“Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth …”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Instead of “Runic inscriptions,” in 1860 Professor Webb finds Cthulhu in West Greenland, on a rocky ledge in the cold. But by the 1930s the trail of runes runs hot … as does the Trail of Cthulhu. The SS teaches its officers rune science, while its Ahnenerbe office (ToC, p. 160) gathers runic material from all over Europe and the North. Ahnenerbe directors Hermann Wirth and Wolfram Sievers investigate (and vandalize) runes and petroglyphs at Bohuslän in Sweden in August 1936 to kick off an expedition into the wilds of Scandinavia.
If the Investigators follow the trail of the runes to Sweden themselves, they quite likely encounter Sigurd Agrell (1881-1937). And if they don’t, they surely encounter a runologist who warns them that Sigurd Agrell is a dangerous crank with unsound theories. In the Thirties, he’s a rabbity-looking, bespectacled man with a domed forehead and a truly luxurious black beard. Agrell spent his twenties between Paris and Uppsala University, a member of the decadent Symbolist poetic group Les quatre diables. But he seemingly put such things behind him, getting his doctorate in Slavic philology at Lund University in 1909, translating Russian literature, and going on to become full professor of Slavic Languages at Lund in 1921.
Then something happened in 1925, possibly connected with an earthquake in the Pacific and a wave of dreams around the world. Agrell suddenly became obsessed with the runes, the script of various Germanic languages invented (according to orthodox history) around 200 B.C. Agrell uses the name “Sigurobald” (and possibly uses opium) while studying the runes, and teases out a new theory: that they descend from Greek letters, and (more importantly) that they encode Mithraic wisdom. In 1931, he publishes his third runological text: Mystery Religions of Late Antiquity and Nordic Rune Magic, in which he reveals his discovery: the order of the runes was deliberately hidden.
Agrell argues that the standard ‘Elder Futhark’ order of runes (named for the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R, K) conceals the true first rune: Ur, the rune of the aurochs, signifying the First Cow Audhumbla who licked the giant Ymir out of ice and also the Primal Bull of the Mithraic Mysteries often represented by Taurus. Hence the true runic alphabet is the Uthark, and the F rune (Feh, representing wealth) is not the first but actually the twenty-fourth. This, for example, explains the mystifying Norse good-luck runic inscription ALU; under the new numbering, its values add to 24, the number of all the runes and (now) of wealth.
Runing With the Devil, or, Too Many Olauses
“I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Book”
Is Agrell merely a classic academic crank, a specialist hubristically tempted to theorize outside his expertise? Or is he the secret (unconscious? dreaming?) heir to Sweden’s long tradition of esoteric rune lore? Study of the runes begins with the Swedish historian, cartographer, and cryptozoologist Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) exiled to Poland (and eventually to Rome) in 1530 for his religion (and probably not for his investigations of mermaids – or Deep Ones) along with his brother Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) the erstwhile archbishop of (Agrell’s city) Uppsala. Olaus posthumously publishes his brother’s the History of the Goths and Swedes, which uses runic inscriptions that Johannes dated to 2000 B.C.
Uppsala-born Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) began studying the runes in 1594, compiling a runography in 1599. He became a tutor to the future King Gustavus Adolphus in 1602, and perhaps his teaching explains the wide use of runes as battlefield codes (and spells?) by the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years’ War. He dedicated his masterwork, the “Gothic Cabbala” Adalruna rediviva, to one of that war’s generals, Count Jacob de la Gardie (1583-1652), reputed to be an alchemist himself. (Jacob’s son, Count Magnus de la Gardie, became the namesake of M.R. James’ revenant, although Jacob better fits the model of a hideous necromancer.) Bureus believed the runes encoded noble truths of a supersensible realm, and carried on a runic rivalry with his Danish counterpart the anatomist Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), the translator of the Necronomicon into Latin in 1628 (Lovecraft’s 1228 date is clearly an error). Wormius’ runic compilation Runir seu appeared the year before (and perhaps caused?) Bureus’ death.
Bureus’ successors as court antiquarian and royal archaeologist avoided mention of the runes’ esoteric side. In 1675, the Swedish antiquarian and archivist Olaus Verelius published Manductio ad runographiam, which warned of runic black magic and necromancy. Verelius attempted to locate the site of the immense pagan temple to Thor, Odin, and Freyr in Uppsala (burnt in the 11th century); he also identified Sweden as Hyperborea. Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), a Swedish anatomist and runologist like Wormius, identified Sweden as both Hyperborea and Hades in his Atlantica (4 vols, 1679-1702), which also attempted to prove by runes that Atlantis was in Sweden. Rudbeck’s library burned up in a 1702 fire that devastated Uppsala and destroyed his house; he died before finishing his fifth volume.
A thin thread of esoteric runology survived Rudbeck’s fire: Erik Julius Björner (1696-1750) believed in primeval nature of runes, and the esoteric cabbalist Johan Göransson (1712-1769) also catalogued all known Swedish runic inscriptions in Bautil (1750). The Romantic nationalist impulse revived esoteric runology; the artistic Gothic League (1811-1844) rhapsodized about runes and their quasi-Masonic counterparts the Manhem League (1815-1823) created runic initiatory degrees (prefiguring Agrell’s Mithraic rune mysteries) and studied Old Norse sagas and fairy tales. Around that time (1812), one of the seven known manuscripts of Bureus’ Adulruna rediviva disappeared from the National Library of Sweden. In 1932, the Stockholm construction magnate (and Olympic gymnast) Carl-Ehrenfried Carlberg revives the Manhem League as a fascist occult physical-culture movement with runic ritual elements.
Rune Messiah, or, Going Cabbalistic
“The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but what he did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”
So we have at least two creepy Nazi rune societies, an opium-soaked crank, a missing magic book, a burned library, and a possible line of occult descent from the Renaissance to the Thirties. What more could you want? Well, if you’re anything like William Hamblin, author of the excellent old-school Call of Cthulhu adventure “The City Without a Name,” you want arbitrary cabbalistic calculations aplenty! It should go without saying that you’re free to shift up the orthography and the math to suit your own campaign or your own list of ominous numbers.
With that said:
Agrell’s Uthark system not only re-numbers the runes but also interprets them as stages in a cosmic ritual cycle. Agrell’s Uthark nicely limns not just Mithra and Odin but another, older god.
The fifth rune, Kaun (K) means “ulcer” or “boil” although it’s usually interpreted as “torch” – meaning inspiration?
The second rune, Thurs (Th) means “giant,” and I note that combining ‘Thurs’ with the next rune As (meaning “god”) yields a partial anagram for [h]asthur.
We’ve covered the first rune, Ur (U), but Agrell also interprets it to mean “water” as in “primordial ice” or “primal chaos.”
The twentieth rune Logr (L) means “waterfall, lake” but Agrell also associates it with the sea gods Aegir and Ran.
The eighth rune Hagal (H) means “hail,” but also, to Agrell, “crystal” – as in a divinatory crystal? Or a Trapezohedron, perhaps?
K + Th + U + L + H + U = 5+2+1+20+8+1 = 37
I don’t have anything particularly special to say about 37, except that multiplied by 18 (aeons? runes of the Hyperborean Futhark?) it becomes 666.
In Johannes Bureus’ Adulrunic cabbala, Great Cthulhu signifies thusly:
Kyn (10) + Tors (5) + Vr (3) + Lagher (700) + Haghall (30) + Vr (3) = 751
Let’s back up a bit, to the godfather of all cabbalism, the Hebrew mystical practice known as gematria. Gematria goes back at least to the Assyrians, which implies the Hebrews learned it during their Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C. – about the same time the similar Greek number system and occult practice (isopsephia) takes off.
Spelling ‘Cthulhu’ in Hebrew is even more fraught than in Runic, given the absence of vowels and many choices for transliteration. Two common variants both start with Cheth (but you could use Kaph or Qoph) and include Waw twice:
Ch (8) + T (9) + W (6) + L (30) + W (6) = 59
Ch (8) + Th (400) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) + W (6) = 467
However you might want Scriptural backing for your spelling, in which case you can look to Isaiah 38:11: “I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of Chadel.” Chadel means “rest” or “cessation,” and is usually interpreted here to mean either “the land of the dead” or “this world” as a pun on Cheled (“the earth”). But if we look at the Ch-D-L root, or at Cthulhu as “resting,” we get:
Ch (8) + D (4) + L (30) = 42
Or put the vowels in (Aleph and Yod, since a diacritical in that text of Isaiah sometimes means there’s a ‘hidden’ Yod): + A (1) and Y (10) = 53
53 also turns out to be Hamblin’s value for ‘Cthulhu’ in “The City Without a Name,” as he transliterated the dread name ChDWLH:
Ch (8) + D (4) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) = 53
Hamblin also mentions other gematriac methods in the adventure. “Small number” gematria reduces values to single digits; the value of Lamedh (30) becomes 3, for example, and ChDWLH yields 26. “Squares” gematria involves taking the square of each letter’s value, then adding them; ChDWLH squares to 1,041. “Series” gematria adds up all the previous letter values for each letter; A is 1, B is 2+1, D is 4+3+2+1, etc. In series, ChDWLH becomes 187. “Filled value” gematria uses the gematriac value of each letter as its final value; Heh (H-H) becomes 5+5, and ChDWLH fills to 958. You can arbitrarily add the number of letters in a name to any of these methods; plus five letters yields 963.
The Koranic testimony to Cthulhu appears in 25:29: “For mankind, Satan is Khadhulan [the forsaker].” The Arabic version of gematria is called Abjad (after its first four letters), although cabbalists use a different “serial” version in Morocco. Breaking down ‘Khadhulan’ to its root, with Abjad values first and Moroccan serial values after the slash, you get:
Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + L (30/500) = 1,330/516
Expanding ‘Khadhulhu’ with analogous but arbitrary vowels and aspirants borrowed from the Hebrew transliteration:
Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + W (6/900) + L (30/500) + H (5/800) + W (6/900) = 1,347/3,116
The Greek Nekronomikon surely fooled around with this stuff. Greek numbers formed before their alphabet finalized; the now nonexistent letter digamma (pronounced like W in Homeric Greek) marks the place of 6. I’ve used upsilon (‘U) for the final phoneme in the Dread Name, because it was aspirated in older Greek (as in the first letter of Hyperborea). I’ve used Ch for Chi not the actual X, to avoid confusion with Xi.
Ch (600) + Th (9) + W (digamma, 6) + L (30) + ‘U (400) = 1,045
Latin scholars, beginning in the 10th century, began applying Greek values to Latin letters for their own gematriac calculations. At first, they skipped the value for 6, because there was no Latin version of digamma, which is why H is 9 not 8. For the rest of these, I’m adopting Professor Angell’s transcription of the Dread Name, on the grounds that he was an expert linguist.
C (3) + T (300) + H (9) + V (400) + L (30) + H (9) + V (400) = 1,151
In 1499, the cryptographer Trithemius (1462-1516) developed a ‘simplex’ version based on a 22-letter Latin alphabet (omitting K and W and blending I/J and U/V).
C (3) + T (18) + H (8) + V (19) + L (10) + H (8) + V (19) = 85
Agrippa’s early 16th-century ‘Cabala Ordinis’ added K, but a variant German version did not. Cthulhu appears with the German variant value after the slash:
C (3) + T (100/90) + H (8) + V (200/100) + L (20/10) + H (8) + V (200/100) = 539/319
The German mathematician Michael Stifel (1487-1567) applied Hebrew gematriac methods and simplex letter values to Latin. The results for CTHVLHV appear below.
Triangular (series gematria) = 6 + 190 + 36 + 210 + 66 + 36 + 210 = 754
Quadrangular (squares gematria) = 9 + 361 + 64 + 400 + 121 + 64 + 400 = 1,419
Pentagonal (Quadrangular times two, minus Triangular) = 12 + 532 + 92 + 590 + 176 + 92 + 590 = 2,084
The Protestant pastor of Quedlingburg, Johann Henning (1645-1695) created a Masonic code that basically adapted Trithemius’ simplex to the German alphabet.
C (3) + T (19) + H (8) + U (20) + L (11) + H (8) + U (20) = 89
The Golden Dawn created their own version of “English Qabala” gematria, basing it on Hebrew values:
C (3) + T (300) + H (8) + U (400) + L (30) + H (8) + U (400) = 1,149
For far more than you want or need to know about this stuff, with far less sourcing than you want or need, I recommend the two-volume polyglot numerological text The Key of it All, by David Allen Hulse.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.