One of dominant paradigms of modern society is fragmentation. In the world of popular culture this translates into dazzling distractions and endless ephemera, while in the world of academia it engenders over-specialisation and an unspoken refusal to even attempt to understand the “bigger picture,” especially from a metaphysical perspective.
In this atomised environment, anyone extolling a cohesive vision that is marked by traditional values – not to mention high standards – automatically becomes an anomaly. So it is the case with Dr. Stephen Flowers, who is the rarest of breeds: a scholar with spirit, one who is single-minded yet open-minded. For more than a quarter-century he has dedicated his energies toward unraveling the mysteries not only of the ancient symbolic alphabet of the Runes, but also of the deepest realms of the Germanic myth and culture from which they arose. For Flowers, this quest is summed up in a single word, RUNA, which is the old Gothic language form of “rune” and was equivalent to the Greek term mysterion(“mystery”). It was in the early 1970s that Flowers heard this word audibly whispered in his ear, and since that time he has tirelessly pursued a path of understanding its implications.
Following graduate work in Germanic and Celtic philology under the esteemed professor Edgar Polomé (1920–2000), Flowers received his Ph.D. in 1984 with a dissertation entitled Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Elder Tradition(later published by Lang, 1986).In the mid-1980s Flowers also began a more public writing career under the name Edred Thorsson. His books on the Runes and Germanic magic (Futhark, Runelore, At the Well of Wyrd, Rune-Might, Northern Magic, The Nine Doors of Midgard, and A Book of Troth) have become classics of sorts, and although they are aimed at the occult book market, they reveal a depth of understanding and degree of knowledge that is unusual to find in this genre.
Under his own name he also published less speculative material, for example Fire & Ice, about the German magical order the Fraternitas Saturni, and his translation of the Galdrabók, a medieval Icelandic grimoire. His interest in Germanic topics extends not only to the distant past, but also into more recent and controversial manifestations, such as the völkisch period at the turn of the 19th century or the esoteric aspects of the Third Reich, and his translations of Guido von List’s Secret of the Runes, S. A. Kummer’s Rune-Magic, or the writings of Karl Maria Wiligut (The Secret King: Himmler’s Lord of the Runes) all shed scholarly light on these topics. He has also written Lords of the Left-Hand Path,a lengthy study of darker occult currents, and an innovative analysis of ancient Greek magical texts entitled Hermetic Magic.
Unlike many who possess academic credentials, Flowers was never content to relegate his interests to a purely intellectual level, and thus he has long been active in the contemporary revival of Germanic heathenism, variously called Odinism or Ásatrú (a coinage derived from Old Norse, meaning “loyalty to the gods”). He was an original member of Stephen McNallen’s seminal organisation the Ásatrú Free Assembly (which still exists today as the Ásatrú Folk Assembly), and in 1979 founded his own initiatory group, the Rune-Gild, dedicated toward the serious exploration of the esoteric and innermost levels of the Germanic tradition, as well as the greater Indo-European culture of which it is but one branch.
Underlying all of his work is a belief in the profound importance of traditional Germanic thinking and the eternal relevance of its mythological expression. After all, English is a Germanic tongue, and our society – fragmented or decayed as it now may be – owes its true origins as much, if not more so, to northern Europe than to Athens or Rome. Dismayed at the ongoing erosion of support for Germanic studies at most universities across the Western world, Flowers has recently unveiled his latest project: the Woodharrow Institute. This non-profit educational institution aims to maintain and foster the tradition of Germanic scholarship, offering courses and publications, and interacting with academic circles wherever possible. Besides administering the Institute, Flowers and his wife Crystal also direct the Rûna-Raven publishing house, which issues an ongoing catalog of titles concerning varied aspects of ancient Germanic culture, along with specialised language studies and works in related areas.
– Michael Moynihan
Michael Moynihan: Can you recall what initial event or events led to your setting out upon the path you’ve taken toward understanding the mysteries of the Germanic tradition?
Stephen Flowers: I started out my “career” in understanding the mysteries of the Germanic tradition as what I would later come to understand as an “occultizoid nincompoop.” I was interested in a variety of pretty nutty things. One of my first passions was monster movies. Perhaps Famous Monsters of Filmlandwas my first bible. My “favourite monster” was the one created by Frankenstein. There was simply something about the “Gothic,” Germanic origin of the myth that appealed to me. Before that I can remember being drawn to all things Germanic (and Scandinavian) the films The Vikings (which I saw during a childhood trip to San Antonio) and the Fall of the Roman Empire vaguely inspired me with certain scenes of Germanic “barbarism.” Later this slightly matured into an interest in the Morning of the Magicians/Spear of Destiny mythology, and culminated in my “hearing” the word RUNA in 1974. This was a catalyst for a quantum leap in my development. It caused me to delve into the scientific and academic basis of what it was that had so fascinated me from childhood. All of this experience laid the foundation of the nature of my own teaching, following this pattern: (irrational) inspiration, leading to (rational) objective study, leading to (subjective) internalisation, which ultimately leads to objective enactment (= understanding/personal transformation).
Michael: What brought about your initiation into organised Ásatrú or Odinism, and how do you look back on this period now?
Stephen: Back in the mid-1970s there were only a very few individuals entertaining the idea of the revival of the old Germanic religion. My own individual journey started as early as 1972. However, I will say that it remained rather haphazard and undirected until 1974 when I heard the word RUNA whispered in my ear. But even then, with the inspiration from a higher source, the struggle to understand the full significance of it all was a significant one that had to be carried out in the earthly plane. I saw notices in places like Fatemagazine for the Ásatrú Free Assembly and was intrigued, but for some reason I thought it unwise to contact this group until I had something significant to offer. By 1975 my work had taken the direction of being more guided by scholarly discipline. Once I had made significant progress in the reformulation of my runic philosophy (which found expression in the manuscript that became Futhark) and in my graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I felt prepared to make contact with Ásatrú groups.
I first met the leader of the AFA, Stephen McNallen, at the first AFA Althing in the summer of 1979. Meeting Steve was a life-changing experience for me. He is an embodiment of a kind of Germanic spirituality that puts words into action. It was at that time that I was named a godhi [the Old Norse designation for a spiritual leader] in the AFA. It is now the only credential that I hold as being of any significance in the world of Ásatrú /Odinism. Despite whatever history might have passed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there can be no doubt that Stephen McNallen is the guiding light of American Ásatrú. I count Steve McNallen as a friend and colleague and very much value the fact that it was from him that I received my godhordh – or “authority as a godhi.”
Michael: You have often spoken about how essential disciplined scholarly training can be for understanding the esoteric aspects of the religion and how to most effectively put these into practice. Presumably, such an exchange also functions simultaneously in the reverse direction – in other words, what positive ways did your active involvement with the religion impact your academic work?
Stephen: The esoteric, spiritual aspects function as initial forms of inspiration to the mind. This is essential to the Odian approach to life. First there is an “irrational,” or supra-rational, impulse – a bolt out of the blue that sets the conscious mind on its mysterious course. That impulse can, for many, be a disorienting stroke from which they never recover. They simply sink deeper and deeper into a sea of subjectivity. For another group, the subjectivism is eventually re-balanced with rational work. Understanding of the inspiration is gained, without “explaining it away.” The allowance of subjective inner experience and insight to coexist with objective, rational analysis is essential to the process of truly understanding the tradition in a scientific way, as well as to the process of personal development based on the traditional symbology.
It was noted by outside observers, my mentors in the academic world, that I had an uncanny ability to make sense of obscure myths and to apprehend the hidden connections between and among various mythic structures. This ability stemmed from my inner experience which was constructed on a basis lying outside the purely rational models. If one is trying to delve into the mysteries of the symbolic culture of an archaic world – one very much separated from our own contemporary society and values – then obviously some key must be found which is something other than plodding logic or wild speculation. For me this key is the balanced openness to the mythic spirit of Odin. I was lucky enough to have academic mentors who supported me in this approach, who were themselves spiritual men. Without their inner support I could not have achieved whatever it is I have achieved.
Michael: Why is the notion of a scholar of pre-Christian religion who actually adheres to the spiritual ideas that he also studies such a radical one? Is this simply a byproduct of the situation in the West where any religious path outside of the “mainstream” monotheistic faiths is painted as cultic and marginal?
Stephen: I think this attitude stems almost entirely from two sources: 1) the antagonism of the materialist worldview toward the traditional spiritual one, and 2) the opportunity the adherents to the materialistic worldview have taken to attack the spiritual view based on historical events surrounding World War II. This materialist worldview is “monotheistic” in the sense that it allows for only one set of orthodox values. In this way it is really a secularised form of monotheistic religion. The Judeo-Christian system of thought has lent itself very well to being secularised in such a way that it can be turned into a model for modern political and economic theories. As a side-note, Islam has been much more stubborn in its adherence to its original values, which has caused it to be very much “out of step” with its monotheistic cousins.
Judaism and Christianity can be tolerated by the establishment scholarly world because they can be viewed as theoretical prototypes of the materialistic and positivistic model that now dominates thought in the West. Earlier traditional models are seen not so much as a threat to religion as they are seen as a threat to the monolithic political and economic order. The pre-Christian, traditional philosophies are too divergent and multivalent to be coerced into one single “market” of ideas. This points to the fatal hypocrisy of the current crop of modernistic “thinkers,” who spout off about “multiculturalism” and tolerance, but who exclusively support monolithic socio-economic models that enact the opposite of what they publicly espouse. Surely the ancient, traditional and pre-Christian world is more in line with what really sounds best to most people. Are not ancient, pre-Christian Athens or Alexandria more ideal models for the future over medieval Rome or Constantinople?
Clearly the animosity to those who see value in pre-Christian models stems not from the religious side of the debate, but rather from the secular challenge traditionalism poses to the current political order. What is needed is a campaign for the re-education of the academic world to show that the idealised future is one that is more likely to be based on the mosaic of pre-Christian traditions than it is to be based on the monolithic Christian model.
Scholars of pre-Christian tradition must indeed be sympathetic and even empathetic to the paradigms they are studying. If they do not have a subjective link to the paradigm they are seeking to understand, then they have categorically placed an insurmountable barrier between themselves and the “object” they seek to understand. Hence they have in fact disqualified themselves from ever being able to really understand the patterns of thought in question.
Michael: You have always tried to encourage those involved in neo-heathenism to uphold a higher intellectual standard, and whenever possible to actively pursue serious academic study. Have you noticed any significant number of people willing to rise to the challenge?
Stephen: To this point I would say that there has indeed been a significant number of people who have taken up the challenge to pursue academic goals as a way to put their inner, spiritual lives on a more firm foundation. The number may be significant, but not large. It is hoped that with the advent of the new Woodharrow Institute a greater number of people will “get” what it is I am trying to convey in this trend. The whole “neo-pagan” world has been made a part of the Bohemian “underground” sort of mentality of the Anglo-Saxon (this includes the imitative American) culture. What I am trying to do is simply call the Anglo-Saxon culture back to its more organic Germanic roots. This includes the way in which the idea of “neo-paganism” is approached.
As I outlined in my essay “How to Be a Heathen,” printed in the volume Blue Runa (Rûna-Raven, 2001), there was a time when “pagan knowledge” indicated something that was rigorous to begin with, and gradually evolved to higher realms of the ordinarily ineffable. “Christian faith” was something which opposed “pagan knowledge” and was characterised by subjectivism and infinite appeals to unverifiable authorities from the beginning to the end of the process. In this way it can be seen how the typical “New Ager,” or “wiccan” [sic] is in fact paradigmatically much closer to the original Christian model of thinking than is the average “Christian believer” today. Serious Christian seminarians would not think of ignoring the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, yet the many aspirants to the “priesthood” of Ásatrú today think that learning Old Norse is an unreasonable thing to require. It is remarkable to note how many people don’t even get the grammar of their supposed “Norse name” right!
The reasons for this apparent virtual hostility to learning are a part of the Anglo-Saxon “anti-egghead” mentality. By contrast it can be noted that some of the turn-of-the-century German revivalists were in fact professors, e.g. Jakob Wilhelm Hauer (Tübingen) and Ernst Bergmann (Leipzig). This inner cultural bias must be first recognised before it can be overcome. Do not think for a minute that I am extolling the great wisdom or character of the typical modern academic. The academy is presently in decay. However, the basic and systematic knowledge possessed by those who have spent decades in specialised studies, and who have been the traditional recipients of knowledge handed down from several previous generations of scholars is a resource that is indispensable to us.
Michael: While your focus is usually on traditional Germanic or northern European culture and religion, you have also addressed other areas in some of your work, such as with the book Hermetic Magic. What was your reason for doing so – and how do these seemingly distinct realms fit together or cross-fertilise?
Stephen: In Hermetic Magic I concentrated on the operations from the Greek magical papyri that made use of the symbolic power of language and the alphabet (i.e., the more Greek-influenced operations). Indeed there is a great deal of possible cross fertilisation between the Germanic and Greek traditions of verbal and alphabetic magic. The book Hermetic Magic was an experiment in the use of the principle of RUNA in the decoding of a tradition other than the Germanic. It proved to be generally successful. Much of what Hermetic magic was all about has been lost in the Golden Dawn/OTO-style magic of the Victorian gents. Hermetic Magic is an attempt to go ad fontes, i.e., back to the sources of what Hermetic magic is, in order to arrive at a fresh and eternal perspective on the power of the human will. This is an exercise in the power of RUNA,Mysterion, as I see it. Hermetic Magic shows what can be done with the principle of RUNA/Mysterion. That it has been generally ignored by the run-of-the-mill “hermetic” crowd is a sign of just how esoteric the actual tradition is.
Michael: The work of Georges Dumézil, the French scholar of Indo-European comparative religion, has been a strong influence on your own outlook. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of his work, and why did they resonate with you to such a degree?
Stephen: First of all, I suppose I came to it as a matter of tradition. My own teacher, and Doktorvater, Edgar Polomé, was a (qualified) Dumézilian. Beyond what I learned in his classrooms, however, I saw that his objective studies (which involved making detailed dossiers of the various Indo-European Gods, etc.) coupled with his structuralist approach allowed for the beginnings of a contemporary and living synthesis of ancient ideas with those of Jung and others. The ideas of Dumézil are 1) accurate and objectively verifiable to a great degree, and 2) are potent tools for current self-transformational work.
Michael: In recent years there seems to be a consistent effort on the part of certain segments of the academic community to discredit Dumézil’s work, and especially his formulation of the tripartite/tri-functional model. Such attempts are reminiscent of those directed against Mircea Eliade and other scholars of religion and myth. Why this animosity, and what are these discreditors so afraid of?
Stephen: They are afraid of the resurgence of Indo-European culture. They have intellectually invested in the idea that internationalism is good and that anything that glorifies the non-European world is preferable to anything that seems to lend prestige to European culture. All of this is so ironic because the ideals from which they draw are entirely of European origin. Nevertheless, as a matter of ideology, but probably more as a matter of an intellectual fashion trend, the academic establishment frowns on anything that they see as “glorifying” the European culture. They would probably argue that their reasons for this vaguely have something to do with Germany in the 1930s. In conversations with German academics in runology I discovered that the same things are happening at German universities now as happened in American ones in the 1980s and 1990s – anything relating to ancient or medieval northern Europe is being dismantled.
There is also the fear that Europe will really be able to make peace within itself based on the Indo-European model, rather than the Christian and/or Marxist model. This would discredit their intellectual prejudices once more. Specifically on Dumézil and the tripartite theory, his theories have the potential of forming the basis of a pan-Indo-European cultural unity. They are the greatest challenge to Christianity and to materialistic positivism in the 20th century. So it is not without some justification that Dumézil has been so widely attacked. His theories do pose a challenge, and are not merely intellectual curiosities. They call for some sort of action and some sort of change on the part of the reader of his ideas.
The dirty little secret is probably merely that in academia the study of old languages and ancient history is hard, whereas what they are replacing all of this with is relatively easy. So that the “war on the Indo-Europeans” is really part of the general “dumbing down” of the academy.
Michael: Not so long ago you attended an international scholarly conference on runology in Denmark. What were your impressions about how this discipline is faring in today’s academic world?
Stephen: The academic field of runology, like any other academic discipline, is subject to the dictates of fashion and changing intellectual trends. (This is where an academic discipline differs from a Traditional discipline.) Most of the 19th and early 20th century runologists accepted the relationship between religion or magic and the runes as a given fact. They accepted this uncritically because it appeared to them (perhaps rightly) as the most obvious conclusion based on all prima facie evidence. Because they were uncritical in their acceptance, however, this left the door open to a subsequent generation of runologists to question the earlier generation’s assumptions. In the world of science this is a good thing. If those who did not question the “magical” nature of the runes had not been so uncritical, then a deeper and more insightful exploration of the idea of runes and magic might never have been undertaken.
I was very gratified to have younger individuals – many still students – at the runic conference discreetly approach me and tell me that part of the reason they came to the conference was to meet me, and that they had first been exposed to the wondrous world of the runes and the esoteric Germanic tradition through my more “popular” works.
The changing face of academia dictates that what is “in” today, will be “out” tomorrow. The seeds of the next generation of runologists have already been planted. On some level, perhaps, those who are foes of tradition have sensed this. Their strategy is perhaps to prevent the seeds from growing by not allowing the seeds to exist in fertile soil. The whole fields of runology, comparative religion, Indo-European studies, etc., are being systematically rooted out of academic institutions. Especially in America this is occurring with simultaneous impetus both from the “right” and from “left.” The international left sees the European tradition as being in power, and their myth of the dialectic determines they should seek to disestablish whatever is in power for “revolutionary” reasons. The right, on the other hand, is dominated in America by a Christian sentiment, which sees interest in our ancient traditions as being hostile to the Christian model. It is interesting to note that these apparently divergent interests of the “left” and “right” are, in America at least, in agreement that at least one of their common “enemies” is the organic national traditions of Europe.
This is occurring not just in America, but in Europe as well. Recently the position of Prof. Dr. Klaus Düwel at the University of Göttingen in Germany was terminated by the administration of the university. At the runic conference in Denmark the runologists signed a petition aimed at the university administration to ask that this prestigious position be maintained. The roots of the academic study of runes at that institution go back to the Grimms.
Michael: Is the founding of the Woodharrow Institute for Germanic and Runic Studies in some ways a response to the current situation regarding these areas of study?
Stephen: The Woodharrow Institute is not only a response to this current situation in academia, but also to shortcomings, as I see them, in the “esoteric subculture.” The Institute stands apart from the current “magickal subculture” in that it is informed by, and on its most basic level must conform to, all the legitimate rules and regulations of scientific procedure – all of which are beneficial to the overall process if kept in perspective. These methods infiltrate our way of approaching esoteric areas, or areas of inner work, as well. As has always been the case with the Rune-Gild – which in the future will be re-established within the context of the Woodharrow Institute – we start with what is objectively known and move from that base into an exploration of the darker corners of the unknown.
So the Woodharrow Institute is intended to meet a challenge from two ends of a pole: it is to bring an objective and scientific basis to the beginning of inner work, and to re-envision the final purpose or aim of intellectual work itself as a completion of the self. It is to bring objective standards to a morass of subjectivity (the occultizoid culture) and to bring inner purpose to the often sterile and pointless pursuits of academia. This is a formidable challenge, to be sure. Yet this is what makes it worth undertaking.
Michael: What role do you see the Institute ultimately fulfilling, and how might it interact with more established or formal academic institutions?
Stephen: It is clear from what has already been said that the academic discipline of runology, as well as those of older Germanic studies and Indo-European studies, etc., are in trouble. If scientific runology is left to its normal cycle of intellectual fashion, there is no harm done. The radical traditional runologist would be free as always to partake of the fruits of that intellectual labour and have his inner work enriched by it. However, if the traditional academic fields are uprooted and marginalised to extinction then this would no longer be possible.
The Woodharrow Institute is designed to be a refuge for the academic tradition – and to foster to some extent a sort of guerrilla scholarship. The basic work for the Institute must not in any way be compromised by “occult thinking”; it should be entirely historical and academic. We will “play the scholarly game” according to its rule and according to its standards. Then and only then can the Institute fulfill another of its major tasks: to act as a “think tank” for those interested in inner work. The fact that the word “academic” is used to describe only that kind of work which is “purely scientific,” is in a sense a misuse of the term. Plato’s school, the Academy, from which our modern use of the term is ultimately derived, did not have as its final aim the production of scientific data limited to what can be quantified and objectively known. That was only a stepping stone to the true purpose of the school, which was the transformation of the individual into a higher form of being – in other words, the final “product” was the completed soul. This whole ultimate purpose has been lost in the modern academic institution, except perhaps where secret pockets of scholars might preserve it unofficially.
The Woodharrow Institute seeks to restore the complete model of the old Academy in a Germanic context. As such its ultimate purpose is transformational, and not merely “scientific” as understood in modern parlance. Participants in, or members of, the Institute will, however, not be required to pursue this inner work as any sort of prerequisite for membership. The Institute will develop a full range of areas of interest and research.
It is hoped that the Institute will in the future be able to establish good relations with mainstream academia. We could offer practical programs in language study, experimental archeology and, most importantly, experimental or experiential ideology. Our mission in mainstream academia would be merely to restore traditional areas of study where they have been lost and to help retain them where they are in jeopardy.
The Institute then has two main purposes in the world:
1) to act as a refuge for displaced scientific work in the fields of runology, Germanic studies, and general Indo-European studies; and 2) to act as a think tank for individuals interested in making use of the scientific work as a basis for inner development. The Woodharrow Institute is a weapon in the struggle against both modernism and occultizoid subjectivism.
Michael: In the ancient Germanic cosmology, a cyclical dynamic exists where the old order collapses and is torn apart from both within and without, but this is a necessary step that precedes the unfolding of a new beginning. Is it a stretch to look at contemporary events in this light? And if not, what is the best way for the aware individual to approach the present situation?
Stephen: It is my contention that traditional views are eternally valid and ever-meaningful. The Germanic cosmology, ragnarök, which can actually refer to the beginnings, middle or end of the cosmological process, involves at the end of the process certain ages. These are referred to in the poems of the Elder Eddawith terms such as the “Wolf Age,” which refers to the “greedy,” “covetous,” or “appetitive” nature of the age. Clearly the world as a whole is in a “Wolf-Age.” The individual, and certain groups of elect, can, as Julius Evola put it, “ride the tiger.” This means that certain individuals and groups can, exercising their will against the grain of consensus reality as informed by Tradition, lay the personal and transpersonal foundations for the next (inevitable) cyclical development. This next cycle will (naturally) be more imbued with Tradition, as the developmental wheel turns.
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Portions of this interview with Dr. Flowers have previously appeared in the British journal Rûna: Exploring Northern European Myth, Mystery and Magic, available from BM: Sorcery, London WC1N 3XX, UK. To learn more about the Woodharrow Institute, or to request a catalog of books available from Rûna-Raven Press, contact PO Box 557, Smithville, Texas 78957, USA.
MICHAEL MOYNIHAN is a writer, artist, and publisher from New England. He was co-editor of the journal TYR: Myth – Culture – Religion, published in Atlanta, Georgia. He regularly contributes to cultural and music periodicals worldwide, and is also the North American Editor of Rûna.