Review: The Runic Animist Calendar (2021) by Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen

Image courtesy of Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen

The Runic Animist Calendar is a product by the Danish scholar of religion Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen. Rune Hjarnø has earned a PhD from Uppsala University, Sweden, where he studied Afro-Atlantic religions. He works with the concept “new animism,” (see also animism) which, briefly explained, is a way of perceiving (typically non-monotheist) religions as mental frameworks for establishing relationships between humans and non-human entities—that’s a fancy way of saying, you know, believing in elves and pixies and thinking that gods hang out in rivers or mountains, etc. There is of course a lot more to it, but let’s get down to business.

Rune Hjarnø also works with pre-Christian Nordic religion and folklore. It is the combination of his method (animism) and his personal interest (pre-Christian Nordic religion) that has resulted in this incredible product: a “traditional” calendar based in Nordic mythology, folklore, and history. The reason for the quotation marks is that it is not technically the same calendar that was used historically in Scandinavia, but instead a modern animist interpretation of traditional material.

In my 30-bordering-40-odd years of hanging with Nordic heathens, I have seen a lot of calendars. There are the bizarre ones that have been pulled out of some would-be guru’s creative thinking, like the one you find on the website of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly. These calendars have circulated in heathenry for decades. They are a mix of poorly grasped historical holidays from Scandinavia and Northern Europe and completely made-up ones that nobody ever celebrated—or should celebrate. Meanwhile, scholarship of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology and religion has of course produced its own attempts at recreating calendars prior to the advent of writing, like, for instance, Andreas Nordberg in his book Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning (check out Brute Norse’s summary of Nordberg’s theories and critique of so-called pagan yule here).

Versions of calendars based on traditional material are also used in the major organizations in Scandinavia, mostly unofficially. Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland has incorporated the distillate of the late Icelandic traditional calendar into their event planning through the year. Back in the day, the membership magazine of the Danish organization Forn Siðr used to come with a calendar, too. It has been a while since I have browsed their magazine Vølse, so I cannot say if that is still the case.

Needless to say, for a long time, both Scandinavian and North American heathens have sought a reasonable alternative to modern calendars based on Christian time. The moderated examples of attempts have seen the application of old traditional names for the months in modern calendars, whereas the more inspired attempts to create heathen calendars have included fanciful ideas about anchoring heathen time-reckoning in more or less made-up historical events, including re-evaluating what year we are in. 

I am sure that you can find some guild master of Runic Fu and a variant of wrestling where you wear garters and give each other wedgies, who spends their time as gatekeeper on a seldomly visited discussion board, and lives in the year 2200-something because, as they will claim, their very secret unbroken Norwegian aristocratic family-line has always counted “runic years” from the day that Olaf the Hairy famously won the battle of some random rock off the shores of Scotland by farting in people’s general direction. And so on.

The point is that with alternative religion and spirituality comes alternative time-reckoning, and the market is huge. There is a desire to redefine what time means, and what it means to engage with meaningful holidays as symbolic markers of your personal shift in perspective away from the mainstream towards the great mystery that is a non-institutionalized religion or, as some call it, “spirituality” (to distinguish it from the perceived institutionalization that comes with the word “religion”). Mostly, the legwork driving towards those temporal reconfigurations has been done by amateurs and geeky dudes with way too much imagination, but now we finally have The Runic Animist Calendar and the accompanying book The Nordic Animist Year.

The Runic Animist Calendar

As a piece of artwork, The Runic Animist Calendar itself is stunning. Each image that accompanies a particular month is an artwork in itself. Rune Hjarnø has worked with a broad selection of artists and crafters to make the visual side of the calendar very appealing. The pictures used in the calendar are high resolution images of tattoos, graphic art, handcraft, even graffiti, that all relate to runes. Each page in the calendar is as such an artwork itself. The calendar days are inserted at the bottom of each image in faded grey. 

The pages from the calendar hanging on my wall, making great artwork.

The formatting of the months in each image borrows from the modern calendar style and from the runic prime staves that were used in Scandinavia into the 20th century. The runic writing system is known as the fuþark, named after the first six letters in the traditional row of runes. The rows are usually separated in three ættir, families, to distinguish them sequentially. In the prime stave calendars, the first ætt, including ‘h,’ which is sometimes relegated to the second ætt, was used for the seven days of the week. Rune Hjarnø has adopted this principle in the formatting of the calendar, and also included special traditional symbols for the holidays.

If there is anything to criticize about the format, layout, and materiality of the calendar itself, it would be that it can be a little hard to handle and attach to a wall. The earlier version of the calendar (2020) was even more difficult to hang on a wall. This one has been improved, but I am afraid that the perfect balance between displaying the beautiful artistic work and creating a functional calendar that can be flipped over every month, has yet to be achieved. What I have done, personally, is to frame each page with months on them and hang them on the wall. This, in my opinion, speaks to the accomplished artwork, yet less to the practicality of the calendar itself.

The Nordic Animist Year

Last year, the calendar was formatted in a way that included all the interesting information, both historical material and intellectual deliberations, in the calendar’s pages themselves. This year, Rune Hjarnø has thankfully decided to write a book to accompany the calendar. Smart move! Part of the clunkiness of the previous calendar was definitely that too much information was crammed into the pages. The accompanying book that explains everything from theory and method to historical contexts, and provides interpretations with intricate notes, is the perfect compromise. 

The book offers a thorough introduction to what Nordic animism is and how you can have animist dialogue with history. In that sense, Rune Hjarnø is not just dropping knowledge, he is introducing a new method for relating to history! With his animist approach to Scandinavian calendars, he is fusing eras and tracing a history of use from the earliest evidence to the latest. And, in that way, he manages to bypass traditional problems that occur both for scholars and lay-people with a historical interest: you find yourself mulling over parts of the source material, asking yourself “is this truly heathen or is it just another element of Christian influence?”

Rune Hjarnø meticulously explains how you can have animist dialogues with history; what the traditional Scandinavian calendars looked like, and how his calendar is a modern development from them. He guides you through the concept of sacred time and the elements of the calendar itself and provides ample reference to historical sources wherever he finds them. Finally, he explains each month and its important holidays. You are being schooled in a tradition, my friend! The different holidays that Rune Hjarnø has added to the calendar are explained in detail. Under each holiday heading, you get an explanation of the historical data and how Rune Hjarnø has had a dialogue with history to provide you with a meaningful holiday for your life.

There is nothing purist about Rune Hjarnø’s approach. To the contrary, he does not shy away from claiming historical bonds between Christian saints and ancient pre-Christian gods. Sometimes he goes farther than any scholar of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion and mythology would allow—in some cases this happens because of the method that he applies, in other cases, it is the result of Rune Hjarnø not being schooled in the same tradition of history of religion as scholars of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. 

While this would normally relegate you to a dubious corner of publications on pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology and religion, the finesse employed by Rune Hjarnø—and the fact that this calendar is not as such an academic product for academic peers—lets him get away with it. As a scholar myself, there are plenty of things I could nitpick, but, honestly, the final product and its purpose is so good that there is no need to. This is the beginning of a new tradition.

A minor critique of Rune Hjarnø’s work is that, unless you are a scholar yourself, or someone who really loves reading scholarly material, you may find that the book is a little dense. Rune Hjarnø writes as if he is presenting his material to an audience of people with the same level of education and breadth of knowledge as himself. This can make it a little hard to follow, if you are coming from another background. However, the quality of the work is so good that I would encourage you to continue reading, even if you have to reread a sentence several times to keep up with the brilliance that is being dished out in this epic book.

Go find Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen’s work on his website Nordic Animism, on YouTube and Facebook and on Instagram.

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