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Reformation, Revolution, Renovation – Lyke de Vries (2021)

The dissertation of De Vries (1990-) on the Rosicrucians for her philosophy study in Nijmegen was turned into an academic publication on the esteemed publisher Brill. This makes this yet another expensive publication, but apparently Brill wanted to make this book better available, since you can download a free version on the book through the publisher’s website.

When I got the book I wondered if it would bring any new information. There have been classic and detailed publications about the subject, also from my own country. Think Carlos Gilly, think Govert Snoek; recently I read Tobias Churton. Actually, De Vries indeed did dive into a hardly explored element of the subject: the Rosicrucian call for a general reformation.

Universal reformation is by definition all-embracing and encompasses a wide range of activities, including plans to reform, amongst others, religion, politics, philosophy, medicine, and education. (p. 22)

Thus De Vries sets out to investigate what reformation(s) the Rosicrucians stood for. Contrary to other authors, De Vries is of the opinion that Rosicrucians were not Lutheran. She compared the manifestos and the people who (presumably) wrote them and compared them to Lutheran (“millennialistic” / “chiliastic”) texts and concludes that there are big differences. The most important being that Rosicrucian texts are actually optimistic as they hint towards a golden time after the end of the world.
This optimism also shows in the political area.
Philosophy, medicine and education are in grave need for reformations. Based on Paracelcus, but mostly followers of Paracelcus, new ways of medicine and theology are supported.

De Vries not only looked at the manifestos and other writings of Johan Valentin Andreae (1586-1654) and Tobias Hess (1568–1614), she also looked at the early responds in detail. This way it becomes obvious that everybody read the manifestos in a different way. One respondent picks elements to support his own agenda, another one does the same. This way the “Rosicrucian furore” becomes somewhat confusing. It certainly was not a homogenous movement.

Lyke de Vries’ book takes you on a journey through 16/7th century thinking. Sometimes radical, sometimes provocative. A world in transition where reformers clash with the establishment, an establishment that some are part of themselves. The book is mostly a ‘history of ideas’ so to speak.

Indeed, a somewhat different angle to the subject. Reformation, Revolution, Renovation The Roots and Reception of the Rosicrucian Call for General Reform makes an interesting read.

2019 Brill, isbn 9004250220

The Invisible History Of The Rosicrucians – Tobias Churton (2009)

Another Churton, and I have bought yet more. Obviously, in this book Churton takes a look at the Rosicrucians, a history often told.

As in his other works, Churton used recent (and less recent) scholarly publications, especially those of Carlos Gilly and Susanna Åkerman. He frequently refers to the Ritman Library (aka Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica aka Embassy Of The Free Mind). Churton is connected to the Exeter University where there is a seat for Western Esotericism. Still Churton does not read ‘dry scholarly’, quite the contrary actually. I have just started a very recent academic publication about the Rosicrucians and Churton does not even seem to be a source there. Does he move just outside the usual suspects of Rosicrucian scholars?

It is not like his book is one of those popular ‘alternative history’ books with much spectacle and little substantiation. And even though -more than in his other books- he uses other publications for his information, there is also again his own information and approach.

Churton puts the Rosicrucian furore in a bit of a cadre. astronomy (supernovas), upcoming science, radical individuals and groups, etc. Even though he looks at people and how they relate to each other his conclusion is that there was no Rosicrucian brotherhood. This is somewhat annoyingly repeatedly stressed towards the end.

What there was were people with ideals, certain interests, people who saw that the world was running in the wrong direction. Not even central among them was Johan Valentin Andreae, the author of the Fama, the Chemical Wedding, perhaps also of the Confessio, but also of a load of other writings that are often left aside by authors on Rosicrucian history. Churton does look at Andreae’s other writings and thus paints an interesting picture in which the Rosicrucian craze is a bit of an embarrassment for Andreae. The manifestoes were not published at Andreae’s wish, but because somebody got hold of a copy and took it to a publishing house. What Andreae was really after and what the publication of the manifestoes thwarted rather than helped is something you get an idea of reading Churton’s book.

Of course there was more to the Rusicrucian furore than Andreae and there was much more to Andreae than Rocrucianism. Churton describes how thinkers such as Andreae, but also Jan Amos Comenius and others saw the need of a reformation much wider than the Reformation, a development that just may have influenced the ‘start’ of early Freemasonry.

Towards the end of the book the author starts describing ‘neo-Rosicrucian’ organisations and people. This is a bit of a history of Western esotericism after 1730. “Fringe” Freemasonry (Churton seems to see ‘high grade’ Freemasonry as “fringe”), famous esotericists, Rosicrucian groups, Crowley, all things mildly related and yet very much unrelated as there was no historical Rosicrucian brotherhood, fills the last chapters of the book.

Churton paints a bit of a larger picture than what you are often presented. Especially more of the person of Andreae was an interesting read. All in all, I do not think I learned a whole lot of things new. Churton’s book is a bit of an ‘easy read’ about the subject, a bit of an updated Frances Yates so to say. If you want a not too dry book about the subject with fairly updated information, scholarly in background and easier to get than academic publications, this could be a title to look at.

2009 Inner Traditions, isbn 159477255X

The Magus Of Freemasonry – Tobias Churton (2004)

Here we have Churtons biography of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) “Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society”. Both Ashmole and Churton have lived in the city of Lichfield and Churton took it upon himself to not only clear the name of Ashmole of centuries of misinformation, but also to sift through archives for new information. The result is the interesting story of an interesting man.

After an introduction, we start in Ashmole’s early years of course. He had an overly stern father and a mother who tried to help him become an independent thinker within the range of her possibilities. Ashmole left his parental house as soon as he could (with a little help from his mother) only to loose his mother to the plague shortly after. This sets the tone of a life with highs and lows.

Ashmole lived in troubled times. There was a political war in which he served what later turned out to be the losing side. The Reformation took hold of religious life and its churches. There was the mentioned plague. Last but not least, the witch-craze started to develop as well, which made it hazardous to be interested in things such as alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the like.

Ashmole was mostly an antiquarian. He gathered information and objects and initially gathered that in books, towards the end of his life, he was found the very first public museum. Especially his successful book about the Order of the Garter made his name. He was quite familiar with other antiquarians and intellectuals of his time and had a bunch of long time friends even though he lived across the country.

Ashmole married three times, two wives he outlived. He could not really be without a partner, both for emotional and for financial reasons. He remained on good standing with his families in law, especially the first. He was even initiated into “Free Masonry” in 1646 together with a nephew of his first wife who had long passed.

The author looks at people close to Ashmole painting an interesting picture of early Freemasonry, but also of other pursuits that Ashmole was involved in, such as the Royal Society. Later in his life his name of “magus” did not have the negative marking it was likely to have in his days and even resulted in him being given a large part of the diaries of his big hero John Dee (1527-1608).

The not-so-good name that Ashmole still has, mostly comes from unjust legal actions against him. Some of his former family in law kept coming with new lawsuits over things that had been settled, but worse for his name was the incident in which he was given a large collection of rarities of a fellow collector, while by the time the man had died, his widow would accuse Ashmole of theft and also sue him. This suggestion of unjustly having acquired a large part of what would later become the collection of the Ashmolean Museum still stains his name. Churton sheds more light on these events.

Elias Ashmole was an interesting man with ideas that our quite ‘far out’ in our own time, but were less so in his own days. Also he was ahead of his time in his capacity as antiquarian, scientist and scholar.

2004 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594771227

Satanism: A Social History – Massimo Introvigne (2016)

The Dutch academic publisher Brill has many interesting publications, but they are always so very expensive. The present title costs €201.00 / $268.00 when you get it from the publisher and that is the price for either the hardcover or the PDF. Amazon has it a wee bit cheaper $247.94. I was more lucky.

Introvigne’s book has been long in the making. In 1994 there was the initial Italian version and it has been revised, expanded and translated into French and Polish and eventually this came to be this English edition of 660 pages.

The definition that Inrovigne uses is the following:

From the perspective of social history, Satanism is (1) the worship of the character identified with the name of Satan or Lucifer in the Bible, (2) by organized groups with at least a minimal organization and hierarchy, (3) through ritual or liturgical practices.

The book features a section about black metal (“adolescent satanism”) which I was curious about, but of course there is more. Introvigne starts in the 17th and 18th century where the earliest forms of satanism can be found. Travelling through time he describes situations in Italy, England, Sweden and Russia. Then we move to the “classical satanism” period of 1821-1952 starting with Fiard and Berbiguier up until Eliphas Levi. Then follows the author Huysmans whose novels had a big impact on later developments. A whole chapter is dedicated to Leo Taxil and his hoax (speaking of which, the author seems to have a bit of an odd view of Freemasonry) and then we move closer to our own time with all kinds of groups and individuals.

Of course we pass Aleister Crowley (not a satanist in the author’s definition, but surely influential), Fraternitas Saturni, Wicca and what would a book about satanism be without Anton LaVey? LaVey’s Church of Satan knew a few schisms and these and separate groups are also dealt with.

A large part of the book is not about satanists, but people seeing satanism under every rock. “The Great Satanism Scare”, anti-satanism and the like. Actually, a too large part of this book is about perceived satanism. This does make the book a lot less interesting to me.

Then we finally have the part about black metal. It starts with an intro about “The Gothic Milieu”?? Then we have histories about the first bands, the second wave, individuals, of course the church burnings and killings, This part is mostly fragmentary and based on anecdotes. There is a lot that makes me think: “but that is not how I experienced it”. The author has some bands that I did not yet know and he quotes interviews. This mostly makes the scene a ‘I am more evil than you’ group. There are some subject discussions too, mostly between ‘LaVeyan’ thinkers and more ‘occult’ satanists.
This part brought back some memories, but I must say I did not find it very strong. (And it makes the current even more adolescent than I remember it.)

The last chapter is about satanic groups from 1994 and after. Most groups and people were unknown to me.

Introvigne refers to quite a few academic investigations into the subject. Apparently the subject appeals to some scholars.

All in all I find the book only mildly interesting. You do now learn a whole lot about the philosophies of most people and groups who are described. The book is mostly historical, or actually “social” as the title goes.

2016 Brill, isbn 9004288287

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

Autobiography – Adam McLean (2020)

  • history

Adam McLean (1948-) is the (in)famous man behind Alchemywebsite.com. I remember knowing that website for as long as I have access to the internet, so even when it was still hosted at Levity.com. This book shows why that recollection is correct.

Of course McLean did way more than hosting a website. He is probably best known for coloring Alchemical plates, but he published many, many Alchemical texts, wrote books himself, had some journals (the most famous of which is the Hermetic Journal), etc. etc.

Now that McLean is starting to become of age, he not only started to look back at his life, but also to sell his massive collections of book, tarot decks, paintings, drawings and whatever he collected during his life. And a collector he sure is. As an example. Quite late in his life McLean developed an interest in the art of tarot cards. In the next decade he collected several thousands of them!

The autobiography starts quite autobiographical. McLean was interested in electronic devices and chemics from a very early age. He experimented, created his own devices and picked up an interest in maths. Formal education did not quite bring what he hoped, so McLean started to look for other ways to pursue his interests. Needless to say that somewhere along the line, he got interested in Alchemy.

You can read how he prints his own books, what projects he worked on, how he met people such as Joost Ritman of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, conferences he organised and attended, the many times he moved residence, his experiments with early computers and indeed, how he created a website as soon the internet became available to the general public.

(Overly) active, even obsessive perhaps, McLean goes after anything that triggers his interest, being it surreal art, Jeroen Bosch, mathematics, magic, (al)chemy, etc. A driven man indeed and he still is. Also his entire life he tries to convince people that a more rational approach of his subjects is to be preferred, something which is not always received with applause.

The book is an amusing read. Here and there I got some context to history that I was (vaguely) aware of before, such as the founding of the Ritman Library. As the book continues, it becomes less autobiographical though and more a list of McLean’s numerous projects.

2020 Kilbirnie Press, isbn 979-8669905583

A Cultural History Of Tarot – Helen Farley (2009)

Suddenly I felt the need to look at the symbolism of the Tarot. I wondered if I should just buy different decks or a book with images of different decks. Well, I have found no book of the latter type, but there is an excellent website. Farley’s book seemed to be the closest to what I was looking for, so I got myself a copy.

Farley “is lecturer in Studies in Religion and Esotericism at the University of Queensland, Australia”, so it at least is a serious / academic work. As the title suggests, it is a history.

The author investigates several histories of Tarot, mostly mystical and comes to the conclusion that it developed from common card games in Renaissance Italy, more specifically the Visconti court. The card games of before did not have the trump cards that Tarot decks have, but there are three different sets from roughly the same time that do. The designs Farley traces back to the history of the Visconti family. For example, the card “tower” was called “La Torre”. Also on old decks this tower is destroyed by lightning. The Torre family was a family that the Visconti’s had problems with.

For many years Tarot was in fact but an extended card game. There is symbolism on the cards, but the esoteric interpretation of the cards, and thus, the use for divination, came many, many years later.

In her interesting book Farley not only gives the history of the game, but also puts the symbolism in a context. As the popularity of the game rose, new interpretations followed especially when the cards landed outside Italy. Farley describes the symbolism and the development of Tarot into an esoteric system.

The latter gives some history of esoteric currents that many readers may already be aware of. Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn, Westcott, Matters, Crowley and of course Waite are dealt with. Of course there is some highlight to their connections to Tarot, but there was little new here for me.

Farley does not shun treating modern Tarots and names many, many New Age type decks.

Not a book if you want to learn how to lay cards and interpret them. Farley’s book does offer a wonderful and sometimes fascinating history and shows that there are many variations in decks with different names for cards, different cards altogether, different numbering, different order, etc. What I was after myself, I also learned a bit about the development of the symbols of the cards too.

The book is fairly thin (270 pages) and about a third is notes, bibliography and the like, so do not expect a massive reference work. There are images from different decks, but only a handful and only in grey.

2019 Bloomsbury, isn 1788314913

The Last Heresy – Fabio Venzi (2019)

The two previous books of Venzi that I reviewed are great, esoteric Freemasonry, very Traditionalistic. His latest work is mostly historical.

As the subtitle says, the present title investigates: “The Catholic Church and Freemasonry. Three centuries of misconception, Satanism, Gnosticism and Relativism”

Especially in the first part of the book the author quotes publications from the Vatican on Freemasonry. I suppose that this compilation is interesting to some. It does seem a comprehensive overview, so this will be handy for people with an interest in the subject.

I only started to find the book more interesting when Venzi treats the different subjects to show how the Church misunderstands the subjects it accuses Freemasonry of and of course, how it misunderstands Freemasonry.

For defence, Venzi keeps referring to the very Christian Emulation Rite which I am sure he knows is only worked by a very small part of Freemasonry as a whole.

As I said, the book is mostly historical. I think a large part of Freemasonry does not care much what the Church says about them. Perhaps some in “regular” Freemasonry do. After the publication of the book talks between the Vatican and (some?) “regular” organisations has been started and I suppose this book can help in forming a picture and quick access to points from either side.

2019 Lewis Masonic – isbn 0853185662

Perfectibilists – Terry Melanson (2009)

  • history

This book was mentioned in Flowers’ book about the Fraternitas Saturni and I wanted to read a descent work about the Illuminati some day anyway. This one is presented somewhat as an ‘ultimate work’, so I got myself a copy. The title refers to the original name of the organisation that was rapidly replaced by a name that sounded better.

The author collected information about the Illuminati on his computer and in the early days of the internet made a website from these notes. Over the years Melanson got the name of Illuminati expert and he got requests to structure his information in a book. Well, the book actually looks like a printed-out website… It has many low-res images posted in the middle of the text. That may be good enough on a website, but it looks awful in a book, especially when also lengthy pieces of text are added to the images, sometimes even needing more than one page.

The book starts with history of the Illuminati, how Adam Weishaupt got the idea, how the organisation grew, split up and came to its end, etc. Several times the book gets this “look here: CONSPIRACY!” tone that I hoped a descent work about the Illuminati would avoid. The historical information is alright, but the book gets better in the parts about the structure and about the philosophy of the organisation.

There appears to be some irony in the book. Sure, the Illuminati conspired to gain influence in order to change society. They recruited well-off and influential people, many of them were also Freemasons. They never got really big though, the estimation has 2000 to 3000 members at its peak. For all the fuss about the New World Order that is so popular today, what the Illuminati actually seemed to try to accomplish are things that many nowadays rave about: global village, equality, freedom of speech, secularism.

That said, half of the book is filled with short biographies of known Illuminati. Some of the other appendices are mildly interesting. The texts of Weishaupt himself give a nice look into the man’s head and the parts about the workings of the organisation give an idea of it. The Illuminati were a secret society but certainly not an esoteric one. Weishaupt had nothing with religion, esotericism and only an interest in mystery traditions to learn how a secret society can influence society. The Illuminati were a political organisation whereas other organisations that they are often lumped together were/are not.

I guess I learned a thing or two about the Illuminati reading Melanson’s book, but to me it more seems like a collection of information, quite like when you look around the world wide web, than a structured book. Neither does it anywhere really seems to go into much depth. How did Weishaupt try to change society and into what direction? Why was there so much opposition when the direction that the Illuminati seemed to aim at was a direction that society was going into anyway? Who opposed the Illuminati and how? There is much more information about individuals involved in the organisation than in the organisation itself.

2009 Trine Day, isbn 0977795381

Arthurian Myths And Alchemy – Jonathan Hughes (2002)

I fell for the title, wondering how a writer would bring these subjects together. When I received the book I saw the rest of the title: “The Kingship of Edward IV” suggesting that this is a historical book. Indeed it is.

Actually the book is very interesting, but my mind has the habit of filtering out historical details and in a book such as this, it is already filtering while I read! Indeed, I am not good with reading detailed historical accounts and that is exactly what Hughes presents in this book.

As the title suggests, the book is about Edward IV (1442-1483). In the lengthy introduction the author sketches what came before (and a little after) him. Edward IV came to the throne at an early age. He was a very tall and handsome man and very social too. He could make anybody like him. That and some early heroics made him a relatively popular king. That is, until he realised that his youth started to escape him and he fell into a less kingly way of living.

Edward IV was not the first king who had alchemists at his court. These alchemists were not trying to make gold for the king, but they looked after his well-being, both physical and mental. What Edward also understood well, was that having an impressive lineage would heighten his esteem. For that reason there were also authors in his court building his mythological past and tracing it back to Troy, Greek heroes, but also King Arthur. In this way the court of Edward IV included famous men like Georges Ripley (1415-1490) (of the famous alchemical Ripley Scrolls) and Thomas Malory (1415-1471) (of Le Morte d’Arthur). That is not something I heard before!

What may be even more interesting is that these subjects indeed do come together. Where the Ripley Scrolls (there are different versions) are mostly alchemical, there are similar scrolls with (mythological) genealogies that also contain alchemical symbolism. What is also new to me, is the author’s way of explaining such alchemical drawings which he gives political meanings.

And so Hughes sketches a (to me) new approach to alchemy which is not just the changing of metals or a spiritual practice, but a method that was used in a wider manner in these days. Very interesting indeed, but the overwhelming amount of historical details gave me problems with attentively reading the book… If you have less problems with history lessens, you might be interested in this one.

2002 Sutton Publishing, isbn 0750919949