Saturday, July 22, 2017

Runes 102 - Book Reviews - Runes: Ancient Scripts

I came to the Runes through academic channels, which may be why Martin Findell's book, Runes: Ancient Scripts, caught my eye.  Though it's short, Findell provides a reasonable overview of the Runes as an alphabet, which is the primary goal of his book.

There are a number of aspects of this book that I like.  First, for those who are new to Runes, the writing isn't too dense; it does a good job of providing background on the Runes as a form of writing and communication.  And, although most of you who read my blog are engaged with Runes as an oracle, we should understand both sides of this coin.  Findell explains what Runes are in terms of a writing vehicle; he follows a chronology as the Runes changed and split from the original Futhark to the Anglo Saxon Futhorc and the Younger Futhark used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.  I like the fact that he suggests there may have been more than a single original version of the Futhark.  There is some truth behind it if for no other reason than the existing examples of the Runic writing are scarce and there are inconsistencies in form.  It is similar to different dialects in language.

In his chapter on Rune names, Findell shows us one of the most interesting images in the entire book.  It is an 18th century copy "of an earlier late 10th-/11th-century manuscript [that] preserves the earliest [copy] of the rune-poems from which we can learn about the tradition of runes-names." The picture is from a book by George Hickes, an English Divine (church clergy) and scholar who lived from 1642-1715.  Some researchers believe that the Rune Poems were used as a way of remembering the letters of the Futharks.  I can see that given the ABC songs we are taught as children.  In modern times, we have adopted the meanings named in the poems to serve as the foundation for using Runes as an oracle.

The other insightful piece of Findell's book is his chapter on the work of Runologists.  From an academic and historical perspective, his explanation begins to lend an eye to the depth of work that has transpired to develop our understanding of runic writing and the cultures and environments in which runic inscriptions were made.  Runology, while being its own area of academic study, incorporates work in numerous disciplines - linguistics, archeology, art history, literary history, and cultural history.  I could also see anthropology and geography fitting into that mix.  Findell shares some of the challenges with interpreting inscriptions as well as the processes used to gain a full understanding of each object and not simply figuring out what is carved on it.

In his final chapter, Findell includes a nod to MR James and JRR Tolkien, but claims that there is seldom any connection between "fantasy Runes" (those developed by James and Tolkien in their books) and real Runes.  I would amend that slightly to suggest that the mistake is that some readers take James and Tolkien at face value and consider their fantasy Runes to be the real ones.  Next, he touches on the Nazi misappropriation of Runes, something that still taints the Runes and their surrounding culture.

Where I feel Findell goes astray is near the end when he seems to condemn modern uses of Runes for divination, stating that new age or pagan magic is perhaps the most prevalent present-day use of Runes.  While that remark is true, the tone of his writing changes and he seems to denounce it, stating, "Most pagan books or websites will mention the historical use of Runes as writing, but this is treated as something secondary to their symbolic and oracular function."  He further suggests that the Runes are viewed primarily as magical symbols and function as a writing vehicle "only secondarily and incidentally".  I largely disagree with this, for while Findell points out that most "pagan books and websites" present the Runes as an alphabet secondarily, that is because their primary purpose is to present them as an oracle, just as Findell presents them primarily as a written language and discusses modern uses secondarily.

I am sure there are some people who see the Runes as nothing more than a divination tool.  However, my experience has been that those who take Runes seriously and are dedicated to them as an oracle give equal credence to their history, historical culture, and role as a writing form.  This is actually why I reviewed this book; not to correct his assumptions about the Runes as an oracle, but rather to share information about the Runes as a writing vehicle, which we come to understand through the complex and multi-faceted approach that academics, like Findell, take in their work to unravel the mystery and history of the Runes and the cultural of which they were a part.

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