Historical Context for Runology (Part 1)
Germanic Esotericism and Spiritual Influences in the late 1800s
We have seen that Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry both had considerable influence in Germany from the early 1600s on. The ideas of a secret or special group of people (the fraternity or brotherhood) that has special spiritual knowledge and who’s goal is to help advance culture and humanity, has had over 200 years to normalize itself into European and Germanic culture.
So we have three strong influences becoming prominent in European religious or spiritual culture: (1) Great Awakenings emphasizing a need to rely on the Heart and not the Intellect, (2) the popularity of Spiritualism bringing attention to the concept life after death, and (3) the idea of a ‘vital’ or “Odic” Force emanating from all living things which can be used to both heal and hurt. All of them are implying that there is a supernatural world that is readily accessible and, thus, we see a environment that is ripe for a more inclusive “special group” (formerly the fraternal organizations), adding a forth influence to the mix.
The ideology of this special group of people or ‘folk’ has been nourished through multiple generations in something we now call the Völkisch Movement.
The Völkisch Movement
In the early 1800s (slightly after the beginning of the second Great Awakening mentioned before), the Völkisch Movement (literally ‘folk-ish’) emerged as an offshoot of Romantic nationalism.
Romantic nationalism is the idea that the country or state derives its political legitimacy “as an organic consequence of the unity of those it governs”, meaning from the people themselves. This grouping of people can be based on language, race, culture, religion, and customs of the nation, etc. It is on the opposite spectrum to the Royalist philosophy (which the Jacobites ascribed to, and related to the Rite of ‘Strict Observance’ mentioned before), which is the idea of a king or queen’s “divine right” to rule.
Scholars say that the Völkisch Movement started becoming popular through ideas like those expressed by author Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808) [Address to the german Nation]. In his book, Fichte addresses the question of what could warrant a noble individual’s striving “and their belief in the eternity and the immortality of their work?”. This he connects with the question “What is a People (or Völk ), in the higher sense of the term, and what is love of the fatherland?”.
Fichte’s answer is that it could only be that “particular spiritual nature of the human environment out of which the person themselves, with all of their thought and action … has arisen, namely the people (or völk ) from which one is descended and among whom one has been formed and grown into that which that person is”. Here we have an idea that propels the emergence of what we now call the Völkisch Movement.
Throughout the 1800s, the Völkisch Movement starts gradually becoming more and more popular in German speaking countries. According to historian James Webb, the word völk does not just mean a people or ‘folk’, but also has “overtones of ‘nation’, ‘race’ and ‘tribe’”. There is no direct English equivalent to the term völkisch, but he says it might also be translated as “ethno-nationalistic”, “racial-nationalistic” or “ethno-racialist”. The defining idea, that the Völkisch Movement revolved around, was that of a Völkstum (literally “folkdom”, with a meaning similar to a combination of the terms “folklore” and “ethnicity”).
Historians emphasize the idea that the Völkisch Movement combined sentimental patriotic interest in Germanic folklore and local history with a “back-to-the-land” anti-urban philosophy. Some have claimed that its ideology was partly a “revolt against modernity” and “the longing for a self-sufficient life lived with a mystical relation to the land”.
Scholars also claim that part of the popularity of the Völkisch Movement was “a reaction to the cultural alienation of the Industrial revolution”. People were longing for a purpose in life and, thus, the Völkisch Movement, as well as Germanic/Nordic Mysticism, became more and more popular…
With the growing interest in their ‘tribe’ or ‘folk’, we naturally see an interest in the associated Germanic & Nordic Mythology, folklore and, consequently, the Runes. We also see an increased curiosity regarding so-called Germanic Paganism or Pre-Christian Religion(s) and practices as a way to study the ancestral themes and ideas.
The Term “Aryan”, the “Indo-European” Language and the Völkisch Movement
So now the Germanic & Nordic ‘Folk’ or Völk are a “special group” and through studying their Mythology & Folklore, the special knowledge is extracted. However, because of the role Christianity has played in suppressing “Pagan” or “Traditional” religious forms, there is an attempt to discover what was destroyed or hidden.
With the study of European Mythology (thanks to the Völkisch Movement), and the availability of Hindu and Buddhist Doctrine & Mythology in European languages (thanks to the poplularity of Esotericism and, later, Theosophy), we see an attempt to unite these two into a single system in order to restore the “original doctrine”. This is also where the term Eastern term “Aryan” takes on a new meaning in the West as ‘White-European’. Let’s look at how this occurred…
In the Swedish Author Viktor Rydberg’s Introduction to his Teutonic Mythology (1886, but translated into English in 1889), he tries to establish a link between European and Asian/Eastern languages as well as their religious forms. Here the term Teutonic is used to refer to Northern European (German, Dutch, and Scandinavian, etc.):
This language-group of ours has been named in various ways. It has been called the Indo-Germanic, the Indo-European, and the Aryan family of tongues. I have adopted the last designation. The Armenians, Iranians, and Hindoos I call the Asiatic Aryans ; all the rest I call the European Aryans.
Certain it is that these sister-languages have had a common mother, the ancient Aryan speech, and that this has had a geographical centre from which it has radiated…”
He goes on to emphasize the idea that Caucasian/White and the Aryan Language don’t necessarily have to go together:
It may not be necessary to remind the reader that the question of the original home of the ancient Aryan tongue is not the same as the question in regard to the cradle of the Caucasian race. The white race may have existed, and may have been spread over a considerable portion of the old world, before a language possessing the peculiarities belonging to the Aryan had appeared…”
Then he says that there are 2 hypotheses regarding the origin of the Aryan Language (which he also calls the “mother-tongue”): Asiatic Origin and European Origin. For the first he says:
You can see here that he does not make a distinction of a “brown race”, which is probably so that he can say that such a group would be a mixture of 2 or more of his above mentioned groups. This is important because it allows for the justification that the reason the term Aryan was used, and is still used, in India was because it ‘originated from a white race’ that was eventually mixed with other ‘races’. This is essentially the idea that was used almost 50 years later in the Nazi’s ideology in order to justify their use of the term Aryan.
The Asiatic Origin of the Aryans, according to Rydberg, is from a migration (of all peoples) from Asia to their current homes. Thus, some have kept parts of the Aryan Language (or remnants of it) in their modern tongue, other have not…
He cites Friedrich Schlegel’s 1808 work Language and Wisdom of the Hindoos as showing “Sanscrit as the mother of the Aryan family of languages, and India as the original home of the Aryan family of peoples.” Then he cites other authors and says that in the 1820s-1840s the ideas about this subject changed even in textbooks to emphasize the “theory that the Persians or Hindoos were the original people, and that the cradle of our race was to be sought in their homes.”
Now the ideas change and start including Iran/Persia as well as India.
When, then, the question was asked where this Indo-Iranian cradle was situated, the answer was thought to be found in a chapter of Avesta to which the German scholar Rhode had called attention already in 1820. To him it seemed to refer to a migration from a more northerly and colder country. The passage speaks of sixteen countries created by the fountain of light and goodness, Ormuzd (Ahura Mazda), and of sixteen plagues produced by the fountain of evil, Ahriman (Angra Mainyu), to destroy the work of Ormuzd. The first country was a paradise, but Ahriman ruined it with cold and frost, so that it had ten months of winter and only two of summer…”
Here we have basic link that associates a “paradise” in a cold country with only “2 months of summer” with a Iranian/Persian religious text…
The reason for the emigration hence was found in the statement that, although Ormuzd had made this country an agreeable abode, Ahriman had destroyed it with frost and snow. In other words, this part of Asia was supposed to have had originally a warmer temperature, which suddenly or gradually became lower, wherefore the inhabitants found it necessary to seek new homes in the West and South.”
Thus, he explains the very popular idea (that later became accepted by the Völkisch Movement) that the ‘Aryans migrated from the east (Asia) to the west (Europe)’ and so the Asian reference to Aryan is really a reference to the peoples who now dwell in Europe:
The sun rises in the east, ex orients lux ; the-highly gifted race, which was to found the European nations, has, under the guidance of Providence, like the sun, wended its way from east to west…
The Europeans themselves are led by this same instinct to follow the course of the sun: they flow in great numbers to America, and these folk-billows break against each other on the coasts of the Pacific Ocean…”
…In the year 1854 was heard for the first time a voice of doubt.”
This, Rydberg says, is related to English author Robert Gordon Latham, who suggested (in the 1850s) the opposite idea, that the migration was from West to East:
This opposing theory, Rydberg says, took a few years before it became more mainstream:
As we look at them, we can see that what both of these ‘hypotheses’ imply is that, for the Northern Europeans of the early and mid-1800s, Caucasian/White and “Aryan” are essentially the same. This is how people understood things and, thus, filters their paradigm of the world around them.
With the popularity of Theosophy in the late 1800s, even if Blavatsky says “The Aryan races, for instance, now varying from dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy colour, are yet all of one and the same stock – the Fifth Root-Race – and spring from one single progenitor…”, this may not have really been heard or understood by those who already have a preconceived notion of what Aryan is.
Esotericism, the Völkisch Movement and Guido Von List (Part 2)
German Theosophy and the Völkisch Movement
The first German Theosophical Society was established in July of 1884 by Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden. Between 1886 and 1895 he published the monthly periodical Die Sphinx [The Sphinx ]. This had a small version of the Theosophical logo (which included a swastika) under the Sphinx’s face, but was hard to see.
Soon thereafter, in Vienna, a theosophical society was founded in 1887, who’s members included Franz Hartmann and a young Rudolf Steiner. In 1893, Hartmann began a periodical of his own, which was the first German publication to clearly use the Theosophical swastika on its cover.
Hartmann’s periodical Lotusblüten [Lotus Blossoms ] and was published for seven years. During this time, Hartmann became president of another German Theosophical Society (which was a branch of the International Theosophical Brotherhood) when it was established in 1896, while American theosophists (including William Q. Judge) traveled through Europe. Rudolf Steiner was made general secretary of the German Theosophical Society in 1902.
Hartmann’s magazine seems to have motivated another German, Paul Zillmann, to found the Neve Metaphysische Rundschau [New Metaphysical Review ] in 1896. The journal was a who’s who of German metaphysics and mysticism and of contemporary “New Thought”, publishing articles from H.P. Blavatsky, “Peryt Schou” (Albert Schultz) and Guido von List (whose books Zilllmann also published).
The magazine had very close relationships with the English-speaking world, especially with the Metaphysical Magazine. Zillmann was a leading German Theosophist and published translations of many English-language Theosophical texts in German (often translated by his wife). It was in this magazine that an article would be published, in 1906, that would become the focal point of runic studies in German speaking countries.
The Völkisch Movement and Fascism
As it evolved, the Völkisch Movement sometimes combined the esoteric aspects of folkloric occultism with “racial adoration”. During the 1900s, we see, in some circles, a type of “anti-Semitism linked to exclusionary ethnic nationalism” emphasized as well. Now we start seeing different organizations using the term völk or völkisch h that emphasize ideas including anti-communist, anti-immigration, anti-capitalist and anti-Parliamentarian ideas.
Although the primary interest of the Germanic Mystical Movement was the revival of native pagan traditions and customs (often set in the context of a semi-Theosophical esotericism), a preoccupation with racial or ethnic purity came to motivate its more politically oriented offshoots. In the 1910s, Germanic Mystical Movement groups met in order to celebrate the summer solstice (which was also an important festivity in völkisch circles) and more regularly to read the Eddas as well as some other authors considered Germanic mystics.
As time progressed, this same word völkisch came to emphasize “ethno-nationalistic” and racial themes more and more. Scholars see völkisch ideologies as influential in the development and popularity of Nazism. In Mein Kampf [My Struggle] (1925), Adolf Hitler wrote: “the basic ideas of the National-Socialist movement are populist [völkisch ] and the populist [völkisch ] ideas are National-Socialist.” Thus, Nazi racial understanding leveraged völkisch terminology. Now the “folk” were specifically Germanic, Nordic or “Aryan” peoples, and others were seen as a threat…
Guido Von List, Völkisch ideas, Wotanism, Armanism, and Runology
Guido Von List (1848-1919) is one of the most well known figures who promoted Germanic or Runic Occultism. From an early period in his life, he claims to have given up Roman Catholicism in favor of worshiping the Germanic Wotan. He apparently spent a lot of time in the countryside of Austria as a youth, hiking and enjoying nature. From the 1870s to the 1890s, he began to write articles and novels placing a völkisch emphasis on the folk culture and customs of rural people, believing that many of them survived from the pre-Christian native Germanic religion.
During an 11-month period of blindness (after a cataract operation) in 1902, List became increasingly interested in occultism, in particular coming under the influence of the Theosophical Society. During this period of temporary blindness, he contemplated questions surrounding the origins of the German language and the use of the runes. His first Occult booklet The Mystery/Secret of the Runes was originally published in an abridged form in a German Theosophical magazine called the New Metaphysical Review in 1906.
The popularity of his work among the völkisch and nationalist communities resulted in the establishment of a “List Society” in 1908. The Edda Society led by Rudolf Gorsleben and the Germanen Order founded by Hermann Pohl were inspired by List. Many of these societies became increasingly political and were partly involved in the creation of the Nazi party NSDAP.
The List Society produced six booklets authored by List himself between 1908 and 1911. Entitled “Aryo-Germanic research reports”, they covered List’s opinions on the meaning and magical power of runes, the ancient Germanic priesthood, Austrian folklore and place-names, and the secret messages within Shields, Coats of Arms, Family Crests, etc.
List claimed (like Johannus Bureus 200 year before) that there are hidden meanings in the runes, emphasizing that they had three different levels. The first level is the outer exoteric level. The second is the inner esoteric and the third is the most secret, called the “Armanen” level. The Armanen level was, according to List, only for the initiated runic priests (those who had been initiated by Odin or ‘Wotan’).
He promoted a spiritual system which he called “Wotanism”, which he saw as the exoteric or outer form of pre-Christian Germanic religion, while “Armanism” was the term he applied to the more secret teachings of this ancient belief system. He claimed that while Wotanism taught polytheism for the wider population, those who were members of the Armanist elite (or Armanenschaft) were aware of the reality of monotheism.
It has been suggested that List’s spiritual system consisted of “an original synthesis of his reading of Germanic mythology combined with Theosophy”. List’s early Theosophical influence came largely from the writings of German Theosophist Max Ferdinand Sebaldt von Werth, who had combined Theosophical ideas with his own interpretations of Germanic mythology and emphasis on racial doctrines. In his later works, the Theosophical influence over List’s thinking grew, and he began referencing Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and even expressed the view that Norse mythology agreed with the cosmological teachings of Theosophy.
List’s spiritual system was constructed largely on the Havamal, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda (old Norse texts which appear to have been composed in Iceland during the late Middle Ages). He interpreted them as accurately reflecting the belief systems of the Germanic refugees fleeing Christian persecution. He believed that prior to the spread of Christianity into Northern Europe, there had once been a culturally unified Germanic civilization that had been spread across much of Europe, which came to be degraded and divided under the impact of Christianity.
He initially emphasized the idea that ancient German society had been led by the hierarchical system of initiates: the Armanist elite (or Armanenschaft), who acted as teachers, priests, and judges. He claimed that the ancient Armanist brotherhood had consisted of three degrees (each with their own secret signs, grips, and passwords), similar to the ‘Blue Lodge’ of Freemasonry. In List’s interpretation of history, the Christian missionaries persecuted the Armanists, resulting in many fleeing northward into Scandinavia and Iceland. He believed that they developed a secretive language for transmitting their teachings, known as “Kala”.
List claimed that after the Christianization of Northern Europe, the Armanist teachings were passed down in secret, thus resulting in their transmission through later esoteric traditions such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. In addition, List claimed that in the eighth century, Armanists had imparted their secret teachings to the Jewish rabbis of Cologne in the hope of preserving them from Christian persecution. He believed that these teachings became the Kabbalah, which he therefore reasoned was an ancient German and not Jewish innovation, thus legitimizing its usage in his own teachings and this was used to support List’s anti-semitic agenda.
List believed that the basic teachings of the original Germanic religion were found in the runic alphabet, and that they could be deciphered by linking these letters with particular ‘runic spells’ which appear in the Havamal Poem. He claimed to have deciphered these secret meanings himself, translating them into statements such as “Know yourself, then you know all”, “Fear not death, it cannot kill you”, “Marriage is the root of the Aryans!”, and “Man is one with God!”
List emphasized the importance of a mystical union between humans and the universe, viewing divinity as being immanent in nature, with all life being an emanation of it. Connected to this, he believed in a close identification between the racial group (the volk or folk) and the natural world. He believed that human beings had an immortal soul, and that it would be reincarnated according to the laws of karma until eventually uniting with divinity.
A Note About “Race” (Part 3)
The Gnostic Movement’s Position on Race
The following is from Igneous Rose by Samael Aun Weor:
We do not accept the statement of the Master Huiracocha which states that black and yellow skinned people cannot belong to the WHITE LODGE because it is only for people who belong to the white race. We cannot accept this type of racial prejudice, because the WHITE LODGE is universal. Masters from all races exist within our venerable WHITE LODGE. We must not forget that the Masters MORIA and K-H (Kout Humi) belong to the yellow race. The white race is not superior nor inferior than another race; simply, it is different, that is all…
We also disagree with Master Huiracocha’s despise for Oriental wisdom. Christ taught three ways in order to reach the union with the Intimate (the INTIMUS or Inner Being).
 When Christ was walking with Magdalene, the repented prostitute, when he was among publicans and sinners, fishermen and wine drinkers, he showed us the Gnostic path.
 When he retired to the solitude of the desert for forty days and forty nights, he then taught the way of oriental Yoga.
The seven rays of cosmic evolution are synthesized in these three ways that the Nazarene showed. Therefore, we cannot despise Oriental wisdom.
All human Intimates (or Inner Beings) who are fastened to the wheel of births and deaths belong to these three ways. With all this, we sustain that sexual magic between husband and wife is the way in order to reach Nirvana. Therefore, we cannot accept the racial prejudice of Master Huiracocha for any reason. God has no preference for anyone. All human beings without distinction of sex, race, creed or color are beloved children of the FATHER and have the same rights.
We also cannot accept the absurd thesis of Huiracocha, who stated that it is a sin for a man of one race to become married with a woman of another race, and that the bastard children of such marriages are children of the devil.
We recognize that the Master Huiracocha is a GURU of the Universal White Fraternity and it is evident for me that he is an Archbishop of the Gnostic Church; yet, he committed a lamentable mistake when he made these statements in his Course of Runic-Magic. There is no doubt that if the Guru Huiracocha had a physical body he would rectify those errors, because humans commit errors, however, only those who are stubborn remain in the error.
…All human beings, white, black, yellow, red and brown, have the right to speak the verb of light and to form part of the Great Universal White Fraternity, because everyone is a beloved child of the Father. God has no preference for anyone, he cares equally for humans and ants, birds and reptiles.
God has no racial prejudice and loves all his children with infinite love, without distinction of sex, race, creed or color. We must love all human beings; we must give even the last drop of our blood for all our brothers and sisters who belong to this great human family.
Evil ones criticize me because I teach the secret doctrine of the Gnostics to humanity. I diffuse all the esoteric teachings in order to save all my brothers and sisters of this humanity. Everything that I know is for my brothers and sisters. Therefore, I have decided to teach them the most sacred things of the universe, so that they may enter Eden, as I have entered.”
-Paraphrase from Ch. 31 of Igneous Rose [Rosa Ignea] (1952)
by Samael Aun Weor
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