Tag Archives: review

The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles

Julianus reviews The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton in the archive of Bkwyrm Occult Book Reviews.

Hutton The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles

This overview is based mostly on archaeological and historical remains (meagre as they often are) with special reference to the “claims” of modern Pagans. The main problem with the author’s approach is that he simply worships at the altar of Documentation, making the unwarranted assumption that “no evidence = no possibility.” He also fails to realise that the “latest scholarship” he takes such pride in using is undoubtably just as much a product of intellectual fashions as the “out-dated” work he criticises so profusely. Admittedly his critique of the “Female-Supremacist” version of pre-history is quite good and perfectly reasonable, but one wishes he could have done a better job with other areas. His discussion of Earth Mysteries is particularly off-handed. Like most establishment scholars he simply does not know enough about occult view-points to argue with them effectively; he can only attack his own erroneous preconceptions. In discussing modern occult history he makes more blunders than one could hope for in a careful professional historian, having been led astray by Francis (the-Third-Evil) King, among others.

Actually the book is not as bad as all that, especially considering it is such a wide-ranging production involving more specialties than the author had at his disposal. It is certainly nice to have all this archaeological data in one convenient place. Still, one waits for a superior and more sensitive treatment of the subject.

The Occult Experience

Bkwyrm reviews The Occult Experience: Magic in the New Age by Nevill Drury in the archive of Bkwyrm Occult Book Reviews.

Drury The Occult Experience

Subtitled “Magic in the New Age”. This is a neat book. Sort of a mini-Drawing Down the Moon, only with a variety of occult practitioners, not just Pagans. Brief biographies of the important or influential, including Gardner, Sanders, Aquino, and LaVey. Nicely written, well-organized. Contains a short bibliography.

The Occult and the Third Reich

Julianus reviews The Occult and the Third Reich: The Mystical Origins of Nazism and the Search for the Holy Grail by Jean-Michel Angebert, translated by Lewis A M Sunberg in the archive of Bkwyrm Occult Book Reviews.

Angeber The Occult and the Third Reich

This is based upon the researches of a fellow named Otto Rahn (1904-1939), whose book, Crusade Against the Grail, earned him a job in the “Ancestral Heritage” bureau of the S.S. Rahn’s thesis was that the Cathars were the keepers of the Holy Grail, which was a stone tablet inscribed with secret knowledge. This was kept at the Cathar fortress of Montségur and later smuggled out and hidden before the place was taken by the forces of the Albigensian Crusade.

So far so good, but Rahn evidently linked this to Nazi-style “Aryan” racial theories, and Angebert (apparently a pseudonym for at least two people) uses this to derive a whole “system” of Nazified occultism that makes Hitler the heir of the Cathars, Manichaeans and Gnostics. All this is accomplished with a grasp of religious and occult history that makes Kenneth Grant look good! In fact if you snip out the occasional moralising on the horrors of World War II, this book could be a “primer” of Aryan-supremacist mysticism. Now, even assuming that Adolph and company were really hard-core Black Magicians (which is more than a little doubtful), it is obvious on the face of it that they must have been blithering incompetents, (think about it: they sacrifice tens of millions of innocent human beings and they can’t even win a lousy war!)

The main problem with this book is that Angebert (whoever they are) has effectively accepted a Nazi racial interpretation of all occult lore as unquestionable fact. That there might be a non-racist interpretation of anything does not even occur to our author(s), who seem ready to assume that any reference to an “elite” or “elect” group in any tradition in all of history MUST pertain to some sort of Nazi-style “master race” doctrine. Never mind that this is clearly not the case, or that even the concept of a “biological salvation” (if we may so call it) is virtually inconceivable before the Nineteenth Century and thus is more a product of the Scientific Revolution than any “occult tradition.”

The Nine Doors of Midgard

Ingeborg Svea Norden reviews The Nine Doors of Midgard: A Complete Curriculum of Rune Magic by Edred Thorsson in the archive of Bkwyrm Occult Book Reviews.

Thorsson The Nine Doors of Midgard

Thorsson intended this book as a training manual for students in his magical order, the Rune-Gild. The program he outlines is as demanding and structured as those of better known magical groups, like the Golden Dawn and O.T.O. (of which Thorsson is actually a member).

Some people have criticized this book for being too structured and too heavily influenced by non-Germanic tradition. (Thorsson’s diagram of the Nine Worlds, for instance, has been called a blatant copy of the Qabalistic Tree of Life–minus one sphere.) Although those criticisms are partly true, Nine Doors does contain some useful techniques and observations for people seriously interested in rune magic.

Forged

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D Ehrman.

Ehrman Forged

Bart D. Ehrman is an accomplished and eminent scholar of biblical criticism. He is one of those “liberal” thinkers who has been able to get past the fiction that Jesus was a god, but not the contrivance that he was a man. In Forged Ehrman treats the subject of authorial mendacity in early Christian literature, not excepting the New Testament canon. As he demonstrates, there are scores of ancient Christian texts whose authors willfully misrepresent their identities, and are thus forgeries. He does carefully distinguish such forgery from false or merely erroneous attributions, all of which have been lumped customarily into the category of “pseudepigraphal” writings.

Ehrman importantly addresses the widespread misconceptions that the ancient world somehow possessed a more benign view of literary forgery, falsification, and plagiarism. As he shows, there are ancient writings which remonstrate against these practices. Just like modern readers, those of antiquity expected authors to represent themselves accurately in their texts.

In the final chapter of the book, Ehrman even jumps forward to the modern period with three examples of Christian pseudepigrapha from the 19th century, to demonstrate that the behavior we see in writings from early Christianity isn’t alien to the sort of forgeries that have been created in later ages.

Forgery holds out as an “irony” the contrast between the stated ideal of Christianity in communicating divinely-ordained truth and the actual literary practices of the authors of Christian scripture. In his recurring discussions of motive, Ehrman tends to gloss over the obvious possibility that many, perhaps most, of these writers were in fact not sincere as they tampered with the facts in order to promote their preferred sects and doctrines.

While informed by extensive research and supplying references for further study, Forged is itself a popularizing rather than a scholarly book. It is a fast read and a valuable orientation to the realities of biblical authorship in the Christian world.

Mention My Name in Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mention My Name in Atlantis by John Jakes.

Jakes Mention My Name in Atlantis

Mention My Name in Atlantis is a short novel cast as a first-person narrative about the destruction of the ancient island city-state from the perspective of Hoptor the Vintner, an accomplished pander and blackmailer. It does not in any way take itself seriously. Although there is no supernatural magic in the book, its place is supplied by the super-science of visiting extra-terrestrial humanoids from the world of Zorop. The sword-and-sorcery genre is also invoked through the key supporting character of Conax the Chimerical, an evident spoof of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

As a fantasy, Mention My Name in Atlantis is certainly negligible. As a comedy, it won more wry smiles than actual laughs from me.

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover.

Coover Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid

This book is made up of two shortish fictions by Robert Coover. Both are in the form of literary fugues, assemblages of repetitive scene elements and narrative motives centered on a pair of main characters. In Briar Rose, the two are the titular Sleeping Beauty (“Briar Rose” in the original märchen) and her prince–although the villainous crone also figures as a presence, and the whole thing is so suffused with the logic of dream that it’s tempting to dismiss everyone but the sleeper as mere dream-images. The production reminded me more than a little of Angela Carter’s reconstructed fairy tales.

Dreams also figure in Spanking the Maid, in which the nameless employer wakes from troubled rest each day to find fault with the maid and to register his disapproval on her backside. In their striving for perfection–she in her duties and he in his disciplining of her–they each have a further context of rank to which their minds stray: he dreams of his days as a student in school, being instructed by a teacher, and she muses theologically with snatches of hymns and prayers. Both are governed by “the manuals” in their strivings towards a seemingly pointless perfection. In his introduction to this edition, John Banville interprets Spanking the Maid as an allegory of the creative process and writing itself, but I’m not entirely persuaded by his reading.

I read this book in conditions sympathetic to its content: a dozen or so pages at a go, waking in the middle of the night at home for Briar Rose, and retiring or rising in hotel rooms during travel for Spanking the Maid. I can’t claim anything like an analytical appreciation for the texts, but I suspect there is still one to be had. There’s not really any story offered by either, just a sort of narrative vertigo with psychological flavoring.

Black Helicopters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Black Helicopters by Caitlín R Kiernan.

Kiernan Black Helicopters

The “Author’s note for the definitive edition” appended to the paperback of Black Helicopters clarifies that it was written prior to the novel to which it has since been published as a sequel, Agents of Dreamland. Although the Signalman from Agents does make an appearance here, it is only in one chapter, composed after the main text and after Kiernan had decided to connect the stories. Immacolata Sexton does not appear. This book features shoggoths, rather than the mi-go of Agents, but it’s really the humans who are creepiest in both books.

Black Helicopters doesn’t actually feature helicopters very conspicuously, and the narrative is non-sequential and all over the map: jumping between 2001, 2012, 2035, 2114, 2152, and other dates more difficult to decipher. Its ludic theme is grounded in chess, more particularly, the chess of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, while scientific themes include chaos theory, quantum physics, and paleontology. This last topic is one of prior professional interest to Kiernan, who has worked in the field. In fact, she admits to a strong autobiographical streak in the paleontological characters, crediting them with her own scientific achievements (and getting paid back in their glamorous outre narratives).

I think I preferred the shorter and more focused Agents of Dreamland to Black Helicopters, but this book was still a pretty quick read and a lot of fun. It will be best enjoyed by those who can appreciate the author’s scientific and cultural allusions, and who like terse, cautious dialogue among mistrusting interlocutors. The appended “remix” of Chapter 9 supplies the English for a conversation that the body of the book presents only in French. Since the chapter is set in the future relative to most of the rest of the book, non-Francophone readers will appropriately read it only after coming to the end.

Since the “series” relationship of this book to its other seems to have been an organic happenstance rather than deliberate plan, I only hope that it has inspired Kiernan to work on further stories in the same continuum.

The Dark Labyrinth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell.

Durrell The Dark Labyrinth

Lawrence Durrell’s second novel The Dark Labyrinth was originally published as Cefalu in 1947. It’s not clear why he uses the name of the Sicilian village for his fictional locale in Crete. An appended author’s note quotes at length the passage from Henry Fanshawe Tozer’s Islands of the Aegean (1875) that he says inspired the book. My Dutton paperback copy touts itself as an “early novel by the author of Justine” rather than an independent interest.

The main concern of the novel is with a sightseeing party from an English cruise, who are lost after an accident in a subterranean labyrinth in Crete. They enjoy a surprisingly wide diversity of fates. There is a flavor of allegory about the book, and the carefully constructed characters include a poet, a shorthand typist, a painter, an evangelist, a spiritualist-occultist, and a married couple. There is also a side story concerning a gentleman veteran rehabilitating his mental health and doing a bit of espionage.

Once I got the rhythm of the book, it was a speedy read. Durrell does not at all belabor the mythological allusions; there is perhaps just one mention of Ariadne, although the Minotaur is an active presence in the form of an indeterminate menace in the labyrinth itself–one which resolves differently for different characters. The Dark Labyrinth is not a genre novel, yet the later chapters swing rather dramatically among such strange attractors as horror and mystical philosophy, without being subordinated to them.

The Gospel of Philip

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans Joseph Rowe, and foreword by Jacob Needleman.

LeLoup Needleman The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip is from the large and important Codex II of the Nag Hammadi Library, and it consists of mystical pronouncements having to do with salvation and the Christian sacraments, notably the nymphon (“bridal chamber”). This edition is one of a set of ancient Gnostic scriptures in double translation being issued by the Inner Traditions imprint; they are translated from the Coptic into French by Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves LeLoup, and in this case Englished by Joseph Rowe. I have previously read and appreciated Leloup’s treatment of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As in that case, the translated text is printed in parallel with a typeset version of the Coptic original. The sequence of the contents is different than I have seen in other editions of the Gospel of Philip, but it evidently follows the first translation by H.M. Schenke (1960). Leloup provides reference to the original codex pagination, and also supplies a division into 127 numbered logia (“sayings”) that may be original here.

Again, consistent with the presentation in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the English edition of Leloup’s Gospel of Philip features a foreword by American scholar of religions Jacob Needleman. While I had found Needleman’s contribution in the Mary volume to be a bit credulous and underwhelming, I found him more restrained and effective in his remarks leading into Philip.

In Leloup’s thirty-page interpretive introduction, he is at pains to present the Gospel of Philip as standing in a mutually illuminating dialogue with the gospels of the biblical canon, rather than a heretical deviation or more authentic alternative. His reading (followed by Needleman) is that the nymphon is a mystically enhanced approach to the conjugal act of human sex. To arrive at this perspective, Leloup draws on more recent kabbalistic materials, including Abulafian doctrines, as interpreted by Charles Mopsik. Leloup reads a number of logia as enjoining what I would characterize as magical eugenics.

This understanding is at variance with an interpretation of the Gospel of Philip I have previously encountered in the work of Kurt Rudolph, who took the nymphon to be the site of “the union of the gnostic with his ‘angel image’.” I think the translation provided by Leloup can equally support either reading. Furthermore, I think that both readings are likely to be of value to esoteric practitioners of my own neo-gnostic stripe.