The Beginnings of Scientific Runology and Neo-Romanticism

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

The Beginnings of Scientific Runology and Neo-Romanticism


This brief chapter acts as a prelude and bridge to the great outburst of runic revivalism that will occur in the early twentieth century. But that revival did not spring out of thin air. The cultural preparations for it really took place in the twenty years leading up to the turn of the century.

The end of the nineteenth century was a time of great development in the world of ideas. Following the demise of the broader European Romantic movement in the wake of the failed revolutionary activity of 1848, alternative ideas began to go more “underground,” into what we today recognize as subcultures. These subcultures continuously fight to make themselves more broadly influential in the mainstream of human culture. It remains so to this day.

More rigorous methodologies for the study of antiquity and the Middle Ages had become established in the academic world, and a considerable amount of sound, scholarly groundwork was laid in the early nineteenth century using the new tools of philology, linguistics, comparative mythology, archaeology, and other disciplines. Interest in the Germanic past was growing and had matured by the late nineteenth century, to a certain extent due to the influence upon popular culture exerted by figures such as Richard Wagner, which we discussed at the conclusion of the previous chapter.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, a number of aspects of life were being questioned, and alternative views were becoming ever more popular and acceptable. The ideas of major thinkers such as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were being put into action on various cultural levels, and new ideas entered the mainstream through popular literature and other art forms.

In the realm of esotericism, the late nineteenth century was the period when the ideas that would bloom forth as the so-called magical revival were being developed. Popular interest in matters of the unseen and occult was on the rise as spiritual matters were increasingly taken out of the hands of churches and academics and progressively put into the hands of the masses. Several sometimes related, but often independent, spiritual groupings came into being. The Theosophical Society had been founded in America in 1875 and by the 1880s had put down roots in German-speaking Central Europe. Besides the Theosophists, there were offshoots such as the Anthroposophists and the Ariosophists as well as countless other groups like the GermanChristians, the Germanic-Faith Movement, and all manner of mystically oriented organizations.

A number of broad alternative cultural movements were also on the rise during this period. In Germany especially, the philosophy of Lebensreform (life reform), as expressed through a loosely knit array of Reformbewegungen (Reform Movements) associated with it, had the goal of holistically reshaping various aspects of life—the environment, politics, economics, social and sexual relations, education, art, fashion—as well as the spiritual worlds of ethics, philosophy, and religion. This spirit of “Reform” has had a continuous effect on German culture since those days and was even exported to other countries to various degrees as well. For example, it has been convincingly shown that the American “Hippie Movement” had its original roots in the German Reform ideas (see Kennedy’s Children of the Sun, 1998).

The reformist spirit was largely motivated as a reaction to the sometimes grim and repressive aspects surrounding the Second Industrial Revolution, which began as early as 1870. But there were also positive effects that came about from the growth of new technologies. One of the most significant developments for the future of runic studies, both scientific and esoteric, is the great expansion in education and economic advancement of a burgeoning middle class. More people were being educated, and more people were earning the money with which to buy books and so on. It is from this time forward that we can trace the present state of socioeconomic life in the West.

In the world of academic runology, the most important development during the late nineteenth century was the work of the Dane Ludvig F. A. Wimmer (1839—1920), specifically his landmark study Runeskriftens Oprindelse og Udvikling i Norden (The Origin and Development of the Runic Script in the North), which appeared in Danish in 1874. But when this work was translated into German in 1887 as Die Runenschrift (Runic Writing) it gained a much wider readership and thus set off more general scholarly interest in runes in the years immediately following.

In the history of ideas, Wimmer’s work came at the time when the two fields of historical (diachronic) linguistics and runology finally came together in a cooperatively productive way. The field of historical or diachronic linguistics had developed to such an extent that many of the difficult runological problems of the past could now be solved. In many respects this time period can be called a “golden age” of runology, with pioneering scholars undertaking the great task of producing comprehensive editions of the known runic inscriptions in their respective nations, as well as delving into bold systematic interpretations of the runic tradition, its origins, and its greater meaning.

Although collections of inscriptions had been made as early as the Renaissance period, it was only after the stage had been set by Wimmer that this task could be undertaken in a systematic and coherent manner. The time was ripe for philologists working in the various lands where runes were to be found to think about creating definitive and comprehensive editions of these runic inscriptions. Toward the end of this incubation period, the first results of this collective project began to be published. This process is, however, so enormous and split up into various national spheres of interest that it would not even be completed in the twentieth century. (The work of producing a uniform edition of all the known runic inscriptions still remains unfinished today, but modern technological advances in the age of the Internet have, for the first time, made the realization of this enormous task foreseeable in the near future.)

In 1889, Rudolf Henning came out with a study titled Die deutschen Runendenkmäler (The German Runic Monuments), which discussed thirteen runic inscriptions from the territory of modern Germany, in which he included bracteates and Gothic inscriptions.

It was also during this period in the late nineteenth century that George Stephens (1813—1895) published his massive collections of runic monuments in English. His works were the four volumes of The Old- Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England, which came out between 1866 and 1901, as well as his Handbook of the Old-Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England in 1884. His works were elaborately illustrated with drawings of the runic monuments that remain interesting and useful to the present day. However, his treatment of the actual inscriptions was rather uninformed and uncritical. A balanced assessment of Stephens can be found in Andrew Wawn’s scholarly history of the nineteenth-century “invention” and popularization of the Viking Age, The Vikings and the Victorians (Wawn 2002, 215—44).

As a continuing characteristic of the runic revival after the periods of the Renaissance and Storgöticism in Sweden, the scholarly world and the esoteric world generally seem to have kept their distance from one another. During the late nineteenth century, there was a general “occult revival” in various parts of the world, especially in Britain and France, while at the same time runic studies were certainly beginning to become more fixed and complete. It appears that it was during this time period especially that the present-day rift between those interested in the esoteric dimensions of the runes and those devoted entirely to the linguistic aspects of their study became established.

Perhaps a key catalyst in bringing about this rift was the Austrian mystic and poet Guido von List. We will examine List in more detail in the next chapter, but here it is relevant to briefly consider this pivotal figure in the light of the late nineteenth century so that we may appreciate the soil from which his esoteric vision would grow during the first few years of the following century.

Between 1877 and 1900, List wrote a wide variety of plays, novels, poems, and journalistic articles. None of them were overtly esoteric in the strict sense. However, it appears that in List’s own mind his ideas were being synthesized into a more coherent esoteric vision before 1900. The key to his vision lies in the systematic treatment of the sounds of the German language, which are, in turn, eventually keyed to the runes. List’s biographer, Eckehard Lenthe, notes that List began to use a pentagram in his signature from 1898 onward. Lenthe takes this as a sign of List’s declaration that his intentions were magical and that he was dedicating himself to working to alter or influence the world in some way. During the decade of the 1890s in Vienna, List certainly would have been directly exposed to the personalities of men such as the Theosophist Franz Hartmann, the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, and Dr. Carl Kellner, the alleged founder of the Ordo Templi Orientis. In 1900, List’s poem “Wuotans Erwachen” (Wuotan’s Awakening) was published in the Austrian journal Der Scherer.

The earliest epicenter of the neo-Germanic revival would be the city of Vienna, a city that was a great cauldron of social, political, and cultural upheaval, turmoil, and with all that a vibrant creativity that has rarely been matched in human history.