Category Archives: comparative religion

The Forge And The Crucible – Mircea Eliade (1956/78)

I enjoy reading about alchemy and I love the books of Mircea Eliade. So how does it come that I did not read Eliade’s book about alchemy? Time to fix that!

The Forge and the Crucible is a relatively small book which is based on a paper that Eliade wrote as a student. In the second edition Eliade did not rewrite his book, but he did add a (not too interesting) essay on the latest developments in the research in the field.

Eliade’s book on “The Origins and Structure of Alchemy” (the subtitle) is not your usual book about alchemy. It has not many fancy images and does not try to explain alchemical symbolical drawings. Rather, Eliade approached the subject as a “historian of religions”. So he starts with religious views on meteorites and metals, continues with smiths and and metal-working in the iron age and only slowly works towards the period which most books about alchemy are about. Eliade collected information of a vast number of “primitive” societies and their metal-workings, offerings to the furnace and trance-induced visions. Smiths, warriors and eventually initiation. read more

The Great Triad – René Guénon (1991)

I was rereading some works of Guénon and there were several reverences to this book that I did not have. I could quickly get a cheap copy of it, so this is a title to add to my Guénon library. Most other books are published by Sophia Perennis, but this time I got a Quinta Essentia book.

As the cover of this version suggests, there is quite some ‘Chinese information’ in this book. The symbol is called Wang and the three horizontal lines Guénon connects to heaven, man and earth, the vertical line connects the three. Hence: a triad. There are many more references to (ancient) Chinese philosophy in this book.

Of course there are even more references to other traditions. Guénon went out for all different kinds of triads, such as the alchemical sulphur, mercury and salt; the Christian spiritus, anima, corpus and of course the Hindu Triratna. read more

Zingeving In Het Westen * Peter van Abspoel (2016)

I do not often buy books spontaneously, but when my eye fell on a cover with an image of the Berserkr of the Lewis chessboard together with the words “zingeving” (literally: ‘giving meaning’) and “strijdersethos” (‘warrior ethics’) my attention was caught. It quickly became clear that this is not my ‘usual literature’, but it appeared that the author has something to say about the importance of tradition and the loss of it. I decided to take it home.

The author is an anthropologist who spent much time in Africa. The subject of his investigations started to move more towards the West and Van Abspoel is of the opinion that he has such different view on certain developments in Western society, that he needed to write a book about it.

The book is divided in three parts, “tradition”, “warrior ethos” and “Christianity”.
In the first, the author explains what he means with the term “tradition” and what is it in his opinion. This part is interesting. Van Abspoel’s approach is somewhat ‘technical’ which brings another way of looking at the subject. There is a “non-reflexive” way of knowing that has to be transferred to the next generation in order to keep the world in sync with universal harmony. read more

The Everlasting Man * Gilbert Chesteron (1925/2012)

I heard of this book because Numen Books published it. Three are many, many different printings though and I got myself a cheaper one (2010 Martino Publishing). A good guess, because I did not really enjoy this book…

The book starts off alright with the author criticising our modern age with his pompous and humorous writing style. It soon becomes clear that this extraordinary and pompous style is his style. Here and there Chesterton is funny, but his style is usually very tiring. When we continue, he not only continuously sabers modernity, but also everything non-Catholic. Actually, the book is a massive apology of Catholicism. Not that he is entirely uncritical towards his own faith or completely negative about other religions, but with continuously returning arguments against -for example- polytheism and the validity of other religions “The Everlasting Man” was a tough book to get through.

To understand the nature of this chapter, it is necessary to recur to the nature of this book. The argument which is meant to be the backbone of the book is of the kind called the reduction ad absurdum. It suggests that the results of assuming the rationalist thesis is more irrational than ours but to prove it we must assume the same thesis.

(p. 122)

Good for a few laughs and on a few occasions to make you think, but I found the book not really enjoying.

2012 Numen Book, isbn 0987158112

Bө and Bön * Dmitry Ermakov (2008)

In spring 2014 I revisited the Karma Triyana Dharmacharkra monastery near Woodstock, NY (as a tourist) and of course visited the accomapying Namse Bangdzo Bookstore. The monastery is Tibetan Buddhistic, but my interest was caught by a small number of books about Bön, the pre-Buddhistic religion of Tibet. In two I thought to have found both some history, but also an ‘inside view’ of the religion itself. One of the books had a plus: it is not only about Bön! As you can see in the title of the book that is subject of this review, that is the one I brought home.
The book is massive in size (800+ pages) and content. Much of the information is new to me, so that makes the book extra overwhelming. There is no way I can sumerise the contents of this book, so I am only going to try to give you an idea of the content. A few things to start with. Me, and perhaps you too, thought that Bön is ‘the’ pre-Buddhistic religion of Tibet, but this is way too simply thought. There are many kinds of Bön springing from different periods and gurus. The author roughly divides these sorts of “prehistoric Bön”, “Yungdrung Bön”, “Bön Sarma” (or “new Bön”, a mix between Yungdrung Bön and Buddhism) and “mixed Bön” (which mixes all that came before with even other elements). The other term, Bө or Bө-Murgel, refers to the traditional religion of Siberia.

Ermakov has both studied and lived both traditions and came to the conclusion that they sprang from the same source. A source which he calls: “the prehistoric Bön of Eurasia”. This “prehistic Bön of Eurasia” reminds a lot of what scholars of comparative religion call the Indo-European religion. This makes the book even more interesting than I expected!

Ermakov starts with a little bit of history; or ‘a little bit’… This part is about 120 pages and spans thousands of years. It is interesting to see the author, who is a Russian scholar of comparitive religion, keeps his scientific approach, but does not shy stories of magical warfare, shares his ritualistic experiences and touches on different subjects that the Westerner would have dismissed as nonsense.
After the historical part, things get more structured and a lot dryer. Ermakov will tell you about a whole range of elements of both religions, the worldview, rituals, clothing, instrumentation, etc. and compare them, making cross-references to other religions here and there as well. This goes very much in-depth, with much detail and mixed with personal encounters and quotes from his diaries. This is all interesting enough, but frequently these descriptions of the two shamanistic religions ring major bells with my Germanic background, even some of the very vague Germanic notions as those of certain souls, Heilagr and the like. I am going to try to find some noteworthy quotes for the quotes section.
The book ends with more history, the spread of Bön and Bө.
There is a very handy glossary and the index is nicely detailed. A great book with a very interesting approach to comparitive religion and instructive both about Bön (of which I knew little) and Bө (of which I knew nothing) and even Germanic heathenry and other Indo-European religions. Here and there Ermakov peaks ‘behind’ the Indo-European religion and sees common ground with for example the Mongol religion. That reeks a bit of Witzel, does it not? read more

Handbook of Contemporary Paganism * Murphey Pizza (2009)

Inspite of the promising title, this “Handbook Of Contemporary Paganism” is not a really interesting book. First the title might just as well have been “Handbook of Wicca” since in 90% of the places where terms like “paganism” or “neo-paganism” is named, it refers to Wicca. Hence paganism is predominantly a women-thing (feminist even), politically progressive, eclectic, focus lays on “the Goddess”, etc. Furthermore, a large part of the book is about magic. It starts with “The Modern Magical Revival” and continues with the influence of Aleister Crowley on Gerard Gardner, sexual magic in paganism and similar subjects. When the approach goes from historical to sociological, the focus becomes ‘other-scholarly’ when charisma, numbers of heathens and certain pagan ideas are investigated. It is this (to me) unusual approach that does give the book some merit.
Interesting are the editor’s essay about two (or three) generation pagans. How do pagan parents see their role? What place in the pagan society do children have? Also “Neo-pagan’s evolving relationship with popular media” (by Peg Aloi) has a few nice angles. There is even an article on the commerce of teen-pagan media (by Hannah E. Johnston). Rather irritating to think about, but very true.
Like I said, the book is mostly about Wicca (in various forms) and hardly touches upon other forms of contemporary paganism. When they are mentioned it comes in terms such as: “Among the former are a few sects of Norse Heathenry” (Sabina Magliocco on p. 236). Right… “Asatru” is usually only mentioned to say that there are different forms of paganism and then of course towards the end when we learn about “Racial-Ethnic Issues”. Ah yes, I had not missed the subject before I ran into it. Of course a subject not to be forgotten!
There is one article about “heathenry”, which is mostly about the Northern-European kind of paganism. In a nice article Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis speak about reconstructionism versus contemporary paganism, historical correctness versus applicability, and similar subjects that are indeed recognisable. There is a lot of focus on “Blót” and “Sumbel” which shows that the authors have mainly looked about American Asatru. Then there is again a whole part about magic (mostly “Seiðr”, but of course also runic divination) and it seems that they are not aware that this is not so common as they think.
Two essays worth mentioning are Dawne Sanson’s text about neo-Shamanism. Not so much because this subject interests me or even fits well within the book, but it deals well with ancient versus neo approaches, the view of the original practisioners, etc. Also a nice read is Robert J. Wallis and Jenny Blain’s article about “Pagan Engagements with Archaeology in Britain”.
To close off, an objection to the book is that all (or almost) of the writers are both scholar and practioner. Themselves they refer to their inside look, others see them as not independent. Personally I am not completely sure if I object or not, but I lean towards not. The very personal account of Susan Greenwood’s “Wild Hunt” experience was actually a nice read, however I find the ritual itself pretty silly.
All in all by and far not the ultimate book about contemporary paganism and definately not a “handbook”. Most essays are boring, some make nice reads. I do not know if the book is more interesting if you are interested in Wicca, but in that case you will have some 650 pages with history and interpretations.
2009 Brill, isbn 18746691

Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions * Mircea Eliade (1978)

Towards the end of his life, Eliade (1907-1986) decided to slightly rewrite and bundle a few essays that were initially intended to grow into larger works but never did and texts with not the most common subjects. From the description I understood that this work would be more on contemporary subjects which would be very interesting.
Indeed the book touches more upon Western subjects than most of Eliade’s works and there are references to relatively recent times, but it is not like this work is all about witchcraft and occultism in our present time. Yet, the first essays begins with the question: “what does a historian of religions have to say about his contemporary milieu?”; this essay investigates occultic influences in contemporary society (but not religious groups). It makes a nice read.
The second essays opens with a temporary anecdote, but continues to speak of the connection between building and the cosmos; this makes a ‘real Eliade’ piece with references to small tribes and history.
The following article is about mythologies and rites around death and then follows an interesting investigation of the rise of occultism in the late 19th century touching on Eliphas Levi, the Theosophical and similar societies and René Guénon. This is surely the most interesting essay of this collection.
Next up are “Some observations of European Witchcraft”. The author investigates why witchcraft would have been so popular during the time of the witch-craze, but also who actually ‘invented’ witchcraft.
The last essay is about sex-rites in different times and cultures.
Unfortunately this book is only 158 with a large part reserved for the bibliography and index. The essays are relatively long, but some where out before I knew it. It was nice to read about the ideas of this famous author about subjects that I have experience with myself. The texts somehow seemed more ‘distant’ than some other of Eliade’s works, but however he does not say it directly, Eliade indeed seems to have admired Guénon.
A nice little book to read some time!
1978 University Of Chicago Press, isbn 0226203921

Paths To Transcendence * Reza Shah-Kazemi (2006)

A promising subject for a book, a Traditionalist investigation of three ‘mystics’ from three different religions, the Hindu Shankara, the Muslim Ibn-Arabi and the Christian Eckhart. I thought to know the author of this book from the Luvah journal, but apparently I had ran into him somewhere else. In any case, Shah-Kazemi’s book proves to be one of those typical contemporary Traditionalistic works; overly academic with all kinds of new words and sentences such as: “The dualistic mystic, on the other hand, sees himself in existential subordination to the Lord in all but the unitive state; the ontological distinction between the two entities thus remains insuperable.”

The investigations of the three ‘mystics’ is much more academic or perhaps even philosophical from what I hoped to encounter. Especially in the three chapters entirely dedicated to one of the ‘mystics’ I frequently lose track in all the details and apparent sidesteps. When the three authors are compared lateron, things get more interesting. Ironically, towards the end Kazemi introduces a couple of philosophers (I am no big fan of philosopy) who wrote against mysticism and Kazemi uses the teachings of the three ‘mystics’ to parry the remarks and this part was nice to read. But the book goes on and on and only here and there catches my attention positively.

I guess this book is more interesting to people who are interested in Shankara, Ibn-Arabi and Meister Eckart than to people who are looking for a Traditionalistic approach to the trio.
2006 World Wisdom, isbn 0941532976

Man And Time * Joseph Campbell (editor) (1957)

A while ago I was looking for a new title of Mircea Eliade. I ran into “Man and Time”, a title with essays of a variety of authors including Eliade. My eye fell on the names Gilles Quispel and Gerardus van der Leeuw, which made the title even more interesting. Oh yes, Carl Gustav Jung is also in it. Oh well. When I received the book I saw that it has been published in a series (number 3) as English versions of the famous Eranos Jahrbücher, so certainly Jung was in it! I never knew that these Eranos books were available in English. “Man And Time” contains texts from the meetings of 1949 and 1951.
The Eranos group was a group of scholars who came together once a year. I always thought that these meetings took place in the house of Jung and that the scholars were psychologists with a black sheep here and there. Actually it was a group of scholars of a varried breed, meeting in the house of Olga Froebe-Kapteyn with as goal to get to know each other’s disciplines and learn from each other’s insights. A good initiative!
“Man and Time” contains lectures of Henry Corbin, Erich Neumann, Henri-Charles Puech, Louis Massignon, Helmut Wilhelm, Helmuth Plessner, Max Knoll, Adolf Portman and the authors that I already mentioned. You get very different views on the concept of time. From the concept of time in different religions/currents (Gnosticism, Puech; Patristic Christianity, Quispel; Islam, Massignon; Mazdaism and Ismailism, Corbin; Indian thought, Eliade and the I Ching, Wilhelm), relations between time and art (Neumann) and time and death (Plessner) and a highly scholarly scientific history of Knoll. The latter is so technical that I have not even read it entirely, but Knoll perfectly shows what the Eranos group is all about when he flies from psychology to biology to mythology to meteorology.
I personally prefer the Eliade approach with mythological time and Gerardus van der Leeuw at the end has a very nice lecture of primordial time. A thing to note is that this book contains Jung’s famous text On Synchronicity and I must say that in most essays the psychological undertone is quite heavy, so my prejudice was not entirely unfounded. Nonetheless an interesting book to read when you are interested in scholars who threw away their blinders.
1957/1983 Bollingen, isbn 0691097321

Modern Paganism In World Cultures * Michael Strmiska (editor) (2005)

Michael Strmiska is a scholar with a genuine interest in contemporary paganism. He is one of the founders of the World Congress Of Ethnic Religions and when the congress was held in Belgium I met Strmiska. Even though this book is only of 2005 it is sold out and an expensive buy nowadays. Strmiska wrote a lengthy introduction about modern paganism and the investigation of it. He tries to clear some misunderstandings from the first pages. After the introductionary chapter an essay follows of Sabrina Magliocco about American Stregheria and Wicca. Stregheria is traditional Italian witchcraft en Magliocco investigated American immigrees and how they (re)connect to their ancestral prechristian faith. Similar essays about Druidry in contemporary Ireland (Jenny Butler), Asatru: Nordic paganism in Iceland and America (Strmiska and Baldur Sigurvinsson), The revival of Ukrainian native faith (Adrian Ivakhiv) and an essay about Romuva (Lithuanian paganism by Strmiska and Vilius Dundzila) fill the pages of the book. All investigators did extensive “field investigations”, meaning that they visited the groups they write about, spend time with them and were a part of them. The red thread is the problem of reviving an old religion in a modern world, the broken thread, the considerations of the practitioners, the meaning of authenticity, ethnicity, etc. The essays give some historical perspective, but they are mostly focussed on the current heathen, saying something about the festivities, rituals, habbits, ways of recruiting and keeping contact, attracting members, bonds with kindred groups, etc. More than once the bad name of heathenry because of political misuse is written about. The last essay kind of sums up all that came before. It is about pagans in the American army (written by Stephanie Urquhart) with their particular problems. This last essay is also the broadest of the book, since it does not focus on a particular group. Here Wiccas are interviewed alongside with Asatruar, Nova Romas and the like. The last essay is also interesting because it holds a mirror to some often (thought of) typical pagan ideas which gives a nice perspective.
The book is a nice read, even though I find it hard to relate to 90% of the interviewed people. Sometimes I just do not get how they got to their particular kind of paganism, at other times I have my doubts about their considerations. It is interesting to see how other people answer questions that I also ask myself though, but it proves that most of the groups out there would be nothing for me and this also goes for the so-called “Asatru” groups. Because the books says nothing about groups in my own area, actually nothing about the whole of Northern Europe save for Iceland and Ireland, I figured I would make a little introduction myself for Strmiska’s next book (France, Germany and the rest of Scandinavia would be interesting too of course).
A nice book which there are too few of. I hope it will be reprinted some time soon, so you can also read it for a normal price.
2005 ABC-Clio, isbn 1851096086