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.