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What is a Rune?


Viking rune stone and grave mounds at Anundshog

3,977 words

Translations: French [2], Portuguese [3], Swedish [4]

Author’s Note:

This essay was presented at the recent Rune-Gild Moot in Bastrop, Texas. It is dedicated, with respect and affection, to Edred Thorsson and his wife Crystal Dawn.

1. Introduction: The Runes and Philosophy

Several years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Philosophical Notes on the Runes” (it’s included in my recent book Summoning the Gods [5]). As the title implies, the essay is an attempt to give philosophical interpretations to each of the runes. Essentially what I did was to take Edred’s interpretations of the meanings of the runes in Futhark and Runelore, and to offer my own commentaries on these, drawing upon the Western philosophical tradition. My principal source, in fact, was German philosophy, and I arranged the runes in a quasi-Hegelian system.

In this presentation, I intend to explore at a deeper level (at what is sometimes called a “meta” level) the relationship between the runes and philosophical ideas. In fact, the relationship I will deal with is threefold: between myth, the runes, and philosophy. My purpose here is really to come to a more adequate understanding of what, exactly, the runes are.

To begin with, it would clearly be inaccurate to describe the runes as a “philosophy.” And here I will take my bearings, once again, from Hegel. Hegel grouped philosophy together with art and religion as the three highest expressions of what he called human Spirit. What they have in common is that they are three approaches to achieving an understanding of the nature of existence itself, and the human place in it. However, he saw philosophy as fundamentally different from the other two. Art and religion both express the truth through the image: myths, stories, poetry, music, and visual representations of various kinds. Philosophy, on the other hand, attempts to convey the truth in a purely conceptual form. It eschews images and symbols.

On Hegel’s account, the runes clearly do not constitute a system of philosophy. But if so, how should we categorize them? Or do they defy categorization?

First of all, the runes are only understandable within the Germanic religious and mythological context. Further, they appear to stem from what is often called mytho-poetic thinking (a point I will return to later on). In other words, they involve thinking about the world and man in terms of images and symbols, rather than abstract concepts. So it is tempting to say that the runes belong to the realm of “myth.” But this is also clearly not the case. Myths are stories. Though there are stories (myths) about the runes, and though some of the runes refer to figures or elements from Germanic myth, the runes themselves are not myths per se.

In truth, the runes are neither philosophy nor myth – yet, as I shall argue, they display elements of both. In brief, the runes come very close to being what is sometimes called in philosophy a “categoreal ontology”: an articulation of the nature of reality into a number of different, fundamental ideas. Of course, the problematic term here is “ideas,” because this seems to suggest “concepts,” and the runes are not abstract concepts but images or symbols of various kinds. I am not referring here specifically to the written stave shapes, but to the names of the runes (or to what they name). Let’s look at some specific examples.

2. The Meaning of Cattle

[6]Fehu, as we all know, means “cattle” or “mobile property” or “wealth.” But the rune does not refer to these in a straightforward, literal sense. In Runelore, Edred writes of Fehu: “In the cosmology this is the true outward force of the primal cosmic fire – the expansive force that answers to contraction and solidification in ice.” Drawing on this, in my “Philosophical Notes on the Runes” essay I assigned the concept “Expansive Force” to Fehu. But in fact Fehu is not the concept of Expansive Force. Fehu is cattle. Conceptual interpretations of the rune and formulae like “Expansive Force” are interpretations of the meaning of Fehu, i.e. of the meaning of cattle. But they are not the rune itself or equivalent to it.

Now, the phrase I just used, “the meaning of cattle,” seems strange and perhaps a bit comical. Yet this is a clue that can help us better understand just what a rune is. If one looks at translations of the names of the runes one will be struck by the simple fact that these refer to objects or phenomena that were features of the day-to-day life – of the “lifeworld,” if you will – of the ancient Germanic peoples. One has to look at the translations of the rune names, rather than the original names themselves in Old Norse, Old English, Proto-Germanic, or what have you, because these seem strange, remote, and magical to us. So, consider what these strange names mean; what they denoted for our ancestors: Cattle, Ox, Thorn, Wagon, Torch, Gift, Joy, Hail, Need, Ice, Harvest, Yew Tree, Elk, Sun, Birch, Horse, Day, etc.

What has happened in each case is that some familiar feature of the world or of human experience has been singled out and invested with a meaning that goes beyond the immediately apparent. But a better way to put it would be to say that in each case some familiar something has been taken as a clue or indicator or symbol of some more fundamental and wide-ranging principle, phenomenon, or force. In other words, in the rune Fehu our ancestors really did perceive “the meaning of cattle.” Cattle for them became a symbolic indicator of something that has to do with more than mere cows. Cattle are not just cattle, they are a symbol of Expansive Force (to use our “philosophical” formulation).

The matter is actually more complicated than this, however. It would be more accurate to say that cattle were taken as an exemplar of Expansive Force. Cattle do not merely symbolize this, like the American eagle symbolizes America; cattle were taken as somehow imbued with this force, and thus as exemplars of it. In other words, one expression of Expansive Force (cattle) is taken to stand for the whole phenomenon.

This seems to make the runes examples of what the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico called “imaginative universals.” These he contrasted to “intelligible universals.” An example of an imaginative universal in action would be when a bard sings the praises of a brave man and says “He is Sigurd.” In this case, one individual, Sigurd, is taken to stand for the characteristic of being brave. An intelligible universal, on the other hand, would be “bravery”; it is an abstract concept abstracted from a number of examples of brave individuals. Instead of saying “He is Sigurd,” the bard could have said “This man exhibits bravery.” (But then, of course, the bard would not be a bard but a philosopher.) The runes are clearly a system of such imaginative universals, in which certain items found in the lifeworld of our ancestors are taken as exemplars of various fundamental features of existence.

The mentality that thinks in terms of imaginative universals is often called “mytho-poetic,” and it is obvious how imaginative universals form the basis both of myth and poetry. The mytho-poetic mind is one that seems very alien to most of us, who are accustomed to dealing almost exclusively with intelligible, abstract universals.

However, to understand what makes the mytho-poetic mentality possible it is not enough to simply to say that it employs imaginative universals. In fact, the mytho-poetic mentality itself is made possible by something more fundamental: a radically different orientation toward the world. It involves seeing the world around us as laden with symbolic meaning. In other words, the mytho-poetic mind reads the world as we would read a story or a poem, looking for the symbolic meanings coded into it by the author. The mytho-poetic mind of our ancestors in essence saw the world as a text to be interpreted.

This is an extremely difficult perspective for us to think our way back into. But what we must understand, as difficult as it is to fathom, is that our ancestors literally saw cattle, hail, and birch as more than cattle, hail, and birch. Instead these were seen as living, material clues to the reality of cosmic forces and metaphysical principles, and clues to the meaning of life.

To return to our question regarding the relationship of the runes to philosophy and myth, I said earlier that the runes exhibit features of both. I can now express this much more precisely. The runes function very much like a categoreal ontology, providing us with the fundamental categories in which reality must be understood. But unlike the categoreal ontologies of philosophy (such as we have in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl) the runes are not intelligible, abstract universals, they are imaginative universals born of the mytho-poetic mind. Incidentally, we see the exact same sort of thing in the categories of the Indian Samkhya system and in the Kabbalistic sefirot, which also constitute mytho-poetic, categoreal ontologies. We also see it in the system of “source spirits” of the early modern German mystic Jacob Boehme, who Hegel regarded as the first German philosopher.

It can thus be seen that the runes occupy, in a sense, a midpoint between myth and philosophy. Now, does this mean that philosophy, and the advent of the intelligible universal, constitutes an advance on the runes? I will return to this point later, after dealing with a few other issues.

3. Ansuz, Tiwaz, and Ingwaz

[7]First, something that is very interesting about the runes is that they do not constitute a “closed system.” We can see this from the simple fact that the futhark changes over time: it contracts and it expands. In other words, new runes are added, or runes are pared away. I do not think that the primary reasons behind this are linguistic; I think that they are ideological or philosophical. The younger futhark, of course, has 16 runes, eight fewer than the elder futhark. Was the system streamlined for reasons of convenience, or as a result of metaphysical reflection? I am inclined to think that it was the latter. The ideal in both mytho-poetic thought and in philosophy (and in science, for that matter) is to explain everything in terms of as few principles or “universals” as possible – and so some come to be understood as “contained” within others, or are as simply superfluous.

Here is a further issue: it must be noted that there are three runes present in the Elder Futhark that do not quite fit the analysis of the runes I have given thus far: Ansuz, Tiwaz, and Ingwaz. (These are all present in the Anglo-Frisian futhorc, but in the Younger Futhark Ingwaz has disappeared.) I argued earlier that the runes refer to features of the lifeworld of our ancestors – things they directly experienced or found ready-to-hand, such as various animals, trees, natural phenomena, human emotions and human possessions, etc. But Ansuz, Tiwaz, and Ingwaz do not seem to fit this pattern. Ansuz is equivalent to Odin, Tiwaz is Tyr, and Ingwaz is the god Ing.

Setting aside Ansuz for just a moment, note that Tyr is, of course, a sky god, and Ing is an earth god. So, these are god names, but these god names refer us to sky and earth. But why are these designated here by god names? It is because sky and earth occupied a different position in the lifeworld of our ancestors than the other objects that became rune names, which all dwell or happen either on the earth or in the sky. The sun and hail, for example, appear in the sky, while the ox roams the earth, the wagon rolls upon it, and the birch and yew trees grow from it. Joy, gift, and need, human phenomena, also make themselves felt on earth. Sky and earth are thus the ground against which, or within which, these other phenomena appear or make themselves present.

Sky and earth do not appear to us in the same way that objects in the sky or on the earth appear. In a real sense, though sky and earth are perceptible, they are not objects at all since we never see their limits: from our standpoint on the earth we perceive neither the limits of the sky nor the limits of the earth. Sky and earth are that within which everything appears, but they do not themselves appear as objects within any larger context or horizon. This gives sky and earth a very special sort of fundamentality: they are ultimate contexts or horizons for everything else. As a result of this, sky and earth were felt as having special numinous significance for our ancestors. Tiwaz and Ingwaz thus do in fact refer to features of the lifeworld of our ancestors, to sky and earth taken in their numinous or divine aspect. This numinousness was seen, but not with eyes; felt, but not with the hands; heard, but not with the ears. It was (or is) a real feature of sky and earth – a feature that now hides itself from us moderns.

But what of Ansuz? Edred tells us that Ansuz refers to a “sovereign ancestral god,” and that this refers, of course, to Odin. Here too I will argue that, in fact, this rune refers to a feature of the lifeworld of our ancestors.

Recall that I said earlier that the myth-poetic mind reads nature as if it were a text. Let’s think a bit more about the implications of this. It means to take the world as loaded with symbolic meanings; it means to take nothing in the world as there by accident (this is the mentality, incidentally, behind the reading of omens and portents); it means, in fact, to see behind everything a conscious intention. Where there is a text loaded with meaning, there must always be an author who loaded the meaning into it. There must, in short, be an Allfather of the world itself.

Seeing an Allfather behind the world as it appears to us, manipulating appearances, sending us signs is not a conscious choice or an invention. What I am suggesting is that it is a fundamental feature of the mytho-poetic mind. The mind that reads the world as a text in which nothing is accidental must see an intelligence at work in the world; these imply one another. Thus, in a sense we can say that all the other runes “imply” Ansuz, for the mind that reads the world symbolically and wins the runes feels the presence of their author, of Odin. I said earlier, that the numinousness of earth and sky were felt as well, though not with the five senses. Here something similar is going on: the presence of Odin, of the author of all, is felt as keenly as things are seen or heard or touched. But only by those who possess this mytho-poetic mentality. The rest can only understand this in an abstract sense. This is a point I will return to in a moment.

Of course, the intelligence that the mytho-poetic mind saw at work in the world was not the same intelligence that the philosophers of the Enlightenment posited. For our ancestors were not willing to ignore all that must be ignored to see this as the clockwork universe and as the best of all possible worlds. They were attuned to what is strange, uncanny, absurd, and horrifying in existence. And so their Allfather, their author of nature, was no benevolent watchmaker, but a dangerous, fickle, unpredictable god; the god of the wild hunt, of battle ecstasy, who sets kinsmen against each other, who tears down the old and ushers in the new through strife.

4. Conclusion: The Runes or Philosophy

[8]Let us now turn to the question posed earlier: if the runes occupy a middle position between myth and philosophy, does philosophy constitute some kind of advance beyond the runes? I can imagine someone interpreting what I have said earlier as meaning that the runes occupy a halfway house between myth and philosophy.

Hegel would certainly take the position that philosophy is an advance beyond the runes (though I should mention that Hegel never said anything specifically about the runes). His argument would almost certainly be that philosophy stands on a higher level than the runes because philosophical thought (broadly speaking) is needed to interpret the meaning of the runes. After all, the runes don’t interpret themselves. We have to give philosophical, conceptual interpretations of them (as Edred does when he explains the esoteric meanings of the runes in Runelore and other texts). But, Hegel would argue, if it is philosophical thought that reveals the meaning of the runes to us, then isn’t philosophy a higher-level form of discourse? To generalize this, Hegel would maintain that philosophy stands at a higher level than mytho-poetic thought, since philosophical, conceptual thinking is needed to interpret myths, symbols, and images and reveal their inner meaning. This is a very powerful argument, that cannot be ignored.

There is, however, a simple response to it. If philosophy and its intelligible universals must be used to interpret the products of mytho-poetic thought, it is not because we have “progressed” beyond mytho-poetic thought, it is because this form of thought has been lost to us (and this loss is not necessarily, as I shall argue, “progress”). For those immersed in mytho-poetic thought, the meaning of symbols and associations were grasped without the need for philosophical, conceptual thought. Our philosophical interpretation of the runes is something we engage in simply because the meaning of the runes is no longer immediately apparent to us, as it was to our ancestors.

Let me draw a parallel. Suppose I am an English professor and I quote a poetic verse to a college freshmen: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying: / And this same flower that smiles to-day / Tomorrow will be dying.” And suppose he responds by saying “I don’t get it.” I then assign him some homework: come back on Monday and be able to explain to me what this verse means. After a good deal of thought, he comes back on Monday and says “It means that we’d better live now while we have the chance because we’ll all die eventually.” I would give him an A, but I doubt that the poem’s author, Robert Herrick, would regard him as having advanced to a higher level of understanding. Herrick would be dismayed that analysis was required to understand his meaning – a meaning which the more sensitive souls of Herrick’s time would have grasped immediately, without the need for an evening’s worth of analysis, theorizing, and possible visits to Wikipedia.

Similarly, it is not the case that our ancestors were expressing things they would have understood better had philosophy been around. No, they understood these things without philosophy. The system of the runes revealed the nature of the world to them without the need for conceptual interpretations of that system. And we must also recognize that all such philosophical interpretations only grope at expressing the meanings of the runes. There is, indeed, an argument to be made that these imaginative universals stand on a higher level than intelligible universals, since they seem to contain depths which cannot be exhausted by conceptual interpretation.

But a nagging question remains: how did we lose mytho-poetic thought? How was the imaginative universal displaced by the intelligible universal?

To begin with, Hegel is correct that philosophy is abstract and that it tends to eschew the sensuous. In the move to the intelligible universal, the sensuous drops away. And the sensuous content of mytho-poetic thought has its origin in a people’s immersion in a certain lifeworld: in a specific natural environment or ecosystem, and the evolved way of life of a people dwelling within that environment. It seems reasonable to conjecture, therefore, that the shift from the imaginative to the intelligible universal, from mytho-poetic to abstract thought, is somehow occasioned by a people’s disconnection from its lifeworld.

This could happen in various ways. It could occur as the result of a people’s displacement from its original home, and subsequent rootless migration. It could also occur through the rise of cities, in which the inhabitants are largely cut off from direct confrontation with nature, and exposed to the influence of immigrants from other cultures; i.e., cosmopolitanism. Major cultural shifts could contribute to this process: e.g., the rise of democracy in ancient Athens, and the consequent, gradual erosion of Tradition through individualism, relativism, and hedonism.

These observations will inevitably call to mind our present predicament. We are not mytho-poetic thinkers, and the lifeworld of our ancestors, from which sprang the runes, is not our own. Therefore, though we may grant that philosophical interpretation of the runes is a poor substitute for possessing the mentality of our ancestors, is it perhaps the best that we can do?

The last recorded aurochs died in Poland in 1627. We no longer feel the numinous property of earth and sky. Birch and yew are just birch and yew to us. This inevitably means that though we strive as Germanic pagans to revive the traditions of our ancestors, we do not participate in those traditions exactly as they did – simply because we do not live in the same world. This gulf between us and our ancestors and their ways is painful to us, but it is not clear how to overcome it. For us, paganism always remains, in a real sense, an ideal we are striving for. (Though I hasten to say that it is as legitimate for us to call ourselves pagans as it is for Christians today to call themselves Christians — since they too are striving, in effect, to live in a world that has also been lost.)

Eventually someone is going to suggest that we invent a new set of runes derived from our own lifeworld. But I cannot accept such a thing. I cannot accept a Futhark with such runes as “facebook,” “ups,” “thugz” (with a z), “amazon,” “redbox,” and “kmart.” And I’m sure everyone here feels the same way. Why? Because all of us are convinced that our society and our way of life are debased; that there is nothing natural and wholesome about what passes for our lifeworld. Our only alternative, therefore, is to attempt to reconstruct and recreate the traditions of our ancestors.

But the only way to return truly and fully to those traditions would be by the restoration of their lifeworld: a return to the natural environment in which they lived and to their way of life. There’s still a lot of wilderness out there, but it would not be enough to simply purchase a good portion of it and set up a kind of re-created Germanic settlement. The participants would have to be completely innocent of modern culture: they would have to have no memory of modern attitudes, modern inventions, and pop culture; they could not even have any memory of modern history.

They would need to see the world around them with fresh and uncorrupted eyes. If such a situation could be created, I believe that the old forms, the old ways, would reconstitute themselves among our people, in their interaction with their natural environment. The sky and earth would again be perceived in their numinous aspect. Birch and yew would again be more than just varieties of wood. And Odin’s presence would be felt once more, deep in the darkness of the forests.

Of course, such a situation could only come about through the complete destruction of the modern world and the memory of it. In short, the hope lies in Ragnarok.