Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021
BINDING TOGETHER THE IDEAS OF SCIENCE AND MAGIC
This book is mainly about the process of the revival, renewal, and reawakening of runic writing, ideology, and mythology from early modern times to the present day. When the earliest speakers of the Germanic dialects—which includes English—first wrote, they wrote in runes. The runic tradition lasted for about twelve hundred years before it began to fall into general decline in most regions where it had been practiced for all those centuries.
Over the past several decades the topic of “runes” has increasingly become a part of popular culture in the English-speaking world, but it has not always been that way. The runes constitute the original writing system used by a small, elite population who lived at one time or another among all of the ancient Germanic tribes, from Scandinavia to Germany and from the eastern steppes to England. In these ancient times, during the first centuries of the Common Era (ca. 100—800 CE), only about 1 percent of the population could ever be said to be literate in runes. Yet, to our imaginations at least, the runes seem to have embodied the essence of the soul of ancient Germanic culture. The use of runes more or less died out completely, except in very isolated pockets of the remotest parts of Sweden, by the dawn of the Modern Age, circa 1500.
The story of how and why this forgotten and rejected knowledge was revived and eventually popularized throughout the world shaped by the originators of this system is the subject of this study. This knowledge was largely suppressed due to a new cultural myth—that of Christianity—imported from southern Europe and Ireland, which was naturally threatened by the continuation of the pre-Christian myth and its structures. Our purpose or aim in telling this story is to clarify the process by which forgotten and hidden knowledge is revived and received. By examining the whole breadth of this process, it is hoped that greater clarity and insight can be gained by those who endeavor to awaken these slumbering mysteries in the future.
To understand any complex cultural phenomenon or movement, it is necessary to place it in its context within the history of ideas. One of the greatest causes of historical misunderstanding is the projection of contemporary values and mind-sets on other cultures, past or present. And indeed, in the study of the runic revival, we often find writers who have projected their own prejudices onto the runic data. This has been done as much from the so-called scientific side as it has from the esoteric one. Often the modern scientist will have no idea of how the ancients actually thought, and how that thought was different from their own modern ways of thinking. By the same token, the esotericist will often project entirely inappropriate models of esoteric thinking—models that are very unlikely to have been known to the original rune-users—onto the ancients. One of the ways to help avoid these problems of interpretation is by developing a more complete understanding of the various periods of intellectual history in which the revivals took place.
In this study, I will discuss the runic revival in the context of five periods: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the era of Romanticism, the early twentieth century, and the late twentieth century. Each of these periods has been marked by its own myths and metanarratives that have, in turn, conditioned the attitudes of the writers who endeavored to revive the runic tradition in their day. And occasionally some of these writers and thinkers—Johan Bure and Guido von List, for example—have been the source of insights that serve to shape events in their own and subsequent epochs.
Each chapter of this book will also take into account two different approaches, that of the scientific and that of the esoteric, which are often very independent but are sometimes related or overlap. The interests of scientific runology are properly limited to those things that are logically provable, or that belong to a comparative model capable of shedding light on the runic tradition. Esoteric runology, by contrast, assumes that the runes have some sort of mysterious meanings or powers in and of themselves and seeks to unravel the methods of discovering and/or utilizing these features. Academic or scientific runology can exist apart from esoteric runology, but the best of esoteric runology, in imitation of a sort of Platonic model, is founded on factual and academic runological findings. However, it must also be admitted that much of actual extant esoteric runology exists in a world quite separate from the academic realities.
Over the past few decades academic runology has become more and more narrow in its scope and now tends to be focused mainly on linguistic concerns. In part, this situation has come about as a reaction against the earlier and excessive use of “magical” interpretations among academic runologists of the early twentieth century. The more recent academic abhorrence of such interpretations may also be a response to the growing popularity of runic esotericism or “runic occultism” in our own time. The excesses of the New Age approach can rightly be seen as a disappointing turn of events for more levelheaded academics. However, as this study will show, the serious esoteric dimension of runic studies is something that has always been a part of runology. It is not likely to go away, so it is perhaps better to improve and refine the esoteric approach than to reject it entirely.
On the other hand, it is also the case that in recent years the study of the history of esotericism in general, and “Western Esotericism” in particular, has entered the world of academia as an interdisciplinary program. Unfortunately, some of the initial products of this nascent discipline have been shallow or have lacked a fundamental grounding in linguistic and general historical and cultural knowledge. There are, however, several shining examples of erudition. One of these is Antoine Faivre, who has provided a widely accepted general theoretical model of approaching the subject of esotericism (see Faivre 1994, 10—35).
Faivre identifies six major components that are present in esoteric thought and practice. The first four are considered primary, while the latter two are seen as secondary or “relative.” The six major components are:
1. Correspondences. There exists a mysterious system of correspondences between a higher and lower world, and between and among the contents of these worlds.
2. Living Nature. The natural world of physical phenomena is seen as “essentially alive in all its parts, often inhabited and traversed by a light or hidden fire circulating through it” (Faivre 1994, 11).
3. Imagination and Mediations. These complementary concepts indicate the presence of a faculty of the soul for the discovery of the hidden reality (imaginatio) and the further possibility of employing this knowledge through mediations between the worlds; for example, by using symbols and rituals.
4. Experience of Transmutation. The overall effect of esoteric endeavors is nothing less than a practical and fundamental change in the nature of the subject (the esotericist himself or herself) and/or an object in the world itself. The esoteric is not merely content with idle intellectual speculation.
5. The Praxis of the Concordance. This is the tendency to try to establish common denominators between and among various (or all) cultural traditions and is the expectation of “obtaining an illumination, a gnosis, of superior quality” (Faivre 1994, 14). By these methods a perennial philosophy is discovered that is alleged to be at the root of many traditions. There are generally two attitudes toward this process: the genetic and the transgenetic. The former seeks links only among linguistically, culturally, and historically related traditions; for example, within the IndoEuropean system. The latter believes in a common core shared by all traditions, be they Chinese, Hebrew, Egyptian, Celtic, or from some other source.
6. Transmission. Here we have the idea that esoteric knowledge must be passed from master to disciple, bound in a relationship that is more or less understood to exist within a certain school of thought.
Taken together, these components describe and define what is meant by the term esoteric in a scientific or academic understanding. In the course of this study when the word esoteric is used, it is to be conceived of in these terms.
The exoteric perspective, by contrast, is not categorically opposed to the esoteric, although many individuals in the exoteric field are philosophically opposed to the intrusion of esoteric concerns into their discipline. Rather, the exoteric is a necessary corollary to the esoteric. The exoteric should be intelligible to the logical mind and explicable in terms of logic alone. It is the literal meaning of a text, while the esoteric attempts to penetrate beyond this to the spirit of the text. Paradoxically, esoteric texts can be read from an exoteric perspective, and exoteric texts can be interpreted from an esoteric angle. As we will see, this “debate” has been an ongoing theme in the history of runology: the distinction between the so-called skeptical and imaginative runologists.
There are several other key concepts in Faivre’s delineation of what constitutes esotericism (Faivre 1994, 19—35). These concepts help to clarify and focus the six components above.
The first such concept is gnosis, knowledge. This is an extraordinary form of experiential knowledge that is turned inward and in which both intelligence and memory participate (Faivre 1994, 23). Second, there is theosophy—not to be confused with the teachings of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy—which is a cosmosophic view of the universe that endows the cosmos with mythic meaning. The theosopher begins with a “revealed given”—one of his myths. This could be, for example, the Norse myth of Ragnarök. To this he applies active imagination and thus evokes symbolic resonances (Faivre 1994, 26). Then there is the concept of secrecy or mystery. This is not conventional secrecy; these mysteries are not consciously withheld from the public; rather, they can only be revealed individually and according to an initiatory process. These are “the mysteries of religion, the ultimate nature of reality, hidden forces in the cosmic order, hieroglyphs of the visible world—none of which lends itself to literal understanding” (Faivre 1994, 32). Finally, there is the concept or claim that occult practices constitute a valid tool for increasing human empowerment, wisdom, and other benefits. The secret knowledge of the cosmic order is both to be gained by, and demonstrated through, occultism; that is, through practices rooted in the theory of correspondences, such as magic and divination.
All of these factors have to be understood when we invoke the idea of the esoteric. Academic or exoteric runology is not always excluded by esoteric runology, but historically it most often has been. By the same token, academic or scientific runology does not have to exclude or reject the dimension of esoteric runology, although it most recently has tended to do so. In fact, in the history of ideas, these two schools are related models, yet they are distinct and separate in their aims and methods. I hope that the message of this book will help bring about a runological synthesis by which these two often antagonistic views of the runes can be brought together in a cooperative model. One of the first steps in this process is to gain a firm understanding of the history of this problem.
OVERVIEW OF THE PRESENT BOOK
To understand the revival of the runes that has occurred in more recent centuries, one must have a basic understanding of the runic tradition as it was during its period of establishment. Our book therefore begins with an outline of runic history from its emergence in antiquity to the time of its decline between 1300 and 1500. The history of the runic revival as such begins after about 1500. The first phase of the revival, which lasted to about 1700, is dealt with both in terms of exoteric study and usage, and esoteric or mystical work. Generally, this pattern will be followed in all subsequent chapters. The runes can be seen as a purely utilitarian, practical script used for various kinds of interhuman communication. This being said, their use was always tinged with ideas of secrecy and certainly with a marked expression of identity—as a feature of Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, or generally Germanic culture. The second phase of the revival, 1700 to 1900, will also follow the fascinating story of the rediscovery of the runes from an increasingly academic, scientific perspective. From the turn of the twentieth century to the fateful year of 1933, the runic revival enjoyed one of its most lively periods with esoteric interest on the rise and with academic attention also becoming quite intense. Between 1933 and 1945 in Germany the runes were incorporated to some extent into the program of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). After the war that ended the regime of that party, the runes began a new phase of renewal, but the shadow of the Nazis would continually be something with which runic revivalists would have to deal. The years between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970s were fairly bleak in the world of the runic revival, although in the academic world, progress continued to be made. From the mid-1970s onward, the first stirrings of a more widespread, global revival of the runes started to be felt. This latest stage of the revival has been a phenomenon of mixed results.
The conclusion of our present volume is an essay wherein I present a way forward for the runic revival, in both its exoteric and esoteric dimensions. Here I reassess the distinction between these two approaches and discuss the most harrowing challenges we face in the future.
As I have mentioned in my preface, this volume also officially constitutes the second part of a larger trans-epochal project on the “History of the Rune-Gild” in the broadest sense. From the esoteric and internal standpoint of the modern-day Rune-Gild, the latter organization actually represents a continuation of the ancient Gild. The modern Rune- Gild makes no claim that there was a continuous “apostolic succession” from ancient times but rather that the spirit and “Odian mandate” present in the original Gild is likewise present in the current organization.*1 To explore this avenue of thought, the present project was conceived. It is therefore essential to trace the original Gild back to its origins, and that involves the centuries-long transition from the ancient and medieval network of rune-users to the present day.
In Revival of the Runes, we will concentrate on the various phases of the revival, or reawakening, of the spirit of the ancient Gild. This revival was not always accomplished with a consistent level of quality, as will be seen. But it has very often been done with great power and conviction, carried forth by passionate people moved by the Odian spirit—the spirit of seeking the mysteries that the runes represent. As we see it, integral runology is an expression of a mosaic of interests—art, accurate use of language, poetry, literature, craftsmanship, and magic—bound together under the inner exhortation of Reyn til Rúna! (“Seek the Mysteries!”). Keeping this unifying factor in mind, this is not merely a volume about mystics and magicians using runes but is just as much a history of the academic and intellectual pursuit of runology in the halls of academia. Since the beginning of the runic revival in the days of the grandfather of runology, Johannes Bureus (Johan Bure), the ideas of magic and science have been inexorably bound together in the pursuit of runic knowledge. So it was, and so it continues to be—often much to the chagrin of both wild-eyed mystics and narrow-minded academic pedants. Although this particular subtext is present in this book, it is not something I will continually harp on or emphasize.
My aim here is to present an objective, informed, and empathetic exploration of a movement that took place over several centuries to reawaken knowledge of an ancient writing system and an ancient ideology. This movement and its representatives constitute a fascinating historical phenomenon in the annals of European and American intellectual life. It is a heroic and often quixotic tale with the occasional touches of Till Eulenspiegel. But we can learn to expect the unexpected when we begin to engage with the mysteries that the runes were apparently originally designed to convey from person to person and from men to gods and ghosts. So now, let us leave this lofty peak of Hnitbjorg and descend into the world of human history once more.