Last week, I promised to post some book suggestions for newcomers to the runes. And yet while looking over the large and diverse selection of rune-related material on my bookshelf a few minutes ago, I realized that there are really only a few titles I can wholeheartedly recommend for brand-newbies (or even relative newbies) to the runes.
Why is this? Because of something I touched on last week, in my review of Gods of the Runes: many rune authors (perhaps even most) have an approach that is somewhat individualistic at best,, wildly idiosyncratic at worst. In personal practice, there’s nothing at all wrong with this; in fact, the more you work with the runes, and the deeper and more intimate your understanding of them becomes, the more highly individual your approach is likely to be. For beginners, however, picking up one of these books is like (to use an example from the world of textiles) trying to spin an exotic art yarn before you’ve mastered the basics of a good solid worsted single. Without that foundation in place, without a solid grasp of the basics, how can you expect to judge what makes a good novelty yarn and what is just poorly executed and bound to fall apart with the first wash? To put this in runic terms again, if you don’t have a solid grounding in runic lore and haven’t explored the runes using your own intuition, how will you know when a so-called runic “expert” is inspired and advanced versus when they are misled or just plain wrong? Without that solid foundation, you don’t have the information needed to make that call.
So, start with the basics. At the risk of sounding like a lore-pusher (which those who know me will be aware is far from the truth), a good reading of the poetic and prose Eddas is a great place to start. You don’t have to be able to retell every story from memory or pass a lore test, but read these two volumes through at least once; they will give you a basic grasp of Scandinavian religion (which is, after all, the context of the runes) that will prove invaluable, and will prevent you from believing such statements as “Idunna discovered the runes and then Odin stole them from Her.” (Yes, I have seen one author who claims this. See what I mean about being able to read critically?) A bonus to this approach is that if you’re interested in runic magic at all, Odin’s recitation of the 18 charms in the Runatal section of the Havamal will get you started down that road nicely; why not go right to the source?
After the eddas, read the rune poems, at least the major three: the Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, and Norwegian. These correspond to the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Viking Futharks, respectively; unfortunately, there is no surviving poem for the Elder Futhark, although a few authors (notably Kveldulf Gundarsson) have made some pretty good efforts at reconstructing it, so you may want to take a look at some of these too. At least with the traditional rune poems, you may even want to memorize them, or at least come back every so often and read them again. (Whenever your memory of them starts to get a little wobbly.) The rune poems may not be the be-all and end-all of understanding the runes, but just like the eddas, they’re a damned good foundation. They tell us what the original cultures who used the runes thought they meant, and can help you begin to understand how runic concepts fit into and shaped those cultures on an everyday basis, which in turn is very helpful in beginning to see your own daily life through a runic lens.
Next, go to the runes themselves. Draw them, chant their names, see what images, colors, feelings, sounds, impressions come to you when you contemplate them or meditate on them. Ask yourself how the major concepts associated with each rune (as depicted in the rune poems) are reflected in your life, how those concepts relate to you. What can Fehu tell you about your livelihood, for example? What can Ansuz tell you about communication, or Algiz about protection, both mundane and magical? Spend some time living with the runes, playing with them, making them part of your life and consciousness. (I will discuss some ideas for doing this in future posts.)
Lastly, read a few books by some of the better modern rune authors. If you’ve taken the foregoing advice, you will start to develop an awareness, as you read, for what is solidly based on runic lore and tradition and what is derived from the author’s own opinons, inspirations, or UPG (unverified personal gnosis). The latter are not a bad thing (in fact, I hope you will already, by the time you reach this point in your studies, be in the process of forming some of your own), but you should at least be able to tell them from the former when you see them.
I recommmend starting with the following books, in order of preference:
Taking Up the Runes, by Diana Paxson. Diana, a long-time Heathen priestess, presents all the rune poems alongside her section for each rune, and she is very careful to separate conclusions derived from the lore from the individual interpretations of various rune authors, including her own. (The fact that she presents a roundup of these interpretations is a nice bonus, and can help you decide which books you may want to follow up with later on in your path, when you’ve developed your critical eye more fully). The guided meditations may or may not be your cup of mead, but there are abundant suggestions for working with the runes in magic, as well as sound guidelines for using them in divination.
The Runes Workbook, by Leon Wild. Wild’s background is in the Rune Gild, so his approach is somewhat different, however there is a lot of good beginning guidance here for galdor, meditations, and ways to bring the runes into your daily life, as well as gorgeous illustrations for each rune that bring out the major runic concepts.
The Way of the Runes, by Bernard King. King, a British author, introduces a few nuggets of information not covered in the other two books (such as the role of Ehwaz as a rune of confirmation, as derived from the Anglo-Saxon practice of horse divination), as well as an introduction to runic numerology, making your own runes and casting the runes, a format for runic magic based on the Havamal (I told you reading that would pay off), and an across-the-board grounding in the magical techniques and traditions of Northern Europe.
That ought to do it for starters. So, what are you still here for? Go on, you’ve got work to do!