comparative mythology

Eternal Wisdom – Gwendolyn Taunton (2020)

In Amazon’s Kindle store my eye fell on two titles of Gwendolyn Taunton (formerly Toynton) that I did not know. The Primordial Tradition (2015) and the book presently under review.

That book is presented as an updated version of the publication that acquainted me with Taunton back in the days: Primordial Traditions Compendium (2009) which was a compendium of a periodical that Taunton edited before (2005-2008).

The 230+ page compendium contains texts by various authors. In the new 78 page version, there are only texts of what used to be the editor. New ones too it seems, so the connection between both publications is only the author.

Already in 2009 I concluded that Taunton’s explanation of the term “Primordial Tradition” is not mine. This is still the case. This is emphasized by the opening text about Carl Gustav Jung. What was also apparent over a decade ago is that Taunton appears to be of the opinion that “philosophia perennis” can be reached by study. It is even “an intellectual transmission” (emphasis mine). “Philosophia perennis” is presented as (the result of) the study of comparative myth and religion.

Even though she does refer to Guénon, Schuon and Coomaraswamy, Taunton’s approach is much different.

A prophet, therefor, does not require the bonds of filiation, which René Guénon believed to be the necessary requirement for belonging to tradition.

Guénon has a few things to say about prophets which is in a way similar, but also much different from that statement. Another point Guénon would certainly not agree with is:

Faith in the potency of any specific symbol relies upon the most basic human aspect of belief. Belief in a sentient God is not even required.

As with other publications, Taunton walks a similar mountain as myself, but another path (but closer as many). As usual she does have interesting things to say and diverting opinions force me to question my own. I do wonder about some chapters what the relevancy with the subject is, such as the chapter about the “science of omens”.

There is also a chapter about alchemy in which Taunton suggests that alchemy is a (proto-)Indo-European tradition which has spread with Indo-European culture. This would explain the spread and diversity of alchemy. This is an interesting notion that I do not think I encountered before.

The closing chapter is more political. Apparently some alt-right thinkers have started using the term “Traditionalism” and for that reason Taunton chose to no longer use the term as she wants to prevent being lumped together with such currents. It could be me, but this alt-right is hardly visible (especially possible ‘intellectual’ efforts have all passed by me) and just the fact that they try to hijack a term that has been in use for a century is not immediately a reason for me to start to look for a synonym.

As often with Manticore publications, interesting, somewhat different from my own ideas (which is good). Rather short though.

2020 Manticore Press, isbn 0648766055

Syncretic Indo-European Faith – Zachary Gill (2020)

I ran into this book in the Amazon Kindle store and thought that I had been too long since I read anything about comparative myth. Why not try a writer I do not know?

I suppose I expected a scholarly work. I am not sure if the author is an interested layman or if he has education of some sort, but Syncretic Indo-European Faith is not a scholarly work of comparative myth of religion, but rather a personal exposition of a man describing his path and studious efforts.

The book appears to come from the group “Hammer & Vajra” which just might be a one man group (or a man with followers). Gill does appear to put some effort in his project with a website, a webshop and now a book.

It is not unheard that modern-day heathens look at other religions in the Indo-European family for inspiration, to fill gaps or because of general interest. Gill goes a few steps further. He seriously investigations all Indo-European faiths of the present and the past, elements of which seep into his worldview. Hence the term “syncretic”. The result he calls “Vedic Heathenism”, not because the Vedas are the basis of his faith, but because they are the oldest known Indo-European texts. It is more of an approach than a system, as Gill recommends everybody to investigate the faith of their ancestors to be the basis of ones own faith and then look at ‘family religions’ for a deeper understanding.

This syncretic approach may be frowned upon by some contemporary heathens, even more so will Gill’s view of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He sees Indo-European roots and/or elements in these Abrahamic faiths and suggests filtering these out to see what can be “salvaged”. Also he recommends possible readers of these faiths not to go over to another faith, but to study their own, see where the roots are and understand their own religions better.

Gill says he is not in favour of mixing elements of different faiths (which he does do in a way) but I enjoy his open-minded approach. In some ways his approach is ‘folkish’, in other ways somewhat ‘universalistic’. It sure is an approach I have not ran into very often, In quite a few ways, the approach is like my own, in other ways not at all, but only agreement would be boring, would it not?

In his comparisons Gill is sometimes original, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes a bit too easy, but he sure made an effort to know a lot more about the different Indo-European and non-Indo-European religions and myths than many non specialists and practicing heathens. This makes a book a nice read. It is not that I learned a whole lot new, but it is interesting to read the thoughts of a contemporary heathen which interests similar to my own.

2020 Hammer & Vajra Project, isbn 1734766611

Brahman – Alexander Jacob (2012)

I recently reviewed a book of Jacob published by Manticore Press. In it, he frequently refers to two of his older works. I got myself a copy of Brahman, a study of the solar rituals of the Indo-Europeans.

Even though the book is published in a German row of scholarly works, it is in English.

The book that I previously reviewed is published on a ‘niche’ publishing house. In my review I say that Jacob sometimes seems to cut corners. Curious if he would make his points better in a scholarly publication I started reading Brahman. It was immediately clear that Jacob’s writing style is the same here.

In a book with short chapters, Jacob constantly bombards his reader with loads of information. He also seems to assume that his readership is as knowledgeable as himself. Just as in the other book he seems to say that God-names in different cultures are just that: different names for the same entity (for example: “Ymir is sacrificed by Wotan (Enlil/Ganesha) and his brothers” p. 139). In his lists he mentions Gods from different cultures asuming that you know them all. The same with books. In this-and-this book you can read… I know quite some holy and mythological works, but I do not always immediately know to what culture the author refers every time.

I will give you a (relatively easy) quote to give you an idea of Jacob’s writing style:

In the Germanic Edda, the First Man, or “giant”, Ymir is killed by his great-grandson Wotan, who is the counterpart of the Iranian Wata/Vayu. The macroanthropomorphic Ymir who develops in the Mid-region, Ginnunga-gap, is the counterpart of Prajapati/Brahman, while his female partner Shatarupa is represented in the form of the cow Audhumla, who feeds Ymir with her milk. Ymir and Audhumla are thus the Germanic form of the First Man, Gayomaretan, and the Bull of Heaven, of the Iranian Bundahishn. This cow also produces, by licking the “ice-blocks”, a man called Buri, whose grandson is said to be Odin (Wotan), the wind-god. We have seen that the Kassites called Vayu Burias (Boreas). So we may assume that the Germanic Buri is the name of the first form of the wind-god, Vayu, whereas Wotan/Wata is that of the same force that, much like Shu, later sustains our universe within the Mid-region between heaven and earth. (p.135)

The chapters are somewhat thematic, but almost the entire book the red thread (from the subtitle) completely eluded me. The book mostly reads as a display of information. Towards the end there either appeared, or I started to recognise it, some structure. Not that I can now summerize the book easily, but the thesis seems to be that once there were two main cultures. The Indo-European was the solar, fire worshipping culture that spread over the globe. Jacob describes a primal man from whom the universe was created. Also he interweaves a phallic basis for the myths (the World Tree is actually a phallus that connects heaven and earth, etc.)

The book is interesting, yet again Jacob’s approach is not my own, but as there is quite some stress on Mesopotamian and other mythologies from that region and time, it expands my ‘usual information’. An index would have been a welcome addition though.

2012 Georg Olms Verlag, isbn 3487147408

Indo-European Mythology And Religion – Alexander Jacob (2019)

A while ago I got myself three recent Manticore books. When I had just started reading the present title, the publisher contacted me to tell me about yet another new title. Manticore is hard to keep up with.

I know Jacob from another Manticore title. In my review I noted Jacob has a different approach from my own and that he can be quite pedantic. Now I may add that his conclusions sometimes seem extremely easy.

Read More »Indo-European Mythology And Religion – Alexander Jacob (2019)

Fate And The Twilight Of The Gods – Gwendolyn Taunton (2018)

Rather than publishing the texts in one of the journals that Taunton publishes through Manticore Press, this time she bundled two essays into a small book of 116 pages.

The first essay is about fate in Norse religion, mostly about the Norns. The second is “an exegesis of Voluspa”. Both essays look like summaries of books that have long been available, in English even. The first text mostly quotes Bek-Pederson’s The Norns In Old Norse Mythology and Winterbourne’s When The Norns Have Spoken. The second text has a longer bibliography, but often refers to Rydberg and Grimm. More interestingly several issues of a periodical called History Of Religions are used.

There seem to be but a handful of thoughts and conclusions that are Taunton’s own. Some of these conclusions would not have been mine, but Taunton also has a couple of things that I do not think I ever heard of or looked at that way.

What I find strange is that Taunton uses quite a bit of ‘second hand quoting’. She refers to an author who is referred to by another author. Personally I would have looked up the original work and quote from there. In one occasion this leads to the strange situation in which Taunton first refers to Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna and then claiming that Dumézil left Tyr out of the equation for political reasons and even says that he should have had Tyr on the second function, while in the book that was referred to, Dumézil lengthily explains why Tyr is one of the halves of the double function on the first function.

“Fate And The Twilight Of The Gods” is an alright read that does not bring many new insights, but still has some things to think about. Like I said, it summarizes earlier investigations into fate and Ragnarök, so it easily brings you up to speed about these subjects, as far as the English language goes of course.

2018 Manticore Press, isbn 9780648299660

Im Namen Des Wolfs – Andreas Hebestreit (2013)

A German book about “rites des passages” focusing on the Celts. Would that be political correctness? Not really, since the author does not shy to refer to Jan de Vries and Otto Höffler and he even uses the term “Indogermanisch” rather than “Indo-European”, so it looks like he really wanted to focus on the Celts. Obviously it is hard to draw the line that firmly.

“In The Name Of The Wolf” is a relatively expensive book for its size (125 pages) and does not really seem to contain many new insights. It is good that after Kershaw there are still people conducting research to Männerbünde” and warrior initiations of times passed though. Hebestreit seems to be a well-read and multi-lingual author since he not only refers to titles written in German, but also titles written in French and even some Scandinavian titles. The largest part of the bibliography is in German though.

The author seems to like the term ‘rites de passage’. Since he quotes Eliade, I am sure he knows that a ‘rite de passage’ is not the same a an initiation into a warrior bond.

That said, Hebestreit tells a story in which Celtic warriors go down not so much a Wicker Man, but a wicker-wolfs-head during their initiation. He refers to Roman authors, Teutonic sources, a range of anthropologists and investigates the meaning of the wolf in ancient societies onwards to more recent one (after Christianisation).

I like to think that I read German, actually I frequently do, but somehow a text of a century old is easier to me than a recent one. Also in the little book of Hebestreit I have the feeling that I miss a lot of details and nuances and I feel incompetent to go into his theories in detail. Therefor I will refrain to informing you that there is another book about Medieval warrior initiations which may not bring much really new, but there sure are elements that were new to me.

2013 Lit Verlag, isbn 9783643801562

The Grail – two studies – Alexander Jacob (2014)

And again Numen Books comes with an interesting title. This publisher is quickly developing the good habbit of publishing books about subjects that are (just) off the map for other publishing houses, while remaining within (relatively) scholarly fields. Books by (mostly) scholars about not-too-popular subjects so to say. Readable, nicely presented and thought-provoking too.

The present title promises “two studies” of the subject of the Grail. Alexander Jacob found a not too famous essay of Leopold von Schroeder (1851-1920) that this Estonian scholar published in 1910 in the German tongue. Jacob added an essay of similar length of himself making a book of a little under 300 pages. Von Schroeder’s and Jacob’s approaches are alike and when you expect 300 pages about the Grail, you might be disappointed. Both authors wrote massive pieces of comparitive mythology in which the Grail might be the final subject, but it is not touched upon that much. Von Schroeder describes a lot of Indian mythology -and here and there compares it to other mythologies- to show that the Grail is actually a vessel representing the sun.
Jacob goes a step further. He also uses mostly Indian mythology to go beyond the sun-vessel idea to find phallic symbolism at the basis of most mythology and -of course- most particularly the stories surrounding the Grail.
Both authors come up with a staggering amount of comparisons that I do not always find too convincing. Both indeed make a more than a few interesting remarks and make ‘un-Dumézilian’ conclusions that invite to rethink my own limited approach. Jacob also critices Von Schroeder in a somewhat annoyingly pedatic tone like by saying Von Schroeder (or Evola) is wrong, rather than he has a different opinion himself. Both authors make some slips when referring to Germanic mythology, but since they both seem to have Indian mythology as speciality, I asume the information there is all valid. The bottom line is that the source for both authors lays in the Far East (or perhaps a little futher back in time) and it is from that staring point, elements of the Grail stories are explained.

Like I said, another interesting new Numen book for those who like some good old comparitive myth.

2014 Numen Books, isbn 9780987559890

The Mystery Of The Grail * Julius Evola (1994/7)

Well, this is a different kind of book of our Italian thinker. Quite like in the book of Koenraad Logghe (1997), we have here a Traditionalistic approach to the grail legends. Evola compares the grail stories to several mythologies, sometimes the same as Logghe. Evola also finds initiation symbolism in the stories, but he traces the sources further back. This comparitive method makes quite a nice read and however I cannot follow the author all the time, he makes some interesting points. Towards the end the grail stories start to make up less and less of the text and Evola passes through Hermeticism and Rosicrucians to Ghibellism, a subject that pops up in more of his works. He also sets out against Guénon and his ideas about Freemasonry and thus suddenly ends a book about the grail with a lot lot of different paths.
Overall the books make a nice read, but I have the idea that Evola lost structure and felt the need to tread different sidepaths all at the end of the book. He once more shows himself an interesting thinker, but in several opinions, Evola runs off wildly from my own ideas. No worries of course, Evola has more sides that I do not follow him with.
1996 Inner Traditions, isbn 0892815736

How To Kill A Dragon * Calvert Watkins (1995)

This is something different! I have used the category “comparitive mythology”, but in fact this is “comparitive poetry”. The author uses the same texts as, let me say, Georges Dumézil, but where Dumézil compares what the texts say or imply, Watkins compares the texts themselves; the words, word-order, conjugations, etc. Watkins’ focus is the Indo-European realm and his aim is to show that Indo-European languages are comparable (and hence have a common source). Where investigators of myth and faerytale find “themes”, Watkins finds “formulas”; basic sentences that he finds in many different texts from many different parts of the world. One such formula is “HERO SLAY SERPENT”. Therefor Watkins compares dragon-slaying myths in many parts of his book.
The book is very technical and probably meant for fellow linguistics, so there are large parts that I just skipped through since I could not grasp what the author was talking about. More interesting to me are the many, many quotes from all kinds of Indo-European texts, expecially when the authors sets them side by side. Also interesting are the parts in which Watkins takes one ‘family’, such as German or Irish, and teaches his readers about that language by comparing it to others (especially the discussion of the Germanic word “bani” around page 420 and the “bone to bone, blood to blood, etc.” parts of the Mersebürger Zaubersprüche on page 523/4).
Quoting Eliot T. Bundy on page 116, Watkins summarizes his field of investigation:

‘What is required … is a thorough study of conventional themes, motives, and sequences … in short, a grammar of choral style … [reflecting] systems of shared symbols … ‘. these poems are ‘the products of poetic and rhetorical conventions whose meaning … is recoverable from comparitive study’. And in conclusion, ‘in this genre the choice involved in composition is mainly a choice of formulae, motives, themes, topics, and set sequences of these that have, by convention, meaning not always easily perceived from the surface denotations of the words themselves … we must … seek through carefull analysis of individual odes to the thematic and motivational grammar of choral compositions’.

Watkins is (fortunately for me) mostly interested in myth and ritual and quoting so many of them, he cannot always just focus on the words themselves, so here and there the book is more comparitive myth, like in the nice paragraph about apples that heal snakebites on page 427.

Something different indeed, but a field of investigation that might interest people who enjoy comparitive myth and similar fields. Watkins’ book makes a nice introduction.
1995 Oxford University Press, isbn 9780195144130

The Origins Of The World’s Mythologies * E.J. Michael Witzel (2012)

A new approach in the field of comparative myth! Where Mircea Eliade created the discipline of comparative myth and Georges Dumézil structured Indo-European mythology, Witzel largely breaks with both these authors and takes several steps ahead and takes a path in which he stands alone so far and from which many things have yet to be worked out. A brave step in the conservative world of scholarship. Witzel uses different disciplines to come to his conclusions, most notably linguistics, genetics and comparative myth; an approach that he coined “historic comparative myth”. Along the lines of genetics, linguistics and archeology scholars know what peoples came from where and from what predecessors. Witzel uses these trails to compare the mythologies. Genetics has found out that all current humanity stems from one mother. Not that there was one couple at some point, it is just the descendants of other lines did not make it. Linguists are by now beyond groups such as Indo-European and Semitic and have found overarching language groups like Nostratic. Witzel takes his comparative mythology yet another step further (initially, and then a couple more) by reaching a family that he calls “Laurasian”. What is not Laurasian mythology today is “Gondwana” which is in fact the origin or Laurasian mythology. Our common female ancestor is called the “African Eve” and her descendants left Africa (the ‘out of Africa’ theory) some 65.000 years ago and then spread around the world. Along that path Laurasian mythology was developped, other peoples sticked to the Gondwana type. Witzel says to be fairly able to reconstruct the Laurasian “story line” and by comparing Laurasian myth to non-Laurasian, he even catches glimpses of Gondwana mythology. More even, what is common in both, will eventually be the ultimate source of all mythologies: “pan-Gaean”, into which the author gives a peek as well.
Witzel’s book is not a ‘comparative myth’ book, but a book in which Witzel explains and builds his theory. He also looks at (possible) counterarguments and deals with questions that are left. Indeed, his theory is a theory in childhood, but after 20 years of investigation, Witzel found it time to present it to the world and have his colleagues stab at it.
I suppose the book will raise quite some resistance. Linguistics say that reconstruction of language beyond a few thousand years is impossible and Witzel has to work with reconstructions based on reconstructions (of language and mythology) to go back tens of thousands of years. The book makes staggering jumps in time and, like I said, leaves little of the theories of Eliade and especially Dumézil, but it does confirm with my Traditionalistic outlook (in a way) that there is a common origin of everything. “The Origins Of The World’s Mythologies” makes an interesting read with tons of little facts and comparisons and a fresh, new theory to think about.
2012 Oxford University Press, isbn 9780199812851