This 2006 submission from "The Boydell Press" is in my opinion one of the better scholarly works that I have come across on rune magic to date. The credentials of both authors Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees raised the bar of academic expectations, at least from my point of view as reflected by this work. However, it has been argued by academic critics of this work that it is not as scrutinizing as it should be and further suggest that the authors rely heavily on John McKinnell and Rudolf Simek (both are non runologists) as their basic source for their arguments.
Table of Contents
List of illustrations
The principal of runic alphabets
The names of the runes
2 Gods and heroes
3 Love, fertility and desire
4 Protective and enabling charms
5 Fertility Charms
6 Healing Charms and leechcraft
7 Pagan ritual items
8 Christian amulets
9 Rune-stones, death and curses
10 Runic lore and other magic
The book has some ten chapters with 278 pages, is well referenced throughout with footnotes. The main bug bear seems to be a cursory and uncritical reading of several runic inscriptions with arbitrary linguistic analyses. For instance:
The Danish Ribe cranium pp. 25-27).where the authors state that "[t]he Ribe text is a `transitional' inscription which predates the Viking period" (p. 25) is certainly incorrect. Linguistically speaking, it seems that the Ribe cranium inscription, around 725 C.E., had undergone significant sound changes of the transitional period, and its graphemic system witnesses the parsimony of the younger, reduced fuþark with only 15/16 runes (Schulte 2006b:48)
This book however is a bold attempt at challenging the earlier criticisms which embraced farcical and fanciful notions of rune magic based loosely on manufactured ideas or traditions extending from the New Age and other 19th century Germanic Nationalism based esoteric sources. It questions the notion if the runes were indeed associated with medieval Norse literature dealing with rune magic and demonstrates a strong interdisciplinary focus on Germanic-Mediterranean epigraphy. Despite some misgivings, I enjoyed this work as a refreshing change from the many fabrications out there about rune lore and indeed rune magic and would certainly recommend it!
However this monograph offers a welcome but often problematic overview of the broad topic of runes and magic inscriptions. Although the authors are specifically dealing with amulets and "magic objects," they in fact make reference to a wide array of inscriptions on everything from rings to bracteates to large monuments. Their cited material ranges from medieval Swiss charms to Northern Italic votive inscriptions and they use this material to establish typological comparanda for the runic inscriptions.
The authors are usually clear and to the point: they bring in much long well-known material but also numerous recent inscriptional finds as well as comparative material that is less familiar. For that reason alone the book was worth reading. The typography is generally pleasing, especially the runic fonts, although multiple diacritic characters are flawed, for example, an <û> appears numerous times as an orphaned circumflex with no character beneath it. For the most part, the correct forms can be deduced from context.
The most problematic feature of this study is its authors' willingness to speculate beyond what the evidence actually allows. Anyone who deals with magical interpretation of the often elusive and fragmentary runic material is confronted with the problem of distinguishing convincingly between probable/verifiable interpretations and possible/speculative readings. Too often the line is crossed from accepting as a possibility, non-provable, that a particular inscription has a specific magical intent to taking this possibility as accepted and carrying out tertiary speculation based on it. At some point we end up in a world of fantasy and imagination that can be intriguing, but is further removed from serious scholarship than many of us would be willing to accept. One example of this can be found on p. 81 concerning the Nydam spear shaft: "This inscription seems completely uninterpretable linguistically, but if we take the use of letter sequences and magical symbols elsewhere as a guide, the Nydam shaft must have been an amulet." In general, the authors seem to accept with little reflection the interpretations found in Wolfgang Krause and Herbert Jankuhn, Die Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).
In addition to overindulgence in speculation, the authors are unacceptably vague in their reference to other scholarship or primary sources. Again and again we find unsupported statements like, "Some scholars hold . . ." or "Classical sources claim. . ." (pp. 3, 10, 12, and so on). Likewise, frequent reference is made, as on p. 37, to facts like, "sagas often refer to placing a bag over the head . . . of a suspected witch," where not a single textual reference is given. A reader of a scholarly treatise should be able to follow up on interesting references, e.g., on p. 56, reference to Egil's runes and the sick girl; p. 57, on Thursday nights being favourable in Scandinavian popular tradition for occult actions; p. 59, on the "vast collection of verse warning of the treachery of the female sex" with no reference; p. 62, on a statement that "Old Norse literature is full of strong female characters whose powers enable them to render men impotent if spurned," with no reference; p. 71, verses from Sigrdrífumál [End Page 270] without numbers or translator cited. Etymologies are given without citation, e.g., p. 11, for seiðr, p. 24 for alu, p. 117 for hocus pocus. For the last, incidentally, Kluge 1992 suggests only that the derivation from hoc est corpus, which is given by Mees and MacLeod as accepted, cannot be excluded as possible.
The following points make reference primarily to the first part of the book but give a flavour of the kinds of problems found throughout. On pp. 15–16, where they deal with the Vimose inscription (Krause-Jankuhn no. 24), the authors give as the singular of Æsir 'As'; it should be Áss. Their claim that the inscription refers to Odin is tenuous. Finally, Jordanes does not call Gapt the "chief god of his people." In fact, in V, 41 he refers to Mars as being special to the Goths...
A rather critical review by Frederick W. Schwink c/o JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology. University of Illinois Press
Personally I knew this book had a few problems with it some years ago but not at this level? Think Fred must have woke up on the wrong side of the bed when he wrote that review. I love this book.