Runic Divinatory Theory - Reading The Runes

The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018

Runic Divinatory Theory
Reading The Runes


Understanding how runecasting works can be a relative thing. How we understand it may be different from the exact ways in which an Erulian runecaster of ancient times might have explained it. There are also various levels of understanding in our own times. So why even bring up “theory”? Why not just “practice” and not worry about such matters?

From the standpoint of true runework on any level these questions are, of course, absurd. It is in the character of the runer to inquire and act, to seek further into the runes. If the runes are to be more than a “fortune-telling” system—which they must be—then working through various levels of understanding of them can only be enhanced by constant attempts to understand them in ever more comprehensive ways. So, the question of “theory,” or understanding, is actually a practical one.

Traditionally, runecasting is a true act of direct communication between humans and the divinities of the many realms, as described in chapter 6, “Historical Rune Magic and Divination.” This communication takes place in the metalanguage of the gods (runes)—the outer form of the Gift of Odin. The runestaves and all the lore attendant to them as well as the ritual methods of consulting them also were known to be of divine origin. The first “runecaster” was Odin himself, and in casting the runes the diviner is actually participating in the divine process in an imitative way. This is the essence of the traditional theory of runecasting, at least from an Odian point of view. The non-Odian populace of ancient times would have seen the divinatory process as one in which “the gods speak to mortals,” and in this they probably were encouraged by the Odians.

This exoteric understanding—as all true levels of understanding—is not at all incorrect. However, what this level fails to see is that in the context of the ritual act the runecaster has assumed the status of “a god.” Actually, in order to communicate with the hidden transpersonal reality (the runes) the runer must assume this status in order to be totally effective. The results of the casting are then communicated to the runecaster's own human level of consciousness (and perhaps to that of others) through the runestaves and their lore. Therefore, runecasting is not a totally passive undertaking.

The runer's will, ability, knowledge, and level of being are very important. Without them the runes would remain forever hidden.

Another aspect of traditional theory involves the “divinities of fate,” which are numerous and prevalent in Germanic lore. These can be roughly divided into three “functions” or characteristic realms of activity. First, the Great Norns (ON Nornir) Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld give the overall context in which action and reaction, cause and effect, time, and synchronicity exist, and provide the context in which they can be comprehended. Second are the personal “bearers of fate.” These are conceptualized as the entities who are attached to an individual and who carry that individual's fate (ON ørlög), thus influencing his or her life and actions. To some extent the runecaster is seeking knowledge of these entities and their contents. Entities that belong to this second group include the fetch (ON fylgja) and Nornir (lesser Norns), as well as in certain instances valkýrjur (valkyries) and disir (dises).1 Third are the “guides.” These entities are thought to manipulate the runelots to fall or to be laid out in certain ways. Guides may be Norns, dises, or even valkyries. It might be noted that from the Odian standpoint these entities are actually parts of the whole self of the Odian.

The Runes and Fate

The perthro-rune is fundamental to the understanding of the context in which runic divination works. This rune contains the secret workings of the three Great Norns—Urdhr-Verdhandi-Skuld. These are vast forces of the cosmos whose manifestation is synonymous with the origin of time (including synchronicity), motion (thus cause and effect), and all becoming. These are dark etin-forces according to “Völuspá,” st. 8, in the Poetic Edda.

The essence of their mystery is contained in the meanings of their names. Urdhr (OE Wyrd) is simply the past participle of the verb verdha, to become; turn (OE wyrd is similarly formed from the verb weordhan). So Urdhr really means “that which has become or turned,”—in other words, “the past.” Verdhandi is the present participle of the same verb, and so means “that which is becoming or turning,” i.e., “the present.” Skuld obviously comes from another verb, skulu, meaning shall. It is essentially, or qualitatively, different from the other two, and means “that which shall (be).” In Old Norse this has connotations of duty and obligation, but in the most archaic levels when the term first arose it merely indicated that which should come to pass, given past circumstances.

It is also of the greatest importance to realize that the old Germanic idea of time was built on a past vs. non-past model. If you will notice, even our modern English does not really have a future tense (it needs the auxiliary verb will to form this tense). This is a feature common to the Germanic languages—German, English, Dutch, and the Scandinavian dialects. But we do have a real past tense. This is because to the Germanic mind the past is real, the future is only hypothetical and subject to change, and the present is an ever-becoming now.

If those concepts are fully understood, it will be easy to see the true nature of the Germanic concept of “fate” (ON ørlög). —rlög is not a set and immutable thing—in fact, it is being transformed constantly by ongoing action. However, ørlög is a powerful force and one from whose grasp few can escape once certain patterns of action become ingrained. The well-known Germanic “fatalism” is, for the most part, an exoteric understanding of this process. Your “Skuld” is affected—even determined—by “Urdhr,” your Wyrd. Wyrd is essentially “past action” which has been formulated and absorbed by your being. Now, if to this already vast webwork the idea of Germanic “reincarnation” (ON aptrburdhr, rebirth) is added, a truly complex image arises. Wyrd seems (indeed is) so compelling because its roots are usually hidden in their remote “pastness”; they are so deeply ingrained in us that they have become invisible. Also, the sheer complexity of the webwork of wyrd, all of the past actions and reactions on all levels of being throughout the entire time of your “essential existences,” make sorting out the threads of wyrd enormously difficult. On the most elementary level the power of wyrd can be expressed in the phrase “Old habits are hard to break.” Through runecasting, the vitki endeavors to get at the root or Wyrd-level of the matter under question.

Two technical terms mentioned above probably need further analysis. Aptrburdhr or rebirth (ON) is a process whereby the essential powers and characteristics of a person are handed down to, and inherited by, later generations. This usually happens naturally and along genetic lines; e.g., the grandson is the reincarnation of the dead grandfather. With this rebirth the grandson also “inherits” the fate (ørlög) of the grandfather and of his whole clan or tribe. The child is affected by its heritage.

—rlög itself is a complex idea. The word literally means “primal layers” or “primal laws,” and really indicates action that has been “laid down” in the past. But ørlög cuts two ways. It is both the past actions that we have dealt out (in this and perhaps in the previous existences of our essential selves), and that which others (or impersonal forces) have dealt out to us over the same span of time. In English the only survival of this concept is in the word ordeal (primal-deal), i.e., that which was “dealt out” in the past. Thus, trials by ordeal (in theory) merely objectively demonstrated the truth based on these concepts.

From what has been said above, it should be clear that the process the runer sets out to investigate through runecastings is not strictly one of cause and effect. The nornic process is one that formulates a set of probabilities based on a whole range of complex actions and reactions on many levels of being. The runecasting is an attempt to reproduce an image of this web work of wyrd so that its contents can be analyzed and read.

The theory that comes closest to fitting the Germanic model is that of synchronicity, originated by the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung.2

A synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence, when outer events (happenings) coincide with a psychic event (an awareness of meaning). These are moments in which the eternal fields of meaningfulness open up and touch upon moments in cyclical (natural) time. These are moments when our souls and all the world around us can be reshaped to some extent—if we are aware of them.

Acts of runecasting are not so much attempts to predict future events as they are attempts to arrange inner and outer circumstances (the soul and the lay of the runestaves) in such a way that the center of the webwork of wyrd is made legible. From this center we are able to interpret the shape of much of the rest of the warp and weave of the world around us. We may even be able to see the whole world: past and “present,” archetypal and mundane. Those who can read the runes will be able to expand their vision in such a way that all the conditioning factors of any situation are clarified. Lines in the webwork of wyrd can be extended in consciousness—and thus the realm of probabilities surrounding events yet to happen can come into view.

If the vitki considers the Yggdrasill pattern shown in chapter 10 on pg. 126 as a four-dimensional webwork, and the act of runecasting as a way of expanding consciousness out along all the wide ways into the nine worlds, then runecasting can be seen as a method of expanding awareness from a center point (Midhgardhr). But just as Midgardhr is the final fruit of the coming into being of the worlds of Yggdrasill, so too is it the seed from which new growth springs. Runecasting can give us the probable patterns for this new growth.

Finally, something needs to be said about the “experience of the wyrd.” In our colloquial language the term “weird” has come to be synonymous with strange. This is an unfortunate turn of events. The word comes from the Scots language, the Germanic tongue of the Lowland Scots, northern English and northern Irish, a language in which many archaic concepts survive. In former times, a “weird” experience was one which seemed to have its origins in the numinous, in the world of the gods. A weird experience caused the hair to rise on the back of the neck, and it was felt to be highly significant. Such events and feelings were more synchronistic than anything else. Things became palpably clear, sometimes causing a fearful reaction. It is hoped that this book will help in some way to rescue this word from the oblivion of meaningless modern usage.