Esoteric Dimensions of The Runic Tradition - The Runic Tradition—An Overview

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

Esoteric Dimensions of The Runic Tradition
The Runic Tradition—An Overview


Runes and Magic

Now we must consider the uses of runes in ancient and medieval times (pre-1500) that indicate they were employed in magical or divinatory practices. The chief distinction between the modern-day speculative (or imaginative) runologist and the skeptical runologist hinges on the question of whether the runes were ever considered by the ancient Germanic peoples to have been imbued with some sort of magical power, force, or special symbolic essence that made them something sacred and set apart for an extraordinary kind of communication or whether they were just a writing system like any other that was occasionally used in what might be called “magical” spells.

Perhaps the best answer to this question is provided by an anonymous runemaster who lived sometime in the late sixth century and who carved on a stone the words:

ᚱᚢᚾᛟᚠᚨᚺᛁᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾᛟᚲᚢᛞᛟ [. . .]

runofahiraginakudo [. . .]

runō fahi raginakundo . . .

“(A) rune I color, one stemming from the gods, . . .”

I would say that this runemaster knew better than any modern-day runologist as to what the nature of the runic tradition was, at least in his day. This is clear and direct evidence that the runes were believed to be derived from a divine source. Later Old Norse literary evidence also continues to point us in this direction. Virtually every time runes are mentioned in saga literature, for example, they are ascribed to some magical or mystical meaning. Some skeptics have tried to suggest that this attitude was imported to the North by Christianity, which seems highly unlikely as Christianity was largely opposed to the sentiments expressed in this runic material. Also, the spiritual and magical power ascribed to the runes in pagan sources was actually a continuing challenge to the aspect of Christian prestige that was tied to the use of the Latin language and the Roman script.

It can be conceded that the runes may have had a profane origin and served as a practical script for the first few centuries of their use, and only somewhat later were they imbued with magical and mythical associations. This can be said only because there are no overtly magical runic inscriptions before the fifth century. The earliest inscriptions are often one-word formulas, and these are too brief to provide direct evidence that would prove beyond any doubt whether the motivation of the carver was operative or magical. However, it must also be said that few inscriptions dating from before the Middle Ages give any outward sign that they are, in fact, a purely profane and ordinary form of communication between two humans.

Runes may have been in use as early as 150 BCE, but whenever they were invented, they were most likely the work of a single individual. We may reasonably posit that the originator of the runic system was an aristocratic man at home in what is now Scandinavia, probably a warrior by profession (a member of a warband), and also a poet or storyteller. He may have served in some capacity in the Roman army for a time, as the runic system appears to have been loosely based on the Roman alphabet. He became familiar with Roman writing and then returned home to the North and innovated his own system. The rune-using culture that developed over time was thus connected to a high prestige population; it was the instrument of an elite group of men with some significant ties to the Roman world (whether as a result of military service, or through trade, and so forth). The spread of the runic system would have occurred through some sort of intertribal network and may have been closely attached to a central mythological patron, to be identified with the high god *Wōðanaz (the Germanic deity whose name later evolves into Óðinn in Old Norse, Wōden in Old English, etc.).

The ancient Germanic peoples at the dawn of the first millennium lived in a prehistoric time. This means that there are no significant written records produced by them other than the brief inscriptions they made. Our knowledge about these early Germanic societies largely derives from Greco-Roman descriptions of them. The rune-using culture within these Germanic groups must have formed a continuous and dynamic lineage. We know it was continuous because the lack of written records precludes the tradition being revived based on written sources after a period of decay. The orality of their culture ensured the necessity for a continuous oral chain of master-pupil relationships being at the core of their society. Their situation can be contrasted to that of the Hebrews and Egyptians, who had written records that allowed for periods of decay in which teachings were “lost” and then later revived based on preserved written texts. The old Germanic rune-using culture was also dynamic in that the nature of the data seems to have changed over time, reforms occurred, and so on.

The history of the runic tradition can be compared with that of Greek writing. The Greek alphabet was adapted from the Semitic Phoenician alphabet, with the significant innovation that all sounds of the language, including the vowels, were assigned phonetic characters. The Greek alphabet was first used by the merchant class, and only later did the letters take on any philosophical or mystical meanings. This esoteric aspect is evident in the writings of philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato. The Greek system is characterized by borrowed letter names (alpha, beta, gamma, etc., based on Semitic alef, bet, gimel, etc.) and the fact that the earliest attestations of writing are in the milieu of merchants and government.

One of the stone-cold facts about all runic inscriptions that must be taken into account in each and every effort to interpret an individual inscription is that every inscription is an effort at an act of communication. The following sequence of three questions then arises: Who is the performer of the communicative act? Who or what is the object or intended recipient of the communication? And what, if anything, is expected as a response to that initial message?

Regardless of their origins and original purpose, after about 400 CE we see a proliferation of overtly magical uses of the runes. A few examples of this will show what an unquestionably magical (operative) inscription looks like.

Our first example is the fifth-century so-called amulet of Lindholm.


A: ekerilaRsawilagaRhateka:

B: aaaaaaaaRRRnnnxbmuttt:alu:

Line A is perhaps best read as ek erilaR sa wīlagaR ha(i)teka, “I, the Erulian, am called the crafty one” (Krause and Jankuhn 1966, 70). Line B consists of a series of twenty-one runes, which are not intended to be natural language, concluding with the familiar formulaic word alu.

In the Lindhom inscription the runemaster identifies himself by a title that empowers him to perform the operative act, characterizes the nature of his performative act (being “crafty” or “tricky,” i.e., dangerous), and then unleashes a runic formula, the purpose of which we can fairly well guess at based upon the examples of later formulas that bear a close resemblance to this one, such as the curse formula known from a section of the seventeenth-century Galdrabók (see Flowers 2005, 55—56). The whole sequence, which really constitutes a self-contained ritual formula, concludes with the sanctifying word alu. This inscription is analyzed in some more detail by Flowers (2006, 72—79). It appears that the overall formula, probably a preexisting one that was used repeatedly, is here imperfectly executed, as it was obviously intended to consist of twenty-four runes on each side, but the runemaster left out one, an i-rune in line A. Therefore, it might be said that the formula in its entirety originally had some intended numerical symbolism. Both lines were probably supposed to have twenty-four runes. We can only speculate that the meaning of the number twenty-four would have been as a signature of completeness and totality, and hence the number itself is a sign of some intrinsic power.

One of the most well-known magical formulas in the older tradition is found on the Stentoften stone in southern Sweden. Another stone from the same region, the Björketorp stone, has some of the same formulas. The Stentoften inscription is dated to about 650 CE, and its runes can be seen here:


These can be read as follows:

1. niuhAborumR

2. niuhagestumR

3. hAþuwolAf RgAfj

4. hAriwolAf RmAgiusnuhle

5. hideRrunonofelAhek AhederAginoronoR

6. herAmAlAsARArAgeuwelAdudsAþAtbAriutiþ

The text is normalized to the following:

I. niuha-būrumR II. niuha-gestumR III. Haþuwolf R gaf j(āra) IV. Hariwolf R magius nū hlēV. h(a)idR rūnō [ronu] felheka hedra gino-r(ū)noR VI. hermala(u)sR argeu wēlad(a)ud sā þat briutiþ.

This may be translated as something like: “To the new farmers, (and) to the new foreigners, Haþuwolf gave good harvest. Hariwolf is now protection for his (son retainer?). A row of bright runes I hide here, magically charged runes—restlessly because of ’perversity’ a deceitful death (has) the one (who) breaks this (monument or stone arrangement).” One of the main functions of this inscription is clearly stated as a curse on anyone who would disturb the arrangement of rocks of which the stone was a part.

Bracteates were made from thin sheets of gold that were embossed with images stamped from a wooden dye. The round gold disk was then fitted with a beaded rim and a loop so that it could be worn as an amulet. They were apparently worn mainly by women, as they are typically found in gravesites belonging to women. But more commonly they are found as hoards—a collection of gold objects that were intentionally buried, perhaps in hopes of sending the gold to the otherworld where the one who buried it will be enriched. The Germanic gold bracteates were all manufactured between about 450 and 550 CE.

These bracteates, inscriptions on which account for half of the older runic record, are categorically magical objects. The vast majority of extant bracteates do not have runic content, but there are about 250 that have been found with runic texts. Their particular form of magic works on three levels: (1) the object as such—that is, a gold medallion obtained as a cult site; (2) the iconography on the object; and (3) the inscription, which often appears in conjunction with the image.

A typical example of a runic bracteate is offered by Tjurkö I-C (Ikonographischer Katalog 184), which is shown in the image below.


The runic text on this bracteate reads: wurterunoRanwalhakurne . .heldaRkunimudiu . . .

wurte rūnōR / an walha-kurne
. .HeldaR Kunimu(n)diu . . .

“Held worked the runes on Welsh grain for Kunimund”

The phrase an walha-kurnē, “on the grain of the ’Welsh,’” is perhaps a kenning for “gold” (= the bracteate). “Welsh” is here a general Germanic term for “foreign” or “southern” as opposed to northern (cf. ON valskr, “foreign, esp. French”; OHG wal(a)hisc, OE wealhisc, “foreign, esp. British or ’Welsh’”). This usage shows that Germanic speakers probably also referred to Romans with this word. The Tjurkö I-C bracteate is clearly an amulet with a runic inscription that specifically dedicates its intended effect: to bring prosperity to Kunimund.

The iconography of this style of gold bracteate (called type C by the specialists) was inspired by Roman coins depicting the emperor on horseback. The Germanic person seeing the latter sort of depiction would have naturally reinterpreted it as representing the mounted god *Wōðanaz. The image was then radically restylized according to indigenous aesthetics to create a new and uniquely Germanic form of sacred art with these objects.

The Poetic (or Elder) Edda provides many examples of the runes in a magico-mythic context. These references have been cataloged and studied by several scholars over the years, for example by Wolfgang Schöttler (1948) and Francois-Xavier Dillmann (1976). The most conspicuous and meaningful of these passages is the section concerning the mythic origin of the runes themselves. In stanzas 138—39 of the Hávamál poem, we read about how the god Óðinn (<*Wōðanaz) hung himself on a tree (i.e., the World Tree, Yggdrasil) in a ritual of self-sacrifice, and through this ordeal he discovered the runes (i.e., the cosmic secrets):

Veit ek, at ek hekk vindgameiði á

nætr allar níu,

geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðni,

sjálfr sjálfum mér,

á þeim meiði er mangi veit,

hvers hann af rótum renn.

Við hleifi mik sældu né við hornigi,

nýsta ek niðr; nam ek upp rúnar,

œpandi nam,

fell ek aptr þaðan.

Throughout Old Norse and Old English literature, references to runic use and the meaning of the etymon rūn- (which underlies ON rún, pl. rúnar; OE rūn, pl. rūna~rūne; with corresponding cognates in all the older Germanic languages) consistently point in an esoteric and magical direction, and we can only conclude that those living in the Middle Ages during the era when these documents were produced had a more complete idea of what this concept meant than most modern scholars can imagine. It is also interesting to note that while the original sense of a rune as mystery has its origins in the indigenous Germanic (and Celtic) tradition predating the coming of Christianity, this term was, for an initial period at least, gladly folded into Christian terminology. Insofar as it could be understood to correspond to a universal concept, the term seems to have transcended religious differences.

From the beginning, perhaps, the Proto-Germanic word *rūnō may have indicated both a mystery and the individual signs or symbols with the capacity to communicate mystery. In this we are reminded of the terminology surrounding the Greek letters, which are called στοιχεῖα (stoikheîa). The latter term not only denoted written signs used in representing language but also the elements of the cosmos. Terminology of this sort is a reflection of the sense of awe that some cultures showed toward the process of writing. This sense of awe may be lost to the modern mind-set, but that means little in our attempts to understand the ways those living two thousand years ago might have thought.

With regard to the corpus of early runic inscriptions, a chronological arrangement of the data appears to show various phases for the magical use of runes. For the first two hundred years or so of the tradition, only very short texts are known. These provide identity between the carver and the object, or with the act of writing itself. After about 100 CE the possibilities of practical influence on the already established tradition of runic writing may have been felt from the Greco-Roman world through the conduit of the Mithraic cult, practiced by Roman soldiers on the northern borders, or limes, of the empire, among whom were many Germanic recruits. Then, after about 300 CE, these and/ or other influences from the south and east increasingly led to more complex and more overtly magical inscriptions. All of this speaks to the intrinsically dynamic nature of the runic tradition. It was not created and then perpetuated in a stagnant way; rather, its generally consistent core was a structure capable of absorbing and adapting influences on a continuous basis. At least this seems to be the best model of understanding the historical dimension of the runic data.

Questions concerning the early magical use of runes are dealt with in great detail in my book Runes and Magic (Flowers 2014). I would refer the reader to that book for a thorough discussion of the ideas of magic in connection with the runes in the earliest period of their history. Runes and Magic is not a book of esoteric runology; it is a scientific observation of early runic data using the lens of an interdisciplinary academic approach.

The whole runic tradition gradually decayed and became more and more geographically limited over the years. Learned men used Latin with its Roman letters, and even made some inscriptions in Latin using runes. At the same time, rudimentary use of runic writing became restricted to pockets of traditionalists living in the Dalarna and Gotland regions of Sweden and in Iceland.

Two obscure sources demonstrate that runic knowledge was partially kept alive in learned circles and even exported in some way from Scandinavia. The first of these sources is the fourteenth-century manuscript Sloane 3854, now housed in the British Library. The manuscript is a jumble of pages, poorly bound and with many parts missing. It is actually a Latin translation of the Kitāb al-Istamātīs, a hermetic treatise that is the source for the Ghayat al-Hakīm, generally known by its Latin title, Picatrix. Originally, this was an Arab-language manual of magic. The runic features in this translation appear to be innovations unknown in the original. Scandinavian runes are used to designate halves of the signs of the zodiac, and each rune is ascribed to one of the four classical “elements.” All of this is presented as a preparation instructing the magician how to use these signs to communicate in a secret way with the universe, but unfortunately the practical section of the manuscript is missing! These cryptic signs are designated as runae. The runes in question are derived from the pointed, or “pricked,” form of runes that were used in the “runic alphabet” in Scandinavia after about 1100. The second such source is found in the Prague manuscript XXIII F 129 from the second half of the fifteenth century (ca. 1475). It stems from the Alemannic linguistic territory (southwestern Germany and Switzerland). This is generally a manual of human medicine. Throughout the text, sections appear in which certain key words are written in runes. Again, these are the Scandinavian “pointed” runes. Both of these sources generally indicate that runes were still thought to be heavily tinged with a magical aura, even in areas far from where the runes would have been at all familiar.

When we look back on the earliest manifestations of the runic craft, it is very plausible to suggest the idea that these practitioners of an expert skill—the writing of specialized texts in a particular script, probably often in exchange for money or position—should have formed a whole cosmology based upon the particulars of their craft. Such a process is normal and expected. The most conspicuous and well-known example of this phenomenon is that of the medieval stone masons (whose work originally may have developed out of earlier institutions involved in the construction of wooden structures in the North). The masons, builders of buildings, developed a whole mythic worldview in which the technology of their craft was symbolically interpreted and revalorized. A similar course of development may have taken place in many other such guilds that cultivated specialized knowledge in areas ranging from warcraft to handicrafts, to the arts of language and poetry.

Systematic runic knowledge of all sorts had generally died out in all but a few areas by about 1500. It is only after such a demise that we can begin to speak of a rebirth or revival of such knowledge. Almost as soon as the traditions of runic usage were lost, men began to try to recover them. This is a clear indication of the original importance of runic knowledge to the cultures in various Germanic lands from England to Germany, and especially in Scandinavia. But whether exoteric or esoteric, this renewed knowledge would be hard-won and difficult to recover. Precisely because this knowledge was now disestablished and rejected, it was ripe for “occult” speculations and practices. And this would have been doubly true in light of the copious indications that the runes had been used for magical purposes in antiquity. The following chapters of this book contain the story of the endeavor—as often misguided as not—to revive runic knowledge in all its facets and functions.

As we will see over the course of our survey, the field of academic runology has undergone many phases of development, and it is still subject to varying influences and ideological positions today. The twentieth century, for example, was especially lively with its pendular swings between what R. I. Page called skeptical runologists and imaginative runologists. Because of profound changes in the world of Western academia—namely, its recent domination (especially at the administrative levels) by materialists, advocates of Marxist critical theories, and politically driven activists—the possibilities for the work of the “imaginative” runologists in academic establishments have become extremely limited.

As a necessary analytical tool in this book I will discuss the ideas of exoteric and esoteric runology in separate ways. However, when we look at the older, traditional period of runology—that belonging to the premodern use of runes—we should realize that these two parts were actually part of one phenomenon. My general theoretical stance is as follows: although a certain quality of understanding can be gained by observing runic data through these two separate lenses (exoteric and esoteric), ultimately it is only by viewing the tradition from a holistic, or integral, perspective that the data can be fully understood. The integral runologist of the future will be one who can enter into the mindset of the traditional runemasters in an experiential way. Much like the experimental archaeologists of today, who learn the physical crafts of the ancients and thereby achieve a greater understanding of the ancient objects they study, the integral runologist will learn to think like an ancient runemaster and thus be better able to understand the process by which the runic inscriptions were created and the messages they convey. However, this being said, I do see the value in both ends of the polar extremes, between the entirely esoteric and the purely rational approach. Each has something of value to convey to our process of understanding. No whole or complete history of runology can dispense with any aspect of the role that the runes have played in the story of our cultural lives.