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Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland – Mathias Nordvig

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Categories: folk, germanic, Tags:

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology coverThis book from Mathias Nordvig provides a full exploration of an idea he first presented in 2014 as a PhD dissertation called Of Fire and Water. The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an Eco- Mythological Perspective, and which he has subsequently promoted in smaller essays, including one in the recently reviewed Handbook of Old Norse Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches from de Gruyter. As the title suggests, the focus here is on volcanism, and in particular the intersection between its physical presence in the landscape of Iceland and the topography of Norse mythology. Nordvig’s argument is that volcanoes and their effects had an outsize influence of the imagery found in the eddas and skaldic poetry, with the latter being used by Scandinavian migrants to medieval Iceland in order to understand and negotiate the unfamiliar geological hazards of the island. With the post-conversion growth of writing, and all the editing that is intrinsic to it, this world-view became codified in myth. In this way, Nordvig argues that Norse mythology is an indigenous expression of life in Iceland which has been emplaced in a Latinate script-world.

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology is significantly shorter than its dissertation forerunner, being largely divested of the academic necessities of the latter, such as literature reviews and overly-long explanations of theoretical frameworks and methods, but it does not come across as simply a reworking of the latter for a wider audience. Instead, while the ideas are the same, they provide the only through-line between the two works, with a sense of this book being built from scratch, rather than a mere editing down of a thesis with some finessing for publication.

Following a brief introduction, Nordvig begins with Old Norse Mythology Between Environment and Literature, in which he argues that Old Norse mythology is social memory that has direct reference to the world surrounding the texts, drawing comparisons from other cultures around the world in which a people’s myths, legends, and folktales can be instructive for understanding the environment in which they live. A large part of this chapter does not relate directly to the volcano theory and instead is an engaging discussion of concepts of memory and place both in Old Norse society and elsewhere. Key to this approach is Elizabeth W. Barber and Paul T. Barber’s book When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, which Nordvig references extensively as his ideas mirror their approach to interpreting environment as a mytho-linguistic practice. The Barbers define four principles in this practice: silence (things that everyone takes as read), analogy (if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be related), compression (once a theme achieves sufficient mass, it attracts more stories to it), and restructuring (significant cultural change means that some patterns in the theme will be restructured or reinterpreted, leading eventually to obfuscation). This, then, is effectively, Nordvig’s summary of his methods, though he is not entirely beholden to the Barbers’ model, stating that unlike them, he does not intend to define environmental factors as etiological reasons for mythogenesis, critiquing them for painting with broad strokes and attaching geologic meaning to myth where it is not warranted, Nordvig promises to avoid similar post hoc fallacies, saying that he will not claim that all aspects of Old Norse mythology are associated with environmental conditions.

Nordvig then presents his indigenous theory of volcanism in Iceland, using the poem Hallmundarkviða from the story Bergbúa Þáttr as his central and foundational piece of evidence. It’s pretty convincing too, with the poem describing an event in a cave where the arrival of a giant appears to be an anthropomorphised depiction of a volcanic event in which stones fly, dark flames drive and spit, embers shoot, raging streams rush in heavy rubble, and strange new clay flows from the ground. Even without any exegesis from Nordvig, it’s clear to see how this igneous imagery fits his thesis, but he does expertly consolidate this conclusion, drawing upon the concept of geomythology to create parallels with indigenous theories of volcanism from Hawai’i, Aotearoa, Indonesia, North America, and the European and African continents. While Elizabeth and Paul Barber’s book was pivotal to the first chapter, it is Dorothy B. Vitaliano’s Legends of the Earth that naturally assumes that role here, with her coining the phrase geomythology and defining it as the geologic application of euhemerism. Vitaliano argues that etiological folklore has given rise to stories about geological phenomena and her considerable focus on volcanism provides mythological context to volcanic phenomena in Polynesian myth and elsewhere that finds comparisons in Old Norse mythology. Of particular interest are the shared motifs attached to volcanism, with themes of taboo, supernatural anger, and most intriguing of all, ghostly ships, occurring in myths from across the world. It is at this point that Nordvig turns to Hallmundarkviða, showing many of the same themes within that Icelandic poem.

In the third chapter, Nordvig gets to the titular application of his theory, looking for further depictions of volcanism in the broader vistas of Old Norse cosmogony. This pyroclastic evidence is often veiled with the poetic language of myth in which, following the Barbers’ approach,  analogies occur between lava, ash, glacial bursts, ice, water, poison, snow, and sand. Nordvig’s focus in this chapter is entirely on the Old Norse creation myth, arguing by way of the use of these poetic analogies that the streams of ice and eitr in the myth refer not to anything icy but to streams of lava and other results of volcanic activity. But what is presented here never seems to be quite as convincing as the anthropomorphism found in Hallmundarkviða.

In the fourth chapter, Nordvig explores his thesis in terms of what he defines as the social order of Old Norse mythology, applying it to significant mythological events, most notably the story of the mead of poetry, which is dissected exhaustively, as well as Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. In the concluding fifth chapter, Nordvig effectively provides a summation of what he has covered before, underscoring his idea of volcanoes as a cosmological principle in Old Norse mythology and in the societies in which it informed their world view.

The examples that Nordvig uses to validate his volcano theory vary in how convincing they are, often coming across as circumstantial and tenuous in their use of allegory. Nordvig attempts to pre-empt this criticism by defining his theory as specifically not a nature mythology, be it in the vein of the nineteenth century natural allegory model or its contemporary incarnation as geomythology. Instead, Nordvig argues that his analogical descriptions are valid because multiple factors occur simultaneously. What constitutes a convincing factor is open to interpretation, and fundamentally, everything that is presented still feels like nothing more than a reiteration of myth as natural allegory, with so thorough a descent into the theory that almost anything in myth can be related to volcanic imagery, even when there’s little to no hint of it. Thus, any description of dwarves groaning becomes the sound of subterranean rumblings, and anything that lives in a mountain or in the underworld must somehow be related to volcanic phenomenon. Some of the examples are more convincing than others because they draw on chthonic and alpen imagery, such as the mead of poetry myth in which Óðinn enters the mountain home of the giant Suttungr and his daughter Gunnloð. In this instance, the mead that Óðinn steals as he bursts forth from Hnitbjörg is imagined as a flow of lava, which is a pleasant enough conclusion, albeit one that still feels circumstantial.

At the same time, though, a significant amount of time is also spent here discussing Hrungnir, a rock giant without so much as a sulphurous whiff of a lava flow about him. The reaching to find any correlation becomes exasperating when surely the creators of the myth could have just imagined a cool looking rock giant, because giants and rocks are cool; and it’s handy to have an imagination that can create imagery ex nihilo when your job is being a storyteller. It’s not even about whether Hrungnir could symbolise a volcano, which could be the case if the imagery at least fitted, but rather the insistence that someone looked at a volcano and imagined it as a giant; and not only that, but looked at a volcano and imagined its attributes as the explanation for almost anything else in myth. Suffice to say, it’s a case of an interesting theory that works in some instances but is then enthusiastically and injudiciously applied in an overreaching scattergun effect, much like earlier nature allegories in which everything was theorised to be a sun god or a harvest myth. This reaching for connections can get to ridiculous levels, such as when it is argued that the admittedly puzzling interpretation of Gunnloð’s name as ‘invitation to battle’ fits with “the conceptualization of volcanic activities as violent,” when maybe battle just means battle, as it does every other time a battle is a battle. It seems unlikely anyone has ever looked at a volcanic eruption and gone “Cor, you see that, it looks just like a battle, what with all the flaming ejecta and lava, and a distinct lack of swords. Imagine being invited to that.”

The other problem with the idea of multiple factors occurring simultaneously in order to confirm the volcano theory is when multiple other environmental factors occur but which don’t seem to have had any effect on the myth. Thus, while its superficially appealing to imagine a ruddy flow of lava emerging from the earth as the mead of inspiration, that’s pretty much where the analogy ends. There’s nothing in myth about the mead searing someone’s throat when they recklessly swallowed it, or it hardening into igneous rock in someone’s stomach, or indeed being deadly and very burny for entire villages.

None of this is too say that there isn’t anything to recommend about Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland. Nordvig writes with an enjoyable and knowledgeable style and he by no means skimps on the evidence when making his arguments. Indeed, the thoroughness of it all is what contributes to the feeling of confirmation bias as it use of allegoric minutiae shores itself up in a way that prevents you from seeing, if you will pardon the inversion, the trees for the wood (or their volcanic equivalent). Even if one finds, as this reviewer obviously does, that the volcanic theory is applied to easily and too thickly, Nordvig’s analysis of the myths themselves is worth the price of entry, as he draws widely from Norse scholarship to present a comprehensive consideration of his sources, and in particular, the creation myth, the mead of poetry myth, and the Hallmundarkviða poem.

Published by Arc Humanities Press

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Echoes of Valhalla – Jon Karl Helgason

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Categories: art, germanic

Echoes of Valhalla coverSubtitled The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas, Jon Karl Helgason’s Echoes of Valhalla has the dubious distinction of being the first book to be reviewed at Scriptus Recensera in which the opening paragraph references the dire and perpetually unfunny 1990s sitcom Friends. Helgason uses the show’s passing reference to a peripheral character who is nicknamed Gandalf as an example of how something with roots 1000 years ago could so suffuse popular culture that it now exists independently of its origins. In this instance, the name Gandalf can be traced back to the list of dwarf names found in the Old Norse poem Völuspá, where it sits alongside the names of twelve of the thirteen dwarves that join Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins on their adventure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Whether it is from reading Tolkien’s works, seeing the film adaptions of Ralph Bakshi or Peter Jackson, or even encountering the characters in the Lego video game versions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, most people, even those versed in skaldic poetry and the Eddas, will inevitably think of some incarnation of Gandalf the wizard when encountering that name, rather than one of several primordial dwarves. This is exemplary of what Helgason finds fascinating, that texts written centuries ago in the isolated rural areas of his native Iceland have become part of “our (almost) universal cultural memory” and have seen reproduction in comics, plays, travelogues, music and film.

Given this evident fascination, what is presented here is not a pedantic discussion of how pop culture interpretations of Norse mythology differ from the source material. Instead, Helgason views these modern retellings as a continuation of a metafictional tendency in the treatment of Norse myth that dates back to at least Snorra Edda in which Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of the story of Óðinn’s theft of the mead of poetry allows us to read fiction about the origin of fiction, and its constant ingestion. Just as Óðinn ingests the mead of poetry, so, Helgason argues, Snorri and other post-conversion poets used an inventive ‘digestion’ of earlier texts to create mnemonic devices to better understand both the past and the art of poetry itself.

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The first focus of this digestion is Þórr who finds his most obvious, though by no means only, comic representation in Marvel’s Mighty Thor, “the most exciting superhero of all time” as the cover of his debut in Journey into Mystery #83 injudiciously proclaims with two exclamation marks. Helgason shows how from the outset, this Thor had little reliance on his mythic predecessor, with a far great influence being found in similar figures in previous comics, all of which follow a familiar pattern. Indeed, the ur-text for Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby were not the Eddas or skaldic poetry, but rather the very comics in which they were immersed, with a number of precedents for the idea of the Norse thunder god transplanted into the modern world, including some in which a human awakens, or becomes the embodiment of Þórr. Kirby had a hand in several of these, including a story in #75 of DC’s Adventure Comics (in which the villain Fairy Tales Fenton masquerades as a magical hammer-wielding Þórr to rob banks), and an issue of Tales of the Unexpected from 1957 in which a gold-digger discovers Þórr’s hammer and considers robbing banks with it, before its owner turns up and claims it back.

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In the second chapter, Helgason takes a significant chronological leap backwards and returns to Snorri’s own treatment of this topos, considering in-depth the ambiguity surrounding his role as author. Helgason mentions how Snorri is rarely physically credited as the author on many of the works he came to be associated with, and highlights his role as a compiler, and therefore as someone who is but one link, albeit a significant one, in a chain that extends from the uncredited skalds to modern comic book writers (a class also historically subjected to working anonymous and receiving insufficient credit).

Focus then turns to the stage, beginning with a consideration of Henrik Ibsen’s 1857 play Hærmændene paa Helgeland, set during the post-conversion time of Erik Blood-axe, with Helgason noting the through-line between its heroine Hjørdis and another of Ibsen’s characters, the titular Hedda Gabler, whom he would immortalise decades later in 1890. In slightly less detail, Helgason also looks at the relevant works of Gordon Bottomley (The Riding to Lithend) and Thit Jensen (Nial den Vise), before moving on to the fourth chapter with its discussion of travel writers, in which their explorations of Iceland more often than not went hand in hand with a fascination with the sagas, their characters and locations.

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With the fifth chapter and its consideration of music, Helgason begins with references to Led Zeppelin, attempting to position them as a link between two diverse musical examples of the afterlife of the eddas: Norse-inspired classical music as typified by Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and contemporary Viking metal. Helgason centres this discussion on the motif of Valhalla, showing how the perhaps overstated idea of a glorious death and equally glorious afterlife has held a particular and enduring attraction for musicians, often becoming shorthand for conceptions of Norse mythology in its entirety. Unfortunately, just as such an idea limits the complexity of myth, so applying that model to analysing an art form simplifies its assessment and as a result, this is a relatively brief survey of Viking metal. There’s no real noting of the history, no mention of offshoots like the Norse ritual music of Wardruna and their imitators, and only a few bands are mentioned by name, with one of these being a little known power metal band from Mexico, Mighty Thor, whose outsize presence is cemented by them being the only band represented here in photos, twice (one a frankly ridiculous promo photo and the other a tiny, practically pointless album sleeve). While a comprehensive history of the genre isn’t to be expected, the level of detail seems slight when compared to how the previous chapters have addressed their respective subject matter, and there is much more than could have been worth discussing in a deeper dive.

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Finally, Helgason turns to cinema, once again beginning with a quirky reference, in this instance to the Monty Python-aligned film Erik the Viking, before taking a deep dive into Viking-themed films, the most notable of which went with the stunningly imaginative title The Vikings. There’s Roy William Neill’s so-named silent film from 1928, and Richard Fleischer’s sword-n-sandals-era The Vikings from 1958. Although the latter could be said to paint an implausible image of Norse Vikings, Helgason returns to his central premise, wryly noting that the same could be equally true of the sagas and eddas themselves.

In all, this is an enjoyable read, with Helgason having an amiable style and clear narrative voice. Not all sections will necessarily appeal to everyone, with, for exampl, drama and travelogues being somewhat obviously of little interest to this reviewer with her scant summary thereof. Echoes of Valhalla runs to 240 pages and is bound in red with grey endpapers, all wrapped in a nice glossy dust jacket.

Published by Reaktion Books

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Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches Volume 1 and 2 – Edited by Jürg Glauser, Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell

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Categories: germanic, Tags:

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies coverDivided into two volumes of a combined page count of well over 1000 pages, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies is a significant work, with the weighty tome of the first volume running to a cumbersome and intimidating 940 pages, while the second volume closes out this slightly misnamed ‘handbook’ with a considerably more manageable 214 pages. With entries documenting the work-to-date in the application of Memory Studies to what is rather broadly defined as the pre-modern Nordic world, this somewhat humbly titled handbook features approximately eighty contributors, some of whom have multiple entries, with many familiar names including Stephen A, Mitchell, John Lindow, Carolyne Larrington, Gísli Sigurðsson, Rudolf Simek, Terry Gunnell, Else Mundal, Terje Gansum, Thomas A. Dubois, Margaret Clunies Ross and Anne-Sofie Gräslund. While the focus is specifically on the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, as well both earlier and later periods, the net is also cast wider into neighbouring areas, such as in Sarah Künzler’s Celtic Studies and Antonina Harbus’ Anglo-Saxon Studies. There is also a significant section considering reflections on the Nordic past from different national perspectives beyond Scandinavia including North America (Birgitta Wallace, Stephen A. Mitchell and Henrik Williams), Britain and the Northern Isles (Joseph Falaky Nagy, Richard Cole and Mitchell again), as well as perspectives French (Pierre-Brice Stahl), German (Roland Scheel), Polish (Jakub Morawiec) and Russian (Ulrich Schmid and Barbora Davidková).

It would be impossible to discuss every entry lest this review run to the page-count of even the relatively humble second volume, but highlights are worth mentioning and the sections into which the books have been divided show the depth and breadth of what is considered here. Contributions are grouped into three parts, Part I: Disciplines, Traditions and Perspectives and Part II: Case Studies, with subcategories beneath each of these, while the standalone second volume consists of Part III: Text and Images.

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In Part I, the discussions of disciplinary approaches to memory studies all follow a similar structure, intended to make the book unified and as pleasant to read as possible, beginning with a definition of the discipline and its intersection with memory studies, a survey of the current scholarship, a short exemplary study that demonstrates how memory studies can be applied to the field, a discussion of future directions more memory studies in that field, and finally a bibliography. These thirty entry are grouped into more precise categories beginning with Culture and Communication and flowing into sections on material culture, philology, aesthetics and communication, constructing the past, neighbouring disciplines and in-dialogue. Within this framework are a variety of considerations with notable examples being rhetoric and literary studies (Jürg Glauser), mythology (Pernille Hermann), the archaeology of mortuary architecture (Anders Andrén), performance (Terry Gunnell), folklore and orality (Stephen A. Mitchell), law (Stefan Brink), history (Bjørn Bandlien), popular culture (Jon Karl Helgason), and Kate Heslop’s Media Studies, in which she discusses the various media for communication of memory: stone, the body, wax and codex.

By their nature, these chapters are brief, not providing much to sink one’s teeth into, and instead the focus is a technical one, largely concerned with the study of studying, the teaching of teaching. That isn’t to say that the case studies included here are perfunctory, and of no wider interest, just that due to the format, they do have their limits. It is in the book’s second part that more in-depth considerations are presented as standalone investigations of these themes, though once again they aren’t as long as they might be in a different title.

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Part II consists entirely of these case studies and they are intended to compliment and expand on the disciplinary-organised entries presented in the first section. There are seventy chapters in all, considering various memory-related texts, objects, practices, sites and other aspects of Viking and Medieval traditions, each presented as a self-contained two-part examination in which the specific theme is introduced, and then explored in a source-focused case study.

These studies are grouped under the broad categories of Media, Space, Action, and Power, with each having further subcategories for more specificity. The section of essays grouped under the heading of Media follow the approach established in Part I by Kate Heslop, and explore various medium that are further categorised under the subheadings of mediality, visual modes and narrating the past. Of these, some of the most interesting are Sarah Künzler’s discussion of skin, Karoline Kjesrud’s survey of Marian sculptures (whose ritual and devotional function placed them in a continuously dialogic relation with the past), Anne-Sofie Gräslund’s exploration of ornamentation in Scandinavian art, and Stephen A. Mitchell’s essay on perhaps the most obvious Nordic symbol of memory, Óðinn’s twin ravens Huginn and Muninn.

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Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire makes an obvious appearance amongst some of the contributions, though not as prominently as one might expect, particularly under the rubric of Space, which is delineated into two sub categories of nature and landscape. Lisa Bennett, for example, focuses on the depiction of burial mounds in Íslendingasögur, considering their mnemonic role in the landscape as both memorialising and commemorative, as well as the later cultural attitudes towards them as seen in their representations by the authors of the saga. Similar themes of mnemonic space are covered in contributions from Anni-Mari Hållans Stenholm in Landscapes and Mounds and Pernille Hermann in Memorial Landscapes, with the former discussing the role of the burial mound as the ultimate monument of memory, while the latter has a more specific focus in the Glavendrup rune stone. Another consideration of land as memory is from Mathias Nordvig who is very much in his wheelhouse when arguing, as he has done elsewhere, that a wide range of Nordic mythic imagery, particularly of the apocalyptic variety, is a memory of volcanic activity. As ever, though, Nordvig’s use of the natural allegory model is rather unrestrained in its application, with the result being that practically anything can be said to allude to volcanism.

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies spreadThe essays grouped under the heading of Action have a focus on the crafting of memory, of performance and ritualised behaviour, and are further categorised by the subheadings of Using Specialist Knowledge and Performing Commemoration. The consideration of specialist knowledge begins with poetry, first in Russell Poole’s discussion of skalds as holders of cultural memory, highlighting their use of verse-forms such as dróttkvætt as a potential aid to their prodigious memory skills. Bergsveinn Birgisson also mentions the mnemonic properties of dróttkvætt but turns his focus to another area of Norse poetry, kennings, which, with their often bizarre visual imagery and use of contrast-tension, could have had a comparable function to the classical techniques of ars memoriae. Mnemonic devices are also of concern to Pernille Hermann in another entry here, while Gísli Sigurðsson looks at landscape as a memory tool in the form of mental maps, and Stephen Mitchell considers the role of memory in the use and transmission of charms in folk medicine. When the focus of Action turns to the theme of performative commemoration, these find form in discussions of ritual (Terry Gunnell), memorial poems and eulogies (Joseph Harris), memorial toasts (Lars Lönnroth), Faroese chain dancing (Tóta Árnadóttir), while Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir has two contributions, one on the role of women in remembrance practices, and another on post-conversion donation culture. The one outlier here is another piece by Mathias Nordvig but with a modern focus, discussing the use of the figure of the Viking as a racial patriarch in the contemporary identitarian Asatru of two groups, the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Wolves of Vinland.

The final grouping of essays considers memory through power under the three further classifications of Designing Beginnings, National Memories, and Envisioning the Northern Past, providing insight, as the headings suggest, into how memory has a foundational capability that can be used to define imagined communities and societies. Of these, highlights are those discussing national perspectives on the Nordic past, with various authors showing how that mythic strata was used in crafting the identity of different Scandinavian nations. Both Pernille Hermann and Sophie Bønding look at things from a Danish perspective, Malan Marnersdóttir discusses the impact of Færeyinga Saga on Faroese identity, while Norway is covered separately by Terje Gansum and Jon Gunnar Jørgensen, and Sweden by both Stephen Mitchell and Anna Wallette, with the latter focusing on the role of Olaus Rudbeck and his unashamedly suecophilic book Atlantica.

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The separate second volume of Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies takes a different approach to the consideration of memory with Part III: Text and Images beginning not with essays but with source texts, and thereby giving the reader, be they experienced or lay, the opportunity to see for themselves how concerns of memory are dealt with in this corpus of pre-Modern Nordic material. With content both mystical and prosaic, stretching from Völuspá to a lost land deed from 1420-1474’s Stockholm Land Registry, as well as the inscriptions of runestones, each entry is presented with an often slight introductory comment, data on the text’s name, source and translation, and then the excerpt itself in its original language followed by an English translation. As the introduction from editors Glauser, Hermann and Mitchell presents it, these excerpts give the reader a direct experience with the Old Norse concepts of minni, free of any editorialising. The latter half of Volume 2 reflects the visual component alluded to in the Text and Images title, with a collection of colour plates, twenty-six in all, featuring images referenced in Volume 1’s previous first and second parts. It’s a valuable and ultimately logical adjunct, given the page count of the first volume but something of a pain if you’re reading the essays and need to keep this second book on hand too in order to check any visual references.

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Despite its intimidating length, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies can feel like an easy read, with most contributions never going beyond ten pages, and usually coming in at far less, meaning that if something doesn’t grab your attention, it doesn’t take long to breeze through it and move on to the next one. With the cast of recognisable names from Nordic academic, there’s a quality and expertise to the writing, making both volumes a worthy, if heavy, addition to one’s library.

Published by De Gruyter

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The Magic of the Runes: Their Origins and Occult Power – Michael Howard

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Categories: germanic, runes

The Magic of the Runes coverAfter it was savaged by Stephen Flowers in his recently-reviewed Revival of the Runes, your humble editor inevitably had to see whether it deserved such ire and retrieved this small book from some of the mustier shelves of the Scriptus Recensera. Published in 1980, The Magic of the Runes was one of Howard’s earliest books, emerging in the wake of his debut, Candle Burning: Its Occult Significance which he had written five years prior for Thorsons (that’s the publisher later bought by HarperCollins, not the pen name of Stephen Flowers). In 1980, Thorsons, via their imprint Aquarian Press, reissued Candle Burning and also published The Magic of the Runes, with both books sharing a similar design in which an identically formatted serif title sits atop lovely painted images. Both cover images, sadly uncredited, feel like major selling points for these titles, with a bright colour palette and surreal styling that evokes 1970s progressive rock album art, in particular the luminous gradients and impossible landscapes of Roger Dean who created the iconic cover art for the band Yes. In the case of The Magic of the Runes, an eagle, its wings spread, sits atop a runestone that with its dramatic shadows seems almost monolithic in scale, like a cosmic mountain, while at its base a serpent rises amongst leaves upon which lie gorgeously rendered drops of dew. The runestone faithfully bears the runes that are discussed within these pages, and therein lies the problem, and the source of Flowers’ ire.

In 1980, knowledge of the runes within the esoteric milieu was in a nascent state, with both Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes and Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland’s previously-reviewed Rune Games still two years away from being published, while Flower’s Futhark would not be released by Weiser until a further two years after them. Runic scholarship, such as it was, was still limited to the academy, and as a result, Howard did not have a lot to work with when he came to consider the subject in terms of references. It is not clear whether he consulted Ralph Elliott’s 1959 Runes: An Introduction, or R. I. Page’s An Introduction to English Runes from 1973. They’re certainly not referenced here, but then again, barely anything is.

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The Magic of the Runes was, surprisingly, not Howard’s first foray into runes, having published the equally slight 95-page volume The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets via both Thorsons and Weiser in 1978. Although Howard makes reference to that book here as a previous, standalone work, there are elements that make The Magic of the Runes feel like it may have been an updating of parts of its predecessor, with the two books sharing some identical chapter headings (The Origins of the Runes and The Runemasters) as well as the text hitting many of the same beats. There’s also the inclusion of at least one of the ‘other magical alphabets’ alluded to in the earlier title, with The Magic of the Runes concluding with a brief and somewhat superfluous chapter on Ogham.

Howard begins with a chapter whose title claims to be about the origin of the runes, but there’s very little philology here and instead this is more focused on the idea of Óðinn as the discoverer of the runes. From this basis comes a broader consideration of the cult of Óðinn and its potential analogies with shamanism, all painted with rather large strokes and infused with ideas heavily drawn from Manly Palmer Hall’s vision of a somewhat, if not entirely, theoretical Odinic Mysteries.

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It is in the second chapter that Howard turns to the runes themselves and this is where things get weird. Here, Howard talks about how in his previous The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets he had ‘rationalised’ the characters from various runic scripts into a single variant of the Germanic futhark, and that in order to avoid confusing the reader, that’s the version he sets out to use here. The care for the reader is a little misplaced, though, because the futhark he presents is, well, yes, confusing.

The runes are introduced in a double line block, with their Latin equivalent below each row, but for anyone with even just a passing familiarity with the runes, this must look a little off. While some of the characters are in the shape of conventional runes, others appear to have been taken from various Etruscan alphabets and other Old Italic scripts. Similarly, the attribution of Latin counterparts to these runes is all over the place, such as when a triple cross bar Hagalaz is transliterated to ‘n’, while something resembling Fehu is meant to be ‘w.’ It’s the runes themselves that suffer the worst, though, with the actual Fehu looking like a conventional capital Latin ‘F,’ or the equivalent of Uruz that seems to be a wonky capital ‘A,’ or the Raidho that looks nothing like an ‘R’ and instead is a triangular ‘D’. It’s unclear where some of these choices come from, whether it was simply poor research or an inattentive graphic designer who didn’t think the shape of these squiggles really mattered. Other character errors can be given a source, although it’s still baffling as to how they occurred, such as the rune given for ‘M’ which looks like a Latin ‘M’ but with one elongated stem. This glyph can be traced to the letter’s equivalent in various Etruscan scripts including Venetic, Camunic, Lepontic, all of which were derived from the Euboean version of the Greek alphabet, in which the same glyph occurs, as it does in many other archaic regional variations of the Greek alphabet, as well as in their ultimate root, Phoenician, where it is the letter mem. Something similar is true of the triangular D that is intended to be the equivalent of ‘R’ as this same attribution also occurs in Camunic, while the glyph is seen in Phoenician too, though there, just to be difficult, it’s the letter daleth, the equivalent of the Latin ‘D.’ Perhaps the most confusing of these misplaced letters is the equivalent of Þ which just looks like someone got carried away whilst drawing a ‘B’ and added too many bowls, if you’ll forgive the typographic nomenclature.

The result flies in the face of Howard’s description of this set as a rationalised Germanic futhark, having as much in common with Greek and Phoenician as it does with anything Germanic, and being, for that matter, not all that rational. What makes this rationalised futhark all the more puzzling is that Howard immediately follows its introduction with what is now a very standard format for rune books in which the glyph of a rune is shown, its name is given, and then a little paragraph or so of meaning and context is provided. But the runes here are different from the rationalised ones in the image immediately above, and instead mirror the Elder Futhark, well, kind of. The names given for each rune are largely the Anglo-Saxon ones, but out of the gate things go awry when Feoh with its associations with cattle and wealth is not the familiar F-like glyph but is instead an inverted arrow or Tir rune. Still, it fares better than Ur, which is completely forgotten and replaced by a premature Beorc, which at least has the right glyph. Then Þ starts off badly with its Anglo-Saxon name rendered not as Ðorn but as Porn, ooh matron, but it gets worse, if such a thing is possible, when the glyph is not the entire thorn shape but just the triangular D that was attributed to ‘R’ in the previous rationalised futhark. The futhark gets back on track order-wise for Os, Rad, Ken, although almost expectedly, Os uses the shape of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc), rather than the winged Os of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Further along, Eoh looks more like a broken tick symbol, barely related to the familiar Eihwaz double hook, while Peorð is charmingly referred to as Pear and its glyph is once again not quite right. In all, there are twenty-one runes listed here, with Ur, Is and Eh being omitted for some reason, while the additional four runes that are unique to the Anglo-Saxon futhorc are also absent.

In all, this makes for a very confusing experience, where it’s not clear why some of the runes are rendered as they are, or why some are missing, or, of course, why there is the disconnect between the rationalised futhark Howard presents at the start and the runes that are described in the pages that immediately follow it. It doesn’t end there, though, and later on things get further muddled when Howard gives some practical uses for the runes. First, in a piece on writing runes as charms he acknowledges that because the rationalised futhark he is presenting doesn’t have the letters for ‘Y’ and ‘E’ (which, yes, is what’s going to happen if you arbitrarily remove runes from a script) then the practitioner should replace those letters in a formulae with a sigil for the Sun. There’s no explanation as to why the astrological symbol for the Sun should be an appropriate substitute, but it certainly creates a very un-runic looking sequence, what with all these perfect circles amongst angular runes. The example he gives then goes to town with sun circles, using it in place of not just ‘e’ but also the ‘H’ and ‘T’ he’s left out of his rationalised futhark, as well as using two of these circles for ‘TH’ when he could have used his multi-bowl equivalent of Þ. Such is the ambiguity that in another example, in which upright and inverted interpretations of the runes are listed for divination, it’s not clear whether he’s using his rationalised futhark or the truncated Anglo-Saxon futhorc, because the runes come from both, whilst leaving out some, such as the rationalised multi-bowl Þ or an equivalent for ‘Z’ which is entirely his own but looks like Óss, the Younger Futhark version of Ansuz.

These errors or quirks are documented so thoroughly here because of just how fascinating and inexplicable it all is. It’s impossible to really work out what led to these choices, whether there was some source material that was already garbled, or whether things got messy during the process of either writing or formatting the book. Not to mention whether editors at The Aquarian Press thought anything of it, or whether they just pressed print as their eyes glazed over. These are particularly germane concerns given that Howard specifically mentions the idea of writing the runes correctly, as exemplified in the story of the runemaster Egill Skalla-Grímsson, who would probably be apoplectic were he to come across this book. Skalat maðr rúnar rísta,nema ráða vel kunni indeed.

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In both his definition of each rune and the general discussions elsewhere in this book, Howard has a style that belies the lack of sources he must have accessed to at the time. Things are painted pretty broadly with only rare recourse to actual sources, and when such writers are cited, much hay is made from them, with P. V. Glob, Margaret Murray, James Frazer, Lewis Spence, Manly Palmer Hall, and Robert Macoy (via Palmer) all being put to thorough use. Some of Howard’s descriptions and statements seem a little off or reflective of the now-outdated preconceptions held by his non-specialist sources: such as the prominence given to the idea of the sun being associated with gods and the moon with goddesses, when the reverse was true in Germanic cosmology, or the idea of Loki as a god of fire, or Baldur as a solar one. Indeed, Howard’s approach is a precursor to the type of writing he would use in later decades, having a broad approach and encyclopaedic knowledge that allows him to refer to multiple examples, though often without direct referencing, with a teasing out similarities betwixt different areas and eras to imply a coherence that is pleasing but which may, with a greater scrutiny, not really be there.

Despite the quibbles over the non-specialised tone, there’s nothing too egregious within these pages, and in many ways, Howard’s style predicts the content of books to come, where the Norse world is often described in a largely imaginary and idealised way, with imagery writ large, ambiguity shaved off, and with little recourse to academic sources for anything more than a cursory understanding. Indeed, on a wider level, The Magic of the Runes appears as a template for many of the rune books that would follow in its wake. There’s the step by step explanation of each rune, along with a list of some of the gods and their simplified traits or specialities, a couple of examples of practical applications for the runes, a little bit about other related symbols or sigils, a list of auspicious dates or festivals, an invocation or two, and a reprint of source texts, such as the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál, for a little taste of authenticity.

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The Magic of the Runes marks a significant point in the modern development and awareness of the runes and makes for an interesting historical document in and of itself, even if the actual historicity it depicts in highly questionable. Its slight 96 pages of yellowing newsprint are presented at foolscap octavo size which fits easily in one hand, with perfunctory formatting, as one would expect for the time. Howard would once again return to the runes in 1985 with The Wisdom of the Runes, a considerably longer work that had slightly more rigour to it. It clearly builds on The Magic of the Runes, using entire sections from its predecessor and rewriting them, but it mercifully reverts to a standard Elder Futhark with no errant Etruscan or Greek letters, and no sun symbol subbing for excised runes. It does add the dreaded blank rune to its discussion, three years after it was notoriously introduced to the wider public by Blum in The Book of Runes (which is not cited here), with Howard referring to it as the Wyrd Rune, perhaps the first use of that name for it.

Published by The Aquarian Press.

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Revival of the Runes – Stephen Edred Flowers

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Revival of the Runes coverOf late, Inner Traditions have released several books by Stephen Flowers in which older titles, previously published in small runs by his Rûna Raven Press, have been reworked into more complete versions. It comes as a mild surprise, then, to find that with the exception of pages 52-83 (published by Rûna Raven in 1998 as Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna), this book is an almost entirely new work. That is not to say that it necessarily covers ground unfamiliar to anyone that has followed Flowers’ oeuvre over the years, as the reader will encounter faces familiar, especially if you have read any of his books on the German runic renaissance or Nazi occultism. Like his 2017 work, The Northern Dawn, this book constitutes a part of a trilogy, though just to be difficult, it’s a different trilogy to that one, with Revival of the Runes being part two in an unnamed series focusing on the history of the Rune Gild. The first volume remains to be published, but confusingly, the series has already concluded with its final volume, the previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild, which was written, just to be difficult again, by Flowers under his pen name of Edred Thorsson, and published not by Inner Traditions but by the Gilded Books imprint of Arcana Europa Media.

Subtitled The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes, Revival of the Runes traces said revival from the Swedish scholars of the 1500s and 1600s, into the Enlightenment, flowing into the Romanticism of the 1800s and then into the Germany explorations of runic mysticism both before and during the Third Reich. Flowers assumes little of his readers, and any prior knowledge they might have, and begins not with this modern rediscovery, but with a fairly thorough historical primer on the runes, covering off both elder and younger futharks as well as the Anglo-Frisian, with a particular focus on examples of inscriptions and their esoteric implications.

Revival of the Runes spreadThus, it is 43 pages in before we get to the first modern period of this history, what Flowers defines as the revival phase spanning from the Renaissance to the Baroque over the two centuries from 1500 to 1700. Flowers begins with the brothers Magnus, Johannes and Olaus, continues into another set of Swedish brothers, Laurentius and Olaus Petri, before considering Johannes Bure, Olof Rudbeck and the one exception in this almost-all-Swedish line-up, the Danish Olaus Wormius. As with many of the figures discussed in this book, each person receives a fairly brief biography, running to a couple of pages at most, and as little as two thirds of a page. The one disproportionate exception is Johannes Bure, since Flowers’ aforementioned Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna from 1998 has done all the work, and so, instead of a couple of paragraphs, Bure gets a hefty 32 pages on both his life and his adulrunor system. Of course, this emphasis is fitting, given the importance of Bure in the emergence of both runic esotericism and its exoteric grounding, with adulrunor embodying a complex cosmology and interpretation of the runes that recalls the types of idiosyncratic and often Judaeo-Christian-tinged systems that German runologists like Guido von List, Karl Maria Wiligut and Siegfried Kummer would develop centuries later. Flowers’ consideration of Bure is aided in addendums by the work of Thomas Karlsson, whose The Adulruna and the Gothic Cabbala (published separately in only Swedish, German and Italian, and then as part of Nightside of the Runes) is acknowledged here as the most extensive English work to date on Bure.

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The three chapters that follow share the brevity of some of the previous biographies, with Flowers speeding through three centuries of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and nineteenth century Neo-Romanticism in a mere nineteen pages. This rather fallow time, from which only Johan Göransson warrants a separate biography, leads to the considerably more active periods of the new Germanic rebirth during the first three decades of the twentieth century, and then inevitably, runology’s evolution under and within the Third Reich. Again, things proceed at a fairly brisk pace, and this is an introduction and overview for many of these figures and movements, rather than a detailed study, for which the reader is encouraged to consult some of Flowers’ more specialised titles; a suggestion that he himself makes throughout the text. Sigurd Agrell is the only runologist to get more than a passing reference before the narrative moves on to a larger consideration of von List and his Armanen system, as well as later figures such as Kummer and Friedrich Marby. As in his other titles, Flowers’ approach to the runes in National Socialist Germany is a restrained and pragmatic one. There’s no Nazi occultists summoning unspeakable horrors from beyond the moon here, and other than a section on the SS-aligned historical think-tank known as the Ahnenerbe, the overriding message is about the Nazi use of the runes as marketing, with the esoteric aspect of a rune being more in its power as an evocatively and specifically Germanic brand, rather than something inherently magical.Revival of the Runes spread

Given that this revival of the runes effectively extends up into the present or at least the relatively recent, things turn somewhat autobiographical in the tenth chapter, grandly titled The Rise of Contemporary Scientific Runology and the Re-Emergence of the Rune-Gild, when Flowers documents his own part in this rebirth. For readers of his previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, or of the biography of Flowers by James Chisholm printed in Green Rûna (upon which the former is based), this will be a familiar tale. Flowers acknowledges the awkwardness of this situation, this insinuation into the narrative as he calls it, testifying that in writing this book he has attempted to remain as objective as possible, but effectively, needs now must. The retelling of his role, though, is not excessive, and is in keeping with the sparsity shown in other areas of this book, with Flowers giving a brisk history of rune publications and organisations from 1975 onwards, often shot through a biographical lens noting how he sat in relation to each of them. Despite the vaunted objectivity, there’s still a very personal angle here, with, for example, an annoyance still tangible in the travesty that Ralph Blum’s seminal (though terrible) The Book of Runes was published in 1982, beating Flowers’ Futhark to the shelves by two years. As Flowers laments, despite a version of Futhark being completed by 1979, it was then subjected to nine years of publishing purgatory from both Llewellyn and Weiser, until Weiser finally pressed print on it four years after acquiring the manuscript. Blum is not the only one to get it in the neck here, and there is the traditional Edredian airing of grievances when it comes to briefly surveying the less than stellar runic literature that emerged in the following decades. Donald Tyson (who was previously birched in Thorsson’s History of the Rune-Gild) gets it once again, while the poor, dearly departed Michael Howard receives quite the lathering and is tarred as “one of the worst offenders.”

As in the above examples, there’s always something of a distinctive Flowers tone when it comes to his books, a snarky irascible quality that makes his allegiances crystal clear, and his annoyances palpable. If he wore a bonnet, you can be sure a bee would get in there. Such is the case throughout Revival of the Runes, and it can distract to the point of tedium. Of course there’s the de rigueur moaning about ‘Marxism’ and ‘political activism’ in academia (there has to be at least one mention per title it would seem, and this one has several, with the reader looking wearily to the horizon as every now and then a little gripe about the state of the academy inevitably heaves into view). But beyond that almost expected angry-uncle-at-Thanksgiving invective, there are other strange little get-off-my-lawn moments, like when, as an abrupt contemporary analogy, he categorically states that “IT guys” (his air quotes) apparently “keep things complex and ever-changing” solely to ensure future employment. Oh, so that’s how technology and expertise works, the inexorable march of progress is just there to keep the plebs one step behind. Those sneaky IT guys, what will they think of next? 6G? A flying car just when I’ve got the hang of these wheel things? Methinks at some point there must have been a particularly gruelling morning with technical support on call trying to get the dialup working at the hof. One’s mileage will vary as to how much this tone detracts, or adds, to the overarching narrative. If nothing else, it makes Flowers’ writing style distinctive and idiosyncratic; much like the equally arch tone of this reviewer, oh snap.

Revival of the Runes spreadRevival of the Runes concludes with Flowers’ vision of an ‘integral runology for the future,’ a largely Edredian philosophical musing, followed by two appendices. The first is a chronology of the runic revival, beginning in 1554 with the posthumous publication of Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus by Johannes Magnus, and ending in 2010 with the creation of the Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies. The second appendix is a reprint of a brief article from 1986 on the claimed runic origins of the peace symbol in which the Elhaz rune is imagined to have been inverted and placed in a circle; an idea that carries as much weight as the satanic panic idea that it was an inverted and broken cross. This is a strange inclusion not just because of how inexplicably incongruous the article’s placement is, but also because this speculation has been long debunked, given that the creation of the nuclear disarmament symbol by designer Gerald Holtom is well attested, as is its incorporation of the semaphore representation of the letters N and D.

Revival of the Runes is very much a trade paperback, rather than a thesis, an overview with subjects covered briefly (save for the blessed Johannes Bure), and in which, despite a ten page bibliography, the only actually works cited within the text are almost entirely those of Flowers himself. It has been formatted with text and layout design by Virginia Scott Bowman, using Garamond for body, along with Gill Sans and Futura as contrasting san serif headers and sub headers. The rather fetching Highstories is used for chapter headings and as the cover face, where it sits next to a low-opacity version of the Ahnenerbe’s emblem, which is an, um, interesting choice of symbols to lead with there, Inner Traditions, but you do you. Less problematic is the choice of a lovely hero image, with the cover using one of the image panels from the Golden Horns of Gallehus; although considering the book’s modern subject, the fifth-century date of the Gallehus horns peculiarly makes the Ahnenerbe emblem the more relevant of the two images.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic – by Nicholas E. Brink

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Categories: germanic, goddesses, runes

Beowulf's Ecstatic Trance Magic coverBlessed with a cumbersome title that surely no one has ever thought to use before, or since, Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic by Nicholas E. Brink is part of a metaphysical subgenre, pioneered by anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, in which it is argued that image of figures in ancient artworks are ritual instructions, providing templates for postures that could be used to enter altered states of consciousness. Goodman’s ideas were brought to a wider metaphysical audience in Belinda Gore’s Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook (published in 1995 by the Inner Traditions imprint Bear & Company), while Goodman herself would release Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures co-authored with Nana Nauwald in 2003. Others have since explored the theory, and while Goodman and Gore largely emphasise figures from Mesoamerica, Brink has taken a more European focus.

This is certainly not Brink’s first ecstatic trance rodeo either, having previously published three such titles, The Power of Ecstatic Trance, Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers and Baldr’s Magic: The Power of Norse Shamanism and Ecstatic Trance. Despite the Baldr of the title, the latter book has cover art featuring the ithyphallic Rällinge statuette, usually assumed to depict Freyr, but oh well, never mind as that’s nothing compared to a more recent outing from Brink, called Loki’s Children, which has a figurine from the Pre-Columbian Zacatecas culture as its cover star.

Unlike other titles in this genre, Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic is not a practical guide, and offers something rather different, with what little instruction there is being largely embedded within a fictionalised narrative. We say fictionalised but Brink presents it as a real account, channelled through him by its participants, and thereby effectively testifying to the efficacy of the system of ecstatic postures as a way to connect with the past. This is not a new writing approach for Brink as his Baldr’s Magic, whilst featuring some practical instructions, had as its lion’s share an entire Lost Edda of the Vanir, all channelled to him during his trance experiences.

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The story that Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic tells begins not with the Beowulf of the title, but rather with Wealhþeow, as Brink’s channels a narrative describing the early life of the girl that would become queen to Hroðgar, the Danish king who employed Beowulf to kill the monster Grendel. In Beowulf, Wealhþeow is a member of the Wulfings, though the poet does not locate the clan geographically, with other Scandinavian sagas associating them with the Swedish province of Östergötland, while more recent interpretations identify them with the Wuffing dynasty of East Anglia, at whose court the poem may have been composed. While Skjöldunga saga tells how Roas (Hroðgar) married the daughter of an English king, and Hrolfs saga kraka, says that he (named Hróarr in the text) married the daughter of a king of Northumbria, Brink goes with a Swedish interpretation, placing young Wealhþeow in Scania as the daughter of a King Olaf. Joining Wealhþeow in this cast is a priestess of Freyja who is rather awkwardly called Vanadisdottir, with a matronym used as if it was her first name. Although this is no less awkward than having a Swedish princess being incongruously addressed throughout by the Anglo-Saxon name she would only be given two centuries later by the Beowulf poet. As an aside, Brink acknowledges that Vanadisdottir, along with two other shamans who provide perspectives, Healfdall and the patronym-as-first name Forsetason, were unnamed in his initial experiences until he himself named them; a strange omission for the etheric realm to make.

Brink’s story is principally told from the perspectives of Wealhþeow and Vanadisdottir, charting the latter’s journey to the role of queen and the former’s role first as an advisor to her charge and then as someone who comes to understand Grendel and his predations. And yeah, about that… this version of Grendel seems to have undergone a Disney-style sympathetic villain reboot. No longer is he a mere despoiler of Heorot, and instead of being a deaþscua (‘death-shadow’) and helle gast (‘hellish spirit’) descended from Cain, he is a gentle creature who keeps to himself unless provoked by the warriors in Heorot and their raucous goings on. And while he might attack those who lust for power and wealth and seek to control the earth, this kinder, cuddlier Grendel doesn’t prey on farmers and those at one with nature and all its lovely creatures.

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As the story progresses, Brink has Vanadisdottir introduce ecstatic postures as part of the narrative, with each presented as a full page diagram with instructions and a little footnote giving its provenance. There are ten postures in all and they are drawn from geographically, culturally and temporally diverse sources; though mercifully, none as far afield as Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. There is what Brink calls the Freyr Diviner posture (based on aforementioned ithyphallic Rällinge statuette), the Bear Spirit posture (a healing posture identified and named as such by Felicitas Goodman), the Sami Lowerworld posture (based on a engraving of a prone noaidi from Johannes Schefferus’ 1673 book Lapponia), the Tanum Sky World posture and the Tanum Lower World posture (both taken from amongst the many Bronze Age petroglyphs at Tanum, Sweden), the Hallstatt Warrior posture (which, contrary to the name of the posture, is based, though uncredited, on a figurine found in Bregnebjerg, Denmark), the Freyja Initiation posture (based on the famous pendant found at Aska, Sweden, that is assumed to be of Freyja), the Nyborg Man posture (based on a small gold figure, found at Nyborg, Denmark), the Højby Middle World posture (based on a figure found at Højby, Denmark, and which is also used on this book’s cover), and the Cernunnos Metamorphosis posture (as seen in the horned figure on the Gundestrup cauldron).

Surprisingly, given his starring role in this book’s title, it takes until page 202 for Beowulf to turn up as an active participant, almost as an afterthought with only twelve pages to go. One supposes that his name has a greater cachet than the less recognisable and less marketable Wealhþeow or Vanadisdottir, but given that he’s the one with the ecstatic trance magic in the title, you can’t help feeling a little swerved. This is especially so when it turns out how he doesn’t do any ecstatic trance magic at all, and everything pretty much proceeds as the poet told it: Grendel attacks, Beowulf fights him until the monster flees mortally wounded, and then Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Heorot the following night and is also killed by Beowulf. The only difference is that Brink’s Vanadisdottir is flitting around being a little concerned and sympathetic, since Grendel is just misunderstood, but doing nothing.

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Brink’s narrative is certainly detailed but it ultimately doesn’t ring true and feels like fan fiction or a first attempt at a fantasy novel. All the tropes are there: the headstrong princess who nevertheless has obligations to destiny and family, the oh-so-wise spiritual elder who teaches lessons of both life and magic with a matter-of-fact manner and a knowing smile. Even the embedding of actual techniques into the conceit of a historical story seems like something we’ve seen before, think The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates, for example.

Another issue that will gnaw away at the pedant is that Brink presents his characters and their beliefs as if Germanic pagan belief was geographically monolithic, with the same pantheon and myths spread across the population, whether the stories be told in Sweden, Denmark, or Snorri Sturluson’s post-conversion Iceland. Indeed, Snorri is important to mention here because the myths as they are told by Brink’s characters have the relative coherence of Snorri’s eddas: gods have very defined roles and their stories are clearly told, reflecting what we now know of them with centuries of hindsight, but which may never have existed in such a way for the people of Denmark at the time. There’s no suggestion, for example, of the variations of the tales as told by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, with Baldr being imagined here as a compassionate milquetoast in a loving relationship with Nanna, rather than, as Saxo tells it, the unsuccessful suitor of Nanna who battled his rival, the successful Höðr, as a result. The only variance from a Snorri-style canon is when Brink applies his own unverified personal gnosis to this mythic structure, filling in the gaps to fit his proclivities, such as categorically classifying Ullr, Nanna and Heimdallr as Vanir, or saying that Baldr and Nanna lived separately, he in Ásgarðr and she in Vanaheimr. There’s also Brink’s creation of a whole new goddess called Moðir, carried over from his previous works, who is portrayed as an overarching mother earth goddess and the grandmother of Freyja and Frey, having married a giant called Slœgr (a name which Brink translates as ‘the creative one,’ rather than the usual but less palatable ‘sly’). Brink also extrapolates on some myths and adds a bunch of new locations that are not found in canon, with awkwardly and inconsistently spelt names, such as Gratabjöð (the Weeping Fields of the goddess Gefjon where she cares for those who die as maidens), Griðbustaðr (another afterlife destination but for those who worship the Vanir), and Gæfuleysabjarg (a cliff in Freyja’s domain where the souls of warriors unlucky enough to die in their first battle reside). Finally, there are some other bold claims, such as making the young Wealhþeow the weaver of the famed Överhogdal tapestries, something which would be quite a feat considering that their creation has been carbon dated to between 1040 and 1170 CE, four centuries later than the period during which Beowulf occurs.

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For this and his other books, Brink seems to have spent a lot of time in the Freyr Diviner posture receiving transmissions from an unfamiliar past, or less generously, just making a lot of stuff up. For the sheer time and effort he is to be commended, but mileage may vary as to how far one is willing to take his unverified personal gnosis, especially when his narrative doesn’t distinguish between it and documented lore. Also, as an indicator of the overriding vibe here, the brief bibliography has few texts relevant to this book’s subject (save for two Beowulf titles and one on Scandinavian petroglyphs), with the rest being works on ecstatic body postures and a bunch of new age titles from the likes of Barbara Hand Clow, Rupert Sheldrake and Erwin Laszlo. Brink ends his book with hope for the kind of world Vanadisdottir and Wealhþeow believed in and discusses the great turmoil of our time with a reference to one of Laszlo’s titles. Therein, Laszlo promised that this chaos is just a period of transition to be endured and that a new world of peace will emerge when it all passes in 2020. I wonder how that turned out.

Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic runs to 235 pages with a cover design by Peri Swan (images courtesy of iStock) and internal artwork by M. J. Ruhe. Layout by Virginia Scott Bowman has the body typeset in Garamond and Gill Sans, with the latter and Bougan Black used for display.

Published by Bear & Company

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Samlag: The Path of Þursian Sexual Sorcery – Ljóssál Loðursson

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Categories: anticosmic, germanic, tantra

Samlag coverPublished by Spiritual Outlaw, Samlag: The Path of Þursian Sexual Sorcery is one of two Þursian titles by Ljóssál Loðursson released in close proximity, with the other being his Ginnrúnbók, which was published through Spain’s Fall of Man press. Significantly shorter than that work, Samlag is a more focussed companion volume, considering, as its title tells it, the use of Þursian sex magic, with a particular focus on the erotic relationship between Loki and Angrboða. The brevity of Samlag is a feature of its chapters too, with almost all twelve being relatively succinct, abetted by the body type’s large point, with there being little fat on these bones as Loðursson introduces topics broadly and deftly moves forward.

Samlag appears to start slowly at first, with somewhat disparate considerations of the Smisstenen or Ormhäxan stone from Gotland, and a thorough survey of examples of cardiophagy and other forms of flesh-eating from the eddas and sagas. But these are all individual strands that are then woven into the greater whole as the book progresses. The snake-wielding female figure on the Ormhäxan stone is interpreted as Angrboða or Hyrrokkin, with the three-headed triskelion above as her three children (Hela, Fenrir and the World Serpent), while the theme of cardiophagy relates to Loki’s eating of Angrboða-Gullveig’s heart, an act similarly associated with the birth of the couple’s three children. Indeed, Gullveig’s hugsteinn heart and other giant’s hearts, such as the hrungnishjarta, play a significant role within these pages, encapsulating many of the ideas of samlag like a sanguine arcanum.

Samlag spread

Loðursson defines samlag as ‘communion’ and it is this exchange that is at the heart, if you will, of the three forms of sexual sorcery he presents here: Snýst Miðgarðsormr i Jötunmóð (a kundalini-like raising of serpentine energy), Náttúru Samlag (autoerotic summoning of spirits) and Loptr kvidugr af konu illri (a couple’s working described by Loðursson as a powerful antinomic and counter-cosmic sexual High Magic connected with the giants). Naturally, it is the Loptr kvidugr af konu illri working that is given the most attention here, with its procedure built around the words of its title: Loptr was impregnated by that evil woman. For those that hope that all this talk of impregnating Loki might involve some backdoor shenanigans, you’re going to be disappointed. Instead, what is presented here is a relatively straightforward Tantra-style configuration of Shiva and Shakti in which a male practitioner embodies Loki while their female counterpart does the same for Angrboða. It’s not quite such an absolute binary, though, as Loðursson defines both participants as effectively hermaphroditic, being simultaneously male and female in order to break illusionary laws of unity and dualism “through emptiness and polar holism.” The impregnation of Loptr, then, is an oral one in which menstrual blood is consumed in a version of Tantra’s yoni puja, with the blood of the female participant being analogous to the blood of Angrboða’s hugsteinn heart. This act is one that mirrors the creation of Hela, Fenrir and the World Serpent, and so has a similar effect, leading to the creation of a totem-housed egregore that incorporates elements of all three beings.

Samlag spread

There are two other samlag workings either included or mentioned in this book. The first is an autoerotic one focusing solely on the woman embodying Angrboða, who in an act of “contra-cosmic autogenesis” creates two totems representing Hati and Sköll thereby re-enacting the line from Völuspá in which Angrboða as in aldna (‘the old one’) bears the brood of her son, Fenrir. The second working, with which Samlag concludes in a brief chapter, is only hinted at, and refers to the matrix of Loki, Sinmara and by extension, the mara or nightmare. Loðursson suggests that Loki is the grandchild of Surtr and Sinmara, and thereby posits an equine connection between grandson and grandmother via Loki’s transformation into the horse that lured away Svaðilfari and Sinmara’s association with the mara.

Samlag spread

 

One of the pure highlights of Samlag is an aesthetic one, with the text ably accompanied by works from three different artists, Santiago David Gutiérrez, Diego Sanchez and Chris Undirheimar. It is Gutiérrez who makes the most immediate impact with a woodcut (or woodcut-style) image on the dustjacket depicting Loki and Angrboða around a burning heart, accompanied by Hela, Fenrir and the World Serpent, with the three siblings combined into one phantasmagorical chimera. With its stark shapes and restricted palette of red, black and white, Gutiérrez’s style is both distinctive and evocative, with a look that points to historical antecedents but has an atmosphere and consistency all of its own.Samlag spread with illustration by Diego Sanchez The family portrait on the dustjacket also hides an entirely separate image by Gutiérrez on the hardcover itself, which makes for a lovely surprise with its intertwining rune border festooned with hearts, set in white and red against a black background. Elsewhere, Gutiérrez’s approach is contrasted strongly with that of Sanchez who has a more, how you say, metal hand, with densely rendered, full-page pencil images, principally of a horned and hirsute Loki.

Samlag hardcover

Samlag runs to just over a hundred pages and although it has been printed by print-on-demand company Lightning Source, it is bound as a rather fetching matte black hardback that is illustrated front and back, nicely wrapped in the aforementioned dustjacket. Body text is set in a large serif face, subtitles in a distressed antique serif, while titles are in a striking blackletter that is combined with a header illustration of twin wolves.

Published by Spiritual Outlaw

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The Norse Goddess – Monica Sjöö

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Categories: germanic, goddesses

The Norse Goddess coverMonica Sjöö Sjöö was an artist and writer whose book The Great Cosmic Mother, co-written in its final form with Barbara Mor, was one of the pioneering titles in the canon of modern goddess spirituality. That book had its origins in a pamphlet that saw several iterations until expanding, under Mor’s hand, to 500 pages, and in some ways, The Norse Goddess feels like a return to those more focussed beginnings, running to a mere 64 pages. Published five years before her death in 2005, it also feels like a return for Sjöö in another way, narrowing her focus from the cosmic and universal to her native Sweden and Scandinavia, having lived in the British Isles for more than half of a lifetime.

Given this personal investment, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Norse Goddess has the sense of a biography or travelogue, something that Sjöö makes clear in the title of her introduction which identifies herself as a “Daughter of Mother Hel,” declaring “From the North am I.” This association with Hela is one of the appealing parts of this book, and it is interesting that Sjöö’s most famous painting, 1968’s God Giving Birth, shows a goddess figure whose face, like Hela’s, is dimidiated into dark and light halves. Fittingly, this painting provided the gateway into Sjöö’s Scandinavian reawakening, when it was purchased by the Museum Anna Nordlander in Skellefteå, who then also curated a touring exhibition of Sjöö’s work that travelled to three cities in the north of Sweden. During this tour, Sjöö was taken on a journey through southern Lapland and on Galtispuoda mountain in Norrbotten she broke down, overwhelmed with sadness and joy, crying for the beautiful land of her childhood that she had left long ago.

The Norse Goddess spread

Sjöö casts her Scandinavian net wide here, surveying distances both temporal and physical to create what she hopes is a complete picture focussed around goddess figures in the north. She begins with the Sámi, first with a general anthropological introduction and then with a deeper look at four Ahkka goddesses, Maderakka and her daughters Sarakka, Juksakka, and Uksakka; though there is, strangely, no mention of another but unrelated Akka, Jabme-Akka, goddess of death and the underworld. Sjöö then moves on to a more archaeological focus with two brief chapters dealing with sites of inhabitation in Mesolithic Scandinavia and on the Bronze Age hällristningar found at places like Nämforsen and Norrköping, with particular emphasis given to the image of the elk in these rock carvings. As the brevity of this description might belie, Sjöö’s chapters are equally brief, providing a conversational summary, rather than much in the way of details or references. This continues in later chapters where she briefly considers the Vanir, and then Nerthus, before jumping to the account of creation in Völuspá and then onto the Finnish creation mythology found in the Kalevala.

Understandably, Sjöö embraces the Helfolk hypothesis presented by Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth in their 1994 book Hel – Den Gömda Gudinnan I Nordisk Mytologi, in which Hela was the preeminent goddess of ancient Scandinavia, receiving worship from an indigenous group of people whose beliefs and culture predated the arrival of both the Æsir and Vanir religions by millennia. These people lived on the west coast of Norway during the Ice Age, cut off from the rest of ice-bound Europe where they were protected by both the warmth of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream current and by Hela Herself. She was seen, the Liljenroths argue, as the personification of the mountains that protected their fertile strip of coastal land and of the caves that gave them shelter. These ideas permeate Sjöö’s own consideration of Hela, emphasising her connection with caves, mountains and the underworld as a shamanic goddess of death and rebirth. Perhaps the most interesting reference to Hela is a personal one, in which Sjöö recounts a series of nightly dream encounters she had with Her during Samhain in 1984. These coalesced into a drawing in which Hela is depicted as she appeared in Sjöö mind’s eye, dressed in animal furs like a shaman, with a burning candle sitting betwixt a pair of horns upon Her head, and Her face starkly white in the surrounding darkness.

The Norse Goddess spread with image of Hela by Monica Sjöö

Sjöö’s style is a little unfocussed and not exactly rigorous, creating an appealing narrative but one which you would want to double check before embracing wholly. There is a wooliness here, where, for example, the extent of her referencing can be to casually state that material for one section was found in “German sources,” which could mean anything; although that’s positively academic compared to the citation that rapidly follows in which she says no more than “I have also read…” In addition, it often feels like Sjöö transparently embraces a little-known theory over another more accepted or updated one simply because she wants to kick against the pricks of patriarchy, distrusting anything a male or establishment archaeologist might have said, unless it happens to be something she conveniently agrees with.

The layout of The Norse Goddess is irredeemably awful and amateurish, with body text in Times New Roman and the titles set in the ghastly and incongruent Algerian; at a point size that is only slightly larger than the body, thereby making the typeface’s faux shadow smudge into uselessness. Paragraphs run densely across the page with the tiniest of left and right margins, creating a feeling of claustrophobia, and featuring both first line indents and redundant paragraph breaks. This cramped sensation is continued in the treatment of Sjöö’s images, with many of them being reproductions of her large-scale paintings, but shrunk down to a quarter the size of the page. Detailed, portrait-orientated works such as The Earth is Our Mother, Archaic Mother, and Spirits of Sky, Earth and Underworld would have been better served by being given some rarefied space and formatted at full page size, instead of being crammed next to blocks of text. Indeed, the whole book could have looked like so much more if the page count has been increased to give everything more room to breathe and if care had been taken with the typography, and with the proofing. Capitalisation is inconsistent and mistyping abounds (hello “Sacandinavian Bronze Age,” hello “Ashodel Long,” and hello there “Kalevala” that becomes “Kalavala” within the same paragraph), creating the impression that there was little proofing at any stage of production.

The Norse Goddess spread

The binding of The Norse Goddess mirrors the problems with layout, with an overall amateurish quality. The pages are made of an incongruous and slightly heavy glossy stock, and the binding is far too tight, wedging the pages together. Like a cheaply-printed Capall Bann title, the conservative size of the gutters (with no allowance given for creep) means that these glossy pages never open as fully as one would like; and holding a spread open long enough to read both pages can lead to digital fatigue.

In all, The Norse Goddess is an interesting book whose premise is both intriguing and appealing, but it is nonetheless let down by its lack of rigour, meaning that its arguments never feel watertight and indeed are often rendered highly speculative. The layout reflects this, making one imagine what could have been in a book that is more convincing in both its literary and aesthetic properties.

Published by Dor Dama Press (an imprint of Meyn Mamvro Publications)

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Rune Mysteries – Silver RavenWolf and Nigel Jackson

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Rune Mysteries coverIf the ancient maxim “By their inclusion of a blank rune shall ye know them” is true, then any misgivings that arise when encountering a book on the runes by Silver Ravenwolf, of all people, must surely be justified. But that’s not necessarily the case here, and instead what do arise are moments of deep introspection: Am I unfairly judging an author based on their teen Wicca oeuvre because I want to feel cool and occult leet? What does it mean if this book is not irredeemably awful? Am I part of the problem? Let’s find out.

By its very nature, and without even reading the preface, Rune Mysteries feels like a collaboration cooked up at a Llewellyn planning meeting as they looked to churn out another rune product because there hadn’t been one in a while (and we don’t want to have to ask that crotchety old Edred). They then threw together two unlikely and far-flung compatriots: Ravenwolf, who by then was probably a dab hand at writing in Llewellyn’s house style on any subject, and Nigel Jackson, creator of many an oracle set whose artwork is the foundation selling point here.

This book acts as the companion to a set of rune cards sold separately as the Witches Rune. ‘Witch’ is the operative word here, explaining the presence of both Jackson and RavenWolf, figures more associated with witchcraft in its respective traditional English and modern North American strains, rather than the runes. As a result, everything is shot through with a cursory focus that relates the book’s themes back to witchcraft; or at least to an almost entirely theoretical Germanic shamanism that can be cast as an analogue to what is frequently mentioned here, but only later defined, as Witan-Witchcraft.

Without the cards of the Witches Rune themselves, Rune Mysteries works as an approachable, mass-market standalone primer on the runes, providing a layperson’s interpretation of each rune that is not bogged down with, y’know, actual primary sources. Jackson’s designs are reproduced in black and white at a quarter the size of a page for each respective section; but included in colour for this review because, well, aesthetics and impact. As one would expect, things aren’t always entirely rigorous here and droplets of speculation or outright invention can be introduced as if ‘twere fact. The section on the rune Eoh, for example, claims that spiders are sacred to that particular rune, something that would appear to have no precedent elsewhere and even here is not then justified via etymology, analogue or anything. Also, yes, you’re trying to make a metaphysical point about cosmic balance but glibly saying that fire cannot exist without frost (and vice versa) might be, umm, you know, misunderstanding how fire works; or frost for that matter. “One sec, I’m just off to rub some frost together to start a nice fire.” “Oooh, it’s frosty this morning, must have been all that fire we had last night.” Oh, how we laughed.

Putting the mocking of physics-defying metaphysics to one side, there is a general failure within this book to ground the runes within any historical context beyond a casual mention of the entirely theoretical proposition of Bronze Age antecedents. There are zero references to the Elder, Younger or Anglo-Saxon futharks, and so the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are simply and vaguely referred to as the “ancient Germanic runes.” Such temporally-untethered flowery phrasing is indicative of the language used throughout the book, something that is initiated in an introduction that features a description of a fanciful northern Europe that reads like a black metal checklist: snow-covered peaks, misty heaths, dark woods and storm-wracked seas; a scene lacking only in funeral moons and blazes in the northern sky.

For the record, the names used here for each of the runes are the Anglo-Saxon ones, sans diacritics, though once again, this is somewhat fraught, as the Anglo-Saxon name can be used for an Elder Futhark version of the rune, such as the Anglo-Saxon Cen, which is here rendered graphically as the Elder Futhark version instead of the Anglo-Saxon one. Meanwhile, the fourth rune, which is referred to here as Asa, of course takes the form of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc) rather than the winged form of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The lack of references to the various futhark forms predicates that while the description of each rune is broadly based on established interpretations, there are no references to what are, other than etymology, the primary sources for this information: the Norwegian, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon rune poems. This might also explain why some of the rune sections go off on unexpected interpretative tangents, such as Feoh, which begins with a paragraph on standard cattle and wealth symbolism before spending considerably more time on the idea of Feoh as fire, and not just any fire but the primeval fires of Surtr and Múspellsheimr. Needless to say, it’s hard to see quite how you could get to that from the Anglo-Saxon “Wealth is a comfort to all; yet must everyone bestow it freely if they wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”

Isa rune card design

Not to spend the entire review fact-checking but it is worth mentioning the strange interstitial realm in which this book exists, in which statements are always made categorically and yet little evidence is ever provided, or things are interpreted in a way that would be nice if ‘twere so but are proffered as gospel when the jury is still often out on the matter. Gyfu runes were carved onto heathen “marriage cakes” (no indication of where, when or by whom), crossing one fingers is “actually” an invocation of the same Gyfu rune, and in a lift from Marvel comics, Loki is the brother of Baldr. These wide ranging claims are then often credited, without evidence and context, to comfortably vague sources such as “the Northern folk,” “people of the Northern Way,” and “Indo-European shamanism,” an apparently monolithically unified people mercifully unfettered by the pesky specifics of geography and time.

The general ahistorical wooliness of the content here, and its lack of recourse to primary sources, allows for quite a few howlers to make their way into the copy. There’s the description of Heimdallr guarding a Bifrost bridge that leads not to Midgard but all the way down to Hel, then there’s Fenrir being bound at Ragnarök by Tyr (quite a feat for a newly one-handed god), rather than all the gods, who are in turn credited here with creating the chain that binds the wolf, rather than being made by the dvergar as lore has it. Then there’s the idea that “the Germanic tribes” (presumably all of them, whoever they are) believed that anyone passing under mistletoe was enchanted and blessed by Freyja. The latter is a variation of a bit of perpetually unchecked scuttlebutt and a fanciful retelling of the death of Baldr that has been cut and pasted into a hundred online articles trying to give an ancient lineage to the popular Victorian custom of kissing under the mistletoe. And then there’s dodgy etymology, such as the categorical claim that the name Vanir comes from an Old Norse verb (which unsurprisingly isn’t given) meaning “to be contented, to enjoy.” In reality, the origins of the Vanir name remain inconclusive and the most repeated interpretation suggests that it might derive from the Proto-Germanic *wana-, with a Proto Indo-European root in *wen- (‘to desire, strive for’), a meaning that couldn’t be further from the idyllic, Vanir-as-hippies definition of ‘to be contented, to enjoy.’

Rune Mysteries spread

Jackson has a history in tarot design, with at least three decks to his credit, and so naturally, Rune Mysteries follows a tarot-like approach in how it presents the runes. After a listing of correspondences (tree, colours, totem, stones, deity), each rune receives an introductory blurb of up to two pages with information of sometimes questionable factual value, loaded with spiritual interpretation, rather than being an etymological or historical exegesis. This is then followed by a section on the rune’s oracular meaning and related keywords, as well as an additional interpretation of the rune when reversed tarot-like. But that’s not all, and each entry concludes with ways in which the reader can work with the respective rune beyond mere divination, providing both weal and woe types of workings, and ending with a brief mention of the various rune-wights and spirit powers that Jackson and RavenWolf have associated, somewhat arbitrarily, with each rune. The latter does feel like they went through a big-list-of-spirits-fairies-and-god-forms™ and just picked out whatever seems vaguely appropriate, such as the Tiwar who are described as “divine Sky-Spirits, humanoid columns of light who descend from the celestial realms robed in luminosity.” As luck would have it “these spirits equate to angels of justice and the armies of the God/dess,” In actuality, and leaving the angelic world and its beings of light behind, dear ones, tívar is just a word used in Old Norse poetry to mean ‘the gods,’ being the indefinite nominative plural form of the singular týr (‘(a) god’) and not all that luminescent, nor incandescent, nor, indeed, angelic.

This factually freewheeling style makes for a fairly thorough system, custom built for the less than discerning and historically-unversed Llewellyn customer, where every rune has a raft of associations, divinatory meanings, correspondences and even entities associated with it, giving the impression of a dense working system. In the latter half of the book there is even more complexity, with a whole practical section that includes page upon page detailing the most propitious days and hours, along with lunar conjunctions, sextiles and trines, for working with each rune. But while all of this feels comprehensive, it’s just not all that authentic, though it is thoroughly in keeping with what one would expect from a Llewellyn title such as this: polished with a marketer’s standards in mind, not those of an academic or pedant.

Beyond the entries for these twenty-four “ancient Germanic runes,” RavenWolf and Jackson provide guidelines for working with the cards, including card care and several tarot-style spreads, with practice draws and reading scenarios. With four spreads, each accompanied by a visual representation, a scenario and an in depth card-by-card reading, this fills a lot of pages and once again is pretty comprehensive and a boon for those that like that sort of thing.

It is this late in the piece that RavenWolf and Jackson define what they mean by a Rune-Witan and Witan-Witchcraft, describing the “Rune-Witan” as a practicing runic magician whose title literally translates as ‘rune-wise-one,’ or ‘one wise in mysteries.’ They claim, without citing chapter and verse, that the term is “quite traditional” since it is found in Beowulf, which somewhat undoes their argument as the witan of Beowulf, sans ‘rune,’ is an Anglo-Saxon council, a plurality rather than a singularity, and linked with governance, rather than esotericism. At a pinch they could have gone with the singular ‘wita,’ but even then, the usage denotes the wisdom and council of politics, not some worker of magic. One could conject that the plural form was chosen because of its similitude with the singular ‘wiccan’ but suffice to say, the etymology here, tracing it back to an unattested Indo-European root of ‘wid,’ is as wild and woolly as some of the other claims about these people of the Northern Way.

Haegl rune card design

RavenWolf and Jackson are on firmer ground in acknowledging the Germanic roots of much of witchcraft’s imagery, aligning the image of the continental witch goddess Holda with Cochrane/Traditional Witchcraft’s idea of a veiled underworld goddess, and positing Woden as her horned equivalent. It is hampered, though, by this persistent need to present such themes as evidence of a continuous and historically unlikely tradition, which inevitably leads to supposition being used to fill in any logical or temporal gaps. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that this section provides the most appealing aspect of the book, with the chthonic, Helish and witchy imagery striking a resonant note; though feeling thousands of miles away from the historical futhark that forms the book’s basis. This is particularly evident in the Rite of Runa in the final practical section of the book, which sends the practitioner down the Helvegr to “the Hidden land, Hel’s misty apple-wood.” Sure it’s syncretic and a grab bag of influences but the imagery is evocative.

Despite the airing of grievances flowing through this review, Rune Mysteries has something to commend it, perhaps just in its audacity. One wouldn’t want to take a single statement it makes as fact, and one’s salt supply might run dry with a surfeit of pinching, but it’s interesting to see what two people can make from what could have been a mere guide to a set of cards of the “ancient Germanic runes,” with the volume running to over 200 pages and featuring a wealth of practical application. There is an even stronger than usual vibe of everything being made up, particularly in the repeated insistence that this Witan-Witchcraft is an ancient, perpetual tradition, but given that made up stuff is par for the course in occultism, there’s obviously an audience for whom this doesn’t matter. To answer the questions with which this review opened, nope, any misgivings were justified, I’m not part of the problem.

Published by Llewellyn

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Tree of Salvation – G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Tree of Salvation coverNearly twenty years in the making, G. Ronald Murphy’s Tree of Salvation is something of a labour of love, a meditation on the intersection between Germanic paganism and Christianity formed by the image of the World Tree Yggdrasil. It is this arboreal intersection that Murphy sees as the thematic building stone that facilitated the integration of Christian thought within the northern European worldview, thereby ensuring conversion. The delicateness of that language does betray Murphy’s approach here, and perhaps his status as a Jesuit priest, for he portrays this transition as largely idyllic, a meeting of the minds rather than a brutal theocratic conquest.

As is made clear by the subtitle Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North, Murphy argues for a happy syncretism of indigenous myth and the new myth of Christianity in which the World Tree was able to be seen as an analogue of the cross and for Woden to be recast as Christ. Murphy’s textual model for this is the recounting of the crucifixion found in The Heliand, in which the cross is described as a tree on a mountain, and Christ is both nailed to the tree and hanging from a rope. Assuming that this idea was something prevalent throughout northern Europe, Murphy turns to his idea of stave and round churches as a mythopoeic text, interpreting them as Christian buildings that were simultaneously representations of Yggdrasil, thereby welcoming in the faithful and reminding them of the World Tree’s sheltering role in myth. Murphy breaks down elements from the architecture that can be seen as analogues of Yggdrasil and its inhabitants: the serpentine gables on the Borgund stave church as the serpents found at the base of Yggdrasil, the tapered shape of the structure mirroring that of a tree, as well as its very materiality.

Tree of Salvation spread

A particularly rich area of imagery for Murphy are the portals and doors of churches, most notably the interwoven frame at Urnes church in Norway that is featured on the book’s cover, and the wrought iron decorations on the door of Roglösa church in Östergötland. The latter, which is usually assumed to show a hunting scene in its top panel and the Garden of Eden or the harrowing of Hell in its bottom, is instead appealingly interpreted as a depiction of Ragnarök, with Surtr appearing as a fiery figure with clawed feet, Þórr fighting the World Serpent, and Níðhöggr crawling towards a version of the World Tree.

There is something very appealing about this idea of pagan imagery being thoroughly suffused into Christian architecture, especially with the way in which Murphy presents it as being so complete and without question, rarely pausing to give caveats or alternative suggestions. His suppositions build one upon the other, sometimes feeling like evidence being made to fit a conclusion, rather than confirming a theory. This is particularly evident in the analysis of the Roglösa church door as a depiction of Ragnarök. While it’s an attractive proposition, Occam’s Razor would suggest that a Christian scene on a Christian door makes more sense, especially when the figure Murphy identifies as Þórr appears almost identical to depictions elsewhere of St. Michael battling the dragon, right down to the figure’s angelic wings. While acknowledging the similarity, Murphy shores up his interpretation by noting that the figure doesn’t carry a spear as St. Michael does in some depictions, seeing instead a small hammer; the tiny, questionable Mjölnir seemingly holding more weight than the wings and posture of an archangel.

Tree of Salvation spread

As something of a poetic approach to these themes, Murphy’s argument is an enthusiastic one, and one in which this passion may sometimes get the better of him, inserting intent where there may have been none. He presupposes, for example, that the idea of Yggdrasil and the interpretation he applies to it was universally held by all tiers of Germanic society, and that this degree of reverence made going to a Yggdrasil-shaped church a tick in the plus column for adopting Christianity. The apex of this is when he puts himself in twelfth century Danish round churches, imagining what a Christmas liturgy would have been like in Nykirke or how Mass would have been conducted in Østerlarskirke. These are fanciful recreations more akin to guided visualisations in which the architecture and the sermon intertwine, as does the imagery both pagan and Christian, with Murphy imagining Yggdrasil being at the forefront of everyone’s mind, acting as a portal that the faithful consciously pass through in order to receive the body and blood of Christ.

In the penultimate chapter Yggdrasil and the Sequence of the Runes in the Elder Futhark, Murphy changes direction somewhat and explores the idea that the runes themselves encode these Christo-Pagan themes of Yggdrasil, with the order of the futhark and the very names of the runes acting as an intentional cypher. To open, he discusses Walter W. Skeats unconvincing nineteenth century attempt to interpret the runes in such a manner, wherein he tried to squeeze the opening words of the Paternoster out of the runes fehu, uruz, thurisaz and ansuz (Father, ure, þhu in heofon). While acknowledging the limitations of Skeats’ approach (no equivalent of ‘h’ in the place it’s needed for heofon just for starters), Murphy has his own go at it, trying to do much the same in increasingly convoluted justifications that come across like the very worst of clutching-at-straws conspiracy literature or alternative archaeology cryptography. First he presents a problem where there isn’t necessarily one, asking why the futhark should follow a different order from the Greco-Roman alphabet. Having done so, he then attempts to answer it. In trying to establish a justification for the futhark’s order he turns to its first aett and manages to somehow get ‘and Christ are one,’ from the runes kaunaz, gyfu, wunjo, hagalaz and nauthiz. Where’s that Surprise Jesus™ in all this you ask? Well, gyfu and wunjo, which sit next to each other in the aett, kind of look like the chi ro symbol (that is, if you lay them one atop the other, move the wunjo up a bit and squint), and that’s obviously Christ, just sitting there clear as day, waving enthusiastically. However, the other runes in that aett aren’t also the separated components of any christogram, no, instead the hagalaz and nauthiz must combine to form the vowelless hn which could be, well of course, a Greek word, hen, the neuter form of eis meaning ‘one.’ Meanwhile, the solo ‘k’ of kaunaz “can only be,” as Murphy emphatically states it, an abbreviation for another Greek word, kai, meaning ‘and.’ Following on from these tortuous beginnings, Murphy somehow manages to convince himself that he can get ‘father’ too, though this isn’t by extrapolating abbreviations from a few individual runes or combining them into a monogram, no, the rules are once again different here, and now the first five runes of the futhark are run together to form fuþar, a word that doesn’t mean anything in any language but sure sounds kind of maybe like ‘father,’ if you squint. The whole segment now reads ‘The father and Christ are one.’ Neat, eh? Personally, I prefer to interpret the hn of hagalaz and nauthiz not as the Greek hen but as the Middle English hen (from the Old English henn, and then the Proto-Germanic *hanj?.), making the phrase now read ‘The father and Christ are chicken.

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Facetiousness aside, this is a remarkable exercise in intellectually dishonest apophenia, in which at least three different methods are used to try and wrangle a Greek phrase out of the letters of a Germanic script, where any method and its interpretation are accepted as long as it fits the pattern one is trying to establish. One tenuous connection is made, followed by another, cascading in a wave of cryptographic confirmation bias, all enthusiastically recounted by Murphy who details his giddy excitement following each ever more conclusive discovery. Small wonder that Murphy goes some way to redeeming Skeats at the end of this chapter, calling him “in a sense prescient.” Never once does Murphy countenance that it would be possible to take the letters of the futhark’s first aett and come up with a hundred different meanings if you could call upon any language, any collection of symbols and any non-existent homophones that kind of sound like the words you want them to sound like. Let’s see, ‘f’ and ‘u’ are used as an abbreviation of the profane directive “fuck you,” and þa sounds like ‘the,’ and well, ‘rk’ must be missing a vowel, shall we say ‘o,’ so that means fuþark actually means “Fuck you, the Rock.” Clearly the ancient runemaster was no fan of Dwayne Johnson.

As he does elsewhere, Murphy strays from methods scholarly and imagines what this specifically gendered creator of the order of the futhark might have intended to do with his tortuous ordering of the letters. Revealing the tangled web he has woven, Murphy makes his mythic futhark organiser someone with multiple motivations, being a pagan Swedish runemaster, a polyglot who was also handy with Greek, someone possessed of a favourable experience with and impression of Christianity who was trying to make the runes suitable to serve this new imported master instead of Woden. In so doing, he created a synthesis of the pagan god and Christ, making the latter the possessor of the runes with which his name was encoded. Yet, Murphy must find an excuse for the recherché and frankly indecipherable nature of this Christo-Pagan runemaster’s runic encoding, suggesting that he kept it secret for some reason, either for reasons magical, or as effectively an occult blind, or because perhaps not everyone, be they Christian or pagan, shared his views. Somehow, despite this caginess, this secret squirrel ordering of the futhark was still disseminated across Scandinavia, stretching credulity.

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Murphy’s final chapter explores the idea of the presence of Yggdrasil in the evergreen imagery of Christmas, trying to find a happy medium betwixt those who see the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol and those that see it as an entirely Christian invention. It’s not just the tree he deals with here, indeed there is considerably more time spent with other arboreal elements associated with Christmas, and he interprets the wreath, for example, as a solar wheel symbolling the cycle of the life that begins anew at Christmas. As elsewhere, what Murphy presents is often just speculation, poetically rendered so as the sound plausible, even convincing, but with little questioning of the mechanisms that would have allowed such themes to perpetuate down through the centuries. This is particularly evident when he addresses the comparatively late seventeenth century innovation of lights on the Christmas tree, interpreting them as stars and finding a tenuous precedent in Snorri’s thirteenth century description in Gylfaginning of the branches of Yggdrasil stretching far across the sky.

In sum, what Murphy presents here is an interesting series of intersecting ideas and themes, ones which if treated as unconscious simulacra add richness to interpretations of both Christian and pagan symbolism. Where it is less successful, though, is when it imagines intent and purpose, relying entirely on presuppositions and impressions in a tone that does come across more like a conspiracy theorist or alternative historian searching in Rosslyn Chapel for Templar traces or forgotten bloodlines.

Published by Oxford University Press

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