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Review of  Runenschrift in der Black-Metal-Szene

Reviewer: Matthias Fingerhuth
Book Title: Runenschrift in der Black-Metal-Szene
Book Author: Florian Busch
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Writing Systems
Issue Number: 27.2008

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Outside of its historical context, runic script is rarely the object of linguistic or philological inquiry. This book takes up a new approach to runes, investigating how they are used in the subculture built around the musical genre of black metal. The study is an adaptation of an M.A. thesis written at the University of Hamburg in 2014. As such it has a broader scope than would commonly be expected from such a work. It consists of six chapters, along with a list of illustrations and an appendix that lists the used textual and visual materials.

In the introduction, the author challenges the assumption that runes are a dead script, contextualizes his study within the growing discourse on variation in writing, and outlines the study’s structure. Chapters Two and Three connect the book to the existing scholarly discourse. The second chapter expands on the sociolinguistic discourse on variation in writing, relying on Spitzmüller (2013) as a theoretical framework. The third chapter gives a brief outline of Germanic runes as a historic writing system, based largely on Düwel (2001) and Barnes (2012), and their use in more recent history: esotericism, fantasy literature, right wing extremist or national socialist political contexts, and the music subculture in question. The following chapters are devoted to the case study. Chapter Four outlines the methodology of the study and introduces the three corpora used in the investigation. The first consists of texts taken from internet discourse from the black metal subculture (predominantly interviews with bands and record reviews), online articles from German newspapers, and scientific discourse on runes represented by Düwel (2001) and Grünzweig (2004). This is contrasted with a second corpus of interviews with two participants of the black metal scene, and a third, a collection of artefacts involving runes from the black metal subculture. The author puts forward four hypotheses that inform the empirical investigation, as follows: (1) The black metal subculture enregisters runes with graphemic knowledge that is mostly rooted in the history of the recontextualization of the script. (2) Social indexicality, i.e. the placing of runes in a specific social, subcultural, or political position, develops only when embedded into complex multimodal texts. (3) Different subgenres or scene-identities use runes differently. (4) The degree of commercialization has an influence on the use of runes. These hypotheses are addressed in more detail in the following chapters.

Chapter Five gives an analysis of the metascriptural discourse on runes as present in online media and represented through two members of the black metal scene. The beginning of the chapter briefly contrasts the discourse within the scene with the linguistic discourse on runes and a discourse from the general public as represented through online newspapers. Without going into further detail on the discourses in broader society or among experts on runes, the author finds that the discourse in the black metal subculture has a broader thematic range. This subcultural discourse is concerned with spirituality or magic (e.g. the use of the Algiz-rune as a sign for life), what the author calls “lay linguistic aspects” (e.g. the history of the runic script), and political implications (i.e. the association of runes with National Socialism), but foremost with historicity and authenticity. This last discourse connects the use of runes to a cultural tradition leading back to the Germanic tribes and in this context addresses the appropriate use of runes, and as such strongly overlaps with the other discourse elements. Chapter Six then examines the runic artefacts from the black metal subculture. The author has 22 different categories for these artefacts, with most items being record covers and prints on merchandise like t-shirts. The analysis covers a number of criteria, including the use of authentic runes vs. runified Latin script (pseudo-runes), the runes’ appearance as handwritten letters vs. computer-generated letters, the integration of the runic elements into their graphic context, and the use of runes as single signs or within words. The author’s observations on the frequency of specific design elements found in the artifacts are connected to the conducted interviews with members from the subculture. These interviews provide interpretations on the motivations and patterns of the use of runes. Ultimately, the author concludes that all four of his hypotheses have been confirmed. (1) The subculture enregisters runes with specific meanings. (2) the social indexicality of runes is only efficacious within their visual context. (3) Different groups within the subculture and intended scene-identities are associated with specific uses of runes. Notable among these is the use of runes in band logos of black metal bands with a National Socialist political orientation. Last, (4) the degree of commercialization influences the use of runes and bears different communicative functions. Where commercially less-successful bands tend to use actual runes and are less likely to use scripts that appear to be written on a computer, bands with commercial success are more likely to set their runic script on a computer or to employ Latin type that only appears runic.


The book provides an interesting case study that is rich in primary material and gives insight into the enregisterment of runic script in the black metal scene, a subject not previously described. The merits of the study lie in its collection of metascriptural discourse from within the black metal subculture and of artifacts from that subculture that employ some form of runic script. Beyond the sheer collection of materials, underlying issues in corpus design and in the use of the collected data undermine the validity of the study, as follows.

One concern regards the study’s lack in awareness of the temporal component in its analysis. Almost all visual artefacts come from the period between 1992 and 2014 and the online discourse relating to black metal is attributed to the years between 2004 and 2013, but the newspaper articles that serve as the contrast for this subcultural discourse do not match this period. Three of the investigated newspapers are only represented in 2013 and 2014, but only one newspaper is represented in the years between 2003 and 2013. The aim of creating a corpus for comparison of discourses is thus not met. This is unfortunate, but for the study itself it is of lesser significance, because the author does not adequately contrast the different discourses in the first place. Other than a table that shows collocations and compounds concerning runes in the different corpora, little use is made of the contrastive corpora. The author only gives two words each as examples for focal points in the other discourses that imply a focus on linguistic and political aspects, but fails to elaborate on these differences (p. 82-83). While the results in regard to the specificity of discourse on runes in the black metal subculture might well be accurate, in light of such flaws in design and methodology, they do not support the argument and might as well have been omitted. What remains is an acceptable analysis of the discourse within the community.

Similar concerns must be raised regarding the analysis of the visual artefacts. It was compiled by asking members of the black metal subculture to point out artefacts, as well as a combination of some form of sampling and systematic inquiry within the online database Encyclopedia Metallum, a database for metal bands. The result is an unbalanced corpus that does not provide a firm basis for quantitative analysis. The number of artefacts contributed by specific artists differs widely. The band “Amon Amarth” is represented by 12 artefacts, “Enslaved” by 10, and “Skyforger” by 8, together accounting for almost a tenth of the overall corpus. Such overrepresentation of certain artists is likely to give them undue weight, an issue that the author does not discuss in his analysis. Further, the corpus consists of 311 artifacts grouped into 22 categories. These categories receive little attention in the analysis, which might be problematic in light of their diverse nature (e.g. CD covers, promotional materials, Facebook profiles, and tattoos). It is uncertain to what extent the author distinguishes between these categories. Although the author may not have intended to create a rigorous corpus for quantitative analysis, this issue becomes problematic when the author employs it to defend one of the central claims of the study, that of the influence of commercialization on the use of runes.

The author describes a correlation between the listeners ascribed to an artifact and their use of runes. The number of listeners is described by a number assessed through the internet service This way of assessing the degree of commercialization seems in itself sufficient for the purposes of the study. The effect described is that an increased number of listeners goes hand in hand with a decreased use of historic runes. In this analysis, the phrasing of the author and the collection of the materials in the appended table suggest that the author does not discriminate between different types of artefacts in this (p. 126). This is particularly concerning, as among the numerous artefacts that are not labeled with any number of listeners are artefacts produced by individuals or music groups that could actually qualify for such an assessment, as well as Facebook profiles (p. 161), tattoos (p. 175), graffiti (p. 176), and promotional materials for music festivals (p. 179). Such materials should not be compared to record covers and merchandise in their degree of commercialization, yet the text suggests that the author includes them nonetheless.

The details of the analysis give further reasons for concern. According to the study (p. 126-127), bands with fewer than 100 listeners use historic runes in 82.2% of cases, while bands with 100,000 to 150,000 listeners use them only in 55.6% of cases. While the author gives these percentages, a consultation of the appended overview of the artifacts reveals that these percentages are based on a very small database. While there are several dozen items from sources with less than 100 listeners, there are only 7 bands with 100,000 to 150,000 listeners, and they have contributed only 9 artifacts to the database. In light of this small sample size, the percentage differences might well be due to chance.

The credibility of these numbers is further called into question by the fact that there is no information on the artists that have between 101 and 99,999 or more than 150,000 listeners. If there actually is a pattern, this data should have been employed to support the argument; but the analysis appears to include only data that supports the author’s hypothesis. An impression of bias is intensified by comparison of the observed “pattern” with that of the use of pseudo runes, where the author detects a reversed trend, contrasting their use among groups with less than 100 listeners to those of numbers between 50,000 and 100,000 listeners. This category does not match that of the previous analysis, and again, there is no mention of the use of runes by bands with listeners outside of this range. There are more possible examples of these problems but this use of numbers is indicative of the problematic state of the quantitative analysis of the artifact corpus.

In sum, while all the hypotheses the author puts forward might still be true, the study contributes less to their confirmation than it claims. Based on the materials presented, at most hypotheses (1) and (2) are supported. The notion of a discourse on runes specific to the black metal subculture is plausible, although the contrastive corpora remain virtually unused. The two conducted interviews support the second hypothesis that the visual context is decisive for social indexicality (although casting a broader net would have benefited the study). As it is, it is dependent on the assessment of three individuals, including the author. However, questions regarding the methodological rigor of the study call the validity of hypotheses (3) and (4) into question. This begins with the composition of the corpus of visual items, and from there translates into the analysis. The analysis of the visual artefacts does not sufficiently describe the use of runes in different groups within the subculture, and in the same way the influence of commercialization on the use of runes is not adequately supported by the artefacts. The strongest support for these hypotheses is again provided by the interviews. Without them, the claims about different uses of runes are essentially reduced to statements on the use of individual runes by bands with National Socialist orientations.

Some final notes concern the appended table that references the artifact corpus. This collection is substantial and could provide a starting point for further investigation of the use of runes in the black metal subculture. In light of this, it is unfortunate that the table is arranged by the index number of the author’s database. This turns into a nuisance when a reader looks for specific information. As an example, details on the three artefacts from the band “Falkenbach” are spread over the pages 161, 164, and 179. That the “Dark Troll Festival”, a music festival, is attributed with listener numbers just in the same way that bands are raises further questions about the numbers found in the analysis and the accuracy of the data. There are additional problems with the delineation between the subgenres and practical complications to the author’s argument that the use of runes in artwork effectively excludes an audience. At least in mail-order distribution, transliterations of band names and album titles in Latin type are the rule, not an exception.

These criticisms aside, the study raises a number of questions worthy of further investigation. The different contemporary practices of rune use are certainly an interesting object of study, and the author points to the use of runes in videogames as a further place of possible investigation. The different subcultural discourses, their interconnection with discourses in broader society, and the enregisterment of runic script all merit further attention. The book provides a starting point, although it ultimately falls short of its intended goals.


Barnes, Michael P. 2012. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Düwel, Klaus. 2001. Runenkunde. Stuttgart: Metzler.

Grünzweig, Friedrich E. 2004. Runeninschriften auf Waffen: Inschriften vom 2. Jahrhundert n. Chr. bis ins Hochmittelalter. Wien: Edition Praesens.

Spitzmüller, Jürgen. 2013. Graphische Variation als soziale Praxis: Eine soziolinguistische Theorie skripturaler 'Sichtbarkeit'. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Matthias Fingerhuth is a PhD candidate in Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interest include language standardization, language contact, and linguistic historiography.

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