Byways of Esoteric History

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Theosophical Enlightenment and Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism and Nazi Survival by Hermetic Library Fellow Joscelyn Godwin in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment

Godwin Arktos

The relationship between modern scholarship and the Hermetic tradition has always been a complicated one, bedeviled by a radical difference among basic assumptions which many writers recognize but few seem to be able to overcome. For every academic work which combines competent scholarship with the imaginative ability to enter into the worldview of the tradition – the writings of the late Dame Frances Yates come first to mind here – there are far too many which fall into the gap between paradigms and never manage to climb back out. The socioeconomic reductionism wielded by several generations of Marxist scholars, the psychological reductionism common to many of the current interpreters of Carl Jung, and other less popular but equally distorting interpretive schemes have stretched and sawed the Hermetic tradition to fit any number of Procrustean beds.

Given this context, the efforts of Joscelyn Godwin to light up some of the byways of recent esoteric history in the West come as a relief and a delight. Two of his most recent books, in particular, unite capable scholarship with a willingness to let his subject matter speak in its own voice.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is, broadly speaking, a history of English occultism from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. That period saw the rise and fall of major esoteric movements such as Mesmerism, Spiritualism, the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and by way of these the origins of most of modern Western occult thought and practice. It also saw a great deal of influence by esoteric traditions on the wider culture of which they were an often unacknowledged part; the figures of William Blake at the beginning of the period, and William Butler Yeats at its end, are only the most visible of many carriers of that influence. An amazing pageant of scholars, scoundrels, mages, crackpots, visionaries and out-and-out lunatics filled the space between these two, and it is this pageant which gives The Theosophical Enlightenment most of its subject matter and much of its charm.

One of the central themes of this study is the extent to which the esoteric systems of that age had their roots as much in the scepticism and critical scholarship of the time as in the older and more credulous traditions of medieval occultism. The highly syncretistic approach which marked Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and similar movements would have been inconceivable without the rise of ideas of comparative religion and mythology during the prior century, ideas which removed Christianity from its privileged position and drew attention to the connections between it and other religious traditions.

Another theme, linked to this, is the complex and ambivalent relationship between Western occultism and Eastern traditions. Materials from Hindu sources in particular were borrowed eagerly by esotericists in the West from the Transcendentalists to Madame Blavatsky, but there was also a reaction against this trend. Both these forces showed themselves in the rise and decline of the Theosophical Society, which drew together most of the esoteric currents of the age into a temporary unity, only to founder when the differences proved too great to bridge.

In the process of tracing these themes and others, Godwin casts light on an entire chapter of the history of Western esotericism which has received too little illumination to date. The Theosophical Enlightenment is likely to become the standard starting point for future explorations in this area.

A second book of Godwin’s, Arktos, carries out the same task of illumination in a far stranger region of thought. The subject matter of this work, the symbolism of the poles in Western occult tradition, has long been a kind of lightning-rod for high strangeness in the cultures of the modern West: one of those subjects where the line between the esoteric and the simply crazed is rarely easy to draw.

It says much for Godwin’s abilities that he is able, for the most part, to present this material on its own terms as well. From polar paradises and pole-shift catastrophes through the hollow earth and similar tabloid fodder, up to the heights of Persian Sufi mysticism and down into the psychotic mythologies of race that lay behind the Nazi phenomenon, Arktos provides a glimpse at a world at least as unexplored as the Hyperborea of legend, and even less easy to map.

In some senses, Arktos is a less satisfying book, if a more intriguing one, than The Theosophical Enlightenment. It is very much a first survey of a broad and highly diverse subject, and a great deal of further work remains to be done to fill in the blank areas and trace out the connections between the different uses which esoteric tradition has made of the poles. (I was mildly disappointed, for instance, to see no mention of the Golden Dawn’s relation of the Earth’s axial tilt to Cabalistic symbolism in Godwin’s book.) Still, it forms an excellent starting place for future study, as well as an example of how material from the fringes of modern thought can be lucidly and intelligently explored.