Woden – Help Me Read These Runes Aright…
I’ve been trolling the Internet lately looking for new information and/or viewpoints on the runes and, I must say, I’ve gathered more than a few resentments along the way.
Now, I am a steadfast believer in the sanctity of individual spiritual opinion, practice and experience, but I also believe that making things different doesn’t necessarily make them better, and that some things are best left in the original packaging, so to speak. (That’s one of the benefits of being a non-dualist – one can be a liberal AND a fundamentalist at the same time without ones head exploding…)
I also believe that if the Old Ways (i.e. the way things were done prior to about 1990) are to be preserved, someone has to speak up when the drift becomes a bit too drifty. And, yes, some of us have to be arrogant enough to think that we qualify for that position. At the very least, I hope that the Pagano-Heathen community can still agree to disagree, and that those of us who “pine for the Good Old Days” have at least as much right to speak up and say our piece as the innovators and pioneers.
(And now, a brief pause for the Politically Correct Disclaimer: What follows is not The Truth, nor the One Right And Only Way. It is simply what I have come to believe in as a result of research, study, practice and UPG [Unverifiable Personal Gnosis]. I believe in it strongly, and will both state and defend it passionately, but that does not mean that I think your way is wrong. Mine is just righter…)
For the sake of brevity, I will address three of the most heinous aberrations I see in “contemporary runelore”: the so-called “blank rune,” orientational interpretation of the runestaves and, for lack of a better term, the “New Aging” of the runelore. I will explain each of these categories more fully as I address them.
Before I do so, however, a bit needs to be said about the process of divination with the runes, in order for my arguments against these heresies to make sense. Since this topic itself cannot be easily covered in a book, let alone an essay, I must again be as succinct as I can be and still communicate the basic concepts.
First, let’s clarify a little terminology. What we commonly refer to as “runes,” (i.e. the little bits of wood, ceramics, metal or stone with the angular symbols on them) are more properly referred to as “runestaves.” “Rune” actually refers to the Mystery represented by each of those little angular symbols. However, to avoid needless confusion, I will acquiesce to popular usage, and refer to the staves as runes (small r), and the Mysteries as Runes (capitol R).
Divination with the runes is a lot like tracking earthquakes with a seismograph. What we are attempting to sense, through the agency of the runes, are the tremblings along the Web of Wyrd that may lead to one outcome or another, depending on other tremblings of the Web. A casting or spread of runes is a snapshot of the vibratory patterns of the Web at a particular point in space/time. While it is possible to hone a reading to a very precise degree, what one normally sees in runic divination is a rather broad picture of the current situation, and the many possibilities that could emerge in the as-yet-unmanifest future. One also needs to understand that, unlike Tarot, a runic divination is not necessarily relevant to the querent. One may indeed be the focus of a particular reading, in which case the reading will tend to resonate or make a great deal of sense. However, one may simply be caught up in an impersonal “Runic current,” in which case the reading may seem – at least at that moment – to be way off base.
There are many contemporary methods for casting or creating a rune reading, but many of these are borrowed from the Tarot tradition. How the runes were originally used is unclear, except that, from the lore, we know that several at a time were cast onto a cloth or other surface, and then interpreted.
With these admittedly broad strokes as our launch pad, let’s look at those “issues” I mentioned earlier.
The (Dreaded) Blank Rune:
There is no such thing.
That should put an end to it, but I know better by now.
To the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, the blank rune was first popularized by Ralph Blum in the ‘90s. It may have been around before but let’s be fair: before Blum’s book, precious few in mainstream American had ever heard of a rune, let alone a blank one. While I bitterly oppose Mr. Blum’s New Agey interpretations of the runes and his apparent attempt to combine them with the Tarot tradition, I have to give credit where credit is due: he did succeed in bringing the runes back into the popular consciousness and imagination, although the jury is still out on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. While many Pagans and Heathens were and are scandalized and offended by his work, there are many writers of whom that can be said, so in all, I bear no great animosity toward the man and his work. I was first introduced to the runes through his book, though I was lucky enough to be set straight later on by my Elders and the Gods.
But I digress…
Since its introduction, the blank rune has come to symbolize many things, and has even been called (shudder!) Odin’s Rune. And while I can tolerate a lot of hooey, I have to draw the line right there. Ansuz is Odin’s Rune; period, end of discussion. If you don’t believe me, just ask Him…
Usually, the blank rune is said to represent the Great Mystery (as if the preceding twenty-four Mysteries weren’t great enough), which has always seemed a bit, well, lazy to me. It’s a convenient “back door” for those who divine themselves into a corner, and a good prop to point to when you haven’t a clue what the whole reading means, but still want to seem powerful and mysterious. In short, it’s a gimmick, and there is no place for gimmicks in serious runework.
The other manner in which I often see and hear the blank rune used is as the “significator” in a rune reading, i.e. a representation of the querent. This is pretty blatant plagiarism from the Tarot tradition and, again, has no place in runework. The Runes do not revolve around you, no matter how special you think you are – it is up to you to fit yourself into the patterns they may choose to reveal to you. If you really MUST have a “significator,” then let that be the first rune that you draw, and cast the others over/around it. But even then, remember that it is a metaphysical seismograph, and the tremors it is picking up may be so faint, so deep, that you see no possible connection to you or your present circumstances.
By this I mean the interpretation of the runes according to whether they are “upright” or “reversed,” with upright interpretations being mostly “good,” and reversed mostly “bad.”
This is, again, a direct syncretism from the Tarot tradition, and is alien to the nature of the Runes. The primal cosmic forces that are the Runes cannot be subjected to dualistic reductionism and parsed into polarities of “good and bad,” “light and dark” and so on. The Runic forces are far too fundamental to the structure and function of the multiverse to be thought of in such limited terms. Each rune represents not merely the two obvious sides of a coin, but the edge also, and, for that matter, the very molecular structure of the coin that exists between the visible sides! Indeed, implicit in the very existence of the coin is all that the coin is not! And so it is with the Runes.
In studying and working with the runes, one comes to appreciate the true non-dualistic nature of reality, and to comprehend, however poorly, the vast and complex interweaving of weal and woe (“good” and “bad”) that is existence. This is not a Pollyanna attitude of “every cloud has a silver lining,” nor is it an entropic nihilism that sees all that is good, beautiful and true as ultimately ephemeral and therefore pointless. If anything, it has more in common with the worldview of philosophical Taoism than with any product of the Greco-Roman philosophers and their later European adherents. One recognizes that the ways of Wyrd are neither good nor bad, that they simply are what they are and one is free to accept them on their own terms, or categorize them in whichever pigeonhole one wishes. In the end, our labels and categorizations are swallowed up in the flow of the Runic currents.
If the Runes are then, in essence, shades of gray within shades of gray, how does one make sense of a rune casting? As the man once said, all things are relative, and it is in the relationship of each rune in the casting to every other rune that one intuits the influence, for weal or woe or both, of the individual Runic forces and the combinations thereof upon the matter in question. When one looks at the runes scattered in a casting, one is literally looking at patterns within patterns, and this is the true key to effective runic divination.
The “New Aging” of the Runes:
Here I refer to the association or “correspondence” of each Rune to such things as astrological signs and alchemical symbols, herbs, trees, stones, gems, crystals and such like. While it is true that, in some of the ancient rune poems and rhymes, various runes are associated with various phenomena of the natural world, such as trees, stars, hail, the sea, ice, etc., there is no precedence for assigning each rune a correspondence or association in each such category. The associations that exist seem to be made based upon the nature of the rune itself and the associated phenomenon, and there appears to be no meta-pattern on which to base a systematic matrix. Unfortunately, as with orientational interpretation, this practice has been promulgated by otherwise impeccable Runic scholars, and has therefore fallen into more or less common acceptance. Personally, I find the whole concept to be a bit too neat, tidy and structured to apply authentically to the primal, fractal essence of the Runes. The Runes are the ultimate “patternless patterns,” and by their very nature defy such systematization.
In the end, as with all esoteric studies, one must find ones own way to ones own Truth, and I would be the last to attempt to dissuade anyone from pursuing their own wyrd. The Runes will reveal themselves to you as they will, but I urge you to resist the temptation to try to fit them into a neat little cookie-cutter grid of meanings and associations. But neither can we let our understanding of them become ossified. I simply suggest that working with these most profound of Mysteries is adventure enough for one lifetime. We do not need to clutter our work with gimmicks and gewgaws from other paths and traditions.