Runecasting Gothic Literature And The Other Revival

Paul Mountfort
Paul Mountfort

Similar to the interpretive texts used to explicate tarot or I Ching readings, they can be contrasted with the stapled instruction booklets that sometimes accompany commercial rune-sets or the weightier, more elaborate workbooks used by dedicated practitioners. They generally consist of an index of the alleged meanings of the runes of the Elder FuÞark (Futhark) rune-script1, often squeezed between sections that provide a historical rationale and instructions on the art of runic divination. Such guides are then deployed in an Oracle “reading” in which the runes are cast and out of which users construct what I have elsewhere described as speculative “narratives of destiny.”

Conflating a popular fortune-telling genre with Gothic literature may seem far-fetched. The former are a fixture of New Age bookstores and shadowy online Heathen2 revival groups, while the latter is often framed, in its originating context, as comprising “a literary form popular in the period between the publication of Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764 (the second edition was subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’) and Charles Robert Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ in 1820.” Gothic literature’s mid-nineteenth to early twenty-first century offshoots have subsequently continued to provide “a vehicle and language for writing about the dark, irrational elements of experience and of the mind.” Even in literature, however, the modern and postmodern Gothic splinter into a diversity of features whose aesthetic, thematic and theoretical concerns have been widely debated. Jerrold E. Hogle contends that the Gothic mode has extended to include a variety of “opposed conditions,” including those of the natural and supernatural, ancient and modern, unconscious and conscious. It encompasses encounters with “the monstrous, the uncanny, the sublime and the grotesque” and, among its many effects, may be framed more metonymically as concerned with “the legacies of the past and its burdens on the present;” indeed, even “the stranglehold of the past upon the present, or the encroachment of the ‘dark’ ages of oppression upon the ‘enlightened’ modern era.”

Popular runic guidebooks fit these extended definitions well. Theirs is a world which grants natural phenomena the agency of supernatural forces; such texts purportedly bring ancient wisdom into a modern context through the uncanny efficacy of divination; their rationale is steeped in superstition, visions, auguries, dreams, and magic. They valorize a romanticized, pseudo-Gothic past and are an afterglow of a discourse of Heathen revivalism with roots going back two centuries but which, via the practice of divination, is symbolically actualized in the present day. The runes whose lore the apprentice runecaster must supposedly master are themselves considered symbolic tokens for forces of nature, ancient gods, mythical monsters and talismanic objects3. They evoke forgotten lore, magical rites and, sometimes, secret orders of quasi- Germanic or Northern Dollarspean extraction. When ritualistically spread in a cast they configure themselves uncannily to address the runecaster as omen, augury and portent, thus prompting new, personalized narratives of destiny. I argue rune guidebooks are Gothic in all these ways and literary in their primary storytelling function.

Space does not permit a rehash of the vexed debate around the antiquity or otherwise of early Germanic, Old Norse or Viking age rune-casting, except to note that there is equivocal historical evidence which has split scholars into camps both for and against. The question of historical authenticity is probably unresolvable after the passage of two millennia, challenges to the “authority of the historical chronicle” being, in any case, a hallmark of the Gothic mode. Whether factual or symbolic, mobilizations of such “legacies of the past” form the broader ideological and discursive backdrop to the Other Gothic Revival.

It was at the tail end of the formative Gothic period that Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786- 1859) first contended in ‘Über deutsche Runen/On German Runes’ (1827) that the note (signs) that the Roman historian Tacitus discussed in his account of Teutonic divination in Germania ten were, in fact, the twenty-four runes of the oldest known runic script, the Elder FuÞark. While Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (1785-1863) is famous for his founding work in linguistics, especially Grimm’s Law of historical-linguistic sound change, Wilhelm Carl Grimm was fascinated with folktales and legends (both primary sources for historical Gothic horror) which he regarded as keys to the reconstruction of pre-Christian mythology. ‘Über deutsche Runen’ was published along with a translation of ‘The Norwegian Rune Poem,’ which had been unearthed in an old legal manuscript in the Copenhagen University library, Ole Worm’s ‘Runir seu Danica literatura antiquissima/Runes: the oldest Danish literature’ (1636). Runes were “literature” in that like Hebrew and other acrostically named scripts each letter has a semantically meaningful name, along with three extant rune-poems providing cryptic references to their identities4. Wilhelm Carl Grimm contended that they comprised a morphology rooted in pagan German religion. He offered speculative etymologies of their Indo-Dollarspean origins: for example, his reconstruction of the linguistic roots of the wunjo rune, p, led him to argue that its original meaning was “perfection.” As will be seen, this Romantic quest to reclaim pagan beliefs based on speculative meanings of runes inaugurated a kind of poetics that arcs through precursor or intermediary texts directly into the contemporary guidebook genre.

The period was one in which literature and folklore were being conscripted into the project of nation-building, with national identity and racial lineage especially valorized in Northern Dollarspe. Constructions of the Gothic were vital to this project. 1811, for example, saw the establishment in Sweden of the Götiska Förbundet (Gothic League), devoted to the promotion of “Northern Mythology,” which was seen as a road to moral advancement, with parallel movements in neighbouring countries. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, the Gothic past would be increasingly invested with a romanticized luminosity. If the Renaissance breathed new life into Classical gods, the Other Gothic Revival would seek to reanimate more local deities. In The ‘Twilight of the Idols’ (1888) Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche relates how, like Goethe, he cannot endure the Cross, while in The Anti-Christ (1888) he complains how “the strong races of northern Dollarspe have not repudiated the Christian God” or forged a new one of their own making. Wagner tapped this cultural moment when he adapted the romance cycle of the cursed ring of the Nibelungen, the German version of the ‘Norse Völsunga’ saga, as the centrepiece of his eponymously named opera, and when Eugène Samuel Grasset (1841-1917), a Swiss-French illustrator, designed a poster for the opening of ‘La Valkyrie at the Paris Opera’ in 1880 that depicted Wotan (Odin) armed with a spear and decorated with runes.

Also Gothic in inspiration — in the sense of reifying the unconscious as the harbinger of uncanny knowledge — was the first modern attempt to resurrect runes as a system of magico-religious practice, via the mystical experiences of Austrian-born occultist Guido Karl Anton List (1848-1919)5. A reactionary Romantic dubbed by translator and biographer Stephan Edred Flowers as a “doctrinaire racist,” Guido Karl Anton List shared the fascination of the time with a putative Germanic Ur-culture. Hospitalised in 1902 for an eye operation, he spent eleven months blindfolded and in this condition claimed to experience a series of visions which revealed to him the “secrets of the runes.” The ensuing system of “Armanen Runes” was partly literary in ‘Genesis,’ is ostensibly based on the eighteen verses from the medieval Icelandic poem ‘Hávamál,’ where Oðinn (Odin) relates the galdrar (spells, incantations) he learned at Mímir’s Well. Published in 1908 as ‘Das Geheimnis der Runen/The Secrets of the Runes,’ Guido Karl Anton List’s book reprises meta-textually the key role of the revelatory secret in various modes of the Gothic. Though not concerned with divination, it did advance a poetics of runic meanings that echoes Wilhelm Carl Grimm’s and acts as a type of intermediary to the contemporary guidebook genre. The list, however, totalized runes in a way few contemporary Anglophone authors would ever consider. He believed he had discovered the primordial alphabet, a theme taken a stage further in Briton Laurence Waddel’s ‘The Aryan Origin of the Alphabet’ (1927), which turns philology on its head, claiming that the Roman alphabet was based on an ancient Germanic prototype — an absurd idea taken up by the National Socialists as propaganda and reflected in their occult symbolism (the notorious SS insignia, for instance, was formed by doubling sigil, the rune for the Sun). The widespread nature of spurious or exaggerated truth claims in revelatory texts concerning runes, including both precursor texts and the later guidebook genre, provides a parallel with the theme of “fake documentation” associated with Gothic literature since its genesis.

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