Category Archives: comparative religion

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.

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