Monday, November 26, 2012

Runes 102 - Book Review - The Book of Runes

Today, I begin a new series, Runes 102.  In this series, I will  review both books about Runes and the culture from which the Runes originated.  Before I begin today's book review of Ralph Blum's The Book of Runes, I ask that, if there is a book you would like to suggest for review, please add a comment to this post or contact me with your recommendations.  I will be reviewing books about Runes, the Viking Age, and Norse Mythology.

I chose to review Ralph Blum's book for a couple of reasons.  First, there are a number of controversies around this book, which adds to its intrigue.  Second, it was the first book about Runes that I used.  I'll begin with the latter, then move on to the more interesting first aspect.

While I was doing research for my novel (The Son of Nine Sisters), a couple of my sources referenced Blum's book, so I decided to take a look at it.  Now, it didn't hurt that the book came with its own set of ceramic Runes in a velvety gray pouch.  I bought the book and started to memorize the Runes and their meanings.  For me, this was a huge step into a new area, because I was never much of a believer in Tarot or things like that.  But, the Runes spoke to me.  Shortly after I launched this blog, people started to recommend other books to me, books that were more traditional in their Rune interpretations.  While I recognized immediately the differences, I also noticed some similarities and some complements in those interpretations.  That's the next step.

Yes, there are differences, which I will discuss next, but for now, I want to look at the similarities and complements.  Many of the meanings of individual Runes are the same in Blum's book as they are in traditional interpretations.  In fact, Blum states these one-word meanings first.  Although many of his detailed explanations for each Rune differs somewhat from the original meanings, I find that he has taken a specific idea and made it more abstract.  Perhaps this makes it easier for people today to relate to them?  For example, Hagalaz is the Rune of Hail, but he calls it elemental disruption.  Just as a hail storm can ruin a year's crop, the idea can be transferred to present day lives where, instead of hail destroying a crop, maybe an event happens that causes the loss of a job or the end of a relationship.  In this way, Blum makes each Rune more relatable to our times.

Don't get me wrong, I am not tooting his horn by any means.  Blum's book also has several issues, especially if you are looking for the true meaning of the Runes.  The biggest issues include the blank Rune, the order in which he places the Runes, and having meanings for the Rune in upright and reversed positions.  To me, these are the most obvious and biggest differences.  Let's look at them in order.

The Blank Rune.  The simple answer to this is that there isn't one.  There is absolutely no evidence pointing to the existence of a blank Rune.  It is probable that Blum made this up.  I think he did it, in part, due to the way he organized the letters.  He put them in rows of five, which means that he had an extra space in his last line.  So, he created the blank Rune to fill it and referred to it as Odin's Rune, the Rune of the unknowable.  If a Rune is related to Odin, it is Ansuz, not a newly created blank Rune.

Rune Order.  The Runic Alphabet is called the Futhark, because of the first six letters in the alphabet.  Blum's first letters are - MGAQUP.  He also lays them out from right to left.  While some Runestones are carved this way, many also read from left to right, while others are boustrophedon.  However, the standard or Elder Futhark comes in three aetts, three lines of eight.  As Blum himself says, he established his own order and, the final chapter of his book is an amusing, albeit self-serving, justification for it.  Nonetheless, his order does not follow the traditional order of the Futhark, rather ignores it.

Reversed Rune Position.  Another major factor differentiating Blum's study of Runes with the historic understanding of Runes is the idea that the Rune's interpretation changes based on whether it is upside right or upside down.  This is another one of his creations.  If for no other reason, this is called into question, because not every Rune has a reversed position.  Isa is Isa, either way, though Algiz does look different when it is upside down.  It creates an inconsistency.  Moreover, the Rune Poems, on which the meanings of the Runes are based, do not offer different poems for inverted Runes.

Given these blatant inconsistencies with the Rune Poems and the Futhark, am I suggesting that you not use or reference Blum?  No.  What I recommend instead is that, if you use his book for your readings, that it be part of a larger library of sources, because it will give you a fuller, richer picture of what the Runes are saying.  Don't let Blum serve as your only source for Runes.  I say this from experience.


  1. If you are interested in runes then Edred Thorrson, Freyja Aswynn, Kveldulf Gundarsson, Diana Paxton, Nigel Pennick, and Sven Plowright are some really good authors. Lisa Peschel or Eoghan Odinsson if your looking for a quick tell me what it is and how it might relate to me ...

    Not to be pendantic but there are certain runes which "do" have differing meanings in the context of reversal, it is not very clear in your article whether your issue is with Blum or with the idea of reversal in general.

    Don't ignore the Edda's and Saga's :) not saying you are or will, just it is a great source for knowledge.

    Being a student of rune lore some 30 years now I wish joy on your journey, and much knowledge. I say student because learning is life long. Every rune has multiple meanings, they are not always the same for every individual you must learn what the runes mean for you and how they apply in the context of your life, from experience those meanings will mutate and change as the individual grows.

  2. What runes would you suggest to connect with our ancestors spiritually or should I say reconnect.

    1. That is a great question. However, there is no right answer. I can make recommendations, but the right Rune will come to you in the right time for the right purpose. For me, Othala comes to mind immediately as the obvious choice - homestead and heritage. However, I suppose it depends on how you want to connect with them. Algiz and Ansuz could be good for spiritual reconnection, but I know some people who use Ehwaz because of the relationship component. You can always contact me through the blog if you have more questions or would like more guidance.