revisiting runes: overview

©2021 Michael Raven

If it hasn’t been plainly obvious, I am obsessed with runes since I started looking into them earlier this autumn, trying to realize their symbolism, spiritual and shamanistic potential. I am a lifelong student of matters of the spirit and, as time goes on, it is pretty plain to me that my leanings are with Northern European traditions with a shamanic lens filtering how I perceive various elements. The thoughts and stories that touch me most are aligned with early Celtic, Norse and (what little is known about them) Pictish paths, with a healthy dose of traditions found with the far northern pastoral nomads calling themselves the Sámi.

Runes, to me, seem to resonate in a way that other spiritual and occult tools have not, although I still haven’t dug as deep as I need to with ogham/ogam (which I will, after I feel like I understand enough about runes to not conflate the two systems). Runes “speak” to me in ways that other methods of spiritual practice do not.

After yesterday’s post, I got to thinking about how my understanding with respect to the Elder Futhark runes has been biased by a dualistic mode of thinking: almost all of the resources I have used since this autumn have leaned in heavily towards the idea that there are positive and negative interpretations of the runes (e.g., good/bad, good/evil, light/murk(dark)), with not much in the way of supporting evidence that the runes were originally treated as such by our ancestors using the Old Ways. It leaves one with logical binds when it comes to runes such as thurisaz/thorn (ᚦ) or hagalaz (ᚺ), whose interpretations have largely centered around the negative, while dagaz (ᛞ) and gebo (ᚷ) receive the more positive treatment because they “cannot be reversed” as far as half of the resources claim (and others). Any time there are exceptions to an interpretation patterns, it makes me think of someone employing verbal judo to try to escape the fact that they are making an exception — which bothers the part of me which prefers internal logic consistency (like in poorly-written high fantasy when the evil overlord can wield magic without repercussions, while the hero suffers from some kind of binding that doesn’t apply to the EO).

And so, I am digging back into the basics over the coming weeks/months with respect to trying to understand the true depth of the runes to try and get beyond this bifurcation of interpretation and energy that I am not convinced really exists.

Perhaps I have been corrupted in my thinking by the words of Third Zen Partiarch, Seng-ts’an’s piece, the Hsin Hsin Ming (Inscribing on the Believing Mind), partially translated by RH Blyth as:

There is nothing difficult about the Great Way,
But, avoid choosing!
Only when you neither love nor hate,
Does it appear in all clarity.

A hair's breadth of deviation from it,
And deep gulf is set between heaven and earth.
If you want to get hold of what it looks like,
Do not be anti- or pro- anything.

The conflict of longing and loathing, --
This is the disease of the mind.
Not knowing the profound meaning of things,
We disturb our peace of mind to no purpose.

All emphasis added is mine. Other translations word it differently, but the core idea behind the Third Patriarch’s words is very Taoist in that most things that appear to have a nature that is dichotomous are, in reality, but one thing and that neither can exist without the other. Take, for instance, Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson):

...whether you point to a little stalk or a great pillar, a leper or the beautiful Hsi-shih, things ribald and shady or things grotesque and strange, the Way makes them all into one. Their dividedness is their completeness; their complete­ness is their impairment. No thing is either complete or impaired, but all are made into one again. Only the man of far­ reaching vision knows how to make them into one. So he has no use [for categories], but relegates all to the constant. The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished. He relies upon this alone, relies upon it and does not know he is doing so. This is called the Way.

I could go on quoting various Taoist and Zen texts on the matter of division and dualisms, and how that viewing the world through that lens of understanding is likely to lead you astray. All dualisms are based in relativity to something else: a praying mantis is a larger insect compared to its peers, but no match at all for the wagon rolling towards it.

How does Taoism and Zen have anything to do with runes at all? Not much, frankly. But it informs my views on such things and explains why I take issue when complex ideas are sorted in an overly simplistic manner of “good” and “bad” signs. It also explains why I have been gnawing on this gristle presented by experts who seem hell-bent on making ancient things into new age things with some manner of what I feel is a bit irreverent in their handling. Do we try to learn from the wisdom of our forebears with an open mind? Or do we try to egotistically mold it to fit our cosmological understanding which may be tainted with the dust of the conquering tribes?

So… anyway…

I’ve decided to take as much time as I need with each rune, in order, to understand what their meanings might be with a new, critical eye that holds dualisms with high suspicion, assuming that no such dualism may be implied. As such, I started inscribing each one as I contemplate it on my hand with an extra-fine Sharpie (because henna is so hit and miss in terms of indelibility) — I want to constantly remind myself to consider the various implications of each rune and to shave away any stench of dualistic thinking to see if there is a deeper meaning contained within each one that may or may not be hiding some original wisdom from a more ecstatic approach towards the spirit (as opposed to ritualistic and dogmatic approaches).

Am I an expert? No. Will I claim to be one? No. If you want standardized understandings, it might be best to consult the other people who have written multiple tomes on the matter. But… I will understand as time goes on if the dualism are a barrier or part of the core to each rune.

My first step is to go back to the beginning, to fehu (ᚠ) [pictured on my hand, above], and to try and grasp the fullness of the rune in terms of interpretation, it’s relation to other runes, and the implications of sound when it comes to intoning the rune as an act of galdr/incantation.

Meaning on my Elder Futhark pages will change, although I will retain the old pages and supplant them with new moving forward as I go through the process. Wish me luck.

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