Runes v. Tarot, Part I

My last post focused on my new, self-made runes. They are incredibly cool, if I do say so myself, and I’ve put the cards aside for a couple weeks in order to really work closely with them. It has been enlightening and empowering in many ways.

And of course, since this is a Tarot blog, I made it a point to say in that post that I would not be writing about runes very often afterwards, if at all.

So what gives with this post?

Well, for one, I’m currently experiencing some writer’s block with my other Tarot posts. Perhaps it’s because I’ve temporarily put my cards away in favor of my stones, but I just can’t seem to get my words out (and truthfully, I can’t just blame this on the runes, since the dry spell began long before my stones even had letters on them, or were even my stones). I’ve got two WIPs in particular that I really want to share, but both of them have hit a wall, so they must wait until another time.

But I also made kind of a big deal about the runes in that last post, and then just sort of dropped it before it really felt finished. I think I ought to provide a follow up. But worry not, for this post is not strictly about the runes. It is a post about both the runes and the Tarot. This one belongs on my blog, and I hope it will provide some context that will make the previous post feel a little more at home here, as well.

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One of the main points of my rune post was that, since they were crafted by my hand, I feel a very strong connection with my runestones, especially compared to the connections I feel with my cards. This statement might be misleading, because despite the fact that I like my runes so much, I have to admit that, as a system for introspection and divination, I find the Tarot to be superior.

So, in a nutshell, the point of my post today is to answer these questions: why do I think the Tarot is superior, and, despite its general superiority, are there some things for which the runes are better suited?

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The short answer to the first question is that the Tarot is a better divinatory system than the runes because of its comparative depth. There are 78 cards and only 25 runes.*

Here is one website that I’ve found to be particularly helpful with learning to use the runes, and under the heading of runecasting is a brief discussion of divination in general followed by principles of runic divination. Divination works (it says), because the tools for divining represent the entire Universe on a symbolic level. The complete set of tools mirrors the total reality, and by randomly selecting some runes, your subconscious is gleaning what it needs from relevant aspects of a greater whole. I actually like this notion very much, that the divination tools are a model of the macrocosm; so, according to this website, my rune pouch is a tiny little universe. Pretty cool.

Except, there’s a lot missing from the universe of my rune pouch. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Tarot, but the runes just are not that comprehensive. Sure, I can see how they could pretty well describe the worldview of a pre-modern, northern European pagan, but it still strikes me as incomplete, and anyway, that worldview isn’t exactly “universal”, is it?

The Tarot, on the other hand, is so much more versatile. I would say that the runes are more limited than the cards in meaning, and not just in number. Each rune has both a phonetic letter and a symbolic meaning attached to it. Since these ideograms are the pieces which make up a real written language, there isn’t much leeway when it comes to “intuitive interpretation”. Each rune means what it means, and that’s that. The cards were made originally for gaming, though, so in truth, there is no fixed deeper meaning aside from numerical value (no matter what the occultists say). Sure, there is a generally agreed-upon way to interpret the Tarot, but there is no law. According to one system, this card means this, but according to another, it means that. There’s much more room for the intuitive among us to make what we will of the cards. Add to that the fact that most cards today have pictures (and even the oldest had pictures on 22 of the 78 cards) that aid interpretation, while the runes may as well be abstract cuneiform, and you start to see what I mean. The cards are just more flexible and accessible.

I’ll grant that, despite the runes’ limits I mentioned above, there’s extrapolation of meaning, which frees things up a bit. For example, the rune called Ansuz literally means “mouth”, but for divination purposes, that meaning is expanded to include things like advice or wisdom or communication. So I suppose that, with enough contemplation, anything that could possibly happen in this world might be assigned a rune.

But it’s not really a question of the meanings of specific cards versus specific runes in my mind, anyway; it’s in the system.

The Tarot is constructed in such a way that it actually does align with my philosophical conception of the Universe. There are four “worldly” elements, and a fifth, “aethereal” element. There are four “mundane” suits in the Tarot, and a fifth “spiritual” one. Each of the five suits portrays a progression or a gradation (for the Minors, it’s a progression of 10, plus 4. For the Majors, it’s a progression of 20, plus 2. Very mathematically pleasing). You also have court cards to stand in for people. To me, the Tarot is a much better model of the Universe than anything else I’ve encountered.**

I guess it boils down to personal preference, but the Tarot just gives more nuance to a reading, and I really like that. However, depending on my mood, sometimes the runes are the better tools for finding what I’m searching for.

Well, this entry has turned out to be a bit longer than I thought it would be, so I think, rather than cram more in here and end with a mind-numbingly long post, I’m going to return later with yet another Tarot/rune post to wrap things up. Stay tuned.

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The Multiverse in my bedroom.

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*My set of runestones numbers 25, although to be technical, only 24 of the stones actually have runes inscribed upon them. The 25th is blank, referred to in new-age runecasting circles as the Wyrd rune (and it is only in new-age runecasting that there is any reference to a blank rune). As I was slowly familiarizing myself with the runes over the last few months, I was constantly flip-flopping back and forth on the matter of the Wyrd. Some people find it very useful, and some people are vehemently against it. I was still unsure of the utility of the Wyrd when I was searching the Icelandic sand for my stones a few weeks ago, but I picked up 25 because I figured I’d kick myself if I went home with only 24 just to decide after all that I wanted to use that unmarked extra. Having made that decision, I’ve since found that I actually do really like the Wyrd, and though I’d like to explain my rationale, I think I’ve rambled far enough away from the point of this post that I’ll put an end to this footnote.

**I suppose the system of the runes could be similarly broken down: there are 25, so numerically, there’s enough for one of each element within each element. This isn’t the traditional breakdown of the runes, which is supposed to be three groups of 8 plus the Wyrd, but I guess it could still work. I’ll have to study my runes anew with this in mind.

Runes: That Other Way to Divine.

Divination. Such a strange, misunderstood concept. I’ve written a little bit about my thoughts on divination in general here, and believe it or not, I do actually intend to follow up that incomplete post with a conclusion someday.

But that’s not (directly) why I’m here today.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are myriad other ways aside from the revered Tarot to commune with oracular forces. By and large, though, I am fairly disinterested in these, with one notable exception:

The Runes.

This is a Tarot blog, and a Tarot blog it shall remain; but divination is a major theme throughout, and I feel compelled to dedicate at least one post to these other symbols of divination.*

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I recently returned from a trip to Iceland, the land where my beloved Eddas were penned. And, my favorite cycle of mythic literature aside, I have never been to a country so starkly beautiful.

Now, the runes were not invented in Iceland, either in a mythic or an historic sense. However, because the only surviving versions of the myth in which Odin obtains the runes were written there, I say: close enough. The letters of the land may have first been gotten elsewhere, but they were used to their most lasting effect in Iceland.**

As a novice but eager runecaster, I fashioned my own runes while I was there. It seemed only fitting. I selected for my lots several small and smooth igneous stones from a beach of black sand on the southernmost coast of the island.

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This is the place.

Keeping watch over the beach a little ways off-shore were some massive, towering boulders, called the “troll-rocks” by the locals. I couldn’t have selected a better setting for my personal Odinic rune-quest if I lived in a fantasy novel.

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Admittedly not the best photo of the Troll Rocks, and I’m sorry to say that after snapping this one, I got so caught up in the moment of being at the beach in fucking Iceland that I forgot to take more, even though I’d meant to. You get the idea, though.

As I searched in the sand, I instructed one of my friends on the basic lore and what to look for so he, too, could fashion a set of runes (a fun Hierophant moment for me). Once we’d gathered the proper number of stones, my friends and I left the beach. Before we’d gone too far, though, we paused, and we gave thanks to the land for our runestones with pentacles and prayer.

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Just for fun, this is some of what was behind us while we were on the beach.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I sat down to inscribe my stones with the runic ideograms. Afterwards, I left them out to be imbued with the energy of Iceland’s “midnight sun” while I slept.

I must admit, part of my reason for relaying this story here is just so I can bask in the reminisces of my epic journey. But it’s also to illustrate that my new runes were hand-selected and hand-crafted by me, for me, under intentionally symbolic circumstances. Prior to my touch, they were shaped by nothing more or less than the four elements.

None of my many Tarot decks come close to this type of personalized (and elemental) connection, and while such a connection isn’t necessary for effective divinatory tools, it goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong; I do feel a connection with all of my cards. But not exactly this kind of connection.***

I had already been dabbling in runic divination for a few months before this trip. I even considered for a minute re-branding this site as a Tarot and rune blog, but decided against it. You see, the runes do have an intense hold on my imagination, very much like the Tarot. Unlike with the cards, however, my thoughts and feelings regarding the runes are not (for me) as easily put into words (or maybe I just don’t feel like trying). And, despite my occasional struggles elucidating abstractions on this blog, the cards simply offer far more raw material for word-smithing than do the runes.

As tools for divination, I believe the runes are intrinsically the same as the Tarot; yet they are their own entity – one that provides a fascinating counterpoint against which to compare and appreciate the cards as symbols and as systems. The two are as fundamentally different and as fundamentally related as the Earth and Sky.

Or that’s how I think about it, anyway.

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Wrought of Fire and Earth; sculpted by Sky and Sea.

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*Like the Tarot, the runes are not confined only to divinatory uses. However, because divination is common to them both, and for the sake of simplicity, it is what I’ve decided to focus on for this post.

**I’m speaking metaphorically here, since the Eddas were not actually written in runes. To be technical, the runes Odin obtained numbered only eighteen, and are not the same literal runes as those most commonly used for writing and divination, which number 24. Odin’s runes are rather symbolic of all written language (and otherworldly magic), whether it be the ancient Norse with its runic scripts or the subsequent old Icelandic with its more or less Latin-ized alphabet, with which the Eddas were actually composed.

***Someday, I would like to design my own pack of Tarot cards. But that’s really nothing more than a lofty pipe-dream at present.

On Divination.

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently on the nature of divination. It’s a subject that interests him, I know, but I also know that he doesn’t practice it regularly – in fact, he practices it far less even than I do.* So after a little chatter about Tarot cards (in particular about matching them up with scenes and characters from Star Wars and Harry Potter), I asked him: what do you really think about divination?

He told me that it “has its merits,” but that it’s also “very hazy”. It interests him as a theoretical concept, but he doesn’t put much stock into its practical application. I agreed with the point he was getting at, but I sensed that he held a different attitude about it than I did (i.e., that divination might be a foolish magical endeavor because of its haziness), so I began to explain to him why divination is hazy.

You see, divination is necessarily an inexact science (I said to him). If you could divine with any significant degree of clarity, then the cards aren’t really showing you what the future may hold; they are instead telling you what you are going to do. It’s a subtle difference. Your will counts for nothing in a world in which the future is easily and clearly deciphered. Divination as it actually is only suggests the most likely outcome based on the moment of asking. Because the future isn’t written in stone, only suggested at a moment in time, we get hazy answers.

This of course raises that sticky issue of whether or not the futureĀ is written in stone – do we humans have Free Will? After all, can free will really exist simultaneously with a pack of cards that can show the future? Wouldn’t accurate divination prove free will to be an illusion? Well, maybe. Me, I have my own views on the role free will plays in our lives, but I want to try to steer this post away from that lengthy philosophical digression.** For the purposes of the discussion at hand, all I really think I need to say is that hazy answers in divination do allow for the existence of free will, if its existence is something you need to believe.

With hazy divination you may, for example, see a potentially negative outcome. It won’t be clearly spelled out for you, but you can see some ominous signs. Because of free will, you (supposedly) have some capacity to act and avoid that outcome. But if you do so successfully, it negates the divination. Forget hazy, now it’s totally inaccurate! Can you really put any stock into divination if you can change it? What’s the point?

Of course, we want to be able to change the course of the future if a bad reading is given to us. I’m pretty sure that is the point of divination, at least for many folks, and that point assumes at least some degree of free will on the part of the querent.

As you can probably see, it becomes very easy to unravel the idea of divination once the initial thread of doubt is grasped. We want to see the future, even though knowing what the future holds deprives us of our sense of free will. When we see what we don’t like, we want to exercise that free will that we’ve just let go of in order to change that which has already been written. Assuming that you can change it after all, it means only that the divination never truly worked in the first place, and you’re right back to square one. It all becomes a big fat paradox, and the clearer the information given in the cards, the more absurdly pronounced this paradox becomes. With “haze”, it becomes easier for us to gloss over quandaries like this and chalk it up to forces beyond our comprehension.

I do not think haziness is a bad thing at all. It allows for the illusion of free will, and anyway, it keeps the Tarot interesting. It’s all about interpretation, and it’s a mental exercise. It’s not supposed to be easy; if it was, everyone would do it and there would be no skeptics. The paradox I spoke of in the previous paragraph is a little unsettling, but I don’t think it’s damning (I’ll get to why I feel this way later). There is, however, an issue I have with the implications of divination that has nothing to do with my friend’s reservations concerning haziness.

Reading the future necessarily takes your awareness away from the present. Considering that, more often than not, people approach divination with some hope of achieving eventual happiness, the very act of divining denies them that happiness by placing it somewhere in the future (or possibly the past). Happiness is abstract, and it is transitory. It’s not a “thing” that can ever be “achieved”. I believe the only way to truly be happy is to just be happy, right now.*** In other words, if you are unhappy, all divination ultimately does for you is keep the happiness you seek forever just beyond your reach.

And that is the great conundrum, at least for me: here I am, a man with a fairly extensive Tarot blog, and divination – admittedly not the only use for the cards, but easily the most prevalent – is nothing but a paradoxical, nonsensical notion that, whether it’s accurate or not, only serves to deprive me of the present moment. What gives? Am I just wasting my time? Is divination really just bullshit?

All this brings me around to a question with which I probably should have led: I’ve been using the word “divination” pretty freely, especially in the context of asking about the future, but is divination the same thing as reading the future? This question was not one I posed to my friend that evening, and it really only occurred to me later on that I should have asked it. When I mentioned divination to him, it seemed pretty obvious that he assumed I was talking about seeing the future, and so that premise was taken for granted for the remainder of the conversation. Clearly defining the word makes all the difference in the world, though, and when I continue this post, I intend to show that, while gazing into the future may indeed be a fruitless endeavor, divination doesn’t have to be.

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*And for all the time I spend contemplating Tarot cards, only a relatively small portion of that is actually spent “divining”.

**At any rate, I don’t know how clearly I could communicate my thoughts on the matter of fate v. free will, because they aren’t exactly linear. I may make an attempt at some point to write a post about it in the future, because I do think it’s an important dilemma any diviner must face at some point.

***Easier said than done, to be sure.