The Völkisch Movement, Esotericism, and Fischbach’s Runic Theories

The intermingling of the Theosophical Movement and the Völkisch Movement in the 1890s leads to a unique environment. With the Völkisch Movement, we have an interest in Nordic Mythology, Religion, and the Runes. With the Theosophical Movement, we see an interest in Eastern Philosophy, Ancient Mythology, Comparative Religion, Yoga, Fakirism, Esotericism and Occultism.

Now these two start to blend in a way that allows the Runes (from the Völkisch ) to connect with the Mystical (from Theosophy). Later, we’ll see how Reichenbach’s idea of the “Odic force” will also merge to sustain the Rune Exercises (the study of which is the object of this Course).


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 ] 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) was traveling through Europe. A little later, Rudolf Steiner was made general secretary of this same branch in 1902.

Hartmann’s magazine seems to have motivated another German, Paul Zillmann, to found the Neve Metaphysische Rundschau [New Metaphysical Review ] in 1896. According to the Editors of ‘The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals’ (IAPSOP):

“The journal was a who’s who of German metaphysics and mysticism and of contemporary New Thought. It had very close relationships with the English-speaking world, especially with the Metaphysical Magazine…”

It published articles from Rama Prasad, H.P. Blavatsky (and other Theosophists), as well as up-and-coming German authors such as Peryt Shou and Guido von List (whose books Zilllmann also published).

Zillmann was a leading German Theosophist and published translations of many English-language Theosophical texts in German (often translated by his wife). In this magazine, a Völkisch article is published (in 1906) that becomes somewhat of a focal point for Runic studies in German speaking countries…

Summary of Timeline:

      1884 – First German Theosophical Society established by Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden
      1885 – German Theosophical Magazine “The Sphinx” is published (also by Hübbe-Schleiden) incorporating a Theosophical logo with a swastika
      1887 – Second German Theosophical Society is established (members include Franz Hartmann and Rudolf Steiner)
      1893 – Another German Theosophical Magazine “Lotus Blossoms” is published (by Hartmann) also incorporating a Theosophical logo with a swastika, this time more prominent
      1896 – A Third German Theosophical Magazine “New Metaphysical Review” is published (by Paul Zillmann) also incorporating a Theosophical logo with a swastika.
      1906 – “New Metaphysical Review” publishes Guido von List’s article “The Mystery/Secret of the Runes” [“Das Geheimnis der Runen” ] in multiple parts, beginning in January.

-Paraphrased from Wikipedia articles


A Theosophical Critique of Guido von List’s Article

In the June 1906 issue of The Theosophist (an English language Theosophical magazine that was published in India), some other Theosophical magazines are reviewed, including those published in French, Spanish and German languages. The relevant German magazine review follows:

Neue Metaphysische Rundschau , edited by Paul Zillmann, Berlin-Lichterfelde, Band XIII., Heft 1. This journal has, in consequence of its solid contents, conquered a unique position in Germany, being the only journal connected with Theosophy which has many subscribers other than Theosophists, and the only one which may be found in the reading-room of almost every university.

The first number of the new set is dedicated to Eduard von Hartmann , the greatest of the living European philosophers…

The second article, “The Secret of the Runes,” by Guido von List, is likewise highly interesting, although too bold, as seems to us, in many of its particulars. The runes are said to be hieroglyphs of the original, not Germanic, but Indo-European language, and an explanation of the current ones of them (besides which there exist many hundred used now as ornaments or auspicious signs only) is given from the “Hâvamâl,” one of the most wonderful books of the rich Old-Icelandic literature, the main contents of which are, so to say, the Mahâbodhi of Odhin (Wuotan), i.e., the knowledge attained to by the dying father of the gods, at the time of the beginning pralaya of this world, (“Götterdämmerung”) that all life is a sacrifice brought to himself by himself . The word “runes” (rûnir rûnar ) is often used in exactly the sense of the Indian mantra . It may be noticed here that the parallels to old Indian literature are so numerous and close, not only in the “Hâvamâl,” but in the whole Old-Icelandic literature (which is the only pure, i.e., un-Christian, Old-Germanic literature preserved to us) that a complete, systematical comparison of the two literatures would certainly evoke the greatest surprise in Europe as well as India, and would, probably, give the proof to every unprejudiced mind that the Germanic nations (Scandinavians, Danes, Germans, etc.), if they had been spared the disturbing influence of the Christian Church, would have developed to the spiritual height of India in the “dark” middle age.

Despite the Theosophical author’s critique of G. v. List’s article as being “too bold”, G. v. List’s acclaim in the German-speaking world and especially in Völkisch circles was pretty significant.


Friedrich Fischbach’s Little Booklet on the Runes

However, before Guido von List’s popularity, we have some very interesting observations on the Runes by a man named Friedrich Fischbach (1839-1908), who was a German textile designer by profession.

In 1862, Fischbach moved to Vienna where he was a decorator & designer. While there, he prepared drawings for the collection of pattern designs in the Austrian Museum. In 1870, he became a teacher of ornamentation at the Royal Academy in Hanau, Germany. Then, from 1883 to 1888, he served as director of the newly organized Industrial Art School of St. Gall in Switzerland, before moving back to Germany in 1889.

Fischbach founded many societies for the advancement of industrial art and, through his work, he exercised a great influence on textile designing in Germany. In 1909, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, acquired his surviving collection of antique embroideries and fabrics.

Towards the end of his life, Fischbach began publishing books on Nordic and Germanic Mythology, including a particularly interesting little text where he discusses the Runes, entitled Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs [Origin of Gutenberg’s Letters] (1900). In this 44 page booklet, he uses his experience with textile ornamentation to explain his understanding of the Runes and their Religious origin.

-Paraphrased from Wikipedia articles


Fischbach: From Textile Ornamentation to Religious Symbolism

No matter how deeply the Nature of the oldest Runes have been understood, what has remained unclear is what their Forms (in and of themselves) express or mean as individual Characters. People are too used to seeing Letters only as spiritless Characters… Thus, a preliminary explanation has to be done, before an unraveling of the Form of the Runes will be possible.

The famous German architect Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) predicted, in the 1850s, that comparative Ornamentation would one day become interrelated with comparative Linguistic Research. This would be possible as soon as there becomes a way to have an overview of the most important Ornaments from all time periods and all countries. Semper emphasized that before Scripts and Figures existed, discoveries about the views, and especially the Religion, of the Ancients were accessible through their sacred Symbolic-Ornaments [Symbol-Ornamente ].

When Fischbach discovered the relationship of old Peruvian Textile-Ornaments with Oriental Carpet-Patterns, he says he found the Source, Root or Cause in their common Religious symbols, in the communion of Ethical and Religious Perspectives based upon an imperishable concept.

The assumption that primitive geometric Ornaments were only games of the imagination, or Ornamental-Forms [Zierformen ] of straight, curved and crooked lines, has to be rejected. This is because, originally, both Form and Concept were united in the most primitive Way. For the Ancients, Religious-Concepts [Cultus-Ideen ] were directly connected with their forms of expression, including decorations found on items such as clothing, pottery, rugs, buildings, etc.

The question that necessarily follows is: which Religion or form of Worship was the most common and widespread in Ancient times? “Fire-Worship [Feuer-Cultus ] is, indisputably, the most prominent”, Fischbach says, “even if Animism is older”.

In the back of his booklet, Fischbach gives 16 plates as the proof that “these Ornaments are (for the most part) to be traced back to devices for Fire-Production”. These devices, in general, are often referred to as the ‘Fire-Drill [Feuerbohrer ]’ and, by using these primitive devices, “the sacred Fire is generated through rubbing”, often via a spinning action.

This spinning action, used to create the sacred Fire, is symbolized in Ornamental-Forms through: spirals, interlaced or interwoven lines, as well as crosses, including ‘spinning’ or ‘rotating’ crosses [Drehkreuzen ] (such as the well known Swastika).

Other related symbols that are shown in Ornamental-Forms are the Fire-Flower [Feuerblume ] (which Fischbach equates with a “Palmette” or ornamental flower) and the Fire-Bird [Feuervogel ].

– Paraphrase from Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs (1900) by Friedrich Fischbach




Religious Symbolism and Religious-Concepts

From its simplest to its richest development, the Assyrian Tree of Life (left) shows the Fire-Drill with its the twisting cords, and the Fire-Flowers which surround it.

Another example: in Zoroastrianism (considered one of the world’s oldest religions), the highest God, Ahura-Mazda, hovers above the sacred Fire (right).

Fischbach believes that his explanations should indicate to us that all prior accounts of Ornamentation were often mistaken. This is because those explanations did not begin with the Religious-Concepts that created or originated the corresponding Form which is an expression of the Religion.

Just as someone who does not know Christianity may have difficulty grasping “the symbolism of the Cologne Cathedral, we cannot solve the enigma of the World-of-Forms [Formenwelt ] which the Runes show us, if we do not start from the Sacred”, because in ancient times Religion and Worship “absolutely stood in the foreground”.

The proof is here for you to see, claims Fischbach: the oldest Runes grew from the same Root as the oldest Ornaments: Fire-Worship. Runes, he says, “are actually Protection-Signs against demons and are found in connection with Magic-Words and Incantation-Signs [Zauber¬worten Beschwörungszeichen ]”, and that the Runes became Letters only about three thousand years ago.

Runes correspond to fundamental Religious-Concepts, and what has been emphasized with them is not beauty, but the best possible simplicity and abbreviation for their everyday use. This is why, he says, the Runes have remained simple, suffering little alteration through time. Only a few strokes distinguish the seven oldest Runes, although it would have been easy to achieve a much richer alternation through geometrical signs of various kinds. But, again, people are too used to seeing Letters only as spiritless Characters…

– Paraphrase from Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs (1900) by Friedrich Fischbach


The Original Purpose of the Runes

According to Fischbach, if we want to understand the Runes, then we have to distinguish three epochs of their development and use:

1) the oldest (or earliest) in which Runes were only Magic- and Divination- and Protection- Characters [Zauber- und Wahrsage- und Schutz-Zeichen ];
2) the middle, in which Rune Script-Characters developed;
3) and the youngest (or latest), in which they were supplemented in concurrence with the Script-Characters coming from the East and South.

Originally there were very few Runes in use and, if these were not sufficient, then (he says) the earlier ones were changed just a little, or a new symbol rooted in Religion was sought for. Hence, the similarity of the seven most sacred Runes.

It was not profane “Games-of-Form [Formspielerei ]” that created the seven oldest Runes, but veneration for the Most-Holy and Most-Blessed [Heiligsten und Segensreichsten ]. These are the signs for Fire (1), Primordial-Light (2), the Thunderer (3), God (4), the Fire-Wheel (5), the holy Altar woods (6) and the Conjunction of those holy Altar woods (7).

The similarity of the Runes is justified by Fischbach as originating from the veneration of the oldest Religious Symbols: Fire-Worship.

He says that we have to distinguish the Sign from an Image. A Sign (as a Symbol) only indicates, but does not depict. Thus, the Symbolic-Sign arises from a higher Spiritual-Power, rather than from the depiction of an object.

Runes are suggestive signs, whereas images (such as hieroglyphics) could be considered more depictive signs. If we look deeper, even the Word, to which the Sign is dedicated, is a suggestion, a seed that awakens Concepts. As was mentioned before, for Fischbach, Runes correspond to fundamental Religious-Concepts, which means that these signs are suggestive of ethical and religious views related with Fire-Worship.

– Paraphrase from Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs (1900) by Friedrich Fischbach


The Runes, Holy Trees, Sacred Songs and Magic-Sayings

According to Tacitus, in his book Germania (98 AD), Germanic tribes cut twigs or sprigs from fruit-bearing trees into sticks or staffs. They cut or carved signs into them, scattered them on a white cloth and then picked them up in one of two ways:

a) either three sticks several times in a row,
b) or several sticks over three consecutive days.

Others say that they did not use fruit trees to make these sticks or staffs, but holy Trees [heiligen Bäume ], which have the hardwood “necessary for the sacrifice”. These holy Trees are given as: either Beech, Oak and Ash; or Hazel, Elder and Juniper.

According to Fischbach, one cuts these Rune sticks/staffs from “east-hanging branches, designating them through crosses, and there were distinctive black and white sticks”.

The Runes were not Magic-Formula [Zaubermittel ] in and of themselves, Fischbach tells us, since they became magical only through Incantations or Magic-Sayings [Zaubersprüche ].

As we shall see, this means that sacred Songs [heilige Gesänge ] and Magic-Sayings are closely connected with the Runes through alliteration (use of similar phonetic sounds at the beginning of adjoining words).

Thus, the stick from a ‘holy Tree’ with Runes carved upon it became the Rune-Staff [Runenstab ], which may have also been a document or record for Verse and alliterative Rhyme, that he calls a Staff-Rhyme [Stabreim ].

Fischbach explains that it was very important that the Rune conformed to the Incantation or Magic-Saying, be it for Blessing or for Cursing; and that the Staff-Rhyme repeated the Initial-Sound to make the Saying more powerful.

In order to perform their Healing functions, these Sayings [Sprüche ] were invoked through a Healing Song [Lied Heil ]. For Divination, the “Oracle’s Proclamation was usually made by a Staff-Rhyme, because the Seer rhymed the alliterated Runes.”

Just like the Rune-Signs themselves, these Rhymes had their origin in the Religious-Concepts of Fire-Worship and may have also been used as a memory aid or mnemonic (a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something).

Since these Sayings allude to Universal-Secrets, the Trivial is excluded, and the Path to the highest Principles is laid out. Ancient-Germanic Poetry is thus closely related to the Runes. Odin often gives the Sayings and the corresponding Runes, and he sanctifies them through poetry.

– Paraphrase from Ursprung der Buchstaben Gutenbergs (1900) by Friedrich Fischbach


Conclusion and Summary of Fischbach’s Understanding of the Runes

For Fischbach, the Runes were originally abbreviated Religious symbols, which were only used as Characters for Magic, Divination and Protection.

Later, they came to be used to represent (or be associated with) sounds and syllables. These sounds and syllables were alliterative, so the beginning of the word or syllable rhymed, not the end of the word.

If we put together what Fischbach is saying, regarding how the Runes were used, then we can see the following key points:

1) The Runes “became magical only through Incantations or Magic-Sayings [Zaubersprüche ]”, but were not Magic-Formula [Zaubermittel ] in and of themselves
2) Sacred Songs [heilige Gesänge ] and Magic-Sayings are closely connected with the Runes “through alliteration”
3) The Rune-Staff [Runenstab ] was used for associating Poetic “Verse and alliterative Rhyme” into a Staff-Rhyme [Stabreim ]
4) The Staff-Rhyme repeated the Initial-Sound “to make the Saying more powerful”.
5) These Rhymes had their origin in Religious-Concepts of Fire-Worship and may have also been used as a memory aid or mnemonic
6) These Sayings allude to “Universal-Secrets” and “the Path to the highest Principles”
7) Odin often gives the Sayings and the corresponding Runes, and he sanctifies them through Poetry.

Incantations, Magic-Sayings, or Songs were used with the Runes to make them Magical. These used alliterative Rhyme, repeating the Initial-Sound of the corresponding Rune, in order to reinforce its attributes. These Rhymes were often abbreviated on carved sticks or Rune-Staffs, which may have served as a memory aids for Religious-Concepts that alluded to Universal-Secrets.

Next, we’ll look at Fire Worship in Gnosis and then how Guido von List’s influential 1906 article “The Mystery/Secret of the Runes” and subsequent development of the “Kala” (or ‘Runic Kabbalah’) system seems to incorporate many of the same principles mentioned in Fischbach’s 1900 booklet…




Below we have drawings of Eastern symbols. Note that something like the ‘Fire-Drill’ is being spun by a snake, while being ridden by a divinity with 4 arms:

‘Mystery Gods’
from a Masonic Encyclopedia (1912)
“Mystery of Universal Equilibrium
According to Indian and Japanese Mythologies”
from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic (1860)



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