Book Review: A Witch’s Runes by Susan Sheppard

A Witch's Runes by Susan Sheppard Cover
She had me at the witch as gentle anarchist and lost me at “gypsy”.

In my wandering and varied research for my book, I kept coming across the witch’s runes.  You can find a plethora of them on Etsy.  I was really curious as to what they were, where they came from, their provenance really.  A little digging produced the book A Witch’s Runes by Susan Sheppard.  The subtitle How to Make and Use Your Own Magick Stones was right up my research alley.  I put in my request for a copy via Inter Library Loan along with the half a bajillion other books and waited.

I want to point out from the offset that I admire what Sheppard set out to do with the book.  With certain modern pagan paths’ penchants for making up traditions out of whole cloth there a real risk to viewing anything not steeped in hundreds of years of history as somehow lesser or illegitimate when it comes to the pagan faith.  I’ve read a lot of pagan books over the last year, and there is a trend of constantly looking back.  What Sheppard does in this book is create a new divination system, somewhere between runes and Tarot cards.  It’s an ambitious objective and it has certainly paid off: her book was first published in 1998 and the idea of witch’s runes has spread.

But (and you knew there was a but coming, right?) reading through the book was an uncomfortable stroll through cultural appropriation, slurs and handfuls of generalizations thrown in for good measure.  Sheppard’s approach is summed up on page 22: “But the witch honors all of the spiritual traditions that have preceded her.  She takes what works for her and makes use of its meanings.”  This set the tone for the book.

The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way.  Late in the book, on page 96, Sheppard mentions that her “…area of discipline is astrology.”  She talks about using the runes she has created “in the place of signs and planets and it works out fine.”  Knowing this, and seeing the table at the back of the book with planet, sign and element correspondences, I could see the potential for a divination tool made incorporating the zodiac and astrology.  I don’t understand why this isn’t what she did.

The only reasoning I can come up with is that urge I pointed out earlier, to try and tie any new Pagan ideas to the past.  For each rune, Sheppard tries to tie the symbolism to various older cultures: Egyptian, Pict, Anglo-Saxon, Akkadians, Mesopotamians, and of course the ubiquitous “gypsies”.  Occasionally she touches back on her astrological background, tying the Scythe to Scorpio and the planet Pluto.  But for the most part all the runes are presented as an amalgamation of symbols drawn from mostly western cultures.

I am writing Sew Craft with an eye to avoid appropriation, generalization, and giving Western traditions more importance than the rest of the world.  It is a fine line to travel, as I am aware that I can’t see all the pitfalls I might fall in while meaning well. As I work, reading books like A Witch’s Runes keeps me mindful of respecting the history of my sources.

 

Keeping Busy

So, I’ve been keeping pretty busy lately with trying my hand at a few new things and recently discovered that I’m pretty good at chainmail jewelry.  This is also why Pintrest is both awesome and horrible at the same time.  I found a few patterns and items I really liked, studied the pictures of it and then made it myself.  Here’s one below of a recent commission.

Aluminum chain mandala pendant with silver primary color and green secondary color.
Aluminum chain mandala pendant with silver primary color and green secondary color.

These seem to be pretty popular and I’ve made some adaptations as well, to include a fifth set of secondary (the small colored) rings and then suspend a bead or something in the middle. Once I get a few of those made, I’ll update here with pictures.  Below, though, are the current secondary colors I offer:

These are the colors I currently have for secondary in the mandala pendants. Adding four more soon.
These are the colors I currently have for secondary in the mandala pendants. Adding four more soon.

In any case, I’m still doing the runes, though will probably be ringing them with copper, but below you can see the non-copper ringed ones.

This is the Elder Futhark, made from maple.
This is the Elder Futhark, made from maple.

I’ve taken (and will some more) full advantage of the awesome light box the shield-maiden made to make the pictures I take with my phone of the stuff I make look a lot more professional.

So, in case you were wondering, that’s what I’ve been doing (alongside the duties of SAHD).  Soon, you will also see a new category from me, “Snippets of Ragnarok”.

Elder Futhark Cross-stitch Patterns

Cross-stitch was one of my first hobbies.  I’ve never gotten into crochet and knitting (I could never get my stitches tight enough), and sewing came much later.  I enjoyed picking out new skeins of thread (back when one could buy four for a dollar at the local Pamida).  They were little brightly colored threads of potential.  Winding them on little cardboard bobbins was incredibly soothing.  The limited number of stitches and the structure of the Aida cloth were less intimidating to me than freehand embroidery (I could never get my stitches even enough to look right).

At some point I stopped stitching.  I got busy with the sewing, and then the publishing, and then the stress of just getting through the day.  Sitting down and working on something just for myself seemed indulgent and irresponsible.  The boxes of thread, the Aida cloth and cross-stitch books got pushed to the back of shelves to make room for bolts of cloth and serger thread and depression.

Hestia Pouch
Design cross-stitched on linen, turned into a pouch to hold items and hang over the door.

In November, as we reorganized the garage into a workshop, I found all of my cross-stitch supplies.  They were dusty and wrinkled, but no worse for wear.  I sat down one evening with some linen and waste canvas and my Celtic Cross Stitch book by Gail Lawther.  I had an idea to create something I could hang over the front door, a pouch I could fill with herbs, stones, medallions, whatever represented to me safety and love and protection.  I have an affinity for Hestia, who is often represented by a circle, and Stephan has a strong connection to his Celtic roots.  I picked a design that was circular and got to work.

The actual stitching took a week or so, working in the evening.  The whole time I had to remind myself that it was okay to take this time for myself.   And as the pattern emerged, as I looked from design to fabric and back again, as my hands worked, I stitched pieces of myself back together.  Those parts of me that had been torn away because I felt I didn’t have the right to self-care were reattached with careful rows of Xs.  Breathe, I told myself.  This is okay.  You get to do something solely for the joy of it.

And it worked.  It was soothing to concentrate on the rhythm of the needle going in and out of the fabric.  I had to give all my attention to keeping the thread from tangling, to the number of stitches, to the tautness of the fabric.  There was no room for other concerns.  I made sure to tell Stephan several times how much I was enjoying this one simple act, to reinforce the good feelings.

Hecate's Wheel Cross-stitch Decoration
Hecate’s Wheel cross-stitched on my bag in green and red. Design from http://crossstitch.about.com/od/freecrossstitchpattern1/ig/Wiccan—Pagan-Symbols/Hecate-s-Wheel-Pattern-Chart.htm

After the pouch, I embellished my bag with a design of Hecate’s Wheel.  I started having issues with leaving the house last year.   Not so much agoraphobia, as anxiety about being around people.  I thought that carrying a reminder of Hecate, a goddess that I associate with strength and protection, would help with my feelings.  I am taking medication and am in therapy, both have helped with this particular issue (among others), and I think that the cross-stitch has aided in my healing.

Me being me, though, I started playing around with the idea of creating my own cross-stitch patterns.  I’m also working on another book with Stephan, and I am looking to incorporate the cross-stitch into that.  To those ends, I pulled out some graph paper and started with a topic that seemed easy enough: the Elder Futhark.  The runes are all lines, with definite proportions.  I wanted to design something that could be repurposed for various projects, and thought of all the alphabet samplers that one finds in various cross-stitch project books.  I researched various viking design elements for the borders.  The actual drafting took several weeks of graph work and then stitching out the designs to see how they looked.  In the end I drafted two samplers, both on the small side so that they can be completed in a single sitting.

The first design you can see above, the runes are four stitches high by one or two stitches wide (depending on the rune).  The finished design is approximately 2 1/4″ tall by 3 1/4″ wide on 14 count Aida cloth.  It has been worked with two threads: the runes in red and the border in red and black.

The second design (below) is even smaller, the runes two stitches high and one or two stitches wide (again depending on the rune).  The finished design is approximately 1 1/8″ tall by 2 1/8″ wide on 14 count Aida cloth.  It has also been worked with two threads in the black and red colors.

Elder Furthark Cross-stitch Sampler Small
Worked in two threads over 14 ct. white Aida cloth, this sampler features the Elder Futhark runes and a Viking inspired border design.

Both designs are done in back-stitch (making them less cross-stitch patterns, but that’s the term I’m going with).  The stitches include half and quarter stitches, so you have to work between the weave at some points.

I used the program KG-Chart LE to make the charts.  I will definitely be buying the program as it very easy to use and does exactly what I need it to do.  I highly recommend checking it out if you want to make your own patterns.  You can view the designs by clicking on the links below:

Elder Futhark Cross-stitch Sampler Large Pattern

Elder Futhark Cross-stitch Sampler Small Pattern

If you like this project and want to see more, help support this site. You can buy something my Etsy store. Or check out our first two books, available from Amazon.com: