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The Golden Dawn Source Book

A review of The Golden Dawn Source Book with introduction and foreword by Darcy Küntz, preface by R A Gilbert, with articles by Gerald Suster, R T Prinke, Ellic Howe, and Richard Kaczynski, part of the Golden Dawn Studies series; from Caduceus, Vol II No 4.

Küntz Gilbert The Golden Dawn Source Book

For all that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is far and away the most famous of modern magical lodges, the basic documents concerning its history have not been easy to come by, except for those with personal access to the handful of private collections in which the bulk of surviving GD documents reside. While the outlines of the Order’s history have been traced by a number of useful histories, very little of a documentary nature has been available to those who prefer to draw their own conclusions from the evidence.

The appearance of this second volume in Holmes Publishing Group’s Golden Dawn Studies Series suggests that this unfortunate state of affairs will soon be a thing of the past. Like the first volume (reviewed in Caduceus’ Spring 1996 issue), which provided and translated the original Golden Dawn cipher manuscripts The Golden Dawn Source Book is likely to become an essential starting point for all further work on the subject.

The Golden Dawn Source Book has for its focus the origins and development of the Order, and brings together between one set of covers nearly everything that sheds light on this often vexed topic. Included here is the complete “Anna Sprengel” correspondence in its original English translation, relevant entries from W. Wynn Westcott’s diary, a wide selection of letters tracing the Order’s prehistory and history alike, the public letters and articles that announced the GD’s existence to the world, and a collection of published histories of the Order by a range of members.

In addition, the Source Book contains a collection of modern essays on the Order’s early history, including contributions from nearly all sides of the various disputes in which the interpretation of that history seems permanently mired. Notable among these are Ron Heisler’s “Precursors of the Golden Dawn,” a valuable study of earlier Kabbalistic societies in London, as well as several documents from the controversy over Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn including Gerald Suster’s incendiary critique of Howe, “Modern Scholarship and the Origins of the Golden Dawn,” and Howe’s amused response.

Finally, the Source Book concludes with a comprehensive, cross-referenced index of the names and magical mottoes of all known Golden Dawn members from the temples in England, North America and New Zealand, a crucial reference tool that has been attempted several times before with a good deal less success.

Series editor Darcy Küntz should be commended for a valuable and well-presented work. While it has little to appeal to the purely practical magician, the Source Book is a welcome addition to the still-limited library of sources on esoteric history, and students of the Golden Dawn and its antecedents in particular will find it a useful resource.

The Western Way

A review of The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition by Caitlín and John Matthews from Caduceus, Vol II No 4.

Matthews The Western Way

The recent release of both volumes of the Matthews’ The Western Way in an omnibus edition may serve as an opportunity to assess this, one of the few attempts in recent years to survey the entire field of modern Western magic from within. Despite its failings — and, unfortunately, these are severe — it represents a major effort, and a not wholly unsuccessful one; furthermore, it has played an important role in providing a frame of reference within which much of the magical community has located itself. As a historical event if nothing else, it demands some attention from the student of the Western mysteries.

From one perspective, the central thread of The Western Way is a thread of history, and the book can be read on one level as an inner history of magic in the West — meaning, in this case, largely the British Isles. The first volume, The Native Tradition starts in the deeps of prehistory. It envisions primal Western spirituality in terms largely borrowed from Michael Harner’s popularizations of shamanism and from non-native interpretations of Native American tradition, and proceeds to trace a current based on this pattern down through the centuries to the present. The second, The Hermetic Tradition recounts the origins and development of the various systems of scholarly or high magic and mysticism — Hermetic, Cabalistic, Chaldean/astrological, esoteric Christian, and the like from the ancient world to the modern. On this thread, both volumes string a great deal of esoteric philosophy, instruction, imagery and myth, some of it handled with a good deal of insight.

On another level The Western Way can be seen as the most complete single expression of a specific tradition in English occultism, that set in motion and to a great extent typified by the late Dion Fortune. Fortune in many ways moves through-out the book like a resident phantom, rarely mentioned but always present. Those who have read her magical nonfiction will recognize many of The Western Way’s themes and habits of thought at once, from its approach to magic as a way of psychological integration, through its vision of magical history (complete with Atlantean roots), to its specific take on inner-plane Masters, magical lodges, and the other structuring elements of Fortune’s approach to the magical path.

Perhaps the best way to approach this book, though, is to see it as an attempt to construct an origin myth for the magical community as this now exists in English-speaking countries, and particularly in England. Its two volumes correspond quite closely to the two major divisions of that community, the pagan and the Hermetic. The Matthews relate these together by way of a linear evolutionary scheme in which the native tradition corresponds to the transition from tribal to individual consciousness, and the Hermetic path to that from individual to cosmic consciousness. Standing at the midpoint of this journey, the modern magician potentially draws on both traditions, the one to acknowledge his or her roots, the other to face his or her destiny. At one end of the scheme stand the earliest human beings — in the forthrightly mythic language of the book, the “Firstborn of the Foretime” — while at the other end lies an “evolved humanity” which “will perceive its collective responsibility” (p. 24).

In some ways, this is an appealing image, though perhaps more so to Hermeticists; pagans are likely to find that so linear an idea of evolution fits poorly with the cyclical vision of time more central to their own traditions, and may well be irritated at being consigned to the past in this way. Still, to coin a phrase, de mythibus non disputandum: one takes myths (or leaves them) on their own terms, and no mythic pattern will make perfect sense of everyone’s experience.

It’s elsewhere that the broader problems in this work are to be found. I propose to focus on these problems here, rather than on The Western Way’s strengths. This may be unfair, as the work does have substantial virtues, but there’s a broader point to such a focus. The failings of The Western Way are shared by a good deal of magical writing (and, for that matter, thinking) in modern times, and some of the most serious weaknesses in the modern magical community are highlighted with a rare clarity in the flaws of this book.

One of these is a matter of simple scholarly sloppiness. On matters of historical fact, the Matthews (like many other magical writers, of course) are far too often careless. Anyone with more than a smattering of background in ancient history, for example, will be bemused to hear that Alexander the Great’s empire reached west to the Straits of Gibraltar (p. 205), and it takes only a few minutes with a Latin dictionary to find that the initials of W.B. Yeats’ Golden Dawn magical motto Daemon Est Deus Inversus, mean not “dedicated” but rather the far more potent “I have given” (p. 346). There are many other lapses of the same sort. Points like these may seem minor, but in magic as much or more than anywhere else, the devil is in the details; additionally, a mythic structure that claims to be founded on history ought to try a little harder to get its history right.

But the crippling flaws in this work rise out of another source: the same sort of dogmatic syncretism that typifies Dion Fortune’s writings, among many others, and has caused so much confusion in current pagan revivalism and elsewhere in the modern magical community. Fortune’s dictum “All the gods are one God and all the goddesses one Goddess, and there is one Initiator” is the classic expression of this approach. While this statement is partially true, and important as a partial truth, taken on its own it leads to a very specific form of arrogance and a characteristic blindness to the wild freedom of the spiritual.

A passage in The Western Way very neatly echoes this attitude and its flaws:

”No matter what your own background may be or what country you may hail from, you will recognize the type of the Gods: Thunderer, Shiner, Watcher over the Land. The lord or the lady of the moon is known in all lands, as are the gods of river and tree and stone” (p.75).

Now this assumption, common as it is, simply isn’t true. People in the modern Western world tend to encounter pagan beliefs first, in childhood, in the form of well-defined pantheons like those of the Greeks and the Norse, and then too often try to force the much stranger and more elusive systems of other peoples into the same Procrustean bed. Half the confusion surrounding ancient Celtic spirituality, to name only one example, comes from attempts to manhandle the fluid spiritual powers of the highly diverse Celtic peoples into a fixed “Celtic pantheon.” In other cases — for instance, the spiritual traditions of many North American native peoples — the expressions of power that move through the hidden side of things cannot even be called “gods” without doing substantial violence to their nature. Many peoples — it bears repeating — do not worship a Thunderer, a Shiner, a lord or lady of the moon, or what have you, and many of those who do revere powers that can be called by these names understand them in ways that cannot be forced into the straitjacket of any kind of generic pantheon. One example out of very many: some of the Salish tribes here on the northwest coast of North America see Moon and Sun as brothers, and it is Moon who is the older and more powerful: the demiurgic Changer, in fact, who made the world what it is, and who relinquished the daytime sky to his little brother because he alone has enough power to illuminate the night.

The same trouble in a different form arises in the Matthews’ account of Western magical teachings. The sheer diversity of those teachings is very poorly represented. To speak of “the native tradition” and “the Hermetic tradition”, as though there is only one of each, risks losing track of the fact that each of these very broad currents are made up of a dizzying number of different streams, many of them flowing in radically different directions — as well as the fact that there are other currents in Western magical spirituality which cannot be reduced to either of these of categories. This is a risk the Matthews make few efforts to avoid. The specific theories and practices of current quasi-shamanic neopaganism, on the one hand, and those of the distinctly idiosyncratic approach to magical work pioneered by Dion Fortune, on the other, are presented as though they are the universal patterns of all Western magic. The unwary reader may well finish The Western Way in fact, thinking that all Western magical traditions are pretty much the same — which, again, isn’t even remotely true.

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.

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Two for Sacred Geometers

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews At The Center Of The World: Polar Symbolism Discovered in Celtic, Norse and Other Ritualized Landscapes by John Michell and The Byrom Collection: Renaissance Thought, the Royal Society and the Building of the Globe Theatre by Joy Hancox in the Caduceus archive.

Hancox The Byrom Collection

The Hermetic traditions of the Renaissance made use, broadly speaking, of three correlated systems in their attempt to comprehend the physical and metaphysical worlds. Two of those forms — magic, the universe expressed as symbol, and alchemy, the universe expressed as substance — have been fairly well known all through the modern Hermetic revival. The third, once known as mathesis and now more commonly called “sacred geometry” — the universe expressed as pattern — received far less attention for many years, although a series of important reprints and new publications in the last decade or so has done a great deal to redress the balance. The two books reviewed here each build, in a different sense, on that foundation.

John Michell’s name is a familiar one not only among students of esoteric geometry but in the wider circles of what might, unkindly, be called fringe studies as well; his seminal The View Over Atlantis (1969) taught most of a generation about ley lines and megaliths. Central to much of his work, though, are ideas of proportion, geometry and numerical symbolism drawn straight from classical traditions of mathesis. These ideas hold center stage in his later works City Of Revelation (1972) and The Dimensions Of Paradise (1988); much of Michell’s work since the date of this latter has focused on the role of sacred geometry in the traditional geography of various ancient cultures.

At The Center Of The World is a part of this project. Beginning with the image of the central hearth (in Latin, literally, focus), Michell goes on to explore the linked concept of the omphalos or world-center as the ritual locus of ancient systems of sacred kingship. He then maps out a series of traditional assembly-places in northwestern Europe, each standing at the geographic as well as the symbolic center of its surrounding region. The canon of numerology and geometry which Michell sees as underlying the whole system is outlined in a final chapter.

One possibly disquieting part of this exploration is Michell’s proposal that the revival of a sacred monarchy and its associated omphalic center be used as a framework for the political reunification of Ireland. The Western esoteric tradition has a long history of becoming entangled in politics, dating back at least as far as Pythagoras, and a great deal of that involvement tends toward precisely this kind of revival of archaic forms; Plato’s Republic and Laws provide the classic examples. In practice, however, the mixing of politics and spirituality tends to debase both (would anyone actually want to live in either of Plato’s totalitarian utopias?), and it’s to be hoped that Michell’s proposals — harmless as they probably are — don’t encourage the direction of more energy down this particular blind alley.

Still, as an introduction to the ways esoteric geometry can relate to the original meaning of the word “geometry” — earth measurement — At The Center Of The World is a good choice; it develops its themes capably, and does so (unlike, for example, much of The View Over Atlantis) using evidence which can be assessed by the methods of the ordinary historian. Those interested in Celtic and Norse traditions will also find it worth reading.

Joy Hancox, the author of The Byrom Collection, is anything but a household name in esoteric circles, and her own contact with the Hermetic tradition came through the unlikely route of local historical research concerning a Manchester farmhouse she purchased. The collection of documents she unearthed in the course of this research, however, deserves much wider attention from esotericists than it has apparently received so far. A set of 516 geometrical drawings of varying shapes, sizes and topics, they may well prove to comprise the single most important body of work involving sacred geometry available in modern times.

The collection apparently belonged to John Byrom, an eighteenth-century Freemason and fellow of the Royal Society, whose accomplishments included the invention of the first phonetic system of shorthand; the sources and earlier history of the documents in it are anyone’s guess, although Hancox makes some plausible speculations in her exploration of the collection and its history. Drawings shown in the book (a small fraction of the total) include Cabalistic and other esoteric diagrams, intricate geometric constructions, and architectural plans — including what are apparently the setting-out plans and elevations for all of the major theaters of Elizabethan London, including Shakespeare’s Globe.

The obvious first question, given something of this scale, is whether the collection is a modern forgery. While a firm answer will have to rely on specialists in the subject, there is at least one point which argues for its authenticity — the fact that Hancox herself seems to have little notion of the meaning and significance of many of the drawings. Her efforts to educate herself about the background of the collection are praiseworthy, and included both academic and esoteric sources; still, scholars and Hermeticists alike will wince at a fair number of the statements and conclusions she makes in the book.

The Byrom Collection nonetheless provides a helpful introduction, both to the collection itself and to the milieu from which it appears to have come. The real value of this book, though, is in its reproductions of the drawings. Most of them are highly legible photographs, clear enough to study in detail, giving the book real value to the practicing sacred geometer.

Something more will be needed, though, if the potential of this remarkable discovery is to be realized. The best of all possible worlds would be a full-size facsimile edition of the drawings, but almost any further publication of (or about) these documents would be a welcome event.

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The Eternal Hermes

LeGrand Cinq-Mars reviews The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus by Antoine Faivre, translated by Hermetic Library Fellow Joscelyn Godwin, in the Caduceus archive.

Faivre Godwin The Eternal Hermes

Although this is a collection of translations of essays that were originally published separately, there is a unity of theme among them that indicates a hidden harmony. The pieces (five essays and a bibliographic survey) that make up this book might almost have been written as part of a coherent project: to demonstrate the persistence of the presence of Hermes, both overt and covert, in Western culture even through the present.

The first fourth of the book is an extended essay, “Hermes in the Western Imagination”, tracing the appearance of the image of Hermes in art, literature and {32} thought, from classical times through the twentieth century. It covers the ground gracefully and thoroughly, including even items like Geofroy Tory’s Champ Fleury (an English translation of which is kept in print by Dover for the delectation of calligraphers and book designers).

The second, briefer essay, “The Children of Hermes and the Science of Man”, discusses the living meaning of the figure of Hermes and its implications for the possibility of human sciences with not only a human face but a human heart. Faivre makes it clear that he is not advocating any manipulative “re-enchantment” of the world — not “the creation of false myths but the refusal of them … not sacrificing to ancient or new idols but refusing to idolize history, that is to say, refusing to succumb to the ideologies and pseudophilosophies of history. If Hermeticism today has a role to play, it is that of demystifying, so as to remythify.”

The third, “From Hermes-Mercury to Hermes Trismegistus: the Confluence of Myth and the Mythical”, surveys the records of vitalizing visions and encounters with the manifestations of Hermes, as sage, as god, as alchemist, as magician, as revealer of the mysteries and secrets of nature (himself revealed by the higher being of the quester), and finally to his manifestations in late (i.e., recent) esotericism.

With the fourth, “Hermes’ Presence in the City”, comes a change of pace. Faivre takes a brief look at manifestations of the Hermes figure as specifically urban (Hermes was known as founder of the magical city Adocentyn) in twentieth century stories dealing the image of the city — the proprietor (named Chidher [=Khidr] Green) of a joke shop in Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face, the marginal vagabond child in Buñuel’s film Los Olvivados, and certain trickster figures in Beyond Thunderdome. Hermes still plays the psychopomp amid the labyrinthine ruins of popular culture.

In the fifth, “The Faces of Hermes (Iconographic Documents)” Faivre traces images of Hermes through a series of plates, from the fourteenth century to the present; the essay provides commentary for the nearly forty pages of plates, which range from the familiar relics of high culture and the recondite glyphs of esoteric ritualists to the products of popular occultism. One of the most striking, in the light of the frequent quotations from visionary and initiatory narratives dating back over a thousand years, is a plate of a Masonic rite in which Hermes rises from his grave to instruct the candidate.

Although each chapter has it own references, the final section of the book, “The Inheritance of Alexandrian Hermetism: Historical and Bibliographical Landmarks”, provides an additional survey in the form of a list, with remarks and annotations as needed, of books and essays that show the reception of the Hermetic tradition throughout European history. This closes with a useful section on {33} the modern scholarship of Hermeticism.

The book provides an excellent introduction to Hermetic themes and to the significant literature about them. Faivre generally refrains, however, from doing much more than presenting the material. His interpretations are reserved for the figure or presence of Hermes, and he seldom addresses the particular contexts within which it appears. Even some very obvious patterns (like the confluence between the motif of Hermes as entombed teacher in early visionary texts, and the later appearance in initiatory rites of a figure (Hermes or otherwise) teaching from an emblematic tomb) remain unremarked — or, perhaps, left as an exercise for the reader.

Joscelyn Godwin’s graceful translation is eminently readable, and skillfully avoids some of the occasional infelicities that have marred other translations of Faivre’s work.

The book would be useful to anyone with an interest in the history of Hermetic traditions, and especially useful to any library serving an institution with an interest in cultural history. For those just coming into contact with the traditions of Hermeticism, it provides not only access to the literature, but also, and most important, access to the meaning the traditions have had, and continue to have — and without which all the documents and studies are mere arrangements of dry bones.

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Hamlet’s Mill

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in the Caduceus archive.

de Santillana von Dechend Hamlet's Mill

The analysis of myth has played a substantial role in Hermetic thought all through the history of esotericism in the West, from the mythological interpretations of Orphic mysticism through the efforts of latter-day alchemists such as Isaac Newton to extract the secrets of the Great Work from classical legends. The same habit of thought persisted in more orthodox scholarship to a much greater degree than is often realized. One thinks of the great nineteenth-century philologist Max Muller and his Solar Myth theory, which condensed all mythologies into accounts of the seasonal movements of the sun, and lost its force in academic circles only when it was shown that, by his own criteria, Muller himself was nothing but a solar myth.

This was, of course, far from the only astronomical reading of myth, modern or for that matter ancient. The relationship between the visible heavens and the theological ones has often inspired interpretations of this sort, and the fact that the same names are given to planets and to gods in so many cultures points to the real potentials of this approach. Still, skies and myths alike can too easily serve as Rorshach blots into which preconceptions are read, and this is especially true when the more rigid sort of one-to-one correspondence is imposed between them.

Both the potential and the risk are pointed up by Hamlet’s Mill, a self-described “essay on myth and the frame of time” by the historians of science Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, now back in print in paperback form. This odd but important work has as its major thrust the idea that myths are, in effect, {39} remnants of the technical jargon of an ancient system of astronomy, with the precession of the equinoxes – the slow wobble of the Earth’s axis that causes the apparent points of equinoxes and solstices to slip backward through the Zodiac at a rate of one sign every 2,000-plus years – as its great discovery. This system is traced through a wide range of mythologies, as well as through other sources, particularly the writings of Plato.

The amount of scholarship brought to bear on this thesis is impressive, on a scale reminiscent of the works of Sir James Frazer. The odd corners of the world’s mythologies are shaken out to show parallels, some of them startling, between mythic figures and events of widely separated places and times; these are then connected, sometimes convincingly, to astronomical phenomena. The mill of the title, to mention just one of the vast array of possible examples, is an image from the same Norse legends that ultimately produced Shakespeare’s melancholic hero, a magical mill which ground out gold in a past age of peace but broke free from its timbers and now grinds out salt in the depths of the sea. Drawing on a wide range of related images, de Santillana and von Dechend identify the mill as the cosmos itself, breaking free of the timbers of the familiar solstitial and equinoctial markers, and show that this identification makes sense of features of the legend which are hard to account for in any other way.

It’s of interest to the Hermeticist, also, that much of their work relies on material that has been central to Western esoteric traditions for many centuries. In particular, Platonic ideas and myths have a central role in their interpretation, and the Pythagoreans also receive attention; “Protopythagorean,” in fact, is their term for the hypothesized source of the ancient astronomy they seek to outline.

Their work has some serious weaknesses as well, and with an almost mythic exactness these are made in the exact image of its strengths. The authors fall afoul of the almost universal failing of the interpreter of myth, and having found a scheme that makes sense of some myths proceed to use it as a universal key to all. Worse, they essentially do not deal at all with the massive historical questions raised by their thesis. If Norse, Iranian, Polynesian and Mesoamerican myths, among others, are all expressions of the same system of astronomy in the same symbolic language – a claim implicitly made by the methodology of the book, and explicitly made in several places within it – what were the channels for this astonishing diffusion of ideas across space and time? And why did these channels not carry more easily traceable kinds of information, such as the techniques of metalworking, to the same far corners of the earth?

A lesser criticism has to do with the organization of the book – or, rather, the lack of it. The authors begin with mythological material from the Hamlet legends, and go on to other related stories without explanation; the first discussion of the astronomical background occurs in an “Intermezzo” after Chapter 4; the {40} basic thesis itself is not made clear until nearly halfway through the book. This is justified by the authors on the grounds that the archaic way of thought being discussed was not itself an organized system, but this begs the question; it’s by no means impossible – in fact, it’s often highly useful – to present unsystematic material in a systematic way.

The approaches opened up by Hamlet’s Mill need to be used with care, then; the book has a brilliance of its own, but that brilliance now and again closely resembles the pyrite-glitter of the crank. Still, it has value to the modern Hermeticist, both for its wide-ranging survey of ancient mythical and astronomical lore and for the stress it places on the cycles of the heavens as a model for mythological and mystical symbolism here on earth.

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

The Shotgun Hermeticism of John Eberly

Help me welcome the newest Fellow, John Eberly to the Hermetic Library!

The Shotgun Hermeticism of  John Eberly

You may recognize the name of the newest Fellow, either from his other extensive credits, or as a contributor to the pages of the Caduceus journal; but, either way, I am pleased to publicly announce the initial selection of work on the site, to which we plan to continue adding in future.

Please take a gander at The Shotgun Hermeticism of John Eberly

Inner Order Teachings of the Golden Dawn

Inner Order Teachings of the Golden Dawn by Pat Zalewski, with an introduction by Nick Farrell, the 2006 softcover from Thoth Publications, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Pat Zalewski Nick Farrell Inner Order Teachings of the Golden Dawn from Thoth Publications

“Hidden Teachings revealed!

For more than 100 years, secret magical manuscripts from the Order of the Golden Dawn’s inner order of adepts (the Ordo Rosae Rubae et Aurae Crucis) have been unseen by most students of the esoteric. This includes the Golden Dawn alchemical teachings, secret teachings of the Zelator Grade and the important Caduceus paper. These have either been gathering dust on some collector’s shelves, or have been worked by those who have continued the Order’s work. So secret were these documents, Israel Regardie was unaware of them and subsequently many of the modern orders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who were dependent on his encyclopaedic text The Golden Dawn for their teachings have left out much of this work. However, the papers contained in this book provide the much needed keys to understand the Golden Dawn system in its entirety.

Just as the Golden Dawn was not simply dependent upon intellectual information gathered under one heading but also on oral instruction to make the system come alive, so this material came with extensive traditions that make it useful to the student.

For the first time, Golden Dawn authority Pat Zalewski, who was trained by the inner order adepts of the GOlden Dawn, reveals the key to this material.”


The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Initiation from Problems on the Path of Return by Mark Stavish, M.A. in Vol 3 No 1 of Caduceus.

“The writings of Von Durckheim combine depth psychology, Christian mysticism, and Zen practices in such a fashion as to allow for the realization of one’s interior life with Christ, a purpose in harmony with both Psychosynthesis, and tradition Western esoteric Pathworking. His writings are a significant contribution to this area, even though they use the language of orthodox Christianity, and are a valuable tool for bridging this gap between psychology, mysticism, and even esotericism.” [via]

Initiation from Problems on the Path of Return by Mark Stavish, M.A. in Vol 3 No 1 of Caduceus.

“These sudden flashes of insight and alteration of consciousness can in some instances be called initiations, some being minor, and others more significant. Unfortunately, the concept of initiation in esoteric circles is filled with many misconceptions, and in psychology, it has no equivalent term or phrase, although several might be suggested.” [via]