On 'What Is A Rune?'

Originally published at Jack-Donovan.com

As a lifetime “non-believer” who has been delving into Germanic heathen worldviews and traditions for the past year or so, Collin Cleary’s What is a Rune? pulled a few ideas together for me at the right time, introduced some evocative concepts that I’d like to revisit in visual art, and inspired some new questions. I’m certain I’ll come back to the book and re-read portions of these essays again and again over the coming years, but I thought I’d post some initial personal reactions, as I know many of my readers are interested — either intensely or casually — in Germanic paganism.

I concentrated on the essays that were particularly relevant to my own interests — also the first four essays of the book. (“What is a Rune?,” The Fourfold,” “The Ninefold,” and “The Gifts of Odin and his Brothers.”) As Greg Johnson mentioned in his introduction to Cleary’s philosophy, they build on his discussion of achieving an “openness to the gods,” from his earlier work, Summoning the Gods “What is a Rune?” presents a tighter, more accessible and more definitive handling of this line of thought.

For me, Cleary is building on an idea that first struck me while reading Thomas Carlyle’s essay, “The Hero as Divinity” from On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. For our ancestors, the world was a more magical place.

Lightning, for instance, wasn’t something you learned about in school or from a photograph — it was real and immediate and alive and they saw it with wonder the way children experience it before they are taught a story about what lightning “is” to modern men. Modern men think of these things as ideas, first, but our ancestorsknew things intimately. A grown man would not simply see a tree and identify it against a field handbook of trees, he’d know it. He’d know how it would burn, how to use its wood, its bark, its fruit and seeds and sap. He’d know how it would grow and how it felt to be surrounded by that particular kind of tree in wooded silence.

It is not so difficult to see the world this way, once you’ve escaped the urban or suburban commerce-scape.

It’s not hard to see “MOUNTAIN” as alive and magical when you’re on one, and it’s easy to stop thinking of “FIRE” as a chemical reaction when you’re sitting around a fire under the stars.

Like Carlyle, Cleary makes some fascinating points about what he calls the “numinousness” of the world before it was “explained” by science. In fact, he makes a point that a “world” is not “earth,” but that it comes from the Old English  weorold, meaning “man-age.” Our weorold is defined by our perception and conceptualization of it, and understanding our ancestors means attempting to understand their weorold. Cleary wonders whether we can ever truly understand their world while living in the modern one, and says, perhaps wryly, that, “our hope lies in Ragnarok.”

This point reminds me a bit of arguments often made against the paleo diet — that we can never truly eat as our ancestors ate, because so much has changed in the world. Critics of paleo often imply that because one can’t exactly replicate the diets of our ancestors, the idea is foolish and presumably we should all just resign ourselves to a diet of Twinkies and Mountain Dew because that’s somehow more authentic to our time. Most serious paleo authors I’ve read have understood that we aren’t hunting aurochs anymore. The basic idea is to better approximate the macronutrient ratios of our ancestral diets (though there were many different ones) and stop eating so much processed plastic food synthesized more for profit than for human nourishment. That’s not so unreasonable.

And neither is aiming to approximate some of the ideas our ancestors and incorporate these ideas into the way we live our lives. Exact replication or reenactment would be asinine and masturbatory — at best a cute hobby. We are men living now and we can only be men living now, in our own weorold. The point is to use the past to inform the present, to live vital lives, inspired by the lives and ideas of our ancestors. This is not so unreasonable.

Cleary also writes about the importance of thinking mytho-poetically when interpreting the runes and stories of our ancestors. This comes easier to some than others — artists and musicians and filmmakers and writers of fiction think poetically already. However, one thing I would like to see Cleary explore in the future is the idea ofacting mythopoetically.

In one sense, we can do this, as I mentioned earlier, by getting out into what is left of nature and experiencing it away from modernity. Ponder Laguz while floating on a lake, while you’re experiencing it. Fish the lake. Boat it. Wade in it. Swim in it. Know it.

In another sense, isn’t a major motivation for performing ritual to act mythopoetically? Hasn’t the point of ritual in many religions been to leave behind the mundane and connect to something timeless and elemental? Modern men can use primal sounds and fire and blood to separate themselves mentally from the modern world and experience a mindset that is still full of magic and wonder. We can never, as Cleary points out, truly live in another age — nor should we try — but we can employ ritual to build a bridge of understanding that can inform and enrich the way we live today. To quote Cleary, “…dwelling in [that] world means poetically giving birth to the world itself,” and ritual is a means to use poetry and myth to birth — or one might say, “start” — a new world.

I know and have known many highly intelligent and creative men with an interest in ritual and the occult, and I’ve come in contact with a lot of total fruitcakes, but ritual and the occult seem to attract some particular kinds of thinkers. I’d like to read a thinker as lucid and methodical as Cleary delve into the idea of ritual as mythopoetic action, and could even envision a ritual drawing directly from his conceptualization of the Fourfold and Ninefold.

As I am still very much an entry-level student of Germanic mysticism or heathenry or whatever you’d like to call it, Cleary’s insights into the Fourfold and untangling of the Ninefold were enlightening, even exciting. The association of Muspelheim and Niflheim with solve and coagula, in particular, stood out, and I now link Niflheim not only with ice, but with serpents and retraction, pulling in and unification. Cleary offers similar oppositional concepts for the rest of the nine worlds, and his interpretations breathed a lot of life into them for me.

Since readers often write to ask for book recommendations, I’m going to include What is a Rune? on a short list of readings and lectures which I’ve found particularly helpful as introductions to Germanic heathenry, in a progression.

  1. Prose Edda
  2. Poetic Edda
  3. “The Hero as Divinity” from On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle
  4. “What is a Rune?” from What is a Rune?, Clear
  5. Reading the Past: Runes, R.I. Page (for non-mystical, historical context
  6. RuneloreEdred Thorsson
  7. Lecture: “The Children of Ash: Cosmology and the Viking Universe,” Neil Price (Youtube
  8. “Editorial Preface,” TYR 4, Buckle
  9. “The Fourfold” from What is a Rune?, Clear
  10. “The Ninefold” from What is a Rune?, Clear
  11. The Shape of the Soul: The Viking Mind and the Individual,” Neil Price (Youtube
  12. Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age,” Neil Price (Youtube
  13. The Road to Hel, Hilda Roderick Elli
  14. Barbarian Rites, Hans-Peter Hasenfrat
  15. “What God did Odin Worship?,” Summoning the Gods, Clear
  16. “What is Odinism?,” TYR 4, Cleary

This isn’t a meant to be a definitive list, as I haven’t read everything I want to read yet, but I think it will be helpful for others. Everything here was recommended to me by someone, so I’m just passing along the recommendations.

Finally, here’s a meme I created and shared around while reading these essays, from a passage I particularly liked about Odin. Please feel free to share it.