Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021
The First Runic Wave
The Rise of Contemporary Scientific Runology and the Re-Emergence of the Rune-Gild
In general, there was a tidal wave of rune books in the wake of the economic success of Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes and the establishment of a more authentic runology with Thorsson’s Futhark. It now seemed that every sort of publisher had to have a rune book of one kind or another. Because so many people had received their first impressions about the runic tradition from the book by Blum, there was for a long time much confusion even among supposed authors and lay “authorities” on the runes. The shoddy level of scholarship in these books raised the animosity of the scholarly runologists even more than had been the case in the old days of Guido von List and others. It might be said that from the early 1980s forward, there developed two schools of esoteric runology: the Blumian and the Edredian. The motto of the Blumian school would be: “Do your own thing” or “If it feels good, it’s right.” On the other hand, the motto of the Edredian school would be: “Verified tradition activated by experience leads to inner truth.”
As time went on, many books were produced in both streams of thought. In the Blumian stream we find books with titles such as Lady of the Northern Light, Runes for Today’s Woman, and many others. Although Blum did not invent the “blank rune” idea, it is certainly a hallmark of his influence. One of the worst offenders against tradition in the pseudo-runic “revival” was the British author Michael Howard, who actually published three books using the Etruscan alphabet and calling them “runes.” At one point (on page 20 of his 1980 book, The Magic of the Runes) he admits that he has made an error previously but rationalizes continuing in the error “so as not to confuse the reader.” That was just one overt sign of a pervasive trend in the spate of rune books that came out in this period. That trend was characterized by authors who did not know their subject matter being confused about things that were actually quite clear to those who had done their homework, and then those authors spread their confusion to the general public. Often the very names of the runes would be butchered, all because the author apparently thought the names they had invented sounded better than the actual ones. The enormous number of basic inaccuracies found in books produced in this period did a great disservice to the public and to the cause of the runic revival. Several of these books are reviewed in some detail in my anthology Mainstays (Thorsson 2006).
Some other examples from the first runic wave are Donald Tyson’s Rune Magic (1988) and Lisa Peschel’s A Practical Guide to the Runes (1989). It is difficult to take Tyson as a sincere proponent of runic esotericism, as he wrote the following in another book, The New Magus, which appear that same year with the same publisher: “The gods of the Germanic peoples . . . are dangerous. There is no more polite way to phrase it. By modern standards, many would be classified as demons. They represent the crudest of elemental forces” (Tyson 1988a, 268). I suspect that this confession of bad faith is indicative of a trend in many—but thankfully, not all—of the books that made up this first wave of the runic revival of the 1980s.
A notable publication that came toward the end of the first runic wave was Jan Fries’s Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick (1993). His system is based on the Anglo-Frisian inventory of signs, and the book is heavily jazzed up with dark and primitive illustrations and admixed with techniques and symbols drawn from a variety of Western magical traditions including the Armanic rune yoga of Kummer (by way of Spiesberger), Aleister Crowley, neo-shamanism, and so forth.
One of the most persistent and erroneous notions abroad is that the Celts had anything to do with runes. One regularly sees the phrase “Celtic runes.” No such thing exists. I originally wrote my book on the Irish ogham in 1992 to clarify what the Celtic tradition, which is somewhat analogous to the runes, actually was.*14 No runic inscription exists in a Celtic dialect. But all this seems to have had little effect on the most stubbornly ignorant among us. Really the list of such books, blogs, and websites appears endless and growing as the forces of chaos and misinformation continue to attack our venerable tree of runic tradition from every angle.
On the other hand, in the wake of Futhark and Runelore there also developed a more traditional school of runic esotericism. To qualify to be a member of the traditional school simply means that (1) the author minimally adheres to one of the established ancient runic traditions: the Older Futhark, Younger Futhark, or Anglo-Frisian Futhorc as a basis for what is written; (2) the names of the runes are presented in a reasonably accurate form (as based on academic references); and (3) the cosmology or mythic framework in which the runes are understood is historically part of the Germanic world. That may seem like a fairly low bar, but this is only a testimony to just how bad some writing about runes had become in the 1980s and beyond. In this early period, there was a handful of authors who belonged to one degree or another to some traditional school. These authors include Nigel Pennick, James M. Peterson, Kveldulf Gundarsson, and Freya Aswynn.
Nigel Pennick is a very prolific writer from Cambridge, England. He has well over thirty books to his credit, most of them having to do with esoteric Germanic or Celtic studies. He first started out in the 1970s publishing small pamphlets on geomantic and folkloric topics, including one on the swastika. Over the years, he has published books with several major publishers. His books are like encyclopedic manuals to the Germanic folk tradition, which include a good deal of runic and other esoteric knowledge. Nigel was named an honorary member of the Rune-Gild in 2016.
Following in many ways directly in the wake of the tradition of the Rune-Gild is the scholar and novelist Kveldulf Gundarsson (= Stephan Grundy). Kveldulf wrote books for Llewellyn and also penned several successful works of fiction: Rhinegold (1994) and Attila’s Treasure (1996). He received a Ph.D. degree from Cambridge with a dissertation on Óðinn as a “god of death.” Subsequently, he served as a leader in the religious organization called the Troth (formerly: the Ring of Troth).
Freya Aswynn became the first major female writer in the field of esoteric runelore with her book The Leaves of Yggdrasil, which she first published in London in 1988. It was later reissued in the United States under the title Northern Mysteries and Magick (1998) and has since reached a much larger readership. She, too, became involved with the Ring of Troth, until she was expelled from the organization for making politically incorrect remarks on social media.
One of the most extreme exercises in speculative esoteric runology in the past few decades is the French work by Jean-Yves Guillaume published in 1992 and titled Les Runes et l’ écriture des étoiles (The Runes and the Script of the Stars). The French have specialized in the world of the imagination when it comes to the esoteric for a long time, so this comes as no surprise. Guillaume reconfigures the heavens with new runically based constellations and traces such a view of the sky back to the time of Atlantis!
There is no way a complete and annotated bibliography of these “New Age” books on runes published after 1975 can be included here; however, such a project would be an interesting endeavor for someone to undertake.
This runic new wave was not just limited to “New Age”—type applications and esoteric literature; it entered the popular culture generally and found its way into all sorts of other subcultures. Among these was the Neo-Nazi, Skinhead, White Nationalist faction. Groups and individuals in this subculture also began to use runes in their symbolism to a degree far beyond that of the original Nazis. At first these groups used the runic symbolism that had been prevalent in National Socialist Germany (1920—1945) as seen in chapter 8 of this book. But in the wake of the runic wave of the 1980s, the use of runes expanded in a more general way within popular culture and began to be used in tattoo art and other ways, especially beginning in the early 1990s. The motivation for the use of runes appears mainly as an attempt to project a sinister or terrifying image to “outsiders,” as well as to act as a code of solidarity within the group(s) using them. In that sense, it can be counted a revival of one of the functions of the runes in ancient times—to appear scary to the non-initiate and express a specific identity among initiates themselves. As a rule, the use of runic symbolism by White Nationalists has to be assessed as a setback for the broader runic revival because of its profaning tendencies. It has become popular to say, about the Nazis (paleo- or neo-), that they “misuse” the runes. This criticism is only legitimate once one has posited the actual sacred, tribal, and initiatory character of the Germanic runes. If, by contrast, the runes are to be understood merely as arbitrary and alternative phonetic signs used for writing natural language, then Nazis and New Agers cannot really be said to be misusing them, as they are merely employing them for a new purpose. To say they are being misused is to presuppose that they are endowed with a certain sacred sense that is being violated. It is ironic that those who are quick to charge others with misusing the runes also tend to be the very ones who claim that runes actually have no intrinsic, sacred meaning. But certainly, if we realize a deeper, archaic, and authentic symbolism inherent in their history and mythology, then all efforts to use them contrary to their original and culturally specific purpose may be considered a misuse. Just because Nazis and New Agers hit upon the runes after the runic wave of the 1980s should not deter sincere seekers of the mysteries from pursuing their eternal meanings.
Another manifestation of the concept of runes in popular culture came along in their use in various role-playing games (RPGs) that became increasingly popular in the 1980s. Not infrequently, the idea of a “rune” in these games is a sort of hidden power to shape events rather than a symbol or sign. As such, this reflects an archaic conceptualization of the runes as well. The subculture involved in RPGs also tended to be fans of the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 to 1945 and author of various works of fantasy, for which he created pseudo-runes as part of the backstory of the cosmos he called Middle Earth.