(Note from Daven: On the site, Ancient Sites, there was a discussion about Germany and some of the culture there, since they are part of the Celts. If you discuss the Germans of history, you must, of course, talk about the Norse. In the discussion, the topic of Runes was brought up, the FUThARK runes of so many divination systems. This is part of that discussion, and what one scholar of the runes and Germans and Norse had to say…)
The Truth about the Runes
Message: Little or no evidence for runic divination
Author: sceptical – Thiudareiks Flavius
Date: Jan 29, 2000 21:31
I agree with Theodoric and would caution anyone interested in the *historical* uses of the runic alphabets against most or even all of the books available on ‘runic divination’. It is *possible* that the symbols Tacitus refers to in his accounts of various types of Germanic divination were runic, but it’s impossible to be certain. According to current theories of the development of the runes, they were only just being developed amongst the northern peoples when Tacitus was writing, so it could be that they were pre-runic symbols or something else entirely.
But leaving Tacitus aside, I have not been able to find *any* references to runic divination in *any* of the early source material. This whole idea of the runes being used for divination doesn’t seem to date back any further than the 1970s and did not become well known until Ralph Blum’s popular book and rune set was released in the 80s. As far as I can tell, runic divination was invented in *our* time and has no historical basis at all. I wrote an article about this a few years ago and read about 15 ‘new age’ books on runic divination as part of my research – none of them give any historical substantiation for their claims other than a vague reference to Tacitus.
I’m actually much more sceptical than Theodoric on this subject. I don’t agree that the Rune Poems have anything to do with this supposed ‘divination’. This is an assumption which has been made by the new age ‘experts’, but is not supported by an analysis of the poems themselves. Far from preserving interpretations of the runes for the purposes of divination, they seem to have had a much more prosaic
purpose – they were a mnemonic system to help people remember the *sounds* of the runes. If the Rune Poems’ stanzas were preserving the ancient (and, presumably, unchanging) interpretations of the runes in divination, we’d expect them to be consistant, regardless of whether we are talking about the East Norse poem, the West Norse version or the Old English version. On the other hand, if they were preserving the phonetic values of each rune by linking them to a list of words begining with that sound, then we’d expect differences in each poem according to the linguistic differences between the western and eastern forms of Old Norse and between the Old Norse poems and the Old English example.
And this is precisely what can be found by comparing the three poems. They aren’t an esoteric list of mystical interpretations of runic divination, they are like the rhymes we teach children to help them remember the alphabet.
The new age books on the runes depend on some very old fashioned and totally out of date academic theories on the runes – that the runes were *primarily* a ‘magic alphabet’. There’s no doubt that the ancient Germanics and their descendents (like the Vikings) used runes to carve magical formulae, but this was just one of the alphabet’s uses. They used it for many other, totally mundane, purposes – memorial stones, graffiti, price tages, to indicate ownership. In other words, they used the runes the way any people would use an alphabet. To point to the magical runic inscriptions and say that this means the runes were a ‘magical alphabet’ is like pointing to similar Greek and Roman magical inscriptions and saying their alphabets were ‘magical’. It ignores all the (many) non-magical runic inscriptions (and the fact that the coming of Christianity barely affected or changed the use of the runes at all).
As far as I have been able to tell, and I’ve been interested in the runes for many years, there is absolutely no evidence for runic divination in the ancient and medieval periods. It seems to have been completely invented by modern enthusiasts. If anyone has any real evidence to the contrary though, I’d love to discuss it.
Message: So, it is your assertation Thiudareiks,
Author: Ollamh Cainte – Daven Iceni, Patron
Date: Jan 30, 2000 16:40
that the Germanic Runes were used simmilarly to the Ogham Runes of the Celts, as a written language *when necessary* and for *some* magical scripts, but other than that, not used for divination at all?
Interesting theory. Since you have obviously done the research, I will not dispute the claim. I myself only have experience with the Runes from the New Age “fluffy-bunny” stuff. LOL
However, it begs the question, that if the German Holy men did divination, what device did they use?
Message: New Age fantasies and some reality from Tacitus
Author: gudja – Thiudareiks Flavius
Date: Jan 31, 2000 03:06
That’s right Daven. When Blum’s book first came out I almost bought a copy. A few years later I read a couple of the other ‘new age’/neo-pagan books on the runes and found they were full of claims which simply couldn’t be substantiated from the source material. I started to look at the evidence they gave that the runes were used for divination, and found that most gave none whatsoever. The few that did either made a brief reference to Tacitus ‘Germania’ 10, and then moved on to describe very complex and usually completely contradictory systems of ‘rune reading’ which were clearly based on nothing but a (loose) mis-interpretation of the rune poems (which have nothing to do with this supposed ‘divination’) mixed with large amounts of pure fantasy.
Of all the ‘new age’ rune books I have seen, only three gave *any* evidence that runes were used in divination. Two referred to the Old Norse word ‘hlauteinn’ or ‘blood twigs’ – saying this was a reference to the twig-like runes being smeared with sacred blood before being used to tell the future. Their authors clearly assumed their readers wouldn’t be capable of checking this claim, as ‘hlauteinn’ means nothing of the sort – they were bundles of twigs used to springle blood after a pagan sacrifice. Another said runic divination was mentioned twice in the Icelandic ‘Landnamabok’, but when I looked the references up I found no mention of the runes or anything like them in one chapter cited and found the second chapter mentioned didn’t even exist. Some of these authors are ignorant, but it appears others are plain dishonest; they *know* there is no historical basis for the complex systems they are peddling to the public.
All of these books push the old fashioned idea that the runes were a ‘sacred’ or ‘magical’ alphabet. It’s true that the word ‘rune’ means ‘mystery/secret’ but this is hardly surprising. When the runes were first used in the Germanic world they would certainly have been a mystery to most, though recent discoveries of quite large numbers of fairly early runic inscriptions shows that they were quickly adopted widely and that many people could obviously read them. Odin/Wodan’s mythic discovery of the runes is also cited as evidence that they were primarily ‘magical’, but there are many cultures which have legends of the mythic origins of quite mundane things – fire and iron for example.
One of the new age books on my shelf paints a lurid picture of the coming of Christianity, claiming that the Church ‘savagely’ repressed the use of runes, killing rune masters and driving runelore underground. This is total nonsense. Of all the many Church condemnations of pagan practices in the period after the conversions of the peoples of northern Europe, *none* even mention runes, runic magic or rune divination. On the contrary, runes were used in Old English poems written by monks, by Scandinavian kings on stones commemorating the conversion to Christianity and in inscriptions on and in churches. People continued to use runes to write magical formulae, but with the coming of the Latin alphabet, they used that system as well. Sometimes they even used Latin letters mixed with Runic ones in the same inscriptions. Obviously the *words* in the formulae were what was magical, not the alphabet used. The runes were an alphabet, nothing more. This is why we have inscriptions saying ‘Oltha owns this axe’ (marking ownership) or ‘Thorfast makes good combs’ (some advertising on a comb case for the guy who made it) or a die stamp with the brand name of the smith who made spear heads, or price tags for bundles of fur from Birka, or a business letter from Bergen. These aren’t people using ‘magical letters’, these are literate Germanics using their native alphabet.
To answer Daven’s other question, Tacitus tells us in ‘Germania’ 10 that the cries and flight of birds was interpreted to predict the future, as were the neighs and snorts of pure white sacred horses. He also says the outcome of a war was determined by taking a captive from the nation they were about to fight and pitching him in a one-on-one combat with a champion of their own, with the winner indicating the coming victor in the war.
This is getting long, so I’ll stop now, but I would urge anyone who is tempted by the books on runes in the new age sections of bookshops not to take what they say is ‘historical’ as reliable, these books are riddled with fantasy and the whole idea of runic divination is effectively a modern invention.