The Turbulent Dawn of a New Germanic Rebirth

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

The Turbulent Dawn of a New Germanic Rebirth


The turn of the nineteenth century or, as it is also known, the period of the fin de siècle, was a time of extreme and dramatic development in human history. There were technological revolutions such as the invention of the lightbulb (1879), the motion picture camera (1891), powered flight (1903), radar (1904), radio (1906), and the affordable motor car (1908), all of which would transform society. These technical inventions also fired the imaginations of people on a popular level, and this was mixed with dramatic new ideas in social organization, such as Marxism (from the 1850s onward) and Social Darwinism (from the 1880s onward), and Freud published On the Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, ushering in a new era of psychology.

These events and developments affected every aspect of life in the Western world, and runology, both scientific and esoteric, was not exempted from these trends. Especially in Germany, where the ideas of the Reform Movement had established deep roots, the new wave of cultural development had significant effects. Radical solutions to age-old problems and questions were embraced with a special enthusiasm.

Following the year 1900 the number of editions cataloging the corpus of runic inscriptions began to proliferate. The scholars of each nation dedicated themselves to the production of comprehensive editions. The project in Sweden, due to its enormous size, has even to this day not been completed, but with the advent of the Internet and electronic databases, the project is now nearing completion. The most unfortunate chapter in this story is the lack of a comprehensive edition of the Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions. (My concise edition of these inscriptions, Anglo-Frisian Runes [Flowers 2019] at least provides an organized checklist and basic readings for the corpus.)

The early twentieth century also produced a collection of brilliant runic scholars from each of the countries involved. In Germany, the names of Helmut Arntz and Wolfgang Krause are among the best known. In Norway, Carl Marstrander is someone we will meet again later. He was a student of Sophus Bugge and not only participated in the advancement of runology with his editorial work on the Norwegian runic inscriptions but was also a Celticist who jointly edited the journal Ériu with Kuno Meyer. Magnus Olsen was also a major participant in the Norwegian project. In Denmark, the names of Lis Jacobsen, Erik Moltke, and Anders Bæksted can be considered stellar. Sweden had a number of excellent scholars undertaking the great task of editing the huge corpus of Swedish inscriptions, among them were Otto von Friesen, Erik Brate, and Sven Jansson. Ludwig Wilser was one of the last writers with any scholarly credentials who upheld the theory of an indigenous origin for the runes, an idea that he defended as late as 1905.

In the world of scientific runology, the first half of the twentieth century was also a time in which a number of competing theories about the origin of the runic system were developed among scientific or academic runologists. Among a certain group of scholars at this time there was also a significant school of runology that focused on speculation concerning a numerological aspect to the runic tradition. This concept found its first proponent in Magnus Olsen, as exemplified in his 1916 landmark study “Om Troldruner” (On Magical Runes), and probably its last great champion in Heinz Klingenberg with his 1973 tour de force titled Runenschrift—Schriftdenken—Runeninschriften (Runic Writing—The Ideology of Writing and Runic Inscriptions). Not all of these numerical analyses were the same. Olsen simply proposed that the runemasters, such as Egill Skallagrímsson, used a system of runecounting to compose and formulate inscriptions, especially if they were intended to have a magical effect.

Following the lead of Olsen and others, Hans Brix wrote a series of studies in the late 1920s and early 1930s on what he called runemagi (rune magic). He saw the numerical magic in what to others might appear to be ordinary memorial inscriptions. Brix took three numeric aspects of any given inscription into account: (1) words, (2) characters, and (3) dividing markers. An example of his method will demonstrate how his system worked. The Ulunda stone from Uppland, Sweden, reads:

halha x raisti x stin þina x aftir x hrulf x buanta x sin x kuþ hialbi x at hans

“Helga raised this stone after Hrolf her husband.

God help his spirit.”

The word-count of this stone is 12 (4 + 4 + 4).

The rune-count is 53, which, by reducing this number by the runecount of the name in the sponsor, renders 48 (= 24 + 24).

The number of dividing signs is 9.

The three key-numbers for this runestone are therefore 53 (runecount) + 12 (word-count) + 9 (sign-count). This makes 74 in all. Brix wants to subtract the numbers of the names of both the sponsor and the deceased (5 + 5 = 10) to render the “magical number” of the stone as 64. Furthermore, if the number of the sign-count and the word-count (21) is reduced by the number of the runes in the sponsor’s name (5), we get 16. So here we see in the overall numeric symbolism references to the key-number of both the Older Futhark (24) and the Younger Futhark system (16). This sort of numeric symbolism forms a sort of meta-poetry, whereby meaning is conveyed by language and writing in ways that transcend the natural or normal modalities of communication.

During this phase of scientific runology, it was a Swedish professor from Lund, Sigurd Agrell (1881—1937), who most thoroughly developed theories of numeric symbolism with regard to runic inscriptions. He did not merely see the numeric patterns and claim there must be something “magical” about them; rather, he developed a whole historical and theoretical underpinning for the phenomena. He posited that the runes owed much to a connection with the Mithraic cult, into which many Germanic tribesmen were initiated, and that this cult was deeply involved with numeric symbolism—most particularly a method known to the Hebrews as gematria and to the Greeks as isopsephy. This entails the assignment of a numeric value to each letter of an alphabet and then adding together the numeric values of words or phrases to unlock hidden meanings and reveal formulas of magical power by means of the numeric symbolism. Such symbolism was widely known in late antiquity, as is well attested by the famous New Testament passage (Revelation 13:18) that refers to the “name of the beast” as either 666 or 616, depending on the manuscript one reads. Into this mix Agrell also threw a revolutionary new theory about the structure of the well-established futhark. He claimed that the system did not originally begin with the f-rune but with the u-rune. This made the u-rune the equivalent of the number one, the th-rune the number two, and so forth; and it thus meant that the f-rune was now the twenty-fourth rune. Agrell’s assertion became known as the “Uthark-Theory.” Unfortunately, there is no substantial evidence for this theory, other than the circumstantial evidence that some words when analyzed in this way seemed to him to correspond to numeric formulas found in the Mediterranean world. An example of this would be the famous runic formula ᚨᛚᚢ alu, which according to Agrell’s Uthark-Theory would render the numeric formula 3.20.1 = 24 and thus the formulaic word alu could be seen as the symbolic equivalent of the entire runic futhark. By the same token, however, the gematria for the word using the supposed conventional numeric values would render 4.21.2 = 27 (2 + 7 = 9). Interestingly, the conventional system also causes the Old Norse word derived from alu, öl, rendered in runes as ᛅᚢᛐ, to result in the same sum: 10.2.15 = 27.

The most significant defense of Agrell’s ideas can perhaps be found in the fact that there is actually a Kabbalistic technique, known by the technical Hebrew term avgad, that consists of replacing each letter by the next one, so that the first letter has the value of the last. Such a practice is also briefly mentioned by the runologist Klaus Düwel (2008, 182) as one of the later practices used with runic codes.

With regard to the use of runes as numbers and the gematria theory, it must be said that there is no solid basis for this in the runic record before the Middle Ages. As Prof. Dr. Klaus Düwel showed in his 1979 review of Klingenberg’s work on runic gematria from 1973, there is no instance of runes being used as numerals, and when numbers are mentioned in inscriptions they are spelled out in words.

This objection does not, however, entirely dismiss the idea of numeric symbolism in the repertoire of the runemaster. The more modest and conservative theories put forth by Olsen and Brix, which hinge on the counting of runes in an inscription or meaningful (or otherwise “marked”) segment of an inscription, appear to fit in well with the general ideology of the poet. In traditional Germanic poetry the syllables in a line are counted, stressed syllables are arranged in certain patterns (meter), and so on. The introduction of written characters among poets in an otherwise illiterate culture seems a plausible opportunity to take their poetic art to a new level. Poetic patterns in general (meter, alliteration, rhyme, and end-rhyme) are all measured in their artistry by the degree of meaningfulness and intentionality that is put into the text. Rhyme for its own sake is referred to as doggerel. The patterns of poetry should indicate an extra dimension of meaningfulness in the message. As we saw in the discussion of the magical theory in chapter 1, the element of communication between realms of reality (between men and higher beings, or between men and nature directly) is essential. Poetry separates profane or mundane speech from sacred or magical utterances. The use of numeric patterns in visible speech (writing) would be just another level of this kind of thinking. We may therefore expect to find rules analogous to those that govern “registers” in the theory of sociolinguistics to be at play in the theory of magical communication, or what is called an operative speech act. Runic inscriptions themselves represent language performed in a higher register than ordinary, everyday speech.

Many of these numerological theories have been rightly and rationally criticized by skeptics who note that the rules for this practice posited by scholars such as Olsen, Brix, Agrell, and others are often highly flexible and arbitrary. All sorts of patterns can be made to fit the theory. Two responses suggest themselves: (1) The same thing is often true of other poetic rules; what pupil has not heard of “poetic license” at almost the same moment as the idea of poetry itself is introduced? (2) The idea of intentionality is key—if the writer intends to create various subtle patterns in his art, then they part of the overall effect of his work. That being said, discovering the specific intentionality that underlies an ancient literary text is admittedly somewhat of a speculative endeavor.

Due to a new, more scientific level of study and understanding of the ideas of religion and magic, it was also during the early twentieth century that many scientific runologists came to assume the intrinsically magical character of the runes and runic writing. These included Magnus Olsen, Carl Marstrander, Helmut Arntz, and Wolfgang Krause. This was a logical assumption to make considering that most runic inscriptions were not easily intelligible as any sort of purely secular communication, coupled with the fact that almost all early references to runes in Icelandic literature (including the Eddic poems) refer to runes and their use in a magico-mythic light.

Although scientific runology appears to have developed in accordance with its own intellectual traditions, those outside that stream of thought, perhaps caught up in the turn-of-the-century frenzy of innovation, also soon pulled the age-old runes into the picture. As opposed to the Renaissance tradition of a Johan Bure, who brought together the best scientific and the best esoteric methods of his day, the new esoteric runic revival, true to its modernistic roots, developed its own specialized systems apart from the world of academia. In the spirit of new and revolutionary applications of knowledge, the Austrian poet, journalist, and mystic Guido von List cast a vision of esoteric runology that is still felt today. Evidence shows that List was certainly well versed in the doctrines of Theosophy, an esoteric movement founded in 1875 in the United States and largely based on the writings of the Russian writer Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which is a synthesis of Neoplatonism, spiritualism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Egyptian lore. It holds that there is a secret organization of Mahatmas (great souls) who guide the organization. Theosophy teaches that there is a single divine Absolute and that the universe is a series of emanations from this source. In this respect it follows many religions and philosophies of the past. It also especially emphasizes the doctrine of reincarnation and the laws of karma; in other words, the belief that all action (Skt. karma) results in a reaction, positive or negative.

The century began with the publication in 1900 of a visually influential book by Friedrich Fischbach (1839—1908) called Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs: Beitrag zur Runenkunde (Origin of Gutenberg’s Letters: A Contribution to Runology). Fischbach, who was a professional decorator and textile designer, brings the temperament of the visual artist to the questions of runology and speculates wildly about the iconic meaning of the rune-shapes. That is, he interprets the meaning of the runes in a pictographic way and links their significance to the practice of an ancient Aryan firecult. These ideas would inspire even more fertile imaginations in the early part of the twentieth century to come.