I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, and a conversation from one of the witchcraft groups I’m in bounced right off the screen. The discussion was regarding whether or not Norse runes should be a closed practice. At first, the topic seemed absurd, since runes are some of the most basic divination tools a person could use — next to tarot cards, of course. But then, I got to thinking: Were the original Norse men and women who created this alphabet a colonized culture? Could their practices be considered closed alongside the likes of Voodoo, Judaism and Indigenous practices? Let’s look at the history of the runes, and just how many cultures it took to perfect them.
The Elder Futhark is the earliest example of Norse runes, but in actuality they were a Germanic alphabet. Germanic people of the Migration period were not merely Norse. This was a period beginning in the year 300 C.E., that involved the migrations of several “barbarian” groups originating from the outer edges of central Europe — which would include modern-day Germany as well as parts of Italy and several other countries. The Elder Futhark originated through these various groups of people, which included the Alemanni, Lombards, Visigoths, Alans and quite a few others. It wasn’t until much later into the Migration Era that these Germanic people ended up in Northern Europe.
Germanic migration wasn’t a clean-and-easy affair. People of multiple cultures were included in the migration due to being conquered or being adopted by whichever group of people along the way. It’s believed that this melting-pot migration could be behind the influence of the Elder Futhark. Historians have alleged that this runic alphabet may have been influenced by Etruscan writing, which could have come from Germanic contact with the Byzantine Empire.
The Elder Futhark was — at one point — a completely lost alphabet. It was revived in the 1800s, bringing back the original alphabet of pre-medieval Germanic people. Up until its revival, the use of other Norse Runes — which derived from the Elder Futhark — was a more common practice. In particular, the Younger Futhark was widely used.
The Younger Futhark
The Younger Futhark is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the newer version of the Elder Futhark (older/younger; Get it?). This alphabet was a simplified, reduced version of the Elder Futhark — and it came into existence sometime in the 7th Century. However, it took quite a few hundred years for it to gain footing. It wasn’t until around the 9th century that Scandinavian descendants of the aforementioned Germanic tribes began seriously using it as an alternative to the Elder Futhark. It was during this particular time in history that is actually associated with the Norse “Viking” culture. This tends to be from where modern-day pagans get their Norse fix; The aesthetic, the mythologies and of course the alphabet (or runes, as we call them today). Again, the Younger Futhark is a simplified version of the Elder Futhark. This means that over the span of a few hundred years, the descendants of Germanic tribes did not feel it necessary to have as many letters in their alphabet. The runes as we know them evolved from an alphabet that was derived from the alphabets of complex, advanced cultures — but at some point in history, this alphabet lost its complexity to adapt to the people, who had changed drastically from their roots in antiquity.
Colonized or Colonizers?
There is no doubt that the Elder and Younger Futharks are the results of combining Italic, Phoenician and Greek alphabets. There is no doubt that the ancestral Germanic tribes of the past came from multiple parts of Central Europe — which encompassed a multitude of ethnicities and cultures during the Migration Era. It is also impossible to ignore that the descendants of most of these people did end up in Scandinavia, and they ushered in the era of viking voyages (and conquests) as well as their spirituality that modern pagans love so much. Of course, some of those descendants ended up in other various parts of Europe, but that’s a different topic for a different day.
A huge part of the culture of Scandinavians of post-antiquity involved exploring and raiding — something a lot of people know as “raping and pillaging.” Much like their barbarian ancestors, these viking explorers set out by ship and land in search of other villages — other cultures — to conquer and rob of resources. While many people of Northern European descent show pride in this, it’s hard not to view it as colonization. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, viking raiders colonized the following cultures:
- Turtle Island (North America)
- The Faroe Islands
Beyond the 12th Century, after these viking explorers self-converted to Christianity, their colonizing ways only increased — and continued well into the 19th century. It was around their conversion to Christianity that the Futhark (or runes) were no longer used as an alphabet by Scandinavian people. Instead, they switched to Latin, and eventually things evolved into what they are now, in the modern era.
There are multiple schools of thought surrounding the colonizing efforts made during the Viking Age, so I encourage you to research and form your own educated opinion based on solid research through credible sources. For the sake of keeping this section to a reasonable word count, I will only mention two of these philosophies.
A common belief is that vikings were after wealth — gold, silver and other riches. This is what led them to embark by sea to distant lands, and it is what also led them to commit horrendous slaughters of unarmed Christian monks in the 8th century. The culture of Norsemen put wealth and possessions on a high pedestal — as well as glory and successful conquests. They would not only rob cultures of their wealth, but would also take religious relics and other cultural treasures.
Another idea is that pagan Scandinavians were fearful of their faith and culture being robbed from them, thanks to the colonizing efforts of Christianity, which was spreading like wildfire. This theory surmises that the conception of the Viking Age was a rebellious answer to Christianity that rose out of this fear. Some historians have gone further and claimed that such violent massacres as the 8th century raid on a British monastery was done so as a means to prevent Christian colonization from reaching their own front doors.
It’s highly possible that Scandinavians of post-antiquity were fearful of losing their pagan culture, but if the second mentioned theory surrounding their conquests is true, then why did they otherwise spread out and colonize other lands and cultures? If the Viking Age was fueled by resistance against colonization, why did Viking raiders travel to other communities to murder, steal and kidnap? Why did they engage in slavery and forced integration of their slaves? Furthermore, if Viking raiders didn’t commit the same kind of colonization as Christian missionaries and conquerors, then why were there members of their culture who were of African descent?
The more logical conclusion would be that while — yes — pagan Scandinavians feared the loss of their ways, the height of the Viking Age was still, at it’s core, little more than a culture of conquest, land-grabbing and wealth acquirement. It also wouldn’t be out of the realm of reason to assert that protecting their spiritual ways was just another reason added to their versatile list of reasons for raiding, killing and obtaining the spoils of their raids. Keep in mind that much of this era coincided with the Christian Crusades, so it’s easy to see that Christian Brits were not only seen as potential spiritual threats, but also formidable opponents in the quest for glory, wealth and legendary bragging rights. Nonetheless, had viking raiders been fueled by fear of forced-conversion, then taking the initiative by attempting to raid and conquer Britain had the opposite effect they may have intended. Scandinavian vikings did not have to be forced into conversion. They settled in Christian territories and converted by means of integration. This invited Christian missionaries into pagan territories, which caused the further spread of Christianity. By the 11th century most Scandinavians were Christian, and the “old ways” were left behind for “the new way.” From there, they simply began colonizers for the spread of the Christian way of life.
There does seem to be some proof that Germanic people or their Scandinavian descendants colonized with the intent to spread their pagan beliefs. When these people colonized and settled, they did absorb other people into their way of life, but their way of life didn’t appear to always absorb into the cultures they encountered (the ones that survived, at least). That is, of course, with a few exceptions such as the Isle of Skye. Prior to the 8th century, the Isle of Skye was inhabited by the indigenous Picts, a powerful Celtic people who are believed to have been descendants of the Caledonii. Viking settlers showed up on the Isle of Skye, and they conquered the people. The Pict language and culture were completely transformed, and the Isle of Skye became a Norse settlement. That doesn’t mean that they wiped out the Pict people, but it does strongly imply that these people were conquered and integrated into Norse culture, which would include their spirituality as well as the tools of said spirituality. That means runes were probably used by non-Norse folks who had been integrated into Norse society.
Should spiritual tools of a colonizing culture be honored as “closed practices?” What about something used for white supremacy?
Even though viking raiders and pagan Scandinavians participated in colonization, slavery and violent conquest, it seems that none of the other cultures they’ve touched continued the use of runes. None of the indigenous tribes that went on to survive independently after encountering vikings used the runes as either an alphabet or spiritual concept. Runes as an alphabet and divination tool stayed firmly with people of Germanic descent; People in Scandinavia, Iceland and parts of the UK. Unfortunately, this evolved into something with roots in white supremacy — though many would like to disagree (erroneously, of course).
The revival of Norse runes in the 1800s came through Austrian runologist Guido von Liste, who also founded the ideas of Armanism and Ariosophy. These were spiritual concepts that aimed to revive pagan belief in “the old ways”, with a heavy focus on the fact that the deities of the viking era were “aryan.” In other words, this was a racist spiritual path that paved the way for German nationalism. Guido von Liste was an open white supremacist as well as an antisemite, who believed in anti-Jewish conspiracies. His revival of Germanic spirituality was the blueprint for Hitler’s Nazis, who used runes on their uniforms and elsewhere. Keep in mind that leading up until this point in history, the widespread practice of Norse spirituality hadn’t been practiced for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Guido von Liste is responsible for inspiring horrifyingly racist figures in contemporary and modern history — including Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, who popularized the racist, hateful notion that Aryan people were of a higher species, and that any other ethnicity was due to impure mixing of victimized white women and “lower ape like races.” He also invented and popularized the belief that Norse deities were actually galactic entities from a different dimension or planetary system, which further pushed an agenda that Aryan (white) people were of a celestial or superior breeding. This equated other races — in particular, people of color — with primates or other lower-forms of animal. Any currently practiced “religions” associated with Norse spirituality is an offshoot from this contemporary revival of the deities and the runes. All modern offshoots of this contemporary revival came to existence during the rise of contemporary Ayran supremacy in Europe and the United States between the late 1800s and the late 1900s. That includes religious paths such as Asatru — which formed as a “religion” in 1992, and Odinism, which formed in 1973. With this knowledge, it’d be intellectually dishonest to deny that modern Norse spirituality and the use of Norse runes is not only derived from ancient Germanic belief, but is ignited and made popular by white supremacists, anti-semites and tools of Christian supremacy and forced-conversion. These are the people who brought the practice of using runes back into the so-called “mainstream.”
In modern times there are different types of people who practice Norse spirituality, and who use runes in their spiritual practices. There are Asatru pagans. There are Odinist pagans. There are Norse pagan enthusiasts who don’t align with any particular group. A lot of these people are indeed white supremacists, but there are still some who speak out against racism and claim that their spirituality is inclusive to any race of people. So, it seems that the opinions on whether or not their beliefs are reserved to only Aryan people aren’t consistent within the Norse spiritual community itself.
To put it mildly, it doesn’t seem reasonable to honor a spiritual tool as a “closed practice” when the practice has only been revived with the primary reason to spread harmful white supremacist ideals. Regardless of what modern dabblers in Norse paganism might feel about this, their very recent ancestors — and ancients ones as well — participated in racial, spiritual and cultural genocide. They participated in the slave trade multiple times throughout history, and they paved the way for the holocaust. The modern revival of Aryan-centric spirituality, as well as the alphabet and its supposed magical use has also paved the way for racial violence in the United States as well as Norway. The Norway mass killer Anders Breivik inscribed his weapons with Norse runes, and he named his rifle Gungnir, after the spear wielded by Odin in Norse mythology. This was a modern white supremacist who was fueled by ignorant, racial hatred that has been peppered throughout Norse spirituality for the past 100+ years. He is just one of countless examples that could be cited. You don’t have to Google very much to find out just how many violently racist groups reference Norse spirituality or runes in their philosophies or aesthetics.
Knowing all of this about runes — no matter how aesthetically pleasing they may be to a dabbling witch, or how fun they might be to appropriate like every other culture modern pagans like to grab from — it kind of seems that the question shouldn’t be whether or not runes should be part of a “closed practice,” at all. Instead, the question that should be asked is whether or not anybody of any decency should even want to mess with them and keep them relevant in our modern spiritual society. Or you could ask yourself this: Who cares? These were not a people who were necessarily colonized. These were not people who kept to themselves to protect their culture. They actively wiped out other faiths and cultures, and assimilated people into their way of life. Even ancestral Germanics colonized and conquered. Any of their modern descendants truly have no business complaining about others using their precious alphabet that wouldn’t even be popular today had it not been for racist white people.