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The Runes – Another window into beliefs about the sacred and profane

Mosaic runes - the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols.

Mosaic runes – the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols – xjy via Flickr

Runes are the characters of different Germanic languages dating from 150 CE.¹

The characters gradually took on divinatory and mystical significance as they spread from southern Europe to Britain and Scandinavia. They were replaced by the Latin alphabet when runic cultures converted to Christianity between 700 CE and 1100 CE. Still used for decoration, some New Age enthusiasts see the runes as tools for depth psychology, divination and mysticism.

Not unlike modern interpretations of the I Ching, which adapt ancient Chinese commentaries, New Age runes are said to be based on runic inscriptions found on swords, stones and bronze pendants. Also like the I Ching, Tarot and other forms of divination, the runes have been commercialized.

Some believe the commercialization of the runes invalidates their divinatory and mystical significance; others don’t make a sharp distinction between God and commercialism.² This latter group believes that God’s ways are greater than any human thought or construction. So God can work through anything, be it a traditionally sacred vehicle or another branded as a sellout.³

evolution of the j-rune.

evolution of the j-rune. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the language of Religious Studies, the debate over commercialization involves beliefs about the sacred and profane, cosmology, and how everything does or does not connect within a given belief system.4

Wikipedia, although claiming to be as objective as possible, displays a secular, slightly sarcastic bias when addressing modern forms of Runic mysticism.

The lack of extensive knowledge on historical use of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the reconstructed names of the runes and additional outside influence.

A recent study of runic magic suggests that runes were used to create magical objects such as amulets, but not in a way that would indicate that runic writing was any more inherently magical, than were other writing systems such as Latin or Greek.5

An inscription using both cipher runes, the El...

An inscription using both cipher runes, the Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th century Rök Runestone in Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Paula Byerly Croxon claims they can be traced to 1300 BC via archaeology. See PDMB&S (2003), p. 245.

² Next time you’re in a Catholic Church, take a look at the back page of the parish bulletin. Even though Jesus was enraged by ancient merchants peddling their wares and money-changing in the temple, Catholics are doing a similar thing today: Ads over the whole back page of the bulletin, sometimes really smarmy ones.

³ I tend to fall into this camp. So when some clergy preach against the horrors of TV, the internet or “secular” ways, I usually reflect on how regimented and ignorant they really are. I also smile inwardly when, moments later, they reverentially scoop up the “secular” money with an offertory hymn. Sometimes more than once in a given Mass. Does this somehow make the profane sacred? Some say it does. Others see it as rank hypocrisy and a general lack of psychological integration.

Picture of Runes used in Fortune Telling

Runes used in Fortune Telling (Wikipedia)

4 One of the leading scholars to address this issue is the Romanian, Mircea Eliade.

5 That’s why, as staggering as it is, Wikipedia often isn’t enough. We need books, articles, independent blogs and websites to unpack assumptions and to provide alternative perspectives. See

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"He knew his days upon this earth were pa...

“He knew his days upon this earth were past” Wiglaf speaking to Beowulf after his battle with the dragon. Beowulf is mortally wounded. Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908). Stories of Beowulf, 99. T.C. & E.C. Jack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beowulf is the hero and title of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem (1000 CE) of 3,000 lines, surviving on a single cotton manuscript and originating from an Old English folk tale (700 CE).

Beowulf is a Swedish leader who travels to the court of Heorot, which is presided over by his kinsman, the Dane King Hrothgar. Beowulf plans to help Hrothgar out by fighting a fierce monster, Grendel, which has been devouring the Dane King’s warriors by night.

The court is relieved to receive Beowulf’s help but, due to Grendel’s ferocity, doubt he’ll succeed in defeating the monster.

First Conquest

As night falls, Grendel appears. Beowulf grips him tightly. The monster manages to escape but at the high price of losing one of his arms, which Beowulf seizes with an iron grip. The loss of the arm eventually kills the monster. But the Danes’ merrymaking is short-lived, for that very night Grendel’s mother, a water-troll, appears to revenge her creepy son’s death.

Second Conquest

"They carried with them the hideous head ...

“They carried with them the hideous head of Grendel.” An illustration of 4 men carrying the head of Grendel. Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908). Stories of Beowulf, 63. T.C. & E.C. Jack. Stories of Beowulf-88.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Grendel’s mother kills one of Hrothgar’s warriors, Beowulf follows her to an underwater cavern where he discovers a magic sword that he wields to destroy her. He returns with Grendel’s head to a delighted court. Beowulf then travels home to southern Sweden and reigns as king of the Geats for 50 years.

Christianized commentaries of the Beowulf myth suggest Grendel and his family are heirs of the Old Testament Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who slayed his brother Abel.

Third Conquest

Beowulf’s third and final conquest involves a dragon that awakes from centuries of unconsciousness when a simple slave enters its lair and steals its favorite cup. The enraged dragon wreaks havoc throughout the land, so Beowulf arrives to slay it. All of his supporters desert him in the attempt but one, the noble Wiglaf. In the fierce battle Beowulf strikes the beast’s scales too vigorously, breaking his sword, which then gets caught in the dragon’s jaws. Wiglaf takes the opportunity to pierce the dragon’s throat with his sword. Beowulf, suspecting his own death is near, tells Wiglaf to seize the dragon’s gold.

Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard,...

Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard, by Evelyn Paul (1911). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They manage to kill the beast, but Beowulf later dies from exposure to its poisonous breath. He lives just long enough to see that his actions have saved the people, and Wiglaf then becomes heir to the throne.

Belonging to the tradition of dragon-slayer myths, Beowulf from a Jungian perspective represents the psychological dangers involved if the hero takes on archetypal forces greater than him or herself. Wiglaf, the noble helper, represents a new psychological attitude that hopefully arises after of the death of the noble but slightly overconfident hero.

The Beowulf story was also made into a feature film in 2007.