Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation * Hendrik Bogdan (2007)

“Hendrik Bogdan teaches in te Department of Religious Studies and Theology at Göteborg University in Sweden.” Apparently he has an interest in the new field of Western esotericism on universities, because he refers to scholars such as Antoine Faivre, Wouter Hanegraaff. In this book Bogdan describes Western rituals of initiation, which are (almost by definition) Masonic, Masonically related or derived from Masonic ritual. Or the other way around, Bogdan places Freemasonry and its rituals in the larger context of Western esotericism and that makes an interesting starting point.

The first chapter is dedicated to Western esotericism in general and the scholarly investigation thereof. The author refers a lot to Frances Yates, the first to approach the subject scholarly, but who is not taken too seriously in the current scholarly milieu I have the idea. Bogdan gives her the credit she deserves.
Towards the end of chapter one, the author explains what he means with rituals of initiation, contrary to rites of passage. Here he uses Mircea Eliade.

What follows next is an introduction into the subject of Masonic rituals of initiation (chapter 2), a history of Western esotericism (chapter 3) and then he starts to analyse some Masonic rituals, linking elements to Western esotericism and seeing if there is continuity. Bogdan does not differentiate between “regular” and “irregular” Freemasonry, neither does he touch upon the subject if iniation in any of the organisations that he describes is valid in the ‘Guénonian sense’. Bogdan is only interested in the texts of the rituals. He makes purely textual comparisons.

After Freemasonry we get two other ‘organisations’, the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn and Wicca. The rituals of initiation, the degree system, etc. of both groups heavily lean on Freemasonry, so naturally Bogdan finds a lot of similarities.

The book makes a nice read. I like the approach to place Freemasonry in a larger (scholarly) field which peels off the myths that Freemasonry created for itself, but still places it in a ongoing ‘current’. The book might not be a recommended buy for people who intend to join any of the discussed organisation, since he does not shy to quote texts with grips and passwords and he describes the rites in quite some detail here and there. This will decrease the element of surprise if you want to undergo such an initiation.
For people interested in the growing field of scholarly investigations of Western esotericism, here we have one that places the largest organisation within the field within that very subject.

2007 State University of New York Press, isbn 0791470709

American Heathens * Jennifer Snook (2015)

“Jennifer Snook is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi”. Raised as “a college-bound army brat”, first in Germany, later in the USA, Snook became interested in “paganism” and later “heathenry”. When she started to study sociology, she wrote her dissertation on contemporary heathens. She remained both a practitionar and an observer ever since. 15 Years of fieldwork resulted in this 200+ page book on “American Heathens, the politics of identity in pagan religious movement”.

The author gives a very personal look into her personal path here and there, like on how she rolled into the pagan world (a term that she uses quite generally including various sorts of paganism) and later “heathenry” (which is more a specific German-centered kind, say “Asatru”, “Odinism”, “þheodism”, etc.). The book interweaves personal accounts of gatherings and rituals that Snook attented, interviews, musings of her own and of course her sociological considerations.

The author gives an idea of the history of American heathenry and writes about a couple of ‘big subjects’ at length. Identity, ethnicity, race, whiteness, ancestry as one group, gender roles as another subject. There have been quite some investigations linking heathenry to white power. However Snook shows herself as a very left-leaning thinker, she shows that these subjects are much less black-and-white as often portrayed. The same with conservatism and the role of women within heathenry. Snook makes it clear that she finds but a few allies in her particular line of thought within the heathen world, but at least breaks a lance to look at these subject in a more nuanced way than her predecessors often did.

“American Heathens” shows well the difficulty of subjects such as that of (perceived) racism, subordination of women and the like by giving quotes from interviews and her own thoughts. Unfortunately Snook looks at a subject from so man different sides within just a page that it hard to figure out what way she exactly tries to lead her readers. Both her gender study and her chapters about racial exclusivity elude me frequently, especially when her (apparent) own ideas are bluntly stated as facts (the difference between man and woman is automatically oppressive for example). The concluding remarks fortunately make up for a few of these indistinctnesses.

What is interesting for a European is to see how some things in the USA are very recognisable while other developments are entirely alien to heathery in Europe. A little strange is Snook’s (apparent) idea that heathenry in Europe is imported from the USA though.

So, perhaps not “a standard text for scholars and teachers in the emerging field of Pagan studies” as Michael Strmiska states on the back, but likely the best in the field so far; interesting for scholars and heathen alike. It would be interesting if the investigation would go on to include Europe.

2015 Temple University Press, isbn 1439910979

The Love Of Destiny * Dan McCoy (2013)

Dan McCoy wrote a lengthy essay, or a little book, of about 100 pages about “the Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism”. The text contains a ‘contemporary heathen theology’ such as represented in The Journal of Contemporary Heathen Thought. It might have fitted in that journal, since McCoy’s text is about as academic as the texts in JOCHT.

McCoy mostly speaks about the difference between monotheism and polytheism. The terms get a very specific meaning in this book. Monotheism is not just the form of the three Abrahamistic religions, but the author also applies it to science which he calls the religion of our time. He spends a large part of his book (the first chapters) showing the flaws of monotheism, it duality and rigidity. The text gets a thick ‘monotheism is bad, polytheism is good’ tone and like the “French theologian” that McGoy refers to in the beginning (Alain de Benoist), the author spends more pages on showing what is wrong about ‘that other philosophy’ than elaborating his own.
Just as with the terms monotheism and polytheism, McCoy has very specific explanations of other terms, such as “myth”, which is anything ‘above human’ that ‘just is’. This can be just as well mythology as scientific hypothesis. Other terms (also Icelandic) get very simple explanations and translation.

It takes the author until the last chapter before he turns towards the “destiny” of his subtitle. This does not really concern more than a very free retelling of the Balder myth though.

The above sounds quite critical, I know. I do recommend this book for people interested in ‘contemporary heathen thought’, though. Like for reading the mentioned journal you should not be afraid of scholarly language and moderns ways of reasoning. There are not too many contemporary heathens not just trying to show how things were in the past, but writing about ‘heathen subjects’ from a contemporary viewpoint, hence describing a paganism for the world of today. Or the other way around, McCoy shows a contemporary heathen’s perspective on things.

There are things in this little book that I would have described differently and things that I simply do not agree with, but by reader other views I have to reconsider my own, so this is never a bad thing. Besides, I am happy to see another articulate comtemporary heathen writing about ‘heathen things’. That alone

2013 CreateSpace, isbn 1492761559

The Knights Templar Of The Middle East * HRH Prince Michael of Albany & Walid Amine Salhab (2006)

Not long after I read Angel Millar’s book in which he claims it is the first about Freemasonry and the Middle East, I read about this title about: “The Hidden History of the Islamic Origins of Freemasonry”. The author’s name sounds a bit wild and so does the backcover so I did not have very high expectations, but I still wanted to read it. Just out of curiosity.

In a nutshell the authors (or rather, author, since it is written in the I-form) claim that the real origin of the Knights Templar is Muslim, that the last retreat of the Templars was Scotland and that around the time the Templar order faded, Freemasonry rose in… Scotland. From there it spread to France, returned to Brittany and then conquered the world.

The book opens with chapters about early Christianity, Jerusalem, early Islam, Muslim rule in Western countries and then several orders, including that of the Knights Templar. The tone is somewhat annoyingly ‘Islam is great and Catholicism is not’. Too much praise on one side and too much criticism on the other made a bit of a strange balance.
After a few chapters about the Templars the authors describe the downfall and after this the rise of Freemasonry.

The authors refer a lot to authors such as Laurence Gardner, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and the like which makes it easy to add this book in the genre of popular science with its wild theories. Indeed, I reviewed a few of such books back in the days and this kind of out-of-the-box literature may be usefull to find new (possible) leads, but it is more usefull for amusement or a more ‘free’ view on history in order to get another way of looking at things than as reference book. I can say the same about the current title.

The book is only about 200 pages but chapters are quite in depth about different subjects, sometimes running too far off the red thread. The overall story is not really new, but the authors seem to think to have new information to back up the claims. All in all the details seem to be more on parts of the story and not really evidence substantiating the thesis of this book.

Like the books of the mentioned authors, “The Knights Templars Of The Middle East” makes an amusing read with a few things to think over, but does not rise above the level of amusement.

2006 Weiser Books, isbn 157863346X

Death In June, Verborgen Unter Runen * Aldo Chimenti (2012)

While in the Grassi Museum in Leipzig during the 2015 edition of the Wave Gotik Treffen, my eye fell on this massive book about Death In June for what seemed to be a very reasonable price. However I am not a huge fan of Death In June, I was curious enough to bring back home the book to read the story of Douglas Pearce and his friends.

The book was originally written in Italian. The German translation was published two years later. The original edition has the notorious ‘death’s head’ logo on the cover (the ebook version even more clearly). My guess is that that cover on the German edition would lead to the book being banned like some of Death In June’s albums. It looks like there is no English translation. This immediatly makes me wonder: did Douglas give his interviews in English and were his answers first translated to Italian and then again to German? I certainly would have preferred to read the man’s answers in his native tongue. What is more, the German in the book already does not always seem too good to me, but some Germans confirm this. This already starts with the title. The Italian title is Death In June, a l’ombre des runes which (I think) means “in the shadows of the runes” rather than “hidden below runes”. Perhaps the German title make a little wordplay with the Hagakure that Pearce seems to love.

Chimenti proves to be a big and longtime fan of the band. This is often quite annoying, because everything the band does is brilliant and everything that can be explained negativelly is incorrect. (Towards the end the publisher of the German edition felt to need to correct Chimenti on a few occasions.) Even everything people did who at some point worked with Douglas Pearce seems to be idolised. This makes the book too praising and uncritical to me. Continue reading Death In June, Verborgen Unter Runen * Aldo Chimenti (2012)

The Last Of The Druids * Ian W.G. Forbes (2012)

Forbes presents a whole new approach to the elusive Pictish symbols. The title of the book gives away that the author is of the opinion that the Picts were a Celtic people. This is not the most eyecatching hypothesis of this book though.

The author found the so-called “hunting scene” on the Shandwick stone (not the one of the cover, this is the Hilton of Cadboll Stone that is displayed in the museum of Scotland in Edinburgh) looking somewhat odd. He goes at great length to show that the strange arrangement of characters refer to stars and constellations that appear in a period of time at sunrise, ‘peaking’ at Midwinter. Thus the author discovered that the Picts had an interest in astronomy or astrology and were well acquainted with the night sky. The theory looks a bit forced since Forbes has to reckon that the Pictish astronomical system was not entirely like ours. His findings are quite striking nonetheless.

Then the author goes on to other symbol stones to test his theory. He comes to original conclusions and perhaps most striking is that a lot of gaps and questions can be answered by looking at Hindu astrology. When a picturing of a star and constellations seems rather off compared to what we know, Hindus appear to have to come similar conclusions. Even the strange “Pictish beast” has an Indian counterpart in the Makara.

So what about the abstract symbols then? Forbes also connects these to stars and (parts of) constellations and here these connections are even less obvious than with the more recognisable images. He does come with some noteworthy thoughts on the rods, mirrors, combs and the like.

His conclusion is that the Pictish stone are markers that refer to specific dates by showing the position of (mostly) two stars or constellations. This can also help to date the stones. I find these conclusions not always convincing, but this is certainly a new approach that needs further investigation. Forbes continue to work out his theories at LastOfTheDruids.com. There you can also get an idea of the book of course.

2012 Amberley, isbn 9781445602301

Three Treatises of Art * Russell Yoder (2014)

Another small booklet of Salamander and Sons and, coincidentally or not, also translated and edited by Russell Yoder.

This time Yoder translated three texts, this time from the 18th century. The first, and nicest, text is Alchemy for the Behmenist Adept. Apparently in the 18th century USA there lived alchemists who were followers of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). Boehme is more famous for his Christian, mystical writings, but he also wrote of alchemy. The compiler of the anthology even makes it seem as if Boehme writes of ‘physical alchemy’ and some remarks even suggests that he did practice this, or at least, saw it being practiced. The compiler made a nice text, mostly consisting of quotes from various works of the Teutonic philosopher.

Then follows an esoteric tale about an alchemist who found a “little farmer” who proves to be far superiour in knowledge to the traveller. So much even that the farmer does not give away his secrets.

The last translation is a number of texts from the Gold- und Rosenkreuzer (founded around 1760) who form one of the sources of German highgrade Freemasonry. The texts are also alchemical in nature.

68 Pages in, again, a relatively expensive title, but a nice read nonetheless, especially the first text.

2014 Salamander and Sons, isbn 978098720654

Heidens Jaarboek 2014

The ‘heathen yearbooks’ are actually planned to be published early in the year, but the twelfth edition took a bit longer to finish. This time no attempt was made to stay around 100 pages and the well-printed booklet reached up to 134 which make up for seven longer or shorter essays.

The yearbook starts with looking back at the past year in which a group split off of Nederlands Heidendom. Then follows the continuing translation of Jan de Vries’ famous Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte into the Dutch language. The chapters are about the soul(s) and (fittingly as we will see later) Fate.
Next up is Gerard who bought an old wood-carved plate and investigates its symbolism and function.
The two next articles are by Boppo Grimmsma. Both texts he earlier used during the group walk in the fall of 2014 through an area overlapping parts of the provinces Drenthe, Overijssel and Fryslân. These texts are mostly historical and explain some things that are still left to see in the area of what used to be seen there.
The most interesting text is of guest-author Frank Bosman who wrote a penetrating analyses of the Heliand. Bosman describes it as a perfect synthesis of Christian and prechristian religion. The author of the Heliand is both critical towards and full of praise about the new religion. He made some original adjustments in order to be able to give a story of a warlord Jesus rather than the Jesus from the Bible.
Next up is myself. I was asked to make a Dutch version of my 2012 text about the Primal Law which you can read in English by clicking the link.
At the end, three 999 word stories of the story-telling-competition are published.

As always a nice little publication for people who can read Dutch and are interested in history and the prechristian religion.

Hyleal, Pri-material, Catholic, or Universal Natural Chaos * Henricus Khunrath (2014)

A long time ago I ran into the publisher FBN Press. This must have been before June 2007 when I went from an html website to WordPress. FBN Press has a whole range (some 300) republications of texts of which the copyright has expired. Many of these texts are alchemical. I bought and ‘reviewed’ quite a few of these A5 photocopied and thin booklets. I have no idea if FBN Press is still running, but they do still have some sort of website.

A while ago I was looking to get the books of Angel Millar. One of these books is published on the Thai publisher Salamander and Sons. This publisher proved to publish a whole range of alchemical books too, of recent alchemists (Lapidus), but also of more famous, Renaissance alchemists, such as Heinrich Kunrath (1560-1605). The current title is a selection of the famous Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom). A very small selection too! The little book is only 38 pages, while the Kessinger reprint of the Latin version has 288 pages according to Amazon. The FBN Press booklets have similar sizes, but Salamander and Sons’ publications look a lot better. That shows in the price. It is $ 15,- (plus shipping) when you get it from the publisher, $ 20,- when you get it from Amazon. Quite a price for a 38 page book.

The anthology and translation is made by Russell Yoder who published similar works. He added another translation of his of the 1704 text From F.R.C., an alchemical, Rosicrucian poem.

Khunrath’s text is certainly what you can call a “Hermetic text” in the contemporary meaning of the word. It full of heap of symbolism, references, Latin phrases (usually not translated), with beautiful images in which he also uses different languages. In his text Khunrath continuously cross-refers to practical and philosophical alchemy. He describes how everything comes from “Hyleal, Pri-material, Catholic, or Universal Natural Chaos” and works towards perfection. The text is an amusing, but not easy, read; nicely published, but -like I said- in a fairly expensive little book.

2014 Salamander and Sons, isbn 0987520644

Arabic Script * Gabriel Mandel Khan (2006)

I saw a German translation of this book in the Grassi Museum in Leipzig. There was only one copy (left), so this was the copy that everybody opened to see what the book is about. I figured I would rather get me an English translation (which I read more easily) that went through less hands and so I did.

The full title of the book is Arabic Script: Styles, Variants, and Calligraphic Adaptations. The author’s name is also written Gabriele Mandel. He lived from 1924 to 2010 in Italy, even though he was from Afghan descent. Mandel was a Muslim and joined both the Naqshbandi and the Khalwati Sufi orders. He was also a student of the art of calligraphy. Some of his work can be found in the book.

At first sight it looked like a book with Arabic calligraphy with translations. It is not very big (180 pages) and a fairly quick read, mostly because of the many images. The author does seem to asume some basic knowledge on the part of his readership. Many terms are explained and there even even a little glossary at the end, but there are also many names of (Arabic) currents and authors that we apparently are supposed to know. Then there is the overwhelming amount of information. Mandel starts with summing up all kinds of different sorts of Arabic, styles of writing, pre- and post-Islam. Soon it seems as if every author developped his own script and style.
The author continues with saying something about the alphabet (or rather “abjadīyah” after the first two letters). Each character is put in a table with different forms, the way it looks as start-, middle-, end-character or ‘standing alone’ and Mandel says a few things about the interpretation of each character. These (Sufi-)interpretations read a bit like a Kabbalistic book with Hebrew characters. Some Arabic characters are given a meaning for the name of the character, numerological values and connections to one of the elements. Also examples of the character, either or not in calligraphy are given. The alphabeth has many characters, but there are a few extras that follow at the end.

After this, Mandel gives examples of calligraphy, so the reader may somewhat learn to distinguish the many styles and schools. He does not translate or transliterate each calligraphy, which is a bit of a pitty. Of course there are a few popular lines like the “Basmala” (“b-ismi-llāhi”, “In the name of God”) and the “Shahada” (“lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh”, “There is no god but God”).

A beautiful book to page through and certainly a nice reference-work, but not ‘the ultimate’ reference work on the subject.

2006 Abbeville Press, isbn 0789208792

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