Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Putting God Second

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself by Donniel Hartman

Putting God Second is a book on “How to Save Religion from Itself” (per the subtitle). Although the argument is constructed by a rabbi with reference to Judaism and drawing on Jewish sources, it is also addressed to other religions, all of which the author understands to be at risk from the same “auto-immune” problems that he sees afflicting his own tradition and community of faith. In particular, he is concerned with the relationship of religion to ethics, seeing ethical behavior as the highest aspiration of religion, but also observing that religion itself can motivate profoundly unethical conduct.

With respect to Judaism, author Donniel Hartman is unsurprisingly on solid ground. He makes a good case from the Tanakh and the Talmud to support the supremacy of ethics and social conscience over the received codes of religious conduct and even over conviction of the existence of the Jewish God. This particular religion, in addition to being the one which the author can address with authority, supplies particularly sore and evident contemporary cases of the failings that the rabbi seeks to highlight. Although it is not made an explicit site of the conversation, the injustice of the Jewish Israeli state’s dispossession of the non-Jewish inhabitants of that region is a constant presence in the background.

The other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, are also vulnerable to the basic criticisms and cautions that Hartman raises. He discusses “God-intoxication,” where a sense of being commanded by the transcendent leaves adherents careless about the well-being of mere humans, and “God-manipulation,” where believers leverage their religious identities and dedication to “deserve” privilege and dominance over others. In a further section, he focuses on the range of cases “when scripture is the problem,” recognizing that the most revered texts contain words preserved for millennia that nevertheless clearly sanction unjust and appalling conduct. No matter how a clever exegesis may recuperate such passages for the benefit of sincere believers, ingenious readings do not remove the indelible hazard (and recurring damage) from a sentiment like Psalm 137:9: “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock” (in reference to the Babylonian oppressors).

Augustine of Hippo rationalized that the babies of the psalm were a figure of the germinal desires that would lead to sin. Curiously, Aleister Crowley took very much the same tack when first grappling with Liber Legis II:21. In explaining “Stamp down the wretched and the weak,” he proposed: “But ‘the poor and the outcast’ are the petty thoughts and the qliphothic thoughts and the sad thoughts. These must be rooted out, or the ecstasy of Hadit is not in us.” So, even for Thelemites, scripture can still be “the problem.” Nevertheless, I think that Thelema includes some useful countermeasures against the sources of Hartman’s concern. The danger of scriptural justifications and “God-manipulation” is decidedly blunted by the “Short Comment” to Liber Legis: “The study of this book is forbidden. … Those who discuss the contents of this book are to be shunned by all ….” Likewise, “God-manipulation” is undercut by the essential privacy of the essential attainment to which Thelemites aspire: the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. And the doctrine of O.T.O. that “There is no god but man” should inoculate against both “God-intoxication” and “God-manipulation.” It is in no way clear, however, that ethical integrity is the ultimate goal of Thelema or of the general glut of religious systems, although it is common for many of them to justify themselves with ethical claims.

Although its arguments pertain especially to Western monotheisms, this fairly brief work is worth the contemplation of anyone interested in religion, and most particularly of clergy, who must concern themselves with the social consequences of the teachings they promote. [via]

The Golden One

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Golden One by Elizabeth Peters.

More than any other volume of the fourteen I’ve read so far, this Amelia Peabody book was a serial installment rather than a freestanding novel. There was not enough exposition to orient new readers to significant character interactions, and the superimposed plots, while all braiding nicely with the those established earlier in the series, did not cohere with each other in a way that would give the book a sense of unity. The usual archaeological intrigues, the family drama, and the World War I espionage all fit together nicely–only if you had been reading earlier books. It was also quite long, perhaps the longest of them so far.

I did enjoy it, though. A lot happened, including the introduction of some entertaining new characters, and the final 20 pages or so were full of portents for the volumes to come. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Vathek by William Beckford.

This brief work is a duly-famed 18th-century Orientalist fantasy regarding the adventures of a corrupt Abbasid Caliph. It culminates in a passage that should be highly suggestive to initiates.

“Know, miserable prince! thou art now in the abode of vengeance and despair; thy heart also will be kindled, like those of the other votaries of Eblis.” [via]

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris.

Having had, like many, my initial exposure to David Sedaris’s wit on public radio (in the initial 1992 airing of “The Santaland Diaries,” in fact) it is nearly impossible for me to read his essays without hearing his voice. I’m not sure if that makes them funnier or not–it’s just a condition of my reading. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this collection, even if the general tone is fairly dark.

My Other Reader says she wouldn’t bother to re-read any of these essays, because the value of their effect is rooted in shock and surprise. I don’t think I agree. Partly, I go for the extreme contrast between the feeling shown in his insightful reflection on human limitations, and his callous exploitation of those limitations for yucks in practically the same paragraph. For sheer entertainment, I like the deadpan frankness, whether it’s honest or blankfaced lying.

It’s certainly difficult to know what a reader can credit as fact. The sustained use of the subjunctive mood at the end of an essay on the development of the author’s sexual identity leaves an attentive reader inferring a bleak reality. And on the very next page, he launches into the hyperbolically fictitious account of his studies at Princeton during the Stone Age. (71-73) If my dad had struck me on the head with a big spoon at the dinner table because I had laughed at my grandmother’s flatulence, I’d like to think that I or anyone else would quit laughing long before the spoon drew blood. (227)

At any rate, all of these essays are eminently readable, and the book is full of characters too odd to be entirely fictitious, not least Sedaris himself. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison.

In Harrison’s first major work on ancient Greek religion (Prolegomena), she innovated by applying archaeological data to support her conviction that Homer and the great tragedians gave only a very partial view of the religious life that they purported to reference. She explored a chthonian, matrifocal, and magical stratum prior to, shadowing, and outlasting the Olympian cults. In the later Themis, she is concerned more precisely with questions of genealogy and development. She has embraced Emile Durkheim’s ideas about the primacy of the social, to good effect. She traces several developmental arcs by which the reified forms of magical power (mana in the anthropological argot of her day) become individualized from ambient sanctities of natural forces and generic daimons of generative power into the persons of heroes and “high” Olympian gods. Her contempt for the latter is unconcealed; she finds them sterile, too removed from the vital numen which originates in communal feeling and pre-individual social impulses.

There is some curious irony in her judgment that the “first and foremost among the services Olympianism rendered to Greece” was to “purge … [the] exclusively phallic” components from religion, claiming that such features are “an obvious source of danger and disease” in civilized settings where human culture centers on human activity rather than the rhythms of non-human nature. (460) This passage late in the book is the one in which she most clearly calls out the phallic elements that have been implicit in the daimon concept throughout her account of it. Hers is not a simply phallic theory of religious origins, however. With the reverence for the generative powers in her daimon concept, she mixes a gradually maturing sense of the cosmos, in a sequence that invariably progresses from plants and soil, to storms and weather, to the moon, and then to the sun. (390) (Qabalists will note a symbolic progression up the middle pillar, from Malkuth, through Yesod, to Tiphareth.)

The framing conceit of Themis is that it is simply an effort to explicate a ritual hymn in honor of the birth of Zeus. In the course of the book, however, the hymn is often far over the horizon, while the author expounds one or another feature of ancient Greek religion. At the book’s end, she returns to the hymn, which itself ends with the imperative to “leap … for goodly Themis.” According to Harrison, Themis is a representation of human culture, “collective conscience, social sanction,” and thus “the substratum of each and every god.” (485)

The volume includes contributions from two of Harrison’s peers among the Cambridge Ritualists, an early 20th century circle of classical scholars of whom Harrison–on the evidence of this volume at least–is certainly the most engaging. Gilbert Murray provides a very interesting analysis of the ritual infrastructure of Greek tragedy, illustrated a little too exhaustively with examples that presume the reader’s familiarity with the works being related to the pattern. F.M. Cornford’s chapter on the ritual genealogy of the ancient Olympic games depends on the reader to appreciate a rather generous amount of untranslated Greek. This is a tendency that Harrison herself tends to keep to her footnotes, although she does feel the need to finish the entire book with an untranslated Greek sentence. It should be remarked that this book is clearly the product of a scholarly culture, barely even addressed to the intelligent layman, despite the general interest of its topic. Harrison freely quotes Nietzsche in German and Durkheim in French, without feeling any obligation to assist the reader. (I could manage the former but not the latter.)

Harrison is refreshingly honest about her own religious perspective, in a field where a pretense of clinical detachment was par for the course. “[P]rofoundly as I also feel the value of the religious impulse, so keenly do I feel the danger and almost necessary disaster of each and every creed and dogma,” she writes in her introduction. “As for religious ritual, we may by degrees find forms that are free from intellectual error.” (xxiii) I certainly concur on both counts. As far as her theories of religious evolution are concerned, she sees magic as a necessary prerequisite for religion (215-216), and theology as a non-essential “phase” of religious articulation. (488) The first was a sentiment common to those who, like Harrison, saw themselves in sympathy to the work of J.G. Frazer. But the second was an uncommonly insightful and provocative position for a book published in 1912. [via]

The Grail

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol by Roger Sherman Loomis.

Loomis provides a full examination of the development of the legends about the Holy Grail, from Chretien de Troyes onward. He does not avoid speculation, but he works in a conservative vein, and admits that his explanations are likely to disappoint those who want the stories to be rooted in sacramental Christianity ab origine, as well as those who fancy Cathar or heretical Templar secrets to be encoded into them. (63) He does provide extensive passages in English translation from all of the early Grail romances, to the extent that these texts may occupy nearly as much of the book as his own theories.

Those theories, as the subtitle suggests, center on the derivation of tropes and characters from Celtic myth. In every major medieval retelling of the legend, Loomis finds reinforcement of the Celtic elements, which he takes to be of ultimately Irish origin, conveyed through Welsh culture to Breton storytellers in France who were the original purveyors of Grail romance. He proposes that the double meaning of li cors as horn (the enchanted drinking horn of the Welsh hero Bran) and body (the body of Christ, ergo mass wafer) is the key to misunderstandings at the root of the strange transformation of heroic episodes and otherworld journeys in the direction of Christian sacramentalism. (61)

Loomis seems a little too willing to speculate–repeatedly!–that his medieval authors may have had a screw loose, when he becomes frustrated with the plot paradoxes and improprieties of the stories examined. In one hilarious instance, he declares of Robert de Boron, “he must have been drunk or subject to fits of dementia when he forecast an important role for the son of a virgin!” (233) Loomis, evidently a Christian on the basis of other remarks, must have slipped in composing this sentence, since I’m confident there is an “important role for the son of a virgin” he would not want to ridicule. (In Robert’s tale, a celibate knight is supposed to have somehow sired an heir.)

Still, the highlighting of such difficulties in the texts is a serious service rendered by Loomis, as is his stress on the bewildering variety of forms taken by the story and by the Grail itself. The “heathenish concept” of identifying the fertility of the land with the virility of its king is one that Loomis is happy to point out, cementing as it does a kinship between the “late, realistic and pious romance of Sone de Nansai” and the pagan legendry of Bran. (145) He ultimately points to the Queste del Sant Graal and the Parzival as the versions most satisfying to pious Christian sentiment, but one cannot escape the implied conclusion that the Grail legends derive much of their appeal from a deep vein of pre-Christian wonder, compounded by healthy doses of hapless Christian confusion. [via]

To Reign in Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust, introduction by Roger Zelazny.

In his City of God, Augustine of Hippo may have been drawing on earlier lore, but he provided the earliest orthodox reading of Genesis I:4 (and God divided the light from the darkness) to refer to the separation of the angelic hierarchy from the rebel angels. Biblical traces of Canaanite theomachies, such as the Leviathan references in Psalm 74, were incorporated by later theologians into this conjectural narrative. Eventually, this story became grist for the mill of secular literature, implicit in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and explicit in Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels. Steven Brust’s 1984 entry in this field is To Reign in Hell.

On the back cover of the paperback, an author’s blurb declares, “From all my readings on the revolt of the angels, two things are clear: God is omnipotent, and Satan is not a fool.” And yet in Brust’s novel, Yaweh is not omnipotent, and he is even less omniscient. Instead, he is somewhat fear-ridden and easily manipulated. Satan may not be a fool, but he spends most of the story paralyzed with conscientious indecision. The conflict of moralities between the two is quite comparable to the one revealed in the interview between the archangel Michael and the Pan-like Janicot in Chapter 28 of James Branch Cabell’s The High Place.

The novel is readable enough, but it would be a stretch to compare it to classical treatments. As a piece of modern fantasy literature, it incorporates some novel metaphysical devices: cacoastrum as the chaos-stuff from which heaven is extracted, and illiaster as the organizing principle that permits the angels to generate themselves, each other, and their environment. Brust also performs a lot of exposition through dialogue. The combination of these factors led me to think of this book as a possible back-story to the Lucifer comic books, which substantially let Brust off the hook regarding his illustrious precedents, and made it easier for me to enjoy the story.

Character development is a little halting, hampered in the early going by Brust’s frequent refusal to identify characters until they have been acting or conversing for several paragraphs. This technique creates some dramatic tension, but he uses it enough for it to verge on annoyance of the reader. Perhaps the author actually meant it to reflect a lower level of individualization among the angels prior to the development of the central conflict. I also observed that the framing device of the Three prior Waves of heavenly disruption and development could be compared to the Four Worlds of the qabalah, thus placing the angelic events of the story in the World of Yetzirah or “Formative World,” which would be pretty doctrinally correct.

On the whole, I found the book a fairly engaging read, and it even afforded me a few surprises, despite the necessary foreknowledge that it would conclude with Genesis I:5. [via]