Category Archives: history

Hoe God Verscheen In Friesland * Dirk Otten (2014)

The first part of the series about the Christianisation of the Netherlannds (‘How God appeared in Saxonland’) was a very nice read; easy reading, amusing and informative. This second part (‘How God appeared in Frisia’) is so dull that it took me months to get through.

Whereas the previous book was Otten’s text with quotes from sources, this book about Frisia mostly just consists of retellings of hagiographies (‘lives of holy men’) of missionaries who spent time in Frisia. There are a few introductionary pages, but after that you can read about Eligius, Egbert, but of course also Willibrord, Boniface and Gregory (the latter at length in a cricital translation of Ludger). That was not quite what I expected after the first book…

The parts that Otten wrote make alright reads again and his inquisitive approach to the hagiographies is interesting, but a whole book with lives of saints which do not say all that much about the Frisians being Christianised did not exactly make a book coming anywhere near ‘How God appeared in Saxony’.

2014 Deventer Universitaire Pers, isbn 9789079378142

India’s Glory * Raghupati Bhatt (2014)

A history of India from an Indian perspective, that is what the author wanted to present. His little book (218 pages) has short chapters, mostly about noteworthy Indians. From Chandragupta Maurya (around 340 BCE) to Mahatma Gandi (1869-1948).

The author is of the opinion that the West is misinformed about India and its history and wants to correct these flaws. Also he wants to present figures of India’s glorious past. I must say that I do not really have the idea that I read anything radically different from what I already knew. Perhaps this is due to the fact that what I know about India mostly comes from people who were ‘India-friendly’, or perhaps it is simply so that us Westerners are not so badly informed as Bhatt thinks.

Not unexpectedly the book is filled with praise for India and his ‘big names’. Bhatt tells us about Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike; a bit about spiritual currents such as Bhakti or Jainism; spiritual leaders and politicians; conquerers and freedom fighters. Quite a few pages are dedicated to the time in which India fought British colonism. Nor does he shy to say -for example- that Gandhi was not favoured by everyone and he has a few things to say about Hindu nationalism, a current which was recently in the news.

“India’s Glory” does not hold any big surprises, but it makes an alright read and it never hurts to see things through the eyes of an insider.

2014 Numen Books, isbn 0987559869

The Knights Templar Of The Middle East * HRH Prince Michael of Albany & Walid Amine Salhab (2006)

Not long after I read Angel Millar’s book in which he claims it is the first about Freemasonry and the Middle East, I read about this title about: “The Hidden History of the Islamic Origins of Freemasonry”. The author’s name sounds a bit wild and so does the backcover so I did not have very high expectations, but I still wanted to read it. Just out of curiosity.

In a nutshell the authors (or rather, author, since it is written in the I-form) claim that the real origin of the Knights Templar is Muslim, that the last retreat of the Templars was Scotland and that around the time the Templar order faded, Freemasonry rose in… Scotland. From there it spread to France, returned to Brittany and then conquered the world.

The book opens with chapters about early Christianity, Jerusalem, early Islam, Muslim rule in Western countries and then several orders, including that of the Knights Templar. The tone is somewhat annoyingly ‘Islam is great and Catholicism is not’. Too much praise on one side and too much criticism on the other made a bit of a strange balance.
After a few chapters about the Templars the authors describe the downfall and after this the rise of Freemasonry.

The authors refer a lot to authors such as Laurence Gardner, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and the like which makes it easy to add this book in the genre of popular science with its wild theories. Indeed, I reviewed a few of such books back in the days and this kind of out-of-the-box literature may be usefull to find new (possible) leads, but it is more usefull for amusement or a more ‘free’ view on history in order to get another way of looking at things than as reference book. I can say the same about the current title.

The book is only about 200 pages but chapters are quite in depth about different subjects, sometimes running too far off the red thread. The overall story is not really new, but the authors seem to think to have new information to back up the claims. All in all the details seem to be more on parts of the story and not really evidence substantiating the thesis of this book.

Like the books of the mentioned authors, “The Knights Templars Of The Middle East” makes an amusing read with a few things to think over, but does not rise above the level of amusement.

2006 Weiser Books, isbn 157863346X

Jan Amos Comenius * Henk Woldring (2014)

However available since november 2014 this book was officially presented a couple of weeks ago during a seminar in the Vrije Universiteit (University Amsterdam) where the author used to lecture. Woldring is professor in political philosophy and invited colleagues of various breed to say something about Comenius’ message in our own day and age. I was positively surprised that also scholars on ‘materialistic’ fields seem to have ears for a spiritual thinker as Comenius.

Jan Komenský lived from 1592 to 1670, born in Nivnice, Moravia, died in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The “Amos” part of his name he added himself when he was a student and also by himself, his name is usually written Latinised as Comenius. I have a few translated books of the author, but before this biography I was mostly unaware of the vast amount of literature on the vast amount of diffent subjects that he wrote about. Comenius was adherrant to what in English is called the “Moravian Church”, but in Dutch they are called “brotherly community”, a Protestant church founded by Jan Hus (John Huss). During the Reformation, but mostly during the Counter-Reformation the situation was very difficult for (other kinds of) Protestants and Comenius continually had to flee. Being an original thinker who was well-respected by many, but maligned by others, Comenius had friends all over Europe and travelled a great deal. A few times Comenius lived in my country and since he died here and is burried in Naarden (Amsterdam was too expensive), we have a Comenius mausoleum and a museum (which I have not yet visited). It was mostly on demand of the museum that this biography of Comenius was written, simply because there was no descent overview of the man’s life and ideas.

The book is not large, only 215 pages, but there is too much to summarise in a short review. Comenius was groundbreaking in the fields of pedagoy and didactics. He wrote books that are still praised today. Also he wrote a lot about religious tolerance, strove for peace whereever he came, had friends in various religious, political and industrial circes. Surviving several wives and children, continuously having to flee, but trying to help his brothers and sisters in whatever way he can, Comenius had a stressfull life. Yet he managed to write over 250 books, many of which were published in his own day (often by himself), others after his death.

Woldring interweaves biographical notes that he drew from many different sources with Comenius’ ideas on different subjects. This sometimes runs strangely through eachother like the part in which the author describes a visit between Comenius and Descartes which starts by describing how the meeting came about, goes over in a comparison of the ideas of both men and ends again biographically. Nonethess, the parts in which the ideas of Comenius are described are the most interesting to me. For the rest, the man seems to have been an interesting character with an eventfull life.

The many different subjects Comenius wrote about, everything was part of a ‘grand scheme’ which he called “Pansophia”. Comenius strove to bring together all ways of knowing things, find out the connections between seemingly unrelated things and thus come to overarching knowledge. He was much aware of the rise of rationalism in his time, religious strive and conflict and political and economic wars, but his ideas are certainly still worth thinking over and this well-written book makes a very nice introduction into this versatile person. As of now, it is only available in Dutch though.

2014 Damon, isbn 9460361994

Hoe God Verscheen In Saksenland * Dirk Otten (2015)

“How God Appeared In Saxonland” is the first part in what is to be a series about Christianisation in the Netherlands (and abroad). The second part, “How God Appeared In Frisia” is also available by now. The subtitle of the current book is “Widukinds knieval voor Karel de Grote”; which is a bit hard to translate, but it says how the Saxon leader Widukind was defeated by Charlemagne.

This is exactly the story of the book. Charlemagne christianised “Saxonland” with brute force. “Saxonland” is an area that covers a part of the east of the current Netherlands and the adjacent piece of Germany. These Saxons were not exactly keen to turning over to the new religion. They killed missionaries, fought against invading armies and even when Charlemagne raised to power, they remained resistant. When Charlemagne thought his job was done, some Saxon tribe started to attack his troups, throw out Frankish priests and burn their churches, etc. The whole process took a century and a half.

Otten needs only 175 pages for his story and these pages include a chronology in the beginning, a translation of the Frankish empirical annals, a bibliography, an index and several pages with images (b/w and colour, many images I had never seen). Still the book is nicely detailed. Also the book is nicely written and (apparently) scientifically solid which makes this a title both for historian scholars and people who are simply interested in the subject.

Otten obviously was annoyed by the brutality of the Christianisation of the Saxon tribes which he keeps stressing. The Saxons were not exactly sweethearts either and this become clear as well. The author starts with a summery of the upcoming of the religion of Christianity. Then he says something about the Saxon lands and its peoples. He also spends some pages on the prechristian religion of the Saxons (which he keeps calling a religion in which nature is worshipped, quite an outdated view) based on texts of Roman historians, but also writings from the Church in which heathen habbits were forbidden. Of course there is the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow of the late 8th century and the ‘Saxon Bible’ the Heliand (on which Otten has some interesting notions).
There is attention for the most famous missionaries Boniface, Willibrord, Alcuin and Lebuinus about whom Otten wrote a book earlier.

The book is purely historical, but there is not a whole lot of literature about his part of Dutch history and it makes a nice read. I guess I will also get the Frisia book as well.

2012 Deventer Univeritaire Pers, isbn 9789079378081

Midwinterse Tradities * Aat van Gilst (2014)

Just before the winter solstice I wondered if I indeed heard that Aat van Gilst had recently published a book about Midwinter traditions. He did indeed and I finished it before the end of the period that this book is about (“From St. Lucia until Epiphany” as the subtitle goes).

Like other books of Van Gilst, this latest work is mostly ‘collective’, as in: tons of information, anecdotes and quotes crammed together in a book. Therefor the book again reads a bit like an encyclopedia. Still, Van Gilst proved himself an antiquarian gathering his information from the weirdest places and putting them together between two covers so that us readers do not have to find everything ourselves. The bibliography is exactly 100 titles.

The author speaks about the traditional ‘twelve nights’ that not everywhere and in every time span the same period. Usually we are talking about the winter solstice until Epiphany, but our Dutch Sinterklaas is in some way a start for the midwinter celebrations and we celebrate it at December 5th. Van Gilst teaches us a thing or two about death and fertility celebrations that have become a range of ‘Christian’ feasts for saints, but in which a lot of prechristian elements survive. Also noteworthy are the history of the ‘Christmas tree’ (which is different from the romantic view of many contemporary heathens), Christmas songs and of course a gigantic number of folkloristic traditions that we see and saw in the darkest period of the year.

Much lacking is an index and the images have too little contrast, but for the rest this is a wonderfull book to draw inspiration from for your traditional solstice information and celebrations.

2014 Uitgeverij Aspekt, isbn 9789461535269

Symbols and Pictures * Alastair Mack (2007)

When you are going to hunt Pictish stones in Scotland, first be sure to lay your hands on the tiny, but very helpfull Wee Guide to the Picts. This little book gives general information and is most helpfull because it gives clues where to find the stones. These postal codes for the stones also form one of the appendices of Symbols and Pictures: the Pictish Legacy in Stone. That is not so much a stone hunters’ book, but more a book to read when you want to learn more about the Picts and their symbol stones.

Mack wrote the book as if he is thinking out loud. I would have preferred him being more to the point. The biggest merit of the book is that the author compares different theories and puts them to the test. I bought this book in the little Meigle museum, mostly because my eye fell on the chapter about the oghams on some stones and hoped that the book says what the oghams say.

Mack proves himself to be a dry and practical thinker. There are wild theories about the Pictish stones and Mack often quickly shoves some of them aside with sound logic. ‘The oghams have to be added later, since they are from the 8th century’ which makes Mack wonder how it is possible that the other carvings on the some left a perfect spot to the oghams to be added centuries later. Similar approaches Mack offers for the spreading of the stone (where are many “class I” or many “class II” stones, etc.), to guess the (original) purpose of the stones (many where found on or near church-yards or “commemorating places” so they were probably erected to commemorate persons) or to connect certain symbols (for example the mirror-and-comb) to certain people (in this case: women).
This approach works up to a certain level. I am no fond of wild theories backed up with half evidence, but the problem is no theory proves to be unshakable. For example, many stones were not found near church-yards, etc., not every mirror-and-comb can be connected to women.

The author shows different theories to explain the symbols. Some people say that thet are markers of property or at least refer to persons. A symbol could be that person’s name, that person’s first or last name or the name of the commemorated person or the person who had the stone erected. Some of these connections seem likely when combined with the transliterations of ogham texts, but things are not completely convincing.

Yes, them oghams. The funny thing is that oghams seem to be of Celtic origin and the Celtic origin of the Picts is not undisputed. We can read Celtic oghams, but apparently we can not read Pictish oghams! The oghams are transliterated the way we know the Celtic oghams to, but this makes undecipherable strings of letters. This lead some investigators to conclude that the Picts spoke a non-Indo-European language! At least one investigator (amusingly to Mack) is able to find Scandinavian texts in every line of oghams (the Viking have visited Scotland a lot), but the sollution does not seem to be there either, but even Mack does not seem to have thought of the option that the characters that look like ogham, may stand for different letters altogether.

What remains is the suggestion that many symbols come in pairs, are not easy to date (the “class I” and “class II” periods overlap) and some suggestions are raised for explanations, none of them convincing. “The best may again be to wigh the evidence oneself – and then decide for oneself! the book ends. Strange, 257 pages of theories only to conclude that the Pictish stones remain an enigma. On the other hand, I think I prefer this to authors who think they have found the sollution and manipulate the evidence to back up their theories.

Mack’s book ends with a range of appendices that are very helpfull for other investigators. Stones with findspots and current locations; stones arranged by (combinations of) symbols; statistics with symbols; etc.

No answers, but a lot of information!

2007 The Pinkfoot Press, isbn 9781874012481

Vrijheid En Whisky * Stijn Hiers (2013)

So I like to drink whisky, not Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker Red Label, whisky. Also I have been to Scotland not too long ago. Therefor I was surprised to find a newly published book (september 2013) that combines these two subjects. Moreover, I know the author from years back. In any case, “Freedom and Whisky” gives a history of Scotland and where possible, the author presents a whisky bottle or label that is somehow linked with the subject. This can be a distillery that was inspired by the Picts for style (Balblair) or the bottle of one of their whiskies (Glenmorangie Signet), a distillery or whisky named after an historical character (many examples) or a whisky commemorating a historic event (also several examples). All in all a history of Scotland going from about 79 CE upto only a few decades ago. Also you get some 150 labels and bottles sometimes with lighted-up information. Of course, when the author reaches the time that whisky was distilled in Scotland, you will also learn a thing or two about the history of the ‘water of life’.
The book is not (yet) very well available, but you can get it from the author (click on the cover), the Dutch whisky magazine Whisky Passion and a growing number of book- and liquor shops. Hopefully regular bookshops will follow soon. The book is written in Dutch, I do not know if there are plans for an English version, but the author is an internationally known whisky author and organiser and he needed some of those international contacts to get all the labels that he wanted to use, so who knows…?
2013 Lord Of The Drams, isbn 9789082108002

Pagan Symbols Of The Picts * Stuart McHardy (2013)

I ran into this book when I was looking into the Pictish symbols. I bought and read it in Scotland. The title is promising. McHardy is a Scotsman himself and wrote several books about the Picts. While reading the book, I get the idea that he is an’interested layman’ rather than a ‘specialist’. McHardy’s book has pros and cons. What is good about the book is that McHardy dares to defy some of the standard scholarly hypotheses. It still seems as if everybody thinks that peoples can be told about by looking at the language they spoke, but things are not that easy. Take the discussion about Celts and Germans in my own country (Netherlands), the same goes for ancient Scotland. There lived Gaelic, Pict and Norse people, all similar, but different and probably there was a lot of contact between the different groups, marriages even. It it too simple to just talk about Celts and Picts. Then there is the leading idea that the Picts came from Ireland, but the author suggests that the Picts are actually the indigenous people of a part of what is nowadays Scotland, or perhaps they were (partly) immigrants from Scandinavia. In any case, they suddenly ‘disappeared’, suggesting that they merged with the (incomming) Gaelic peoples.
Having said that, the author takes another route to interpret the Pictish stones than what I read thus far. He sets out to search for the pagan religion of the Picts and see the stones in that perspective. In that search, McHardy looks around in Welsh, Irish, broader Celtic, Scandinavian, etc. mythology to find meanings for the symbols. What is good about this approach is that he looks at every symbol and does not (like other authors, including myself) leave out the animals and hunting scenes. On the other hand, the author goes at length explaining symbols that are hardly found, but about which he found a lot of information. Also the book contains too many easy conclusions. New (to me), but not worked out very well is the suggestion that many of the animals (especially those when there is only a head) are animal disguises. Had McHardy combined this with the notion that Picts are called Picts (by the Romans) because they painted their bodies, there would have been an easy bridge to Männerbünde which in that regard may suggest a direction for the enigmatic geometrical symbols. What I do like in this book, is that McHardy does not look at Pictish art as a separate phenomenon, rather a continuation of what was already present. The double discs could be linked with the prehistoric rock carvings of spirals (for which the author has an interesting explanation). Then again, with his purely ‘religious’ approach, McHardy has no sight for ‘mystery’ and thus the Z-rod is a lightning bolt for example. His suggestion for the ‘crescent and V-rod’ is interesting though: the three phases of the moon, since the crescent-moon is divided in three parts by the V-rod.
So, perhaps not a great book with the ultimate answers, but certainly a few paths to think along further.
2013 Luath Press, isbn 1908373148

Kratos: The Hellenic Tradition * Gwendolyn Taunton (editor) (2013)

This is already the sixth ‘volume’ in the ‘series’ of journals published by Numen Books (formerly Primordial Traditions). As the title says we are looking at Greece this time. “Kratos” comes as a nice sleeve and with 242 pages, it is again quite a book. There are three texts of our productive editor an article of the editor of “Occult Traditions” and some Greek and less Greek sounding names. Some texts are very historical and of course there is a lot of Nietzsche. I must admit that the Hellenic tradition is not entirely my thing and I did not really enjoy all texts, but a very nice article is called “Hellenic Household Worship”. In this text Christos Pandion Panopoulos tells us about household religion in the past and the present. Another essay that hints to our own day and time is “Foreign Gods, Syncretism and Hellenismos” by Kallistos, telling us that many of the major Gods are not originally Greek. What is slightly remarkable is that some authors seem to take it that their readers can read Greek. Some sometimes give a translation or just a transliteration (but at other times nothing at all), but John Pickard manages to give a half-page quote in Greek and just starts to refer to it.
Perhaps for me personally not the most interesting ‘volume’ in the series, but as always this Numen Books release brings together historical investigations and contemporary religion and comes with not the most common approaches, so I suppose that when you enjoyed the other books of Numen Books, you also want to get your hands on this latest publication (click on the “tag” below the title to read all reviews).
2013 Numen Books, isbn 098755980X