Tag Archives: adam mclean

The Silent Language

Hermetic Library Fellow Joscelyn Godwin review The Silent Language: The Symbols of Hermetic Philosophy by Adam McLean in the Caduceus archive.

This is the catalogue of an exhibition mounted by the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam, to coincide with the Amsterdam Summer University’s 1994 courses “Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times” and “Symbolism in Art: in search of a definition.” The fifty-eight items are illustrated, each with a commentary by McLean. The founder of the library, J.R. Ritman, and its Director, F.A. Janssen, contribute essays, in addition to McLean’s introduction. Like all the library’s productions, the volume is beautifully produced, printed, and illustrated.

Mr. Ritman writes of the function of symbol in the spiritual understanding of mankind. He cites the obscure nineteenth-century mythologist J.G.R. Forlong, whose six-foot-long flow-chart of the “Rivers of Life” (i.e. the spiritual movements of all times and places) was shown in the exhibition. Forlong lists as the primary symbols the Sun, Fire, Tree, Phallus, and Serpent, all of them carrying cosmological and metaphysical meanings. Unlike the scholarly and often skeptical Forlong, Mr. Ritman sees in symbolism a spiritual resource whose time has come round again. Here, as in his other prefaces, he defines the higher goals of his enterprise, which is not just a library but the seeding of a veritable school of wisdom. He describes the present age as one “in which the meaning and function of the symbol once again make themselves known to the communal consciousness, and in which man, as seeker, as candidates in the mysteries, must come to the knowledge of the Heart, indeed, to Gnosis itself.”

As the necessary complement to Mr. Ritman’s visionary preface, Professor Janssen takes a scholar’s and bibliographer’s approach to the material in the exhibition. He focuses on the people responsible for publishing the glorious Hermetic images of the early seventeenth century (Lucas Jennis, Johann Theodor de Bry, and Mattheus Merian), and on the question of who actually designed those images. Since the engravings in the books of Maier, Fludd and Gichtel are such integral parts of their teaching, it seem obvious, says Janssen, that the authors passed their ideas to the publishers, who in turn instructed the engravers. In the care of Merian, who, “as is evidenced by his correspondence, was a follower of the spiritualists Schwenckfeld and Weigel,” he could have invented some of the imagery himself.

Adam McLean has already edited for the library The Three Mystical Tables of Dionysius Andreae Freher (Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 1994). His introduction and commentaries in the present catalogue are a perfect example of scholarship informed and inspired by a profound involvement with the Hermetic path. He starts by defining the currents of the time from which the majority of these symbols came: the time when the “new synthesis of hermetic and alchemical ideas which has become known as Rosicrucianism” coincided with Jacob Boehme’s “internally consistent new mysticism which fused hermeticism, alchemy, and Christianity into a coherent and beautifully structured spiritual philosophy.” As important forerunners he mentions the system of Ramon Lull and the early Renaissance interest in symbolism that produced the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the revival of hieroglyphs, and the emblem books. As successors, he points to the eighteenth-century Hermetic revival in France and the Russian revival that closely followed it. (In 1993 the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica organized an exhibition in Russia, entitled “500 years of Gnosis in Europe,” which unearthed hitherto unknown evidence of Russian Hermeticism.) By that time, symbolism had received new energy through its use in Freemasonry, leading to the synthesis that forms the culminating exhibit of this catalogue, Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer (2 parts, 1785, 1788).

“As symbolism speaks so directly to our souls and resonates so harmoniously with our interior world, the hermetic philosophy remains as a living stream of wisdom which can still inspire us to seek, and nourish our inner hunger for, a spiritual dimension to our lives.” In this conclusion to McLean’s Introduction one hears again the message that permeates his oeuvre, from The Spiritual Science of Alchemy in 1978 through his innumerable contributions to the Hermetic Journal and the “Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks.”

The exhibition itself was imaginatively displayed in cases spread throughout the library, which occupies a pair of houses on Amsterdam’s Bloemstraat 15-19. Thus the items on show had as their background thousands of books on Hermeticism, alchemy, mysticism, and Rosicrucianism, as well as the presiding busts of Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici and a number of Hermetic paintings, ancient and modern. The centerpiece was a fully-assembled copy of the Carte Philosophique et mathématique (1775) of Théodore du Chenteau, which is a much expanded version of the so-called Magical Calendar of Tycho-Brahe (1620). Another highlight was the watercolor recreation of the Geheime Figuren made in 1943 (also reproduced on the back cover of Gnosis Magazine, no. 1). The earliest item chosen for the exhibition was an incunabulum, Heinrich Suso’s Buch genannt Seuse (1482), opened to display the figure of the crucified Christ surrounded by red roses. In between was a discriminating selection of symbols from emblem books, the Paracelsians, the Rosicrucian period, Boehme and his followers, the German heart-mystics, and alchemists of the period ironically known as Aufklärung or Lumières.

McLean has valuable comments to make on all of these, though without unfurling their symbolism as thoroughly as he has done, for example, in his Alchemical Mandala (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1989). The catalogue could be seen as a complementary work to the latter, containing much more factual, historical, and bibliographic information. It also contains some extremely rare illustrations, taken from books scarcely known even to specialists. Hermeticism apart, it is fascinating to look through the catalogue from an art-historical point of view, seeing how the symbols are presented in a variety of techniques and styles.

To look at these symbols as pictures is to understand something that commentators rarely point out. They will tell us what the various creatures or figures symbolize, but if that were sufficient, there would be no need for an illustration: it could all be put into words, like philosophy. Why draw so many images if all they mean is that there is a relationship between “soul” and “spirit”? The reason is that these symbolic landscapes and their inhabitants are to be brought alive through the imagination. McLean has shown in his other works (particularly the “Hermetic Meditations” in early issues of the Hermetic Journal) that he understands this perfectly. The places that were depicted with such loving care and detail by Merian and others are real places, existing in a certain region of the Imaginal World. To quote a modern Hermeticist, describing his various divisions of this world (which he calls the “Astral Plane”);

There are also a number of sub-planes, as, for example, the Alchemical. This plane will often appear in the practice of “Rising on the Planes”; its images are usually those of gardens curiously kept, mountains furnished with peculiar symbols, hieroglyphic animals, or such figures as that of the “Hermetic Arcanum,” and pictures like the “Goldseekers” and the “Massacre of the Innocents” of Basic Valentine. There is a unique quality about the Alchemical Plane which renders its images immediately recognisable.

That was Aleister Crowley (Magick in Theory and Practice, New York: Castle Books, n.d., p. 150.), whose books will not be found in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, but who in this instance probably knew what he was talking about. For those of us who cannot or would rather not “rise in the planes,” the symbolic world of Hermetic philosophy still affords a unique combination of visual pleasure and spiritual meaning.

Find this book at Amazon, Abebooks, and Powell’s.

A Commentary on the Mutus Liber

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Commentary on the Mutus Liber by Adam McLean.

In keeping with its title, the Mutus Liber consists of fifteen (or thirteen, depending on the edition) mostly wordless plates, without any body text. All of these are reproduced in this Adam McLean volume, with a four-page introduction on the history of the images, the original 1676 French copyright filing, McLean’s detailed descriptions facing the plates, and his thirty-page commentary following them.

The commentary purports to be exploratory rather than authoritative. It emphasizes the irreducible polysemy of alchemical instruction, and points to parallel procedures with physical substances, components of the soul, and spiritual realities. McLean devotes a lot of attention to “etheric energies” corresponding to the Aristotelian elements, but it appears that these are still at the “physical” (or para-physical) level. For physical procedures, McLean often references the work of Armand Barbault in The Gold of a Thousand Mornings (1969, English translation 1975), who seems to have attempted the full process depicted in the Mutus Liber.

The original plates seem to be entirely free of Christian symbolism. The title plate includes three encrypted bible references to Genesis and Deuteronomy, along with an image of Jacob’s ladder, but all the remaining religio-literary symbolism seems to be classical, with key appearances by Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Mercury, and Hercules. The operators depicted are a male alchemist and his soror mystica, who is a full collaborator in the work, acting as much or more than her partner. Only in Plate XIV do we see another figure in the laboratory who seems to be their child: a startling development that receives surprisingly little attention from McLean. There is plenty of grist here for the mill of contemplation, and–one presumes–operation as well. [via]

Reader’s Theatre with Hermetic Library for May 2016

Reader’s Theatre with Hermetic Library for May 2016 is unrehearsed, un-staged participatory readings from literature, plays, poetry, and more. Readers for May are Olivia Bishop, Jonah Locksley, William Thirteen, and John Griogair Bell.

The ‘Key’ of Jacob Boehme

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The ‘Key’ of Jacob Boehme by Jacob Boehme, translated by William Law, with an introduction by Adam McLean, part of the Studies in Historical Theology series from Phanes Press.

Jacob Boehme William Law Adam McLean The 'Key' of Jacob Boehme from Phanes Press

This later work of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was written to serve as a short introduction to his larger corpus, explaining his peculiar terminology and outlining his system of ideas. It is reissued here in the translation of 18th-century Behemenist William Law. While brief, it is far from simple. The alchemical vocabulary is difficult enough in any case, but this Key involves some further willful obscurity, alluding to non-textual transmissions of esoteric knowledge. Such allusion is evident, for instance, here:

“Yet where Life consists in venom, and has a Light or Brightness shining in the Oil, namely in the Fifth Essence, therein Heaven is manifested in Hell, and a great virtue lies hidden in it: this is understood by those that are ours” (47).

In my academic studies of Western Esotericism, I was assured by generally reliable scholars that Boehme’s thought was not grounded in the Hebrew kabbalah, but editor Adam McLean thinks otherwise. After reading this volume, I’m inclined to agree with McLean. Even though Boehme avoids the Hebrew terminology, his emanationist concept is so similar to kabbalistic versions that I could not help using my knowledge of the kabbalistic Tree to understand it, and, in fact, it helped me to realize some new things about the kabbalistic schema.

Appended to the Key is a brief Behmenist work by Dionysius Freher: An Illustration of the Deep Principles of Jacob Behmen, consisting of thirteen full-page esoteric diagrams, with explanatory captions on the facing pages. These are set in a sequence, from “The Unformed Word in Trinity without all Nature” to “fallen and divorced Adam’s Reunion with the Divine Virgin SOPHIA.” These seem to come at Boehme’s ideas from a rather different angle than the Key does, being more narrative and Neognostic in character, with more reference to angelic hierarchies, and less to alchemical principles.

The cover of the book is a colored version of Freher’s Plate V., which shows how these engravings as printed have not yet reached their full expressive potential. (Although credit isn’t given, I believe the color is by McLean.) [via]

The Phantomwise Tarot

I ran into some images of the Phantomwise Tarot and thought how it reminded me of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Well, turns out there’s a reason, because the deck is by the author.

“The Phantomwise Tarot is a 78-card tarot deck, painted entirely in black and white acrylic. While drawing inspiration from the Rider Waite style, it has a variety of influences ranging from Egyptian mythology and Victoriana to carnival/circus chic and of course, the works of Lewis Carroll.”

The site for this says that the deck will be completed in 2009, but is it? Also, the limited edition cards that were available through Adam McLean’s Alchemy Website are sold out. Also, the etsy shop is on hiatus. Good news or bad news?

Update 2011dec6 @ 8:19pm

So, there’s a post by Erin Morgenstern back in May on her site about the status of the deck.

“I do not have a publisher for the complete deck yet.

It is on my ever-growing to-do list and I promise I do intend to get the deck published because I want it to be available for the tarot-loving masses, but I also wrote a book and it sort of ate my life. (If you happen to be a tarot publisher and are interested in publishing the deck, please feel free to contact me.)

The tarot aficionados will likely appreciate this aspect of my current life balance issues: in the summer of 2009, just before I started querying literary agents, I had a wonderful professional tarot reading and the only negative element was in art/writing balance, where The Tower showed up to remind me that I cannot give all of my energy to different things without falling down. Something had to take priority, and the universe clearly and loudly decided it would be writing.

My apologies for the continued wait, but I want to give the deck the time and energy it deserves, including possibly touching up some of the paintings, so it’s going to take a while. Thank you for your patience.” [via]

Update 2011dec12 @ 3:33pm

There was a specific question about this tarot deck in a recent interview with Erin Morgenstern over at GoodReads:

“GR: Goodreads member Brandi asks, ‘Does she plan to reprint her Phantomwise black-and-white tarot card deck?’

EM: It is on the to-do list. Fortunately there are a lot of things on the to-do list. There was a limited edition, but there’s never been a 72-card deck. I do have the art for it; I just haven’t made the time to pursue proper publication of it. But there will be in the foreseeable future a published deck that people can get.” [via]

Enochian Chess set … sold!

Just yesterday Weiser Antiquarian sent out an email about their catalog #92 New, Used & Rare Books: A Miscellany which included a boxed Enochian Chess set produced in very limited numbers by Adam McLean back in 1988. Even at over $600, that set is already sold; which both surprises me and doesn’t surprise me. It was certainly the item from the catalog that caught my eye, but, seriously, over $600 for a papercraft Enochian Chess set?! I mean … it’s enough to make me seriously think about actually following through with making some sets like I’ve imagined doing recently.

Adam McLean’s Enochian Chess set was No. 6 in the Hermetic Research Series, and is out of print. You can see some images of the pieces and pawns over at the Alchemy Web Site.

For some reason, Enochian Chess has been on my mind recently. Of course, there’s a bit about that in the venerable The Golden Dawn: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites & Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order (Llewellyn’s Golden Dawn Series). And, there’s also used copies of Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn: A Four-Handed Chess Game (Llewellyn’s Golden Dawn) available for those seeking more information, and some okay illustrations for those looking to construct their own sets, without having the chops to do their own artwork; but, it still requires effort of the mundane-crafty kind that some might not possess.

There is some information in the library about Enochian Chess; mostly in David Richard Jones’ Invisible College which recently was added to the site, such as OFFICIAL RITUAL By G. H. FRATER D.D.C.F., THE CONCOURSE OF THE FORCE: ENOCHIAN OR ROSICRUCIAN CHESS, a section for Rosicrucian Chess in Bookmarks for Enochian Gfx-L and Michael Arndt’s Chess Boards. But, it’s all still really DIY.

I’ve definitely imagined a papercraft set produced by the Museum of Lost Wonder, in the same style and attention to detail as the Tomb of Illumination, a papercraft tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz which I’ve posted about before. How awesome would that be? Pretty darn, I’d say.

But, I’ve been looking over some of the work I’ve done in the past and thought that, although it would be a big stretch and a really big project, I could do a pretty awesome set if I put my mind to it. I’ve imagined making an downloadable PDF for an Enochian Chess set available at the library a couple of times, but I’ve also been thinking of producing some sets with nice boards, boards with a plexiglass surface and felted underneath; and, I’ve been thinking about how I’d go about making some nice pieces. Heck, everyone is all over kickstarting things these days, and I can imagine doing something like that to help support the library. I wonder if anyone would be interested in that? Maybe a kickstarter campaign with a full PDF and instructions for a papercraft set at the low end and at the upper end an actual set hand made and ready to play? Anyone?