Thursday, March 6, 2014

Neil Giles on the magical tradition of the Runes

The Runes - Wisdom of the Past...

"It is a mistake to assume that events far apart in time are thereby separate.
All things are connected as in the finest web of a spider.
The slightest movement on any thread can be discerned from all points in the web."
-- Brian Bates, The Way of Wyrd

We live in a time of spiritual searching, where knowledge from the past is sought as eagerly as the experience of the new and unknown. In the course of that searching, our era has seen many of the great traditions of spiritual wisdom come to life around us once more, reviving what may be forgotten in the mind but remembered in the soul.

We may feel strongly moved by karmic connections with such knowledge, seeking it out with an intuitive urgency that is drawn from such inner memories and their echoes. Knowledge from the past reminds us that we have lived before just as it speaks of what has enduring value. Foremost amongst the ancient traditions that have been born again is that of the Vikings and the runes.

The Viking Tradition

Many of us have had the joy in childhood of reading the Scandinavian legends, the tales of Odin, Loki and Thor. They were the gods of these early sea-faring folk whose world was born from the meeting of fire and ice.

These ancient gods were known as the Aesir. They ruled the Northern climes from their home in Asgard, leading lives filled with wondrous adventure, poetry and feasting. They fought with their traditional enemies, the frost giants and awaited the day known as Ragnarok, the last day of gods and men when a conflagration of flood and fire would sweep across the final battle of good and evil, leaving only devastation in its wake. The earth would then lie ruined, awaiting the coming of Baldur, the fair-faced shining god of the Aesir, whose resurrection and return from his sojourn in the underworld would bring redemption and new life.

The Book of Runes

Such joy as you might have found in these half-remembered tales of childhood might then have been renewed in adult life with the publication of Ralph Blum's Book of Runes. This commercially successful divination kit helped to bring runic awareness back into public consciousness, though there are many works now that can aid both reader and student in catching the flavour of the runes with more accuracy and clarity. If this has been your story then, whether you know it or not, you are already steeped in an important tradition of western magic and spirituality.

Awaken the Magic

Odin's Runes

The runes may have come to you by other means, without the stories to start you on the way. A set of runes is an item of considerable magical power and, as such, it will present itself in a moment of need as an unexpected gift, an intuitive purchase or an accidental find. Whatever the case, you might have developed a passion for them, working with them regularly or even professionally for a while. Or, you could be just using your runes from time to time, idly examining future possibilities, often startled by their accuracy.

You might have found the runes but your initial interest could have waned and your set now sits gathering dust on the shelf, confusing and somewhat mysterious. Or, the runes might not yet have come into your life. They may be a soul memory, latent, hidden in the unconscious. Yet the ancestors who walked the path of rune magic long ago will have written those patterns in your unconscious, inscribing them in the earth of your body. Thus, when and if a set of runes does come into your life, you can use them to awaken the magic that lies within you.

What images do the runes conjure for you when you work with them or think about them? The bearded Viking with a horned helmet, a gleaming axe and a bag of runes bouncing on his muscular thighs! Or do you lean more towards the wart-faced wise woman, raven on her shoulder, bent over the fire, inhaling foul-smelling smoke and uttering obscure poetic prophecies. Perhaps you've grown beyond these fantasies and simply use the runes for decision-making and insight, functions they can well fulfil. But do you know how the runes were read traditionally?

Casting the Runes

They were not taken from a bag and laid out in a pattern. That is a modern practice. When a question as to the future or the outcome of certain events needed to be answered, sticks or twigs would be cut from a nearby tree, a fruit-bearing tree for that was the tradition. It reflected the notion that one's actions in casting the runes would bear fruit in the future. The runic symbols would then be cut into the wood and a sacred space would be prepared. The rune staves would be cast three times to examine the question. This was done in order that no hidden elements would be missed and to ensure that any shadow forces from the past that could interfere with the outcome had literally been unbound and rendered ineffective.

A Magical Act

To cast the runes was a magical act that helped to create the future. Once cast, the future was decided and the rune sticks would be burned, their ash left to honour the place where the casting had been made. This doesn't mean that the modern practice of reading the runes has no value. It simply draws attention to the need to examine the history and traditions of any spiritual tool we undertake to use. This attention is a mark of our respect for what has gone before.

The Origin of the Runes

The Vikings did not originate the runes. They were the latter-day users of a runic system known as the Younger Futhark. This consisted of sixteen visible characters or symbols and two hidden ones that were used only in magical work. The system that the Vikings used was derived from a much earlier system known as the Elder Futhark, evolved by the Teutonic (Germanic) peoples. We do not in fact know exactly who the Teutons were, since the name was given to them by the Romans and is derived from the Celtic word meaning 'tribe'. Historically, we know the Elder Futhark was in use for engraving on jewelry at least fifty years before the birth of Christ, making it much older in all probability. There are twenty-four runes in the Elder Futhark and these are divided into three tiers of eight runes. Each of these tiers is called an 'aett'. Each rune traditionally occupies a fixed place in this structure of tiers. This place is known as its stead. The word 'futhark' is derived from the first six letter characters of the runes in sequence, the character 'th' being regarded as a single letter.

The Mystical Tradition

The Elder Futhark is a system of sacred symbols that links language to a secret mystical tradition. As such, the runes are the keepers of a cycle of mysteries. As we came to know them through meditation and magical focus on their symbolic shapes, the runes reveal their mysteries to us. The word 'rune' means both a secret and to whisper or to roar. This tells us that the runes have their origins in a culture that passed on its traditions orally through song and chant, then later came to write them down.

Dialogue of Living Sound

Though the runes form an alphabetic sequence, they are essentially ideographic rather than alphabetical. In other words, they were devised to symbolize and make known a series of ideas or principles rather than to simply function as building blocks in a system of verbal or written communication. For the ancient peoples, to chant a name aloud was to invoke its magic. So it is with the runes. As we chant their names aloud, the magic comes like a roaring wind, then whispers their secrets. Through the runes, the mysteries of life itself are revealed. Through the runes, we create a dialogue of living sound with the environment in which we live.

While many modern sets of runes have the additional twenty-fifth rune, the blank rune, it is important to note that this is an invention of modern commentators and is not a part of the authentic runic tradition. The 'P' rune, Perthro or Peord performs the function given by modern commentators to the blank rune. It represents the unknowable, the journey into the unknown and the risk that must be taken. Thus, Perthro holds the key to a mystery at the heart of runic lore, the runecast itself. Perthro is both the act of casting the runes and the Well of Consciousness to which we go as a seeker.

When we cast the runes, we come to draw the waters of knowledge and inspiration from this sacred place. This is the Well of the three Sisters, the Fates or Nornir who spin the webs of past, present and future that bind all life together and who cut the threads when the time is come to end a pattern. In Teutonic myth it is known as the Well of Wyrd.

The Well of Wyrd

When we draw from the Well, we are not simply predicting the linear development of our future that grows directly from where we are now. Rather, we are looking at how our current situation has grown from roots in the past and what we must do in order to either fulfil what we have begun or to change direction completely. Sometimes we must change the way the past has affected us before we can earn a new future. When we sit with our runes, preparing to cast them or lay them for a reading, we keep alive a tradition thousands of years old. We are poised on the edge of the known, preparing to commune with the hidden forces of this world, ready to entrust ourselves to the unknown. In this way, each of us becomes a seeker, ready for initiation, preparing to give what the journey asks of us.

The Norns

The Norns or Weaving Women of Teutonic spirituality play an important role in the mythology of the runes. These three women bind and unbind the fabric of existence. Odin himself, the giver of the runes is subject to the power of the three Sisters, Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, the triple Goddess of ancient times. Urd is the oldest and rules the past. Verdandi is the middle sister and rules the present. Skuld is the youngest and rules the future. Their work, the tapestry of fate, can be read in the runes.

The Tapestry of Fate

Remember that for the ancient peoples, the word fate was used differently from the way we are accustomed to using it. What we have done or not done in the past creates our present conditions - that is the runic concept of fate. In the present, we experience the energy of our own past choices. This comes about through what is known as 'orlog' or layers. It is a central theme in runic spirituality and crucial to our understanding of work with the runes. We are radiant beings, pouring energy into the world around us, drawing energy from our environment.

So, action taken (or not taken) literally creates layers of energy that adhere to us and influence present conditions. Our fate is this energy field layered in around us through our decisions and actions, thus bound into the aura of our being. It is not a force outside us that takes control while we look on. It is our wyrd, a living and vibrant web of force that fills us, surrounds us and links us to the web of life. To know ourselves we must know the forces within our own wyrd.

If We Fight Ourselves... Who Wins?

Without such knowledge, we have no power for if we don't recognize our wyrd or fate then we haven't taken responsibility for our lives. In our present choices, we meet our own past selves. If we own them, we can change our lives through self-mastery. If we disown or deny these past selves then fate becomes a force outside us that we struggle against. But if we fight ourselves, who wins?

The task of the runes is to open up these layers of fate, to unravel the complex threads and show us how we have arrived where we are. It is here that we find the true meaning of the term 'wyrd'. While our own English word 'weird' is derived from this term, the concept it embodies is more potent than the simple notion of something that is strange or bizarre. One's wyrd is that which has been created by what is laid down (orlog) in the past.

The Runes are Teachers

The runes are teachers. They disclose the true nature of past action, urge courageous self-honesty in facing the issues and then offer the gift of choice and change through powerful insight. Through the runes, we glimpse the web of the three Sisters and discern something of its pattern. Thus we can begin to undo the knots and tangles and retie the threads to bind a new and different path. But, in doing so, we must know and understand the forces in the greater web for we are all part of a much larger pattern and we all have a path to walk within it.

There is not just the wyrd of the individual, the creator, but also that of the group, the community, the planet and the universe, the co-creators. This vast sea of consciousness is the divine principle, that which transcends the individual, be he animal, human or god. More than two thousand years ago, the runes were evolving in a culture that understood the essential paradox of existence, the balance of personal power through self-mastery with surrender to the greater pattern. For the Teutonic peoples, the greater pattern was the web of life, the web woven by the three Sisters that even the gods must heed and obey, for they are bound within it just as are we mortal folk.

The Loom and the Web

The Sisters at their loom, weaving the swirling fibres of chaos into order, then surrendering their fabric to the winds of heaven that return the pattern to primal chaos... The Sisters call us endlessly to the dance of life, the passage of death and renewal through rebirth. Here we find a primal image of spiritual understanding. Here, in the ceaseless weaving, we discover the pattern of the Wyrd in a moment in time and take our next steps. Then, in the next moment, the Wyrd has shifted for we have shifted and so we move on.

The Fabric of Life

The runes are not simply a fortune-teller's tool, they are the hammer and diviner of the Wyrd, part of a system of spiritual belief that is older than Christianity and as complex and beautiful as Hindu or Buddhist thinking. It is a system that embraces reincarnation and rebirth, that holds the web of life as central and sacred, that is steeped in a magical tradition where responsibility for one's own acts and destiny is the core of existence.

When you use the runes you don't just read the future, you participate in its creation by linking with the past and building on past effort or even changing your path or destiny. When you draw the runes, you draw water from the well of magical power, the Well of Wyrd. When you cast them, you give yourself to the web of life and its ever-changing patterns.

Here endeth this remarkable article by Neil Giles on the magical tradition of the Runes.

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