At first, it would seem that Norse runes would have nothing in common with Jackson Square. After all, Norse runes have their history as far back as the fourth century in Norway and Jackson Square is firmly rooted in modern day New Orleans. What connects the two is the aspect of “pination.” Runes, once their usefulness as a part of a written language ended, were useful for their “magical” properties. However, the Elder Futhark runes have undergone a dramatic transformation during that time, which I find interesting. In this essay, I will briefly explain the original form and purpose of the Elder and Younger Futhark runes, their evolution into modern pination tools, and the way that the “psychic readers” of Jackson Square use them.
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According to the American Museum of Natural History, runes have no clearly traceable history. The museum website states that the name “rune” suggests this, given its meaning, “mystery,” which comes from the Gothic root “runa” (par. 1). The figures were originally carved into stone or wood, a task that was made easier by their straight lines (American Museum of Natural History [AMNH] par. 2). I believe that this connection with the natural world may have been seen as an aid to pination, given that the early readers assigned them names and powers that were associated with natural creatures and items, not manufactured items.
During my research, I found a list of the Elder Futhark runes. This list included pictures, as well as their names, meanings, uses, and the Latin letters and elements that they corresponded with. I was interested to learn that some runes represented more than one letter, either independently or in combination. For example, a rune that resembles a “lesser than” caret, “Kenaz,” represents the letters “K,” “C,” or “Q.” It is up to the inpidual reading the text to decide the proper letter being associated with, if such a distinction existed. In addition, a rune that resembles a modified “P,” called “Thurisaz,” represents the letter combination “th” (Meanings 1).Runes were never intended to support or represent a spoken language; instead, they were used solely as a written language or as symbols on their own (AMNH pars. 2-3).
The Elder Futhark set of runes consist of “a common set of 24 runes had spread across northern Europe, based on Etruscan and possibly Greek and Latin origins” (AMNH par. 1). These 24 runes had only one case and, like the horizontal words in word search puzzles, were not read in any set direction (AMNH par. 1). Runes were eventually replaced by the Latin alphabet as the Christian church broadened its reach across Europe. The Elder Futhark runes remain in use in New Age practices today (AMNH par. 4).
Today’s New Age practices have precedent; as early “rune casters” used the runes to predict the future. They linked the runes to specific gods and meanings (AMNH par. 3), laying out the runes in certain patterns to foretell events. Paul Rhys Mountfort notes that: The Runes contain a blueprint or road map to the Northern Mysteries, and, above and beyond their fortune-telling role, a kind of initiation into a profound cultural tradition. By using the Runes, the reader can not only access this unique wisdom tradition but also participate in its contemporary revival.
It is an interesting observation; however, I think it lacks validity, since so little is truly known about the original, traditional use of runes. Even Mountfort acknowledges that the origin of the Elder Futhark runes is unknown, although he theorizes on its origin being from the north of Italy and associated with the Germanic tribe that were in the region (19).
Mountfort explains that the runes are each assigned one of several values: gods and other supernatural beings, nature, animals, and actions. He also theorizes that the magical characteristics of an earlier primitive Swedish script may have influence the development of the Elder Futhark (21). The use of runes in pination probably didn’t take place until the age of the Vikings, although Mountfort expresses the opinion that pination may have been one purpose for their being created (57). Two things are certain, however. First, the runes are connected by names and meanings to the Norse myths.
Second, the runes are connected to the natural world. And, according to Mountfort, the runes are relevant even in today’s world. He states that “by applying their meaning to the actual contours of our present-day lives, we ensure that not only the Runes but also these attendant tales take on a powerful, contemporary relevance” (57).
Nature and the natural world seem to be the farthest thing from the minds of today’s piner, however. Although early rune casters certainly had rituals, ritual devoid of meaning seems to be part of learning about using the runes today. Paxson recommends rune groups that sound more like study groups than religious groups. Thee group members use the same book and also “have a notebook in which to take notes on discussions, collect handouts, record the results of inpidual work [. . .]” (Paxson 18). Diane Paxson then goes on to discuss scheduling and dress. She recommends dressing “appropriately,” which might help the rune caster “shift into a Norse mode of consciousness” (20). What this mode of consciousness is supposed to be, Paxson does not explain.
However, she does go on to recommend her own book, called Germanic Costume, which contains illustrations of, and patterns for, such clothing. Although the Paxson’s book soon moves into discussion of the runes themselves, the first part of the book seems to make rune casting into playacting, robbing the rituals of a lot of their legitimacy.
The Tarot card readers and amateur psychics that once littered the majority of Jackson Square are largely gone now, first cleared out by a prominent member of the New Orleans City Council member, Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, and then by Hurricane Katrina. As the city rebuilds, the readers will filter back; as long as there are tourists to provide tips, artists, readers and street acts will be a part of that city. What I found most interesting about these alleged psychics was that, although the Jackson Square readers are considered something of an unsavory element by some, even they are pided on who should be permitted to set up in the Square.
It is clear to me from Glynn Wilson’s article that Clarkson has a personal mission to prevent certain people from using Jackson Square. The people of whom she approves appear to be artists and tourists. In addition, Clarkson at least tolerates the restaurateurs and shop owners, and perhaps even the tour guides, although all of these people do little more than lend a pedestrian air to the site. In the past, Clarkson passed ordinances that prevented the readers from setting up tables for their trade (Wilson par. 2) and replaced the old benches in the Square with new ones that had center armrests, intended to prevent people from stretching out on them (Wilson pars. 12-13). Clearly, Clarkson feels that the Jackson Square readers are charlatans.
The readers on Jackson Square primarily read Tarot cards and palms; however, some of them use runes on request. The readers who use runes sometimes use the commercially available set of ceramic runes. Unlike the early rune casters, it is rare to find a hand-carved set among the Jackson Square readers. Interestingly, however, the runes have undergone yet another transformation.
In many cases, “rune” readers use rune cards, which are Tarot-style cards with depictions of the runes inscribed on them. In these cases, the runes have been transformed from “living” stone or wood to either commercially processed and artificial “stone” or printed slips of cardboard coated with plastic. In neither case is these things particularly original, nor are they “in tune” with the universe, since they are identical to every other manufactured set.
In addition to these limitations, the meaning behind the runes have changed. Modern meanings have been assigned to the traditional runes by today’s neopagans, moving the runes even further from the world and from the stories that they are intended to represent.
The Norse myths have always fascinated me, ever since I was able to read and even partly understand them. The myths explained the natural world, just as the Greek and Roman myths did, so that the early cultures were able to make sense of the things going on around them. Even though I understood that there were no eight-legged horses and that a sprig of mistletoe could not swear to do no harm to anyone, young, old, or otherwise. But the stories spoke to me, just as they must have to the original listeners.
The Norse myths seem to have been forgotten in the practice of using runes in pination today. Even if a person accepts the idea of psychics having real talent for predicting the future, many of the readers in Jackson Square today are more successful in reading people than they are much else. They are, in fact, better at pining hints from the people at their tables than they are in pining the secrets of the runes.
I think that it is disturbing that so many things in our world have changed from their original form. However, few things seem to have changed as much as the runes and their original meaning. Originally, the runes were part of these stories and part of the world; now, however, you can actually print rune cards at home using computer software. Far from being part of the natural world, today’s runes reflect the artifice of the modern world. If pination were ever possible in the past, I think that even the ancient rune casters would agree that it would not be possible today, given the lack of connection with the myths that drive their meanings.
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