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The Book Of Runes * Francis Melville (Barron’s 1993 * isbn 0764155512)

I think the runes are a terrible subject to buy books about. These books tend to be either overly scholarly, saying that the runes were nothing more than easy-to-make symbols to write simple texts such as shopping lists; or in the other case “fluffy bunny” newage books turning an ancient practise into modern witchy oracle things. I know Melville from his very reasonable Book Of High Magic which is about Medieval and Renaissance magic. Also he wrote a cheap, but fine book about alchemy which comes in the same series as this Book Of Runes. Melville opens with the scholarly approach, telling about the history of the runes and the different ‘alphabets’. After this you will get a very brief lesson in Norse mythology and then Melville starts to write about the runes themselves. However he warns for this a few times in the first pages, this is where the book comes into the difficult practises of explaining the runes. There is hardly any traditional information, but the Eddas and other classical texts mention more than once that the runes were used for magical purposes. The names of the runes differ in different books and languages (also traditional) and the different alphabets even sometimes have different symbols for the same letters. Melville gives associations for the runes and this is what makes this kinds of books so hard to compare: these associations are personal and by no means traditional. Melville sometimes says how he comes to his connections with gods, trees, plants, animals, astrological sign or planet, colour and element. He might have added Tarot or I-Ching hexagrams like some other books do, but especially in the case of the Norse gods and astrology the opinions differ. A few examples of how this works:

The rune Ansuz is connected to Odin, because the root ́ss means “god” and Odin is the highest of them. In fact, originally Tyr was the highest God, but later he was surpassed by Odin. Other Germanic/Teutonic tribes had other main gods, so this is at least questionable. The bird associated with this rune is a raven; of course because the ravens are Odins animals, but so are his dog, or the Midgardsnake that he kills, or… Well then, the raven is a bird bringing messages from the world to Odin, so the planet becomes Mercury who is in Greek mythology the messenger of the gods (Hermes). For the same reason the plant is the mushroom which in Dutch is called “fly-fungus”, because it is hallucinative and this allows the shaman to travel between the world of the gods and our world below.

Another one. The name of the rune Hagal means “hail”, so Melville had to think of the primal giant Ymir “who was born from the melting ice”. In fact, Ymir came forth from interaction between the fires of Niflheim and the ice from Muspelheim. If you want to name a character that really came from ice, then I would say this is Bure who is licked out of a salt stone by the primal cow Audhumla.

In a way these connections are logical, but you can imagine that other writers come to other conclusions, so how should we find out what is credible and what is not? Probably not of it all is, which makes the runes even more difficult. Probably a personal interpretation could only make them fit to use them as some kind of Tarot or I-Ching. That Melville supports this idea is proven by the fact that for every rune he gives a “worldly” or “predicting” and an “esoteric” meaning.

Then the book continues by telling how you can make your own runestones and how to use them in “rune magic” and towards the end you will read about talismans, blessings and the like.

As I said, I have more of such runes-books which all more or less are the same. This one by Melville and a little one by Bernard King seem to at least try to be a bit serious, but I am still not sure about all the practical things that are dragged towards the subject with no obvious reason.

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