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comparative religion

Patterns in Comparative Religion – Mircea Eliade (1949/1958/1996)

Eliade wrote so much, there that are still titles out that that I have not yet read. This is an early one. Initially published in French in 1949, translated to English in 1958 and having been available in print since. It is a large work of 480 pages.

The book is divided over chapters, but mostly the paragraphs that we got to know Eliade for. So any edition or any translation can simply refer to ‘paragraph 109’. The book seems to contain all subjects that Eliade would come back to later in his long writer career. The sacred and the profane, sky and sky-Gods, the sun and sun-worship, the moon, the waters, stones, earth, vegetation, agriculture, the centre of the world, sacred time and symbols. His paragraphs go from subsubject to subsubject constantly shooting examples at the reader from any place in the world to any time in history. Eliade was a walking encyclopedia!

Because many subjects and example are rather folklore than (for example) mythology, I started to get worn off by the constant rapid fire. It is highly interesting to read about all the comparisons and different examples, but often they are mentioned, not (deeply) explained. This makes Patterns perhaps more of a reference book. Indeed there is a descent index and an extensive table of contents.

every magico-religious object or event is either a kratophany, a hierophany or a theophany.

Not everything that Eliade stressed in the present title, got as much attention in his later works, but we sure can see the basis for his later works in Patterns and perhaps that is the main reason to read it.

1949 Traité d’histoire des religions, 1958 Patterns in Comparative Religion, my edition 1996 Bison Books, isbn 9780803267336

Images And Symbols – Mircea Eliade (1952/1991)

There are still works of Eliade that I have not read. This is good. Images and Symbols (original title Images et Symboles) reads a bit like a collection of essays, but it appears to have been written as a book.

In the preface Eliade writes about the rediscovery of symbolism. This rediscovery he mostly attributes to his friend and colleague Carl Jung (see Religion After Religion). This psychological approach is not for me and fortunately it is not everywhere that present. The (re)discovery is present among “laymen” who usually are presented with bad literature.

There are about “Symbolism Of The “Centre””, “Indian Symbolisms of Time and Eternity”, “The “God Who Binds” and the Symbolism of Knots”, “Observations on the Symbolism of Shells” and “Symbolism and History”.

Each chapter has a couple of shorter texts. As we know Eliade we go from Eastern religion to ancient mythology and back. Also Western religion and mythology are mentioned. Eliade apparently thought he had to be careful not to be mistaken. When mentioning elements of Christianity and Shamanism in the same sentence, he explains (over and again) that he does not intend to imply that there are Shamanic elements in Christianity.

Images and Symbols is a typical work of Eliade. It makes a great read. Most subjects can also be encountered in other works, but in the present title there is some more stress about his methodology.

1991 Princeton University Press, isbn 069102068X

Universal Aspects Of The Kabbalah And Judaism – Leo Schaya (2014)

Of course there have been (and are) more Traditionalists than the handful I have reviewed before. I ran into a reference to Schaya who was a Traditionalist who wrote from a Jewish perspective. This is interesting, because Islamic and Vedantic approaches are much more common.

Schaya (1916-1986) was a Swiss from Polish parents who spent much of his life in France. His parents were non-practising Jews, but as a boy, Schaya was captivated by the mystical aspects of that religion. On encountering Frithjof Schuon, he moved to a Traditionalist perspective.

Schaya wrote mainly in French, also in German, but not many of his writings have been made available in English. The current title contains a collection of essays and talks, some of which had been translated before, some had not.

Schaya indeed proves to have a ‘very Traditionalist’ perspective. Fond themes appear to be the appearance of God to Moses and his people on the mount Sinai and the earlier encounter of Moses with the burning bush. Schaya brilliantly explains these famous Biblical events in quite a ‘Guénonian’ way with constant references to Jewish terminology. He dives into the depths of Jewish theology coupled with Kabbalah. Along his way, he frequently refers to Vedanta, but a lot more to Islam and Sufism, making comparisons and explaining aspects of either system with references to the other and both he exoteric and esoteric sides. Creation, the name of God, large subjects are dealt with with interesting perspectives.

The introduction of Patrick Laude says that many people find Schaya’s writing style difficult. I personally find him more easily to read than some of the books I read recently and even easier than Schuon.

All in all I find Schaya a very interesting author, so I am going to see what other works of his are available in English.

2014 World Wisdom, isbn 1936597330

Religion After Religion – Steven Wasserstrom (1999)

An investigation into three big names in the “history of religion”: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Anton Corbin. Wasserstrom himself seems to posit himself in that field as well and closely investigates Scholem, Eliade and Corbin in order to be able to take the next step in the history of religions.

Scholem, Eliade and Corbin knew each other, they influenced each other, they had similar influences, but also they differed from each other. A meeting point of the three Wasserstrom takes as focal point; the annual Eranos meetings where academics met around a certain ‘program’.

The book is both biographical and deeply investigative into the thought of the three scholars. They had similar contacts and influences, some perhaps somewhat unexpected. Each has its own field. Scholem -of course- mostly focussed on Judaism, Corbin on Islam and Eliade was more of an all-rounder.

Wasserstrom tells his readers where the three academics found their inspiration, where they looked for answers and looks into their religions and esoteric (even initiatic) filiations. Also he takes up a few themes that can be found in the work of the three named authors.

Renaissance thought, perennial philosophy, Christian Kabbala, antinomianism, Goethe, (anti-)modernism, nationalism, Wasserstrom does not just scratch the surface and does not shy away from more difficult subjects. Even though he admires all three, some sides of for example Corbin he obviously finds dangerous.

“Religion After Religion” will give you context and background of these three famous authors in the field of the history of religion, partly also elements that are not so clear when you read their books yourself. He works towards the question if the history of religions is or was a child of its time, what the relevance of it could be today and how the approach can develop.

1999 Princeton University Press, isbn 0691005400

European Paganism – Ken Dowden (2008)

The author apparently wanted to make an overview of literal evidence for pre Christian practices all over Europe. His area goes from the far North to Greece and from Ireland to the Easternmost parts of Europe.

The subjects are thematic. Landscape, elements of that landscape, statues, shrines and temples, rituals, calendar, Gods, priests and important points in life and in the year.

The book reads a bit like the mythology books of 150 years ago. As in: ‘The Romans did this and the Slavs this.’ Dowden mostly uses written sources and looks at them critically. For Germanic information he mostly uses Jan de Vries.

So “European Paganism” became a bit of an inventory. You can check what sources are available on a wide variety of subjects and in many cases Dowden sketches how credible the source is. There is not much new information, but some of his sources are not the best known.

Dowden does refer to Dumézil and his theory several times and here and there has an uncommon opinion such as stating that Thor in many cases is the God of the Thing (p. 286).

Even though the author seems positive critical towards paganism and shows the colored information from Christian sources, he does say on page 2017: “If, on the other hand, we are convinced, as I am, that the pagans were wholly deluded in supposing various gods to exists and that ontologically, in the cruel light of day, they were worshipping nothing.”

2008 Routledge, isbn 0415474639

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.

A few short chapters are dedicated to Chinese and Indian alchemy and of course you will read about Western alchemy as well.

The Forge and the Crucible is very much an ‘Eliade book’ and will make an interesting read to people who enjoy the author, but also to those who like another take on the subject.

1956 (first edition), 1978 (second edition) The University Of Chicago Press, isbn 0226203905

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.

The most interesting part is the beginning. Guénon finds it odd that all trinities are so easily compared, while they are not. He makes a difference between trinities in which the two emanate from the one, like in T’ai Chi -> T’ien and Ti; and trinities in which two bring forth a third, father, mother -> son. Then -of course- there are less clear trinities, such as Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

But there are also ‘ternaries’ in the book, heaven and earth, solve and coagula, etc. and representations of them such as Yin and Yang, the double spiral and more.

Indeed, The Great Triad is another of Guénon’s books about symbolism, a type that I enjoy a lot. Of course you will also run into his Traditionalist ideas with -for example- a chapter about “Distortions on modern philosophy”.

The book is available from both publishing houses I named before. My copy has the following information:

1991 Quinta Essentia, isbn 1870196074

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.

Then it comes. The author mostly uses Dumézil to say that Germanic society did not have a ‘first function’ and the entire society revolved around passion and blood-lust. The warrior class worked themselves up and became the “first function” in the scheme of Dumézil, the second were the farmers, the third the slaves. The Gods were warrior Gods and even the afterlife was all about fighting.
Apparently Van Abspoel missed Odin’s role as a seeker of wisdom and that of magician. Where are Balder and Forseti? What about the Goðar and Völva?
Even in the books of Dumézil the author could have found that Tyr and Odin are the Teutonic couple of sovereignty.
Still, the author is of the opinion that the adventure seeking Germans were the reason that the West grew to be anti-traditional. The thesis and the way Van Abspoel supports it are interesting, but I cannot get my head around the fact that a substantial part of the book is based on a onesided theory and a onesided use of Dumézil.
Rather than saying that Dumézil denied the existence of a sovereign “function” in Teutonic religion, Van Abspoel could have used Dumézil’s remark that the Teutonic pantheon ‘dropped half a function’ and that in society there was (indeed) a big role for the warriors, and worked from there. Now I do not believe Teutonic society was as bloody and anti-egalitarian as Van Abspoel describes it, but I may have been less annoyed by the founding of his theory based on half-read Dumézil.

That said, the ‘furor Teutonicus’ (according to the author) made Germanic tribes disregard tradition, because tradition is about harmony, which would hold back the adventurous Teutons. This way of looking at life, resulted in our hasty society with little regard of the past and the constant rat-race modern man is part of.

With the dawn of Christianity there initially was a return to a traditional way of looking at things (up until the Reformation). Van Abspoel describes how Jesus Christ did not so much try to do away with everything there was and replace it with a new religion, but rather how Christianity gave new color to certain traditions.

Van Abspoel is a fairly ‘technical’ writer. Perhaps his book is meant for a scholarly audience rather than the general public. He founds his theories with many details and there are many repetitions and cross-references in the book. With an approach that was new to me and a theory that I cannot entirely follow, this makes the book quite a touch read here and there.
The most interesting thing of the book, to me, is the way Van Abspoel approaches tradition and explains its importance, even in our own day and age.

As you can judge from the title, the book is written in Dutch, so the audience will be somewhat limited. Perhaps this is a title that Dutch-speaking readers of this website may put somewhere on a ‘future reading list’. It is perhaps too scholarly and little ‘practical’, but one that may make you reconsider some of your own ideas and that is always a good thing.

2016 Vantilt, isbn 9789460042713

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?

A sidenote for the faint-hearted. However friendly the current Dalai Lama is, the conversion from the various sorts of Bön to Buddhism was not always a very friendly traject and you will learn a thing or two about this part of history too. Also about current forms of Tibetan Buddhism by the way, so if this has your interest, this book might be for you too.

2008 Vajra Publications, isbn 9789937506113
See here for quotes from this book.