Another great work from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. This time they investigate the history of the esoteric systems of the West, in particular the Hermetic tradition. The writers also give some background of their own beings as children of the 60’ies ‘occult revival’ and their youthfull interest in the modern forms of Hermeticism in literature, poetry, art, etc.
The story more or less begins in Alexandria, the Greek city that Alexander the Great founded after the take-over of Egypt around 330 BC. Alexandria soon became the meeting place and hotbed for numerous philosophical, religious and occult people, movements and groups. This resulted in a high state of tollerance and interest of the inhabitants in different viewpoints and philosophies and Alexandria became the cultural capital of the world with two libraries of which the largest contained 500.000 book-rolls and the smallest 40.000. These not only had works of Pythogoras and Plato, also translations in different languages, but even much of what would later become the ‘corpus’ of the Hermetic writings and translations of texts that much later were discovered to be part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For a long time everything seemed perfect, but of course there were other cultures at hunt for land and power and Alexandria was attacked several times and eventually taken over and torn down. Many of its treasuries were lost.
The Alexandrian culture didn’t die out just like that and later many of its inhabitants found a new home among the upcoming followers of the Islam which was a very tollerant and openminded religion. Hermeticism even became a part of the Islam when the main movement took over elements from the suffists who were very much influenced by the Hermeticists that lived in the area. Hermeticism even became a ‘religion’ when Muslim leaders were travelling through their empire to see if the different movements among their inhabitents were “people of the book” (meaning, having a religion based on a revelation like the Koran, the Bible or the Vedas) and a group of Hermeticists named books like the Corpus Hermeticum, the Picatrix, etc. which were found legitimite by the Muslims.
Under Muslim flag Spain eventually became the most tollerant and diverse part of Europe regarding philosophy, religion and occultism. This was about 715 AD.
Of course in the end also Spain was taken back, the Muslims were stopped in their rise for the rest of Europe and eventually fought back to about the regions where it is still the main religion today.
Then the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are dealt with and a whole range of great names pass the revue. Names like Cosimo, Ficino (who both founded universaties in Italy), Reuchlin, Dürer, Paracelcus, Trithemius, Agrippa, emperor Rudolph II (the ‘hermetic’ emperor who protected many ‘heretics’ in his kingdom), Da Vinci, Shakespeare, John Dee, Bruno and many more. Some more in depth than others.
Also the coming up of the art of printing is written about, because it caused a fast propagation of the Hermetic knowledge and caused the Catholic church to loose a lot of its power over the knowledge of people, which they used to have almost a monopoly over.
Also the coming up of Protestantism (Luther and Calvin) caused the Catholic church to loose a lot of power.
After the Renaissance with its mysticism a new era came up, the era of rationalism, better known as the “alleviation”. Thinkers such as Descartes, Darwin, Huxley and Spenser caused people to accept only the things that they can observe with their five senses or aids. Religion, philosophy and especially occultism became unnecessary and even hostile.
But with Freud a new field of investigation was found, the area of the mind. Freud -though- was a obdurate rationalist who chose to deny many of the things that were actually exactly his field of investigation.
In the beginning Freud’s apprentice and protegé Jung seemed a proper follow-up and ally, but Jung more and more moved towards the fields of the occult and mysticism which eventually caused not only a break between the two former friends, but also between psychology and ‘science’. Still modern psychology and psychotherapy owes a lot to Jung.
The second part of the book is a lot less interesting as the first. It deals with ‘modern magic’ in the form of science, technology, manipulation of the mind, politics, commercial manipulation (commercials), manipulation of information, music and magic (Woodstock vs Altamont, voodoo in blues, jazz and rock), etc. And with modern Hermetic influences in art, poetry, literature, etc.
Overal the first part of the book is extremely interesting and a great reference book for Western esotericism. The philosophical musings of the writers are (however I don’t share many of their ideas) nice to read, but the largest part of the second part isn’t too interesting.
Also the writers put a bit too much stress on their own preferences, for example by complaining that too many people of today reach for the Eastern religions, devour books of people like Blavatsky or Gurdjieff instead of turning to art (in particular poetry, literature and painting), but they forget that many western people will not ‘reach enlightenment’ by looking at a painting of William Blake or Salvator Rosa or by reading poetry by William Shakespears or Robert Musil. As often stressed by ‘esotericists’ there is a path for the sensitive among us and one for the rationalists, usually called the ‘path of the mystic’ and the ‘path of the occultist’.
As always in the books of Baigent and Leigh there are many many quotes, but it seems that they owe a lot of these to Francis Yates.
Still a very good introduction to the traditions of the west.