The uthark-theory and rune magic in modern esotericism

January 28th 2007 - by O.S.

"The Uthark has revealed itself as a very powerful tool for entering the secrets of the runes and for exploring their nightside."
-Thomas Karlsson
The runes are the 'alphabet' that was used by the Germanic peoples of ancient Europe. This alphabet was the first to be used in northern Europe, and it was not until the Middle Ages that it was gradually replaced by the Latin alphabet. The oldest runic finds date back to around 200 CE, and it is generally assumed that the runes were developed no later than the first century CE.

Runologists do not agree on the exact origin of the runes, but there is a general consensus about the rough outlines of the way they came into being. The runes show so much similarities with certain Mediterranean alphabets, that it is practically impossible that they were developed without an influence of Mediterranean culture. It is as yet uncertain whether it was the Latin, Greek or North-Etruscan alphabet that was the precursor of the runic alphabet.

There is also uncertainty about the exact reasons for the adaption of the writing system. It seems clear though, that the runes were quickly used both for profane (the marking of an object's owner, for example), magic and religious purposes. How this was done exactly, we do not know, although hints can be found in the extant inscriptions. During the last few centuries, since the waning of runic use, this has given rise to speculations about the possible magical practice of the rune row.

In this article, I will focus on a certain theory about the magical practice of the runes, namely the so-called uthark-theory.[1] This theory was developed in the 1920s and 30s by the Swedish scholar of Slavic, Sigurd Agrell, who, besides his main scientific discipline, was also a thrifty runologist. His theory has never gained much support inside runology, but it has had influence on the use of rune magic in esoteric circles. Especially the Swedish organisation Dragon Rouge employs Agrell's uthark-theory in its curriculum. I will first give a short explanation of Agrell's uthark-theory and its reception in runology. Thereafter I will summarise how Dragon Rouge main man Thomas Karlsson places the uthark-theory in a modern esoteric context.

The basic premise of Agrell's uthark-theory is that there existed an uthark rune row. Traditionally, the runic 'alphabet' begins with the runes {f,u,■,a,r,k}[2], but according to Agrell the {f} must be placed at the end, so that the rune row now begins with {u,■,a,r,k}. To understand why he posits this thesis, we must must look at some of Agrell's findings.

First of all, he presumes that the runes were modelled after a Mediterranean example, something that is still accepted by science. Besides that, he presumes that the magic use of the runes is also after Mediterranean example, and he summarises this as follows:

Die Runenschrift ist nach der Auffassung vieler Runologen von Anfang an eine Zuberschrift gewesen. Weil eine solche nicht durchaus selbstńndig entstanden sein kann, muss man annehmen, dass die Runenreihe einst im Anschluss an eine in der spńtantiken Zeit im r÷mischen Kaiserreich gebrauchte Buchstabenmystik gebildet worden ist. (Agrell 1932: 1)[3]

Agrell thus assumes that runes have had a magical purpose from the start, which was incidentally also the general opinion in his time. This consensus was severely challenged in 1952 by Anders BŠksted in his dissertation Mňlruner og Troldruner. BŠksted asserted that Germanic culture at that point in history had no use for a writing culture, and according to him, the runes are best seen as an initially trivial invention, without much practical or magical value.[4] This view is not entirely failsafe either, and the current scientific view is more pragmatic. The runes are simply a writing system, which can have profane or magical value, depending on the context.[5]

Be that is it may, for Agrell, a magical use of runes is self-explanatory and even of prime importance. Moreover, there is the classical origin of the runes. As basic element of runic letter magic, Agrell takes the numeric values of the signs, which brings us into the area of numerology. The Greek alphabet, like the rune row, contains 24 signs, which each have a value between 1 and 24. When the Germanic people inherited writing, they also inherited numerology, according to Agrell. To find evidence for this, there must be visible similarities between the magical use of runes and the classical alphabets. Much of Agrell's runologic work is dedicated to comparing runic inscriptions and individual runes with their classical counterparts.

He does this on different levels. First of all, he attempts to prove correspondence in meaning between the rune row and different classical sources. In chapter 6 of Senantik mysteriereligion och nordisk runmagi, for example, he treats extensively a 'divination device' from the city of Pergamon, which contains different area filled with symbols and Greek letters. As he shows, the device has 24 of such areas, and he proceeds to link each one to a rune, going by the symbolic content. Like the classical letters, each rune has a name, and moreover a symbolic meaning, related to that name. By interpreting this meaning and comparing it to the contents of the areas on the device, Agrell describes a system of correspondences. He repeats this process in many of his works, with different sources, like manuscripts containing classical letter magic and letter numerology.

To make the system numerologically sound, Agrell came to the conclusion the the f-rune should not be placed at the beginning of the rune row, but at its end. In this manner, the u-rune receives the numeric value 1, the -rune 2, etc. To give an example: the u-rune should be the first, because: (a) its rune name űruz means 'aurochs' (primordial ox), and the animal is seen as the first of the living creatures in Mithraic and Zoroastrian teachings. (b) also the Greek alpha and Hebrew aleph are related to the animal. Turned on its side, the letter A (like the u-rune) resembles an ox's head with horns, etc. In this fashion, Agrell gives a host of examples for each rune, which should confirm its particular place in the rune row.

Next, if one accepts the rune order, and therefore the numeric values, all sorts of numerological patterns can be found in actual runic inscriptions. By adding up the values of the runes in an inscription, Agrell finds meaningful numbers, which can be traced back to smaller numbers and their own particular meaning. Use of the number 10, for example in an inscription with the value 100 = 10x10 as total, can point to the use of death magic, because the tenth rune of the uthark, i ('ice'), is the death rune, according to Agrell.

Especially this last method has earned Agrell a lot of criticism from other runologists, because it appears in practice that it is extremely hard to derive an consistent numerological system from the runic inscriptions Agrell uses as a source. This is proven in detail by BŠksted in his criticism of Agrell's theory.[6] I will not further elaborate on the exact details of this criticism, but it has become clear that the theory is not historically plausible.

At the same time, Agrell's theory has proven to be appealing to those who want to practice rune magic in our age. Most books on modern (esoteric) rune magic use the regular futhark rune row, but Agrell's legacy lives on in the rune magic of the Swedish organisation Dragon Rouge.

Dragon Rouge is a so-called Left Hand Path religion, which, among other things, means that they emphasise the revaluation of aspects of life, that are not appreciated by the larger monotheistic religions. Concepts like the following come to mind: 'the female', 'darkness', and as the name suggests, 'that which is on the left hand side', 'the hidden'. Besides this, Dragon rouge is an eclectic religion, incorporating elements from different religious traditions and mythologies in its own. Some inspirations include Qliphotic Kabbalah, Tantra, shamanism, and different kinds of dragon symbolism. Another imporant element is the Nordic/Scandinavian branch of Germanic mythology, and rune magic. I will focus on that last element. More information about Dragon Rouge can be found via the list of sources below.

Nordic (pre-christian) magic and rune magic are important subjects for Dragon Rouge, which becomes clear from the fact that they have organised courses on the subject. The exact content of these courses is unknown to me, but much of it can be derived from the book that Dragon Rouge founder Thomas Karlsson wrote about rune magic: Uthark. Nightside of the Runes. As the title suggests, Karlsson utilises Agrell's uthark-theory. He considers this theory a valuable tool in understanding the 'dark' side of the runes. As he writes in the introduction:

The runes consist of a light outer form and a dark inner dimension. [...] The runosophy of this book is based on a disputed thought that the rune row is written in a cipher [the futhark rune row, O.S.] to hide its secret meaning from uninitiates. The hidden and dark side of the rune row has been called the Uthark. [...] Many have doubted the historical anchorage of the Uthark and many deep and advanced magical books based on the Futhark have been written. But the Uthark has revealed itself as a very powerful tool for entering the secrets of the runes and for exploring their nightside. (Karlsson 2002: 8)

On the one hand, Karlsson states that the historical accuracy of the theory is not entirely relevant to his current magic practice, and at the same time he confesses that he sees something in Agrell's theory, because of the extensive numerological correspondences. In chapter two of his book, Karlsson treats the entire uthark, where he, like Agrell, emphasises the symbolic value of the runes, their names, and their numeric value. An important difference with Agrell is that Karlsson treats the system as a given truth, and mostly writes on the correspondences within Nordic mythology and culture. Only a few times does he refer to concepts from antiquity, which Agrell does much more often, of course, to empower his own theory.

After this, in chapter three, Karlsson describes a spiritual landscape, using the nine worlds of Nordic mythology. Like the sephiroth of Kabbalah, these nine worlds form a sort of 'tree of life'. Between these worlds there are 24 paths, each represented by a rune. In this way, the runes are a way to travel between spiritual worlds. Karlsson proceeds to give examples of how runes can be placed in different diagrams to facilitate contemplation of their relations.

In chapter five, Karlsson refers to the Eddas and the Icelandic sagas as a historical basis for practical rune magic. Derived from the Eddic poem Hßvamßl he lists eight processes that make up rune magic: "carve, read, colour, test, ask, offer, send, sacrifice". Each of these processes is placed in a practical context, so as to be interpretable for use by the reader.

The short chapter six is dedicated to runic yoga, a system of imitating rune shapes with the body, originally devised in earlier German runic esotericism. Karlsson does not give many supplements to this system. This is also seen as a way of using runes in ritual practice.

The seventh chapter describes that for which runes are most often used in modern esotericism: divination. Here Karlsson presents his interpretations of the runes in terms of advice and prediction. He uses the method that is regularly used in the explanation of tarot cards, except a new suggestion for a system of casting the runes, based on the five Nordic elements of earth, water, air, fire and ice.

Chapter eight contains a comparison of Karlsson's 'runosophy' and Kabbalah, in which he also refers to the works of Johannes Bureus, who made this comparison several centuries ago. He adds his own system to this, in which he places ten runes with their respective sephiroth. Such comparisons illustrate clearly the wide orientation of Dragon Rouge, which attaches great value to a broad spiritual view.

The final chapter is prehaps most relevant in the context of Dragon Rouge, because he relates the uthark to "the dark side". He emphasises that there is no strict moral separation between light and darkness in Nordic mythology. Light reflects order and harmony, while darkness represents unknown, powerful forces that are waiting to be discovered. This goes perfectly with the practice of Dragon Rouge, which is geared toward such 'dark' magic. The uthark stand for the dark side ("nightside") of the runes, the key to power and wisdom:

The Uthark have [sic] been interpreted as the dark and inner version of the rune row. It begins with two very dark runes which symbolizes the descent to the dark worlds. The Uthark ends with two exact opposites to these runes which represent the ascent from the underworld and illumination in the secrets of the runes. (Karlsson 2002: 126)

What follows is an interpretation of the different runes as steps in a spiritual journey through darkness, in search of enlightenment.

As I have shown, the uthark theory lives on in the current practical rune magic of Thomas Karlsson and Dragon Rouge. Of course, there are differences. For Agrell, the uthark theory is purely scientific, and geared towards proving that the rune row was just as suitable for numerological and letter magical purposes as other alphabets. Furthermore, Agrell believed that the runen were actually used in this way in a specificially numerological context, in different inscriptions.

Karlsson distances himself from this alleged historical background, and is mainly interested in the current magical merits of the uthark theory. He interprets the uthark as the dark, magical counterpart of the futhark. The use of the uthark theory gives the rune magician many numerological and correspondential possibilities, and this makes the theory especially suited to theoretical and practical use within the Dragon Rouge movement. Because it is possible to make comparisons with many other magical systems, the runes can now be incorporated into the eclectic system of Dragon Rouge magic.
[1] The printing in bold of runic transcriptions is a runological convention to signify that runic signs are represented.

[2] The ■-rune has the phonetic value of [th] in English thin.

[3] [Translation O.S.] According to many runologists, the rune alphabet has been a magical alphabet from the beginning. Because such a thing cannot have come into existence on its own, one must assume that the runes have been modelled after a letter mysticism that was used somewhere in the Roman empire in late antiquity.

[4] Moreover, neither the oldest preserved inscriptions nor the general level of Germanic culture at the beginning of the Christian era, offer sufficient ground for assuming that the Germanic people was in particular need of the newly acquired cultural good of writing. [...] if indeed the runes in origin only amounted to a partly unsuccesful Germanic attempt at acquiring a cultural good, [...] which in a Germanic milieu would bear rather the stamp of a luxury and a plaything, because there was no actual demand for it, then there is no reason for searching each one of the old Fu■ork inscriptions for a specially profound significance. (BŠksted 1952: 328)

[5] Inzwischen ist die Auffassung allgemein, [...] da▀ die Runenschrift je nach Situation und Kontext sakrale, profane oder magische Verwendung finden kann, dieses aber im Einzelfall aufgezeigt und begrŘndet werden mu▀. (DŘwel 2001: 209)

[Translation O.S.] Currently, it is believed that the runes can have sacred, profane or magical use, depending on the situation and context. This, however, must be proven in each individual case.

[6] See BŠksted 1952: 285-310.

List of sources:

Agrell, Sigurd (1931). Senantik mysteriereligion och nordisk runmagi. En inledning i den nutida runologiens grundproblem. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers F÷rlag.
Agrell, Sigurd (1932). Die spńtantike Alphabetmystik und die Runenreihe. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerups F÷rlag.
BŠksted, Anders (1952). Mňlruner og troldruner. Runemagiske studier. K°benhavn: Gyldendalske Boghandel ľ Nordisk Forlag.
DŘwel, Klaus (2001). Runenkunde. [3rd edition]. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.
Granholm, Kennet (2005). Embracing the Dark. The Magic Order of Dragon Rouge- Its Practice in Dark Magic and Meaning Making. ┼bo: ┼bo Akademi University Press.
Karlsson, Thomas (2002). Uthark. Nightside of the Runes. Sundbyberg: Ouroboros.

"Dragon Rouge : Ordo Draconis et Atri Adamantis". Official Dragon Rouge website.