Categotry Archives: runes


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.


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


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.

Beowulf's Ecstatic Trance Magic spread

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


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


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.

Tree of Salvation spread

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.

Tree of Salvation spread

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


Green Rûna – Edred Thorsson

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Green Rûna coverPublished in 1996 by Edred Thorsson’s own imprint Rûna Raven Press, Green Rûna is one of several variously-coloured titles that compile his previously published essays. This green incarnation, and the first in the series, draws from the 1970s to the early 1980 with material published in the Ásatrú Free Assembly’s The Runestone, the Odinic Rite’s Raven’s Banner, as well as the Rune-Gild’s own publication, Rûna, and its four volume successor, New Rûna.

In an introduction, James A. Chisholm explains that the book’s title indicates that the material presented here is a rather unripe yet still valuable fruit. Given that many of these articles have their origin in the formative days of contemporary runic mysticism, there’s a feeling of getting in at the ground floor, with Green Rûna acting as primer containing a fair bit of entry-level material. This is grouped together in the book’s first section, Runelore, and its feels, in total, like the kind of thing that could be, and probably was, filled out and expanded into a general book on runes. There’s a brief definition of the word rune itself, and then a very 101 discussion of the futhark (Elder, Younger, Anglo-Saxon and Armanen variations), followed by a further brief article about the relative merits of each futhark in esoteric application. There’s also an article from Rûna on Sigurd Agrell’s Uthark theory, showing an early interest for his work, with an interesting footnote mentioning that an exploration of Agrell’s theory of the Mithraic origins of the tarot was at that point forthcoming from Rûna Raven Press, at that point credited to the later abandoned nom de plume Arbaris.

Green Rûna spread

Articles on various holy signs and some brief interpretations of runestone inscriptions round out the Runelore section of Green Rûna, giving way to a section titled Germanic Studies. Considered here are more cultural and philosophical concepts, the idea of the sumble (in an article that Thorsson credits with introducing the rite to contemporary heathenism), of reincarnation in Germanic myth and legend, of definitions of the sacred, of the nature of the gods as ancestors and in a related article, the euhemerist interpretation of the gods. Two articles show Thorsson’s abiding interesting in the German runic revival with a concise survey from The Runestone of Germanic runic esotericism and from the previous issue of the same, an account of attending the reformed and refounded Armanenschaft’s Herbst Thing in 1981.

Despite the early pedigree of the material here, with Thorsson being in his sprightly twenties at the time, his editorial voice is well established and will be familiar to anyone who has read his works over the subsequent four decades. There’s that irascible, withering tone, spiced with a little hectoring outrage if something has been, he believes, misrepresented, and despite his traditionalist approach, there is also a tendency to project 20th century world views onto the past. This is particularly noticeable when the motivations of rune workers along with their belief in, and the mechanics of, the runes are attributed intent and a sophistication that almost approaches modern physics or philosophy. The runic system, for example, apparently provides a symbolic meta-language with which we can explore ourselves and the multiverse. In a similar vein is an idea that Thorsson has promoted over the years but which was already established by the time of these writings, as evidenced by an article from The Runestone called Ancient Foundations of the Rune-Cult in Europe; a title which gives a sense of what you’re in for. This describes an almost conspiratorial belief in a group of runic adepts, a rune gild that was, as he terms it, a “sacrificial Ásatrú association” which has persisted throughout centuries and continues into the modern era. Thorsson credits these runemasters with guiding the evolution of the Elder Futhark into its Younger incarnation and gives a significant amount of information about the structure of this rune gild ad perpetuum, despite there being no trace of such a frankly historically unfeasible group; effectively imagining what such a group would have been like if they had existed, but framing it like they explicitly did.

Green Rûna spread

Other than the individual articles, Green Rûna includes a handful of reviews written by Thorsson for Rûna and The Runestone, providing an interesting literary timestamp and an indication of what scant titles were available then. Naturally, none of these are really esoteric titles, no contemporaries to the books Thorrson would write in the following years, with the exception of the grandmother of them all, the previously reviewed Rune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland. Instead, Thorsson looks at a grab bag of titles related to the German runic renaissance, Indo-European studies and even the Nýall philosophy of Helgi Pjeturss.

In an appendix, Green Rûna concludes as it begins, with the words of Chisholm in what amounts to a hagiography of Thorsson. The nine pages of The Awakening of a Runemaster tells the story of Thorsson’s spiritual life in a narrative that will generates sparks of recognition for anyone that has read his History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, as Chisholm’s text provides the basis for the first chapter of that book, expanded and embellished, but retaining many of the original phrases. The other items in this appendices are a glossary and reproductions of two Rune Gild documents: introductory information about the Outer Hall of the Rune Gild and a guide to gaining entry to the gild as of Midsummer 1990 when membership was closed to unsponsored members; and to gain said sponsorship required following the guide to runic initiation published in Thorsson’s book The Nine Doors of Midgard.

Green Rûna spread

In the end, the reader can find themselves in concord with Chisholm’s assessment of the material here as unripe fruit, something that shows a clear direction of where Thorsson would go in the subsequent decades but in a nascent state. As such, it makes for an interesting historical collection, though by no means essential reading beyond this status as an archival curiosity.

Published by Rûna Raven Press


The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

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Categories: esotericism, germanic, runes, Tags:

The Secret King coverInitially released jointly by Dominion and Runa-Raven presses in 2001 as The Secret King: Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Lord of the Runes, this 2007 Feral House incarnation of the book sees the original text revised and expanded. While Stephen Flowers and Michael Moynihan share author credits on the cover, the latter explains in his introduction that the two writers played to their strengths, with much of the translation by Flowers, whilst the editing was by Moynihan.

The Secret King brings together various translated works by Karl Willigut, the self-styled king of Germany of the title, prefaced by an essay on the fiction and reality of Nazi occultism, from which the new subtitle is taken. Said subtitle sits rather awkwardly with the majority of the content of the book, feeling disproportionate in its prominence and incongruous to the main title; with the original and Wiligut-specific subtitle being a more accurate option.

The opening discussion on the idea of Nazi occultism is written with a slightly terse and withering tone that does, however, tire easily. It rightly dismisses so much of the baseless speculation that has accrued over the years to the point of almost becoming, at least on a subconscious level, fact; see how easily the image of an Occult Reich seeps into pop culture, whether it be the first Indiana Jones movie, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or the Wolfenstein video games. The authors place much of the initial blame for the idea of Nazi occultism on war-time propaganda, perhaps not as an all-pervasive theme but one which still had an impact in casting Nazi Germany as evil, godless Satanists; such as in Lewis Spence’s none-too-subtle 1940 screed The Occult Causes of the Present War, which sounds like a lot of fun. Such views, Flowers and Moynihan argue, were retooled to give the Allies the higher moral ground in their “crusade against evil,” when in reality, the authors again argue, this crusade was actually against the economic idea of National Socialism, due to its financial isolationism and opposition to usury; though presumably aggressive German expansionism and the invasion of Poland may have had something to do with it too, I guess not.

After detailing the misconceptions and embellishments concerning the role of the occult in Nazi Germany, and the perpetuation of some of these themes in the works of later sympathetic writers like Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano, Flowers and Moynihan turn to the reality. In this telling, these are slim occult pickings and so it’s no The Morning of the Magicians, and you won’t find much in the way of speculation about Thule-Gesellschaft, the Vril Society, or even the slightly more pragmatic Ahnenerbe. Instead, the focus here is solely on Austrian occultist and SS-Brigadeführer, Karl Maria Wiligut. This is a relatively brief introduction to Wiligut, running to 26 heavily illustrated pages, but it does provide a fairly thorough introduction to his life, with some obvious gaps, such is the slip of myth he himself wove, along with a passing overview of the mythos and system he created. Said mythos and system were obviously indebted to the German ariosophists and runologists who preceded him, notably Guiodo von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as Siegfried Kummer and Peryt Shou.

The Secret King spread

Like those predecessors, particularly Kummer and Shou, Wiligut straddled that strange divided between heathenism and Christianity, seeking to merge the two in an attempt, as had been done for centuries before, to forge a particularly Germanic version of Judaeo-Christianity. This leads to a notably pagan-free system, with Wotan effectively dismissed as at best a circumlocution of this more nebulous yet omniscient and all-embracing concept of Got; and with Wotanism as a later ouster of this ur-religion of Got. Indeed, there’s very little that feels obviously heathen in this monotheistic figure of Got, who acts more like a Hermetic or Qabbalistic pantokrator or demiurge, a triad of energy, spirit and matter, with Wiligut aligning them with a belief system, extant amongst the Germanic people since time immemorial, akin to perennial wisdom. Contrary to any evidence, Wiligut categorically states that this “noble knowledge of Gotos” was the treasure of the Germanics, and that they never had ‘Gods’ as they did in Rome.

Betraying the seemingly unavoidable influence of Theosophy, Wiligut’s oeuvre also embraces the idea of Atlantis and vast primordial epochs of human history, with a cosmology and account of creation that follows some of those familiar beats, but with a Germanic twist that incorporates names from mythology as well as the kind of semi-scientific speculation of Hanns Hörbiger or Viktor Schauberger. As one might expect, there’s no references to Blatvatsky and instead, credit for this metaphysical history of the world is attributed to a secret 10,000 year Wiligut family tradition. This Irminsaga, as Wiligut called it, was recorded in script and images on seven wooden tablets of oak, which, not surprisingly, and somewhat conveniently, are now lost, having perished in a fire in 1848. As a result, the junior Wiligut received the family tradition entirely orally from his similarly-named uncle, whose own statute of limitations had fortuitously ran well out as well, as he had died in 1883.

The Secret King spread

The various examples of Wiligut’s writings are drawn principally from Hag All All Hag/Hagal, the journal of the Edda Society, to which he contributed under the pseudonym Jarl Widar. In a style familiar for the time and in later occult speculation, these often provide short outlines of metaphysical concepts, aided by runes and other symbols that are meant to illustrate these principles. There’s much talk of energy and matter, consciousness and becoming, and naturally a lot of talk about Got, wisdom and the Germanic folk. These are for the most part presented without much in the way of commentary and analysis, standing alone as a verbatim recording of Wiligut’s work.

Wiligut’s more poetic contributions are translated by Moynihan in what is acknowledged as a literal rather than lyrical manner, meaning that, sheared of the rhyming couplets of the original German, there’s little sense of the poetic here and the words come across as often abrupt stentorian declarations. These are presented in a small Fraktur-style typeface for a bit of atmosphere and in keeping with how they originally appeared in print.

The Secret King spread

Perhaps the most familiar of Wiligut’s writing is his Gotos-Kalanda cycle of poems celebrating the twelve months of the year. Originally privately published in 1937 as a small booklet by Wiligut and distributed to friends, Gotos-Kalanda has only appeared once before in English, translated by Moynihan, Markus Wolff and Gerhard Petak and published by the latter’s Aorta imprint in 1992. Petak would also use Gotos-Kalanda in 1995 as the basis for the similarly-titled second album of his ritual-industrial project Allerseelen, with each of its twelve tracks named after one of the months and using the poems as inspiration. As its name suggests, and despite the use of pagan names for some of the months, Wiligut’s Gotos-Kalanda is a celebration of his cosmology of Got, with the poems marking out the year as a calendrical round, a waxing and waning of Got in his various seasonal aspects and areas of influence. As such, it provides a rather concise synopsis of Wiligut’s conception of Got and a comprehensive liturgy from which anyone so inclined could draw.

The Secret King spread

The Secret King concludes with a series of appendices, five in all. The longest of these is a substantial interview by Manfred Lenz of the industrial project Turbund Sturmwerk with Wiligut’s former secretary, Gabriele Dechend. Dechend is also the source of another of the appendices, a Wiligut-style description of the cosmos from a 1935 issue of Hagal, all energy-matter-spirit speculation with de rigueur metaphysical symbols and diagrams.

As with the works of earlier members of Germany’s runic revival, there’s an interesting quality to the work presented here, but one which feels unmoored from reality and relevance. There’s little that anyone with pagan inclinations can draw from it, though for those who are prepared to take the leap, there’s a feeling of a complete system and cosmology lurking here, glamorously shored up with Wiligut’s assertions of an ancient family tradition.

Published by Feral House

The soundtrack for this review is Gotos=Kalanda by Allerseelen.


Rune Games – Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland

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Categories: germanic, runes

Rune Games coverRune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland occupies a strange place in the recent history of esoteric runology. First published in 1982, it predates some of the considerably more prominent works from the likes of Stephen Flowers, Freya Aswynn, and Nigel Pennick, with Flowers’ Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic arriving two years later, while Aswynn’s Leaves of Yggdrasil would be first self-published in 1988. Only Ralph Blum and his mass market  Book of Runes (with little rune tiles in a cloth pouch) can claim to be a contemporary, released in the same year as Rune Games, but let’s not tar the latter with the shameful brush of the former. This pedigree means that despite a metaphysical focus, there’s little in the way of references to Germanic magical groups here, and the slight bibliography naturally contains no related titles (as they didn’t exist yet, of course), with the only works directly relating to runes being academic ones: Dickins’ Runic and Heroic Poems, Elliott’s Runes: An Introduction, and Page’s An Introduction to English Runes.

Perhaps highlighting the hoary antiquity of this book, Rune Games is formatted in a monotype face that may have been come from a then-state-of-the-art word processor, but which carries with it a hint of a far older typewriter. There don’t appear to have been any special characters on this word processor, so the thorn and eth letters are both transliterated to ‘th’, with ‘eth’ differentiated in its appearances with a line above the ‘th.’ It’s almost cute but disorientating for those with the luxury of always reading the text with special characters baked in. As one would expect, there were also no runic characters on this ancient device, so when needed, these have been charmingly hand-drawn into the body copy. Double cute.

Rune Games spread

One of the most appealing aspects of Rune Games is an aesthetic one, with the peppering throughout of ink illustrations by Steven Longland. In contradistinction to the conventions of runic and Viking art that has come to dominate this field (as featured in the incessant sponsored posts on my Instagram feed), Longland has a calligrapher’s hand, drawing on the illuminated manuscript style of the Book of Kells to create something that looks more Celtic than obviously Germanic. Indeed, the Book of Kells plays a surprising and disproportionate role in this work, but more about that later.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

While later titles from the milieu of esoteric runology would tend to focus on the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, Osborn and Longland explore the larger Ango-Saxon version; a natural choice since the accompanying Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem provides the most complete information on the meaning of each rune, cryptic though some of them be; with the poem’s Icelandic and Norwegian counterparts detailing only the sixteen runes of the shorter Younger Futhark. After a brief introduction to the runes in general, Osborn and Longland follow the familiar pattern of books such as these by detailing the meaning of each rune, beginning with a translation of the appropriate verse from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem before providing an investigation of symbolism that usually runs up to a page and a half for longer entries, and as little as half a page for others. The authors draw fairly purely and pragmatically from etymology and the information found in the rune poems, with little in the way of outlandish or metaphysical speculation.

There is a concerted effort to show patterns within the runes, creating a thematic image that emphasises, as the rune poem naturally does, Anglo-Saxon ideas of home, hall and hearth. This reaches its zenith in an additional section where Osborn and Longland return to some of the runes by grouping them via their shapes as well as their association with animals, trees and plants, and the stars. The latter provides one of the notable innovative thoughts within the book, not seen anywhere else that I recall, with an interpretation of the Tir rune (described in the poem as a special astral sign, ever on course at night) as an arrow-shaped constellation comprised of the stars Sirius, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Rigel. On paper, as illustrated by Steven Longland here, it certainly looks convincing.

Rune Games spread with Tir image by Steven Longland

Osborn and Longland place particular emphasis on the Ing rune, seeing it as a master rune of sorts, representing imagination and the ability to transform the universe, and identifying it as a symbol of the blind eye of Odin, as the World Tree Yggdrasil, and as a pattern for the stages of life. They highlight its symmetry by halving, quartering and vertical splitting, attaching metaphysical significance to each stage. By far the longest part of this consideration, though, is spent on detailing appearances of the shape of the rune in the images of the Book of Kells, where it can be discerned in not just the overall decorative geometry of illustrations but in objects held by some of the figures. After spending an inordinate amount of time dissecting these images, in particular one from the Gospel of St John, and attaching various runic interpretations to it, Osborn and Longland do abruptly make the belated caveat that it would be a mistake to think the appearance of the Ing shape is a deliberate reference to the rune by the book’s creators; something that should be pretty obvious considering divides temporal, geographical, not to mention cultural and most importantly, religious. While one could say that the appearance of the shape and its themes might be, as Osborn and Longland call it, a meaningful coincidence, this caution is sometimes thrown to the wind and far more categorical statements are made, such as within the very paragraph where they opine that it seems likely an apparent blind eye in a depiction of St. Matthew was intended to be a veiled reference to Odin – quite the allegation to make against Columban monks.

Yggdrasil image by Steven Longland

The unique selling point of Runes Games is said games, eight in all, though Osborn and Longland take their time getting to them, providing a firm grounding in the runes and the metaphysics of divination first, so that it isn’t until half way through the book that they are introduced. Beginning with the simplest, a casting of rune staves (with three of them being selected for a tri-part query), these games are various systems of divination that ramp up in complexity as they progress. Classic children’s’ games play an inspirational role here, with one game being based on a knucklebones while another is comparable to hopscotch, with runes arranged on various grid patterns and the hopping done in the player’s mind. Other games draw from mythology for their framework, with one based on the nine nights spent hanging from the World Tree by Odin, and another that incorporates the charms mentioned in the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál. Another of the games returns to the image of the World Tree but aligns it with the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, assigning various runes to the sephira and then creating five different divinatory trees, with characteristics specific to an assigned rune; for example, the Tree of Man for one’s current personality, the Tree of Aurochs for the will and the Tree of Ing for possible futures.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

As the Yggdrasil game shows, there are often incredible layers of complexity associated with some of these systems, with Osborn and Longland piling interpretations and correspondences one upon the other in a lattice of interlocking potentialities of interpretation. It can be, one must admit, a little intimidating and suited to only a particular mind-set, with the cascade of variables recalling the arcane rules of a tabletop game encountered for the first time by a mere civilian unversed in the ways of geekdom. As such, some of these games feel less like, well, a game, and more like a test of wills, challenging you to see how long you can last until your eyes glaze over as you try to understand the method. With that said, the idea is that obviously, given enough training and experience in these tools and methods, the process of divination should become a lot more fluid and instinctual, without a need to constantly consult the manual.

Published by Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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Nightside of the Runes: Uthark, Adulruna, and the Gothic Cabbala – Thomas Karlsson

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Categories: germanic, nightside, qabalah, runes, Tags:

Nightside of the Runes coverOriginally released by Ouroboros Produktion in 2002 as Uthark: Nightside of the Runes, this book has had its title flipped, and its page count inflated, by Inner Traditions; a publishing house that is home to a surprising amount of runic content alongside more conventional metaphysical fare. To do this, Nightside of the Runes takes the original content of Uthark, and adds a second part based around the Adulruna, and Gothic Cabbala of the subtitle. The latter is Thomas Karlsson’s Adulrunan och den Götiska Kabbalan, a work previously available only in Swedish, German and Italian. And fun fact, the cover here more resembles that of the original edition of Adulrunan och den Götiska Kabbalan than it does Uthark: Nightside of the Runes.

The concept of the Uthark has its origins in the work of Swedish poet and runologist Sigurd Agrell, who argued that the runes should be ordered, not with Fehu at the start, but at the end, thus beginning with Uruz to make an uthark not a futhark. While there are a few examples of a sequential listing of runes in which they could begin with Uruz instead of Fehu, these may simply be errors or erosion, such as, most famously, the Kylver stone from Gotland, where a vertical line before the Uruz could be the remains of Fehu. Karlsson himself doesn’t labour much for the validity of the theory, saying that irrespective of how it is held, the Uthark is a magically potent version of the rune row that corresponds well with Old Norse language and myth.

Perhaps the most interesting application for the Uthark is in how it changes things numerologically, with the value of each rune moving one along when using a letter-to-number cipher, with, for example, Hagalaz becoming a more pleasing 8 and Nauthiz a fitting 9. On the other hand, confirmation bias, pareidolia and apophenia being what they are, you could probably work out some esoteric significance betwixt a rune and a certain value no matter what number it was assigned.

Nightside of the Runes spread with Uthark interpretations

Despite the title of this half of the book (and of the previous standalone edition), the Uthark doesn’t always play a huge role here, save for the occasional esoteric nugget that can be assigned to runes and the reshuffled aetts. Instead, this is a general rune magic primer, with everything you would expect in it: a section on the meaning and symbolism of each rune (and another variation of this same listing later on with meanings simplified for the purpose of divination), a brief guide to runic yoga in the style of Friedrich Marby, an exploration of the cosmology of the nine worlds, and a guide to ritual, including brief considerations of galdr and seiðr. The most notable innovation here is Karlsson’s presentation of the Uthark order of runes as a journey to Hel along the Helvegr, with each rune marking a stage on the journey, beginning with Uruz as a fitting gate to the underworld and ending with the less satisfying interpretation of Fehu as the magician in their state of completion.

The original body copy of Uthark has been edited for this release, tidying up and finessing the words here and there, but not going all out and altering Karlsson’s voice as it appears in the original, translated by Tommie Eriksson (whose name doesn’t seem to be credited in this new edition). As a result, the writing still comes across as the work of someone with English as a second language, though not horribly or unforgivably so. Phrasing can be a little awkward at times, and sentences are often short, abrupt eruptions, where another writer would have combined two or more of them together for greater flow.

Nightside of the Runes spread with labyrinths and ship grave meditations

Having previously read Uthark, but not Adulrunan och den Götiska Kabbalan, it is the latter that proves the most exciting part of the book to get to. Karlsson gives something of a prelude to this in the Uthark section with a brief chapter on runosophy and cabbala, which does introduce some redundancies when you get to Adulrunan proper. While the book’s first half is indebted to Sigurd Agrell, in the second half that role is performed by the Swedish antiquarian and polymath Johannes Bureus. Agrell and Bureus share certain similarities, despite the gulf of centuries, being figures possessed of a singular vision and unique interpretations of the northern mysteries. Both created innovations of the existing futharks, with Agrell’s one-place-along shuffling of the runes of the Elder Futhark having a parallel in the work of Bureus, who grouped the runes of the Younger Futhark into sets of five, and removed the inconvenient final sixteenth rune, Yr, to make a symmetrical three rows of five Adulrunes, as he called them.

Stephen Flowers provides prologues to both the Uthark and Adulrunan sections of this book, and also acts as the translator for the latter. His introduction to Adulruna is quite substantial, running to ten pages and providing what follows with a thorough context, highlighting the cultural and hermetic milieu from which Bureus, and the broader field of esoteric Gothicism (as Karlsson calls it), emerged. With Flowers providing the translation, The Adulruna and the Gothic Cabbala does feature a significant change in Karlsson’s voice from that of Uthark, lacking the staccato quality, with sentences now flowing longer and smoother.

Nightside of the Runes spread with Adulrunes chapter

The other noticeable difference is a considerably more academic approach, with the content here forming the basis of Karlsson’s 2010 doctoral thesis Götisk kabbala och runisk alkemi: Johannes Bureus och den götiska esoterismen. This is particularly evident in the first chapters of  The Adulruna and the Gothic Cabbala which consists of an academic literature review of Bureus and Gothicism in general, and is then followed by a citing-heavy chapter defining Western Esotericism and name-checking all the usual suspects (Dame Frances Yates, Antoine Faivre, Henrik Bogdan, Wouter Hanegraaff, Mercia Eliade etc.). This makes for two very different halves of a book, with the academic grounding of the second half contrasting strongly with the practical, hands-on enthusiasm of the first.

It is the hermetic influences that played a large role in what Bureus created, with esoteric Gothicism drawing on elements of alchemy, cabbala, astrology and ceremonial magic; including clear nods to figures who loom large within this pantheon such as Paracelsus and Dr John Dee. As such, Bureus makes a fitting role model for Karlsson, whose Dragon Rouge organisation has a similar eclectic approach, employing elements of cabbala, including the nightside, and goetia, but with a strong focus on indigenous Scandinavian traditions.

Nightside of the Runes spread with Bureus rune cross

Bureus’ system involves a dense, interwoven cosmology and a very specific nomenclature that is, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic; and Karlsson does an admirable job of documenting it thoroughly and as clearly as can be done with something as ornamented as it is. For example, Bureus posited a rather unique take on the Germanic pantheon in which, based on the runic formula of TOF, Thor was the preeminent god (an androgynous combination of feminine and masculine worshipped since “primeval times” as the “great invoker”), while Odin and Fröja were his children and messengers. This, as was the style of the time, then incorporated elements of mystical Christianity, with Fröja as the Holy Spirit and Odin as a version of Christ, the son of God, who descended into flesh and then returned, ascending to heaven, providing, as mediator, a process for others to follow. Bureus argued that this reflected a version of the philosophia perennis which had remained pristine in the north far longer than in the lands to the south. This incarnation was eventually corrupted when a wandering master of witchcraft and his wife assumed the names of Odin and Fröja. They received worship and turned this pure proto-Christianity into heathenry with its dreaded worship of wooden idols (and worst of all, changing the order of the formula to FTO, with Fröja now worshipped at the beginning of life, Thor during life itself, and Odin at old age and death).

Suffice to say, there’s not a lot of value to Bureus’ system if you’re purely pagan in orientation, or if you adhere to the archaeological record, with his conception of Germanic belief being, to put it diplomatically, highly speculative. But it is, if nothing else, fun. And that’s what makes Nightside of the Runes a worthy purchase, as it provides perhaps the most accessible and in depth information in English on Bureus’ convoluted cosmology and interpretation of the runes; as well, of course, as Agrell’s slightly less esoteric Uthark.

Adulruna sigil

Illustrations in Nightside of the Runes consist of the original line drawings from the original edition of Uthark in the first half, and an exhaustive collection of images from Bureus’ publications in the second. These are rendered in black and white with the contrast turned well up to remove any colour or texture of the original print material, thereby giving them a consistent weathered and arcane look.

Nightside of the Runes is available in Kindle and hardback versions, with the latter wrapped in a dustjacket over its black boards and the title foiled in silver on the spine. Layout is by Inner Traditions’ Debbie Glogover with the body in a dependable Garamond, and headings in a distressed Appareo that contrasts with the san-serif Gill Sans of the subheadings. Appareo is a nice touch with its almost-slab serifs and worn edges approximating the face used on the original edition of Adulrunan, and conveying less of the runic side of this book and more of a sense of the later gothic manuscript or grimoire. Continuing this style, each chapter heading incorporates a crop of the sun image from the book’s cover (originally from the title page of Bureus’ Svenska ABC boken medh runor), sitting above the title as a pleasing archway.

Published by Inner Traditions

Review Soundtrack: Therion – Gothic Kabbalah  (as with many Therion albums, Thomas Karlsson provided the lyrics to this album based on the work of Johannes Bureus)


History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018 – Edred Thorsson

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Categories: germanic, runes

History of the Rune-Gild coverThis title from Stephen Flowers, aka Edred Thorsson, has the peculiar status of being the third, and yet first, volume in an as yet to be completed trilogy that will discuss the history of the Rune Gild. While this entry documents the most immediate and therefore accessible incarnation of the gild, the others will consider its historical antecedents. Thorsson is of the belief that the Rune-Gild, an initiatory organisation with a scholarly focus formed in 1979, is the continuation of a group that existed in ancient times, a unified, coherent and organised Gild of Runemasters, as he describes them. This incarnation will be the subject of the eventual first volume, while attempts to revive runic lore from medieval times to the modern era will be the focus of the trilogy’s intermediate entry. This third volume represents an expanded edition of a work originally released in 2007, and includes previously unpublished photographs and an exhaustive bibliography of Thorsson’s published works.

The modern history of the Rune-Gild is intimately connected with Thorsson’s own, and so this volume inevitably tends towards the autobiographical, with the gild as an adjunct to his personal journey. This is clear from the start, where the first chapter is a biography of Thorsson from a precocious youngster, to his joining of the Ásatrú Free Assembly in 1978.

Thorsson writes with a gruff, pugnacious manner that perfectly fits his appearance and prominent moustache, making him come across like a Runic Ron Swanson, whether he’s railing against political correctness gone mad™ in academia, or WWE’s ‘sports entertainment’ brand of wrestling. Indeed, to use the parlance of the latter, Thorsson often seems to be cutting a promo on his foes and bugbears, channelling Classy Freddie Blassie or Bobby Heenan when he somewhat cringingly refers to lesser participants in this here magical milieu as “occultizoid nincompoops.” To continue this use of wrestling’s nomenclature, History of the Rune-Gild sees Thorsson constantly turning heel on former colleagues and associates (though perhaps he views himself as the babyface betrayed by cowardly foes), and this allows the book to be the definitive airing of grievances as no one is spared his indelicate wrath. The result is something of a scurrilous read, which may or may not work for some readers, depending on the degree of glee they take in snark, scuttlebutt and out-right invective.

History of the Rune-Gild photographs

This is particularly evident in a section devoted to publishing, where Thorsson eviscerates (there really is no other word for it) his past fellow writers at Llewellyn. Almost everyone gets a chairshot or is thrown onto a bed of thumbtacks strewn across the mat, including DJ Conway (her Thorsson-edited Norse Magic was “another Llewellyn travesty”), Donald Tyson (a Germanic bandwagon-jumper possessed of a “dull wit” with a “wilful misunderstanding” of the gods), and of course, the unfortunate Ed Fitch (who foolishly admitted that he had actually tried a few of the rituals in his laughable Rites of Odin and they seemed to “work pretty well”). Then there is David Godwin who is mocked for apparently not knowing about the Greek Magical Papyri despite having written a book, Light in Extension, about Greek magic ancient and modern, while Donald Michael Kraig’s assessment of Thorsson’s Hermetic Magic manuscript is extensively relitigated in return here. Even Freya Aswynn and Kveldulf Gundarsson, two authors who largely survive unscathed in this section, still receive a bit of a jab when Thorsson laments, with a touch of endearing ennui, that we can expect no gratitude in the world, as even those two individuals eventually formed an alliance and worked against him and his interests.

While the book does largely follow a chronological narrative, Thorsson sometimes takes a breaks of an entire chapter to focus on a particular subject area, be it the discussion of his involvement with publishing (beginning with Llewellyn and Weiser and culminating in the founding of his own Rûna Raven Press), his experiences in the Temple of Set, or musing on his time spent in academia. While they broadly fit within the surrounding narrative, some of these feel almost disconnected, repeating details as if they haven’t been mentioned before, and giving the sense that maybe, though there is no other evidence of this, they were based on standalone essays. Thorsson seems, for example, to be repeatedly heading off to Europe for a year of study and leaving the Rune-Gild in the capable hands of Edwin Wade, when it’s actually the same moment retold anew in different contexts.

History of the Rune-Gild Chapter V: The Dark Side

Perhaps the most interesting of these focused chapters is a detailed discussion of Thorsson’s relationship with the Temple of Set, something that over the years has proved variously intriguing, problematic, disconcerting or simply incongruous, depending on one’s perspective. Thorsson’s role with the Temple has been a long one, rising through the ranks to gain the grade of V° Magus, and becoming grand master of its Order of the Trapezoid. He makes a strong case when explaining his reasons for such intense involvement, clearly aware of the eyebrows it has raised over the years. One of the key points here is the value of engaging fully with a system and its structure as a learner, of submitting to the process, and of the lessons that can always be learnt from a mentor. For Thorsson, that mentor was the temple’s founder, Dr Michael Aquino, who he lauds for performing the same role in matters magickal that Dr Edgar Polomé, his lecturer and mentor at the University of Texas, did in matters academic.

Other than the Temple of Set and the Rune Gild itself, the organisation that receives the most attention here is The Troth/Ring of Troth, formed in 1987 by Thorsson and James Chisholm after the disestablishment of the Ásatrú Free Assembly. Thorsson’s relationship with the Troth is portrayed as one of some distance, like a disappointed father, and the account here is more often than not a resigned, melancholy testament to the perils of being involved with an occult organisation, all internal struggles, power plays, gossip and more time practicing malice than magic.

History of the Rune-Gild photographs

In contrast, the penultimate and final chapters document the growth of the Rune Gild and the light cast here is considerably more favourable. As the 1990s headed towards the 2000s a physical space called Woodharrow was developed on 30 acres of land in Lost Pines, east of Austin, with the Yrmin-Hall raised in 1994. New cast members are added to the history, with Ian Read of Fire + Ice being increasingly involved and acquiring the rank of Rune-Master (the album Rûna being his qualifying masterwork), while long-time associate Alice Karlsdóttir ascended to Gild-Master (her book Magic of the Northern Goddesses being her masterwork). Compared to the earlier chapters, this period is treated positively and less curmudgeonly, though Thorsson still inevitably laments the failings of the occasional member. In a slightly more compact view of the Rune-Gild’s more recent history, Thorsson then summarises various moots held through the year before the gild was destroyed and re-constituted on 11/11/11 (apparently necessitated by the forces of Níðhöggr) with Thorsson stepping aside as leader.

History of the Rune-Gild is well illustrated with two sections of photographs of Thorsson, his influences and contemporaries. The first documents Thorsson’s early life and that of the nascent gild, whereas the latter shows various gild associates (masters, fellows and drightens), including famous faces like Michael Moynihan, Ian Read, and honorary member Nigel Pennick. In addition to these supplementary images, the book concludes with an extensive appendix, 26 entries in all, providing a wealth of original documents. These range from a 1959 news clipping documenting a conjunction of the Moon and Venus observed by a young Stevie Flowers, to various Rune-Gild and Troth documents, excerpts from Temple of Set newsletters, and a range of Thorsson’s pugilistic missives on gild letterhead from over the years. The most interesting of these appendices is a facsimile of the Odinic Rite’s breathless expose and condemnation of Thorsson’s association with the Temple of Set, full of righteous indignation and paranoia, as they try to get their heads around the apparent incompatibility of the two organisations, and attributing Thorsson with all manner of nefarious intent.

History of the Rune-Gild appendices

History of the Rune-Gild was edited by Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan, with cover design by both (using a photograph by P.D. Brown), and typesetting confidently executed by Buckley. It is available as a trade paperback.

Published by Gilded Books, an imprint of Arcana Europa Media

Review Soundtrack: Fire + Ice – Rûna

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