The following blog post is from an article that was first seen in the The Asatru Community Inc. ‘s charter members magazine, Mimir’s Well. I have an exclusive runic article series called “Wandering with the Runes” in Mimir’s Well.
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Note: This blog post is an edited and expanded version of that article.
UPG and the Runes
Unverified Personal Gnosis is a tentative subject within heathen circles. But what is gnosis? Gnosis is the common Greek noun for knowledge. Gnosis is defined as a dualistic knowledge in the sense of mystical enlightenment or “insight”. Unverified Personal Gnosis is defined as the phenomenological concept that an individual’s spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being generalizable to the experience of others. As attempts at recreating or restarting ancient religions like Asatru/Heathenry continue, the difficulty in telling the difference between historically attested sources and modern, personal interpretations grows. UPG grew out of the need for shorthand in differentiating the between the academic and the experiential. It would be inappropriate to dismiss out-of-hand a new experience.
All religious experiences, all shamanic experiences, all myths and legends started at some point in the human past with one person or one group’s experience. Every religion and/or magical practice started as mouth to ear teachings of a shaman to a student. When enough people shared the same experiences and beliefs, it became shared personal gnosis (SPG). When groups of people in larger region shared the same beliefs and experiences, it became a cult. When larger groups in much larger regions started to share beliefs, it became a religion. We must remember that it all started with one shaman’s experience and then the shaman sharing it with one student or a group of students
When approaching a subject like the runes or even Asatru in general, you can approach it in a couple ways:
- You can approach the subject on an intellectual level. You can read book after book, listen to podcast after podcast, and read scholarly paper after scholarly paper. You can know the subject by rout and recitation. Without experiencing the runes or other religious rituals, the subject will only be words on a page to a person.
- You can approach the subject from an experiential path as well. You can have a really powerful experience in Blót or Sumbel. You can be really good at meditation and trance work. You can have great experiences in your mind’s eye. Without academic knowledge on the subject, you will have NO context!
People come to the runes and/or Asatru with greater or lesser degree of either approach. However, I believe that you NEED to have a grounding in BOTH to have the whole story.
Runes are a very esoteric subject. You can learn about the historical and archaeological origins of the runes. You can learn all of the linguistic and etymological origins of the names of the runes and the language they are derived from. All you will learn about are words on a page of book. The Runes must be experienced! You can’t truly know a subject until you’ve had some experience on it.
Some People will tell you that the runes are just an alphabet and nothing more. They will tell you accounts in the lore are too scant to base a magical practice on. In my opinion (UPG), I feel those people do not have the whole story! The Runes are a system of magic! They are windows on the creative and destructive forces of the multiverse. When someone tells me the runes are nothing more than letters, I’ll be honest and say it infuriates me. Yes, they represent letters. But when I look at these symbols, I cannot not feel their essence and power. Before the runes were used as an alphabet, they were symbols. They stood for cosmological and mythological concepts to our early ancestors. They were symbol-sounds to be intoned for magical purposes.
When I am confronted with the “alphabet-only” crowd, I have to remind myself that those people are coming at the runes from a purely or almost purely historical reconstructionist background. There’s nothing wrong with historical reconstruction! We need historical reconstructionism because it tells us where we’ve been and what our ancient culture was like!
However, we need new experiences! Listening to a person’s UPG can provide us with those new ideas, concepts, and experiences. It can help give us an understanding and an insight where we had none. We can’t simply reject those ideas out of hand! If our ideas do not grow and do not expand, we become stuck and stagnant. We go nowhere.
All of us have to remember that people are wired differently. Some folks love history and actual events. Other folk like to delve deep into esoteric mysteries. Our diversity is what makes us stronger. It is sad that there are arguments on both sides of that fence. People arguing back and forth with such vitriol and resentment when, in reality, they are both in the right! We need both sides to tell the tale. We need both the academic and the esoteric when taking up the runes!
It has been my experience when I read a book on the runes, I have seen the author write about:
- the history
- the lore
- what other authors have said on the runes
- their OWN experiences/insight/UPG with the runes
UPG is a part of runic studies. History and academics is the other part to runic studies. We must carefully delineate what are runic facts and what are runic UPG insights. The one thing we should NOT do is: to present UPG as fact!
In my opinion, a classic example that doesn’t make those careful distinctions between fact and UPG is: Ralph Blum’s Book of the Runes. I believe that Blum’s work is his own UPG on the runes that he presented as runic facts. I believe he took his background in divination with I Ching and approached the runes with this other system in mind. I also believe the invention of the “blank rune” was a marketing ploy on behalf of his publisher. They wanted to market the Book of the Runes with a set of the runes. So they may have approached Mr. Blum to come up with a 25th rune known as the “blank rune”. Whether Mr. Blum intended to have the “blank rune” on his own or not, it was clearly to make it easier for the rune sets to fit nicely into the packaging at that time. Now I will say that Mr. Blum’s work was one of the very first books on the runes in the late 1980’s and many newbies in the runes, like myself, had purchased it. In my opinion, The Book of the Runes is only worth buying for the rune set that is included. The “blank rune” can serve as your replacement if you happen to lose one of your runes in the set.
Problems with UPG
The main problem with UPG, whether it is on the runes or on the faith of Asatru, is that many people have a hard time presenting their experiences to others both online and offline. They are often met with skepticism and utter disregard. I believe we should have open forums to talk about our experiences with the runes, the gods, or any holy power that we encounter in meditative trance or elsewhere.
We should NOT shame anyone anywhere when they wish to express their experiences to us. We must have an open mind. You never know what we may take away from the conversation. We must have those conversations if we wish to see the practice of rune magic to grow and if we wish to see the faith of Asatru to grow as well!
The other problem with UPG is that some people feel the need to speak as an authority on what a god or goddess may want/like or what a rune is really supposed to mean. In my opinion, we cannot go around saying that we are a master of the runes or as an authority in the faith of Asatru/Heathenry. We should NOT be strutting around as an authority on anything really. We are ALL students and we will continue to learn throughout our lifetime.
UPG is a personal thing. It is a subjective point of view that is specific to the individual. My experience will not be the exact same experiences as the person next to me. Mileage will vary! We must be able to express our experiences and we must not act as an authority on anything!
In regards to Rune Lore for All, my “Runic Insights” are a combination of my meditative practice, my UPG experiences, AND my own academic research. I attempt to balance those insights between both approaches. I read multiple books on the runes and on multiple runic systems. I listen to informative podcasts like Northern Runes Radio (NRR). I meditate on each rune and allow the rune to speak to me. Each rune will let the “runester” know how it wishes to called, how it wishes it to be known, and what the nature of that rune is. I do try my hardest to distill all of my knowledge and all of my experiences into an easy-to-read format. I don’t like to bog people down with references or bibliographies too much. There are posts on my blog where I do cite my references. For now, I want my blog to be approachable to anyone no matter where they are on life’s path and no matter how much they know or don’t know about the runes.
It’s my hope that each entry has helped and informed all of you! I hope Rune Lore for ALl has excited your interest into looking into this system of self-discovery for yourselves!