Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021
Edred Thorsson and The Roots of The Rune-Gild
The Rise of Contemporary Scientific Runology and the Re-Emergence of the Rune-Gild
(Phase VI: 1975 to Present)
The revival of contemporary Germanic spirituality has often been linked to publicity surrounding the rebirth of Norse paganism in Iceland under the leadership of the Icelandic poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson. This occurred in 1972 and was widely covered in the press throughout the world. As there was a general “occult revival”—which ranged from Wicca to Anton LaVey’s Satanism and from Aleister Crowley to Scientology—going on in Western culture during the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the news of the renewal of Norse paganism in Iceland fell on receptive ears wherever it was heard.
In this same period the academic world found itself in the midst of a new golden age of philology as well as comparative linguistics, mythology, and religion. Many American universities had healthy programs in Germanic and Indo-European studies like never before. But the seeds of their destruction were already being planted in those very same universities as such areas of study increasingly came to be seen as the bastions of “dead white European males.” So instead of this being the beginning of a new and brighter phase, it was a time when it was as good as it would ever be. The history of how this deterioration in academia took place has yet to be written, but its epicenter appears to have been the universities of the United States where the schools of the social and behavioral sciences and humanities were inundated with the 1960s generation (many of them staying in school for prolonged periods of time to avoid military service in the Vietnam War). As this generation gained footholds of power in various departments—and eventually in the administrations—of the universities, the die was cast.
Edred Thorsson and The Roots of The Rune-Gild
One of the problems in writing this book has been that its subject matter is one in which the author is so intimately involved on all levels. I have taken great pains to remain as objective as possible, while at the same time not hesitating to make use of what I think is a unique and empathetic perspective on the whole story. But it is at this point that I must insinuate myself in a virtually autobiographical manner. For those who want even more of the details on this phase of the runic revival, there is no better source than my book History of the Rune-Gild (Thorsson 2019).*11
In the summer of 1974, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I heard the word runa (pron. ROO-nah) in my mind’s ear. Research at the university library resulted in my finding, along with many academic runological books, Karl Spiesberger’s book Runenmagie. This was the needed link for me to connect scientific runology with practical or experiential magical work. I privately translated his book and began to work with it in the context of other Armanen material that I had been able to locate written by Gorsleben, Kummer, and others. Daily work and magical training—which would become the prototype for the curriculum in The Nine Doors of Midgard—undertaken in 1974 and 1975 led to the completion of a book-length manuscript called A Primer of Runic Magic in the summer of that year. This work was still within the Armanen tradition. I sent the manuscript around to various publishers in the United States and in England, and it found interest with the well-known acquisitions editor Tam Mossman of Prentice-Hall. I was promised a contract before the Yuletide of 1975. But then word came back that Mossman had gotten a report from the marketing department of the company saying that they did not think runes would “sell.” This sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
For some reason or another I had remained unaware of the activity of the Ásatrúarfélag (Fellowship of Ásatrúar) in Iceland until well after I had begun to engage in the work of a reawakening of runic esotericism in 1974. I was alerted to the activity of such groups as the Ásatúarmenn and John Yeowell’s Odinic Rite in England by a friendly Swedish professor at the University of Texas who knew something of what I was already doing at the time.
Stephen A. McNallen founded a religious organization originally called the Viking Brotherhood in the USA in 1969/70, independent of the Icelandic movement. He published a newsletter called The Runestone. News of the developments in Iceland and elsewhere would be instrumental in transforming McNallen’s organization into the Ásatrú Free Assembly (AFA) in 1976. The AFA had a general interest in runes, but it was not a main focus of that religious organization. Many years later, Stephen McNallen would become a Master in the Rune-Gild.
An apparent early rival to the AFA was the Runic Society led by N. J. Templin. It, too, had little to do with runic practice or ideology. A leaflet produced by this organization (although no one really knows if this group had any members) presented a single sheet of idiosyncratic information about the runes, not worth repeating here.
This group was highly political and racialist, demanding that Denmark turn over Greenland to the group to form a Nation of Odin and exhorting subscribers to “Return to the Religion of Our Race.” Ideas were drawn from German groups such as the Ludendorff Society and the Artgemeinschaft (Community of Our Kind). Happily, the Runic Society faded away fairly quickly.
In the late 1970s many of the ideas that would become the foundation of the Rune-Gild were being established. My great disadvantage—or possible gift—was that I had no living informant or teacher who knew anything about the esoteric dimensions of the runes. I worked almost entirely from books, which directed me back to an immediate connection with the ultimate teacher, Woden himself. The only exception to this circumstance came in the person of David Bragwin James (1937—2014), a deeply learned poet and scholar, whom I met at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, together with his young student, Alice Karlsdottir, around 1978. He was full of great ideas, about which we corresponded extensively afterward. It is regrettable that not more of his work has come to light.
A curious publication appeared in 1978 titled Rune Magic by Carlyle A. Pushong. This book was full of the author’s other specialties, I Ching and yoga. The runic sections appear to have been taken directly from Spiesberger, although Spiesberger is not acknowledged. It is also possible that this material came his way from my 1975 manuscript, which had circulated in England at that time. Another book from 1982 was Rune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland, which has recently fallen into obscurity. Osborn was a professor (she is now emerita) at the University of California, Davis, and a specialist in Old English and Old Norse. The book is a serious attempt at runic reawakening with an unfortunately frivolous-sounding title. The fatal flaw is, however, its combination of the runes of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life cosmology. This was apparently done on the rationale that the Anglo-Saxon runes were often carved in a Christian context, and since the Christians might plausibly be familiar with Jewish learning, the combination of Kabbalistic cosmology with the Anglo-Saxon runes becomes a possibility. As the studies of Gershom Scholem have shown, however, the Kabbalistic cosmology as we know it today is not of archaic origin; it is a medieval phenomenon. In any event, the chance to combine the runes with a genuine Germanic cosmology was missed.
This particular period of the modern runic revival—characterized as it was by the work of Pushong, Blum, and Osborn—lacked the authenticity of an autochthonous understanding of archaic Germanic myth. This element of authenticity would only come about with the publication of my book Futhark in 1984. It remains regrettable that this book was not made available at the time of its actual completion in 1979. As flawed as Futhark may be in some respects, its accomplishment is that it combined, for the first time, an authentic runology with actual Germanic myth, cosmology, and psychology—a reunion of elements reforged after a thousand years.
My academic work soon demonstrated to me that the Armanen tradition was a modern Listian innovation, and I wanted to go deeper. By 1979, I had competed a new manuscript based on the Older Futhark. This was Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. After sending this manuscript around to publishers, I received a contract with Llewellyn Publications, which at the time was going through some difficult financial straits. The book languished there, unpublished, for three years. In 1981, I got the rights to the book back from them. Throughout these years, I had been continuing my own studies and exercises, and during the Yuletide of 1979, shortly after finishing the manuscript for Futhark, I founded the Rune-Gild and the Institute for Runic Studies, Ásatrú (I.R.S.A.) in a ritual conducted in a remote area of Zilker Park in Austin, Texas. The Gild began publishing booklets called the Lore-Books. On the eve of my time of studying in Göttingen (1981—1982), I negotiated a contract with the publisher Samuel Weiser for Futhark to be published under my pen name Edred Thorsson, which I have generally reserved for my more esoterically oriented works. It would not actually appear in print until May of 1984—the same month I formally received my Ph.D. from the University of Texas. It would be a nine-year process from the summer of 1975 to this moment of fruition. After Futhark appeared and met with a positive reception, a second book of mine was published two years later: Runelore (1986). Its contents were based on the collected Lore-Books writings that had circulated within the Rune-Gild, together with additional material. My third work in this initial series of Thorsson books was At the Well of Wyrd (1988; it was later reissued in 1999 as Runecaster’s Handbook).
In Germany, I attended events of the Armanen Orden and continued to study esoteric runology. But mainly I was deeply initiated into the world of academic and scientific runology by my mentor, Prof. Dr. Klaus Düwel. At that time I also had an office in the Scandinavian Department. The office I was given had been Wolfgang Krause’s personal study—a small room filled with runic knowledge on all levels.
On my return to Texas in 1982, I was soon confronted by the appearance of Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes in October of that year. Blum tells the story of how he discovered the runes, but there is another story here as well. Blum ran in circles of publishers, editors, and book packagers. His project was generated as an idea for an ideal Christmas gift package for the year 1982, not only a book but also including a set of cast-resin “rune cookies” (mimicking those that Blum had claimed to have found in England when researching runic divination) as well. It was a huge financial success, and over time it would sell more than two million units worldwide. (Apparently, runes did “sell” after all!) The fact that Blum popularized the runes could have been a great development. But because he used an ordering principle that was based on a single reading he did for himself one night, his work gave readers the impression that the ancient tradition of our ancestors was unimportant or, worse yet, never existed. Great numbers of potential runic enthusiasts were given the wrong impression that the runes were not a venerable and well-established tradition but rather part of some New Age, “do-your-own-thing”—kind of invention. In this way, the burgeoning runic revival in the Englishspeaking world during the late twentieth century was dealt a serious blow. When what it needed was for all the stars to align just right to succeed quickly, what it got was a major roadblock.
Blum describes in his book (pp. 28—31) how he discovered the runes. His system stems from a reading he did, reportedly on a summer solstice, in which he asked the runes: “In what order do you wish to be arranged?” This was done after he had invoked “the Holy Spirit, the Tao, my Higher Self, and all my Unseen Guides and Helpers.” The result was the following:
As Blum reports, his reading was done with a set of commercially produced rune cookies that he had purchased in England, so the peculiar mixture of rune-shapes and the presence of the “blank rune” cannot be ascribed to him. Blum decided to read this sequence from right to left, starting with the top row. If the reading of inverse runes as a negative or problematic indication had been heeded,*12 he would have stopped right there. In any event, Blum’s biography would indicate that he subsequently took a course at San Diego State University with Dr. Allan W. Anderson, who taught in the subject areas of religion and spirituality; this and other studies provided the framework to interpret the runes independent of other evidence. He later ascribed the following meanings to the runes in the order of his “revelatory” reading.
I could spend a good deal of time analyzing and criticizing the writings of Blum, but that would be pointless in this work. In the final analysis, I will just say that his results could have been a whole lot better if he had done some more research on the runes before writing his book. It appears that material he refers to and his bibliography were all added after The Book of Runes and its approach were already a finished product.
One may contrast my path with that of Blum. I used an untraditional system—the Armanen tradition—to create my first project. That project was thwarted, in my view, by the spiritual influence of Woden with the intention of “sending me back to school” to do better next time—and the experience opened me to the possibilities of reawakening a traditional and integral runology. Blum, on the other hand, was given a free ride to success and prosperity with his first effort. But the results of that will be but a footnote in the history of runology, and a blighted one at that.