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The Mysteries Of Mithra * Franz Cumont (isbn 0468203239)

I can’t even see when the pressing of this little book is. It is a repress of the 1956 English translation of a 1904 French book. It seems that since then there haven’t been any serious books about the Mithraic religion made available. Maybe that is not necessary when this book isn’t let run out of print, since it has everything I have been looking for. The origins of Mithraism, of course the old version, but still (also see my review of “The Mithraic Mysteries” of David Ulansey”). Further how this religion became competition for early Christianity in the Roman empire; the doctrine; liturgy and something about art. Everything with 70 images and an index.

Really a little book that you must have if you want some general info about Mithraism. <2/2/03>

The Myths And Gods Of India * Alain Daniélou (1991 inner traditions * isbn 0892813547)

hindu polytheism 1964

The subtitle of this work by Alain Daniélou (1907-1994), The classic work on Hindu polytheism refers to the original title Hindu polytheism. In Tyr journal volume one (2002 reviewed elsewhere) Collin Cleary writes: “If you read only one book on Hinduism, it must be Danielou’s Myths and Gods of India.” I partly agree with Cleary. Daniélou is a Westerner who has spent most of his life in the far East. He is regarded the modern authority on Eastern religions, especially from the fact that he ‘wrote from within’. The book is extremely inspiring, very well-written, stuffed with countless quotes from many different texts and also well-structured, which makes this book a very good reference work. The 440 pages are divided in six sections and 32 chapters. The writer starts with “philosophy”, “the theory of polytheism”. After that he writes at length about different deities with cross-references, quotes and interesting information. The last section is about “ritual” and speaks about mantras, yantras (“magic diagrams” ranging from simple symbols to what are nowadays call “mandalas”), mudras, etc.
This book should be read by anyone who wants to get a serious, thorough, well-readable book about Hinduism. Also people who are interested in other Indo-European or ethnic religions are advised to read it, since Hinduism is the oldest, best documented and almost only living of the Indo-European religions.
I don’t agree with the way the writer speaks about polytheism. Sometimes he writes somethat that I would say (there is no polytheism, since the Ultimate Immensity (Brahma) is One), but he keeps coming back on many-goddedness. I have written about this elsewhere. Then the new title promises something that the book doesn’t make true: myths. Agree, Daniélou sometimes refers to myths, quotes many texts, but almost nowhere (re)tells a myth in which a particular God plays a part. With this kind of information added for every good, this book would have been perfect. For this reason I would like to add to Cleary’s statement, this book for the philosophical grounding and a book with myths for the context. I will be looking for a good book with some of the Hindu myths to read in the near future.

Hindu Myths * Wendy Doniger-O’Flaherty (1975 penguin classics * isbn 0140443061)

After reading Daniélou’s Hindu Polytheism I wanted to read a book with Hindu myths. I was disappointed with how few there are actually available. Amazon doesn’t have too good critics about this book. The writer would approach the myths with an approach that scholars use to investigate works of Shakespeare or Dante. Also she would put too much stress on sexual symbolism in the Hindu myths. The Wikipedia article about the writer is even rather critical. With this in mind, I am not really disappointed about the book. The myths are catagorized per divinity, every separate myth is introduced well enough in my opinion and the translations are readable. Indeed almost every given myth has something sexual about it, which becomes a bit irritating after a while, but overall this is a nice collection of Hindu myths for a good price. I am still planning to get another collection, but since I could this one rapidly and second-hand, I am surely not disappointed. <20/11/06><2>

Nederlandse Religiegeschiedenis * Joris van Eijnatten & Fred van Lieburg (isbn 9065507868)

ReLiC is an initiative that was started in 2002 by people associated with the Vrij Universiteit (free university, or VU) in Amsterdam. Professors and investigators of a variety of fields cooperate to investigate the history of the Netherlands better. On 27 march 2005 ReLiC had a symposium in Amsterdam with as title ‘religion in the Netherlands in the first millenium’. Historians, archeologists and culture-historians came to tell what their current fields of investigations are. This was a very nice view on the scientific/scholarly world. The investigations of today are the reading of tomorrow and indeed, even on subjects that have been investigated for decades or centuries, still new angles can be found to shed new light on our past. Two days earlier ReLiC presented a book from their circle Nederlandse Religiegeschiedenis (‘Dutch religious history’). I got a copy to review and read the book from cover to cover before I wrote this review.

Nederlandse Religiegeschiedenis is a magnificent book! Even though 2000 years of history is given in ‘only’ 400 pages the book is highly interesting, informative and often very detailed. There are four parts. First there is the ‘pre-Christian’ period (0-1000 CE), then the Christian period, then the period in which Christianity changed a lot and at last modern times. The book starts only around the year 0 because this is the first time that relatively reliable information is available (the book isn’t written by archeologists). So after a prologue, you can read about Roman times, which Teutonic/Germanic and Celtic tribes could be found in this area and eventually how Christianity came northwards. It may be a book about religious history, but to put things in perspective, you will also get a lot of information about political and social developments, sometimes also abroad. This way you will not only get to know which Frisians and Franks where here at what time, but you will be able to see the Netherlands becoming the Netherlands slowly. Areas that are conquered by a person or tribe, collaborating with other persons or tribes, areas that fall apart and reunite.
And this we slowly move from the higly interesting ‘pagan’ period to the Christian period. Christianisation wasn’t too easy in these parts, just think about the killing of Bonifatius in Dokkum in the year 754. Still, at the end Christianity won and the native faith died away.

And so we go to part two in which you can read how the power of Christianity grew inspite of the many changes and problems. Diocenes are formed and fall apart, go together with other areas and so on. The Christian doctrine is formed, the hierarchy gets structure, dogmas are forced on the masses and the Christian faith starts to get the form we recognise today. But then monastries are formed, new forms of faith appear and eventually the Reformation sets in. The Oranjes (our Royal family until today) appear on the stage and the Netherlands become recognisable.

Part three is mostly about the changes within the Church. There is a struggle between the ‘original Christians’ and the reformed. Political and religious power goes from the (now so called) Roman Church and the reformers. Peace, war, invasions from the south (Spanish and French), but in the end a (relative) peacefull situation was created.

The last part starts with our constitution of 1848. Again major changes in the religious landscape. Information of new (Eastern) religions comes to the people, political parties are being created to give power to the people, sciences flourishes and people realise that they may not need religion as such afterall. But still a new kind of religiosity will come to the country. Immigrants bring new faiths (Jews have been here for centuries, Muslims start to come as well), new religious expressions come up and shortly the subject of the New Age is touches upon.

But of course I can’t give a very detailed history in this short review. If I caught your interest, you must definately read this book. It is great how you can read from Caesar all the way to the present day, even the killing of Theo van Gogh (4/11/04). The book as a whole puts even this in perspective. Moreover, many Dutchmen and -women may have a little idea about our past (abroad people sure think this is the case), this is your change to get even. You will have a brilliant book with a massive index and extra information in separate tables as the great reference book for both the religious and the political/social history of our country.

The book is very well-written (sometimes a bit too detailed and towards the end not very detailed anymore), is published nicely with heavy paper and two-colour printing and all in all is a must-read for anyone with interest in the history of the Netherlands (and who can read Dutch of course…).

Het Oerevangelie * Herbert Ziegler and Elmar R. Gruber (isbn 9043901601)

Another book that is so far only available in German and Dutch.

Gruber is a German writer who already wrote some books about early Christianity and ‘the Jesus Complot’ is probably his best known book. A few years ago he got a letter from the Swiss Ziegler who wrote that he has spent years on the search for the real words of Jesus. Gruber gave him a few tips and didn’t hear from Ziegler anymore. Then Ziegler’s daughter phoned Gruber telling that Ziegler had died, but that he has finished his work and that he wanted Gruber to publish it and so he did.

This resulted in a relatively thin book (144 p.) which is divided in two parts. In the first half Gruber writes about the circumstances under which the canonical gospels have been written, what sources the writers used, what happened when the church became an institution, how the texts have been manipulated and wrongly translated and how apocryphical texts were hidden or destroyed and the history of Bible-study. In the beginning it seems like Gruber wanted to completely tear-down the current Christian institution, but it isn’t really like that when you continue to read.
The second half is a short introduction by Ziegler and his text. It isn’t really as shocking as you may expect after Grubers text. Most texts are known and the picture of Jesus wasn’t as radically different as was ‘promised’. But maybe I already lost the ‘Christian Jesus image’ some time ago?

Anyway, the result is an easy-to-read book which is quite interesting if you are interested in Bible study and early Christianity.

De Oerknal Van Het Christendom * Jacob Slavenburg (isbn 9067322776)

This book was released just before “De Hermetische Schakel” by another publisher than Slavenburgs usual one. It is a thin book and seems to have been written in between (it is a bit sloppy at times). “The big-bang of Christianity” speaks about the first few hundred years of Christianity. Unconventional views on the person Jesus Christ, the apostles, evangelists, gnosticism, (apocryphic) writings, the upcoming Church and how Christianity became an institution. As always Slavenburg writes in detail and with lengthy quotes. Sometimes he expects background knowledge, at other times he explains things also for the beginner, so I don’t really know who to suggest this book to, but at least to people interested in early Christianity and Slavenburg-readers of course.

The Origins Of The Mithraic Mysteries * David Ulansey (isbn 019505402)

I actually bought this book because I wanted a reference-book about this extinct mystery-religion that was an early competator of Christianity in the Roman empire. That is not what this book offers though.

Usually the origin of Mithraism is placed in Persia. Mithras would be based upon the Persian god Mithra and the doctrines can be traced back to the also extinct Persian mystery-religion of Zoroaster/Zarathustra. Not so, says the writer of this little book.

Ulansey investigated the symbols and cosmology of Mithraism and came to a quite different conclusion. I suppose most of you have seen the best-known image from the Mithras-religion, Mithras catching a bull and putting a sword in the bull’s neck? Well, a lot of clues can be drawn from this image. On most images (some have been restored incorrectly!) you see Mithras sitting on the bull with his left knee, his right leg straight, having a very typical hat on his head that looks away from the bull. The blood from the bull is sometimes ears of grain. His seed is caught in a cup that is guarded by a lion and a snake and a dog are fighting for content. Further you can see a raven and a scorpion.

The hat is a near-eastern one (a “Phrygian cap”) which adds to the idea that Mithras can be traced back to Persia, but Ulansey has different ideas about that. He found old Greek astronomical drawings where the constellations are drawn as figures. Taurus is a bull, just above Taurus you can see Perseus with the same hat and swinging his sword to the bull. Ulansey gives a star-map on which the two equinoxes are depicted and on or just below the celestial equator you can see the constellations that you can also see in the tauroctony (Mithras slaying the bull). Interesting! It gets better though.

Perseus is also a person in the Greek mythology. A son of Zeus and Danae wearing a very typical hat, the same as Mithras. Also the sword and killing of a beast is part of the Perseus mythology, but about this later.

Perseus was the principle god of the city of Parsus, the capital of Cilicia. The influence of the Greek philosophers called Stoics was quite big there and especially the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes by Hipparchus and the consequences of that for the worldview of the people of Tarsus can’t be underestimated. Ulansey shows coins from Cilicia depicting Perseus in quite typical ‘Mithraic’ poses and even other images that would later be incorporated in Mithraism.

Often there are two figures holding torches coming with the Tauroctony which are called Cautus and Cautopatus. These two figures look like Mithras, wearing the same hats. They always have their legs crossed and (again, if he resorations are done correctly) one points his torch upward, the other downward. On a few occasions the figures are replaced by trees holding torches and a bull’s head and a scorpion. Ulansey explains that these two represent the bull’s head and scorpion or the constellations Taurus and Scorpio. Also they represent the equinoxes (spring in Taurus, autumn in Scorpio) which makes the entire tauroctony a celestial map of about 2000 BC, quite some time before Ulansey places the origin of Mithraism. The Stoic philosophers of Tarsus were well-read of Greek mythology though!
Anyway, also the torchbearers can be traced back to a Greek original, being the Dioscurio. These were ancient celestial divinities with felt hats and always crossed legs. They can be found on several coins that have been found.

I mentioned Perseus slaying a beast, this is Medusa, the woman with the snakes on her head and wings on her back. Some scholars say that she originally had a lions-head. Medusa is one of the three ‘gorgons’ of the Greek mythology having wings on her back. She tries to attacl Perseus but he defending himself can’t look at her without being turned to stone. This is also the reason that Mithras never looks to the bull he slays. Eventually Perseus does kill Medusa with the help of Hermes and Athena.
Medusa is later formed to the “Lion-headed God” in Mithraism, the second image that most of you will be familiar with. Most often depicted with a human body, the head of a lion, a snake around the body and little wings attached to the shoulders (which makes me think about the Kundalini symbol / staff of Mercury / caduceus by the way). Ulansey again has a some probable prove for this as well.

Only a few lines are spent to Mithras’ birth from a rock. Ulansey uses it as another clue to identify Mithras with Perseus, who was born in an underground chamber. Not in this context is spoken about the Mithraic ‘churches’ or Mithraeums, which are always built in underground chambers as well. Later when the Christians overpowered the followers of Mithras they built their churches on top of the Mithraeums and many are left under Christian churches (see photo below).

The name of the religion and it’s main character does not -according to Ulansey- come from the Persian divinity Mithra. As mentioned he places the early days of Mithraism in Tarsus where philosophers combine Greek mythology and modern ‘science’ forming a new system of metaphores. In these days an enormous group of pirates had a lot of power in the Mediterranean. They were not just a bunch of thieves, but exploited trade, built cities and controlled fairly large pieces of land. Originally they were from Cilicia and come on very well with the ‘Mithraic philosophers’, spreading their ideas in the controlled area. Being dependant on the stars for navigation, the pirates were great astronomers and the knowledge of them and the philosophers was a two-way motion. Trying to conseal the real name of their divinity, the philosophers used a variation of the name of a great king who the pirates were also in good contact with, being Mithridates VI Eupator. The first part of his name means “given by Mithra”, indeed the Persian one, but still…

You will not reach much about the history of Mithraism in this book, but the interest in it increased first in the lands of Mithridates and later in the area of his enemy: Rome. Mithraism mostly became popular under travelling soldiers and tradesmen. It grew so big that it became a serious threat of early Christianity, but eventually didn’t make it, was suppressed and eventually wiped out.

More details in the book of course. A small one, but interesting for sure!

For more information about (nowadays) Mithraism check out the wonderfull website mithraeum.org. Also in the articles section I have several texts on the subject. <16/12/02>

Rebel In The Soul * Bika Reed (isbn 0892816155)

What a great book! This is one of the many translation of the Egyptian “Berlin papyrus 3024” which supposedly is 4000 years old. The nameless text is -according to Reed- an initiation text and unfortunately the papyrus was in a state of decay. In the introduction Reed warns that interpretations are nothing more than interpretations. Then follows her translation, very spaciously printed with many images that do not come from the original papyrus, but which sure fit the text. There isn’t so much text to print, so most of the 140 pages are filled with other information than the translation. “What then exactly?”, you may ask. Well, Reed explains how she came to her translation and compares her translation with that of the Egyptologist Faulkner. You immediately see the differences in the translations, so Reed took a part of the original hieroglyphs from the papyrus and shows you how different (combinations of) hieroglyphs can be interpreted in different ways. It is great to see how they work a text in hieroglyphs into our language. After this Reed gives her extremely lenghty and very interesting interpretation of the text and closes off with the complete text in the hieroglyphic language so that other people can make their own translations.

The text itself -then- is about a man who lost the joy in life and who wants to kill himself, but he discusses this intention with his soul. The account of this is archaic, mysterious and quite beautiful.

The text is short enough to have made Reed able to work it out in so much detail. A great insight in the workings of the translation and explanation of an Egyptian text and a very nice text itself too.

De Rooms-Katholieke Kerk * Hans Wortelboer (isbn 9043511218 * 2005)

Uitgeverij Kok is the Netherlands’ largest Christian publisher. They are not from one Christian current. This proves because the book I am reviewing here is called “The Roman-Catholic Church, the complete handbook”, but they also got a similar impressive book about the Reformation. The title covers the contents of this book. It is massive (800 pages) and stuffed with information. Almost anything you want to know about the Roman-Catholic church can be found here.
The book is divided in four parts. The first part speaks about the founding, the early days, heresies, schismas, concilics, Eastern churches, orders, etc., etc. This means that you will not only read the early churchfathers, how the doctrines where formed, but also why what kind of church was built, their styles and functions; what are the atributes, what is the clothing of a priest, etc.
The second part is about the doctrine. You can read about the Bible (every book is shortly explained), the dogma’s, catechism and much more.
Then follows a part about the functions within the church. Every function is explained and then a large part of the book is filled with short biographies of the 263 popes.
The last part is dedicated to management of the church in the Netherlands and Belgium. Who are bishop and what are the dioceses, etc.
To complete the book there is a large index and a bibliography.

The book is very well readable. One point of comment is that here and there the writer uses a term that he doesn’t explain of only later in the book. The book makes a good reference-book about the institution of the Catholic church, for individuals, but also for the many parishes who no longer have their own priest or sacristan and where parishioners have to take care of many things themselves. Since they didn’t get the proper education for such a task, much knowledge would get lost and things could go wrong, but a book like this on the shelves could solve a problem or two because there is also very practical information in it, like the liturgic colours, what songs belong in what kind of mass, etc.

Symbolen, de taal van kunst en liturgie * Alfred C. Bronswijk (isbn 9023901479 * 1987)

I realise that I give you a hard time when reviewing so many books that I got secondhand myself. Many interesting titles are no longer in print and also second hand books are usually much cheaper. Especially when buying secondhand from the internet, the books often look like new. This time I was looking for a book about symbolism in churches. I ran into a nice Belgian website about this and this book is in their bibliography. Through antiqbook.com I quickly found a second hand copy of the 1997 fourth printing which proved to be (as good as) new. “Symbols, the language of art and liturgy” proved to be both what I was looking for and not. It is only a small and thin booklet (180 pages) and it indeed contains quite a lot of symbols used in texts and art, but not necessarily in churches. Only a part of the wide range of symbols is spoken about of course and each symbol is mostly spoken about shortly. Only here and there the writer refers to the prechristian source of a symbol. The booklet is not exactly what I was looking for, but certainly a good start. It is fairly easy to look something up quickly and the most important things seem to be there.