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.