- Category: Reviews
Taking Up the Runes
by Diana Paxson Weiser
I have been awaiting the release of this book for over a year with great anticipation and for once, I was not disappointed. Paxson’s “Taking Up the Runes” is a thorough, ingenious, and most of all refreshingly practical guide to exploring and understanding this key element of Northern magico-religious practice. I would place this book at the forefront of modern runic literature. Not only does it hold its own in the company of such well-respected works such as Aswynn’s “Northern Magic and Mysteries” and Thorsson’s “Futhark” but in many ways, it surpasses them.
Paxson’s book is actually worth it for the introduction alone, not something that can be said of many works. Here she discusses the possible origins of the runes, drawing on current scholarship, including, various intriguing theories that posit links between the runic alphabet and the Etruscan culture by way of the ancient Germanic Marcomanni and Herulian tribes (p. 5). She draws consistent parallels between Northern practice and its possible Indo-European roots exploring the early history of the runes from as early as 2nd century C.E.
Her scholarship is sound and she offers a thorough bibliography at the end of the book through which readers can further deepen their knowledge of Germanic lore, culture, and the runes. This is an invaluable foundation for the beginner and advanced practitioner alike. Paxson consistently links the modern study and exploration of the runes to the wisdom and knowledge of the past, emphasizing that the “runes are an expression of the spirituality of Northern Europe” (p. 3) and a gift won by the God Odin’s sacrifice. She makes the runes accessible but does not diminish the effort, discipline and study necessary to win their secrets.
I do disagree strongly that the runes should be approached pluralistically however, precisely because they lie at the heart of Northern religious mysteries. Such an approach runs the risk of encouraging non-Heathens to delve into these deep waters, which in many cases amounts to little more than cultural misappropriation of Heathen sacred symbols and religious strip-mining. Paxson makes it clear, however, by the thoroughness of her research that this is never her intent.
I particularly like that she gives equal emphasis to developing a solid foundation of didactic knowledge and to internalizing the runes through personal exploration. She examines lore with the eyes of a master, utilizing several levels of exegesis and moving far beyond simple literal meanings to the active interpretation of the runes as symbolic, almost archetypal cultural and spiritual doorways to wisdom.
Throughout the book, Paxson emphasizes that the key to winning the runes lies in “individual initiative” (p. 9) and consistent, determined study. She draws a particularly nice parallel between the aspiring runester and Odin’s own winning of the runes, pointing out that in order to master and teach the runes, this God had to first take them into himself, internalizing their power. She then provides, throughout the bulk of the book, clear, concise guidelines by which the student can do just that.
The meat of the book is nicely laid out in workbook form for either individual or group study. Paxson doesn’t focus on one method of learning the runes but offers several from meditations, visualizations, and altar work to intoning (called galdr in Old Norse, from the word ‘gala,’ to croak or to crow) and inscribing them onto the body. Unfortunately, she does maintain the modern division of the runic Aetts by Deity: giving the first eight runes to Frey, the second to Hagal (who is not even a Deity but rather the name of a rune itself) and the final eight to Tyr. There is no basis for this in historical literature and it is a modern compartmentalization that some rune workers find useful (though I myself do not). It is mentioned only in passing, however, and is not a primary focus of the book.
The chapters on the runes themselves are nicely paced, allowing students time for in depth study and exploration. She offers exhaustive advice in the construction of a personal rune set, and does not hesitate in discussing the traditional methods of consecration. I particularly like the inclusion of the Goddess Erda (the Earth) in thanks for providing the raw materials (i.e. wood or bone or stone) to craft the runes, in the suggested prayers for consecration. The ritual of naming itself is fairly standard Western magical practice, and many of the rituals in the book draw heavily on Neo-Pagan ritual style.
That is, in fact, my only serious objection to the book: many of the rituals seem simplistic to me, though such an open structure does allow for the individual to personalize and flesh them out. They are useful, and I suppose one might say that the intensity of any ritual lies in the focus and intent of those enacting it. I suspect that many will find these rituals quite useful as a further means of internalizing the runes. They are presented separately from the bulk of the information on the runes, after the more scholarly work, and this layout was both useful and fitting.
Each chapter on the runes themselves begins with the traditional rune poems, and I was pleased to note that Paxson provides not only a translation of the poems but the original Anglo Saxon, Norwegian, and Icelandic as well. Throughout each chapter, she makes constant references to various important Eddic stories, Saga references, elements of leechcraft, and points of lore, demonstrating the way in which the runes themselves were inextricably interconnected to the spirituality, culture, language, and society of the Norse and Germanic peoples. The reader comes away, almost effortlessly, with a fairly thorough understanding of the important tales and sacred lore all necessary to put the more esoteric knowledge gleaned through such study into active practice.
Though I found the Neo-Pagan approach evident in some of the charms disconcerting at times, the chapters on the runes were a sheer pleasure to read simply due to the varied depth of the material provided. The chapter on the rune Thurisaz for example, doesn’t just cull information from the three rune poems, but references Beowulf, an obscure paper written by scholar Stephen Glosecki (whose book Shamanism and Old English Poetry is a treasure), the Skirnismal (from the “Poetic Edda”) and with the following rune, Ansuz, not only are Norse influences examined but possible Celtic influences (such as the parallels between the Celtic battle Goddess Morriga'n and the Nordic Valkyries) are also explored.
Elsewhere in the text, we find references to the works of C. S. Lewis and Mircea Eliade, as well as modern Heathen theologians and scholars. Paxson even examines the etymology of Norse and Anglo Saxon words relating to various types of magic, sorcery, and rune workings, providing yet another key to fully understanding Heathen magico-religious practice. Furthermore, throughout the book, in both the runic study and rituals alike, Odin’s influence reigns supreme. One is never allowed to forget from whence the runes, as esoteric keys of knowledge and power, sprung.
Paxson’s devotion to the Heathen Gods shines through the text beautifully as does her comprehensive knowledge of Heathen literature and lore. Her chapter on the rune Perthro is frankly brilliant in its insight into this most troublesome rune. The division of each runic chapter into "ancient meanings" followed by "modern meanings" should prove very helpful to the reader’s own exploration. It was clear, effective, and did not muddy the waters between ancient lore and modern interpretation and insight.
This leaves a great deal of room for personal gnosis without diminishing the necessity of a thorough grounding in ancient wisdom. Readers will also be exposed to various ways of honoring the ancestors and landvaettir (land spirits), a necessary, foundational step to any spiritual or magical practice amongst the Norse. It is a fitting gift to the Rider of the Tree, to Whom the book is dedicated. I recommend it.
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #42
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