Who remembers the rune craze during the 1980s? Maybe JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy novels, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954), deserve some blame, or maybe it was just part of a boom in oracular kits, a merging of the new-age fetish for divinatory tools with surging capitalistic commodification.
I forget who gave me my first set of runes, a bag of 25 mass-produced ceramic tiles – 24 marked with symbols, one blank – and a small maroon hardback handbook containing a commentary by Ralph Blum, a market-savvy Harvard graduate. Not that I cared about his credentials. And the runes, as he presented them, seemed best suited to Yes/No questions. But that’s ancient history. So where was I going with this?
In a former life I used to teach divination techniques. It was just an expedient sideline; my business was astrology (which some experts validly call divination, though in those days I denied it) – but where does the logic of horoscopes end and the art of divination begin? Somehow I found myself reading cards at weekend markets, then doing longer consultations at home, then teaching tarot classes. Some astrologers think what they do is more logical than riffing on random spreads of cards or coins or tea-leaves, and I agree. But astrology charts and tarot cards share certain basic features that also pertain to runes, and I wasn’t elitist. So I offered a workshop on runes, having explored them exhaustively while studying various sources, and a rune maker who answered my ad asked if I’d accept handcrafted runes as payment. Faced with the prospect of teaching a student whose knowledge exceeded mine, I panicked. Not for the first time, I felt like a fraud. Yet how could I turn him away? And at the end of the day he thanked me; he’d learned something new.
One way in which astrology can offer fresh perspectives is that most things you can think of possess planetary correspondences. Presumably Blum discovered the latter when he began to bone up on runes, prior to producing his wildly profitable guide. Early in The Book of Runes (1982) he describes how he arrived at his insights:
Despite the blow-by-blow detail, Blum’s account is incomplete. He does refer to ‘copying down what came to me’ – but did it leap off his shelves? Because, besides the I Ching, he also consulted an astrological text: Relating (1978) by Liz Greene, published four years before The Book of Runes first appeared.
Though the examples listed below aren’t the only ones I noticed, they do expose Blum’s process as less intuitive and more derivative than it seems he cared to admit. The relevant lines from Relating follow those from The Book of Runes:
… in mythology a strange and androgynous figure who possesses the keys to knowledge and who carries messages to and fro between the gods and between gods and men. Mercury […] is primarily the symbol of the urge to understand, to integrate unconscious motive with conscious recognition (Greene, pp. 36–37).
While Blum links the abovementioned rune, Ansuz, with the trickster god Loki, more reliable sources say that Ansuz translates to invocations of the great god who created the runes, Odin.
… life, because it is ceaselessly changing, inevitably outgrows every form, which in turn must die so that life can be released into a new birth, and into a new form (Greene, p. 48).
Blum doesn’t quite quote Greene verbatim; he tends to personalise and simplify her wording, a sound formula for the mass market…
There is always rebirth after death, and the new form is always greater than the old; but when put to the test, the majority of individuals do not believe this, and feel they have irretrievably lost something. Usually it is some thing (or someone) to whom there is an intense emotional bond, and through which, in some way, the individual is living a part of his life – a part that should be retrieved so that he can live it out for himself. In some way the bond is lost, the relationship changed, and there is the experience of a death. And if one seeks, among these ashes he will find a new perspective and a new birth (Greene, p. 49).
These last two excerpts of Blum’s, cherry-picked from Greene’s notes on Pluto, link Uruz (better known as Ur) to the dwarf planet discovered in 1930. Yet the runes date from a time when only five planets were known: those visible, along with the sun and the moon, to the naked eye, hence the seven days of the week bear their names. (Recall the TV series American Gods, in which Mr Wednesday, played by Ian McShane, is revealed as Odin.)
… Saturn is the great teacher, disguised as the bringer of pain and limitation, for it is only at the point of darkness and decay – which the alchemists called the nigredo or the Caput Mortuum, The Dead Head, the first stage of the alchemical work – that we become aware of the Other within us, the true creative power of the Self (Greene, p. 42).
As Blum concedes, It has been said. But why deny Greene credit?
The moon portrays the urge to sink oneself into the experience of living, without having to evaluate or understand the experience; it also symbolises the urge for comfort, and for the satisfaction of emotional needs. While the sun strives for differentiation, the moon strives for relationship and merging of identity (Greene, pp. 33–34).
Blum seems to think that unity and relationship are synonyms or interchangeable concepts. But unity can mean different things, one of which is singleness.
It is the harmonious integration of these two symbols which the alchemists described in their coniunctio or sacred marriage, and which in fairy tales is the end of the story, the hero and his beloved living happily ever after (Greene, p. 36).
The two symbols Greene refers to are the sun and the moon. Blum errs in associating a moon-ruled rune with the idea of union. Was he overtired from sitting up all night? As he says on page 24, ‘It was a warm summer evening and I couldn’t sleep, so I went to my study and began rearranging books.’
In the individual chart, Uranus, the first god of the heavens and the spirit, seems to personify the need within the psyche to break free of identification with material reality and to experience the world of archetypal mind. So in traditional astrology Uranus is said to symbolise the urge for change, for freedom, for invention and liberation […] It appears to come back to the individual as a sudden event emanating from “without” which rips away the fabric of what he has previously identified as his reality (Greene, p. 43)…
With the discovery of the outer planets thanks to technology, astrologers had to update their system of planetary rulerships. But these recent inclusions don’t negate the usefulness of the old rulers. Intent on updating the runes, Blum misses the affinity between the meanings of Hagalaz (Hagal/Haegl) and Saturn.
Neptunian “events” are generally those that entangle the individual in a situation to whose implications he is in some way blind. In consequence, he finds himself powerless at a certain point to do anything except sacrifice some long-cherished desire (Greene, p. 47).
And I could list more examples. For instance, Blum parrots Greene on Venus–Mars, but attributes these qualities to the moon. His cut-up method of generating content seems a poor substitute for deep or scholarly knowledge of runes. Yet perhaps he offers a tacit confession in the afterword:
If Blum’s suggestive interpretations have resonated with countless seekers who, propelled by some burning question, have turned to his text for help, then maybe Greene, a Jungian psychologist and scholar, deserves some acknowledgement? In fact, Blum cites her seminal text in a list of ‘GUIDES TO THE TRANSFORMATIONAL PROCESS’ near the back of a later edition, if not in the bibliography. Still, I can’t help wondering what other authors he borrowed from.
One of the oft-discussed features of the mental disorder called schizophrenia is an extreme preoccupation with meaning. In a society increasingly suffering from the malaise of meaninglessness – a sense that something is missing exploited by a vast range of purveyors of books, DVDs, workshops, courses, retreats, spiritual tourism and more – the pathologising of failure to monetise a sense of meaning may itself be symptomatic of a collective disorder.
A sense of meaning tends to emerge when we see connections between things. Symbols and signs hold meaning only to the extent that they point to or represent something else. Some meanings, such as those represented by $$, remain constant compared to, say, the underrated significance of mass extinction.
With the rise of science, or rationalism, many old systems of meaning (e.g., astrology) have lost their former status. What once was plain to see (e.g., planetary line-ups, eclipses etc.) has been displaced by increasingly mediated, specialised, theoretical research. And with the explosion of data attending each new discovery, today’s info overload alongside heated debate about how to tackle global warming, and other such threats to life as we know it, has fostered an atmosphere of fragmentation.
It’s a case of TMI, whether from too many sources or from only one but strategically distorted, and often presented in simplistic terms or disconnected from context. Bombarded by input 24/7, we often struggle to discriminate between real and fake news, truth and spin. We’ve never had access to more facts and on such a massive scale, yet much of what we learn leads to confusion. We overdose on factoids then seek yet more distraction. In a consumerist age where such notions as an all-seeing God and an orderly cosmos are outmoded, we’re shoppers trying on a range of options for restoring meaning. Imagine the appeal of a package that promises to simplify and demystify how our universe works. What if Einstein got it all wrong?
But in a world where packaging counts for more than content, basic psychology might trump a PhD in physics if you want to sell an alternative cosmology. The meteoric development of science and high tech in recent decades has caused many to fear – or experience – redundancy. No wonder some turn to YouTube, where both experts and cranks can share their views and news, subject to their Google ranking. Online, for instance, flat-earthers and those compelled to convince them that Earth is round can engage in a virtual shouting match on a level playing field. Like democratic votes, hits decide whose theory rules.
In the early ’90s I read a book called Worlds in Collision (1950) by a Freudian shrink, Immanuel Velikovsky, whose highly creative synthesis of analytic theory and ancient myth put a new spin on the history of our solar system. Supposedly, catastrophic events described in the Old Testament and the myths of ancient cultures, Eastern and Western, had been repressed at the collective level. So the human race needed to face the truth – overcome our species’ amnesia – to avert nuclear doom and realise world peace. His ideas had such an impact on the ’60s and ’70s counterculture that some of his acolytes never outgrew them, but continued the work of their guru, disseminating their findings online, soliciting crowdfunding for research… So his vision lives on in The Thunderbolts Project, whose founders are senior citizens now. And what most struck me about a YouTube presentation by one, electric universe theorist, Wal Thornhill, was his pre-emptive introduction:
McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, sure looks more thoroughly researched than Thornhill’s ‘epic story’, though what follows Thornhill’s induction (forgive the electrical pun) went over my head. I can’t actually prove that Earth never orbited Saturn – but his loose logic arouses suspicion. (Take this random example of ‘what to a non-expert may seem obvious’: ‘In reality… the horizon will always be at eye level no matter how high you go! No curvature will be seen.’ Obvious until surveying instruments confuse the issue.) Nor could I make sense of Thornhill’s concluding warning:
Do such platitudes encourage one ‘to critically examine’ Thornhill’s ideas? And as Jung’s genius didn’t extend to physics, what does his warning, or Velikovsky’s, have to do with the price of fish? For all their brilliance, Thornhill’s heroes (shrinks, including McGilchrist) aren’t scientists – and Thornhill’s conclusion has nothing to do with the physical universe. He promises something less tangible than knowledge – salvation from fear, despair, aloneness and emptiness. In a society characterised by left-hemisphere dominance, such feelings are epidemic. But mightn’t the opposite blind us to category mistakes?
The height of Velikovsky’s fame came late. A celebrity in his 70s, he inspired students and outsiders all over America with his heresies. Accused by others of delusions of grandeur, he lacked the humility essential to the work of a historian – variations in translation, selective revisions over millennia and the subjectivity of memory, among other issues, render all historical accounts provisional. His faith in biblical history, though, led Velikovsky, trained as a shrink, to radically rethink other disciplines (e.g., physics and astronomy, a far cry from theories of the unconscious). And yet, unsatisfied with cult status as an anti-establishment hero, he never ceased chasing mainstream acceptance for his ideas.
Has anyone else noticed a growing trend towards novels titled The Something-or-other’s Daughter? Apparently they have. Lists abound. Mine, a short one, includes The Astrologer’s Daughter (2014), The Botanist’s Daughter (2018) and The Clockmaker’s Daughter (2018).
According to Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, publishers may be behind these unoriginal titles. She asks a favourite bookseller who says readers buy what’s familiar. And indeed, these titles typically feature traditional jobs – no AI engineers or data scientists. The only one I’ve read is The Ringmaster’s Daughter (2001) by Jostein Gaarder, a twisted tale of unwitting incest from a male perspective. (Yawn.)
Personally, I’m tired of patriarchal narratives: these titles perpetuate the anonymity of women. And historically, ‘daughter’ carries baggage to do with being someone’s property, a chattel to be married for political and/or financial advantage.
Preferring to be identified by my profession, like the fictional parents of all these fictional females, I’ve rarely thought of myself as a daughter. A word that implies relatedness in the sense of belonging to anyone, irrespective of gender, feels loaded to me. Styled by my mother as a smaller version of herself, I sought my own identity through rebellion. By age three, I’d become ‘a real handful’ and she panicked. Diagnosed as agoraphobic, medicated on Librium, she took her doctor’s advice to find a hobby. And for the next few decades she sewed countless items of clothing, curtains, cushion covers, dachshund doorstops etc., hiding humble objects like toilet seats and boxes of tissues inside pastel padded quilting and frills.
Also covered up, I’ve since learned, was her conception out of wedlock (her parents had married just four months before her birth) and her brother’s illegitimate daughter when he was nineteen. His fiancée sued him for breach of promise and his mother, who paid the price, kept the receipt. When I discovered it I knew what it pertained to because my formerly secret cousin had told me. I’d learned about her after answering a letter from a second cousin, which I’d found among reams of overlooked mail my mother had hoarded for decades.
Anyway, culling my mother’s possessions has led me to reflect on why so much female creativity should be devoted to decorating – covering up – manmade inventions, something I never used to question. My mother encouraged me from an early age to master knitting. Then came crochet, macramé, copper enamelling, origami… But each of these hobbies soon bored me; riding a horse or even a skateboard would have been far more rewarding.
On leaving school, I explored more exciting ways to kill time than making Afghan rugs, cloche hats and toe socks while watching TV. Handicrafts existed to keep restless girls like me out of trouble, out of touch with real-world issues, safely out of sight – too sheltered to develop courage, strength or an intellect. Patience? To the extent that repetition is trance inducing, these pastimes may be a form of meditation. But the fruit of any truly spiritual practice isn’t as tangible as a beaded belt or a woollen tank top. Besides, why bother when technology was churning out blouses, trousers and knitwear much faster and more cheaply than my mother could make them by hand?
The thing was, these pursuits not only quietened her anxiety; they connected her to a local social sewing circle of women who eventually became her friends for life. One of these friends even met my illegitimate cousin’s father during a holiday in Bali – providing photos of him and his family that fill a chronological gap.
But what my mother didn’t consider, as she steered me towards domesticity, was that my peers had other interests. So I knitted, knotted and crocheted in solitude until art school offered escape. I moved out of home at the first opportunity, which on a student allowance meant a tiny room in a huge share house. Suddenly my social life and world view expanded. And the more I craved travel, the less I wanted to own things that wouldn’t fit in a backpack. What mattered were skills like improvising meals at short notice for hordes of people – resourcefulness and flexibility, not dependence on patterns. Loath to be seen in a hand-knitted scarf or beanie, I bought boho clothes from op shops, while my mother stored my cast-offs in plastic bags with mothballs.
Last month a bric-a-brac dealer came to pick through family heirlooms and rubbish (now my widowed mother’s confined to a small shared room with only one cupboard – the sort of place you can land when you abandon normal hygiene standards and neglect to answer your phone and front door). And the first dealer gave my number to a second – who turned out to be a woman I’d lived with in that huge share house. Hunting through the mess in search of retro treasures, my former housemate stumbled on a stash of child-sized crocheted clothes. As she started to laugh, I cringed with shame. But, ‘I like these!’ she said, and added them to her haul. I never let on who’d made them.
One early sign of my mother’s decline was her loss of interest in such activities. Sewing got sidelined while she nursed her dying husband, to be resumed after his death – but without conviction. And as time passed, and her depression didn’t, unfinished garments stuck full of pins piled up. She couldn’t imagine herself as other than a wife (and a mother): defined by her relationship – of necessity – to loved ones. Meanwhile her sewing circle dispersed, to aged care and beyond, leaving her alone. And finally I was left to dispose of the hundreds of out-of-date handmade tops, pants, skirts, frocks, jackets and jumpers she’d refused to sell or donate during the 14 years that much of it lay untouched in musty cupboards.
On my parents’ vintage cane bookshelf I found Catherine Gaskin’s Daughter of the House (1952) and A Daughter of the Land (1918) by Gene Stratton-Porter – ‘daughter’ has featured in book titles for a long time. But even now, where are the titles referring to men as belonging to women? (The Lap Dancer’s Son; The Checkout Chick’s Husband; The Romance Novelist’s Uncle…?) Apparently they exist. Yet one comprehensive commentary notes that males are less likely to be defined by their relationships.