Gender, Runes, and the Great, Yawning Gap


(Most of this is drawn from a conversation I’m having with several other spirit-workers and NT shamans. We’ve been discussing and exploring our cosmology, specifically the Norse creation story. I write a bit about that here and this delves a bit deeper into some of the ideas expressed in that piece. This is speculative, posted mostly to give myself a record of my thoughts).

I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the importance of our cosmogony. I think any understanding of the way Heathenry and the Northern Tradition works must start with an exploration and understanding of our cosmogony, because that is the lens through which we are expected to engage with the world, relationships, and everything in between. I’ve occasionally seen the primal Gap (Ginnungagap) described as a ‘womb’ but I really do not like the image of a ‘womb’ for the Gap. It’s too much a gendered term. The Gap is a crucible and for many reasons that I’ll be discussing here, precedes any idea of gender.

Likewise with the runes: one often ascribes gender to them (and they can in fact present as gendered) but I think it’s perhaps a mistake to assume that any gendered presentation represents the actual nature of the rune itself, and for many of the same reasons as with the Gap.

I’ll start with the runes because in many ways, they’re easier to touch on than our cosmogony. From my experience, some specific rune spirits might take on a gender, but as a whole, they’re not what we would term masculine and feminine in their essence. I think this is important…I don’t think that like the Odu, (with whom I have seem the runes often compared) they’re building blocks of creation. Instead, I think they in some way expand and expound from the Gap, almost like agents provocateur, instruments that carry that synergy wherever it needs to go, especially at the points where wyrd begins. This is all speculative theology but the runes are not of this world. They were never of the human world (at least not the elder. I have suspicions about the younger. I suspect that the younger were born of the elder, and born to be a more direct bridge to this world, are more inherently connected to this plane of existence). They take on gender, or can take it on, when they enter our world/state of being but within their own natural realm, the Gap, it is an alien idea.

I think we really have to be careful of co-opting gendered language for these things. That’s immediately a category and a limitation and for those things that are beyond temporality and even materiality, it’s important to resist that urge. All the more so as those terms carry so much weight in our culture. We reduce the power of these Forces (the Gap, the worlds within the Gap before creation, even the runes) when we make them feminine or masculine. We reduce their nature, blocking it off and culling it down, parceling it out when we ascribe to it those categories that limit with respect to substance and manifestation. Sometimes it’s inevitable. We need a means to discuss these things after all, but I think with the runes, we can deal with them as they are, and the Gap as well without projecting our own gendered language onto them. (I do think that within the rune families, rune spirits will choose to appear in a variety of genders but I think it’s an assumed guise for our sake. Half of learning how to work with the runes is a matter of us learning how to communicate with them, and them learning our interior symbol system, i.e. how to communicate with us. Taking on gendered forms may improve communication). When we begin exploring our cosmogony, we’re challenged to move beyond ideas of gender as these somehow inherently meta categories of universal structure.

The first actively gendered force that we have is Audhumla, the sacred cow and that is crucial. Once materiality is yoked to temporality, once it’s out of the Gap and into Being, once there is substance, it’s filtered through Audhumla, that feminine force that brings Ymir into being and starts the process of embodied creation

I remember thinking about the creation story and thinking, “where the fuck did the cow come from?” but it’s an IE motif: the active principle of embodied creation, once things have moved into materiality, is a cow: a feminine, or rather female force. Cows were wealth, abundance – we see this in the runes too with fehu, domestic cattle and wealth (versus Uruz, initiation and the challenge of the wild aurochs). It’s potentiality for abundance, the power of manifestation (I believe even Audhumla’s name means ‘wealth.’). That’s a different level from the moments preceding creation and again from creation itself, at once removed from the Otherness of the Gap. For most of us, I think that when the runes present as gendered, that’s here, in our world/state of being, not in the Gap, not their origin point and that difference is significant. It may be that there is how the runes are there, and how they can choose to be here, or how they are filtered through here.

I think we need to step back and examine how often we contextualize based on gender. The moment you ascribe that category, you’ve put a limit on something. You’ve also humanized it. Now sometimes that happens. Our Gods taken on gender for instance…note I said ‘take on.’ I don’t’ want to limit Them by assuming They are bound in any way to it. They take it on. When we start talking about cosmogony, we’re pre-human, pre substance, pre material and categories (like gender) no longer apply. They don’t exist yet. So for this, we have to move away from how humans experience the world, and our assumed position of necessity to its order, and look instead at how things are without filtering it through humanity as a necessary lens – because these things we’re discussing here existed/came into being, well before we did.

To further complicate things, Old Norse, like many IE languages is a gendered language. This means that nouns have grammatical gender (they can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It doesn’t have anything to do with what that noun might be usually, but instead is a way of categorizing based on morphological terminations). In some respects, looking at grammatical gender can be enlightening. It’s one more level of analysis but certain concepts and ideas, certain types of being are beyond gender, beyond any human category. When we’re talking about something similar in so many ways to the Platonic Agathos, Nous, and Psykhe, we’re not dealing with something yoked by gender. Gender is a material limitation. I do with the runes, think of them as gender fluid to some degree, but largely because I ‘m not sure gender has any relevance in THEIR realm…whereas it’s part of ours, and like a costume they can put it on or take it off at will to communicate specific things in their interactions with us.

Once we start looking at cosmogonic principles, however, up until the point of material creation, the point where suddenly there is materiality and temporality, and *substance*, gender has no meaning. Once we get to substantive realms/states of being, then gender becomes a thing, because then, by virtue of being substantive, there is already limitation.

Insofar as we have substantive concepts, I think bringing gendered language into it can be interesting (both grammatically for analysis and ideologically). As noted above, it’s another level of analysis when we’re doing theological exegesis. The cosmogony, however, before the moment when materiality comes into being as a result of friction between worlds (opposing forces) doesn’t exist as we might comprehend it.



Posted on February 4, 2017, in Heathenry, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Very interesting!

    I don’t have very much experience with the Runes at all, but I do have pretty extensive experience with another group of divine grammatical beings, i.e. the Ephesia Grammata. While each of Them has a character, I couldn’t really say that any of Them are “gendered” in any way that would translate into such for humans. Grammatically/linguistically, in Greek, I think most of Them would probably be neuter, interestingly, but even that is a rather irrelevant thing for Them.

    It’s all a bit like what I once wrote in a paper on gender and Cú Chulainn: contra what one earlier scholar said, it isn’t that the Hero is “beyond/neither male and female,” because those are modern concepts and don’t apply to the ancient or medieval Irish worlds, and thus isn’t really relevant even if it is (superficially) true. It would be as irrelevant as saying that he’s “neither Unionist or Republican,” i.e. while it may be technically true, it isn’t useful or helpful in telling us anything about him.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Edward P. Butler

      I actually think that the relationship of Gods to gender could be discussed in terms of Judith Butler’s concept of “performativity”, gender arising in the first place through the Gods’ cosmic performance of gender, with all of the complexity and ambivalence that those performances possess, rather than being the expressions of some pure essence of gender, an “essence” in which Platonists at any rate evidently don’t believe, and who is more to be trusted on the topic of essences than a Platonist?

      Liked by 3 people

      • yes, i wouldn’t disagree…They can wear/perform gender and perhaps even embody some core potencies but that is a different thing from gender as identity.


      • Quite!

        It’s sad that Judith Butler herself has “moved on” from that concept, given how useful and even transformative and definitive it has been for queer studies, amongst other things.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a lot to say about gender! (uh oh) But you basically said exactly what I would say.

    “They take on gender, or can take it on, when they enter our world/state of being but within their own natural realm, the Gap, it is an alien idea…… I think we really have to be careful of co-opting gendered language for these things. That’s immediately a category and a limitation and for those things that are beyond temporality and even materiality…”

    Absolutely agree. I think “gender” is completely misunderstood. I don’t believe runes, or Gods, or even the souls of people, have “gender”. Gender isn’t something innate in the spirit. Instead, our human perception tends to “categorize” the differences we sense in spirit. The Gods and spirits (and ourselves) just have personalities and energies. The category of “gender” is just a category, something we use to supplement our understanding.

    It’s like saying mathematics is inherent in physics — no it isn’t, it’s just a tool we use to describe what’s happening in physics, a way to understand more concretely something that is very abstract. It’s a case of “the map is not the land”.

    So while I agree that sometimes spirits (runes, Gods, whatever) will “present” as having gender, I think that often we *force* gender on spirit because we have a hard time understanding anything else. I have seen tons of cases where this has severely limited people’s perception and halted deeper understanding of the Divine. (Today’s society is so wrapped up in gender nowadays, people think EVERYTHING has gender, from colors to hobbies to which foods you eat to what position you might hold your hands in to whether you prefer Batman or Superman…it’s insane.) Gender can be a toll that increases understanding, but only with the understanding that it has limited application. The Gods are bigger than gender.

    Liked by 4 people

    • it’s not even that they’re bigger than gender, it’s that when we’re talking about certain things, we’re moving into a state of being where gender not only doesn’t but cannot yet exist.


      • Yes, exactly. I mean that Gods and the cosmic states you discuss here are something the concept of gender cannot contain. It’s like talking about quantum physics and going “but is it apples or oranges?” That’s a nonsensical question, because we haven’t made fruit yet.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Exactly, love that analogy, crow. We’re trying to talk apples or oranges when we haven’t made fruit yet. lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I read the Norse Creation story involving Niflheim and Muspellheim with Ginnungagap in the center, I saw in my mind the image of our Milky Way Galaxy. And I recalled mention that there is a black hole in the center of our galaxy (supposedly every galaxy has one).


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