Skip to content

A History Of Religious Ideas (3 volumes) – Mircea Eliade (1976-1983)

This massive work appears to be the last work that Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) wrote. It is a three times 500+ page history of religion. Very fitting for a historian of religions. I read in in three Kindle books, so here we have a review of 1500+ pages. This is not entirely accurate though, since each volume is for a fairly large part filled with notes and bibliographies.

I find the work rather odd. It ends as suddenly as is stops. No introduction, no conclusion or summary. Eliade wanted to present religious ideas in chronological order. Volume 1 is “From the Stone Age to the Eleusian Mysteries”. Volume 2 “From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. Volume 3 “From Muhammed to the Age of Reforms”. That looks structed enough. It is not as structured as it looks though.

Eliade for some reason chose not to pick a subject and work it out entirely. Or perhaps stated otherwise, his logic of combining subjects is not the same as mine. For example, chapter 9 of volume one is about religion in India before Gautama the Buddha. Then come the Greek, Iran, Israel and the Greek again. Then in volume 2 it starts in the far East and then the Romans, Celts, again Greeks, Hinduism, Judaism.

Of some subjects Eliade presents a history, sometimes he summarises myths or religious texts and another time he presents persons and currents that were important.

The result is a bewildering amount of information on a bewildering number of subjects. Also in translation (the books were written in French) Eliade has an easy-to-read writing style and he manages to say something about large and often difficult subjects in relatively little space. Even in 1500 pages never can he really plunge into the deep. When you know Eliade, you will know that he would not have been satisfied had he really only scratched the surfaces of the subjects though. So by reading the three books from cover to cover, I basically got some expert information about a massive amount of religious subjects.

The books are not really presented as an encyclopedia, but I suppose the work is meant as a reference work. With the ‘cut-up subjects’ I am not sure it will (easily) work that way. On the other hand, Eliade has been a professor for most of his lengthy life, so I suppose he knew how a reference work should be structured better than I do.

I enjoy reading about religious and religious ideas, yet the reading often went fairly slowly. Not all subject have my interest to the same extend and of course, 1500 pages to read is quite a mountain to look up to. Yet I am glad that I ploughed through. Now I only have to think what I am going to do with all the marking and the notes that I made during the reading.

Volume 1 1981 University of Chicago Press, isbn 9780226204017; volume 2 1985 UoCP isbn 0226204030; volume 3 1988 UoCP isbn 0226204057

Genesis Of Freemasonry – David Harrison (2009)

Indeed another Masonic history book. This is the first book of David Harrison, based on his dissertation of December 2007. “This book launched my career as a Masonic historian, researcher and author”. The book was slightly revised for the 2014 Lewis Masonic edition.

Historians of Freemasonry have, in the past, written work that has been selective. For example Gould who, as a Victorian Freemason, wrote from an official Masonic standpoint, dedicating his History of Freemasonry to the then Grand Master, the Prince of Wales and was harsh in his treatment of rebel Grand Lodges and rebel Masons, such as his discussion of the Grand Lodge of Wigan and his views on Thomas Paine. Others, most notably [Margaret] Jacob, have neglected certain elements of the society’s history, failing to mention the important role of Tory and Jacobite Freemasons in the Craft’s development during the early 18th century.

Harrison is to be applauded for his open view to Masonic history. Many Freemasons today, especially those whom regard themselves “regular” appear to forget or deny the fact that there have been multiple Grand Lodges from the start. Not just the “Premier/Moderns” versus the “Antients” since 1751, but the Irish, Scottish, York and Wigan Grand Lodges. A universally acclaimed Freemason such as William Preston (1742-1818) has been a member of all Grand Lodges that exited in his time. He even founded a ‘rebel’ Grand Lodge (to the “Premier/Modern” Grand Lodge) himself. Things have never been as clear-cut as some want us to believe.

Also Harrison does not deny the existence and involvement of colourful people such as Francis Dashwood (1856-1727) and Philip Wharton (1698–1731) who have not only been Grand Masters of the “Premier/Modern” Grand Lodge but who were also involved in organisations such as the Hell Fire Club. Such men too have -in their own ways- contributed to what Freemasonry became.

As for the history of Freemasonry, Harrison sees “three transitional periods”.

Firstly, the transformation from operative to speculative during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Secondly, the foundation of the London Grand Lodge in 1717 and the subsequent modernisation of the ritual. Thirdly, the schisms and rebellions within Freemasonry, which forced the society to rebuild and reconcile in 1813.

And even after the foundation of the United Grand Lodge of England, there were “rebels”. The “last rebel Grand Lodge survived until 1913”.

Harrison ascribes a big role in the revision of Freemasonry and its rituals to John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744). This ardent follower of Isaac Newton (1642-1726) introduced a lot of ‘Newtonianism’ into Freemasonry. Even though frequently critical to Stevenson, Harrison does make an interesting suggestion in this regard. As Stevenson suggests, pre-1717 Freemasonry was different in England than it was in Scotland. The 1721 visit of Desagulier to a Scottish lodge may well have inspired him to introduce ‘Scottish’ elements into ‘English’ Freemasonry, such as the Masons Word and the three grade system.

Other elements that I do not see often in Masonic histories are remarks that both Desagulier and James Andersson (1679-1739) were also members of other societies (such as the “mysterious society called ‘Solomon’s Temple’) and a patron of Desagulier, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744), who would send him around the country for ‘scientific reasons’, but also for ‘Masonic reasons’. Chandos had more such men in his entourage.

There are quite a few elements to Harrison’s debut that are worthy of contemplation. A problem that I also have with other books of his that I read is that the author seldom (if ever?) dives into the details. It would have been very interesting if Desagulier would have gotten a more detailed look for example. What were his ideas, where did he get them from, what found its way into ‘his’ rituals and how? The book raises as many questions as it answers.

In any case, Harrison’s debut is indeed a ‘modern classic’ of Masonic history, but would have done better if the author was a pencil licker such as detail loving authors Knoop and Jones or Stevenson.

2014 Lewis Masonic, isbn 0853184992

Reformation, Revolution, Renovation – Lyke de Vries (2021)

The dissertation of De Vries (1990-) on the Rosicrucians for her philosophy study in Nijmegen was turned into an academic publication on the esteemed publisher Brill. This makes this yet another expensive publication, but apparently Brill wanted to make this book better available, since you can download a free version on the book through the publisher’s website.

When I got the book I wondered if it would bring any new information. There have been classic and detailed publications about the subject, also from my own country. Think Carlos Gilly, think Govert Snoek; recently I read Tobias Churton. Actually, De Vries indeed did dive into a hardly explored element of the subject: the Rosicrucian call for a general reformation.

Universal reformation is by definition all-embracing and encompasses a wide range of activities, including plans to reform, amongst others, religion, politics, philosophy, medicine, and education. (p. 22)

Thus De Vries sets out to investigate what reformation(s) the Rosicrucians stood for. Contrary to other authors, De Vries is of the opinion that Rosicrucians were not Lutheran. She compared the manifestos and the people who (presumably) wrote them and compared them to Lutheran (“millennialistic” / “chiliastic”) texts and concludes that there are big differences. The most important being that Rosicrucian texts are actually optimistic as they hint towards a golden time after the end of the world.
This optimism also shows in the political area.
Philosophy, medicine and education are in grave need for reformations. Based on Paracelcus, but mostly followers of Paracelcus, new ways of medicine and theology are supported.

De Vries not only looked at the manifestos and other writings of Johan Valentin Andreae (1586-1654) and Tobias Hess (1568–1614), she also looked at the early responds in detail. This way it becomes obvious that everybody read the manifestos in a different way. One respondent picks elements to support his own agenda, another one does the same. This way the “Rosicrucian furore” becomes somewhat confusing. It certainly was not a homogenous movement.

Lyke de Vries’ book takes you on a journey through 16/7th century thinking. Sometimes radical, sometimes provocative. A world in transition where reformers clash with the establishment, an establishment that some are part of themselves. The book is mostly a ‘history of ideas’ so to speak.

Indeed, a somewhat different angle to the subject. Reformation, Revolution, Renovation The Roots and Reception of the Rosicrucian Call for General Reform makes an interesting read.

2019 Brill, isbn 9004250220

The Origins Of Freemasonry – David Stevenson (1988)

I ran into this title in the books of Tobias Churton. Like Churton, Stevenson is not a Freemason himself. The subtitle of the book makes it clear where Stevenson’s emphasis lays: Scotland’s century 1590-1710.

While many authors see the origin of ‘modern Freemasonry’ in England because it was in London that the first Grand Loge was founded, Stevenson focuses on Scotland. Not only is there much more material about Freemasonry predating 1717, but according to the author, Scottish Freemasonry differed from English Freemasonry and the former heavily influenced the latter in the years around 1717.

Stevenson also comes with a somewhat different version of the transition from so-called “operative” to so-called “speculative” Freemasonry.

Thus the assumption imposed by the terminology […] is that operative lodges, made up of stonemasons, must to operative things; non-operative lodges of gentlemen or speculatives do speculative things. This may make some sense in an English context, where nearly all lodges were ‘artificial’ foundations by gentlemen, but it is totally inappropriate for Scotland where virtually all the pre-1710 lodges were originally, and often long remained, closely tied to the mason trade. (p. 10)

And so we get the story that you may have ran into before with “Old Charges” (Scottish and some English), early lodge minutes, joining “gentry”, etc. Stevenson comes up with slightly different details and lays stress on other details to make his point that many things that we know of Freemasonry today, actually came into existence in Scotland and was only around 1717 introduced in England such as the Mason Word and the two grade system.

William Shaw is the person for Stevenson, whom restyled early Freemasonry into a form that would develop into what Freemasonry is today, including a big part of its esotericism. Also slightly different from several other authors is Stevenson’s ideas that gentry usually only experienced an initiation, but were not active in the lodge afterwards; that lodges consisted not only or masons as workmen, but other professions as well; and that “gentry” not only joined but also left lodges basically making them “operative” again.

It is an interesting history and Stevenson shines his own light on it. I find his ‘Scotland theory’ a credible one. Why would the French, when Freemasonry started to develop there, refer to Scotland (Ecossais) rather than England for their systems of ‘high degrees’? And is it so strange that in Scotland things were somewhat different, but elements found their ways to England right around the time that the first Grand Lodge was founded?

I just started reading another David Harrison book and in the first pages he proved himself critical towards Stevenson. Let us just take the different theories (emphasis) at heart and remember what appeals to us. When you are interested in somewhat dry historical Masonic history (think Knoop and Jones), Stevenson makes a worthwhile read.

The Invisible History Of The Rosicrucians – Tobias Churton (2009)

Another Churton, and I have bought yet more. Obviously, in this book Churton takes a look at the Rosicrucians, a history often told.

As in his other works, Churton used recent (and less recent) scholarly publications, especially those of Carlos Gilly and Susanna Åkerman. He frequently refers to the Ritman Library (aka Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica aka Embassy Of The Free Mind). Churton is connected to the Exeter University where there is a seat for Western Esotericism. Still Churton does not read ‘dry scholarly’, quite the contrary actually. I have just started a very recent academic publication about the Rosicrucians and Churton does not even seem to be a source there. Does he move just outside the usual suspects of Rosicrucian scholars?

It is not like his book is one of those popular ‘alternative history’ books with much spectacle and little substantiation. And even though -more than in his other books- he uses other publications for his information, there is also again his own information and approach.

Churton puts the Rosicrucian furore in a bit of a cadre. astronomy (supernovas), upcoming science, radical individuals and groups, etc. Even though he looks at people and how they relate to each other his conclusion is that there was no Rosicrucian brotherhood. This is somewhat annoyingly repeatedly stressed towards the end.

What there was were people with ideals, certain interests, people who saw that the world was running in the wrong direction. Not even central among them was Johan Valentin Andreae, the author of the Fama, the Chemical Wedding, perhaps also of the Confessio, but also of a load of other writings that are often left aside by authors on Rosicrucian history. Churton does look at Andreae’s other writings and thus paints an interesting picture in which the Rosicrucian craze is a bit of an embarrassment for Andreae. The manifestoes were not published at Andreae’s wish, but because somebody got hold of a copy and took it to a publishing house. What Andreae was really after and what the publication of the manifestoes thwarted rather than helped is something you get an idea of reading Churton’s book.

Of course there was more to the Rusicrucian furore than Andreae and there was much more to Andreae than Rocrucianism. Churton describes how thinkers such as Andreae, but also Jan Amos Comenius and others saw the need of a reformation much wider than the Reformation, a development that just may have influenced the ‘start’ of early Freemasonry.

Towards the end of the book the author starts describing ‘neo-Rosicrucian’ organisations and people. This is a bit of a history of Western esotericism after 1730. “Fringe” Freemasonry (Churton seems to see ‘high grade’ Freemasonry as “fringe”), famous esotericists, Rosicrucian groups, Crowley, all things mildly related and yet very much unrelated as there was no historical Rosicrucian brotherhood, fills the last chapters of the book.

Churton paints a bit of a larger picture than what you are often presented. Especially more of the person of Andreae was an interesting read. All in all, I do not think I learned a whole lot of things new. Churton’s book is a bit of an ‘easy read’ about the subject, a bit of an updated Frances Yates so to say. If you want a not too dry book about the subject with fairly updated information, scholarly in background and easier to get than academic publications, this could be a title to look at.

2009 Inner Traditions, isbn 159477255X

The Magus Of Freemasonry – Tobias Churton (2004)

Here we have Churtons biography of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) “Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society”. Both Ashmole and Churton have lived in the city of Lichfield and Churton took it upon himself to not only clear the name of Ashmole of centuries of misinformation, but also to sift through archives for new information. The result is the interesting story of an interesting man.

After an introduction, we start in Ashmole’s early years of course. He had an overly stern father and a mother who tried to help him become an independent thinker within the range of her possibilities. Ashmole left his parental house as soon as he could (with a little help from his mother) only to loose his mother to the plague shortly after. This sets the tone of a life with highs and lows.

Ashmole lived in troubled times. There was a political war in which he served what later turned out to be the losing side. The Reformation took hold of religious life and its churches. There was the mentioned plague. Last but not least, the witch-craze started to develop as well, which made it hazardous to be interested in things such as alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the like.

Ashmole was mostly an antiquarian. He gathered information and objects and initially gathered that in books, towards the end of his life, he was found the very first public museum. Especially his successful book about the Order of the Garter made his name. He was quite familiar with other antiquarians and intellectuals of his time and had a bunch of long time friends even though he lived across the country.

Ashmole married three times, two wives he outlived. He could not really be without a partner, both for emotional and for financial reasons. He remained on good standing with his families in law, especially the first. He was even initiated into “Free Masonry” in 1646 together with a nephew of his first wife who had long passed.

The author looks at people close to Ashmole painting an interesting picture of early Freemasonry, but also of other pursuits that Ashmole was involved in, such as the Royal Society. Later in his life his name of “magus” did not have the negative marking it was likely to have in his days and even resulted in him being given a large part of the diaries of his big hero John Dee (1527-1608).

The not-so-good name that Ashmole still has, mostly comes from unjust legal actions against him. Some of his former family in law kept coming with new lawsuits over things that had been settled, but worse for his name was the incident in which he was given a large collection of rarities of a fellow collector, while by the time the man had died, his widow would accuse Ashmole of theft and also sue him. This suggestion of unjustly having acquired a large part of what would later become the collection of the Ashmolean Museum still stains his name. Churton sheds more light on these events.

Elias Ashmole was an interesting man with ideas that our quite ‘far out’ in our own time, but were less so in his own days. Also he was ahead of his time in his capacity as antiquarian, scientist and scholar.

2004 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594771227

The Golden Builders – Tobias Churton (2004)

I saw this book referred to in the mildly interesting work about esoteric Freemason The Path Of Freemasonry. Especially references to Elias Ashmole caught my interest.

The Golden Builders is subtitled: “alchemists, Rosicrucians, first Freemasons” which spans a subject I am much interested in as I am curious to know how elements of the named ‘philosophies’ found their way into Masonic symbolism.

Just as the book I found this title in, Churton starts with a fairly general overview of Western esotericism. Hermetica, Alchemy, Renaissance, Hermetica, nothing new really. What is somewhat interesting is that Churton used the (then) latest investigations from academic circles, so he does refer to recent findings here and there.

Especially referring to recent findings of Carlos Gilly, with the part about the Rosicrucians the book starts to become a lot more interesting. Churton really dug in the persons involved in the Rosicrucian ‘movement’, looking at Andreae and his surroundings, the religious turmoil of these days, where inspiration came from, etc. A trace can even be followed to the Royal Society.

Via John Dee we come to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), whom Ashmole admired greatly. Ashmole is often ‘used’ to make a link between “operative” and “speculative” Freemasonry, but Churton shows that there is much more to say than only referring to both of Ashmole’s diary entrances about Freemasonry, the suggestion that he might have been a Rosicrucian and the fact that he was involved on the early Royal Society, which -in turn- influenced the rising of the ‘premiere Grand Lodge’ of 1717.

Ashmole was initiated a Freemason in 1646, 70 years before the foundation of the first Grand Lodge. Much has been written about why and how a non-“operative” was initiated into an “operative” lodge. Was it an occasional lodge? Where there separate lodges to initiate the “gentry” or did these noblemen join lodges and slowly but surely take them over, reforming “operative” lodges into “speculative” ones? Churton has a thing or two to say about this.

Through his first marriage, Ashmole can be linked to a long tradition of “operative” Masons going back to the dawn of Cistercian cloister builders. Even after losing his first wife the the plague, Ashmole was initiated together with a nephew of his late wife. Churton also has a look at that good man. In this regard it is also interesting to note the suggestion that people adhering the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) appeared to have played a big role in the Masonic transition.

What makes Ashmole interesting is that he compiled alchemical works, was interested in Hermeticism and he was known for that, even in times of the witch-craze. It could have been Ashmole and perhaps people ‘like him’ who introduced certain elements to Masonic symbolism.

A subject that I would have preferred to have been worked out is the interesting case of Sir William Wilson who was known to be an “operative” Mason who was (again?) initiated, while Churton suggests that there was no “operative” versus “speculative” Freemasonry in these days.

the term “speculative Freemasonry” has been used to make a spurious distinction between post-1717 ‘symbolic’ masonry and the old trade which ‘preceded’ it, in effect drawing a cautious (and unnecessary) veil over the movement’s genuine past.

The Golden Builders became a more interesting book than I expected in the first half. Unfortunately (and of course) not all questions are answered, but the interesting case of Ashmole is a lot more clear now. Churton also published a book solely about Ashmole two years after this one, which is the next title on my reading list. Churton has more titles that appear to be of interest. In The Golden Builders he is not too clear about it, but he seems to do a lot of research himself not only recapitulating what has been written before. He dove into archives, tried to find family information, etc. He may be an author I will read some more of.

2004 Weiser, isbn 157863329X

Preparing For The End: A Narrative Study Of Vafþrúðnismál – Andrew McGillivray (2015)

It does not happen often that I review an unpublished work. I ran into this dissertation on (click on the cover). It is a 200+ page work “towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy”. An interesting read!

McGillivray gives a detailed overview of the sources we have of Norse mythology. Manuscripts, prints, their editions, differences, etc. The reason is to paint the picture of which Vafþrúðnismál is part. After this, the author is going to slice the text, making cross-references to other sources, giving context and explanation of each of the verses, alternatives to translations, etc.

For his analyses, McGillivray uses the works of Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Quite different authors you may think. Of Ricœur the author uses the method to break stories into segments, Gurevich provides “categories of medieval culture” and Eliade the “myth of eternal return”.

On the secondary level it is also hoped that from the formal analysis some conclusions can be drawn about the society for which these poems were important enough to write in manuscripts.

Thus we follow Odin traveling to meet a wise giants and challenge him to a duel of wisdom in order to become more wise himself. There are parallels in other known stories. Some of the information that is exchanged is more complete in these other sources or rather the contrary.

Because McGillivray takes his time to make his points, the work provides a wealth of information about Norse mythology, but also about the (older and more contemporary) scholarly investigations into this mythology. Preparing For The End is perhaps a bit dry and/or detailed for some, but certainly not as much as it could have been. I enjoyed reading this and wonder why the work has not been made available in print. Another work of the author is so maybe there is hope.

2015 University of Iceland

The Path Of Freemasonry – Mark Stavish (2021)

I ran into this book a bit by accident. The subtitle is: “The Craft as a Spiritual Practice” and it is supposed to be a book about the esoteric side of Freemasonry. The introductions are written by no less authors as Arturo de Hoyos and Lon Milo DuQuette, both known esoteric Freemasons.

DuQuette starts with an anecdote about a secret meeting of esoteric Freemasons. Secret, because there are supposedly many ‘anti-esoteric Freemasons’. He does not even dare to name the country where the meeting was held. I doubt a man of the stature of DuQuette who has written many books on a wide variety of things esoteric would be unknown to be an esoteric Freemason amongst his brothers, so I found that story a bit weird.

Stavish promises a lot more than (in my opinion) he makes true. The book is not really an esoteric peek into Masonic symbolism or an ‘esoteric approach’ of The Craft. It is mostly a book with “suggestive retellings” (to use the author’s own term) of Western esotericism. Elias Ashmole, Rosicrucians, Qabbalah (author’s spelling), all esoteric subjects that are (vaguely) linked to Freemasonry in many books are written about without any really in depth information or clear links to Freemasonry. “Suggestive retellings”.

Stavish only scratches the surface and cuts corners. He says that the “placement of the officers” is part of the “Landmarks” while I cannot fathom he does not know that there are two different set-ups in lodges. He says where a Bible is opened in lodges, but this is not the same in every lodge. Or what about calling Jan Amos Comenius a “Moravian alchemist” or saying “the Grand Lodge of France, known as the Grand Orient of France”? France has many Grand Lodges, not just the Grand Orient.

Also annoying, it appears that Stavish has read something about mixed gender Freemasonry (or co-Masonry) which he supposedly thinks it still the same all over the world and exactly like it was in the Theosophical period. It has “invisible adepts” for example” (I never heard of that). The Theosophical period was perhaps two decades in the very early 20th century and the other century of its existence there was a short ‘anti-Theosophical’ movement in some Grand loges, but mostly a neutral stance.

Stavish does not present much new when it comes to Western esotericism, Freemasonry, its history of symbolism or the link between these two. There are also three appendices which are not wildly interesting (even though the geometry text by John Michael Greer did present things I never encountered).

“The Path Of Freemasonry” is not a boring read, but it is not exactly groundbreaking either. He does have some nice suggestions in his bibliography, has reading suggestions per subject and (very contemporary): exercises.

2021 Inner Traditions, isbn 1644113287

The Path Of The Warrior-Mystic – Angel Millar (2021)

Millar is a UK born American who is an esotericist, martial artist, Freemason and prolific writer. He wrote a couple of interesting book and had a bunch of websites (alone or in cooperation). Online Millar had some ‘masculinity’ topics, but these website(s) seem to be gone.

A while ago a new book was announced and I could pre-purchase a Kindle edition. Earlier than I expected, it appeared on my Kindle so I curiously started to read Millar’s latest.

“The Path” is a much different book from earlier titles. Also online Millar seems to be moving from esotericism to self-help with more focus on his hypnosis practice.

The book is mostly a self-help book focussed on the male. You will run into “positive thinking, visualization, and self-talk” and quite a bit of Karl Jung.

Millar proves to be a thinker and reader with a ‘hands on’ approach to self-development. In painting his subjects he goes from old and recent literature to art to Masonic symbolism and Eastern mysticism, Muslim thinkers and critics of the modern world. The latter sentiment is fairly strong throughout the work, but not very ‘Traditionalistic’.

Millar’s latest book is not a boring read, but I highly prefer his previous works. I especially do not feel much for the meditation, auto-suggestion exercises, etc. I do support his aim to call for self-improvement and not shun masculinity, but it seems that Millar develops in directions away from my personal preferences.