Life is a mixed bag. Full of pith and vinegar. Signifying something.

Just ask Ralph Blum, who one night in a state of despair sat down and started talking to some rocks. Actually they were rune stones and he had purchased them some years before in England. Before the night was over, Blum had imparted some sort of order to the 24 cryptically inscribed stones, meditated on their meanings, and decided to write a book on how to interpret them–“a primer for oracular play.” Blum was in town recently promoting an updated version of The Book of Runes ($24.95, including runes), which has sold over 400,000 copies. The fact that most people still haven’t heard of it genuinely puzzles the author.

Besides the book, a suede bag, and 25 rune stones (one is blank), the PR kit from Saint Martin’s Press contained the usual reprints about the author xeroxed to the point where a Rosetta stone would have come in handy for deciphering the text. One legible sheet contained what famous people had to say about Ralph Blum and The Book of Runes. David Susskind (RIP) had found them “incredible . . . like ‘Dear Abby’ in a bag.” Margaret Mead (RIP, ibid), who the author says was “pretty much my mom since we met in 1950 or ’51,” and to whom he dedicated the book, is quoted as having said, “We still need our shamans, and you don’t have to make an appointment to see your runes.”

But I had made an appointment to meet Ralph Blum, the oracular midwife who had breathed life back into these ancient stones some ten years before in Connecticut; we sat in his hotel room, and he popped vitamins. A tune from Sweeney Todd echoed somewhere in my head: “Have a little priest . . .”

Interpreting the runes no doubt changed Ralph Blum a good deal. He has a place near Malibu now, not to mention a certain following that The Book of Runes seems to have inspired. Times have vastly improved since the night he experienced his personal nadir. He was in his mid-forties, was broke, depressed, had just been dumped by his wife, and was talking to rocks.

As a Harvard-educated anthropologist and linguist, Blum was no stranger to rune stones. He already knew that the markings on them were an ancient form of Germanic writing, and from the very beginning had had a ritual function, serving to cast spells and evoke higher powers. Although scholars can’t agree exactly where and when runic writing first appeared in Western Europe, the symbols have been found throughout the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Some of the symbols may date back to the second Bronze age, but runic script developed later, flourishing during the Viking epoch and persisting in remote parts of Sweden and Iceland. (One reprint from the PR packet couldn’t resist referring to the runes as “the I Ching of the Vikings.”)

One night, out of sheer desperation, Blum decided to consult his own runes. He had acquired his set some years before, along with a couple xeroxes defining the glyphs, from a woman in England. Uncertain of the stones’ order, Blum asked that they arrange themselves in some meaningful sequence. Then, he says, “I worked on through the night, taking each rune in my hand, sitting with it, meditating on it, writing down what came to me.” When things got a little slow, Blum says, he consulted the I Ching and asked for a hexagram that would reveal the essence of a particular rune.

He dismisses the notion that the meanings he has attached to the symbols may largely be his own interpretation. “I took the basic constructs. Besides, where is an idea before you have it? This is a sacred text, a sacred game. Function determines form, use confers meaning, and an oracle always resonates to the requirements of the time in which it is consulted.”

He may have a point. Maybe the I Ching hexagrams were hashed out after a night of too much wonton and The Book of Runes just lacks the patina–the heritage of a remote past. Whatever the case, Ralph Blum and a lot of other “runatics” (his term) think that runes provide the greatest peek at the subconscious since the Freudian slip.

The runes, says Blum, “are an oracular instrument for tuning into our own wisdom.” They act as the intermediary, the bridge from the self to the Self; “it is through them that we make contact with our knowing selves.” He ascribes no great magical powers to runes but considers them a healing tool for self-introspection and analysis. “They’re a starter kit for getting to know yourself.

“There are people who won’t touch runes because some churches have strong feelings about things not validated in a Biblical text–very much like Bork’s interpretation of the Constitution,” he says. “These are people for whom runes are not a useful tool.” But Blum, who very clearly believes in a higher power (“Call him Bob if you like,” he offers), is quick to add how many people have benefited from these Rorschach rocks. “All you’re really doing is accessing information from your own subconscious–the part of you that knows everything there is to know.”

Rune casting is simple. Similar to the I Ching and tarot cards, you ask a question and draw one or several runes from the bag–depending on how detailed you want your answer. The interpretation and meaning for each glyph (which have names like Mannaz, Uruz, Inguz, Fehu, and Wunjo) can then be found in Blum’s book.

Blum says he likes to pull his bag out on airplanes or in restaurants. “I do it to waitresses in coffee shops, to stewardesses–to anyone I see in stress who could use the advice of a good friend–who happens of course to be oneself.”

Before runing himself, Blum describes himself as more or less asleep at the wheel. “They [the runes] made me a lot more conscious and willing to take responsibility for myself. They’ve been a kind of data dump. They were given to me as a way to clean up my act–it just so happens they’re serving others as well.”

In one interview, he mentions that until the runes came along, he had failed to earn a decent living. At one point, he says, he even turned down a regular job from William Shawn writing features for the New Yorker. (“What a dickhead–huh?” he laughs.) “But I’ve since forgiven myself. A voice inside of me said, ‘You’re a fiction writer’ and saying no was following my own instinct, listening to my own intuition.” He has published several books, one of them a novel about a 17-year-old who writes to his unborn grandson about what it’s like to be 17.

Blum says he listens to what feels right. At the moment that involves hanging out near Malibu, publishing a newsletter called the New Oracle News and Rune Digest, answering 20 to 30 letters a week from other runatics, and touring the country to promote his new book.

But he is getting restless, he says. “I’m depressed by the road and feel pretty rootless. I don’t have a wife and family and I’m beginning to want those things.” Runes have also taken up the better part of eight or nine years, and the time may be nearing for other pursuits. Like what? I ask.

“Like sidling up to studying the Holy Grail,” he says, without batting an eye behind his bifocals.

“Why not Noah’s Ark,” say I, and get an answer about how it doesn’t turn him on like pursuing the Holy Grail does. I’m not certain whether this witty Parsifal isn’t pulling my leg, especially when he says he considers it the perfect quest for his declining years. He throws out a quote by Yeats about fools, and when I ask which poem, he tells me to go look it up, that he doesn’t know, and that it doesn’t matter. “That’s like asking why, and why is a hostile question–it stops everything. The greatest thing is the ability to know without having to understand.”

Blum may be reading my mind. It’s the way I’ve come to feel about the runes. I’m overtaken by the same palindrome that grips me when gazing at a bowl of cherries.

No lemons, no melon.