Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Northern Magic: Rune Mysteries and Shamanism
Book Review: Northern Magic: Rune Mysteries and Shamanism by Edred Thorsson (Llewellyn Publications 1992, 1998)
This is a good book, easy to read, and to the point. The introductory parts were a little slow and I thought perhaps the whole book would be like that but not so. I quite enjoyed the book. Thorsson details the Germanic magickal tradition and history pretty well considering the meager literary sources which are mostly sagas and poetical works. So in some ways he deciphers traditions and fits them in with other traditional magickal systems, which happens when ethnic traditions are re-constructed. Of course, as in Celtic lore there is a living tradition that continues in the descendents of those people even after they have long since moved away from their homelands. In fact, the various Germanic and Celtic tribes moved around quite a bit, some being displaced from one end of Europe to the other.
Thorsson notes that the traditions associated with Odin/Wotan/Woden survived better than others perhaps due to the connection of Odin to various royal houses, as several are said to descend from Odin. The traditions associated with the fertility and love goddess Freyja he says were reviled and deliberately destroyed by Christian missionaries – due to the erotic nature of her magical poetry and songs. These are the main deities associated with magic.
He gives the three great branches of the northern way as Troth, Rune-Galdor, and Seith. Troth has to due with keeping a code of honor often bound to that of one’s ancestors. Loyalty, honor, and truthfulness are seen to bring blessings and ritual is based on these ideals. Rune-galdor is the magic of Odin. Odin’s magic involves ecstasy, inspiration, and deep wisdom. Rune-casting and the charging of magical sigils are typical methods. Seith is said to be Freyja’s magic. Divination in seith is by soothsaying and it is involved with bodily ecstasy of shamanic trance states. All three methods can be used by the aspiring vitki, or wise one.
He presents the Nine Worlds of Yggdrasill as consciousness, balance, intellect, icy energy, Earth, fiery energy, motion, emotion, and unconscious. The soul also is made up of several components such as body, appearance, breath, inspiration, mind, personal memory, collective memory, heart, will, and acquired magical faculties. Also there is one’s personal luck, or hamingja. Magic can strengthen these soul components and link them with the worlds. Interestingly both the worlds and the soul components are seen symbolically as trees. The word for stick of wood is “stave” and the runes are called staves. “The rune-staves are literally and symbolically the bridge between the inner tree of the soul and the outer tree of the world- both of which are modeled on the Yggdrasill pattern.”
Next he goes through the traditional Norse deities of the Aesir – Odin, Tyr, Thor, Frigga – and the Vanir – Freyja, Freyr, Njordhr – and the other deities. He also lists their runic names which is a nice feature. He notes the qualities and features of the gods.
He gives Troth as loyalty to the gods, one’s ancestors, and their traditions. So in essence anyone who practices this loyalty and adherence to the traditions in an authentic way practices Troth. He mentions the idea of a spiritual path being encoded genetically into a people. While this may be so to a certain extent I think it can be dangerous to attach specifically ethnic requirements to a spiritual practice especially in regards to one’s degree of authenticity – full blood, half blood, etc. “The Gods and Goddesses of the North are the archetypes of the folk to which they belong.” The only question I would ask is if a person is unsure of their ethnicity or if they later find out that their ethnicity is different than they thought – does that invalidate or weaken their connection to these archetypes? Even Plato spoke of the dangers of ancestral pride. That being said – it still is a reasonable concept – although gods and cultures certainly overlapped and mixed and there is a cultural component as well as a genetic component to archetypes.
He goes through the Wheel of the Year and some basic ritual structure one might use. I like some of his ideas here. He gives sequence examples where there is hallowing – making sacred/setting apart; reading (of a mystical text); rede – linking the ritual to the mythic pattern; call – invitation/invocation of deities; loading – charging the sacred drink by pouring it into the sacred vessel; drinking – imbibing the eucharistic liquid (saving some for the bowl); blessing - sprinkling the altar with the charged liquid with evergreen bough; giving – giving back to divinity/nature by pouring some of the charged liquid to the ground; leaving – closing the rite and returning to normal space-time.
He talks about the Younger Futhark (the 16 runes distilled and used by the Vikings from the earlier 24 runes used in the Elder Futhark) – as being the esoteric runic mystery system of the Vikings – noblemen and cohorts who traveled to trade and raid. He talks about the Rune as symbol-glyph that represents the mystery of language and knowledge itself, especially the quest of seeking knowledge: “The power of the Rune lies in its ability to spur seekers onward.” He says that every rune has three aspects: a sound (song), a stave (shape), and a rune (hidden lore). The lore, shapes, names, order, phonetic sounds, etc are all important to their meanings both as language and divinatory magic.
He then goes through each of the younger futhark runes giving their lore from two sources: The Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme and the The Old Icelandic Rune Poem, and further short commentary on each.
He gives some good advice on connecting with the runes in depth by spending time meditating with each one in order to discover their secrets and natures. Man bonding with symbol – a very tried and true magickal consecration method. Then he covers rune-risting, or the carving of runes, with the goal of transforming the runes into true taufr, or talismanic forces. He goes as well through rune-casting. One method of interest is the calling on of the Nornic forces – entreating the three fate norns to reveal. One may here call on the three Norns: Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld. He also goes through layout methods: an eightfold wheel method, a three-fold nornic method, and a nine-fold method called the Valknutr that also keeps the three-fold nornic method.
Regarding the risting of runes into a taufr, or talisman, he gives a ritual structure, or sequence to this sigil, or talismanic magic: hallowing – making sacred/setting apart; risting – carving the rune on wood while – rowning – or singing the names of each rune being carved; reddening – using red pigment to highlight the rune as part of the risting; loading – visualizing the intended result of the rite; fastening – linking the loading energy to the rune object in the form of circling with wand or finger; hiding – concealing the talisman to let it do its work on the hidden levels of reality; leaving – closing the rite. He also offers ways to dispose of the talisman after its orlog, or destiny has been fulfilled – its task performed. He also notes that runes were carved against the grain of wood – a task made easier by the runes having no perpendicular lines.
Next we come to the fascinating subject of the Icelandic Galdor-Staves. These are sometimes made of complex runic combinations referred to as bind-runes. He goes through some of the history of this form of rune-sigil magic. Apparently one book of galdor magic survived – The Galdrabok. There were other named legendary books as well – one is said to have been buried with the Icelandic Bishop Gottskalk (d.1520), a famous galdor mage. Other famed Icelandic mages were Seamunder the Wise (1056-133) and his sister Holla. So in Iceland the old heathen lore was kept alive more so than in other places after conversion to Christianity.
He gives three types of galdor-staves: helms of awe, magical signs, and magical staves. The helm of awe is a complex cross pattern with forked or tridented ends. It has an interesting mythic past as the hero Sigurd brought the helm of awe, or helm of terror, from among the treasures of the serpent-dragon Fafnir, after he slew him. It is associated with flow of power and sometimes also with return of power. He mentions it as having to do with the power of a serpent to paralyze its prey and his gives a route ensuing from the forehead of the mage. Among the stave structures he gives a three-fold pattern of inner ring of core, middle ring of subjective universe, and outer ring of objective universe – with different runic forms given to distribute, trap, or reverse power flow. Regarding magical signs he notes that they were perhaps more complex patterns worked up in a tradition of mages with intuitive meanings. The magical staves are also called bind-runes and are combinations of more than one rune into one by certain regular patterns so that perhaps the true intentions of the magical meanings could be concealed – concealed from others but also concealed from the conscious mind. Writing runes on paper rather than carving them allows more stylization in this method. He compares them to Indian yantras and Voodoo veves. He also mentions the sigilization method of the Englishman Austin Osman Spare in the early 20th century. It seems quite likely to me that Spare got a good part of his method from this Icelandic Galdor-Stave magick, although he certainly added a powerful and unique twist. He gives some nice examples of completed galdor-staves for various purposes, some from the Galdrabok.
Next chapter is equally fascinating dealing with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs which are a similar form of sigil magick – often used and developed by Germanic country folk who migrated to America early in its history and concentrated in rural areas of particularly SE Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. Today these signs can often be seen on barns. The Hexenmeisters and brauchers were the mountain mages in these traditions. One famous woman was known as Mountain Mary (d. 1819). She was said to have an owl as a familiar. He goes through the various symbolism of the hex signs again utilizing the three zones of core, middle/subjective, and outer objective. All three, any two, or just one zone without divisions may be used. There are various imagery patterns (ie. scallops, zig-zags/chevrons) and specific symbols (ie. hearts, birds, various stars and flowers, etc.) used to denote various things. He gives some keys and lore to this symbolism. Indeed this type of imagery pattern symbolism may have been mankind’s first actual written language of sorts. According to some the Neolithic Danubian patterns of this sort may have developed into a script that later became the cuneiform of the Sumerians. Some hex sign symbolism examples are: the tulip refers to faith, the heart – love, the four-pointed earth star = harmony and stability, the eagle = strength and courage, the oak leaf = masculine qualities and vitality, acorns = masculine sexuality, rooster = spiritual vigilance, raindrop = nourishment, lightning bolt = destructive forces – or cursing, pomegranates = prosperity/fertility/happiness, grapes = female fertility, clover = modesty. There are also color-meanings which are fairly intuitive. Another symbol is that of a bird called the distelfink which represents good fortune. He gives several examples of the hex signs with what colors are traditionally used and where they should be displayed.
Next there is an interesting chapter on Seith magic. This is the magick associated with the Vanic Goddess Freyja who is said to have taught it to Odin. This is the magick of soothsaying – very shamanic in type. It was said to be the magick of farmers, herders, smiths, and craftsman – the folk of the land – and particularly of sage women. He mentions trance, slumber, and rhythm as methods of inducing seith magick. In this magic the analytical mind (as utilized in rune magick) is given over to the clairvoyant mind. He notes that it has similarities to channeling and spiritualism. He gives some interesting ideas for developing seithing qualities – such as utilizing natural substances as aids as in gathering the six things, three mineral and three vegetable: he gives an example of lodestone, quartz crystal, and piece of granite; and branch of evergreen, acorn, and leek. The idea is to meditate in order to merge with the energies of these substances. Then one seeks to travel beyond Midgardh – the earth realm, in order to communicate with beyond-human intelligences. Next he gives a method of Sitting Out, or Vision Quest (utiseta) where one communes with nature in a more intense fashion in order to commune with one’s fetch, or guardian spirit. He compares this seith method with both the Native American style Vision Quest and the Hermetic/Hebrew ceremonial magick method of Knowledge and Communication with one’s Holy guardian Angel from the Western Esoteric tradition. He gives patterns for rites that one may use in such quests.
The last couple chapters are quite interesting as he talks about “The Germanic Role in the Western (Magickal) Tradition.” Here he considers the very significant Germanic component of Renaissance Magick – particularlt thta associated with Rosicrucianism and Alchemy and its Lore. Many famed German mages are noted: Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) whose book – On Occult Philosophy – is an enormous influence, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) – an early German mystic, and Paracelsus (1493-1541) – known as a scientifically minded occultist. He surveys the Faust myth – that of the mage coming to terms with power by selling his soul to the devil – or risking death for knowledge/power. He notes that this is a definite “dark power” archetype of the Western magician and he compares this pattern to that of Odin himself questing for runic knowledge.
Beyond the Renaissance into the modern magickal revivals of 19th century romanticism and emergence of magickal orders like the Golden Dawn in England he notes the Germanic influence there. The Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) emerged from German mages to the influence of the famed Aleister Crowley. Another related Germanic order of Thelemic type is the Fraternity of Saturn said to have been founded in the 1920’s.
Finally, he gives more history and lore of Germanic magic and various modern revivals and a history of sorts of Germanic nationalism – or a search by Germanic peoples for a heritage as deep and vast as that of the Greek/Roman/Christian complex that these tribal folk souls got absorbed into. Much of those who kept old lore were in high places – kings and their advisors as well as a few Catholic Bishops. Johannes Magnus (Swedish) and Bureas (Danish) were among the Christian Teutonic Gothics of the 1600’s. Germanic romanticism began in earnest in the early 1800’s where the search for uniquely German lore became more widespread. The mythology and fairy tales of the brother Grimm were a part of this movement. Of course, the Nazis ended up perverting such nationalistic notions into a totalitarian fanaticism of sorts but before such distortions things were probably more like an authentic quest for knowledge.
Anyway – this is a great book – quite rich in history, lore, and technique.