Edred Thorsson on Rune-Song
Edred Thorsson interviewed in June 2021 about the new Arcana Europa edition of Rune-Song: A Guide to Galdor.
You originally wrote and recorded the material for Rune-Song nearly thirty years ago. What was the general situation at the time that compelled you to undertake this project?
After the publication of Futhark by Weiser in 1984, a number of people with whom I spoke expressed their anxieties about pronouncing the difficult words in Old Norse or Old English that appeared in that book. Additionally, when I heard people talk about these topics, it was clear that such anxieties were well placed, as many of the words and names were badly butchered. At once I had the idea of producing a tape to provide the basics of such pronunciation, so that readers and students could speak with some confidence when handling these words and names. This was the genesis of the project Rune-Song, originally recorded in 1989 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In the opening section you mention that “runes are a fairly new phenomenon in English-speaking magical circles.” That is certainly less the case now than it was in 1993, but what are your thoughts on how the runic revival has proceeded, both here and abroad, over the last four or five decades?
Due to the great number of ill-informed books having been written over the years about runes from a “magical” perspective, it is not so much that runes are new and unfamiliar as a concept, but it remains true that the real and actual tradition of the runes is a difficult one to approach in a discerning and discriminating manner. One of the main practical aspects of the scholarly approach to runology is that it can act as an important tool for understanding the useful runic material and separating it from that which is counterproductive. I have always maintained a balance between the subjective and the objective, between the magical and the theoretically sound methodologies when it comes to runic study.
So while it can be said that a good methodology exists, and a significant amount of material has been produced in this line of thinking, we must also acknowledge that the information overload, coupled with a lack of general background education in our modern culture, have generated new challenges that did not so much as exist forty years ago.The good news is that the proper tools exist today; the challenge remains for most to be able to find them and realize the fact that they have been found. It should be noted that I have used the term tools here: just because one had the tools does not mean that the house has already been built. The work must still be undertaken by each individual. This fact is no less true today that it was two thousand years ago.
A major theme of Rune-Song is that the runic tradition was originally not just a symbolic or written system, but intrinsically an oral practice—whether spoken or sung—as well, and that this aspect must be understood with regard to the languages in which it was rooted. Can you summarize some of the significant ways that this was (and remains) true?
One important historical fact about the runic tradition that is often overlooked by linguists and magicians alike is that the culture in which runes were used for at least a millennium was largely an oral one, not one in which “literacy” was a significant factor as far as the wider society was concerned. The Germanic world remained one based on oral tradition (just as most earlier Indo-European cultures were). The runes acted as important visual anchors for information, keys to wider bodies of lore, and as a special professional skill set, which in the “closed shop” maintained by the early runemasters constituted the basis of a valuable and prestigious station in life. The sounds and the meaningful arrangement and organization of these sounds is aided and codified by the visual component supplied by the rune staves. By learning the sounds and their correct arrangements, practitioners of today can actually resonate with the sonic world of the earlier runemasters and come to feel the power of the song that the runes express.
In chapter VII of the book, “Magical Rune-Songs,” you draw a parallel between runic magical formulas and the ancient Eastern tradition of mantras (Vedic Sanskrit mantra and Avestan mąθra). While it refers to spoken prayers, the term mantra is etymologically related to the word for “thought” and “mind.” Can you offer some further insights into how ancient runic practices can be understood in this broader Indo-European context?
In the Vedic tradition, there is talk of the mantra, yantra, and tantra—which can be translated respectively as (abstract) thought, visible (or audible) device, and the lore that explains and makes the system intelligible and useful in a practical way. These modalities of teaching most certainly go back to common Indo-European times. In the text of Rune-Song I attempt, as briefly and practically as possible, to bring this mode of thinking into the experience of the present-day runic student. In many ways, Rune-Song is the most direct and practical of all my projects.
While much of Rune-Song is firmly rooted in the linguistic and literary record of the runes and their expression and usage over time in different ancient and more recent Germanic cultures, you also present a system of runic “seed-words” and “kernels” that some might dismiss as a modern invention of your own creation. Can you say more about how you arrived at this system, and how it relates to ancient inscriptions and runic practices?
When we consider the history of how Rune-Song came into being in 1989, we have to acknowledge that the practices and thought-forms introduced by the early twentieth-century German rune magicians of the sort I explore in my book Rune Might are the direct inspiration for these techniques. However, these techniques, directly based on ideas found in Indian practices, seemed to me at the time I first encountered them in the early 1970s to be “at home” among the traditions of the North as well. This was only later confirmed when I discovered the twelfth-century Icelandic work called The First Grammatical Treatise. The contents of a part of that work confirms that the ancient Runers did indeed organize sounds in the exact same ways as the ancient Vedic grammarians did, all of which acted as a “grammar” of mundane as well as sacred language. This topic became the subject of an article I wrote in 1998, reprinted in the volume Mainstays (a new edition of which will be forthcoming from Gilded Books). The division of sounds into what grammarians call vowels and consonants, and their elemental combinations and re-combinations, lie at the root of the system. Rune-Song is a practical exercise of this art.