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Runes, Gods, and Feminine Powers
Revised Edition of The Leaves of Yggdrasil
by Freya Aswynn
Review by Alfta Svanni Lothursdottir
The blurbs in the front of this book did not give me much hope for this book. There is Nancy Smith, praising Aswynn for giving us a sketch of that same tired theory that many scholars now dispute about the fabled Materiarchal culture that was “deliberately suppressed by the prevailing patriarchy.” The short biographical information on her, points out she joined the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC although it omits her former association with the Rune Gild, all orders that are heavily steeped in Ceremonial Magic. That she uses the spelling of magic, “Magick” which is a spelling used commonly by those in cermonial magic makes we wonder again what I will see in this book and whether or not any of it will have anything at all to do with the Northern Way. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In the foreword written by Lionel Snell we find more tired theories about “that same spirit (the spirit of the awakening Wotan) ….stirring in the Nazi movement.” This is something I never cease to marvel at. Thanks to the work of certain “scholars,” Othinn is presented as the ultimate seeker of knowledge for only the sake of the self, seeking knowledge wherever it may be. Although I do indeed believe that Othinn seeks knowledge anywhere he can find it his reasons are not and never have been for selfish reasons. His motivations have always been for the betterment and safety of his kin; of his tribe. Anyone who reads the lore extensively and truly understands it can easily see this. Hitler did much for his country. He brought it (Germany) out of one of the worst times in their history but he then proceeded to destroy his tribe. He sacrificed the youth of his country to his own vain ideals and in the end destroyed his own tribe. Not very Othinnic if you ask me. So this idea that Hitler was some kind of manifestation of Othinn's rage aspect I dispute. And to see it here presented by one who claims to be devoted to him says a lot. Mr. Snell goes on to present Crowley's three ages of religion and representing our Elder kin as “Wild Gods” hearkening back to early scholarship's presentation of the Norse, as barbarians. What does the Northern Way have to do with Crowley and his third age of Horus? Why is someone who is obviously enamored of these concepts writing a forward to a book that purports to be about “Northern” magic? These things have nothing to do with the Northern Way and it is yet again another indication of the where this book is going. I postulate that the Northern Way has no need of ceremonial magic, or National Socialism or any other FOREIGN concept. The Northern Way is a rich tradition that is able to stand strongly on its own. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself but so far this book seems nothing but a mixing of other concepts such that Ms. Aswynn's book no longer has anything remotely to do with the Northern Way. Secondly, this idea that our Elder Kin are “Wild Gods” whose nature we need to be careful about, that this is “for some people reason enough to have nothing to do with them,” and that “other people, like the worst of the Nazi's are so fascinated by this aspect that they become obsessed by it-like people who bait wild creatures because they are intoxicated by their bestiality,” sounds so much like it is coming from a Christian that I am loath to continue reading this book. Is it any wonder that our tradition has to work so hard to combat such a negative image when such trash is normally pushed off on the public and worse than that, in a book that purports to be about Northern Magic?! Mr. Snell ends his forward by saying he knows little about history, mythology, or the runes. Why in name of the gods and goddesses of the North is he then writing a forward for a book about those very subjects?
The most telling comment about this book is by the author herself. In a short biography of the experiences that led the author to become, as she states it, “a priestess of Wodan” she states the following. “After Camden, I concentrated on gathering knowledge and information with the aim of constructing or partially reconstructing a magical system based on traditional knowledge, grafted onto modern twentieth-century occult practices.” That should probably read modern twentieth-century wiccan/Judea-Christian based practices. It is a well known fact that Wicca has it's roots in modern ceremonial practices which are heavily steeped in the lore and practices of the Abrahamic religions. It has long been, and is my contention that the Northern Way has a very rich tradition, one that is complete and well able to stand on its own without infusion of foreign ideals and practices, without having to result to what Aswynn herself admits to doing. Does Aswynn believe that the Northern Way is so deficient that it needs to be reinforced by modern occult practices and ideals? Obviously she does. What is curious is that Aswynn then goes on to state that, “I wish to establish beyond any doubt the relationship between the runes and the Northern, Germanic myths, proving once and for all that the runes should not be applied outside the Northern system of mythology.” I could not agree more with her on this point so it is all the more confusing as to why she feels the need to graft the runes onto a magical system that is just that, i.e. a system whose basis is outside the Northern system of mythology. And another telling quote, “So the task at hand is to delve into the original sources as far as is possible, and form there to extrapolate the trend and follow this line of imaginary development up until the present day, thereby to restore the old Northern religion, integrated and acceptable, (italics by the reviewer) in a twentieth-century environment, backed up and emphasized by twentieth-century occult techniques (without the questionable benefit of twentieth-century politics!).” That word “acceptable” again, gives clue to underlying motives of Aswynn. In this world of money grubbing, fast-food, give it to me now culture, especially here in America, the Northern Way has nothing to do with what is acceptable in this society. It has no need to “backed up” by twentieth-century occult techniques. It has no need of Wicca, no need of Cermonial Magic, no need of the approval of this increasingly degenerated society whose basis comes from the Abrahamic religions, that we find ourselves in, in this modern day. When you take the Northern Way and attempt to add (I would say contaminate it) these foreign ideals and practices, as Aswynn unabashedly admits to doing, then you rob the Northern Way of that which makes it unique. You rob it of everything that makes it “The Northern Way” and not just another flavor of Wicca.
Now you may be saying to yourself, “Egads woman, are you going to spend the whole review talking about the forward and introduction to the book?!” As I scroll back on my word processing program at this point, I will concede that is a fair statement. But in my own defense I think it is important, whenever possible, to understand the underlying motivations of an author when reading their book. Luckily, Aswynn has provided a good bit of insight as to what her motivations are if one takes the time to read the forward and introduction and takes the time to consider her words.
Again, to me surprisingly, when one considers her words and her motivations, she starts off Chapter 1 with a statement that I could not agree with more. “An understanding of the runes requires a knowledge of the esoteric, mythological, and religious Northern European traditions indigenous to the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, and in my own country, Holland. The runes cannot be properly understood or interpreted unless they are integrated into the framework of Northern mythology, of which they form a part.” It is shame that she cannot take that one further step, after this promising first step, and not secede to the temptation to bring in foreign ideologies and practices. More statements from chapter 1 that I can strongly agree with: “In addition, there exist in various parts of the Northland remnants of our folklore which, when stripped clean of accumulated layers of Christian interference, can lead us in the right direction in the search to recover our spiritual heritage.” and “It is high time that this unfair stigma (the Nazi stigma) was removed.” But then she goes completely down hill and suggests that Wicca has three aspects to it's practice based on the, most likely familiar to anyone who has studied any Pagan religion, three aspects of the goddess. She postulates that in Wicca there are two currents, the Earth Mysteries and the Lunar Mysteries. It is her postulation that the third aspect that is normally missing in Wicca is that of the Sea Goddess, i.e. the Sea Mysteries and that this missing link in the Craft could be part of the Northern Mysteries. So there you have it, the Northern Way relegated to nothing more than a flavor of Wicca and this coming from the person who is at the reigns of the “Ring of Troth” in Europe.
Chapter 2 begins with a short overview of the scholarly theories as to the origin of the runes which really does the reader little good as far as being able to formulate an opinion as to which theory might be more correct, due to the brevity of the descriptions. It does at least, give the reader an idea of what the main theories are though. She goes on to describe some of the theories of how Othinn gained the runes and how some scholars have compared it to a shamanistic initiation ritual. The thing that most confuses me about Asywnn's approach is that she states that it is her aim to graft the runes with modern occult techniques. Then she makes statements such as the following: “The elder futhark therefore presents this esoteric lore to modern humans in its purest and most authoritative form, devoid of all post-heathen monotheistic influences.” It is a mystery to me why she then proceeds to graft those very post-heathen influences onto the runes and thereby contaminating that pure authoritative form of esoteric lore that the runes represent.
What follows for the rest of Chapter 2 is an examination of each rune in the Futhark order giving the Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Germanic names of each rune, their phonetic value and traditional meaning. The examination of each rune is, in general fairly well done, although it is easy to see the definite Wiccan slant that Aswynn adds to the her examination of each rune. For instance, in her description of Raidho she describes the Eight Fold division of the “Heathen” year. This is, of course not Heathen at all. It is Wiccan. The Norse, in most cases divided their year into Summer and Winter using Runic Calendar Staves or Primestaves which were like two sided rulers. There was no Samhain celebration for Heathens as she claims. In fact, from my own personal studies there was not symmetrical eight-fold division of the year for ceremonies. For Heathens, most of the years ceremonies seem to have fallen during the Winter period. In her description for Gebo she states that this rune is attributed to Othinn and in the illustration it shows a bearded figure, I take to be Othinn, being crucified on a Gebo rune with two fires on either side which I assume is an allusion to the Poem Grimnismal. I find this a very curious attribution and her reasoning for it is spurious, in my view. After these somewhat strange attributions, she goes on to make some very good points about the function of gift giving in Norse Society and then goes on further to add her usual Wiccan/Ceremonial slant. I won't dwell on her interpretations of the Runes for very long as she states outright that these are her own personal intuitions. I will however say, that as with Gebo, her interpretations are a mix of some very good and valid points concerning Norse lore and society, some completely off the wall observations and deliberate Wiccan and Cermonial Magic influences. She further examines the runes in their divisions of the three aetts. Anyone at least somewhat familiar with the Elder Futhark will know that they are devided into three sets of 8 called the aetts. The second aett runes are where her attributions seem to get a little more strange. Here is where Aswynn's feminist agenda starts to really shine through. She attempts to attribute Hagalaz, Nauthiz and Isa, the first three runes of the second aett to the three Norns. Her reasoning for Hagalaz being “ruled” by Urdhr, for example, is that Hagalaz represents Hel where the dead are. The dead are in the past therefore Hagalaz MUST be ruled by Urdhr the Norn who oversees “that which was.” As reincarnation is an established factor in our lore, Hel could just as easily be viewed as a place of the future as the souls reside there awaiting to be reborn. So this attribution is just another example of the kind of thinking that seems to run rampant in Wiccan related writings. Her reasons for saying that Gullvieg is the mother of the three Norns illustrates this perfectly. Aswynn says, “Alternately we can assume that the triple death of Gullveig gave birth to the three Norns, who come shortly afterwards.” And there you have a common feature in Wiccan writings. Simply because Gullveig is burned three times and there are three Norns then we can assume that the Norns were born of Gullveig? It is that kind of lazy thinking that never ceases to amaze me. Using that kind of reasoning you could postulate the Norns being the daughters of Othinn, Vili and Ve. The fact that Northern Lore is permeated with instances of the number three cropping up, make such statement highly suspect at the very best. She furtherly uses the attempted killing to Gullveig to advance a theory that is frankly tiring to hear and one that many scholars are now disputing. That is the theory of the Great Goddess. “No male god can kill the great goddess, evil or not,” she says. Now not only is Gullveig the mother of the three Norns, she is the “Great Goddess.” I know that I promised not to go on about Aswynn's attributions but I thought these last few examples were good examples of what is common in her descriptions of the runes, which makes it all the more disappointing because she does impart some really good information but if you are not very well versed in the lore you wouldn't be able to pick out the good information from the “assumptions.”
Another aim of Aswynn's in this section is to present the runes in their order as representing a continuing progression from the first rune Fehu to the last rune Othila. Although I do agree that the runes are in the order they are in for a reason, I think that Aswynn stretches a bit to make them fit her system. She likewise forces each rune into a male/female pair which again she had to stretch a bit to make it work. In my opinion the energies represented by the runes are neither male nor female. It is the same energy from the sun that gives life to plants and scorches the earth when not enough water is present. It is the same water that gives us life and that explodes into a destructive force when used to attempt to put out a grease fire. There is no male and female water. There is only water that, depending on the circumstance and what it is combined with can be life giving or life taking. So are the runes.
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