An Integral Runology for the Future

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

An Integral Runology for the Future

The runes have been studied and pursued on many levels since the beginning of the modern age. The growth of scientific or academic runology at first developed only slowly and was always shadowed by what can be described variously as mystical, magical, and esoteric ideas connected to the runic system. This connection is seen by some to have been with the tradition from the beginning, whereas others see it to be a fantastic misinterpretation of the simple and practical purpose of the system.

After reviewing the history of the pursuit of the runes and critiquing the current state of runology—both exoteric and esoteric—our main purpose here is to suggest ways the study of runes can be made to be a more integral form of study for individuals and groups of individuals working together to understand this unique feature of European culture in a more synthetic way.

The objective, logical, and rational study of the artifacts left behind from the pre-1500 runic record is a noble pursuit and one that should be protected from all forms of outside interference, ranging from the subjective fantasies of individuals to the imposition of agendas from political ideologies. At the same time, based on the track record of the past five hundred years, it has to be recognized that the runes will continue to be a source of fascination in people’s minds, just as they did during the earlier phases of the runic revival. There will always be those who let their imaginations run wild over this body of evidence and those who simply focus on the most mundane dimensions of runic writing. But these two opposing trends should not be allowed to destroy the middle ground. Between such extremes of fire and ice lies a way that requires attention and thought so that it might be better developed. This is the pathway of integral runology.

When we review the history of the runic revival, we must first recognize that the ancient and medieval periods (pre-1500) of runic practice were filled with phases of innovation, decay, and renewal. The use of runes was in constant flux, with the major stabilizing influences remaining in the human institution of the oral tradition, which supported and transmitted knowledge of the runes apart from literature and books. This is the institution of rune-learning, which passed from teacher to student over the centuries during the times of preliteracy and highly restricted literacy. This is what we could refer to as the ancient guild of runemasters. The dawn of the Modern Age brought with it more widespread literacy and the printing press. With these developments, the first printed references to the runes appeared and the revival phase can be said to have truly begun. As our review of the scientific study of the runes shows, it took approximately three hundred years for scholars to develop the knowledge base and methodological tools to unravel the basic history and development of the runic tradition. The impediments to these discoveries were mainly a lack of a coherent picture of the runic record itself (due to the dearth of major editions of enough inscriptions for scholars to study) and the prevalence of erroneous concepts (such as the belief that the sixteen-rune system was older than the twenty-four-rune system).

In the world of esoteric runology, several strong currents emerged in the twentieth century. The revolutionary impact of the writings of Guido von List was remarkable. From the first decade of the twentieth century, List’s influence is felt in a continuous fashion right up to the present through the agency of the printed word. Even if the particulars of his theories have been increasingly superseded by an expanded knowledge base and ever more traditional ideologies and awareness of mythic patterns, the power of his poetic vision cannot be denied. The twentieth century concluded with the foundation of the Rune-Gild as a more comprehensive and integral view of runology and the transmission of runic knowledge, and the next century saw the maturation of that institution.

Of course, it must be realized that the Modern Age generally brought about the demise of traditional modes of knowledge transmission that were based on lineages of oral teaching. But it has compensated for this loss with an expansion of the possibilities of recording the ideas of people from the past in ways that allow for knowledge to be transmitted over time and space in a discontinuous fashion. This reality is central to the real mystery of writing itself, which is only intensified and expanded by the ability to reproduce the written word more broadly through the printing press—and now the Internet!

Some would argue that this expansion in the possibilities of the quantity or volume of such communication inevitably causes a reduction in the quality of the content of such transmissions. Realizing this tendency is the first step in taking measures to prevent the decay of intrinsic quality.

An observable trend in the history of science and scholarship has been the shift from more general and overarching approaches to ones dominated by highly specialized studies. This is true in the field of natural sciences as well as in the humanities. Early in the development of scholarly interest in the runes, this trend toward specialization worked in favor of runology. The study of either biblical or classical topics, being seen as things that provided general or global perspectives on knowledge, were challenged by the growth of interest in specialized national topics that were given new focus and interest in the early modern period. Previously dismissed as “pagan” or “barbaric,” topics relating to Germanic or Celtic antiquities attracted rapidly increasing levels of interest and respect from a new breed of scholars. The repercussions of this development on runology were dramatic.

The effects of these new approaches to knowledge led to the loss of an integral understanding of the topics being studied, but by the same token it also facilitated deeper levels of precision in the analysis of particular parts of the data. In other words, the discipline fell into the same conundrum as the rest of the world as regards the effects of modernism comprehensive knowledge is lost to the particulars, and in the particulars people soon lose sight of the meaning of what it is that they are endeavoring to understand.

In general, modernism as an ideology is held to be suspect in many corners today. It is seen as being overspecialized and saddled with erroneous conceptions of inevitable progress based on a purely rational mode of “problem-solving.” The utility of this approach cannot and should not be denied, but ultimately it may not be best equipped to answer many of the most enduring riddles of human existence. In the field of runology, one of the most significant intrusions of hypermodernistic thinking was introduced by the highly respected and influential English runologist R. I. Page (1924—2012), who posited the existence of what he called “skeptical” and “imaginative” runologists. While his analysis was undoubtedly correct in many respects, the labeling of these “schools” served to polarize the discipline in a way that was perhaps unnecessary and counterproductive. His observation had the effect of exacerbating the division. Of course, his intent may have been akin to that of one or another of the early Church Fathers, who were anxious to label ideas as “orthodox” or “heretical” in an attempt to purify doctrine.

In many ways, Page’s imaginary division led to increasingly real divisions in the science of runology. The academic community, as it drifted more and more into the cult of political correctness, often considered the study of runes to be suspect in itself. This suspicion was supported by the supposed connection between the Nazis and the runes, but in fact it was more a matter of attempting to eliminate any sort of interest in pre-1500 European intellectual life, as such interests would inevitably lead to the discovery of the quality of the values of ancient Indo-European culture. This was something that had been targeted for elimination by ideological opponents of Western culture and civilization. The only refuge for many runologists was simply to immerse themselves ever deeper into the more quantifiable aspects of their study. The decidedly “unimaginative” school of runology has a death grip on the discipline in academia, and one that will not be soon broken. Most recently, another English runologist, Michael P. Barnes, wrote in an article attempting to define runology: “A meaningful definition of runology must, I think, be narrow. If it is to include archaeology, mythology and all kinds of history there might as well be no definition at all” (Barnes 2013, 27). Simplifying and narrowing one’s focus is a classic method of ensuring accuracy and thoroughness in academic work, but if one’s assumed task is the discovery of the actual meaning of the data, rather than merely an attempt to appear clever in front of one’s peers or not to risk losing face before them, then this narrow path will surely lead into a dark crevasse.

Despite the fact that the hyperspecialization of any discipline will inevitably lead its practitioners further away from a global and general understanding of the topic, if these specializations can be harnessed in a more integral way, the contributions of these particular studies are invaluable. Specialists devoted to the fields of diachronic linguistics, art history, archaeology (and specifically the data relating to the construction of runic artifacts), codicology (regarding the manuscript tradition of the runic record), and a dozen other such fields only deepen and expand the possibilities for greater understanding.

But it might also be seen that the recent history of the discipline we know and love as runology is slipping into the paradigm familiar to all as the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” which originated on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times and tells of six learned men who were blind and who came to study an elephant: each concluded, based on his own experience depending upon what part of the elephant he examined, that the object of their study was akin to a wall, a snake, a spear, a tree, a fan, or a rope. This formed the basis of a clever poem written by John Godfrey Saxe in 1872, which includes the lines:

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!

The poem concludes:

So, oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

The challenge of integral runology is to bring a global understanding of the field back into the picture without sacrificing the precision of specialized studies. The object of our study must be seen in its entirety while maintaining the possibility of analyzing its constituent parts with precision. If, indeed, we are all blind as we deal with an object as mysterious and elusive as the runes represent, then some imagination must be exercised so that, even in our blindness and by honestly comparing notes of our understandings, we can construct a model of what the whole elephant must look like—even if we can only conceive of it in our imaginations.

To put it another way, as an obscure character in imaginative fiction named “A. Square” discovered when, living in his two-dimensional world of Flatland, he had an encounter with a certain “A. Sphere,” whom to A. Square only appears to be a series of progressively larger, then smaller, circles. What A. Square has encountered is a being from a three-dimensional world as it passes through his two-dimensional homeland. A. Square is able to reason out what he has experienced, but not without a dose of imagination, as he can never directly perceive a sphere in his two-dimensional universe. Thus, the writer Edwin Abbott shows us in his little book Flatland (1884) that even A. Square can realize the truth, but not without the application of some imagination. The formula should probably be something like nine-tenths logical analysis and objective study coupled with one-tenth imagination.

As we have seen over the course of the history presented in this book, academic runology has regularly succumbed to various intellectual and ideological trends of the day. In the Storgöticism of the early modern age as well as in the National Socialism of the early twentieth century, such pressures were obvious. Today it is no different. The ideological climate of academic institutions in the West has become dominated by positivistic and quantitative methodologies that are often tinged to one degree or another with the assumptions of Marxist critical theory from the humanities. In general, topics drawn from pre-1500 (pre-Modern) fields are denigrated. Studies that focus on the symbolic and mythic content of pre-Modern European cultures are especially singled out for elimination in favor of multicultural and global approaches that focus on agendas of social injustice, and so on. Instead of the natural trend that could be observed from the early 1980s when interest in runes and runic writing was exploding in the popular culture and should have been reflected in the expansion of such studies in the world of academia, they were increasingly and severely curtailed, if not totally eliminated. Generally speaking, in the instances where runology does continue to be studied in academic contexts, the trend in recent years has been toward increased study of runic evidence in connection with purely linguistic data analysis and other more quantifiable and thus “safe” aspects.

One of the reasons I wrote this book was to examine the history of runology on all levels and thereby give current students and professionals a better view of the historical context of the pursuit of the meaning and interpretation of the runes and runic writing. It is my hope that in the future runology can be increasingly returned to its roots as an integral contextual study of Germanic culture. Runes are certainly best understood as a part of a larger cultural context. By the same token, within the study of runes, all individual artifacts and every group of related artifacts have to be seen as multidimensional cultural phenomena—a nexus of linguistics, art, ideology, and ethnology.