Divination (2) Runes

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Oct 202016


In my last post I talked about the general idea of divination http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/divination-1/  Now I want to focus on one divination system, Germanic runes, to help elaborate a little on how divination works for me. It should be clear from the last post that I do not think that the planets or cards or crystals or even runes have within them magical or spiritual powers that let them reveal to us (if we know certain secret keys) a future that is otherwise hidden from us. No – that spiritual power is within each of us and it can be used in many ways if we develop ways to harness it. To do that we must educate ourselves spiritually. There are many methods.

Some people paint or write or make music, and in so doing unlock powers that seem to be over and above what they are normally capable of. Handel is said to have been heard weeping in his study when writing Messiah because the music astounded him: he was writing beyond what he thought of as his normal powers. He knew all about harmony and meter and whatnot, and had good training. Even so something creative was happening that he felt he was not causing. The ancient Greeks spoke of Muses, goddesses who could come upon creative people and add to their human talents.

Many writers, including myself, know the experience of being inspired – writing without being fully aware of the force that is controlling the creative process. Some fiction authors say that the characters and the story “write themselves.” It’s as if the author sets up the situation and then just lets it run on its own to the conclusion: the author feels like the channel through which the story runs, not the creator. If you have never experienced this feeling you won’t know what I am talking about. In the Preface to The History of Morris Dancing I wrote, “Other scholars will understand me when I say that great sections of [this] book wrote themselves with me simply acting as the vehicle for getting the ideas on paper.” I am not being modest here – I don’t have modesty in me. Sure, I did 25 years of historical and archival work to set the stage, but then the ideas took over: they had lives and minds of their own. The book wrote itself.

So what is this force? I don’t know. But I do know that we can harness it if we dedicate ourselves to the task. That’s where runes come in for me. My mind, thoughts, and ideas are always all over the map. When I write my other blog (daily), one minute I’m writing about cricket in Italy, the next I’m writing about arrowroot in the South Pacific (2 recent subjects). My mind is a giant cascade of information and I am cursed with a good memory, so it all swirls and tumbles around in there all the time. I am capable of focus, but it is hard. When I write, or teach, I always have a central topic, but without warning I find myself wandering all over the place. The original MS of The History of Morris Dancing was close to1,000 pages which I eventually trimmed to 600 by ruthlessly discarding all the stuff about such topics as the influence of gunpowder on Medieval warfare and jousting, the manufacture of silk clothing in the Renaissance, and so forth. They were all interesting to me, and germane to the central topic in a loose way, but they took the reader off the main path. I just can’t focus well. I’m always wandering off the main path. If you ever take a class with me you’ll understand. This is good and bad. It’s a very creative way to live, but I don’t always get a lot accomplished in a concrete way. Runes help me focus.

I want to say that this creativity is not ME, but a spiritual force within me. It is moving me, not the other way around. Sometimes it is very active and I feel alive and on fire; other times it is dormant and I am listless and uncreative. If you want to call that force “God” so be it. I won’t disagree. To channel that force I need help, so I use runes because they are external, physical, practical. Each day I pick a rune at random from my stock and it provides the focus I need for that day. Let me explain.

Runes are the letters of an old Germanic alphabet. They were devised for writing Germanic languages some time in the 1st or 2nd century and went through many changes. For the sake of simplicity I use a variant of what is known as the Elder Futhark – the oldest and best understood of the runic alphabets. In one sense you can say they are just letters whose purpose is writing things down. That is true. But unlike the Roman alphabet that we use, the runic letters all had names that had a specific meaning. The names vary depending on the language they are used for, but the names are quite similar in meaning regardless of language. So, for example, the first letter can be called fé (Old Norse)or feoh (Anglo-Saxon), but in both cases the names mean cattle (in particular) or tangible wealth (in general).  Here’s one version of the entire Elder Futhark with some basic meanings (click the image to enlarge it):


It is called the Futhark because F U TH A R K are the first six letters (“th” is one letter), just as we call the letters that we write with an “alphabet” because the first two letters of the Greek alphabet are alpha and beta. We don’t use the Greek alphabet, of course, but we stole the word “alphabet” from the Greeks. The really cool thing about the runic alphabet is that there are several rune poems extant in different languages that list the runes in order giving a poetic stanza for each that elaborates on the meaning of each name. They tend to be rather cryptic, but they delve the meanings of the words in interesting ways. In the Old Norse rune poem, for example, the first verse (for fé/wealth) is (in translation):

Wealth (fé)is a source of discord among kinsmen;
the wolf lives in the forest.

I take this to mean something like – wealth can be a good thing if used well, but can cause strife if not (there is a wolf lurking there). Families can be torn apart by inheritance. You don’t need to take the rune poems as your only touchstone of original meaning, because they are poems. But they help considerably. What they essentially tell us is that no rune/word has a simple meaning. The more you think or meditate, the more profound and complex the meanings become. But there is always a central motif. That’s perfect for me.

To use runes for divination you first need a set of runes. You can carve each rune on a separate stone or piece of wood or you can buy them. I don’t think that part is terribly important. We know that runes were used originally for divination, but we don’t know how. Maybe they were scattered at random, or picked individually from a pile, or used in some other way. We just don’t know. Various modern authors have come up with creative methods, but they generally draw on card readings or other forms of divination for inspiration. I’m very simple in my approach. I have my runes in a bag and when I need some help I draw a single rune at random without looking. Recently I’ve been struggling with some personal issues so I draw a single rune each morning to act as a guide for the day. I don’t use the pure Elder Futhark, but a modified Anglo-Saxon version because I can read Anglo-Saxon and because I know a lot about Anglo-Saxon history and culture. Therefore I relate to the Anglo-Saxon rune poem better than the Old Norse and Icelandic ones. The thing is that trying to relate to divination systems founded in ancient China or India or native America cannot be very successful for me because I am not in tune with those cultures. I am more in tune with the world of the Anglo-Saxons. My rune for today was Peordh. The rune poem says:

Peordh is a source of recreation and amusement to the great,
where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.  

This is not an easy rune because we do not know exactly what “peordh” means. One guess is that it means “pear tree” but that is little help. Some people suggest that gambling dice where carved from pear wood, or maybe archaic flutes were. I don’t think it matters too much, because the emphasis is on “recreation and amusement.” If it does mean “pear tree” meanings open a little more, so I tend to accept that derivation.

All day I have been thinking about peordh even as I go about my various tasks. The rune provides focus to my chaotic mind. How can I be “blithe” today? How can I find “recreation and amusement” in company? My rambling, chaotic mind is still rambling and chaotic; but day by day it has a focus. Today it is peordh, tomorrow who knows?

To be continued . . . ( a lot)

Divination (1)

 science, Spirituality  Comments Off on Divination (1)
Oct 142016


A great many cultures have practiced some form of divination, whether it be something as simple as deciding an outcome by tossing a coin, or something as complex and arcane as casting a natal chart in astrology. Practices vary widely, but in them all there is an element of fate or destiny that in some way is external to the people involved that is made manifest to them. I’d like to examine that notion of fate in this post and the next. The key idea here is that something is destined to happen; it’s a question of whether one can discover (divine) what that destiny is. With a coin toss it’s very simple – “who has the fate today?” We might not even count this as fate: more like luck or chance. But don’t tell a gambler that. In any case, I’m more interested in complex systems such as astrology, tarot cards, tea leaves and the like, where what’s at stake is more complex. But even relatively simple systems that look like pure luck can get complex.

There’s a curious case of divination in the Hebrew Bible: the Urim and Thummim. 1 Samuel 14:41 is regarded by biblical scholars as the key to understanding the Urim and Thummim. The passage describes an attempt to identify a sinner via divination, by repeatedly splitting the people into two groups and identifying which group contains the sinner. That is, you split the people into two groups. One draws Urim and the other, Thummim. Since Thummim comes from a root meaning “innocent,” I presume the group of people that draws Thummim is released, and the group drawing Urim remains. They are divided into two again, and the process is repeated until you are down to two people, with the last draw of Urim and Thummim identifying the guilty party. Here we have a sense that God is intervening in a case that humans cannot decide by other means. In some sense, God enters the process, because he can see beyond mortal understanding. God, truth, and fate are all bound together.

All systems of divination appear on the surface to involve some kind of mechanism like this. Supposedly cards, bones, tea leaves, sand, etc. can somehow channel spiritual forces that are beyond the normal human realm and make clear things that are otherwise indistinct. I am reminded in this of the use of iron filings to identify paths of magnetic attraction. Place a magnet (or magnets) on a table, place a piece of paper over them, scatter iron filings over the paper, then shake the paper and you will see the filings lining up to show the lines of magnetic force.


Actually, this is not an absolutely accurate description of what’s going on – there are no “lines” – but the general idea of a magnetic field gets shown in a visual way. You can’t see the magnetic field, but you can use something tangible to visualize it. Systems of divination are sometimes seen as analogous. You may not be able to see or experience fate or destiny directly, but you can use physical means to make them manifest. I’d like to question that outlook.

Let’s take my natal chart in astrology. If you draw mine you will discover that at the time of my birth, according to the usually used tables, the sun was smack in the center of Aries and my Venus was in Taurus. Does that mean I am tough and fiery in my outlook on life yet steadfast in love? As it happens, I am. Did the sun, Venus, and the stars cause that in me? Well, for a start that reading (based on classic tables), assumes that the stars and the solar system are in the same locations they were in 2500 years ago in Babylon: which they are not. Readings based on the actual positions of astronomical bodies relative to the earth at the time of my birth are completely different. It’s as if I scattered iron filings on some paper and they aligned to show a magnetic field yet under the paper was a stalk of rhubarb. That would be weird. So is my natal reading. The truth appears to be there, but without foundation or justification. There’s a subtle clue here.

Are the bodies in the solar system and the stars affecting my life or not? My initial judgment is that they are not. I can’t see how a planet, arbitrarily named for a Roman goddess in my culture, could be affecting my personal outlook on love. If it were named “Pizza” would it be affecting my eating habits? Let’s show a modicum of common sense. Furthermore, modern readings are based on how the solar system would be if it hadn’t changed since Babylonian times, but it has, so the correlation between the planets and the stars is fictitious. How can arbitrarily named bodies not moving in ways they are assumed to be possibly have an effect on my life? Put in that way it’s obvious that they cannot. But that does not mean that astrology is useless. ALL systems of divination are arbitrary and their specific results are random. Nonetheless we can use them as instruments of self reflection if we have faith in them.

Perhaps the most mysterious and problematic step here is that we have to have faith in our system of divination for it to do any good. It has to “work” for us as individuals. To get some background on my thinking here, if you are not already familiar with it, you’ll need to use my search engine and look for my posts on “faith” and “magic.” The simplistic essence is that faith works – but you have to have it. You can’t fake it. How do you get faith? There’s the mystery. Let me tell you a story.

One day I was driving along a road in Pennsylvania beside the Delaware River. As I looked to my left I saw a bald eagle fly down to the ground then immediately swoop up again with a snake in its talons. It flew straight in front of my car and followed the road in front of me at eye level, the snake twisting in its grip, for about 200 meters, then veered off into the trees on my right where I lost sight of it. What happened there? Was that some strange natural phenomenon or was it some kind of portent? Your faith will determine your answer. There is no question that it was a stunning (and distracting) sight. But what did it mean? There we hit the nub of the problem. For me, meaning is not an external, concrete reality; it is something that is dependent on the observer. I’m not just talking about the meaning of eagles and snakes, I’m talking about all meanings. They are inherent in the observer, not the thing observed. What you see is determined by what you know and what you believe. This is how divination works, I believe.

This is how lie detector tests are used by the police (and others). They are scientifically inaccurate and so are inadmissible in court in many countries. It is easy to learn how to trick lie detectors such that you can tell an out and out lie, yet it will not be detected. So why do people use them? Because a lot of people being tested don’t know that they don’t work. They have faith in them. A person who is accused of a crime and denies it may be asked to take a lie detector test (it’s a good idea to refuse, by the way). The test is performed and the examiner says, “you say you did not commit this crime, but the lie detector says you are lying” (no matter what the results actually show). After that the person may still profess innocence, or may confess. The confession is prompted by faith in the lie detector. “I was trying to lie, but the lie detector caught me.” No it didn’t, you caught yourself because you believed in it. At this stage the confession is legal evidence and can be used in court where the lie detector test results cannot.

Here I think we have a useful insight into divination practices. When you believe a system is talking to you – it is. How you determine what the system is saying and what you do with it depends on your belief system. If the weather forecast says it will rain in the afternoon, I take an umbrella to work in the morning. Sometimes I don’t need the umbrella but I take it anyway. Forecasts are not always accurate, but I have a degree of faith in them. Even though I don’t have complete faith in them, I have enough for them to guide my actions.

To some extent faith in systems comes from experience. A system does not have to be right all of the time, but enough of the time – especially if the occasion is a significant one – for you to have faith in it. The question then remains as to why we have faith in some systems and not others. I believe that the answer is primarily cultural. Meteorology is a science and Westerners put a great deal of faith in science. Furthermore experience tells us that relying on the weather forecast is better than relying on feelings that granny has in her rheumatism. Sometimes, however, granny is right and the weatherman is wrong. Is climate change real or not? Will it bring disaster? Science says it will. Some people have faith in that science, others do not. Why they have faith or not is a cultural issue, not a simple matter of fact.

What divination system(s) do you have faith in? Actually I don’t trust meteorology a whole lot, but if I’m told by a weather service that a category 4 hurricane is coming my way I get out of town. Granny’s rheumatism doesn’t cut it. For life’s problems I don’t have a meteorologist. There are a lot of systems I could use tarot, tea leaves, I Ching etc. – or none at all. I use Norse runes. I’ll explain why in my next post.

To be continued . . .





Donald Trump

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Oct 112016


In case it is not clear, I am completely apolitical and have been almost all of my adult life. I voted once when I was 19 and giddy with the idea that I could vote AT ALL, and that my vote made a difference. At Oxford I ran for college office and won, but I quickly saw all that was wrong with politics even at that meager level, and have since never been interested in any kind of political activity although I always watch from the sidelines. In Argentina where it is mandatory to go to the polls on election day or face a stiff fine, I go and spoil my ballot. I have no interest in participating in politics – whatsoever. This year is different.

In the U.S. Donald Trump was at one time favored to win the presidency. Now it’s not so clear. Nonetheless, I have one clear message — he simply must be defeated at all costs. For me this is not a political issue but a moral one. I rarely use the term “evil” but I will use it in this essay. Trump is evil and the sentiments he has aroused in the nation are evil. That evil was there in the nation all along, but it was at least minimally chained. Now it is unchained and running rampant. Stopping Trump will not rid the nation of that evil, by any means, but it is a start. Not stopping it is a sin – on your head if you do nothing.

Many self-interested, narcissistic, power-hungry, greedy dictators have risen throughout history through various means. In some cases, such as Mao Zedong and Napoleon, they rose through revolutions of the people and they took advantage of the situation. In other cases, such as Hitler and Mussolini, they were elected to public office and emerged as dictators through seemingly “democratic” means which they manipulated for their own ends.

Donald Trump is as much of a threat to the social fabric as Hitler and Mussolini were. When they rose to power in the 1930s there were severe economic crises in Germany and Italy and – maybe – they could not have been stopped. You can’t really go back in time and try a different approach. But we can learn from history. Trump’s rise is quite different from Hitler’s and Mussolini’s in many ways. The economic situation is not anywhere near as bad in the U.S. today as it was in 1930s Germany for example. Also, the U.S. is already a monumental military force, whereas 1930s Germany was impotent militarily until Hitler took power. These, and other factors, are important differences. The rhetoric is the same, however, and could have the same consequences for the future if not stopped – NOW.

I am profoundly apolitical because I do not believe in political solutions to social problems. If you think ANY politician is your savior, you are deluded. I understand that in the modern world government is necessary so that we can have roads, hospitals, social services and whatnot. So far so good. Nation states, armies, and all the paraphernalia that go with them are another. I decry them with all my breath. I want to see all of humanity living as one in love and fellowship. That is the vision Jesus gave us – as did Buddha and many other religious revolutionaries. Any use of religion (in general) other than universal love is a perversion. God is love, so if you want to follow God you must follow the path of love. End of story. Naturally that vision is not going to materialize in my lifetime – if ever. That does not concern me. What concerns me is living the Christian life according to the precepts laid out in the Sermon on the Mount to the best of my ability – even though my ability is seriously limited. I see the wisdom even though my capacities to follow that path are minimal at times.

I am speaking out against Trump now, not because I have suddenly become political but because I see it as my Christian duty. I cannot sit quietly and just hope for the best. Bertrand Russell was an avowed pacifist who went to jail rather than fight in World War I, but when Hitler arose he lamented that he was too old to pick up a rifle and fight because Hitler should be defeated at all costs. Trump must be defeated at all costs. After he is defeated there is still a lot of work to do, but defeating him is the highest priority now. It is not a political duty for me to speak out; it is my moral duty.

Count Your Blessings

 Religion, Spirituality  Comments Off on Count Your Blessings
Oct 042016


I was an active pastor with struggling churches in New York State for 17 years. I wrote a new sermon every Sunday in those years and also contributed a homiletic reflection to the monthly newsletter during that time period. I kept all my sermons on my hard drive, of course, but that was four computers ago. The hard drive may still exist somewhere – in storage maybe – but I was using a desktop computer that was on its last legs anyway, so I imagine it’s gone to the great dumpster in the sky along with most of my stuff (which I just walked away from). When I left the U.S. for Argentina I had vague thoughts of having my house all boxed up and stored at some point, but in the end I simply let it all go. After I’d managed for 4 years without it in Buenos Aires it was obvious that I could manage fine without it — forever. I could still use some of the things I left behind (mostly books), but almost all of them are replaceable. My sermons and homilies are not, but I have a good memory and can easily reinvent them. I do recall, fondly, one homily I wrote for the newsletter called “Count Your Blessings.” I’ll remake it for you with a small prelude because some time has passed since I first wrote it.

My mother died in Oxford in England in late August 2000. It was a terribly inconvenient time for me because my university term was about to begin. I met all my classes once and then hopped a plane for England for 10 days. There was a lot to do. My mother’s flat needed sorting out. My two sisters and I worked on selling some things, giving away some things, and filling sack upon sack for the rubbish. That in itself was an emotional trial: coming across, for example, a stack of letters my mother had written to me as a boy in South Australia when she was on a trip to England not long after her father had died – around 1959 if I recall.

After we had finished with the flat we attended the funeral which she had planned and paid for years before. The officiant was a new Church of England curate filling in for the vicar. He was a pleasant man, but had never met my mother, so I wrote and delivered the eulogy myself. I didn’t want to be subjected to some routine pap. My mother deserved better. Speaking my eulogy was a sore trial. I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals, but never, at that point, for a family member. I made it through most of my carefully crafted words without breaking down, but then I got to the end and started to say, “my mother taught me many things . . .” and for several minutes could not go on. Tears came in floods.

Next day I had to go to a business meeting in the morning, followed by a visit to friends in the country after lunch. I had hired a car for the week, and was dressed in a three piece driving out into the Oxfordshire countryside. The combination of work at the flat, the funeral, and visiting relatives had left me exhausted, but I did want to make the trip out to see my friends before I flew home. The drive was calming, but I needed petrol, so I pulled into a station. As I went into the booth to pay, a woman stopped me and asked “can you change a tyre?” I did a bit of a double take. I was dressed in my suit with a silk tie, watch and chain, and hand made shoes. Really? You want me to change a tyre? She explained that it was a Sunday and there was no mechanic available, just a kid taking money for petrol. Around her was a gaggle of small children, and she explained that she was taking them to a football game when her tyre blew out.

Well . . . I can change a tyre but I wasn’t about to do it dressed the way that I was. Instead I asked how far the football field was and offered to give them all a ride if that would work. She was immediately relieved. She did have a phone with her and could get help eventually. But by the time someone arrived it would be too late for the game. She got in the front with me and the four kids squeezed in the back. On the way we chatted. The mother’s name was Anna. I told her that this was a strange coincidence because my elder sister’s name was Anna. I mentioned the funeral as we drove along, and, rather smugly, began to feel that for a moment I was their angel.

The kids, like a lot of good English kids, were sitting quietly in the back seat. Then one of them piped up in a cherubic treble, “we’re really lucky, aren’t we mum?” I was gobsmacked. It would not have occurred to me when I was that age to think that breaking down on the way to a football match was lucky. He was my angel that day, not the other way round.

Apparently this match was a really important one for the kids. For reasons I did not fully grasp, they had to play in this match or run the risk of being cut from the team for the season. Even being late was going to be a black mark. So they were already keyed up when the tyre blew and all seemed hopeless. But then I came along and saved the day for them. Yes, the car was disabled and had to be abandoned. And, yes, mum was not a happy camper. But a stranger had happened along, and they would get there on time. But instead of moaning, this little boy was counting his blessings. There was my lesson (and my month’s homily).

I had lost my mother, I had lost time at my university, I’d spent money I did not have. But to dwell on all of that would get me nowhere. Instead I needed to count my blessings. I had many, of course, but they had all taken a back seat to my sorrow until that moment. One sentence from a little stranger had changed my entire outlook.

I call this little boy “my angel” but I want to make it clear that I am not being literal. Nor do I think that some bearded guy on a throne in the air (or some such) is secretly pulling the strings. A lot of people like to hold on to such images in one form or another, but I don’t. I do think that there is something that can be identified as a deity as well as a spiritual world, but reducing those concepts to very simple human terms is not only misguided, but actually turns off people from theism and religion entirely because they are so clearly stupid when cast in such bald terms. In one sense that may be for the best in that such simplistic notions ought to be thrown out. That does not mean that the religious enterprise in general lacks merit. But . . . some tweaking is in order.

What happened in the car that day? In simple terms I had a timely and significant revelation that had a number of ramifications for me. Chief of them was that I got outside of my own (potentially destructive) narcissism and saw things in a wider context than I had up to that point. What triggered the change? An angel? God? Grace? Fate? Proposing a cause at all is a bit suspect. But the point is that I could have just driven the group to the match and then gone on my way without any revelation whatsoever. But I didn’t. I was changed, and I continue to contemplate all these years later on how such changes occur. What makes an alcoholic stop drinking, or an addict give up drugs – permanently? Why is it one straw that breaks the camel’s back and not another? Why do we suddenly see a solution to a problem clearly when it has been staring us in the face for years? These questions, and their kin, always lead me deep into the spiritual world, and into meditation and reflection. I have no concrete answers. I’m smart enough to know that nothing of any great merit is coming along soon. What they reveal clearly to me, however, is that the world is far more than a cascade of simple cause and effect. There are forces at work in our lives that are more than that and we are only dimly aware of what they are or even of their existence.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 5:10 pm