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
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
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.
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runes
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