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comparative religion

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

Forgotten Truth * Huston Smith (1976)

Forgotten TruthI had not heard of this book, nor of the author before I noticed a reference to it in a book that I read recently. Apparently it was first published under the title Forgotten Truth: the Perennial Tradition, was reprinted under this title a couple of times and later republished under the title Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, because the “Perennial Tradition” in the title would lower the sales? In any case, Smith (1919-) is a scholar and author of the popular Religions Of Man/The World’s Religions and he follows the ideas of Traditionalists such as Guénon and Burckhardt. Interested in a book in this ‘low period’ of Traditionalism, I got this book which is both easy and cheap to get second hand. Smith obviously a scholar, mostly deals with contemporary subjects and why things are differently as we usually think. Evolution theory, the idea of progress and mostly the role of science in general are put in a different perspective. This might be interesting as an introduction for people who are looking for alternative ideas on a variety of still current subjects, but when you, like me, have read your share of ‘Perennial literature’, nothing much new is to be found here. Moreover, like I said before, I am not so much interested in this level of knowledge, I would love to run into something more metaphysically Traditionalistic. In any case, Forgotten Truth is a good introduction for Western thinking people. There is not all that much Tradition to be found, rather the hows and whys of the incorrectness of many modern ideas and theories. After that, you might want to learn more about religions and this author seems to be able to provide that too, but I have not read any of these works.
1976 harper & row, isbn 0060139021

Primordial Traditions Compendium 2009 * Gwendolyn Toynton (ed.) (2009)

Primordial Traditions Compendium 2009Primordial Traditions is a periodical that I did not know. They have collected their best articles from 2005 to 2009, most of which are by the hand of editor Gwendolyn Toynton. As the title suggests, this publication takes a Traditionalistic starting point and since “the term Primordial Tradition is utilized to describe a system of spiritual thought and metaphysical truths that overarches all the other religions and esoteric traditions of humanity” this book covers a wide variety of subjects, going from Hinduism and Buddhism, to Mithraism and Islam to “paganism” and of course Traditionalism. The editor does not seem to have exactly my idea of this “primordial tradition” when she says that: “Both the idea of the Primordial Tradition and the philosophia perennis attempt to establish common factors amongst different traditions, with the goal of producing a superior gnosis or level of wisdom than that which would have been obtained by the study of a single religion.” This sounds like that the primordial tradition can be created/obtained by cross-studying myth and religion while in my idea it stems from the Divine Source and is thus, per se, not ‘obtainable’. Some articles do not really seem Traditionalistic to me, Toynton seems to have a preference for far Eastern religion about which she writes articles about uncommon subjects. This is interesting in itself, but these peculiarities are, in my opinion, not seen in other cultures, so where is the Traditionalism? Also none of the articles is really good, most of them are interesting in subject and sometimes in angle of approach, but besides a few nice hints to think over or look for, I find this book more entertaining than studious. Several articles, moreover, contain ideas and statements that I disagree with and also there is an Evolian (stress on the second function) approach that I do not share. Inspite of all my critique, the Primordial Traditions Compendium is a nice read for people with an interest in comparitive myth and religion and people with an interest in far Eastern (especialy Tantric) traditions.
2009 Twin Serpents ltd. isbn 1905524323

Many Peoples Many Faiths * Robert S. Ellwood (isbn 0131830392)

Here we have a descent book for those who want a proper and clear overview of the greater worlds religions. This book is even used at schools.
It is divided in eleven chapters which each deal with a certain subject.
Chapter one deals with understanding religion in general:
Chapter two with prehistoric and tribal religions;
Chapter three with the spiritual paths of India;
Chapter four with Buddism;
Chapter five with east asian religions;
Chapter six with the three big monotheistic religions as introduction;
Chapter seven with Judaism;
Chapter eight with Christianity;
Chapter nine with Islam;
Chapter ten with new religious movements;
Chapter eleven with relgion in the lives of today and tomorrow.

Then there is also an appendix with tips on how to make a comperative study.

The book deals with a massive amount of religious movements and tells in short the story of the past, cultural influences, the present and possible future and the best part is that it always ends with a short summery with the following points:
-Basic world view (“how the universe is set up, especially in spiritual aspect – the map of the invisible world”);
-God or Ultimate Reality (“what the ultimate source and ground of all things is”);
-Destiny of the world (“where it all came from”);
-Origin of humans (“where we came from”);
-Destiny of humans (“where we are going”);
-Revelation or mediation between the Ultimate and the human (“how we know this and how we get to our ultimate reality”);
-What is expected of humans, worship, practices, behaviour (“what we ourselves must do”);
-Major social institutions (“how religion is set up to preserve and implement its teaching and practice: what kind of leadership it has; how it interacts with larger society”).

Especially this, makes the book extremely helpfull to fresh up your memory quickly or get to know something about a certain religion rapidly.

To give you an idea of the religions featured I will list the eastern Asian religious that are dealt with:
ancient China, Confucianism, Daoism, Chinese Buddism, traditional Chinese religion, Shinto, Japanese Buddism, Japanese Confucianism, Japanese new-age, Vietnamese religion.
And for example subjects in the India chapter: Hinduism, Ancient Aryans, the Upanishads, recent Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta, Tantrism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.

Great points about the book are:
-The “suggested reading” lists after every chapter;
-A large index to find something easily;
-The extraordinary beautiful photos of which are many to be found;
-Objective writing;
-Gigantic amount of information between the lines (many subjects are touched upon shortly beside the normally featured subjects);
-Good lay-out. When you have read the book or are busy in it, you will immediately recognize what part of a chapter you read, because the set-up is the same all throught the book.

A few minor points about the book.
-The format is very strange, almost squarely, which makes it hard to find a proper place on your bookshell.
-The writer doesn’t have a easily readable writing-style, it is not very appealing, long sentences, difficult words;
-The price. The paperback version (that I have) seems to be out of print and the hardcover costs $53,- at Amazon!

But all in all I find the book very helpfull and it is one of the best in this vein that I have seen so far. <15/10/00>

The King Of The World * René Guénon (2004)

le roi du monde 1927

This is one of the earlier books by Guénon and a thin one too. Only just over 100 pages and I read it in not even two hours. This may be due to the fact that I read an unpublished Dutch translation, but also it seems to me that this book is written in a much easier style than for example The Reign Of Quanity & The Sign Of Times. This book may be a good first title to read of this famous French “traditionalist”. Guéon starts with mentioning books by Ferdinand Ossendowski and Saint-Yves d’Alveydre which speak about the subterranean kingdom called Agarttha and the ‘king of the world’ ruling it. This is the starting point of 12 chapters with comparative symbology about for example “Shekinah and Metatron”, the Grail, “Melki-Tsedeq”, Luz, “The Omphalos and Sacred Stones”, to work towards “names and symbolic representations of spiritual centers” and “location of spiritual centers”. The King Of The World doesn’t have the negative tone of other of Guénon’s works, but also not the frequent and clear referrals to ‘the crisis of the modern world’ and the ‘sophia perennis’, but of course, these are also present. So in my opinion with this short book you will get a nice idea (and maybe even a ‘light version’) of what the writings of Guénon are about. Informative, written from a very distinct starting point and with information from a wide variety of religions and traditions.
(14/4/06 -4-)
Read quotes of Guénon here.
2004 sophia perennis * isbn 0900588543

Van Anima Tot Zeus * Maarten Timmer (isbn 9056373528 * 2001)

A book only for the Dutch-speaking among you, sorry.

“Van Anima Tot Zeus” is an encyclopedia for anyone interested in the subjects that you can find in these pages and more. 885 Pages, almost countless words and symbols varying from alchemy to psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, mythology, etc., etc. Even short biographies of persons, photos, images, explanations, cross-referances, etc., etc. Paging through the book learned me that is isn’t entirely all embracing, (but I suppose that would take several of such books), but there is a lot to be found here. Sometimes the writer and contributors took several pages to explain something, sometimes a few lines.

However expensive (almost E 66), this is actually a must-buy for anyone interested in the named subjects. <3/12/02>