Half a century ago, only one or two books were available in the English language on the subject of runes — the ancient signs, occult symbols, and letters generally associated with the Norse or “the Vikings.” The books published back then were expensive academic works and, as such, largely inaccessible. Consequently, runes and Norse paganism (a.k.a. Asatru (the faith in the Æsir)) constituted a small element within modern neopaganism in the English-speaking world until relatively recently.
Indeed, when Margot Adler wrote her seminal Drawing Down The Moon, exploring modern neopaganism, “one of its most glaring oversights was the omission of Norse paganism,” she would later write. Yet, inspired by The Vikings series and the Thor movies, over the last few years, Norse religion and the runes have gone from relative obscurity to popularity.
What Are Runes?
Leaving aside historical origins, according to myth, the god Odin hung himself on the world tree Yggdrasil (“steed of Ygg” — horse of Odin) for nine days and nights, without food or water, until he received the runes in a vision.
Academics continue to emphasize the secular uses of runes and to gloss over the occult use. But it is clear that each rune had a symbolic value and that they were sometimes used in occult practices, as well as for writing mundane inscriptions (as we find, for example, with Hebrew letters).
The names of the “runic alphabets” are taken from the letters with which they begin (just as the alphabet is so named because it begins Alpha and Beta or A and B), i.e., the Elder and Younger Futhark (from the letters F, U, Th, A, R, and K) and the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Futhorc (from F, U, Th, O, R, and C). The earliest of these (the Elder Futhark) has twenty-four runes while — developed later on in time — the Younger Futhark has sixteen and the Old English Futhorc varies from twenty-nine to thirty-three.
But it is, of course, the esoteric meanings of the runes, and their use in magic, that has captured the imagination of the contemporary seeker in the modern spiritual wasteland, and the possibility of reconnecting to ancient roots now that Christianity, in many parts of Europe and elsewhere, has inexorably declined. And, from the eighteen charms or runes spoken of in the Havamal (of the medieval Poetic Edda, which recorded earlier Norse legends), through medieval Icelandic magic, to contemporary rune magic, runes have a long and complex occult history.
The Occult Runic Revival of The English-Speaking World
A few decades ago, the first books on runes began to be published by spiritual, occult, and esoteric publishers in the English-speaking world, with two of the most notable names being Edred Thorsson (Stephen E. Flowers, Ph.D) — author of Runelore (among many other books) and the founder of the Rune Gild — and Nigel Pennick.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, based in Great Britain, Pennick has focused largely on the Old English runes, or the Futhorc (including in the second edition of one of his latest books, Runic Lore & Legend: Wyrdstaves of Old Northumbria) while Flowers (better known as Thorsson) has always strongly advocated the use of the Elder Futhark for esoteric and magical work.
Flowers studied Germanic and Celtic philology at the University of Texas and runology at the University of Göttingen, Germany. In that country, he became exposed to the historically dubious Armanen runes (we’ll look at the Armanen shortly) and later, back in the U.S.A, Flowers became highly active, and prominent, in the Left-Hand occult Oder of the Temple of Set (and its inner Order of The Trapezoid), which had emerged out of The Church of Satan after a dispute with the C.O.S.’s founder Anton LaVey.
Such associations have made Flowers a highly controversial figure in the mainstream neopagan, Asatru scene, despite the obvious influence of his writings. Nevertheless, according to Flowers, whether we like Its manifestation or not, we, in the West, are slowly reawakening to the dark and ancient Gothick God that is sometimes called Odin:
This God—or ultimate præterhuman ancestor—is a wise and dark communicator. He is the master of all forms of mysterious communication by means of signs and symbols. In ancient times a system of such symbols for communication were discovered, and called “Runes.” In order to learn these the God hung himself for nine nights on a tree and thereby encountered the realm of Death—and from that spear-tip point which is the interface between life and death he at once comprehended the Runes—the Mysteries of the World.
Another important figure in the runic revival in the English-speaking world is Freya Aswynn. Born in Holland, Aswynn was initially interested in Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah, and Thelema, though she was later initiated into Wicca under Alex Sanders (the best-known Wiccan practitioner after the founder of Wicca, Gerald Gardner).
With a personality that can be best described as a force of nature, during the 1980s and 1980s, Aswynn was a prominent figure in the occult and alternative music scenes of London, performing rune chants with bands such as Current 93 and Death In June. I met Freya very briefly a couple of times in 1990 and/or 1991 at the “Talking Stick” events in London and at Philosophorum, a series of weekly talks hosted at a cafe in Greenwich by my friend the Crowley-esque Chaos Magician Charles Brewster. And, trust me, she left an impression on everyone she met.
Aswynn’s Leaves of Yggdrasil (since revised and republished as Northern Mysteries and Magick: Runes & Feminine Powers) was one of the most influential early books of rune-centric occult and pagan practices. And, while it has been criticized by younger heathen purists for being influenced by Wicca, it was probably this influence that made the runes accessible at a time when the occult meant a choice between Wicca, the Golden Dawn, or the Ordo Templi Orientis or, for the more daring among us, Chaos Magic of some sort.
(Although no longer in London, Aswynn teaches rune courses and offers rune readings via her website.)
Although certainly far less influential (and now largely forgotten), it should be mentioned that in 1974, the Wiccan high priest Raymond Buckland founded Seax-Wica (or Saxon Wicca) with his book The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (republished as Buckland’s Book Of Saxon Witchcraft), which included an introduction to “Saxon runes.”
The Armanen Runes: Real? Fake? Does It Matter?
In 1902, the Austrian mystic Guido von List had a vision of eighteen runes. These, he believed to be the primordial runes, from which the Elder Futhark and all others had descended. While there was, and is, no proof for this claim, von List pointed to the eighteen runes or charms spoken of in the medieval Havamal to bolster his claim.
While the Armanen runes have made little impact in the English-speaking occult or runic worlds, it has long been favored by German occult Orders, including the Fraternitas Saturni (F.S.), largely under the influence of occultist Karl Spiesberger. (Known for its dark Saturnianism and sex magic rituals, the F.S. has recently appeared in the highly-acclaimed drama Babylon Berlin.) Spiesberger reformed the Armanen runes, making them more universal.
This approach was subsequently adopted by the Knights of Runes — an Armanen-based rune Order — founded in the U.S.A. by Karl Hans Welz, who also brought with him the modern Germanic occultist’s penchant for energy-generating machines. (A second Knights of Runes was founded by Larry Camp after the first went dormant for a time.)
Camp published his own handbook on the Armanen, and Welz has made an enormous amount of Armanen material available on his website. More recently, occult author A. D. Mercer has also written about the subject in his upcoming book Runa, where he discusses Armanen bind runes, runic rituals, and Jungian psychology.
Despite the claims of von List, the Armanen runes were a product of their time. But, perhaps it was the absence of any real history that made them so accessible to occult Orders such as the F.S., which — influenced by Thelema and Tantra — was interested in both practical magic and heightened states of consciousness.
If you’re interested in the history of the F.S., check out Stephen E. Flowers’ Fraternitas Saturni: History, Doctrine, and Rituals of the Magical Order of the Brotherhood of Saturn. And if you’re interested in a modern, universalist, and Jungian approach to the Armanen runes, you can check out a short interview I did with A. D. Mercer, about his book, here.
Runes are now widespread in the world of occultism and alternative religion. Some of the approaches to the runes are naive. Some might be silly. Some practitioners have attempted to gain an academic understanding and to marry it to intuition and personal visions. What and how they will manifest in years to come is as yet unknown. But, for now, for most, the runes are a connection to nature, to spirituality, and to higher consciousness.