Where do we draw the line? Thoughts on cultural appropriation, Norse paganism and the 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?

/Hávamál 144/

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."

/Runaljod-Ragnarok booklet/ 
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.


  1. Thanks for the heads up on the Viking Oracle - I won't be getting it... oh, and that was a rather lovely and totally valid rant! :)

    1. I'm glad I could be of help and thank you, Lisa! :)

  2. I was born in Norway and spent my whole childhood there. While the deck does contain a lot of inaccuracies and the pictures don't feel Scandinavian at all, I still am glad I have it. I can replace my own understandings and simply use the deck as a tool. It is a step above writing the names of gods and concepts on flash cards and reading that way. It's probably healthy, really, for those of us who identify with that tradition to have the experience of this deck existing. It was very enlightening for me to watch the TV show Vikings, though I didn't go past the first season. I was like, "This is what people think?" Cases like these remind us that the same thing is happening with all the other traditions we are drawing from. With so much to learn in the world and some of us not identifying with a single tradition, it's impossible to fully understand everything that speaks to you. Not everything needs to be "authentic" to serve a purpose. I'd certainly go about creating this deck differently, but I don't have the time, talent and understanding to do it, so I choose to use what I have available and view the meanings in my own context.

  3. Thanks for the rant. I agree with Lisa; totally valid. I was very skeptical of this deck (I just recently saw it for the first time) mostly from the artistic side, but I was willing to chalk that up to personal aesthetic bias. I was curious if you had thoughts on the issue of including the runes in the deck, rather than going with a straight up oracle deck. I guess the thought was, 'if you're going to do a rune reading then throw runes'. Personally, I'm not sure what the advantage would be to using the deck instead of my runes, but I'm always willing to listen. The main reason for me writing this is that I have had friends tell me I should make a tarot deck. I refuse because I don't know the tarot anywhere near well enough to even try. So they say, 'do runes then, you read runes'. The thought intrigues me, but I'm not sure I understand them deeply enough to create a deck that would be truly useful to people.
    Kevin Cain

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment - I have to say I absolutely love your art! As for including the runes in an oracle deck (whether as a part of a larger deck or on their own), in my personal opinion it is profanation of the Futhark. I realize my opinion might be offensive to some people but it comes from a genuine place in the heart of someone who, over the years, has developed deep love for the runes and is also experienced enough with card divination (be it tarot or oracle) to know the difference between these systems. For people who got to know Futhark first, this is rather obvious - as you mentioned above, runes should be cast, not layed down in card spreads. Those who are familiar with tarot/oracle and want to learn runes usually treat Futhark as yet another form of divination, often not being aware of the difference between cards and runestones.
      I thought about rune decks many times and always ended up with a conclusion that they're pointless, somewhat disrespectful towards Futhark and make people cognitively lazy (it's always easier to look at pretty pictures rather than simple staves, right?). The quote from Havamal 144 comes to mind yet again. I personally think that creating a set of paintings about the Futhark is a great tribute and a form of deepening one's understanding of the runes but as an oracle deck probably won't be equally useful to everyone - we all understand and interpret symbols and abstract concepts differently, after all. Tarot is a much more forgiving system in this case, as it is much less hermetic, less ancient and (in my opinion) less sacred.


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