Diana Paxson: Taking Up The Runes

5. April 2014 | Von | Kategorie: Articles in english, Bibliothek und Medien, Sach- und Fachbücher

Diana Paxson’s book about runes is another one which had been lying on my „to review“ pile for quite a while. Now, finally, I have read it – and reviewed it.

„Taking Up the Runes“ views the runes as holy script signs with which one can do much more than only divination; working with the runes is, for Paxson, a spiritual way that is tightly connected to Germanic cultures.

Paxson works with the 24-rune Elder Futhark. Other rune systems, such as the Younger Futhark with its 16 runes or the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc with 33 runes, are only mentioned en passant in the introduction.
The book has two main parts: The first one provides information on the runes, the second one consists of ritual scripts.

First part – Comprehensive rune knowledge

After an introductory part that mainly covers methodic and organisation questions, the chapters of the first part loosely connect each two runes that follow each other in the Elder Futhark (i.e. Fehu and Uruz, Thurisaz and Ansuz, and so on). For each rune, meaning and pronunciation are cited and the verses of the Anglo-Saxon and, if existing, Old Norse and Old Icelandic Rune Poems are presentend and possible ancient meanings are explained.

This information is followed by modern interpretations from esoteric rune literature – Paxson presents, among others, interpretations of Edred Thorsson, Kvedulf Gundarsson, Freya Aswynn, Marijane Osborn, Stella Longland and Tony Willis. A section on “Interpreting and Using XY” is dedicated to the interpretation and magical use of the respective rune; the two runes of the chapter are discussed in a section on „Study and experience“ – here, topics that relate to the symbol content of one of the runes are described. Paxson gives suggestions how this symbol content can be experienced and further hints how the rune can be used.
To me, this not completely consequent pair structure is a little confusing; I would have preferred one chapter for each rune. Probably, this structure is due to the concept of a workbook with two runes per month (see below).

The twelve rune chapters are followed by one chapter named „Bringing back the Runes“, which ponders the use of runes – divination takes a prominent place here; another application is the use of runes for inscriptions and magic. Sadly, this chapter is very short – but the exlanations in the rune chapters nearly make up for that. And maybe, the practical use is a matter that is not easily conveyed in book form, a matter where experience and learning by doing are the better way of learning.

The second part – Rune Rituals

The ritual part then brings 14 elaborate rituals scripted en detail for groups – one introducing ritual, one for each pair of runes and a closing ritual. Apart from the fact that every ritual group I have worked with was too small (I’d estimate that they work best with groups of 8 or more people, rather than with the 4-6 person groups I mostly worked with) and met too irregularly, these rituals appear quite like dramatic plays and are too pre-structured for my taste. Once more: this opinion of mine may owe much to my own ritual taste that is easily reminded of boring (Christian) school worship services in the face of such structured rituals.
One componend of each ritual is a guided meditation that can be used without the rest of the ritual.
At the conclusion of the book there is a suggestion for a detailed initiation ritual for people who are experienced in trance work, vision quests and/or ascetic practice. This is in no way mandatory, but meant for those who want to dedicate themselves to rune work as a demanding spiritual (life) path.

“Taking up the Runes” as a workbook for groups

A core idea in Paxson’s book is its use as a textbook in a course. Her ideal concept ist a work group that gathers at least once per month, working through a chapter and celebrating the corresponding group ritual. Seen through with perseverance, this means to work through the complete Futhark in one year. The structure of 12 chapters probably owes a lot to this concept.

Questionable Traditions? Here, too!

On the issue of racism, represented by the demand that „only peoply with genetic connection to a certain ethnic group should practice a certain form of spirituality“, Paxson takes a clear stance:

The runes are an expression of the spirituality of Northern Europe, but the culture in which they are currently flowering is diverse and pluralistic. Just as people of all ethnic origins may be attracted to Native American spirituality or worship the orishas, individuals from many backgrounds are becoming fascinated by the runes. […] The gods look at the colors of our spirits, not of our skins. (p. 3-4)

Sadly, this is counteracted by her uncritical discussion and even recommendation of stöðhur – the bodily imitation of rune forms. This practice goes back to Friedrich Bernhard Marby, who worked on the basis of the Armanen Futark in the milieu of ariosophic esoteric thinkers – his ’rune gymnastics’ are based on racist backgrounds and motives.
Further, she refers interpretations of Edred Thorson a.k.a. Stephen Flowers, who is connected to the Asatrú Folk Assembly, without any critical distanciation, yes, she recommends his rune books – Flowers‘ rune interpretations are far from beyond any blame regarding their possible infiltration with folkish thought.


A comprehensive rune book that can give valuable suggestions, but is best read with a critical mind. An attitude of „try before you trust“ is advisable regarding the cited literature and the presented interpretations. The usefulness of the ritual part depends very much on the question if one has a group at hand that wants to work with the ritual templates and that is able to make use of the rather theater-like ritual style.

Bibliographic Data

Paxson, Diana L. Taking Up the Runes: A Complete Guide to Using Runes in Spells, Rituals, Divination, and Magic. Red Wheel/Weiser, 2005.

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