Divination (4) Runes

 Spirituality  Comments Off on Divination (4) Runes
Nov 202016


I want to make one more point about my use of runes and then I will move on. These days there’s a lot of loose talk from people about being spiritual, or wanting to be spiritual, often in the context of being spiritual but not religious (SBNR). I discussed this matter a long time ago: http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/spirituality/ and you might want to peruse that post before going farther here. SBNR makes no sense to me whatsoever. The core of religion is spirituality. It’s true that there are some churches that are not spiritual – maybe a great number. To my mind that means they are not religious either. You can’t have religion without spirituality. Of course, spirituality comes in a lot of flavors, and the spirituality of one church or religion may not be to your liking even though it is spirituality. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has its spiritual elements but they are so deeply embedded in (to my mind) ridiculous clutter, such as icons and magical practices and confessionals and whatnot, that it turns me off. I am a child of the Reformation and (wayward) adherent of John Calvin. I know many Catholics who are deeply spiritual: I cannot be one of them.

At heart, this matter comes down to is what you were raised with. My father was a Presbyterian lay preacher and I attended Presbyterian Sunday School and services throughout my boyhood, and, after a long absence during which I stopped thinking about spirituality, I passed the requisite exams and became ordained, and served as a Presbyterian pastor in rural churches for about 15 years. So, it’s not unreasonable to say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian. Whether I attend Presbyterian services in the U.S., Scotland, Argentina, Australia, or England (all of which which I have), I always feel at home. I know what I’m doing and what the service is generally about. There are odd quirks and twiddles from place to place, to be sure, but I’m never lost or surprised, even if the service is in Spanish.

It’s not just that I am Presbyterian by upbringing, I am Scottish by birth. Even though I was born in Buenos Aires and I have a great affinity for Argentina and its people, my father was from Glasgow and I have a great number of family ties to Scotland and its culture. I’m perfectly at home in the Lowlands, even though I’ve spent little time there, and I have no trouble understanding (and writing) Lowland Scots – although I hesitate to speak it. I can, but it comes off sounding as if I am mocking or parodying the people I am speaking with. All of this means that when I want to delve more deeply into spirituality it’s more than a little absurd to start exploring the I Ching or chakras. I am neither Chinese nor Indian and what I know about these matters comes primarily from books. To be sure, I’ve lived in China and I have a halfway decent working knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy, particularly of Laozi and the Tao Te Ching. But I’m not only a rank beginner when it comes to understanding Laozi, I doubt that I will ever get very far, no matter how much I study, because I was not raised Chinese. I lack the bedrock empathic insight (what Germans call Verstehen) that someone raised in Chinese culture can gain. Just take this passage from the opening of the Tao Te Ching:

道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。Tào kě tào, fēicháng tào. Míng kě míng, fēicháng míng.

Don’t worry too much about the Chinese characters. The Pinyin following them gives a rough idea of pronunciation, and will also show you that there’s not much to it. It’s a passage referring to tào and míng. Look those words up in a Chinese-English dictionary and you’ll find they mean “path” and “name.” Add kě (“can”) and fēicháng (“exceptional”) and you’ll find yourself with nonsense. With a little help you might get to something like: “The path that can be trodden is not the true path. The name that can be named is not the true name.” That may begin to make a little more sense, but not much more. It starts you on a spiraling journey into the depths of ancient Chinese philosophy – What is the path? What is the name? Rotsa ruck. I’ve asked those questions for decades and am still hopelessly lost. To be fair, so are many native Chinese. But they, at least, have a firm place to start. I don’t. I’m mired in my Scottishness.

With runes I have a better shot because the runes are rooted in the Anglo-Norse heritage that I am part of – vaguely. Furthermore I’ve studied Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and lore, so I’m conversant with the general cultural milieu of runic writing. As a professional anthropologist and historian I feel that I have some kind of solid ground under my feet when I start exploring the runes, even though it may be more like quicksand than terra firma. The past is a foreign culture, after all. I have no doubt that I’d be as bewildered in a Viking mead hall after a battle as I would be in a Buddhist temple. But I believe I’d have a toehold with the Vikings, whereas with the Buddhists I’d have none whatsoever. It’s this toehold that gives me confidence that I can make some sense out of runic divination.

Runes, like Chinese characters, are not fixed in meaning, but are at the center of clouds of meaning that flow out from a central concept. I do feel very modestly confident that I can perceive the shape and feeling of that cloud when it comes to runes: much better than I can when it comes to Chinese characters. Thus, for example, my rune today was Gyfu – gift – shaped like an upper-case X. Somewhat like a Chinese character, the rune looks a little like what it symbolizes – two lines meeting in the middle. A gift unites two people in a bond. So, Gyfu refers to not only a gift but also what it entails – unity, friendship, kindness etc. etc. That gives me a starting point in contemplating what Gyfu might mean for me for today.

My point is that I feel at home with the runes in a way that I don’t with chakras and I Ching. That home could use a lot of straightening and organizing to feel really comfortable in, but at the very least it looks like a home. It’s not an igloo or a tent. It’s built of bricks and mortar.

Divination (3) Runes

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Divination (3) Runes
Nov 172016


I’d like to continue for another post on runes because they are on my mind right now. These days I draw a daily rune much as I did years ago, and I talked in my last post about using runes to focus my wayward mind http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/divination-2-runes/ My daily rune helps me gather my thoughts and pay attention to key issues. The thing is that I work somewhat differently now from my ways in the past. Twenty years ago I bought Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes mostly because it came packaged with a pouch of rune stones which seemed worth the price of admission.

Having the runes was useful, but the book was not. Blum came across runes when they were gaining interest with neopagans, New Age enthusiasts, and the like, as part of a growing interest in occult systems from around the world including I Ching, Tarot and whatnot. Blum had no knowledge of runes and their use in history, so he created a system of divination drawing on I Ching and Tarot. That was all right for me at the outset, but I quickly got frustrated with Blum’s eclecticism. The I Ching is the I Ching and runes are runes. They come from different cultural backgrounds. I detest the mixing of cultural traditions when working on spiritual things.

To solve the problem I started my own research on runes. I won’t go into detail now. My main discovery was that very little is known historically about the runes beyond their usage as alphabets for different languages such as Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old English. There were plenty of magical charms written using runes, but that does not imply that runes are intrinsically magical. We know that runes had some divinatory purpose but no idea as to how, except the general principal that picking a rune at random can tell you something. This is now called picking Odin’s rune (Odin being the high Norse god). From this vague notion I developed my own personal system.

I pick Odin’s rune on different occasions. Primarily I pick Odin’s rune every morning. That rune provides me with a focus for the day. Sometimes if I have a complex problem to deal with I may pick Odin’s rune to give me some insight to focus on. In a broad sense this is like picking a single tarot card or casting a single hexagram. The main issue is determining the meaning of each rune. Tarot and I Ching relate to the cultures that they emerged from. So with the runes I felt the need to determine the meanings of the rune names in context. I could have chosen an Icelandic or Norse context, but I don’t know much about those cultures historically. However, I am very familiar with Anglo-Saxon history and culture, so I used that as my basic context. That meant using the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet and exploring the Anglo-Saxon rune poem as my foundation. The first word in each stanza is the name of a rune as well as having a general meaning. Thus, Feoh is the first  rune which means “wealth” and is used for the English letter F.

Here’s the F U TH O R K stanzas:

Feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum;
    sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan
    gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan.

Ur byþ anmod ond oferhyrned,
    felafrecne deor, feohteþ mid hornum
    mære morstapa; þæt is modig wuht.

Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
    anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
    manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.

Os byþ ordfruma ælere spræce,
    wisdomes wraþu ond witena frofur
    and eorla gehwam eadnys ond tohiht.

Rad byþ on recyde rinca gehwylcum
    sefte ond swiþhwæt, ðamðe sitteþ on ufan
    meare mægenheardum ofer milpaþas.

Cen byþ cwicera gehwam, cuþ on fyre
    blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
    ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ.

Wealth is a comfort to all men;
    yet must every man bestow it freely,
    if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.

The aurochs is proud and has great horns;
    it is a very savage beast and fights with its horns;
    a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.

The thorn is exceedingly sharp,
    an evil thing for any knight to touch,
    uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.

The mouth is the source of all language,
    a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise men,
    a blessing and a joy to every knight.

Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors
    and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads
    on the back of a stout horse.

The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame;
    it always burns where princes sit within.

Now the trick is to turn the stanzas into spiritual focal points. The poem itself is not divinatory, it is merely practical – thorns are sharp, mouths talk. How to focus is the spiritual discipline part. If I pick Ken, the torch, what is this telling me? Torches were expensive in Anglo-Saxon times and lit the hall at night. What would you think if you picked Ken? For me it seems to be saying that light is a precious commodity and should be treated with care. It is paler, by far, than the sun (Sowelu rune), but it brings light in the darkness. So I think of a light, lighting the darkness and would ponder how I can be a light in the world. You get the idea. This example is a bit simplistic.

What I notice over time is that certain runes tend to come in clusters and stick around for a while. These days I get Inguz (fertility), Gyfu (gift), and Eihwaz (yew) a lot. My concerns are personal so I won’t explain what they mean to me at the moment. They are all good though.

I think I’ve missed the boat when it comes to creating a divination system using runes, selling it for big bucks, and retiring in luxury. It does not matter. The runes are my friends and comfort.