History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018
North Augusta, S.C.: Arcana Europa, 2019
Edred Thorsson is one of a small handful of serious characters I am proud to know. To many, he appears to be an odd combination of “contradictions” (though these are only apparent, as I will explain at the tail end of this essay). First, he is a goði and Runemaster who speaks Old Norse with a Texas twang. He is the recipient of a PhD in Germanic Languages, a student of major scholars in the field – but also the author of books many would label as “New Age,” published by presses like Inner Traditions, Weiser, and Llewellyn. He is a man who counts as his mentors the great scholars Edgar Polomé and Klaus Düwel – as well as Michael Aquino, the controversial founder of the Temple of Set. Edred is also an introvert, loner, and admitted so-so organizer who has founded several organizations. He has never really wanted followers, yet he attracts many. And then there is Edred’s notorious interest in – for lack of a better term – BDSM (about which he is very open and frank). I could go on. But somehow all these elements hang together and make Edred a remarkable person, and an extremely significant figure in both Ásatrú and the “occult underground.”
Needless to say, he’s led an interesting life – and it makes for fascinating reading. While this book is ostensibly a history of the Rune-Gild from 1980 to 2018 (and it does indeed chronicle that history), it would be more accurate to say that it is Edred’s autobiography. The volume was originally published in 2007 by Edred’s own company, Rûna-Raven. This new, updated, and expanded edition has been brought out by Arcana Europa in their “Gilded Books” imprint, which has been established for the purpose of releasing titles related to the Rune-Gild. It includes several pages of very interesting photographs, as well an appendix that reprints a number of original documents relevant to the tales Edred has to tell. In what follows, I will try to give the reader a sense of the scope of these tales, and why this volume is so engrossing.
Edred Thorsson is the penname of Stephen Edred Flowers, who was born on May 5, 1953 in Bonham, Texas. From a very early age he was interested in the dark, veiled, mysterious aspects of this strange universe. His father introduced him to horror films, but this was the classic horror of 1930s cinema (playing on local television or rereleased to theatres). It was the horror of Tod Browning, James Whale, and others, who did such a remarkable job of conveying the uncanny. I, too, was a horror film aficionado from a very early age, and eagerly sought out information on the occult and paranormal – all of which, thank goodness, was tolerated by my parents. Edred also seems to have been blessed with tolerant and encouraging parents. Indeed, at every stage of his life, he has been lucky to find support from a variety of sympathetic friends and mentors, some of whom seemed to show up fortuitously, just when they were needed. (This is actually a common feature of the lives of individuals who follow an esoteric or initiatic path.)
After graduating from high school in 1971, Edred set off for adventures abroad. He travelled to Germany, where he found himself feeling very much “at home,” and quickly developed fluency in German (facility with languages is one of Edred’s many talents; he subsequently acquired a reading knowledge of Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Latin, Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, and some other ancient Germanic dialects). While in Europe, Edred was asked to smuggle documents into Communist Hungary, where they were to be delivered to a dissident. This makes for a very exciting tale, with Edred narrowly escaping arrest by the secret police. On returning to Germany, he happened to speak to a friend of his interest in the novel The Story of O, which contains sadomasochistic themes. The result of this conversation was that Edred was initiated into some of the darker mysteries of Eros. It is important to note that Edred has never seen sexuality as merely profane; it has always carried, for him, a dimension of the sacred – a magical dimension. He discusses this in his book Carnal Alchemy: Sado-Magical Techniques of Pleasure, Pain, and Self-Transformation (co-authored with his wife, Crystal Dawn; originally published in 2001 by Rûna-Raven, and reprinted in 2013 by Inner Traditions).
Many people have been “bothered” by this aspect of Edred. I suppose it’s an indication of how far removed I am from the mainstream, but I just don’t get what they’re so upset about. Nor am I phased by Edred’s membership in the Church of Satan, which he joined around the time he returned from Europe. I was never a member, but I read LaVey’s works as a teenager and took them very, very seriously (I did not, at the time, see LaVey’s ironic aspect). Many were the evenings I waited patiently for my parents to retire, then crept down into the basement to chant in Enochian and perform LaVey’s rituals. It didn’t last. Like most people, I soon discovered that Satanism did not have whatever it was I was looking for. And Edred’s dalliance with LaVey was similarly brief. But he kept looking (as I did), not even really knowing exactly what he was looking for. Then, abruptly, he found it one summer day in 1974.
On a fool’s errand, he had driven to the Houston area with some friends to meet a supposed “Tibetan shaman.” The shaman turned out to be a phony, who quickly sent them all packing. On the ride back, Edred heard a voice speak to him. It wasn’t the voice of anyone in the car, but he heard it very distinctly, as if someone were speaking quite close to his ear. The voice said, “Roonah.” Immediately, he knew that this had something to do with the runes, and later inferred that he had heard the Old Norse word runa. Edred had embarked on what would become his life’s work.
He began reading academic books such as Helmut Arntz’s Handbuch der Runenkunde, as well as esoteric works like Karl Spiesberger’s Runenmagie, trying to learn all the about runes and the Germanic tradition. His research led to the creation of a manuscript titled A Primer of Rune Magic, which would eventually become (with significant revisions, and many years later) the book for which he is still most famous, Futhark. (Though as he gained knowledge and his thinking developed, Edred came to be dissatisfied with Futhark, and now regards it as his “worst” book – though there is still a great deal in it from which one can profit.)
In 1976, Edred received his BA in German from the University of Texas at Austin and continued his studies there, working toward a Master’s degree. It was around this time that he became aware of the existence of the Ásatrú Free Assembly and got to know Steve McNallen. Edred also tells us of having contact with an individual claiming to be the “Norse Pope.” This crank disappears rather quickly from the story, but he establishes a pattern that appears again and again in Edred’s life. Indeed, one of the most memorable features of the book is the parade of cranks and phonies that Edred has had the misfortune to deal with over the years. The pattern is simple: Edred makes contact with some individual (or vice versa) who seems to have promise. Edred overlooks certain oddities about the person and gives them the benefit of the doubt, sometimes working with them, or even entrusting them with responsibilities. Eventually, they prove unworthy of that trust, flaking out or even sometimes outright betraying him.
The details of these incidents are lively and filled with – to use an Edredism – “occultazoid” zaniness that would be unbelievable if offered as fiction. Sometimes these stories are very funny, sometimes rather sad. A chapter is devoted to the debacle of the “Ring of Troth.” Edred started this organization, but it was later taken over by ultra-PC nitwits who denounced and then purged him. His account of working with the Llewellyn publishing house is also an alternately sad and funny tale. It demonstrates very clearly what many of us had already cottoned on to: that most Llewellyn authors know only a little more than their readers (sometimes less), and that the outfit itself is consciously and cynically devoted to profiting from the gullible.
Though it might seem like a lot of dirt is being dished in A History of the Rune-Gild, what actually comes across repeatedly is Edred’s generosity, especially his willingness to continue to give people a chance no matter how often he is disappointed. He is also quite generous in his accounts of those individuals who have, in one way or another, disappointed him. Anyone who is familiar with the personal histories of some of these people will realize that Edred is tactfully omitting to mention a lot of really embarrassing stuff.
Of course, not all of the portraits one finds here are negative. Edred is also very generous with his praise of people who have positively impacted his life, or played crucial roles in the development of the Rune-Gild: individuals like Steve McNallen, James Chisholm, Ian Read, Michael Moynihan, Crystal Dawn, and others. Edred names three men who played the role of mentor in his life, all of whom I mentioned near the beginning of this essay: Edgar Polomé, Klaus Düwel, and Michael Aquino.
Polomé receives perhaps the warmest praise. A Belgian scholar of Germanic studies who emigrated to the US, Polomé was Edred’s dissertation director at the University of Texas at Austin. Readers will be surprised to learn, perhaps, that Edred did not conceal his neo-pagan interests from his professors. Polomé was well aware that Edred had more than a purely academic interest in learning the lore of his ancestors. I once asked Edred if he had any sense of Polomé’s attitude, and he indicated that he thought that, at some level, Polomé was sympathetic.
Düwel also receives high praise. He was a German runologist with whom Edred studied for a year at the University of Göttingen. During this period of study abroad, Edred also made contact with the Armanen Orden and the Guido-von-List-Gesellschaft. By this point, Edred had already founded (or refounded) the Rune-Gild. That event occurred in Yuletide 1980, not long after he received his MA (for a thesis dealing with “rebirth” in the Volsung Saga, later published by Rûna-Raven Press and now out of print). His ambitious doctoral dissertation, titled Runes and Magic, was defended in 1984 (and also later published by Rûna-Raven). It has been widely cited, despite the fact that Edred’s “extracurricular activities” are widely-known in the academic circles of German studies. One suspects that even where scholars are not openly citing him, he is exercising a subterranean influence. Perhaps surprisingly, Edred reports that, on the whole, academics have been fair in their treatment of his scholarly work.
This fairness did not extend, fortunately, to his being offered an academic position. I say “fortunately” because had he succeeded in the academic racket, Edred’s life would have taken a very different course. The “Old Man” (as Edred often refers to Odin) had other plans for him. There’s an old German academic joke that goes as follows. God wanted to create the most perfect being imaginable, so he created the German Professor. The Devil, always wanting to spoil what God had made, responded by creating the Colleague. Freed of the often soul-crushing burden of having to conform to the expectations of colleagues, Edred has spent three decades writing exactly what he wants to. All of it is based on sound scholarship – but he also freely takes speculative leaps of the kind academics frown upon. Academia’s loss is our gain.
A chapter is devoted to Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set. Aquino was Edred’s “magical mentor,” and Edred’s description makes it clear that Aquino is a charismatic individual and an accomplished magus. Edred’s association with him, however, has been a source of controversy – especially during the “satanic panic” that began in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s. One of the highlights of the book is Edred’s description of meeting with Aquino at the famous Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where Aquino presented Edred with an original SS dagger. (Those curious about how Edred interprets the symbolic meaning of this gift will just have to read the book.)
Edred’s personal qualities come through very clearly in this volume. I’ve already mentioned his generosity. In addition, he is quite honest and forthright about his own foibles. At one point, he refers to how the Gild manifests some of his own personality traits, saying that it is “secretive, aloof, introverted, complex, goal/task/product-oriented, and visionary (with little attention to detail).” Edred also admits that he is not the greatest organizer. But one can forgive him such minor faults, since his output has been prolific and important.
One of the great virtues of this volume is that it includes a complete bibliography of Edred’s works (published under his own name, and his penname). The scope of these writings is remarkable. They include the aforementioned Futhark, as well as Runelore (esoteric teachings on the runes), The Magian Tarok (an attempt to link the Tarot to the Mithraic Mysteries), Hermetic Magic (on the magic of the Corpus Hermeticum), Carnal Alchemy, Lords of the Left-Hand Path, The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism, The Northern Dawn: A History of the Reawakening of the Germanic Spirit, At the Well of Wyrd: A Handbook of Runic Divination, The Nine Doors of Midgard: A Complete Curriculum of Rune Magic, ALU: An Advanced Guide to Operative Runology, and many others. He has also published translations of the Galdrabók, Guido von List’s Secret of the Runes, the Rune-Poems, and much else.
Edred has likewise played a key role in the development of Ásatrú, and has mentored and otherwise positively affected countless talented individuals who have been active in Germanic neo-paganism, the occult scene, and academia. He has certainly had a major impact on my own life and work. I had vague stirrings of interest in the old gods as a child, but I would never have taken up the runes and Ásatrú had it not been for Edred. I have an academic background not unlike Edred’s own (though my formal training is in a different field). That background has installed in me a bullshit detector that tends to ring like a klaxon whenever I encounter “New Age” material. In Edred, I found a guide who based his claims on genuine scholarship – and who insisted that those around him (those in the Rune-Gild, that is) familiarize themselves with the original sources, rather than engaging in flights of pure fancy. As founder of the Rune-Gild and its Yrmin-Drighten, he has created an initiatic path that merges the results of careful scholarship with insights gleaned from his own immersion in a variety of Left-Hand paths.
In recent years, Edred has turned to Zoroastrianism, publishing The Good Religion in 2014 and The Mazdan Way in 2017. This has met with criticism from some Ásatrúar, who see him as having strayed from the path. Edred insists that this is not the case, and indeed he is right. For his path has never really been Ásatrú, but something much more specific: what he calls “Odianism.” This is the path, as Edred explains many times in his works, of one who does not worship Odin, but who seeks to become him. And who is Odin? The restless god who seeks wisdom and self-transformation wherever he can find it, and at any cost. This is the key that allows one to see the unity of all of Edred’s interests. Only on a superficial level are there “inconsistencies” among the different paths he has taken up. And some of his more “extreme” interests are shocking only to those who do not realize that the Odian path is inherently transgressive. Ultimately, even Ásatrú is too small a box for Odin to fit in.
Those with whom the above comments resonate will find Edred Thorsson a wise and provocative guide. I hope that this review has made clear why this is such an interesting and important book. And yet I have only scratched the surface. There are many other fascinating tales here, and even his accounts of the Gild’s Moots make for compelling reading – such as the events of the first I ever attended, the 2011 Moot in Bastrop, Texas, at which Edred dramatically destroyed and then recreated the Gild itself. The History of the Rune-Gild will be required reading for the initiated, as well as a good introduction for those coming to Edred’s work for the first time.
 Edred actually published the book under his given name. No attempt is made in this review to distinguish between the books authored by “Stephen Edred Flowers” and those authored by “Edred Thorsson.”
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