who are not quite “in” enough to appease that greed. It is an evil Thurs, a ravenous spirit, and those in its thrall are equally ravenous.

This is how we should be naming this evil. They are, or are possessed of greedy, greedy, spirits who will never be sated and who can only be driven out.

Jotnar.

Þursar.

‘Þurs of wound-fever, lord of the Þursar! Flee now! (You) are found. Have for
yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf!
III ice (runes). These ice (runes) may grant that you be satisfied (?), wolf.
Make good use of
the healing-charms!’

Runic healing charm from Sigtuna, Sweden.
‘Runic Amulets and Magical Objects’ by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees

Have for yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf!
These ice runes may grant that you be satisfied, wolf!

It’s not often we get usable models. We should probably take advantage of them when we do.

The Stone Turns at the Command of an Unjust King

There’s a story in the Poetic Edda that I’ve found myself thinking about quite a lot recently. It’s called ‘The Song of Grotti’, and in it a king takes two female slaves and puts them to work endlessly at a magical millstone, forcing them to grind out endless wealth with little thought for their welfare or basic needs. He is beyond all shadow of a doubt, an unjust king.

We too live in an unjust society in which workers are increasingly expected to millstone - goldproduce with little concession to human wants or needs. Productivity and profit have become king now, and people work like cattle but then struggle to survive regardless of their labor.

This is exactly the kind of environment that produces fascists. With the help of some already extant racial biases, it produced fascists in the 30s, and is producing them now.

Wealth let’s grind for Frodi, grind out happiness,
grind many possessions on the wonderful stone!
Let him sit on his wealth, let him sleep on a quilt,
let him wake to happiness! That is well ground out.

At first, the women sang their songs and ground out wealth for Frodi. But again and again he denied them pleasure, rest, and warmth. Over time, the women became angry, remembered their mighty deeds before being forced to Frodi’s hall.

Now we have come to the dwellings of the king
without mercy, and live as slaves,
mud eats away at our feet, the rest of us is chilled through,
we drag the calmer of strife; it’s dull at Frodi’s house.

But what do you think they did next?

Did one blame the other for the king’s greed and lack of compassion? This is essentially the option offered by fascism and does nothing to address the underlying issues that make people so miserable in the first place.

No. The women worked together and turned the magic millstone against Frodi, churning out woeful fate for the unjust king. (The Marxists among you will laugh at how they seized the means of production in this tale.)

Hands shall grip the hard shafts,
the bloodstained weapons, wake up, Frodi!
Wake up, Frodi, if you want to hear
our songs and ancient tales.

I see fire burning east of the city,
warfare awakened, that must be a beacon;
an army is coming here very shortly,
it will burn the settlement despite the prince.

You shan’t hold onto the throne of Lejre,
the red-gold rings, nor this magic grindstone.
Let’s seize the handle, girl, turn more swiftly!
We are not yet warmed by the blood of slaughtered men.

By the end of the tale, the king is dead and millstone destroyed. The women are now free from their endless labor

There are lessons to be learned here too, but it is the central lesson you find over and over again in these texts (along with punishments for bad or violated hospitality): stick together, work together, fight together.

And that for me is what Heathenry is about. It is a religion of relationship and relationality with human and otherworldly people alike. Of gifting and story. Of rainbow bridges made of fire, and a shared world alive around us. It’s a religion of magic too. In which people may send parts of themselves forth, speak prophecy, ensnare and bind, and break weapons with charms.

It’s a religion of beauty, the most precious of gold, and I’m asking you to help me keep that gold clean.

heart - gold