One week plus with my tattoo

My tattoo has been healing nicely. The initial layer of inked skin has peeled off leaving the impression that I’ve had these symbols etched into my skin with a long piece of burning charcoal. I’m actually really digging it, and am glad I’ve had it done.

Some of you may know that I’ve been wanting a tattoo for some years now, the design and message of which was unknown to me, however. I expected after getting this done that I would be pleased with it. I didn’t expect, however, the effect it’s had on me.

These seemingly innocuous marks of ink have a weight — a solidity about them. I find myself checking my left wrist as though I were wearing a watch — it feels as though something tangible is attached to me. An echoing tendency to think twice about things that will affect my household has become ever-present, and I’ve realized that I’m a lot less likely to shirk my homestead chores. In short, my tattoo has become an indelible reminder of what it stands for. It is the symbol,  meaning, and literalness of that which it represents: family. Household. Skuldalið. All of that makes sense because that triptych of meaning is the ultimate purpose of runes.

Runes are an abstract picture of a people’s concept of an idea. Within each shape is found the sound, symbol, and definition of the concept for which they stand. Taken in of themselves, each rune is a kind of tiny poem. Wordless in its chanting, but as poignant as Haiku in its directness. When placed together, the effect is simply multiplied.

For me the result can be felt physically. The weight of my action, the talisman of the combined runes, and the meaning of the word they together represent will continue to live with me and inform my actions from here on out. All of which was my intent.

I didn’t, after all, get the tattoo to add to my collection or separate me from the pack. I didn’t get it to represent to the outside world some puffed up idea of my own identity. I got it as the talisman it’s become. The tattoo is a constant reminder of the joyful burden that is family, and because of that it is serving its purpose.

My new Tattoo

Skuldalið. Old Norse for "family" or "household" written in runes for talismanic properties.
Skuldalið. Old Norse for "family" or "household" written in runes for talismanic properties.

I got my first professional tattoo this weekend. I’ve been thinking about a tattoo since high school, but there was never anything that struck me as a permanent idea. Something that I wouldn’t mind embedded in my skin for the decades of my life I’ve yet to live. As I’ve grown older, though, some very relevant concepts have remained constants in my life. It is one of these constants that I chose to get imprinted on the inside of my left arm: family.

My concept of family, though, is nothing like the sociological sense of “nuclear” or “broken” or “alternative” that we hold on to today. Family to me is the idea that there are inherent obligations towards a certain set of people — obligations which go above and beyond the needs of other people.

Also, my perception of family is as one of the rings on the hierarchy of human experience. Being human requires participation in this hierarchy — at least it does in an existential mode of living — and it’s how I choose to live. The rings go from inner to outer in the following order: self, family, clan, neighborhood, village, town. Anything beyond “town” is a purely socio-political idea that doesn’t really affect humanity other than mashing us all together in one place. The six I’ve listed, though, coincide to our spheres of influence, from most influence to least influence. Each sphere, however, has more influence over the next one than the previous sphere does. For example, I have more control over myself than my family. However, a neighborhood has more control over a village than a family does.

This idea of a kind of concentric living is, as I said above, part of the existential experience. More importantly, though, it is also part of the human tribal experience and has been for centuries. At any point in human history, at any given gathering of humans, this kind of structure could be observed. It is in that spirit that I chose the concept of “family” for my tattoo.

The end result is nine runes (Sowilo, Kenaz, Uruz, Laguz, Dagaz, Ansuz, Laguz, Isa, Dagaz) that create a ritualistic presentation of the Old Norse word “Skuldalið”. Approximately translated it means “family” or “household”. I chose runes because of a closeness to my own sense of being, as well as a deep sense of connection to that aspect of my personal history. Runes are also used to elevate a word to a more potent talismanic idea.  A word written in runes is not just the word, but the idea of that word and the impact that it has on those who read the runes.

Family is everything to me. From that, I gain my own sense of well-being and foundation. I also define my family through my own actions. Ultimately, the world’s perceptions of me and of my family are one and the same. If I want my family to continue to thrive, then I must temper my actions against not only what is good for me, but also for my family. From there, the clan on out are also affected.

Skuldalið. Family. Household. My life.

My Tattoo (Redux)

It looks as though I’ll have to go over my tattoo one more time once it heals. There are some parts of it — the intersecting lines, particularly — that didn’t take. Hopefully it will be healed enough to do this weekend.

Since my tattoo is of a bind-rune, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how atheism and spirituality can be combined. In my view, the runes are keys to certain philosophical truths or states of mind without anything more than a metaphorical connection to “gods” or other supernatural beings. Naturally, there are Asatru-folk out there who will completely disagree with me. As an atheist, though, I have a pretty clear view of gods and extra-human beings: they don’t exist.

That said, however, the ideas that those gods represented to people who did believe in them are not to be taken lightly. Those ideas are what I take from the past and bring into my life. Examples that the gods — as characters — set for us in their stories are still valid. Qualities they represent as indicators of both how we should and should not behave still apply to my life. Even if I don’t believe there’s really a gang of blustering, angry Aesir, Vanir, and Jotuns galumphing around the worlds above Midgard.

Humanity on its own is a powerful force that should not be taken lightly. History is filled with non-mythological stories that show this to be true — in positive and negative lights. So how does this all lead to the runes?

To me, the runes were created in an effort to document, represent, and use the forces humans felt that they were able to harness. In the world-view of the people who crafted them gods and giants, elves and dwarfs were all alive and romping about the hidden planes, but after nearly 2000 years we should know better. There are no gods, just us humans. The giants we have to fear are nothing more than our own elongated shadows. The elves and dwarves no longer craft weapons, but we do. The world is different, but humanity’s capacity for power is not.

An atheist is one who does not believe that there are supernatural, extra-human powers in the universe. Hence, I’m an atheist. In the same way a philosopher puzzles over a question of existence, or a priest ponders the idea of original sin, or a Buddhist works towards enlightenment, I will work with runes towards a deeper understanding of myself, my family, and — ultimately — humans in general. In short, I meditate, craft with, and dedicate myself to the runes because I think there’s real truth within the ideas they represent. My tattoo represents this dedication. It does not represent a change in beliefs, or adherence to Asatru or any other reconstructionist/new age fallacy.

The power of the self, devotion to family and clan, the belief that one step is enough to start yourself towards a “destiny”: these are all ideas that transcend belief systems, organized religions, philosophies, and the like. These are all ideas that are represented by the runes. They also happen to be ideas represented within existentialist philosophy and probably quite a few world religions. In other words they are ideas that resonate — as I believe they should — with all humans.

My Tattoo

That little shape in amongst all of the kitchen scratch from my journal is the rune I etched into my left calf last night under a haze of wonderful home-brewed mead. The rune is one created from Nauthiz and Perthro. The meaning of it is fairly simple: the bearer is willing to accept that each decision s/he makes creates his/her future, but that the future can be changed by constraining and redirecting negative results of decisions. In short, the bearer is in complete control of his/her destiny as long as s/he understands what — precisely — that destiny will be.

It took me a long time to come up with something important enough to me that I would imprint it into my skin. To that end, doing this was not a last-minute decision for me. I have been planning on getting a tattoo for at least 10 years, and only now did I find something important enough to me to go through with it.

Here’s a thumbnail of what it looked like the morning after:

From Self-Tattoo