Tag Archives: john michael greer

Summoning Spirits

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Summoning Spirits: The Art of Magical Evocation by Konstantinos in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Konstantinos Summoning Spirits

Until modern times, the standard image of the magician in the Western world was largely that of a summoner of spirits, and the elements of that image — the ancient books of conjurations, the circle drawn in chalk and fortified with mighty names, the wand raised as a shadowy figure takes shape in clouds of incense smoke — still play an important part both in fantasy fiction (the folk mythology of the modern magical revival) and in the broader cultural conception of what a magician is or can be. The actual practice of evocation, however, has suffered a certain amount of neglect in the magical community.

Summoning Spirits may just change that fact. Designed as an introduction to evocatory magic for the complete beginner, it presents a complete and relatively simple system of evocation which is likely to appeal to many modern magicians.

Readers with a solid background in modern magical literature will find it easy to identify Konstantinos’ sources — primarily the Golden Dawn system, Donald Michael Kraig and Franz Bardon, although the Goetia and other classical grimoires also have a place. At the same time, he presents this material with a good deal of clarity and intelligence, and he makes good use of his own experiences with the techniques he describes. Of particular interest is a chapter describing fifty entities to be summoned, complete with eleven portraits by artist Lisa Hunt.

There are a few awkward points to Summoning Spirits. The author’s prose style is sometimes uncomfortably close to the gosh-wow school of fantasy writing — he is, notably, a little too fond of the word “amazing” — and his discussion of magical theory skirts many of the deeper issues. In several places, he brushes aside differing points of view with some very shaky arguments. (For example, he dismisses the entire school of thought that sees spirits as psychological entities as the work of armchair theorists; in point of historical fact, this simply isn’t true.)

Still, Summoning Spirits is a useful contribution to the literature on an important branch of magical practice. Beginning and intermediate practitioners who are interested in taking up evocation, and scholars who wish to keep track of the present state of the magical art, are likely to find it of considerable interest.

Access to Western Esotericism

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Access to Western Esotericism by Antoine Faivre in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Faivre Access to Western Esotericism

It may well be that the 1990’s will be recalled, at least among students of Western esoteric traditions, as the decade in which the traditional academic prejudice against the study of occultism finally broke down. The first half of the decade has already seen a steady stream of capable scholarly works on occult traditions in the West, and with each year that stream seems more and more likely to turn into a flood. Not that long ago, it was an easy matter to stay abreast of the entire academic literature on esotericism – but those days appear to be definitely past.

The very richness of the current literature makes a good general guide to the field a necessity, and Antoine Faivre has provided what is, so far, the best such work in English.

Access to Western Esotericism consists of three parts. The first, “Approaches to Western Esoteric Currents,” contains a discussion of methodologies, a summary of some of the key concepts of Western esoteric thought, and a short but fairly comprehensive summary of the history of esoteric currents in the West from ancient times to the present. While it’s possible to quibble about some of Faivre’s terms and classifications, they are at least useful as a starting place, and better than many such attempts; the protean nature of Western esotericism and the difficulties involved in studying an underground tradition make such projects more than a little reminiscent of the blind men and the elephant.

The second part of the book, “Studies in Esotericism,” is made up of seven of Faivre’s essays on various aspects of esoteric tradition. In many ways, this is the most fascinating part of the book, as many of the themes Faivre explores relate to writings and movements which have received almost no attention in the English-language literature. At the same time, as part of a general introduction to esotericism, these essays are somewhat problematic. Five of the seven deal with the relatively restricted field of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European esoteric traditions, three of them specifically with the German theosopher Franz von Baader, who (despite his importance) is far from a dominant figure in the field as a whole. All seven, in addition, treat esotericism as a structure of ideas rather than – or, better, in addition to – a structure of practice. These represent the focal areas of Faivre’s own work, but in the context of this book they cannot help but offer a somewhat distorted picture of the whole.

The third part, finally, is a well-annotated bibliography of useful texts, classified by period and theme, which will be of substantial value to the scholar and of no small use to the practitioner as well. Its one weakness (which, admittedly, it shares with almost all academic bibliographies on esotericism) is that it makes almost no reference to the substantial resources published by popular occult presses in the last thirty years.

Prophecy is an uncertain business, but it seems likely that Access to Western Esotericism will become one of the standard introductions to Western esoteric thought in English. At the same time, its limitations make one hope that it is recognized as exactly that – an introduction, beyond which students of esoteric tradition inside as well as outside the academic world will have to make their own way.

The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript edited by Darcy Küntz, introduced by R A Gilbert, in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Küntz Gilbert The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript

Nearly a century after its rise and fall, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn remains at once the most famous and the most puzzling of the magical orders of the modern West. The outlines and many details of its brief career have been traced out in a number of works, most notably Ellic Howe’s waspish but capable The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972). Still, conundrums aplenty await both the scholar who wishes to explore the Order’s place in history and the practitioner who hopes to gain a better grasp of the Order’s teachings.

The murkiest of these, unquestionably, have to do with the origins of the Order and its system of magic, and it has not helped that the document at the root of the whole phenomenon – the mysterious “cipher manuscript” which, according to the Order’s own mythology, gave Golden Dawn founders William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Mathers the framework of the Order’s rituals and the address of the mysterious Fraulein Sprengel – had been published only in incomplete form. Fortunately, this has now been remedied.

The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript is precisely that, a facsimile and translation of the core document of the Golden Dawn system, giving the grade rituals of the Order in skeleton form along with elements of the Order’s magical teachings. The whole is clear and readable, and has been ably annotated and provided with a useful bibliography of relevant works. An appendix includes a Golden Dawn knowledge lecture on the Tarot which was extracted from the manuscript.

In addition, this volume contains R. A. Gilbert’s fascinating essay “Provenance Unknown: A Tentative Solution to the Riddle of the Cipher Manuscript of the Golden Dawn.” Gilbert’s suggestion is that the original cipher manuscript came to Westcott from the papers of Kenneth Mackenzie, a major figure in Victorian esoteric masonic circles, and may well have been Mackenzie’s work. While the evidence involved is largely circumstantial, Gilbert makes a good case for his suggestion, and in the process helps to link the Golden Dawn more clearly with the murky realm of Victorian fringe Masonry from which it emerged.

This volume is presented as Volume 1 of a “Golden Dawn Studies” series, with at least eight other volumes forthcoming. If these reach the standards of this first book, the whole collection may well become required reading for scholars and practitioners of the Golden Dawn system alike.

The Cube of Space

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Cube of Space: Container of Creation by Kevin Townley in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Townley The Cube of Space

The predominance of the standard Tree of Life in the modern magical scene can make it easy to forget that this is only one of many models of the universe which are part of the rich traditional lore of the Qabalah. It takes very little digging among materials to come up with others: variations on the Tree, and also wholly different systems such as the Fifty Gates of Understanding or the intricate diagrams of Isaac Luria and his school. Most of these, however, have received little attention outside orthodox Jewish circle.

One such diagram which has seem some use in the modern Hermetic movement is the Cube of Space. This is derived from the Sepher Yetzirah, one of the foundation documents of the Qabalah. Like most Qabalistic patterns, the Cube of Space is based on the internal dynamics of the Hebrew alphabet, the letters forming a geometrical matrix of forces which can be explored in meditation and applied in practical work.

Keven Townley’s The Cube of Space is intended as a thorough introduction to this aspect of Qabalistic theory, and it succeeds quite well at this task. Beginning with the basic symbolism and structure of the Cube, it proceeds through a series of increasingly complex interactions relating to standard Qabalistic symbolism such as the Hebrew alphabet, astrological forces and the cards of the Tarot deck. The book concludes with a Tarot-based interpretation of the Chaldean system of decan correspondences which is highly reminiscent of some of Paul Foster Case’ better work.

This last comment, in a sense, also points out one of the few limitations to this useful book: its approach to the Qabalah derives almost completely from the one developed by Case and taught by the organization he founded, the Builders of the Adytum. (Creditably, Townley is quite open about his reliance on these sources.) Those who disagree with Case’s take on the Qabalah, or simply find it uncongenial, may have some trouble making use of Townley’s work. Still, The Cube of Space is a capable and original study of a neglected area of Qabalistic theory, and it both deserves and repays serious study by anyone interested in the magical Qabalah.

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.

Robert Fludd

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Robert Fludd: Essential Readings selected and edited by William H Huffman in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Fludd Huffman Robert Fludd Essential Readings

The work of Robert Fludd (1574-1637), the Paracelsian physician and Hermetic encyclopedist who provided the last major statement of the esoteric traditions of the Renaissance, has been best known in modern times by way of the extraordinary engravings created for his vast Technical, Physical and Metaphysical History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm (1617-1626). These are perhaps the most common visual images of Renaissance esotericism at the present time; ironically, though, Fludd’s own writings have all but vanished into their shadow. Most remain available only in their original editions, mostly in Latin, and the few reprintings and translations that have appeared are scattered through the academic literature.

This book of selections from Fludd’s writings is thus a welcome step in uncovering one of the more neglected figures in the Western esoteric tradition. Huffman, whose Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance (Routledge: New York, 1988) is a solid general study of Fludd and his place in Renaissance thought, has assembled writings from most of the periods of Fludd’s literary output – the Apologia Compendiaria, an early defense of the Rosicrucians; a selection from the first volume of the Technical, Physical and Metaphysical History; his Brief Declaration to James I of England, defending himself against charges of heresy; A Philosophical Key, an alchemical work describing experiments on wheat; Truth’s Golden Harrow, a defense of the physical reality of alchemy; Dr. Fludd’s Answer unto M. Foster, in which Fludd supported the Paracelsian position in the weapon-salve controversy; and a portion of Mosaicall Philosophy, Fludd’s last work. Also included in the volume is Wolfgang Pauli’s essay “The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler,” which chronicles the dispute between Fludd and Kepler over the respective places of mathematics and mysticism in an understanding of the world, as well as a mostly biographical introduction and a useful bibliography.

There are a few weaknesses to this otherwise solid work. The sheer volume of Fludd’s prose has forced Huffman to prune his selections extensively, and in some places – particularly in the portion of the History reprinted here – the resulting passages are disjointed and difficult to put in their proper context. The selection of writings is also problematical in one sense: the pieces given deal largely with Fludd the theoretician and philosopher; Fludd’s more practical interests in medicine, technology and the arts, interests which fill the greater part of his works, receive far less attention. Amid the sometimes abstract speculations of his esoteric philosophy, it can be too easy to lose sight of the Robert Fludd who introduced new methods of steel manufacture to England and devised one of the earliest barometers.

Despite these quibbles, though, Huffman’s collection is a solid introduction to Fludd’s thought, and a valuable resource for any student of esoteric traditions in the Renaissance.

The Manual of Harmonics of Nicomachus the Pythagorean

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Manual of Harmonics of Nicomachus the Pythagorean by Nicomachus of Gerasa, translation and commentary by Flora R Levin in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Nicomachus Levin The Manual of Harmonics

The Manual of Harmonics, an introduction to musical theory by the Pythagorean philosopher Nicomachus of Gerasa, forms part of Phanes Press’ continuing project of publishing important texts in the Pythagorean and Neoplatonic traditions. Music held a central place in Pythagorean thought, as a bridge between the apparent abstractions of mathematics and proportion, on the one hand, and the realm of sensory experience on the other, and an ancient handbook of musical theory from one of the major figures in the Pythagorean tradition is thus a useful contribution.

Nicomachus’ manual itself is a fairly brief document, a summary of basic concepts in ancient musical theory. Lewin’s extensive and able commentary on each chapter, however, goes considerably beyond this, relating the manual to its contexts in musical theory and science, in Pythagorean thought, and in the life and culture of the ancient world. Manual and commentary together form what is quite probably the best introduction available to this subject. The book as a whole is scholarly but accessible to the nonspecialist, and deserves the attention of anyone interested in the Pythagorean tradition or the philosophical and esoteric aspects of music.

Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition: A Complete Curriculum of Study for Both the Solitary Magician and the Working Magical Group by Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Cicero Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

For more than half a century, the system of magic presented in Israel Regardie’s epochal collection of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn documents, The Golden Dawn, has been essentially the standard method of magical work in the English-speaking world. Most other books on magical subjects borrow from it liberally, to the extent that it’s possible to find works purporting to be about Norse neopaganism (to give only one of many possible examples) which use slightly rewritten versions of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, the Middle Pillar exercise, and similar Golden Dawn technical methods. Some of this borrowing is simple plagiarism, and more is a somewhat less discreditable effort to rework Golden Dawn technique to fit different symbolic, religious and political stances.

Some, on the other hand, derives from the extreme unwieldiness and the sometimes fragmentary nature of the Golden Dawn material as Regardie presented it. The Golden Dawn is more of an archive than a textbook; it’s possible to extract the meat of the Order’s system of training from the husk of knowledge lectures, ritual texts and often rambling documents in the collection, but there’s a good deal of work involved. As a result, there have been a number of attempts to produce an introduction to the Golden Dawn system designed specifically for the beginning student.

Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition is the most substantial of these to appear so far. Intended as a complete curriculum of study for the Outer Order work of the Golden Dawn system, it contains solo versions of the grade rituals from Neophyte through Portal, greatly expanded versions of the Order’s knowledge lectures, and additional instruction on topics such as alchemy and astrology. The material for each grade also includes practical exercises and meditations, a reading list, and an examination on the grade teachings.

To describe this book as comprehensive may be an understatement. The Ciceros earned a reputation for thoroughness with their last book, Secrets of a Golden Dawn Temple, which explored the working tools and equipment of the Golden Dawn system in exhaustive detail, and this new release will do nothing to detract from it. Despite the sheer volume, however, the lessons are well paced and well organized, and should be well within the power of beginners to assimilate; the authors’ experience as chiefs of a working temple shows here.

It should be noted, however, that this book is indeed intended for beginners, and readers who have already worked their way through Regardie’s Golden Dawn and other works on the Order’s system are unlikely to find much new in it. A work of instruction rather than, say, history, it smooths over some of the discontinuities between the original Golden Dawn system and its current form; for example, although a great deal of basic astrological information is given, the fact that the Order had its own distinct system of astrology — a system differing sharply in some respects from the common form which the Ciceros give here — is nowhere mentioned.

Still, these are ultimately issues of genre, not of the work itself. Within the limits of what this book attempts to do, it succeeds well.

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.

Find At The Center Of The World at Amazon, Abebooks, and Powell’s.

Find The Byrom Collection at Amazon, Abebooks, and Powell’s.

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.