comparative religion

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>

Symbols Of Sacred Science * René Guénon (2004)

symboles fondamentaux de la science sacrée 1961

This is a book that was published post-mortem, containing 75 articles in four different periodicals between the years 1926 and 1950. I ran into this book on the internet when I was writing an article and because yet another ‘Traditionalist clue’ came to me, an interest to deep into this current deeper was awoken within me. This book by Guénon is no easy read. To start with this is the first book of Guénon that I read. Maybe a Crisis Of The Modern World may have been a better starter, but things just didn’t go that way. The book opens with a magnificent article The Reform Of The Modern Mentality from which I quote opening my article about Traditionalism. Then follow a great many chapters explaining symbols, but this sounds a bit different from what you may expect. A few chapter-titles to illustrate what I mean: “The Sacred Heart and the Legend of the Holy Grail”, “The Language of the Birds”, “The Guardians of the Holy Land”, “Some Aspects of the Symbolism of the Fish”, “The Solstitial Gates” and “The Roots of Plants”. A ‘symbol’ can be a theme from mythology, a character in a story, a ‘visual symbol’ such as the Swastika, etc. Guénon really pierces through the surface of superficial explanations giving information of a whole lot of traditions, comparing, cross-referring and putting them against the other. The writer seems to suppose that the writers of the periodicals are well-informed in different traditions, giving Islamic or Hindu terms without (much) explanation. Fortunately I didn’t run into anything that I really never heard about, but I can imagine that people who haven’t different religions and traditions much, may need some kind of reference. Two points of comment about the book is that there could have been more images. Guénon often describes a symbol, but I would have been easier to just show it. Further there are many and lenghty notes which really do not help the well-readedness. Other than that, the English is clear, but Guénon had a very peculiar way of putting things, which undoubtely broke the minds of the translations often. Symbols Of Sacred Science is a book that keeps being of use. Many symbolisms come back in different chapters. This reduces the value of the book for reference purposes a bit maybe, but on the other hand, it becomes a bit of a learning book to get in ‘the Traditionalist way of thinking’. The publisher Fons Vitae has many more translations of Guénon (and also of other Traditionalist writers). This title is supposedly Guenon’s most important symbolism book, while Symbols Of Sacred Science is his most important metaphysical book.
(18/3/06 -4-)
Read quotes of Guénon here.

sophia perennis 2004 * isbn 0900588772

The Myth of the Eternal Return (isbn 0691017778) + Images and Symbols (isbn 069102068X * 1952) * Mircea Eliade * Mircea Eliade

I bought the Dutch translations of these books from the 1960’ies from one bookshop. The books appear to go together. Maybe I had too high hopes about these two books. I expected to get books with comparisons and explanations of symbols and symbology. In a way both books speak about these subjects, but not entirely the way I hoped. “The Myth…” speaks about archetypes in the Jungian sence and how these archetypes shaped mythology, religion and folklore. Eliade speaks about the repetition and periodicity of time and nature and how this led to anual feasts. Also a part is devoted to fate/karma. Is is an interesting little book, but there is a bit too much written about “primitive” African, South-American and far Eastern tribes while I hoped more Indo-European comparisons of myths and symbolism.
“Images And Symbols” partly covers the same ground as the other book, but is more focused on images and symbols. Again more in the sense of mythology, archetypes, the symbol of the centre (also in the other book), repetative time, etc. Nice is the part about the “god who binds” and the symbols of knots in different cultures. A long part is about shells for fertility and the last part is about water (floods, baptism, etc.). Again a nice book, but not exactly what I hoped for.
Read quotes of Eliade here.

Rites And Symbols Of Initiation * Mircea Eliade (1975)

birth and rebirth 1958

My 1975 copy doesn’t have an ISBN code, but since the book is still in print, I used the new cover and ISBN. This is another little book by Eliade, this time exploring the subject of initation. Eliade first speaks about puberty rites and later about “specialized initiations, which certain individuals undergo in order to trancend their human condition and become protégés of Supernatural Beings or even their equals.” (p. 129). As third sort of initiation, Eliade recognises the admittance to secret and/or esoteric groups and the becoming of shamans. As “historian of religion” Eliade gives many examples, comparisons, etc., but these are mostly from indiginous Australian groups. Here and there Eliade speaks of African tribes and even more seldomly about other groups, such as the Celtic and Germanic tribes. However the book is only 170 pages thick, Eliade is quite detailed (even though it is only “a bird’s eye view”) and informative. It is nice to hear of similar structures and symbols of initiations all over the world. I would have liked more focus on Northern European tribes, but you can’t have everything. Not as interesting as the other Eliade booklets that I reviewed earlier, but this writer remains one of my (current) favorites. Noticable are the first lines of the epilogue: “As we saw, modern man no longer has any initiations of the traditional type. Certain initiatory themes survive in Christianity, but the various Christian denominations no longer regard them as possessing the values of initiation.” (p. 132) But also here: “The only secret movement that exhibits a certain ideological consistency that already has a history, and that enjoys social and political prestige is Freemasonry. The other self-styled initiatory organizations are for the most part recent and hybrid improvisations.” (p. 133)
1975 Harper, isbn 0882143581 (26/7/06 -3-)
Read quotes of Eliade here.

Dictionnaire Des Religions * Mircea Eliade & Ioan P. Couliano (isbn 0060621516)

The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religion: The A-to-Z Encyclopedia of All the Major Religious Traditions

I found a nicely priced second hand version of the Dutch translation of Dictionnaire Des Religions book (1990) which became Wereldreligies In Kaart Gebracht. I believe it is the first book of the Romenian scholar Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) that I read. It is -so to say- a summery of the massive result of Eliades lifelong investigation of all the worlds religions. A book of not even 400 pages speaking of (almost?) every religion that you can think of, old or new, big or small. African religions to gnostic religions, mystery-religions, Eastern religions, name it, and this duo has a chapter or at least a paragraph about it. The book is divided in 33 groups which are each split up in paragraphs. There is a massive index referring to the paragraphs. Everything is -as Eliade wanted- put to readable (Eliade wanted something for the general public) that it really became “a novel of the worlds religions” as the preface puts it. So just try to lay your hands on this standard-work as well.
Read quotes of Eliade here.