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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

The Stanzas Of The Old English Rune Poem * Gary Stanfield (2012)

What a monster work! The Old English Rune Poem (OERP) is 28 stanzas long, 84 lines, but Stanfield uses almost 700 pages to teach us something about them! Quite a while ago I got an email from the author asking if I would mind receiving a PDF of his book for review. Not knowing it would be this size, I agreed and decided to try to use my very cheap, Chinese 7″ tablet (used as internet radio) as ereader. Well, the thing is not really fit for being an ereader, so I read the work in small portions to spare my eyes and head. 700 Pages, what on earth would Stanfield tell about a short rune poem? Each poem is given in its original language and in different translations. After a wordly translation with all possibilities for every word, there is a “perfect” translation, sometimes a readable translation and a modernised translation. The “perfect” translation tries to capture the stanza’s alliteration, word-play, rhythm and layers of meaning. After this comes a detailed discussion of translating the stanza which will be interesting for people who want to learn about old English and who want to translate and/or interpret the poem for themselves. What Stanfield writes on in detail are problems with translation different words, tell us how earlier translators tackled those problems, put elements of the poems in perspective, etc. Then follow different interpretations of the stanzas. There are what the author calls “explicit stanza”s and “implicit stanza”s, which roughly equates to exoteric and esoteric interpretations. Of the latter Stanfield usually gives several. Next comes an “advice for living” and a schematic summery of the stanza. After the chapters about the stanzas follow a couple of lengthy addenda for example investigating the Gods Týr and Freyr. One addendum is about Wyrd another explains some of Stanfield’s starting points.
Stanfield is certainly very original in approach and meticulous in method. He does have a writing style that I had to get used to. Terms as “implicit stanza” look a bit odd at first. Also he names his interpretations and later refers to them as if these interpretations are someone else’s, as in: “Esoteric Practice Can Be Fun. This implicit stanza is based on “Religious Advancement and Irrational Needs”.” (p. 280) Perhaps he has been working on this book so long that every time he thinks up a new interpretation, Stanfield treats his own work like a reference book. Certainly there are several hints that the book used to be much larger with much more translations. The version that I got is the second edition.
Another reason why Stanfield is original in his approach is that his basis lays in what he calls “progressive mysticism”, a mystic basis for religion that recognises the same basis in other religions. It is unclear if Stanfield is a practicing heathen, but he is certainly not purely an academic. Maybe his approach is more like that of authors such as Mircea Eliade, Huston Smith or Joseph Campbell in being essentially religious, but seeing that essence in each religion. Certainly Stanfield likes to refer to practicing heathens as his sources are often Edred Thorsson or the brothers Wodening, but the author is certainly not uncritical. A remark that made me smile was: “The Asatrú method is to combine data from various Germanic cultures as if there were no differences, or to ignore non-Norse sources.” In similar ways Stanfield is critical to both contemporary heathens as to scholars in the field of the past and the present. In his own detailed investigations, Stanfield comes to very ‘undumézilian’ conclusions that I do often not endorse, but this massive work certainly deserves the attention of scholars and heathens alike for being not only original and groundbreaking, but mostly for being as detailed as it is. There will be something here for people interested in old English, for people interested in poetry, for people interested in translating old texts, for people interpreting old texts and certainly for contemporary heathens who are not affraid for an original look at “the lore” or the practice in daily life.
As I understand it, the plan of the author is still to publish this as a book, he is currently working on copyright. I have no idea if there is already an interested publisher. I think this should be a book, because this is a reference work and I find jumping through a book trying to find a passage a lot easier than having to try to come up with the correct wordings to find a passage. Besides, 700 pages on an electronic device proved to be (too) much for me. For the time, if you want to get the book, contact the author and he will let you know how things work. Use the Hotmail address grystf.

Discovering The Cathars * Lucien Bély (2006)

In september 2012 my girlfriend and me spent a week in the French provinces Ariège and Aude, known for the wiped out Cathar precence around 1200. In the museum of Montségur village there were a couple of books with general information of which this title by Bély looked the most serious to me. Moreover, it has many beautiful images and the book is well-printed. In the first half, Bély gives a very nice overview of the history of the Cathars, leaving aside the many speculations of today and asking just questions such as if Catharism was actually just one religion and giving different versions of the same story. Also you get the whole story of about a century instead of just the years around Montségur. Some stories that have become legends are given in their historical context. The book is well written, does not really take sides and gives some details that I never heard about. The second half is a list with “places with Cathar connections”. This often gives information that I ran into in the first half, but especially when ‘on location’, that half is very helpfull. The book is only about 120 pages, so I finished it while being in France.
If you are looking for a no-nonsense book about the Cathars with many images and helpfull information, I can recommend this nice little book.
2006 Éditions Sud Quest, isbn 9782879017112

Shahnameh by Ferdowski * Reuben Levy (translator) (1967/2001)

For decades I had wanted to read the “Shahnameh” and quite a while ago I ran into a very nice translation for little money. Happy I brought home the book, but when I started to read it, I was less happy. For some reason I cannot read stories. I do not care about plots, cannot remember who is who and I usually get bored after a few pages. Well, the “Shahnameh” is exactly that: a story. Perhaps not an ongoing one, but the work reads like a book. The complete title of the translation that I found runs: “Shahnameh, The Epic Of The Kings, the national epic of Persia by Ferdowski” it is “translated by Reuben Levy” and “revised by Amin Banani”. The translation was originally published by Routledge, but my printing is of the Iranian publisher Yassavoli. It comes with a large number of colour plates of drawings from some old Shahnameh manuscript. Some time ago I was in a museum (I forgot which) that also had quite a few of these plates. They certainly are beautiful and very nicely reprinted. As the title says, what we get is the story of the rulers of ancient Persia. The “Shahnameh” was written around 1000 CE. It starts with Hushang, but I cannot find in which period he ruled. He was supposedly the second Shah or king of Persia. In short chapters Ferdowski tells about the proceedings of an endless line of characters, quite in detail too sometimes. Happenings of wars, struggles, times of peace, fathers, sons and daughters, envious family members and a little woven through a bit of the old religion, Zoroaster and Christianity. The book is most likely not historically correct in our terms, but mythological upto a certain degree. Like I said, it all comes in a story and however the translation is nice, I have problems keeping my attention to it all. I did not read the book from cover to cover, but started scanning it for interesting passages. I now see that I got my book for a very good price, since Amazon has it listed for almost 10x of what I paid for it. There are other printings of Levy’s translation which I did not see, but the Yassavoli version certainly is a nice one. I also like the idea that I got the national epic from the country itself, especially when we all know how the current religion of Iran acts.
2001 Yassavoli, isbn 9643062082

De Rozenkruisers In Nederland * Govert Snoek (1997)

This impressive book has a complete title which goes (translated) “The Rosicrucians in the Netherlands, particularly in the first half of the 17th century, an inventarisation”. It is written in Dutch, but has a summery in French. The book was initiatlly written as a master’s thesis in 1989 (in the same year Peter Huijs wrote his at another university, both have published books through the publishing house of the contemporary Rosicrucian organisation Lectorium Rosicrucianum) studying history. Later the thesis was expanded for a PHD thesis in theology (1998). Actually, the book is more the work of an archivarist. Snoek ploughed through a gigantic amount of works (his bibliography is 100 pages!), but not just primary and secondary works, he tried to find each and every reference to the Rosicrucians in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Therefor he read a great number of writings of many many religious apostates (and there were many of them), but also he studied auction lists to see who possessed Rosicrucian books. You will read about the Family of Love (actually the House of Love), David Joris, Hiël, chiliasts, (ana)baptists and whatever there was in those days. People who spend time in the Netherlands or had contacts here bring famous names as Tycho Brahe, John Dee, Jacob Böhme, Thomas à Kempis and many more. Within our own country almost anybody who made some name seems to have has some kind of interest in the Rosicrucians, scientists (Cornelis Drebbel), painters (Pieter Paul Rubens), poets (P.C. Hooft) everybody gets a background investigation. Interesting webs are uncovered, unexpected links made and ‘maybe’s of earlier investigators are proved or disproved. Yes, the book is almost purely historical, factual and purely informative, but interesting. Snoek mostly manages to present his dry information well enough and here and there says a few things about the ideas of the people discussed which makes things even more interesting. Yes, finally I found a book that looks into all the links and contacts of this highly interesting. Old acquintances and people I had never heard of, Snoek has it all.
1997 Rozekruis Pers, isbn 9067323241

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World * Joscelyn Godwin (2009)

Quite a while ago I saw this book laying in the most beautiful bookshop of the Netherlands (Selexys Maastricht, soon bankrupt I am afraid). A massive book about Kircher for a massive price. When I got a load of book-coupons much later, my first idea was to go and get this book and so I did. I know Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) mostly for his magnificent images as they are often reproduced in books about hermeticism, Renaissance esotericism, alchemy and similar subjects. I knew Kircher was more of a “homo universalis” and that he was the last of the Renaissance men, but I had this romantised idea that Kircher was an esotericist with a broad interest. Godwin’s book first appears as a look-through book. Over 400 images of Kircher have been reproduced. When I had the book home, I noticed that Godwin discusses them all, so this book is a reading book after all. Well, a reading book. With its over 300 heavy pages, 30x30cm size and +2 kg in weight, this is not a book to read all night while laying on your couch. Godwin took the wide interests of Kircher and divided them over the different chapters of the book. Instead of esotericism, you will read about archaeology, geology, science, medicine, wonder-machines (Kircher liked to show off with weird machines that were magic to the unknowing spectator), music, Egyptology (Kircher was the first to translate hieroglyphs), information about the religions of the world (from China and Japan to South America) and much, much more. Indeed, Kircher was a man who wanted to know everything. So how did he come about knowing about all these things? Kircher was a devout Jesuit and his masters realised that he was more valuable at home than in some far country converting people. Thus Kircher became the spider in the web of Jesuit missionaries worldwide who sent him artifacts, stories, drawings, texts to translate, etc. and Kircher investigated them all and wrote about it. He set up a museum with exotics and weird machines and thought he was superiour in knowledge to his fellow man. However this book is a nice read, not all subjects interest me equally. I mostly enjoyed the first chapters with Kircher’s religious and symbolic drawings (Godwin goes nicely into detail) and the last chapter with didactic images. Indeed, do not expect too much alchemy, Kabbalah and hermeticism as suggested on Amazon (Kircher did not want to have too much to do with such subjects), but more a book showing the pursuits of early science.
2009 Thames & Hudson, isbn 0500258600)