At left is a lovely set of rune stones used in divination. In describing them, i would like to tell a personal story, and present a theory of mine about how this fortune telling system came to be,
The first time i ever heard mention of employing runes for divination was in the early 1970s. At the time, runic divination was said to be "ancient," and so, feeling a bit stupid because i had been studying magic for years and had never heard of it before, i bought a bag of rune-carved rounds of wood in Austin, Texas, and dutifully read the instructions, which involved pulling a random disk out of the bag and interpreting its meaning according to a little pamphlet supplied with the runes. After playing with my runes for a while, i became curious about their history, and so i looked them up in the only book i had that mentioned them, "The Book of Signs," by Rudolf Koch.
To my surprise, Koch distinctly said that the runes had never been used in divination!
When i mentioned this to devotees of the runes, i was dismissed as ignorant. Soon there were many varieties of runic divination kit available in occult stores, including runes carved onto lovely semi-precious stones and packed in a velvet bag. I upgraded my wooden disked for polished jasper, but then found that i had run afoul of rune snobs who claimed that the only truly ancient runes used in divination were those carved on wood.
Eventually, as time passed, other folk magicians and academics began to provide evidence that supported my doubts about the antiquity of rune reading. The kits seemed to have originated in America, not in Germanic or Scandinavian Europe among the descendants of the long-haired Visigoths and Vikings. But as certain as i was of their recent invention, that still left an important question unanswered: If rune reading is modern and American, then how did Americans come up with the idea, and why?
It is my belief that runic divination originated in America under the influence of the very book that disclaimed the role of runes in divination, namely the 1955 Dover reprint of "The Book of Signs" by Rudolf Koch. Dover's paperback re-release of the first English translation of Koch's German book (which had been published in London in 1930) was enormously popular during the hippie era when runic divination first surfaced. It was continually in print at that time, was nationally marketed at a low price, and has remained in print for more than 50 years.
(A personal aside: i myself was a constant proselytizer for the book during that period, despite the fact that, according to my mother, a German-Jewish refugee and rare book dealer, Koch had been a Nazi and had designed type fonts for the National Socialist Party. I am still partial to Koch's fonts (Kabel, Neuland [the Nazi font], Futura, etc.), and i use them often in designing my Lucky Mojo Curio Co. labels. The very heading at the top of this web page is a digital copy of a hand-cut wood-block alphabet by Koch, Neuland.)
Koch only mentioned runes in one short chapter of his book, as a wood-type alphabet, and he presented no runic sigils among his examples of Medieval Germanic symbols. His brief introduction to the runic alphabet, the last chapter of the book, did, however, contain two paragraphs which i firmly believe led American readers into quite a bit of confusion regarding the magical role of the runes, and inadvertently fomented the creation of today's runic fortune-telling systems.
After introducing the runes as a form of alphabetic lettering, Koch made brief mention of rune magic, no doubt with implied reference to the so-called "uthark theory" of Sigurd Agrell, who, in the 1920s, had claimed, with little substantiation, that the normal order of the runes, called the "futhark", after the first letters of the old Germanic 24-letter alphabet (f, u, th, a, r, k), had once been supplemented by a magical "uthark" alphabet, in which the letter "f" was moved to the end, and the first letters were u, th, a, r, k. Agrell further theorized that these uthark runes were employed in numerological magic, while the futhark runes were relegated to use as a regular alphabet.
The great problem with Agrell's uthark theory is that no Medieval examples of rune magic of the type Agrell posited have actually been found. It is thus a theory that exists in an academic vacuum, and its factuality has been hotly debated, beginning with a repudiation by Anders Baeksted in 1952. However, at the time when Koch originally wrote "The Book of Signs," the uthark theory was more or less in play among scholarly Germanic Medievalists and had become popular with German occultists as well.
Koch explained Agrell's theory very briefly, without much enthusiasm, as follows:
"Rune magic was peculiar to North Germany, and we have only very fragmentary information about it. There the Rune represented the object after which it was named; the runic character became the object itself, and with it good and evil could be worked. The magic properties of each rune were only known to very few."
Had Koch at that point included a few examples of magical runic sigils, his readers would have understood what he was writing about, but he did not, which left them in expectation of further magical information about runes.
Unfortunately, an ambiguously translated sentence further on in Koch's text provided all the impetus these eager readers needed to create, from whole cloth, the "ancient" practice of fortune telling by reading the runes. Koch wrote:
"For purposes of soothsaying, runes were only used indirectly: it was believed that the dead could be awakened by means of Rune magic, and that they could foretell the future."
The "they" in that sentence clearly refers not to the runes, but to the dead foretelling the future, a technique called necromancy. According to Koch, the only use that runes had in divination was indirect: by means of rune magic, the dead could be awakened and they -- the awakened dead -- could then foretell the future.
Pronouns being notoriously ambiguous, it appears that someone (or several someones) got the idea that Koch had presented the opinion that once necromancers had awakened the dead, they -- the necromancers -- could use the runes to foretell the future.
The fact that fortune telling and divination by runes is not found in Scandinavia or Germany but is common in the United States and England points to the widely read English translation reprint of Koch's work as the source of American and English divination by runes.
Over time, as Agrell's uthark theory fell out of academic favour, Americans occultists suspended their endorsement of his semi-Kaballistic numerological assignments to the letters. Substituting the historically correct futhark alphabet for Agrell's hypothetical uthark, they aligned their thinking with current academic models, while yet retaining the central premise of Agrell's hypothesis, that the runes were employed in magic -- and they never ceased to believe in their misinterpretation of the flawed translation of Koch's book, by which their "ancient art of runic divination" was justified.
The most interesting thing about this grammatical comedy of errors is that since its invention, runic divination, originally presented as the random selection and interpretive reading of runes pulled out of a bag, has become become more diverse and complex.
Using as documentation a passage from a 1st century book called Germania by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, in which he described an ancient Germanic form of divination accomplished by casting three thin marked "slips" of wood onto a cloth and reading the results, a new format of rune reading, called "casting the runes" was developed. Tacitus' "slips" were broadly interpreted to mean "disks", and this became a justification for the rune snob belief that the wooden runes were more "authentic" than the stone runes.
Rune casting was followed by the development of cartomancy layouts for runes, including the three-rune layout (derived from the old-time three card cut used by Gypsy card readers) and the Celtic Rune layout (taken from the Celtic Cross tarot card layout devised around 1900 by members of the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and popularized in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith.
The number of variant rune systems now available is impressive. There are cast pewter runes, carved wooden runes, stamped pottery runes, and engraved stone runes. Some sets stick to the 24-letter futhark alphabet, others have an extra, blank stone in position 25, popularly called the Odin stone.
With so many formats of divination to choose from, and so many options for aesthetic presentation of the runes themselves, rune reading has became a much-loved staple of American occultism, especially among Americans of Germanic or Scandinavian descent and Neo-Pagans who identify with Asatru and Wicca.
The results obtained by runic divination can equal in accuracy the readings derived from older methods of foretelling, such as astrology, geomancy, casting bones or cowrie shells, reading the I Ching, palmistry, numerology, cartomancy and tarot reading, graphology, and tea leaf reading. Every human invention has a beginning date, whether ancient or modern, and rune reading, although not very old, has actually earned an honourable place for itself in American Germanic-Scandinavian folk magic.
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