Tag Archives: Joscelyn Godwin

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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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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The Theosophical Enlightenment

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Theosophical Enlightenment by Joscelyn Godwin.

Many educated people “know” that the occultist and theosophical currents are fundamentally anti-rational, politically reactionary, and in opposition to the forces of liberalism and modernization. This wide-ranging history by Godwin demonstrates rather the reverse in many cases, with studies of the individuals and groups of the 18th and 19th centuries who developed the conceptual worlds of occultism, including theorists of phallic and solar religion, mesmerists, spiritualists, esoteric Freemasons, theosophists, and orientalists.

When this book was written in 1994, the author was explicitly aware of the lack of models for academic work in this field. Happily and deservedly, it has itself become one. It remains indispensable for readers who want to appreciate the historical situation and genealogies of such phenomena as modern initiatory societies, hidden adepts, and visionary divination. [via]

Fifth International Conference of the ASE on Jun 19-22nd, 2014 at Colgate University

The Fifth International Conference of the Association for the Study of Esotericism on June 19th–22nd, 2014 at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. The conference schedule has recently been posted and you will find quite a few presenters and presentations of interest including a couple by Hermetic library fellows:

· Mark Stavish, Israel Regardie and the Theory and Practice of the Middle Pillar Exercise
· Joscelyn Godwin, Esotericism in a Murky Mirror: Strange Practices in Central New York.

Do check out the whole schedule, but a selection of the other presentations, that catch my eye, includes:

· John L Crow (Thelema Coast to Coast), The Theosophical Shift to the Visual: Graphical Representations of the Human Body in the Literature of Second and Third Generation Leadership in the Theosophical Society
· Simon Magus, The fin de siècle magical aesthetic of Austin Osman Spare: Siderealism, Atavism, Automatism, Occultism
· David Pecotic, Building Subtle Bodies — Gurdjieff’s esoteric practice of conditional immortality in the light of Poortman’s concept of hylic pluralism in the history of religions
· Richard Kaczynski, Inventing Tradition: The Construction of History, Lineage and Authority in Secret Societies
· Wouter Hanegraaff, The Transformation of Desire in Machen’s & Waite’s House of the Hidden Light
· Sarah Veale, Disenchantment of the Vampire: Balkan Folklore’s Deadly Encounter with Modernity
· Gordan Djurdjevic, “In Poison there is Physic”: On Poisons and Cures in Some Strands of Esoteric Theory and Practice.

The Golden Thread

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions by Hermetic Library fellow Joscelyn Godwin.

Joscelyn Godwin The Golden Thread

Godwin’s Golden Thread is an impressive survey of its subject. In a brief and accessible form, he treats esoteric traditions from antiquity, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, to modernity and the present. Although the book presumes shockingly little prior acquaintance with such material, he manages to avoid any tone of condescension, and he embroiders the necessarily broad outlines of such a high-level overview with many interesting details.

This volume is published by Quest Books, a Theosophical Society imprint, but it doesn’t pander to that organization. Godwin professes a metaphysical perspective in common with Paul Brunton (1898–1981, a pupil of Alan Bennett and later Ramana Maharshi), and he takes seriously—without conceding to—the anti-occultist esotericism of the Traditionalists.

As an introductory survey, The Golden Thread doesn’t provide the depth or originality one might be looking for in the course of academic research, but Godwin is careful to furnish extensive references for further reading. These notes enhance the value of the book as a historical primer in its field. I would recommend it to anyone with a preliminary curiosity about its subject, and it is sure to provide rewarding perspective for those who have a practical engagement with the Masonic, Rosicrucian, or Theosophical traditions. There are few books that cover so much ground with such clarity and ease. [via]


Harmonies of Heaven and Earth

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Hermetic Library fellow Joscelyn Godwin, the 1995 reissue paperback from Inner Traditions, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Joscelyn Godwin Harmonies of Heaven and Earth from Inner Traditions

“What lies beneath the surface of music and what gives it its transcendent power? For many people, music is the primary catalyst for experiences of expanded consciousness. Musicians and lovers of music—all those who have ever reflected on its inner reality—feel that a true philosophy of music cannot deal with physics and psychology alone. It must include the universal and mystical aspect of which Plato, Kelper, Rameau, and Novalis wrote, and of which Wagner said: ‘I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity.’ The spiritual power of music surfaces in folklore, myth, and mystical experience, embracing heaven and earth, heard as well as unheard harmonies.

Joscelyn Godwin explores music’s perceived effects on matter, living things, and human behavior. He then turns to metaphysical accounts of the higher worlds that are the birthplace of Harmony, following the path of musical inspiration on its descent to Earth, and illuminating the archetypal currents that lie beneath Western musical history. A final section gives the fullest account ever published of theories of celestial harmony, from Pythagoras to Rudolf Steiner and Marius Schneider.” — back cover

 

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.

The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions by Hermetic Library fellow Joscelyn Godwin, with an foreword by Richard Smoley, a 2007 paperback from Quest Books, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Joscelyn Godwin The Golden Thread from Quest Books

“The ancient sages of the Western Mystery Traditions passed on a knowledge beyond reason, allowing us to access transcendent states that reveal our own nature and that of the cosmos. Such sages exist in every age and elevate all of humanity, says Joscelyn Godwin, whether we realize it or not. Among those whose wisdom traces from antiquity to the present include:

  • Hermes Trismegistus
  • Zoroaster
  • Orpheus
  • Pythagoras
  • Plato
  • the Gnostics, the alchemists
  • and the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and Theosophists

Each stage is always with us, Godwin emphasizes, and so each offers a potential source of inspiration and action for today.” — back cover

 

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.