Rune Wednesday (belatedly): Book Review – Gods of the Runes by Frank Joseph

I came upon this book while browsing the newest offerings at our fabulous Eugene public library–something I make a point of doing periodically because you just never know when you’re going to come across something amazing that you otherwise wouldn’t have known even existed.

Unfortunately, I pretty much knew as soon as I saw the book that it was not going to be one of those amazing finds.   New rune books are mostly disappointing, especially when–like this one–they’re based on some dramatically different theory of the runes, and then proceed to bend all of the established facts, along with the insights of all previous rune authors, to fit that theory, no matter how poor the fit.  Yet I generally can’t stop myself from taking a look at these kinds of books anyway.  (I know, it’s a sickness. At least I don’t always have to buy them anymore.)

The author’s idiosyncratic take on the runes is heavily influenced by Guido von List and his Armanen rune system, as well as the (ahem) scholarship of Marija Gambutas, famed for her vision of a prehistoric, stone age matriarchal goddess-worshipping culture from which modern Wicca is directly descended. This theory applied to the runes leads Joseph to spin a scenario that the runes date back to the shamanic cave-painting cultures of Neolithic western Europe, and that the Vanir were the peace-loving matriarchal peoples subsumed by the warlike patriarchal Aesir.  So far we’ve heard all of this before–and it isn’t the part of Joseph’s runic vision that’s hardest to swallow, believe it or not.

Basing his conjectures on the discovery of a rune staff in Sweden that purportedly draws connections between some of the runes and some of the northern gods (Joseph is vague about which runes and which gods are actually involved, but somehow I doubt that the staff specifies the complete system he outlines here), Joseph proceeds to assign a god to each rune of the Elder Futhark, claiming that the rune names we’re all familiar with (you know, Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, etc.) were devised as code words by Christians during the middle ages in order to dilute the power of the runes and distract attention from the Norse gods.

Now, it isn’t so outlandish to suggest that some of the gods are closely associated with particular runes, and Joseph’s system does preserve the already long-established connections between Odin and Ansuz, or Tyr and Tiwaz, for example.  In most cases, however, the assignments seem to have been made purely on the strength of the first letter of the deity’s name.   (For example, Frigga gets Fehu, Heimdall’s rune is Hagalaz, and Idunna’s is Isa.)  For purposes of illustration (and because many of these assignments make absolutely no sense on their own), Joseph tells a brief story for each rune that is meant to explain the connection between the god and the rune, followed by a profile of the rune’s correspondences, meanings in divination, and place in the “Norse zodiac.”  (Um.)

In some cases, the illustrative stories are from the known lore…sort of.  Frija‘s tale deals with how the Lombards got their name, and Balder’s with the events of His betrayal and death.  In Odin’s case, Joseph writes about His sacrifice of an eye to Mimir’s Well, after which He sits down and fashions a rune staff using His newfound wisdom, and Thor then helpfully tops the staff with a spearhead because “the best scepters are always spears.”  To top it all off, Frija screams when she finally notices His missing eye.  (Yup.  Because, as anyone knows who has met the northern gods, or has even read any of the Icelandic sagas, those Norse goddesses are definitely prone to fits of hysteria.)  Joseph seems to have decided that the story of Odin’s self-sacrifice on Yggdrasil is overly influenced by Christianity and thus suspect, and he omits it here.  Many of the other tales are completely made up and barely even involve the named gods at all, such as the one about Eir as the wolf mother patroness of an oppressed people, or how Freyja (Mardal-Freyja here, to enable Joseph to assign Her the M rune) brought the love of a princess to a fisherman who went on the become the Fisher King.  (Huh?  What were we saying about Christian influences?)

Much as I hesitate to level overly harsh criticism at someone who has (according to the bibliography, at any rate) done some of his research using German texts, and thus possibly has access to information that I (as a non-German speaker) have no way of verifying, much of this seems very, very far-fetched and also besides the point, since there is no lack of equally appropriate and illustrative stories he could have called on that actually are in the lore.  As my partner commented when I complained about these tales to her, there’s nothing wrong with making up stories to help yourself understand complex concepts such as the runes, but do you really have to share them with the general public?

I’m always on the lookout for new rune books, no matter how disappointing they tend to be, and I really, really wanted to like this one.  But unfortunately Joseph is just plainly wrong on too many points (such as the peace-loving matriarchy of the Vanir).  Thus, even if his main theory about the connections between the gods and the runes were  sound (which I doubt), it would be hard to accept it, and his arguments could have been demonstrated much more effectively if he had stuck closer to the lore instead of branching off so widely.  Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this one (although there is some nice artwork depicting the gods with their runes).

If you’re new to the runes stay far, far away from this book; there’s too much here to confuse and mislead you.  Coming up next Wednesday: a list of rune books I can recommend.

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2 thoughts on “Rune Wednesday (belatedly): Book Review – Gods of the Runes by Frank Joseph”

  1. Haha as I was reading this I was thinking “I wonder if she could recommend any good books on the Runes for a beginner” and then at the end of this post, you mention that next Wednesday you’re going to do just that! 😀

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