Where do we draw the line? Thoughts on cultural appropriation, Norse paganism and the Viking Oracle.
3:01 pm 5 asatru , cultural appropriation , elder futhark , futhark , norse paganism , paganism , runes , Viking Oracle
Okay, this may seem like a butthurt rant to some, so if you're easily offended by people pointing out other people's bullshit, I suggest you stop reading here. But, if you're open to discussion and are interested in perhaps expanding your view on some things, I invite you to stay and discuss this stuff with me.
I accidentally stumbled upon someone mentioning the Viking Oracle on one of the tarot FB groups, so I thought: "Wow, finally something for a Norse paganism enthusiast! Let's check this stuff out!". At first glance, I was intrigued - it's created by Stacey Demarco and Jimmy Manton who also created the Goddesses and Sirens and Gods and Titans which I quite like and use weekly. Sadly, that's where the good part ends.
"Combining the symbolism and divinatory significance of the 25 Nordic runes (...)" - fuck no! Guys, do we really still have to debunk this shit in 2016? The infamous 25th rune, also known as Wyrd (fate) or the blank rune is not a thing! It really isn't. Elder Futhark consists of 24 runes, none of which is blank. The idea of a blank rune was invented by Ralph Blum in 1982 (yes, this bullshit is spreading for 34 years!).
It's important to mention that Ralph Blum had no idea about Futhark, was not even specifically interested in Norse culture and mythology. What he did was taking the Elder Futhark and adding the blank rune just so that he can lay them in five rows of five runes, only to nonsensically rearrange their original order and apply meanings from I-Ching to them. He was a new age author, which may partially explain why his ideas somehow survived in the new age movement, seeping into wicca, ecclectic spirituality and contemporary paganism over time.
Metaphor time! Imagine someone taking a certain number of the ancient Egyptian hieroplyphs, adding a blank hieroglyph (How can a blank hieroglyph even exist? What would it mean? Why would ancient Egyptians use blank spaces to depict shit?), stripping the hieroglyphs from their cultural meaning and then applying meanings from the Chinese culture to them. This is precisely what Blum did to Elder Futhark. Totally makes sense, right?
Oh, I forgot to mention that the Elder Futhark already has two runes associated with the concept of fate: Perthro (ørlög, the Nornir) and Nauthiz (the need to resist ørlög to survive).
"This deck offers a portal back through time into the intriguing culture of ancient Viking society – moving beyond stereotypes of warriors and raiders and delving into the extraordinary Norse mythos and the intricate and powerful belief systems of this ancient people."
Yeah, sure. Not to mention that in Viking times, people used the Younger Futhark, consisting of 16 runes. So it's historically incorrect to assiciate the Elder Futhark with Vikings. It's even considered to be a faux pas for people interested in Viking reconstruction to use the Elder Futhark instead of Youger Futhark for writing etc.
So I thought I'd look at some of the cards preview: "Maybe it's not that bad! Maybe someone incompetent wrote the description of the deck, but the deck itself can't be that bad, right?" Wrong. We get a preview of two runes - Tiwaz and Othala.
For some reason Othala is spelled "Othila" - there's no such word for Othala in any language. It is Othala in Germanic, Othal in Gothic, Éthel in Old English and Ódhal in Old Norse. Even the polonized version is Odala. Additionally, their "Othila" has a weird additional left leg which is also not historically present in any version of this rune. If anything, there can be two additional legs on both sides, for example used by Nazis (Othala) or usually in flags and emblems - certainly not for divination.
And don't even get me started on Tyr (Tiwaz), depicted as a fucking stone.
I don't want to hop into conclusions about this deck too fast - maybe somehow the book is good, even though the cards and description of the deck are clearly full of errors. I really wish this wasn't the case, but my hopes are not too high for obvious reasons.
I'm not going to pretend like this deck didn't piss me off - it did. I thought about it a lot and I came to a conclusion that it is too important not to say a word about it. In the spiritual community, where people are usually mindful about ethics, respectful of other cultures and passionate about various social affairs, this should be unacceptable.
I have nothing against monetizing your passion - including creating oracle decks as your full-time job. But creating decks and spiritual tools of any kind comes with a huge responsibility. After all, this is the stuff that our young heathens learn from! If you provide straight-up incorrect, culturally questionable knowledge, you're responsible for people who will perceive this fiction as fact. If you wish to spread knowledge in any form it is crucial to do your reaserch, thoroughly and carefully.
Now, a few words about cultural appropriation. Imagine how hurtful your creation can possibly be for the people who are native to the culture you're using in your works. In this case, the Elder Futhark gets butchered (not the first and probably not the last time). Something to consider:
Do you know how to carve them?
Do you know how to interpret them?
Do you know how to tint them?
Do you know how to test them?
Do you know how to ask them?
Do you know how to offer them?
Do you know how to send them?
Do you know how to stop them?
Einar Selvik, a norwegian artist and musician who happens to be very passionate about runes, in each and every booklet accompanying his Runaljod trilogy (Wardruna) takes the time to explain his approach to people who might be less familiar with runes and their cultural context:
"A lot can be said about the modern use of runes, but sadly not much positive. It is obvious that in pre-historic and historical times people has used runes for magical purposes, but the historical sources reveal only fragments of information on how this was actually done. This opens up an enormous room for personal interpretation and allows authors to shamelessly mix runes with tarot, Kabbalah, astrology, numerology, yoga and so on. Some authors write page after page about what colors, gemstones, tree sorts, star signs etc. each rune represents. This is of course nonsense. When studying the history of runic lore and how we know what we think we know about the runes, it soon becomes very clear that many things that are presented as truth in the majority of modern books on runes are actually mostly fiction, bold assumptions and the given author's personal perception of the runes. If their theories drive from any tradition it's likely that it doesn't go further back than the 1980s when the New Age rune 'tradition' was blooming. Since then it seems most authors on these subjects has continued to move in a direction that takes the understanding of runes further away from its origin, even though good information is more easily available than ever.One should not climb a tree without roots, so my advice to those of you who want to learn about runes is to lay a solid fundament of factual knowledge about them before you start going into the intuitive and magical bit."
Thank gods there are people who take their time to educate others on this subject.
Personally, even though I study the Futhark for over a decade, I don't think of myself as an expert on the subject. On the contrary - I stay very humble and respectful about it, because through these many years of study I reapetedly come to realize how little I know. So I invite anyone interested in runes to stay respectful - especially if your roots are not Norse or Germanic. As always, feel free to mix and match stuff as you please in your personal practice, but do not share it with other people as fact or actual knowledge - rather as your thoughts and feelings. Being socially responsible for the knowledge we spread is very important and shouldn't be taken lightly.
I would love to open a discussion on this topic, so I'd appreciate it if you commented with your thoughts - I'm very curious about other people's opinions on this.