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The Golden Builders – Tobias Churton (2004)

I saw this book referred to in the mildly interesting work about esoteric Freemason The Path Of Freemasonry. Especially references to Elias Ashmole caught my interest.

The Golden Builders is subtitled: “alchemists, Rosicrucians, first Freemasons” which spans a subject I am much interested in as I am curious to know how elements of the named ‘philosophies’ found their way into Masonic symbolism.

Just as the book I found this title in, Churton starts with a fairly general overview of Western esotericism. Hermetica, Alchemy, Renaissance, Hermetica, nothing new really. What is somewhat interesting is that Churton used the (then) latest investigations from academic circles, so he does refer to recent findings here and there.

Especially referring to recent findings of Carlos Gilly, with the part about the Rosicrucians the book starts to become a lot more interesting. Churton really dug in the persons involved in the Rosicrucian ‘movement’, looking at Andreae and his surroundings, the religious turmoil of these days, where inspiration came from, etc. A trace can even be followed to the Royal Society.

Via John Dee we come to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), whom Ashmole admired greatly. Ashmole is often ‘used’ to make a link between “operative” and “speculative” Freemasonry, but Churton shows that there is much more to say than only referring to both of Ashmole’s diary entrances about Freemasonry, the suggestion that he might have been a Rosicrucian and the fact that he was involved on the early Royal Society, which -in turn- influenced the rising of the ‘premiere Grand Lodge’ of 1717.

Ashmole was initiated a Freemason in 1646, 70 years before the foundation of the first Grand Lodge. Much has been written about why and how a non-“operative” was initiated into an “operative” lodge. Was it an occasional lodge? Where there separate lodges to initiate the “gentry” or did these noblemen join lodges and slowly but surely take them over, reforming “operative” lodges into “speculative” ones? Churton has a thing or two to say about this.

Through his first marriage, Ashmole can be linked to a long tradition of “operative” Masons going back to the dawn of Cistercian cloister builders. Even after losing his first wife the the plague, Ashmole was initiated together with a nephew of his late wife. Churton also has a look at that good man. In this regard it is also interesting to note the suggestion that people adhering the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) appeared to have played a big role in the Masonic transition.

What makes Ashmole interesting is that he compiled alchemical works, was interested in Hermeticism and he was known for that, even in times of the witch-craze. It could have been Ashmole and perhaps people ‘like him’ who introduced certain elements to Masonic symbolism.

A subject that I would have preferred to have been worked out is the interesting case of Sir William Wilson who was known to be an “operative” Mason who was (again?) initiated, while Churton suggests that there was no “operative” versus “speculative” Freemasonry in these days.

the term “speculative Freemasonry” has been used to make a spurious distinction between post-1717 ‘symbolic’ masonry and the old trade which ‘preceded’ it, in effect drawing a cautious (and unnecessary) veil over the movement’s genuine past.

The Golden Builders became a more interesting book than I expected in the first half. Unfortunately (and of course) not all questions are answered, but the interesting case of Ashmole is a lot more clear now. Churton also published a book solely about Ashmole two years after this one, which is the next title on my reading list. Churton has more titles that appear to be of interest. In The Golden Builders he is not too clear about it, but he seems to do a lot of research himself not only recapitulating what has been written before. He dove into archives, tried to find family information, etc. He may be an author I will read some more of.

2004 Weiser, isbn 157863329X

Preparing For The End: A Narrative Study Of Vafþrúðnismál – Andrew McGillivray (2015)

It does not happen often that I review an unpublished work. I ran into this dissertation on Academia.edu (click on the cover). It is a 200+ page work “towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy”. An interesting read!

McGillivray gives a detailed overview of the sources we have of Norse mythology. Manuscripts, prints, their editions, differences, etc. The reason is to paint the picture of which Vafþrúðnismál is part. After this, the author is going to slice the text, making cross-references to other sources, giving context and explanation of each of the verses, alternatives to translations, etc.

For his analyses, McGillivray uses the works of Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Quite different authors you may think. Of Ricœur the author uses the method to break stories into segments, Gurevich provides “categories of medieval culture” and Eliade the “myth of eternal return”.

On the secondary level it is also hoped that from the formal analysis some conclusions can be drawn about the society for which these poems were important enough to write in manuscripts.

Thus we follow Odin traveling to meet a wise giants and challenge him to a duel of wisdom in order to become more wise himself. There are parallels in other known stories. Some of the information that is exchanged is more complete in these other sources or rather the contrary.

Because McGillivray takes his time to make his points, the work provides a wealth of information about Norse mythology, but also about the (older and more contemporary) scholarly investigations into this mythology. Preparing For The End is perhaps a bit dry and/or detailed for some, but certainly not as much as it could have been. I enjoyed reading this and wonder why the work has not been made available in print. Another work of the author is so maybe there is hope.

2015 University of Iceland

The Path Of Freemasonry – Mark Stavish (2021)

I ran into this book a bit by accident. The subtitle is: “The Craft as a Spiritual Practice” and it is supposed to be a book about the esoteric side of Freemasonry. The introductions are written by no less authors as Arturo de Hoyos and Lon Milo DuQuette, both known esoteric Freemasons.

DuQuette starts with an anecdote about a secret meeting of esoteric Freemasons. Secret, because there are supposedly many ‘anti-esoteric Freemasons’. He does not even dare to name the country where the meeting was held. I doubt a man of the stature of DuQuette who has written many books on a wide variety of things esoteric would be unknown to be an esoteric Freemason amongst his brothers, so I found that story a bit weird.

Stavish promises a lot more than (in my opinion) he makes true. The book is not really an esoteric peek into Masonic symbolism or an ‘esoteric approach’ of The Craft. It is mostly a book with “suggestive retellings” (to use the author’s own term) of Western esotericism. Elias Ashmole, Rosicrucians, Qabbalah (author’s spelling), all esoteric subjects that are (vaguely) linked to Freemasonry in many books are written about without any really in depth information or clear links to Freemasonry. “Suggestive retellings”.

Stavish only scratches the surface and cuts corners. He says that the “placement of the officers” is part of the “Landmarks” while I cannot fathom he does not know that there are two different set-ups in lodges. He says where a Bible is opened in lodges, but this is not the same in every lodge. Or what about calling Jan Amos Comenius a “Moravian alchemist” or saying “the Grand Lodge of France, known as the Grand Orient of France”? France has many Grand Lodges, not just the Grand Orient.

Also annoying, it appears that Stavish has read something about mixed gender Freemasonry (or co-Masonry) which he supposedly thinks it still the same all over the world and exactly like it was in the Theosophical period. It has “invisible adepts” for example” (I never heard of that). The Theosophical period was perhaps two decades in the very early 20th century and the other century of its existence there was a short ‘anti-Theosophical’ movement in some Grand loges, but mostly a neutral stance.

Stavish does not present much new when it comes to Western esotericism, Freemasonry, its history of symbolism or the link between these two. There are also three appendices which are not wildly interesting (even though the geometry text by John Michael Greer did present things I never encountered).

“The Path Of Freemasonry” is not a boring read, but it is not exactly groundbreaking either. He does have some nice suggestions in his bibliography, has reading suggestions per subject and (very contemporary): exercises.

2021 Inner Traditions, isbn 1644113287

The Path Of The Warrior-Mystic – Angel Millar (2021)

Millar is a UK born American who is an esotericist, martial artist, Freemason and prolific writer. He wrote a couple of interesting book and had a bunch of websites (alone or in cooperation). Online Millar had some ‘masculinity’ topics, but these website(s) seem to be gone.

A while ago a new book was announced and I could pre-purchase a Kindle edition. Earlier than I expected, it appeared on my Kindle so I curiously started to read Millar’s latest.

“The Path” is a much different book from earlier titles. Also online Millar seems to be moving from esotericism to self-help with more focus on his hypnosis practice.

The book is mostly a self-help book focussed on the male. You will run into “positive thinking, visualization, and self-talk” and quite a bit of Karl Jung.

Millar proves to be a thinker and reader with a ‘hands on’ approach to self-development. In painting his subjects he goes from old and recent literature to art to Masonic symbolism and Eastern mysticism, Muslim thinkers and critics of the modern world. The latter sentiment is fairly strong throughout the work, but not very ‘Traditionalistic’.

Millar’s latest book is not a boring read, but I highly prefer his previous works. I especially do not feel much for the meditation, auto-suggestion exercises, etc. I do support his aim to call for self-improvement and not shun masculinity, but it seems that Millar develops in directions away from my personal preferences.

Islamic Life And Thought – Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2001)

  • religion

In this interesting book, the Traditionalist and born Muslim Nasr describes Islam from an Islamic perspective. Also he describes how Islam looks outside its own boundaries.

Being both Traditionalist and Muslim, Nasr points to elements of modern society, such as secularism, education, religion and strive. He does not write on behalf of a particular Muslim current, but is also clear about the fact that Islam is not a homogenous religion. The most interesting part (to me) is when he shows how Islam changed in different areas as it spread over the globe. Quite like that the Christianity of Southern America is different from the Christianity of Northern Europe, Far Eastern Islam is not the same as North African Islam.

It is hard to say how many contemporary Muslims are as open minded as Nasr or certain parts of Islam in the past. Of course within Islam things like Hermetism and Alchemy have been preserved because some authors found them worth studying. Muslim philosophers have studied the classical Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, but these are not things we hear much of nowadays.

What Nasr is far from happy about, is the influence of contemporary Western thinking on Muslims with Western style education on universities and Muslims who know more about market economy than about the deeper layers of their own religion.

What you get from this book is a nice overview of the vast subject of Islam in times past and more recent and also (possible) Muslim approaches to contemporary questions. It comes across me (practically a layman in the field) somewhat idealised, but nonetheless interesting.

2001 Kazi Publications, isbn 1930637144

Eternal Wisdom – Gwendolyn Taunton (2020)

In Amazon’s Kindle store my eye fell on two titles of Gwendolyn Taunton (formerly Toynton) that I did not know. The Primordial Tradition (2015) and the book presently under review.

That book is presented as an updated version of the publication that acquainted me with Taunton back in the days: Primordial Traditions Compendium (2009) which was a compendium of a periodical that Taunton edited before (2005-2008).

The 230+ page compendium contains texts by various authors. In the new 78 page version, there are only texts of what used to be the editor. New ones too it seems, so the connection between both publications is only the author.

Already in 2009 I concluded that Taunton’s explanation of the term “Primordial Tradition” is not mine. This is still the case. This is emphasized by the opening text about Carl Gustav Jung. What was also apparent over a decade ago is that Taunton appears to be of the opinion that “philosophia perennis” can be reached by study. It is even “an intellectual transmission” (emphasis mine). “Philosophia perennis” is presented as (the result of) the study of comparative myth and religion.

Even though she does refer to Guénon, Schuon and Coomaraswamy, Taunton’s approach is much different.

A prophet, therefor, does not require the bonds of filiation, which René Guénon believed to be the necessary requirement for belonging to tradition.

Guénon has a few things to say about prophets which is in a way similar, but also much different from that statement. Another point Guénon would certainly not agree with is:

Faith in the potency of any specific symbol relies upon the most basic human aspect of belief. Belief in a sentient God is not even required.

As with other publications, Taunton walks a similar mountain as myself, but another path (but closer as many). As usual she does have interesting things to say and diverting opinions force me to question my own. I do wonder about some chapters what the relevancy with the subject is, such as the chapter about the “science of omens”.

There is also a chapter about alchemy in which Taunton suggests that alchemy is a (proto-)Indo-European tradition which has spread with Indo-European culture. This would explain the spread and diversity of alchemy. This is an interesting notion that I do not think I encountered before.

The closing chapter is more political. Apparently some alt-right thinkers have started using the term “Traditionalism” and for that reason Taunton chose to no longer use the term as she wants to prevent being lumped together with such currents. It could be me, but this alt-right is hardly visible (especially possible ‘intellectual’ efforts have all passed by me) and just the fact that they try to hijack a term that has been in use for a century is not immediately a reason for me to start to look for a synonym.

As often with Manticore publications, interesting, somewhat different from my own ideas (which is good). Rather short though.

2020 Manticore Press, isbn 0648766055

Syncretic Indo-European Faith – Zachary Gill (2020)

I ran into this book in the Amazon Kindle store and thought that I had been too long since I read anything about comparative myth. Why not try a writer I do not know?

I suppose I expected a scholarly work. I am not sure if the author is an interested layman or if he has education of some sort, but Syncretic Indo-European Faith is not a scholarly work of comparative myth of religion, but rather a personal exposition of a man describing his path and studious efforts.

The book appears to come from the group “Hammer & Vajra” which just might be a one man group (or a man with followers). Gill does appear to put some effort in his project with a website, a webshop and now a book.

It is not unheard that modern-day heathens look at other religions in the Indo-European family for inspiration, to fill gaps or because of general interest. Gill goes a few steps further. He seriously investigations all Indo-European faiths of the present and the past, elements of which seep into his worldview. Hence the term “syncretic”. The result he calls “Vedic Heathenism”, not because the Vedas are the basis of his faith, but because they are the oldest known Indo-European texts. It is more of an approach than a system, as Gill recommends everybody to investigate the faith of their ancestors to be the basis of ones own faith and then look at ‘family religions’ for a deeper understanding.

This syncretic approach may be frowned upon by some contemporary heathens, even more so will Gill’s view of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He sees Indo-European roots and/or elements in these Abrahamic faiths and suggests filtering these out to see what can be “salvaged”. Also he recommends possible readers of these faiths not to go over to another faith, but to study their own, see where the roots are and understand their own religions better.

Gill says he is not in favour of mixing elements of different faiths (which he does do in a way) but I enjoy his open-minded approach. In some ways his approach is ‘folkish’, in other ways somewhat ‘universalistic’. It sure is an approach I have not ran into very often, In quite a few ways, the approach is like my own, in other ways not at all, but only agreement would be boring, would it not?

In his comparisons Gill is sometimes original, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes a bit too easy, but he sure made an effort to know a lot more about the different Indo-European and non-Indo-European religions and myths than many non specialists and practicing heathens. This makes a book a nice read. It is not that I learned a whole lot new, but it is interesting to read the thoughts of a contemporary heathen which interests similar to my own.

2020 Hammer & Vajra Project, isbn 1734766611

Occultism In A Global Perspective – Henrik Bogdan & Gordan Djurdjevic (2014)

Academic studies of esotericism (whether people, groups or currents) often focus on “the West”. Bogdan and Djurdjevic wanted to remedy this focussing on esotericism (or actually mostly occultism) in less-investigated areas.

This results in an interesting collection of essays of scholars known and new to me about a variety of subjects.

After an introduction of the editors, follows a somewhat technical text from Kennet Granholm about what this “West” of “Western esotericism” actually it. That is not as clear cut as it may seem at first sight.

Then follows an author that I keep running into recently Hans Thomas Hakl who wrote about the Fraternitas Saturni. After Hakl we have a text about satanism in Denmark around 1900 by Per Faxneld, so a structured form of satanism of well before Anton LaVey.

Interesting is editor Djurdjevic’s text about occultism in former Yugoslavia, which also touches on influences of Theosophy and Traditionalism. Then we turn to Italy for a text about Tommaso Palamidessi. Noone less than Arthur Versluis wrote about esoteric Hitlerism (Savitri Sevi and Miguel Serrano). After this PierLuigi Zoccatelli looks at a man I have run into many years ago: Samuel Aun Weor.

The other editor, Henrik Bogdan, investigates the case of the Holy Order of India, an Eastern order which was influenced by Western occultism rather than the other way around. We move to Japan with Emily Aoife Somers’ essay about the Japanse literary genre “Nô” (ghost/horror) and how W.B. Yeats was influenced by it, but also the other way around had his influence. The last text is about an artist and solitary Australian occultist Rosaleen Norton.

I did not find all subjects equally interesting, but as you can see a variety of subjects in a variety of countries and also texts from known and not yet known authors. The editors made an interesting compilation. It being an academic publication, the book is not cheap, but you can actually rent a Kindle edition for a fair price.

2014 Routledge, isbn 1844657167

Lords Of The Left Hand Path – Stephen Flowers (2012)

This book of Flowers is in some ways similar to the recently reviewed “Satanism A Social History“. Both give an historical overview of people and groups who ‘walk the dark path’. Introvigne also refers to Flowers’ book frequently. Where Introvigne is mostly historical, Flowers also looks at the ideas and systems of the groups and people he writes about.

Flowers’ book begins with interesting chapters about the left hand path in general, the left hand path in the East and especially how things in the past and in the East are not are clear cut as today in the West. The notions of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ are not as sharp as we like to think of them today.

The introductory chapter “the roots of the Western tradition” is interesting as well, but slowly but surely things started to become less interesting to me. The chapter about World War II is not the best to me and towards the end the book almost starts to seem to be an introduction to the last two chapters about Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan and Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set.

With these last two persons we of course have people who consciously swim against the stream and do/did so visually. LaVey started in the hippy days, but he also lived through (and survived) the days of the “Satanic scare” in the USA. Flowers looks at the writings and ideas of both LaVey and Aquino in detail. A bit too much detail for my liking compared to previous chapters which were more general. Well, there is a descent chapter about the Fraternitas Saturni about which Flowers wrote an entire book.

All in all I found the book a modestly interesting read. I enjoy reading about people going against the current, but it is a path that is entirely not mine. The “Left Hand Path” for Flowers (and undoubtedly others) is one of individualism without loosing it in a ‘mystic end’. You also get a glimpse of how Flowers sees things himself and it is quite a thing for an academic to display that so clearly. Perhaps that is linked to Left Hand Path organisations such as the Temple of Set (and the Dragon Rouge which is for some reason not mentioned) which’ members more and more frequently also pursue an academic career.

2012 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594774676

Restating Orientalism – Wael Hallaq (2018)

Not quite what I expected (or hoped for). I thought this would be a book showing new methods of an orientalist approach. In a way it is, but not about orientalism as a ‘method’, but about orientalism as a subject.

The “Orientalism” from the subject, is mostly a reference to the 1978 book of that title written by Edward Said (1935-2003) who on his turn leaned heavily on Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Said was quite radical in his critique on orientalism as an academic discipline.

Where Foucault theorised about knowledge and power, Said described how orientalists basically supported colonialism. It was not as much as that orientalists tried (try) to describe the orient (whether near or far), but their descriptions serve the purpose of the western occupying forces.

Hallaq sees much in the ideas of Said, but he also has a lot to say about it and, indeed, restate Said’s theories. This results in very dry and academic writing about the role of the west, politics and “a critique of modern knowledge”.

With regard to the latter, a surprising name pops up: René Guénon (1886-1951), which is probably the reason I heard about Hallaq’s book in the first place. Guénon is presented as an “orientalist” and not as an “islamologist” which is ironic, since an often heard critique on Guénon is that his far eastern knowledge came from books, while he lived as a Muslim half his life. Be that as it may, Hallaq praises Guénon’s fierce criticism on western thinking and finds his work in parts clearer than those of Said. The part about Guénon is about the only part which is somewhat about ideas and theories.

I found “Restating Orientalism” a tough read. It is interesting to read how orientalists started to work out the countless varieties of eastern oral laws to bend it to the wests on purposes, but, as mentioned, most of the book is not about such subjects, but about how orientalism too often serves the dominating politics of the west.

Hallaq does propose alternative views, mostly based on Islam and it is in these sparse passages that the book comes near to what I had hoped it would be.

2018 Columbia University Press, isbn 0231187629