Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021
The Armanen Movement
The Turbulent Dawn of a New Germanic Rebirth
(Phase I: 1904—1919)
What can best be described as the Armanen Movement is a Germanbased neo-runic phenomenon founded and inspired by the Austrian writer, poet, and mystic Guido von List (born October 5, 1848, in Vienna; died May 17, 1919, in Berlin), whom we met in the previous chapter. His influence was considerable but has often been mischaracterized in later interpretations. In the German-speaking world, most rune-occultists in one way or another were inspired by his ideas, if not the system that he championed. List came from a fairly well-to-do family. It is noteworthy that List never published anything of a “practical” magical nature; his approach, at least as it was expressed publicly, was more philosophical and historical in character. His theories were, however, employed by more practically minded writers, such as Friedrich Bernard Marby, Siegfried Adolf Kummer, and E. Tristan Kurtzahn. The first phase of this movement took place during List’s own lifetime and was shaped by his voluminous writings from this period. Most important for our purposes are Das Geheimnis der Runen (The Secret of the Runes; English edition: Destiny, 1988) and Die Bilderschrift der Ario-Germanen (The Hieroglyphs of the Aryo-Germanic Folk), published in 1910.
A more in-depth discussion and presentation of the practical or experiential aspects of early twentieth-century German rune occultism can be found the book Rune Might by Edred Thorsson (2018). There the reader will find a summary of the various techniques used by these occultists. Here we will instead concentrate primarily on the historical and runological aspects of their work.
Runologically, List’s great contribution to the esoteric side of the runic revival was his development of the concept of an eighteen-rune futhork. Living as he did in a highly literate world, and emerging from an orthodox Christian cultural context, the power of scripture was undeniable in his world. List’s eighteen-rune futhork is based on the literary evidence provided by a section of the Old Norse Eddic poem known as the Hávamál. This section, which composes the concluding twenty-eight stanzas of the poem, is known as the “Rúnatals þáttr Óðins”: Óðinn’s Story of the Listing of Runes.
List was a well-known and successful writer before he published his first groundbreaking esoteric work, The Secret of the Runes (1908). He was a poet, writer of fiction, playwright, and journalist. His most famous and successful work up to that time had been his Deutschmythologische Landschaftsbilder (1891), which was a two-volume collection of his travels to, and observations of, various unusual and historical landscapes, mainly in Lower Austria. The chronology of List’s development, suggested by the contents of Eckehard Lenthe’s biography of him, Wotan’s Awakening (2018), indicates that List became ever more drawn into the world of the occult and magic during the course of the 1890s. Lenthe notes that List included a pentagram in his signature after the year 1898 and alluded to the idea that this marked him as a magus, a practicing magician, from that time forward (Lenthe 2018, 93). It was during the time Guido von List was temporarily blinded by arduous treatments for cataracts between April of 1902 and March of 1903 that his “inner eyes” are said to have been opened to a vast system of esoteric connections involving the development and structure of language. The runes would be basic and fundamental to the building blocks of this vast theory, which was ultimately given its final expression in his 1915 book Die Ursprache der Ario-Germanen und ihre Mysteriensprache (The Original Language of the Aryo-Germanic Folk and Their Mystery Language).
List was obviously heavily influenced by the literature and methods of Theosophy, and it is upon these mystico-magical methods that he based some of his insights regarding runic symbolism. It might be said that the eighteen runes of the Armanic Futhork have an esoteric heritage. List claimed to have secret knowledge that the eighteen-rune futhork was indeed the primeval system out of which all others originated. No contemporary historian or philologist could ever agree with such a claim, as no epigraphical evidence exists for it. List struggled his whole life to try to get his theories of runes and language accepted by the academic world, a world that was almost entirely uninterested in his mystical approach. As we have seen elsewhere in this book, for centuries runologists thought that the sixteen-rune futhark was the most ancient form of the runic tradition, so List probably felt justified in his interpretation, since the Armanic Futhork is clearly an extension of the younger system.
This is not the place to enter into a lengthy or detailed discussion of the person or the numerous theories of Guido von List. Interested readers can consult the works of List himself, along with the aforementioned book about the practices of the early twentieth-century rune mystics, Rune Might (Thorsson 2018). The most important recent contribution to Listian studies is the aforementioned book Wotan’s Awakening by Eckehard Lenthe, translated by Annabel Lee and published by Dominion Press in 2018.
For us it is here only important to outline List’s basic runological theories. Clearly his ideas on the runes were fundamental to his whole approach, as he began his series of esoteric writings with the book The Secret of the Runes (1908), which in many ways encapsulates and exemplifies his larger philosophy.
List had not only a revolutionary approach to the runes but also to language itself. These linguistic theories are found in all of List’s works, but a summary compendium remains Die Ursprache der Ario-Germanen und ihre Mysteriensprache. List’s ideas about the German language, which must be characterized as entirely esoteric, have their origin in linguistic ideologies stemming from ancient India. This attraction to Indian thought only becomes intelligible with knowledge of the culture of the Theosophical Society and the popular interest of Germans in the concept of Indo-Germanic unity. Several of the “technical” terms used by List come from Sanskrit—for example, kala, rita, and Garma (= karma).
The learned linguistic structure of Sanskrit, reflected in its writing system using the Devanagari script, is syllabic in character. It is made up of syllabic “seed-words” consisting of combinations of consonants linked to vowels. Using this same principle, List devised a Germanic version of this system whereby he could analyze, on an esoteric level, the hidden meaning of any word in any language, ancient or modern.
While List can rightly be criticized for the inaccuracies of his theories from a purely linguistic standpoint, it is interesting to note that there is evidence that Icelandic scholars of language in the Middle Ages, and specifically the author of a work known as the First Grammatical Treatise, expressed similar ideas to those of List as regards the arrangement of sound in a syllabic system. It would seem that these theories or practices probably have their roots in runelore and are as much symbolic or mythic representations of language as they are practical linguistic exercises. (For a brief study of these Norse ideas, see my article “The Medieval Icelandic ’Grammatical Treatises,’” published in the volume Mainstays [Thorsson 2006].)
Table 7.1 shows a general schematic outline of List’s symbolic runic system as it appears in The Secret of the Runes. At least some of the appeal of List’s system comes from the claim that it is based on a more archaic model than any other ever recorded. It is believed that the Master—as List was known to his followers and admirers—had discovered the key to runic symbolism inherited from the original source, which stemmed from the antediluvian world of Atlantis. This esoteric approach was very reminiscent of the approach to religious symbolism exemplified by Theosophists, such as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831—1891) in her two-volume magnum opus The Secret Doctrine (1888), which appeared in German translation as Die Geheimlehre in 1900. List also appears to have been greatly influenced by the writer Maximilian Ferdinand Sebaldt von Werth (1859—1916), who was also a member of List’s society. But we should never underestimate the innovative and creative abilities of List himself in the formulation of his system.
Table 7.1 also provides some insight into the way in which the Listian system of runology worked. Based mostly on the phonology of Modern German, with some input from dialectal forms and the use of Old Norse cognates and so on, he built up an elaborate framework for the esoteric interpretation of language. List bases this on a quasisystematic series of connections or correspondences that he discovers among words due to their similarities in sound. It may be likened to a sonic or phonic Kabbalah. Especially marked are words that begin with the same sound, followed by a vowel of any quality, and a consonant within the same natural class as other words; for example, classified under the ka-rune are: kaun, kuna, kien (as in Modern German Kienholz, “torch”), kiel (English “keel”), kon, kühn (bold), and kein (none). Thus, in an uncanny way, and not based on scientific principles of actual historical linguistics, he makes the connection between “ability” (Ger. Können), torch, boat, boldness, and Old Norse kaun, “sore.” List’s approach to language resonates with that of many poets of his day in both the German and French languages.
A review of this system shows that List had innovated or significantly modified several of the rune-names (fa, rit, bar, eh, gibor), and a shape similar to his gibor-rune () is only to be found among the manuscript runes (ᛁ). He also acknowledges the complexity of the rune-names in his presentation, a complexity that was radically simplified in later iterations of the Armanen tradition. Note, too, that he did not use the peculiar forms of the f- and u-runes that are found in the works of S. A. Kummer and which became so influential though the writings of Karl Spiesberger.
A deeper analysis of List’s runology reveals some interesting results. List’s supposed insights into the structure and meaning of the German language seem to have informed his interpretation of the runes as much as the runes—or any traditional runology—influenced his Armanen teachings. A few examples of this kind of thinking will demonstrate what is meant: Ur (aurochs, slag, drizzle) is firmly linked to the German prefix ur-, meaning “primeval, ancient, original”; rit (riding, wagon) is attached to Sanskrit rita, “cosmic order”; hagal (hail) is connected to the idea of enclosing or harboring (Ger. hegen); sig (sun) is linked to German Sieg, “victory”; eh (horse) is equated to German Ehe, “marriage.” Such examples could be multiplied. But before we make too many smug assumptions, we should note the apparent similarities between some of List’s ideas and those of Johan Bure, who also made the connection between hagal and “enclosure,” despite the evidence of the rune poems to the contrary. The likely source for these similarities is not a traditional connection between the teachings of Bure and those of List but rather a case of two men with analogous underlying theories working on data with a similar structure: the Swedish and German languages, respectively. The marked difference between the approaches of Bure and List remains conditioned by the ages in which they lived. In Bure’s time, a close association between what was understood as science and spiritual pursuits was possible, and even expected, whereas List lived at the dawn of the hypermodern age in which these two sisters in science, the esoteric and exoteric, were beginning to become woefully estranged.
One of the chief features of the Armanen tradition seems to be its relative disinterest in the use of runes as a mode of writing natural language. The runes are seen more in terms of individual symbols, or “hieroglyphs” in the Romantic sense, than as phonemic signs for the writing of an actual language. Each rune is mostly viewed with regard to its own isolated symbolic or magical content. This tendency was also present in the two sides of the runic philosophy first pioneered by Johan Bure, where he differentiated between uppenbara runor (ordinary runes) and adulrunor (noble-runes). This hieroglyphic approach to runic symbolism would continue to dominate the work of esoteric rune revivalists throughout the twentieth century. We might also note that the hieroglyphic approach makes the runes useful in an experiential way without involving the practitioner in the tedious task of having to write words and sentences with them—especially in archaic languages!
The ancient approach to the runes was one in which the symbolic content of a runic inscription was much more holistic in character. The runes could be seen as significant as isolated symbols, while they remained potent tools for composing formulaic words, such as alu or laukaz, or perhaps sound formulas such as luwatuwa, but it appears unlikely that the new emphasis on the symbolic content of the individual rune was the result of any decrease in the regular use of runes as a utilitarian script. In many respects, on a deep level, the twentieth-century hieroglyphic approach can be seen as a reflection of the ideology of the modern, whereby the signifier is distanced from the signified.
List’s way of identifying the runes was, as we have seen, based on the idea that the “Rúnatals þáttr Óðins” is the key to an archaic runic system. List’s system is basically the sixteen runes of the Younger Futhark with the two supplemental runes eh (e) and gibor (g). Noteworthy is the transposition of runes fourteen and fifteen from the younger order of m—l to l—m. The motive for this switch appears to have been an interest in getting the m- and y-runes to be directly juxtaposed to one another for symbolic reasons (since they were seen as the runes of man and woman, life and death, etc.) as well as for graphic symmetry.