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Echoes of Valhalla – Jon Karl Helgason

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Categories: art, germanic

Echoes of Valhalla coverSubtitled The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas, Jon Karl Helgason’s Echoes of Valhalla has the dubious distinction of being the first book to be reviewed at Scriptus Recensera in which the opening paragraph references the dire and perpetually unfunny 1990s sitcom Friends. Helgason uses the show’s passing reference to a peripheral character who is nicknamed Gandalf as an example of how something with roots 1000 years ago could so suffuse popular culture that it now exists independently of its origins. In this instance, the name Gandalf can be traced back to the list of dwarf names found in the Old Norse poem Völuspá, where it sits alongside the names of twelve of the thirteen dwarves that join Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins on their adventure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Whether it is from reading Tolkien’s works, seeing the film adaptions of Ralph Bakshi or Peter Jackson, or even encountering the characters in the Lego video game versions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, most people, even those versed in skaldic poetry and the Eddas, will inevitably think of some incarnation of Gandalf the wizard when encountering that name, rather than one of several primordial dwarves. This is exemplary of what Helgason finds fascinating, that texts written centuries ago in the isolated rural areas of his native Iceland have become part of “our (almost) universal cultural memory” and have seen reproduction in comics, plays, travelogues, music and film.

Given this evident fascination, what is presented here is not a pedantic discussion of how pop culture interpretations of Norse mythology differ from the source material. Instead, Helgason views these modern retellings as a continuation of a metafictional tendency in the treatment of Norse myth that dates back to at least Snorra Edda in which Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of the story of Óðinn’s theft of the mead of poetry allows us to read fiction about the origin of fiction, and its constant ingestion. Just as Óðinn ingests the mead of poetry, so, Helgason argues, Snorri and other post-conversion poets used an inventive ‘digestion’ of earlier texts to create mnemonic devices to better understand both the past and the art of poetry itself.

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The first focus of this digestion is Þórr who finds his most obvious, though by no means only, comic representation in Marvel’s Mighty Thor, “the most exciting superhero of all time” as the cover of his debut in Journey into Mystery #83 injudiciously proclaims with two exclamation marks. Helgason shows how from the outset, this Thor had little reliance on his mythic predecessor, with a far great influence being found in similar figures in previous comics, all of which follow a familiar pattern. Indeed, the ur-text for Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby were not the Eddas or skaldic poetry, but rather the very comics in which they were immersed, with a number of precedents for the idea of the Norse thunder god transplanted into the modern world, including some in which a human awakens, or becomes the embodiment of Þórr. Kirby had a hand in several of these, including a story in #75 of DC’s Adventure Comics (in which the villain Fairy Tales Fenton masquerades as a magical hammer-wielding Þórr to rob banks), and an issue of Tales of the Unexpected from 1957 in which a gold-digger discovers Þórr’s hammer and considers robbing banks with it, before its owner turns up and claims it back.

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In the second chapter, Helgason takes a significant chronological leap backwards and returns to Snorri’s own treatment of this topos, considering in-depth the ambiguity surrounding his role as author. Helgason mentions how Snorri is rarely physically credited as the author on many of the works he came to be associated with, and highlights his role as a compiler, and therefore as someone who is but one link, albeit a significant one, in a chain that extends from the uncredited skalds to modern comic book writers (a class also historically subjected to working anonymous and receiving insufficient credit).

Focus then turns to the stage, beginning with a consideration of Henrik Ibsen’s 1857 play Hærmændene paa Helgeland, set during the post-conversion time of Erik Blood-axe, with Helgason noting the through-line between its heroine Hjørdis and another of Ibsen’s characters, the titular Hedda Gabler, whom he would immortalise decades later in 1890. In slightly less detail, Helgason also looks at the relevant works of Gordon Bottomley (The Riding to Lithend) and Thit Jensen (Nial den Vise), before moving on to the fourth chapter with its discussion of travel writers, in which their explorations of Iceland more often than not went hand in hand with a fascination with the sagas, their characters and locations.

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With the fifth chapter and its consideration of music, Helgason begins with references to Led Zeppelin, attempting to position them as a link between two diverse musical examples of the afterlife of the eddas: Norse-inspired classical music as typified by Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and contemporary Viking metal. Helgason centres this discussion on the motif of Valhalla, showing how the perhaps overstated idea of a glorious death and equally glorious afterlife has held a particular and enduring attraction for musicians, often becoming shorthand for conceptions of Norse mythology in its entirety. Unfortunately, just as such an idea limits the complexity of myth, so applying that model to analysing an art form simplifies its assessment and as a result, this is a relatively brief survey of Viking metal. There’s no real noting of the history, no mention of offshoots like the Norse ritual music of Wardruna and their imitators, and only a few bands are mentioned by name, with one of these being a little known power metal band from Mexico, Mighty Thor, whose outsize presence is cemented by them being the only band represented here in photos, twice (one a frankly ridiculous promo photo and the other a tiny, practically pointless album sleeve). While a comprehensive history of the genre isn’t to be expected, the level of detail seems slight when compared to how the previous chapters have addressed their respective subject matter, and there is much more than could have been worth discussing in a deeper dive.

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Finally, Helgason turns to cinema, once again beginning with a quirky reference, in this instance to the Monty Python-aligned film Erik the Viking, before taking a deep dive into Viking-themed films, the most notable of which went with the stunningly imaginative title The Vikings. There’s Roy William Neill’s so-named silent film from 1928, and Richard Fleischer’s sword-n-sandals-era The Vikings from 1958. Although the latter could be said to paint an implausible image of Norse Vikings, Helgason returns to his central premise, wryly noting that the same could be equally true of the sagas and eddas themselves.

In all, this is an enjoyable read, with Helgason having an amiable style and clear narrative voice. Not all sections will necessarily appeal to everyone, with, for exampl, drama and travelogues being somewhat obviously of little interest to this reviewer with her scant summary thereof. Echoes of Valhalla runs to 240 pages and is bound in red with grey endpapers, all wrapped in a nice glossy dust jacket.

Published by Reaktion Books

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Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches Volume 1 and 2 – Edited by Jürg Glauser, Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell

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Categories: germanic, Tags:

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies coverDivided into two volumes of a combined page count of well over 1000 pages, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies is a significant work, with the weighty tome of the first volume running to a cumbersome and intimidating 940 pages, while the second volume closes out this slightly misnamed ‘handbook’ with a considerably more manageable 214 pages. With entries documenting the work-to-date in the application of Memory Studies to what is rather broadly defined as the pre-modern Nordic world, this somewhat humbly titled handbook features approximately eighty contributors, some of whom have multiple entries, with many familiar names including Stephen A, Mitchell, John Lindow, Carolyne Larrington, Gísli Sigurðsson, Rudolf Simek, Terry Gunnell, Else Mundal, Terje Gansum, Thomas A. Dubois, Margaret Clunies Ross and Anne-Sofie Gräslund. While the focus is specifically on the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, as well both earlier and later periods, the net is also cast wider into neighbouring areas, such as in Sarah Künzler’s Celtic Studies and Antonina Harbus’ Anglo-Saxon Studies. There is also a significant section considering reflections on the Nordic past from different national perspectives beyond Scandinavia including North America (Birgitta Wallace, Stephen A. Mitchell and Henrik Williams), Britain and the Northern Isles (Joseph Falaky Nagy, Richard Cole and Mitchell again), as well as perspectives French (Pierre-Brice Stahl), German (Roland Scheel), Polish (Jakub Morawiec) and Russian (Ulrich Schmid and Barbora Davidková).

It would be impossible to discuss every entry lest this review run to the page-count of even the relatively humble second volume, but highlights are worth mentioning and the sections into which the books have been divided show the depth and breadth of what is considered here. Contributions are grouped into three parts, Part I: Disciplines, Traditions and Perspectives and Part II: Case Studies, with subcategories beneath each of these, while the standalone second volume consists of Part III: Text and Images.

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In Part I, the discussions of disciplinary approaches to memory studies all follow a similar structure, intended to make the book unified and as pleasant to read as possible, beginning with a definition of the discipline and its intersection with memory studies, a survey of the current scholarship, a short exemplary study that demonstrates how memory studies can be applied to the field, a discussion of future directions more memory studies in that field, and finally a bibliography. These thirty entry are grouped into more precise categories beginning with Culture and Communication and flowing into sections on material culture, philology, aesthetics and communication, constructing the past, neighbouring disciplines and in-dialogue. Within this framework are a variety of considerations with notable examples being rhetoric and literary studies (Jürg Glauser), mythology (Pernille Hermann), the archaeology of mortuary architecture (Anders Andrén), performance (Terry Gunnell), folklore and orality (Stephen A. Mitchell), law (Stefan Brink), history (Bjørn Bandlien), popular culture (Jon Karl Helgason), and Kate Heslop’s Media Studies, in which she discusses the various media for communication of memory: stone, the body, wax and codex.

By their nature, these chapters are brief, not providing much to sink one’s teeth into, and instead the focus is a technical one, largely concerned with the study of studying, the teaching of teaching. That isn’t to say that the case studies included here are perfunctory, and of no wider interest, just that due to the format, they do have their limits. It is in the book’s second part that more in-depth considerations are presented as standalone investigations of these themes, though once again they aren’t as long as they might be in a different title.

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Part II consists entirely of these case studies and they are intended to compliment and expand on the disciplinary-organised entries presented in the first section. There are seventy chapters in all, considering various memory-related texts, objects, practices, sites and other aspects of Viking and Medieval traditions, each presented as a self-contained two-part examination in which the specific theme is introduced, and then explored in a source-focused case study.

These studies are grouped under the broad categories of Media, Space, Action, and Power, with each having further subcategories for more specificity. The section of essays grouped under the heading of Media follow the approach established in Part I by Kate Heslop, and explore various medium that are further categorised under the subheadings of mediality, visual modes and narrating the past. Of these, some of the most interesting are Sarah Künzler’s discussion of skin, Karoline Kjesrud’s survey of Marian sculptures (whose ritual and devotional function placed them in a continuously dialogic relation with the past), Anne-Sofie Gräslund’s exploration of ornamentation in Scandinavian art, and Stephen A. Mitchell’s essay on perhaps the most obvious Nordic symbol of memory, Óðinn’s twin ravens Huginn and Muninn.

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Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire makes an obvious appearance amongst some of the contributions, though not as prominently as one might expect, particularly under the rubric of Space, which is delineated into two sub categories of nature and landscape. Lisa Bennett, for example, focuses on the depiction of burial mounds in Íslendingasögur, considering their mnemonic role in the landscape as both memorialising and commemorative, as well as the later cultural attitudes towards them as seen in their representations by the authors of the saga. Similar themes of mnemonic space are covered in contributions from Anni-Mari Hållans Stenholm in Landscapes and Mounds and Pernille Hermann in Memorial Landscapes, with the former discussing the role of the burial mound as the ultimate monument of memory, while the latter has a more specific focus in the Glavendrup rune stone. Another consideration of land as memory is from Mathias Nordvig who is very much in his wheelhouse when arguing, as he has done elsewhere, that a wide range of Nordic mythic imagery, particularly of the apocalyptic variety, is a memory of volcanic activity. As ever, though, Nordvig’s use of the natural allegory model is rather unrestrained in its application, with the result being that practically anything can be said to allude to volcanism.

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies spreadThe essays grouped under the heading of Action have a focus on the crafting of memory, of performance and ritualised behaviour, and are further categorised by the subheadings of Using Specialist Knowledge and Performing Commemoration. The consideration of specialist knowledge begins with poetry, first in Russell Poole’s discussion of skalds as holders of cultural memory, highlighting their use of verse-forms such as dróttkvætt as a potential aid to their prodigious memory skills. Bergsveinn Birgisson also mentions the mnemonic properties of dróttkvætt but turns his focus to another area of Norse poetry, kennings, which, with their often bizarre visual imagery and use of contrast-tension, could have had a comparable function to the classical techniques of ars memoriae. Mnemonic devices are also of concern to Pernille Hermann in another entry here, while Gísli Sigurðsson looks at landscape as a memory tool in the form of mental maps, and Stephen Mitchell considers the role of memory in the use and transmission of charms in folk medicine. When the focus of Action turns to the theme of performative commemoration, these find form in discussions of ritual (Terry Gunnell), memorial poems and eulogies (Joseph Harris), memorial toasts (Lars Lönnroth), Faroese chain dancing (Tóta Árnadóttir), while Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir has two contributions, one on the role of women in remembrance practices, and another on post-conversion donation culture. The one outlier here is another piece by Mathias Nordvig but with a modern focus, discussing the use of the figure of the Viking as a racial patriarch in the contemporary identitarian Asatru of two groups, the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Wolves of Vinland.

The final grouping of essays considers memory through power under the three further classifications of Designing Beginnings, National Memories, and Envisioning the Northern Past, providing insight, as the headings suggest, into how memory has a foundational capability that can be used to define imagined communities and societies. Of these, highlights are those discussing national perspectives on the Nordic past, with various authors showing how that mythic strata was used in crafting the identity of different Scandinavian nations. Both Pernille Hermann and Sophie Bønding look at things from a Danish perspective, Malan Marnersdóttir discusses the impact of Færeyinga Saga on Faroese identity, while Norway is covered separately by Terje Gansum and Jon Gunnar Jørgensen, and Sweden by both Stephen Mitchell and Anna Wallette, with the latter focusing on the role of Olaus Rudbeck and his unashamedly suecophilic book Atlantica.

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The separate second volume of Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies takes a different approach to the consideration of memory with Part III: Text and Images beginning not with essays but with source texts, and thereby giving the reader, be they experienced or lay, the opportunity to see for themselves how concerns of memory are dealt with in this corpus of pre-Modern Nordic material. With content both mystical and prosaic, stretching from Völuspá to a lost land deed from 1420-1474’s Stockholm Land Registry, as well as the inscriptions of runestones, each entry is presented with an often slight introductory comment, data on the text’s name, source and translation, and then the excerpt itself in its original language followed by an English translation. As the introduction from editors Glauser, Hermann and Mitchell presents it, these excerpts give the reader a direct experience with the Old Norse concepts of minni, free of any editorialising. The latter half of Volume 2 reflects the visual component alluded to in the Text and Images title, with a collection of colour plates, twenty-six in all, featuring images referenced in Volume 1’s previous first and second parts. It’s a valuable and ultimately logical adjunct, given the page count of the first volume but something of a pain if you’re reading the essays and need to keep this second book on hand too in order to check any visual references.

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Despite its intimidating length, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies can feel like an easy read, with most contributions never going beyond ten pages, and usually coming in at far less, meaning that if something doesn’t grab your attention, it doesn’t take long to breeze through it and move on to the next one. With the cast of recognisable names from Nordic academic, there’s a quality and expertise to the writing, making both volumes a worthy, if heavy, addition to one’s library.

Published by De Gruyter

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The Magic of the Runes: Their Origins and Occult Power – Michael Howard

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Categories: germanic, runes

The Magic of the Runes coverAfter it was savaged by Stephen Flowers in his recently-reviewed Revival of the Runes, your humble editor inevitably had to see whether it deserved such ire and retrieved this small book from some of the mustier shelves of the Scriptus Recensera. Published in 1980, The Magic of the Runes was one of Howard’s earliest books, emerging in the wake of his debut, Candle Burning: Its Occult Significance which he had written five years prior for Thorsons (that’s the publisher later bought by HarperCollins, not the pen name of Stephen Flowers). In 1980, Thorsons, via their imprint Aquarian Press, reissued Candle Burning and also published The Magic of the Runes, with both books sharing a similar design in which an identically formatted serif title sits atop lovely painted images. Both cover images, sadly uncredited, feel like major selling points for these titles, with a bright colour palette and surreal styling that evokes 1970s progressive rock album art, in particular the luminous gradients and impossible landscapes of Roger Dean who created the iconic cover art for the band Yes. In the case of The Magic of the Runes, an eagle, its wings spread, sits atop a runestone that with its dramatic shadows seems almost monolithic in scale, like a cosmic mountain, while at its base a serpent rises amongst leaves upon which lie gorgeously rendered drops of dew. The runestone faithfully bears the runes that are discussed within these pages, and therein lies the problem, and the source of Flowers’ ire.

In 1980, knowledge of the runes within the esoteric milieu was in a nascent state, with both Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes and Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland’s previously-reviewed Rune Games still two years away from being published, while Flower’s Futhark would not be released by Weiser until a further two years after them. Runic scholarship, such as it was, was still limited to the academy, and as a result, Howard did not have a lot to work with when he came to consider the subject in terms of references. It is not clear whether he consulted Ralph Elliott’s 1959 Runes: An Introduction, or R. I. Page’s An Introduction to English Runes from 1973. They’re certainly not referenced here, but then again, barely anything is.

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The Magic of the Runes was, surprisingly, not Howard’s first foray into runes, having published the equally slight 95-page volume The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets via both Thorsons and Weiser in 1978. Although Howard makes reference to that book here as a previous, standalone work, there are elements that make The Magic of the Runes feel like it may have been an updating of parts of its predecessor, with the two books sharing some identical chapter headings (The Origins of the Runes and The Runemasters) as well as the text hitting many of the same beats. There’s also the inclusion of at least one of the ‘other magical alphabets’ alluded to in the earlier title, with The Magic of the Runes concluding with a brief and somewhat superfluous chapter on Ogham.

Howard begins with a chapter whose title claims to be about the origin of the runes, but there’s very little philology here and instead this is more focused on the idea of Óðinn as the discoverer of the runes. From this basis comes a broader consideration of the cult of Óðinn and its potential analogies with shamanism, all painted with rather large strokes and infused with ideas heavily drawn from Manly Palmer Hall’s vision of a somewhat, if not entirely, theoretical Odinic Mysteries.

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It is in the second chapter that Howard turns to the runes themselves and this is where things get weird. Here, Howard talks about how in his previous The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets he had ‘rationalised’ the characters from various runic scripts into a single variant of the Germanic futhark, and that in order to avoid confusing the reader, that’s the version he sets out to use here. The care for the reader is a little misplaced, though, because the futhark he presents is, well, yes, confusing.

The runes are introduced in a double line block, with their Latin equivalent below each row, but for anyone with even just a passing familiarity with the runes, this must look a little off. While some of the characters are in the shape of conventional runes, others appear to have been taken from various Etruscan alphabets and other Old Italic scripts. Similarly, the attribution of Latin counterparts to these runes is all over the place, such as when a triple cross bar Hagalaz is transliterated to ‘n’, while something resembling Fehu is meant to be ‘w.’ It’s the runes themselves that suffer the worst, though, with the actual Fehu looking like a conventional capital Latin ‘F,’ or the equivalent of Uruz that seems to be a wonky capital ‘A,’ or the Raidho that looks nothing like an ‘R’ and instead is a triangular ‘D’. It’s unclear where some of these choices come from, whether it was simply poor research or an inattentive graphic designer who didn’t think the shape of these squiggles really mattered. Other character errors can be given a source, although it’s still baffling as to how they occurred, such as the rune given for ‘M’ which looks like a Latin ‘M’ but with one elongated stem. This glyph can be traced to the letter’s equivalent in various Etruscan scripts including Venetic, Camunic, Lepontic, all of which were derived from the Euboean version of the Greek alphabet, in which the same glyph occurs, as it does in many other archaic regional variations of the Greek alphabet, as well as in their ultimate root, Phoenician, where it is the letter mem. Something similar is true of the triangular D that is intended to be the equivalent of ‘R’ as this same attribution also occurs in Camunic, while the glyph is seen in Phoenician too, though there, just to be difficult, it’s the letter daleth, the equivalent of the Latin ‘D.’ Perhaps the most confusing of these misplaced letters is the equivalent of Þ which just looks like someone got carried away whilst drawing a ‘B’ and added too many bowls, if you’ll forgive the typographic nomenclature.

The result flies in the face of Howard’s description of this set as a rationalised Germanic futhark, having as much in common with Greek and Phoenician as it does with anything Germanic, and being, for that matter, not all that rational. What makes this rationalised futhark all the more puzzling is that Howard immediately follows its introduction with what is now a very standard format for rune books in which the glyph of a rune is shown, its name is given, and then a little paragraph or so of meaning and context is provided. But the runes here are different from the rationalised ones in the image immediately above, and instead mirror the Elder Futhark, well, kind of. The names given for each rune are largely the Anglo-Saxon ones, but out of the gate things go awry when Feoh with its associations with cattle and wealth is not the familiar F-like glyph but is instead an inverted arrow or Tir rune. Still, it fares better than Ur, which is completely forgotten and replaced by a premature Beorc, which at least has the right glyph. Then Þ starts off badly with its Anglo-Saxon name rendered not as Ðorn but as Porn, ooh matron, but it gets worse, if such a thing is possible, when the glyph is not the entire thorn shape but just the triangular D that was attributed to ‘R’ in the previous rationalised futhark. The futhark gets back on track order-wise for Os, Rad, Ken, although almost expectedly, Os uses the shape of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc), rather than the winged Os of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Further along, Eoh looks more like a broken tick symbol, barely related to the familiar Eihwaz double hook, while Peorð is charmingly referred to as Pear and its glyph is once again not quite right. In all, there are twenty-one runes listed here, with Ur, Is and Eh being omitted for some reason, while the additional four runes that are unique to the Anglo-Saxon futhorc are also absent.

In all, this makes for a very confusing experience, where it’s not clear why some of the runes are rendered as they are, or why some are missing, or, of course, why there is the disconnect between the rationalised futhark Howard presents at the start and the runes that are described in the pages that immediately follow it. It doesn’t end there, though, and later on things get further muddled when Howard gives some practical uses for the runes. First, in a piece on writing runes as charms he acknowledges that because the rationalised futhark he is presenting doesn’t have the letters for ‘Y’ and ‘E’ (which, yes, is what’s going to happen if you arbitrarily remove runes from a script) then the practitioner should replace those letters in a formulae with a sigil for the Sun. There’s no explanation as to why the astrological symbol for the Sun should be an appropriate substitute, but it certainly creates a very un-runic looking sequence, what with all these perfect circles amongst angular runes. The example he gives then goes to town with sun circles, using it in place of not just ‘e’ but also the ‘H’ and ‘T’ he’s left out of his rationalised futhark, as well as using two of these circles for ‘TH’ when he could have used his multi-bowl equivalent of Þ. Such is the ambiguity that in another example, in which upright and inverted interpretations of the runes are listed for divination, it’s not clear whether he’s using his rationalised futhark or the truncated Anglo-Saxon futhorc, because the runes come from both, whilst leaving out some, such as the rationalised multi-bowl Þ or an equivalent for ‘Z’ which is entirely his own but looks like Óss, the Younger Futhark version of Ansuz.

These errors or quirks are documented so thoroughly here because of just how fascinating and inexplicable it all is. It’s impossible to really work out what led to these choices, whether there was some source material that was already garbled, or whether things got messy during the process of either writing or formatting the book. Not to mention whether editors at The Aquarian Press thought anything of it, or whether they just pressed print as their eyes glazed over. These are particularly germane concerns given that Howard specifically mentions the idea of writing the runes correctly, as exemplified in the story of the runemaster Egill Skalla-Grímsson, who would probably be apoplectic were he to come across this book. Skalat maðr rúnar rísta,nema ráða vel kunni indeed.

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In both his definition of each rune and the general discussions elsewhere in this book, Howard has a style that belies the lack of sources he must have accessed to at the time. Things are painted pretty broadly with only rare recourse to actual sources, and when such writers are cited, much hay is made from them, with P. V. Glob, Margaret Murray, James Frazer, Lewis Spence, Manly Palmer Hall, and Robert Macoy (via Palmer) all being put to thorough use. Some of Howard’s descriptions and statements seem a little off or reflective of the now-outdated preconceptions held by his non-specialist sources: such as the prominence given to the idea of the sun being associated with gods and the moon with goddesses, when the reverse was true in Germanic cosmology, or the idea of Loki as a god of fire, or Baldur as a solar one. Indeed, Howard’s approach is a precursor to the type of writing he would use in later decades, having a broad approach and encyclopaedic knowledge that allows him to refer to multiple examples, though often without direct referencing, with a teasing out similarities betwixt different areas and eras to imply a coherence that is pleasing but which may, with a greater scrutiny, not really be there.

Despite the quibbles over the non-specialised tone, there’s nothing too egregious within these pages, and in many ways, Howard’s style predicts the content of books to come, where the Norse world is often described in a largely imaginary and idealised way, with imagery writ large, ambiguity shaved off, and with little recourse to academic sources for anything more than a cursory understanding. Indeed, on a wider level, The Magic of the Runes appears as a template for many of the rune books that would follow in its wake. There’s the step by step explanation of each rune, along with a list of some of the gods and their simplified traits or specialities, a couple of examples of practical applications for the runes, a little bit about other related symbols or sigils, a list of auspicious dates or festivals, an invocation or two, and a reprint of source texts, such as the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál, for a little taste of authenticity.

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The Magic of the Runes marks a significant point in the modern development and awareness of the runes and makes for an interesting historical document in and of itself, even if the actual historicity it depicts in highly questionable. Its slight 96 pages of yellowing newsprint are presented at foolscap octavo size which fits easily in one hand, with perfunctory formatting, as one would expect for the time. Howard would once again return to the runes in 1985 with The Wisdom of the Runes, a considerably longer work that had slightly more rigour to it. It clearly builds on The Magic of the Runes, using entire sections from its predecessor and rewriting them, but it mercifully reverts to a standard Elder Futhark with no errant Etruscan or Greek letters, and no sun symbol subbing for excised runes. It does add the dreaded blank rune to its discussion, three years after it was notoriously introduced to the wider public by Blum in The Book of Runes (which is not cited here), with Howard referring to it as the Wyrd Rune, perhaps the first use of that name for it.

Published by The Aquarian Press.

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Revival of the Runes – Stephen Edred Flowers

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Revival of the Runes coverOf late, Inner Traditions have released several books by Stephen Flowers in which older titles, previously published in small runs by his Rûna Raven Press, have been reworked into more complete versions. It comes as a mild surprise, then, to find that with the exception of pages 52-83 (published by Rûna Raven in 1998 as Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna), this book is an almost entirely new work. That is not to say that it necessarily covers ground unfamiliar to anyone that has followed Flowers’ oeuvre over the years, as the reader will encounter faces familiar, especially if you have read any of his books on the German runic renaissance or Nazi occultism. Like his 2017 work, The Northern Dawn, this book constitutes a part of a trilogy, though just to be difficult, it’s a different trilogy to that one, with Revival of the Runes being part two in an unnamed series focusing on the history of the Rune Gild. The first volume remains to be published, but confusingly, the series has already concluded with its final volume, the previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild, which was written, just to be difficult again, by Flowers under his pen name of Edred Thorsson, and published not by Inner Traditions but by the Gilded Books imprint of Arcana Europa Media.

Subtitled The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes, Revival of the Runes traces said revival from the Swedish scholars of the 1500s and 1600s, into the Enlightenment, flowing into the Romanticism of the 1800s and then into the Germany explorations of runic mysticism both before and during the Third Reich. Flowers assumes little of his readers, and any prior knowledge they might have, and begins not with this modern rediscovery, but with a fairly thorough historical primer on the runes, covering off both elder and younger futharks as well as the Anglo-Frisian, with a particular focus on examples of inscriptions and their esoteric implications.

Revival of the Runes spreadThus, it is 43 pages in before we get to the first modern period of this history, what Flowers defines as the revival phase spanning from the Renaissance to the Baroque over the two centuries from 1500 to 1700. Flowers begins with the brothers Magnus, Johannes and Olaus, continues into another set of Swedish brothers, Laurentius and Olaus Petri, before considering Johannes Bure, Olof Rudbeck and the one exception in this almost-all-Swedish line-up, the Danish Olaus Wormius. As with many of the figures discussed in this book, each person receives a fairly brief biography, running to a couple of pages at most, and as little as two thirds of a page. The one disproportionate exception is Johannes Bure, since Flowers’ aforementioned Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna from 1998 has done all the work, and so, instead of a couple of paragraphs, Bure gets a hefty 32 pages on both his life and his adulrunor system. Of course, this emphasis is fitting, given the importance of Bure in the emergence of both runic esotericism and its exoteric grounding, with adulrunor embodying a complex cosmology and interpretation of the runes that recalls the types of idiosyncratic and often Judaeo-Christian-tinged systems that German runologists like Guido von List, Karl Maria Wiligut and Siegfried Kummer would develop centuries later. Flowers’ consideration of Bure is aided in addendums by the work of Thomas Karlsson, whose The Adulruna and the Gothic Cabbala (published separately in only Swedish, German and Italian, and then as part of Nightside of the Runes) is acknowledged here as the most extensive English work to date on Bure.

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The three chapters that follow share the brevity of some of the previous biographies, with Flowers speeding through three centuries of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and nineteenth century Neo-Romanticism in a mere nineteen pages. This rather fallow time, from which only Johan Göransson warrants a separate biography, leads to the considerably more active periods of the new Germanic rebirth during the first three decades of the twentieth century, and then inevitably, runology’s evolution under and within the Third Reich. Again, things proceed at a fairly brisk pace, and this is an introduction and overview for many of these figures and movements, rather than a detailed study, for which the reader is encouraged to consult some of Flowers’ more specialised titles; a suggestion that he himself makes throughout the text. Sigurd Agrell is the only runologist to get more than a passing reference before the narrative moves on to a larger consideration of von List and his Armanen system, as well as later figures such as Kummer and Friedrich Marby. As in his other titles, Flowers’ approach to the runes in National Socialist Germany is a restrained and pragmatic one. There’s no Nazi occultists summoning unspeakable horrors from beyond the moon here, and other than a section on the SS-aligned historical think-tank known as the Ahnenerbe, the overriding message is about the Nazi use of the runes as marketing, with the esoteric aspect of a rune being more in its power as an evocatively and specifically Germanic brand, rather than something inherently magical.Revival of the Runes spread

Given that this revival of the runes effectively extends up into the present or at least the relatively recent, things turn somewhat autobiographical in the tenth chapter, grandly titled The Rise of Contemporary Scientific Runology and the Re-Emergence of the Rune-Gild, when Flowers documents his own part in this rebirth. For readers of his previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, or of the biography of Flowers by James Chisholm printed in Green Rûna (upon which the former is based), this will be a familiar tale. Flowers acknowledges the awkwardness of this situation, this insinuation into the narrative as he calls it, testifying that in writing this book he has attempted to remain as objective as possible, but effectively, needs now must. The retelling of his role, though, is not excessive, and is in keeping with the sparsity shown in other areas of this book, with Flowers giving a brisk history of rune publications and organisations from 1975 onwards, often shot through a biographical lens noting how he sat in relation to each of them. Despite the vaunted objectivity, there’s still a very personal angle here, with, for example, an annoyance still tangible in the travesty that Ralph Blum’s seminal (though terrible) The Book of Runes was published in 1982, beating Flowers’ Futhark to the shelves by two years. As Flowers laments, despite a version of Futhark being completed by 1979, it was then subjected to nine years of publishing purgatory from both Llewellyn and Weiser, until Weiser finally pressed print on it four years after acquiring the manuscript. Blum is not the only one to get it in the neck here, and there is the traditional Edredian airing of grievances when it comes to briefly surveying the less than stellar runic literature that emerged in the following decades. Donald Tyson (who was previously birched in Thorsson’s History of the Rune-Gild) gets it once again, while the poor, dearly departed Michael Howard receives quite the lathering and is tarred as “one of the worst offenders.”

As in the above examples, there’s always something of a distinctive Flowers tone when it comes to his books, a snarky irascible quality that makes his allegiances crystal clear, and his annoyances palpable. If he wore a bonnet, you can be sure a bee would get in there. Such is the case throughout Revival of the Runes, and it can distract to the point of tedium. Of course there’s the de rigueur moaning about ‘Marxism’ and ‘political activism’ in academia (there has to be at least one mention per title it would seem, and this one has several, with the reader looking wearily to the horizon as every now and then a little gripe about the state of the academy inevitably heaves into view). But beyond that almost expected angry-uncle-at-Thanksgiving invective, there are other strange little get-off-my-lawn moments, like when, as an abrupt contemporary analogy, he categorically states that “IT guys” (his air quotes) apparently “keep things complex and ever-changing” solely to ensure future employment. Oh, so that’s how technology and expertise works, the inexorable march of progress is just there to keep the plebs one step behind. Those sneaky IT guys, what will they think of next? 6G? A flying car just when I’ve got the hang of these wheel things? Methinks at some point there must have been a particularly gruelling morning with technical support on call trying to get the dialup working at the hof. One’s mileage will vary as to how much this tone detracts, or adds, to the overarching narrative. If nothing else, it makes Flowers’ writing style distinctive and idiosyncratic; much like the equally arch tone of this reviewer, oh snap.

Revival of the Runes spreadRevival of the Runes concludes with Flowers’ vision of an ‘integral runology for the future,’ a largely Edredian philosophical musing, followed by two appendices. The first is a chronology of the runic revival, beginning in 1554 with the posthumous publication of Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus by Johannes Magnus, and ending in 2010 with the creation of the Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies. The second appendix is a reprint of a brief article from 1986 on the claimed runic origins of the peace symbol in which the Elhaz rune is imagined to have been inverted and placed in a circle; an idea that carries as much weight as the satanic panic idea that it was an inverted and broken cross. This is a strange inclusion not just because of how inexplicably incongruous the article’s placement is, but also because this speculation has been long debunked, given that the creation of the nuclear disarmament symbol by designer Gerald Holtom is well attested, as is its incorporation of the semaphore representation of the letters N and D.

Revival of the Runes is very much a trade paperback, rather than a thesis, an overview with subjects covered briefly (save for the blessed Johannes Bure), and in which, despite a ten page bibliography, the only actually works cited within the text are almost entirely those of Flowers himself. It has been formatted with text and layout design by Virginia Scott Bowman, using Garamond for body, along with Gill Sans and Futura as contrasting san serif headers and sub headers. The rather fetching Highstories is used for chapter headings and as the cover face, where it sits next to a low-opacity version of the Ahnenerbe’s emblem, which is an, um, interesting choice of symbols to lead with there, Inner Traditions, but you do you. Less problematic is the choice of a lovely hero image, with the cover using one of the image panels from the Golden Horns of Gallehus; although considering the book’s modern subject, the fifth-century date of the Gallehus horns peculiarly makes the Ahnenerbe emblem the more relevant of the two images.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Aleister Crowley in England – Tobias Churton

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Categories: esotericism, thelema, Tags:

Aleister Crowley in England coverWith its blockbuster subtitle declaring The Return of the Great Beast, this sequel from Tobias Churton picks up where his previous work, Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin, left off; a title that was in itself a sequel to his other books documenting Crowley’s time in America and India respectively. Given the chronology surveyed in the previous titles, we are safe in assuming that the ‘in England’ here does not refer to Crowley’s time spent in England for the majority of his life but rather his return there for his final fifteen years from 1932 to 1947. In doing so, Churton is able to conclude his multiple volume biography of Crowley and focus on a period that is relatively little explored, but which shows that the near penniless Great Beast still got a lot done, even if it was only cooking a lot of curries, and being on the perpetual scrounge in both the actual and the astral.

Churton has a brisk style of writing that combined with the type’s large point size, and the surfeit of images, propels the reader forward at quite a pace. Enabling this still further is that some of what is presented here are fleshed out diary entries, or details from letters, with little room for editorialising or much in the way of elaboration: Crowley had lunch with someone, he moved lodgings, he wrote a letter to such and such, he did a sex magic operation for money, and he carped about the Agape Lodge in California (despite them doing a damn sight more for Thelema than he was). This brevity isn’t necessarily a criticism, merely a comment on how the narrative contains much that is minutiae, with little padding added beyond what has been left by Crowley’s own hand. This ably conveys the intricacies, and frequent mundanities, of Crowley’s everyday life, even if said moments are not necessarily all that detailed, and with each entry moving us rapidly through the months.

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With that said, there are moments where the piecemeal nature of some of the sections may have gotten the better of either the narrative, such as it is, or the editor and layout designer, with abrupt sentences descending into a unintelligible mess of uncertain intent. Sometimes a sentence needs to be read several times before its intent is clear, not because of any complexity but rather due to its economy, with so little to be gleaned from a minor concatenation of words. There are other strange moments, such as a section from pages 28-30 describing the content of three letters, which begins abruptly with two non sequitur, single-sentence paragraphs, one from October 1993 and the other from the more recent “some years ago.” The more recent event is the sale by Weiser Antiquarian of the letters decades after they were written, but by leading with the description of the letters’ sale, rather than the context in which they were written, the reader becomes discombobulated by this jumping forward in time. In a similar manner, the narrative of Crowley’s day to day and current events is temporally upended on page 80 when a one-sentence paragraph noting that the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in 1937 is followed by one that begins by describing how the LAShTAL Aleister Crowley Society website reported in 2011 of the sale of a letter written by Crowley on Piccadilly Hotel stationery, momentarily making it feel like the two events were relatively concurrent. It’s all very confusing, as if notes and scraps have been cut and pasted and never fully massaged into tense-correct shape.

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Whilst we’re being critical, there are other little quirks that tend to grate, most notably where it appears that having to constantly refer to Crowley by name got tiresome, and as a result, sometimes, out of nowhere, he can be variously referred to as 666, Therion, and most startling in its incongruity, Baphomet. While most readers will be aware of Crowley’s proclivity for pseudonyms and titles, it’s not clear why it stops there. Why not call him Perdurabo, Ankh-f-n-khonsu, Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shivaji  or a little sunshine as well?

Inevitably, comparisons must be made to other books that cover the same period of Crowley’s life, with the obvious one being Richard Kaczynski’s definitive Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Kaczynski has a greater narrative sense, an authorial overview that makes for easier reading, and as a result, there’s a lot less of the jarring little events and piecemeal nature seen here. What Churton’s work does have going for it is the sense of immediacy, with the diary-like quality creating a somewhat intimate insight into Crowley’s day to day life and allowing the reader to see what an unpleasant, arrogant, irascible and ultimately exhausting scoundrel he must have been to interact with personally. Also, it must be said that Crowley’s constant attempts to get the war-time British government to employ him as an adviser or expert come across as sad, especially with the way in which his consternation was palpable after each time a long-suffering bureaucrat declined his offer.

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Despite this emphasis of the smaller aspects of Crowley’s life, this period did include some significant magickal outputs, and Churton spends a great amount of time documenting the creation of the Thoth tarot deck in collaboration with Lady Frieda Harris. All events in the process, from Crowley’s first introduction to Harris up to the tarot’s completion and publication, are covered, taking the reader on a comparable journey to its creators. It’s moments like this that show the worth of Aleister Crowley in England, with its fairly well illustrated survey of the tarot and its evolution, indicative of one of the benefits of this title as something one can dip into for the details, without having to read a longer narrative.

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Aleister Crowley in England is presented as a hardback edition, bound in blue beneath a dustjacket with a rather fetching photographic montage design by Aaron Davis, with Union Jack and all, just so you know it takes place in England. Typesetting by Debbie Glogover uses Garamond for body copy with titles in Gotham Condensed, and other display text in a combination of the stoic sans serifs Gill Sans, and Legacy Sans. Photographs are used profusely throughout, though their presence can seem disproportionate and arbitrary, such as when someone who receives only a single passing mention is rewarded with a portrait, while more significant figures have none.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Journeys with Plant Spirits – Emma Farrell

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Categories: folk

Journeys with Plant Spirits coverSubtitled Plant Consciousness Healing & Natural Magic Practices, Emma Farrell’s Journeys with Plant Spirits is a book that is light on the plants and heavy on the ‘consciousness,’ in the most excoriable form of the term. The book shares its name with an online course that Farrell runs for a mere £260; a price that generously includes a free copy of this book, score! As one would expect, the course mirrors the contents of this book with much talk of energy fields, consciousness and personal psychopspiritual (sic) healing.

Farrell is described as a plant spirit healer, a geomancer, a shamanic teacher, an apothecary of plant spirit medicine, the runner of a school of warrior healers (a handy class in a MMORPG, to be sure), a cofounder of the self-described “ground-breaking” Plant Consciousness event in London, the recipient of a mere two-year master’s degree, and someone who has been initiated into ancient magical practices of both the British Isles and the Ecuadorian Amazon. That’s a lot of things. Farrell also describes herself as a lineage holder of the White Serpent teachings, the system of one David Leesley, a mortician based on the Isle of Man who also claims to be a Vanuatuan High Chief whose arrival on the island of Tanna was long foretold by its so-called cargo cults (a bid for colonial prophetic glory that, surprisingly, is not unique for a certain class of bearded white men, as documented in Jon Tonk’s recent book The Men Who Would Be King).

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Farrell divides this work into two sections, the theoretical Entering the World of Plant Spirit Healing and the slightly more practical Thirteen Plants and Tree Spirits. The first section shows one of the problems with Journeys with Plant Spirits, the fluff, with a constant churn of metaphysical speculation in which so much is written but little is said. This is particularly true of the preponderance of unverifiable and glib statements that are de rigueur in new age writing and apparently don’t require any proof, other than an unctuous tone. All of which frankly feel a little dated in their fear-inculcating paranoia: television is the real hallucinogen used by “the authorities” to brainwash you, man; the symptoms of any disease come not from the disease itself but as the result of our experiences in life; toxicity surrounds us on ever side like predacious demons to the medieval mind; education is a meanie, and water has memory. Indeed, fairly generic water woo plays a significant role here, and leads to several descents into pseudo-scientific quackery, such as the bizarre statement, uttered with all the unwarranted certainty but lack of referencing that one would expect, that the molecules in tap water and bottled water are ‘shattered,’ whatever that means, and that this unstructured water is hard for the body to absorb. Quite why or how this has happened isn’t explained (why would you need to anyway, given that it’s apparently self-evident that modern-life=bad), but then bizarrely, Farrell says that the water in our bodies is the same water that is in the sea and clouds, which would surely mean that all water everywhere is broken, whether it comes out of a tap, bottle, urinary tract or refreshing mountain stream. Oh noes, we is doomed.

In concert with this wooliness is how Farrell’s grab-bag of credentials comes through within the pages of this book, with the text presenting information as a myriad of little bits without any depth or breadth. Various concepts are referenced but often with only a superficial glancing blow, lest anything be said in detail that could be easily queried or found contrary to the general narrative that is being promoted. Thus, there is talk of medicine wheels but any association with Native American expertise is fleeting and instead only the nomenclature is used with talk of a “Celtic medicine wheel” and the “tradition of medicine wheels” in the British Isle. There’s a bit of Tibetan Buddhism here, a little Chinese medicine there, and a mention of a Kichwa shaman that Farrell knows who calls earth a ‘prison planet.’ There are appeals to authority by quoting the pseudoscience of the Hearthmath Institute and, of course, there’s the de rigueur New Age references to misunderstood quantum physics as something that is ‘breaking down the barriers between science and spirituality.’ Naturally, the latter comes on the heels of a moan about how the scientific method is all about rules, man, and how all that analysis and measuring and verifiable results is such a bummer, dude.       

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It takes 128 pages of new age speculation and metaphysical truisms to get to the actual plant spirits of the title. Farrell has chosen thirteen spirits, a combination of herbs, weeds, shrubs and trees, featuring mugwort, oak, hawthorn, nettle, dandelion, alder, lady’s mantle, rosemary, fireweed, wormwood, angelica, elder and yew. Each plant receives its own chapter, prefaced with little hand drawn illustrations by UK-based artist Edward Foster, and featuring a multi-page exploration of both plant and spirit, followed by examples of practical application such as mediations and less frequently, guided meditations. As is to be expected, given the precedent set in the first half of this book, things get pretty fast and loose with facts, along with the insertion of a raft of new age terms like energy fields, harmonic resonances and psychic hygiene, all shot through with paranoid ideas about toxic entities that might sneak in through negative emotions. By now, the latter is par for the course, and so what really grates is the lack of rigour in what little historical or quantifiable information there is about each plant. Mugwort is “known as the queen of herbs or the witches’ first herb,” but no, it’s not, it just isn’t. Then there’s the claim that “in the mythology of the British Isles, fire is Freyja, the goddess of the three worlds who carries the impetus for the Great Web to manifest,” which, whatever the hel that is all meant to mean, is a yeah, um, no to that one too. And then there’s the idea that the lung disease and addiction associated with the smoking of tobacco only exists because of the Western commercialisation of the plant, and not because, you know, smoke is carcinogenic and nicotine is a highly addictive alkaloid.

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Thus, there’s not actually much that’s tangible in the discussion of each of these plants, with the metaphysical and theoretical dominating the discussion, empiricism be damned. As one would expect, then, there’s very little in the way of specifically plant-related referencing, with the most, which really isn’t much, coming from Dale Pendell and Scott Cunningham, who are cited less than the likes of Rudolf Steiner and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. One could argue that this isn’t much of a problem as there’s relatively little practical application given for working with the actual physical plants, with the focus being on the spiritual rather than the botanical. So there’s more time being spent with the spirit of the plant; or at least the spirit as defined by Farrell, because the way in which some of these spirits concern themselves with particularly New Age visions of healthcare would make them unfamiliar to anyone from previous centuries. Even the idea of plant essences which can be taken orally, and which one would imagine involve distilling a plant’s chemical properties into a solution, turn out to contain only the ‘bioresonance’ of the plant spirit, meaning that it “holds the conscious intelligence of the plant or tree within the crystalline structure of water, fixed with alcohol,” which just sounds horrific. So yes, without the nasty chemical compounds of the plant, these essences have done the impossible which is to be even less effective than the watered down remedies of homeopathy.

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In the end, despite the patina of positivity and good vibes only, Journeys with Plant Spirits comes across as a profoundly negative book, promoting a paranoid and fear-based world view in which unspecified toxins and parasites, both psychic and material, assail us at every turn. A lapsarian world in which everything is broken by an insidious, oppressive and even predatory modernity. Indeed, it’s all rather reactionary, like a New Age Evola setting itself against the modern world™, while the world that is preferable is comparable to a medieval Christian one in which superstition is rife and science, medicine and education is suspect. A world in which delusional parasitosis is rampant and there’s an assumption that these ‘toxins’ will perpetually infect you. That like medieval demons, these anthropomorphised predators can be responsible for anything and everything. Keeping things current, this attitude also bleeds into discussions of the COVID19 pandemic, which unsurprisingly features some paranoid hot takes, with Farrell talking ominously of uncovering truth and of vampiric energies, the dark forces behind vaccine mandates that want to take our freedoms and human rights. Ermahgerd!

Journeys with Plant Spirits runs to 270 pages but, with its metaphysical churn and constant barrage of entirely speculative ideas, feels longer. Text design and layout is by Victoria Bowman, with the body set in Garamond and Hermann as a display face.

Published by Bear & Company

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The Antichrist: A New Biography – Philip C. Almond

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Categories: esotericism, middle ages, religion, Tags:

The Antichrist: A New Biography coverPhilip C. Almond is all about new biographies, having previously used that titular conceit for explorations of both God and the Devil. This latest biography acts as a companion to one of those, his 2014 work on the Devil, and like its predecessor, it is imminently readable with its body copy set in a larger-than-usual point size on smaller-than-usual digest-size pages (averaging ten words a line), all aided by Almond’s easy manner and authorial voice.

Any consideration of the Antichrist inevitably brings to mind Bernard McGinn’s masterful exploration of the topic, 1994’s Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. Almond acknowledges a debt to McGinn for that work and his other many titles, mentioning the quote from Denis the Carthusian with which McGinn closed his own study, “Have we not worn ourselves out with that accursed Antichrist.” With the completion of this biography, Almond wryly notes that he now includes himself amongst the company of Denis and McGinn as a sufferer of this Antichrist-fatigue.

Almond opens by describing the Antichrist as a fluid and unstable idea from its inception, and noting how from this flux emerged two primary characterisations: the tyrannical Antichrist who opposes and persecutes the Christian church, followed by the later concept of a hypocritical papal Antichrist who deceives from within the very church. The former idea, which dominated the first millennium of the Common Era, was consolidated in its last century by Adso, a Benedictine monk from Montier-en-Der in north-eastern France. For his first chapter, Almond summarises Adso’s highly detailed biography of the Antichrist as a Jew born of the tribe of Dan, into whose mother the Devil would enter at the moment of conception so that the child, though conceived by human parents, would be “totally wicked, totally evil, totally lost.” Born in Babylon and raised in the unrepentant Galilean cities of Beth-saida and Corozain, the Antichrist would travel to Jerusalem where he would circumcise himself, upon which the Jews would flock to him as the Messiah. He would then terrorise Christians, and kill the returning Old Testament figures of Enoch and Elijah (sent by God to convert the Jews to Christianity), until after a three and a half year period of tribulations he would be defeated by either Jesus or the archangel Michael. With this narrative established by Adso, Almond, in a rather pleasing device, then takes a historical step backwards and shows how a millennium’s worth of influences and eschatological speculation culminated in its creation.

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This analysis begins by exploring the considerably slight appearances of the Antichrist in the biblical record, the first of which is the plurality of lowercase antichrists that are mentioned in some of John’s epistles, where the term is used as a pejorative directed against fellow but estranged Christians who, contrary to orthodox interpretation, denied the divinity of Jesus. Almond then highlights less specific elements from both the Old and New testaments that would be incorporated into the vision of the singular Antichrist, beginning with the analogous false prophets and false messiahs which Jesus warns of in Mark’s gospel when discussing the end times. In the same gospel, Jesus also talks about the abomination of desolation or desolating sacrilege, an idea drawn from the Old Testament book of Daniel and the first book of the deuterocanonical Maccabees, where the term refers to the profanation of the temple in Jerusalem by a foreign tyrant (for Daniel, the second century BCE Greek king Antiochus IV). In later Antichrist traditions, the abomination of desolation became not an act (usually assumed to be Antiochus’ sacrifice to Zeus of a pig on the temple’s altar) but was personalised as the Antichrist, thereby aligning with Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians in which he talks of another Antichrist analogue referred to as ‘the man of sin, the son of perdition’ who not only takes his seat in the temple of God but declares himself to be God. Irenaeus in the second century of the Common Era was the first to consolidate these various strands, along with the little horn of the book of Daniel and the beast of Revelation, into a single figure identified as the Antichrist, and over the centuries, as Almond documents, more details would be added.

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It is this approach that marks a welcomed difference between this work and McGinn’s denser and more obviously chronological Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. By beginning with the end, and then effectively having Christendom ‘show its work’ to explain how its vision of the Antichrist was arrived at, Almond underscores how the picture of the Antichrist developed over the first millennia from the smallest of scriptural crumbs and how by the time Adso composed his definitive biography, the monk was able to confidently narrate a story with a considerable amount of details not explicitly found in scripture. Key to this was the way in which speculation over the tiniest scriptural phrase or allusion, not to mention gematria and theological and eschatological mathematics, led to an accretion of popular and unquestioned key points, such as the idea that the Antichrist would be from the tribe of Dan. This was something first expounded by Irenaeus based on a decidedly creative reading of a verse from Jeremiah 8.16 (in which the city of Dan is meant, not the tribe, and where it is a victim of an invasion, not the source of a tyrant), and because the author of Revelation did not include Dan amongst the twelve tribes of Israel whose members would make up the 144,000 souls marked for salvation by God; a list from which the tribe of Ephraim is also missing, so who knows what they did wrong.

Due to this speculative accretion, a fairly complete idea of the Antichrist was in place by the end of the century, with the work of Irenaeus being joined by contributions from other including Hippolytus of Rome, Tertulian, Commodian, and the anonymous author of the Sibylline Oracles, with each bringing their own, though not always complimentary, additions to the lore. One of these is the quite delightful idea that the Antichrist was Nero, but not the living Nero as he was during his reign as Roman emperor but rather a future incarnation, who had either escaped death to wait in hiding, or who had returned from the dead in a sublime perversion of the resurrection of Christ. Five hundred years later, Adso’s influential vision of the Antichrist was still current, and can be seen in Luca Signorelli’s fresco The Preaching of the Antichrist, which, with its cast of apocalyptic characters and events, shows, as Almond puts it, Adso’s life of the Antichrist in pictorial form.

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When it comes to the alternative idea of a papal Antichrist, Almond does not quite have the equivalent of Adso’s perfect summary, nothing that necessarily combined all the interpretation’s main elements. So rather than working backwards, Almond instead provides a further history of the conception of the Antichrist throughout the centuries, marking a trail of ideas, rather than explicit themes, which culminated in a then novel interpretation by the Cistercian monk Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Almond shows how concerns about the Antichrist gradually evolved three hundred years into the Common Era and how, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312CE, Christianity was no longer the sole province of a persecuted faithful minority but was instead the dominant religion. With it now being hard to imagine an external tyrant persecuting a powerful Christian empire, a once imminent Armageddon was, for many, put on hold. Other than the exception of military leaders briefly figured as the Antichrist, such as the Vandal king Gaiseric or later the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, accusative fingers were now often pointed inwards. However, in these initial stages, there was no single Antichrist identified within the church, and instead a plurality of lowercase antichrists, the faithless hidden amongst the faithful, were excoriated for their hypocrisy, disbelief or heretical thoughts by luminaries such as Augustine, Tyconius, and Pope Gregory the Great. This intramural suspicion of other members thus imagined the body of the Antichrist as something active, like a virus, within the very body Christ that was the church. In 1190, Joachim of Fiore brought such ideas to their logical, singular conclusion when he told King Richard I of England, that the Antichrist was not only alive but had been born in Rome and would be elevated to the Apostolic See. While King Richard’s response, as recorded by Roger de Hoveden in his annals, was surprise, this idea would grow in popularity, with Joachim’s vision of a papal Antichrist equalling in spread and influence the older Adsonian tradition, particularly amongst Franciscans.

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Almond continues his biography of the Antichrist down through the centuries, noting how both the Adsonian and Joachite traditions perpetuated and mutated, with expectations changing as events occurred and conditions for the arrival of the Antichrist evolved. One notable change was the addition of a multitude of other characters to the apocalyptic tableaux, including the heroic Last World Emperor, a restorative Angelic Pope, and sometimes even dual Antichrists: a mystical one and a martial one; while in the case of Ubertino of Casale, who seemingly couldn’t get enough of Antichrists, there would be two Mystical Antichrists (Boniface VIII and Benedict XI) as well as the final boss, the Great Antichrist.

Almond concludes in the modern era in which the decline of prophetic history from the middle of the nineteenth century lead to the idea of the Antichrist as a floating signifier, less associated with the apocalyptic and more a general critique of perceived evil in the world. Thus anyone, or anything, could be accused of being the Antichrist, be it a royal, a politician, or even entire religions or progressive social movements. Here Almond also turns his focus on literary and cinematic representations of the Antichrist, briefly summarising Rosemary’s Baby, the Omen trilogy, the Left Behind series, and in considerably greater detail, Vladimir Solovyov’s A Short Story of the Antichrist; but sadly, no Good Omens.

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In all, this is an enjoyable read in which Almond’s pleasant narrative style belies a depth and thoroughness, acting as a testament to his familiarity with his subject. The Antichrist: A New Biography is presented as a hardcover edition bound in orange cloth, with title and author debossed in black on the spine, all wrapped up in a full colour dustjacket featuring William Blake’s rather fetching watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666 from 1805; continuing a Blakean pattern seen in Almond’s previous biographies. More colour is found in a section of colour plates towards the book’s centre, thirty images in all drawn from a variety of sources ranging from mid-eleventh century France to modern cinema. While each image has a caption describing it, there’s no specific title, credit, source or date included with it and the reader has to thumb back to an index of plates in the preamble for rather minimal information that could just as easily have annotated each image.

Published by Cambridge University Press

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Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic – by Nicholas E. Brink

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Categories: germanic, goddesses, runes

Beowulf's Ecstatic Trance Magic coverBlessed with a cumbersome title that surely no one has ever thought to use before, or since, Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic by Nicholas E. Brink is part of a metaphysical subgenre, pioneered by anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, in which it is argued that image of figures in ancient artworks are ritual instructions, providing templates for postures that could be used to enter altered states of consciousness. Goodman’s ideas were brought to a wider metaphysical audience in Belinda Gore’s Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook (published in 1995 by the Inner Traditions imprint Bear & Company), while Goodman herself would release Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures co-authored with Nana Nauwald in 2003. Others have since explored the theory, and while Goodman and Gore largely emphasise figures from Mesoamerica, Brink has taken a more European focus.

This is certainly not Brink’s first ecstatic trance rodeo either, having previously published three such titles, The Power of Ecstatic Trance, Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers and Baldr’s Magic: The Power of Norse Shamanism and Ecstatic Trance. Despite the Baldr of the title, the latter book has cover art featuring the ithyphallic Rällinge statuette, usually assumed to depict Freyr, but oh well, never mind as that’s nothing compared to a more recent outing from Brink, called Loki’s Children, which has a figurine from the Pre-Columbian Zacatecas culture as its cover star.

Unlike other titles in this genre, Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic is not a practical guide, and offers something rather different, with what little instruction there is being largely embedded within a fictionalised narrative. We say fictionalised but Brink presents it as a real account, channelled through him by its participants, and thereby effectively testifying to the efficacy of the system of ecstatic postures as a way to connect with the past. This is not a new writing approach for Brink as his Baldr’s Magic, whilst featuring some practical instructions, had as its lion’s share an entire Lost Edda of the Vanir, all channelled to him during his trance experiences.

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The story that Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic tells begins not with the Beowulf of the title, but rather with Wealhþeow, as Brink’s channels a narrative describing the early life of the girl that would become queen to Hroðgar, the Danish king who employed Beowulf to kill the monster Grendel. In Beowulf, Wealhþeow is a member of the Wulfings, though the poet does not locate the clan geographically, with other Scandinavian sagas associating them with the Swedish province of Östergötland, while more recent interpretations identify them with the Wuffing dynasty of East Anglia, at whose court the poem may have been composed. While Skjöldunga saga tells how Roas (Hroðgar) married the daughter of an English king, and Hrolfs saga kraka, says that he (named Hróarr in the text) married the daughter of a king of Northumbria, Brink goes with a Swedish interpretation, placing young Wealhþeow in Scania as the daughter of a King Olaf. Joining Wealhþeow in this cast is a priestess of Freyja who is rather awkwardly called Vanadisdottir, with a matronym used as if it was her first name. Although this is no less awkward than having a Swedish princess being incongruously addressed throughout by the Anglo-Saxon name she would only be given two centuries later by the Beowulf poet. As an aside, Brink acknowledges that Vanadisdottir, along with two other shamans who provide perspectives, Healfdall and the patronym-as-first name Forsetason, were unnamed in his initial experiences until he himself named them; a strange omission for the etheric realm to make.

Brink’s story is principally told from the perspectives of Wealhþeow and Vanadisdottir, charting the latter’s journey to the role of queen and the former’s role first as an advisor to her charge and then as someone who comes to understand Grendel and his predations. And yeah, about that… this version of Grendel seems to have undergone a Disney-style sympathetic villain reboot. No longer is he a mere despoiler of Heorot, and instead of being a deaþscua (‘death-shadow’) and helle gast (‘hellish spirit’) descended from Cain, he is a gentle creature who keeps to himself unless provoked by the warriors in Heorot and their raucous goings on. And while he might attack those who lust for power and wealth and seek to control the earth, this kinder, cuddlier Grendel doesn’t prey on farmers and those at one with nature and all its lovely creatures.

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As the story progresses, Brink has Vanadisdottir introduce ecstatic postures as part of the narrative, with each presented as a full page diagram with instructions and a little footnote giving its provenance. There are ten postures in all and they are drawn from geographically, culturally and temporally diverse sources; though mercifully, none as far afield as Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. There is what Brink calls the Freyr Diviner posture (based on aforementioned ithyphallic Rällinge statuette), the Bear Spirit posture (a healing posture identified and named as such by Felicitas Goodman), the Sami Lowerworld posture (based on a engraving of a prone noaidi from Johannes Schefferus’ 1673 book Lapponia), the Tanum Sky World posture and the Tanum Lower World posture (both taken from amongst the many Bronze Age petroglyphs at Tanum, Sweden), the Hallstatt Warrior posture (which, contrary to the name of the posture, is based, though uncredited, on a figurine found in Bregnebjerg, Denmark), the Freyja Initiation posture (based on the famous pendant found at Aska, Sweden, that is assumed to be of Freyja), the Nyborg Man posture (based on a small gold figure, found at Nyborg, Denmark), the Højby Middle World posture (based on a figure found at Højby, Denmark, and which is also used on this book’s cover), and the Cernunnos Metamorphosis posture (as seen in the horned figure on the Gundestrup cauldron).

Surprisingly, given his starring role in this book’s title, it takes until page 202 for Beowulf to turn up as an active participant, almost as an afterthought with only twelve pages to go. One supposes that his name has a greater cachet than the less recognisable and less marketable Wealhþeow or Vanadisdottir, but given that he’s the one with the ecstatic trance magic in the title, you can’t help feeling a little swerved. This is especially so when it turns out how he doesn’t do any ecstatic trance magic at all, and everything pretty much proceeds as the poet told it: Grendel attacks, Beowulf fights him until the monster flees mortally wounded, and then Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Heorot the following night and is also killed by Beowulf. The only difference is that Brink’s Vanadisdottir is flitting around being a little concerned and sympathetic, since Grendel is just misunderstood, but doing nothing.

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Brink’s narrative is certainly detailed but it ultimately doesn’t ring true and feels like fan fiction or a first attempt at a fantasy novel. All the tropes are there: the headstrong princess who nevertheless has obligations to destiny and family, the oh-so-wise spiritual elder who teaches lessons of both life and magic with a matter-of-fact manner and a knowing smile. Even the embedding of actual techniques into the conceit of a historical story seems like something we’ve seen before, think The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates, for example.

Another issue that will gnaw away at the pedant is that Brink presents his characters and their beliefs as if Germanic pagan belief was geographically monolithic, with the same pantheon and myths spread across the population, whether the stories be told in Sweden, Denmark, or Snorri Sturluson’s post-conversion Iceland. Indeed, Snorri is important to mention here because the myths as they are told by Brink’s characters have the relative coherence of Snorri’s eddas: gods have very defined roles and their stories are clearly told, reflecting what we now know of them with centuries of hindsight, but which may never have existed in such a way for the people of Denmark at the time. There’s no suggestion, for example, of the variations of the tales as told by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, with Baldr being imagined here as a compassionate milquetoast in a loving relationship with Nanna, rather than, as Saxo tells it, the unsuccessful suitor of Nanna who battled his rival, the successful Höðr, as a result. The only variance from a Snorri-style canon is when Brink applies his own unverified personal gnosis to this mythic structure, filling in the gaps to fit his proclivities, such as categorically classifying Ullr, Nanna and Heimdallr as Vanir, or saying that Baldr and Nanna lived separately, he in Ásgarðr and she in Vanaheimr. There’s also Brink’s creation of a whole new goddess called Moðir, carried over from his previous works, who is portrayed as an overarching mother earth goddess and the grandmother of Freyja and Frey, having married a giant called Slœgr (a name which Brink translates as ‘the creative one,’ rather than the usual but less palatable ‘sly’). Brink also extrapolates on some myths and adds a bunch of new locations that are not found in canon, with awkwardly and inconsistently spelt names, such as Gratabjöð (the Weeping Fields of the goddess Gefjon where she cares for those who die as maidens), Griðbustaðr (another afterlife destination but for those who worship the Vanir), and Gæfuleysabjarg (a cliff in Freyja’s domain where the souls of warriors unlucky enough to die in their first battle reside). Finally, there are some other bold claims, such as making the young Wealhþeow the weaver of the famed Överhogdal tapestries, something which would be quite a feat considering that their creation has been carbon dated to between 1040 and 1170 CE, four centuries later than the period during which Beowulf occurs.

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For this and his other books, Brink seems to have spent a lot of time in the Freyr Diviner posture receiving transmissions from an unfamiliar past, or less generously, just making a lot of stuff up. For the sheer time and effort he is to be commended, but mileage may vary as to how far one is willing to take his unverified personal gnosis, especially when his narrative doesn’t distinguish between it and documented lore. Also, as an indicator of the overriding vibe here, the brief bibliography has few texts relevant to this book’s subject (save for two Beowulf titles and one on Scandinavian petroglyphs), with the rest being works on ecstatic body postures and a bunch of new age titles from the likes of Barbara Hand Clow, Rupert Sheldrake and Erwin Laszlo. Brink ends his book with hope for the kind of world Vanadisdottir and Wealhþeow believed in and discusses the great turmoil of our time with a reference to one of Laszlo’s titles. Therein, Laszlo promised that this chaos is just a period of transition to be endured and that a new world of peace will emerge when it all passes in 2020. I wonder how that turned out.

Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic runs to 235 pages with a cover design by Peri Swan (images courtesy of iStock) and internal artwork by M. J. Ruhe. Layout by Virginia Scott Bowman has the body typeset in Garamond and Gill Sans, with the latter and Bougan Black used for display.

Published by Bear & Company

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Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic – Edited by Claire Fanger

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Categories: esotericism, goetia, grimoire, magick, middle ages, Tags:

Conjuring Spirits coverPart of the expansive Magic in History series from Pennsylvania State University Press, Conjuring Spirits is an academic work that calls to mind Scarlet Imprint’s more experientially-orientated compendiums Howlings and Diabolical, in that it brings together essays on various magical texts and manuscripts, albeit from an entirely scholarly perspective. The contributions in Conjuring Spirits are divided into two sections, Context, Genres, Images and Angelic Knowledge, with the latter focussing on just two texts, the Sworn Book of Honorius, and John the Monk’s Book of Visions. Presenting both general surveys and more specific analyses are Michael Camille on two examples of the Ars Notoria, Robert Mathiesen on the Sworn Book of Honorius (also discussed alongside the Liber Visionum by Richard Kieckhefer in a separate entry), John B. Friedman on the Secretum Philosophorum, Elizabeth Wade on Lullian divination, while Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger each separately discuss John the Monk’s Book of Visions of the Blessed and Undefiled Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Finally, this book also includes Juris Lidaka’s edition of the Osbern Bokenham-attributed Liber de Angelis, and an overview by Frank Klaassen of late medieval English ritual manuscripts.

It is Klaassen’s survey of late medieval English manuscripts with which the proceedings open, being an appropriately broad grounding in the genre, even if not all of the works discussed in this book come under that category. Lidaka’s translation of Liber de Angelis follows, being introduced with a brief essay in which he gives a history of this manuscript, establishing early on that the attribution to the Augustinian friar and poet Osbern Bokenham is incorrect, and that the Bokenhan to whom authorship is credited may actually have been one William Bokenham. Liber de Angelis is not a single liber and instead consists of extracts from at least three texts, as evidenced by the demarcation into sections on making rings for each of the planets (ordered from Sun to Saturn), followed by Liber de ymaginibus planetarum, in which instructions are given for creating images of the planets but with the spheres in a different order to the rings, and ending with Secreta  astronomie de sigillis planetarum & eorum figuris in which the planets are ordered differently once again in a guide to creating planetary magic square. Given some of the errors in the original text of Liber de Angelis, such as the numbers in some of the magic squares not calculating correctly and the names of planetary angels differing from other sources, Lidaka argues that the texts were transcribed by an enthusiastic amateur, someone with a general interest in magic though less concerned with slavishly getting everything right.

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John B. Friedman’s consideration of the Secretum Philosophorum is a rather dry and technical history of the text, feeling a little out of place given its focus not on ritual magic but on tricks and experiments demonstrating various aspects of the seven liberal arts. Friedman does argue that the text is an example of ‘safe magic,’ using the appearance of sorcery, with its diagrams and occasional acknowledgement of hermetic authority, to give a theoretical matrix to technology and convey ideas of power and learning. Elizabeth Wade also makes a diversion away from grimoires to discuss a fifteenth century German divination device found in a large paper codex catalogued as Cod. Guelf. 75. 10 Aug. 2°. Said fragmentary device is not necessarily the entire focus here and Wade uses it as a starting point for a broader primer on Lullian and pseudo-Lullian forms of mechanical divination, as well as their medieval analogues.

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Robert Mathiesen’s essay on the Sworn Book of Honorius focuses not on its use as a Solomonic grimoire for ceremonial magic, and instead on one of only two magical operations to survive in its six known, and presumably partial, manuscripts. While the second (and according to Mathiesen, less interesting), of the operations is for the summoning to appearance of an angel, spirit or demon, the first is a byzantine ritual for attaining the beatific vision, effectively creating a shortcut to the eschatological goal of Christianity. Mathiesen begins with a preamble giving the history of the sworn book, and then a summary of the rite itself, which still runs to several pages despite not being presented in its entirety. There’s little analysis of individual components of the rite and Mathiesen concludes with a discussion on the efficacy of such complicated ritual formulae (he seems pretty assured that it would get some kind of result), and thereby suggests that the rite’s potential to undercut the religious foundation of the medieval world would account for William of Auvergne’s description of the Sworn Book of Honorius as the very worst book of magic in circulation.

Two essays from Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger are unique in that a hitherto unknown manuscript version of their subject, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum, had, at the time of writing in 1998, been recently discovered at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada; while several other full and partial manuscripts have since been found in various European archives. It is worth mentioning that Flanger has subsequently shown that, as per John the Monk himself, the work should be more accurately called Liber florum celestis doctrine, with only its first, autobiographical section being called the Liber visionum, but for the sake of consistency and the convention established by this volume, we’ll keep the archaic naming in this review. With the McMaster version of the Liber visionum being uncovered by Watson and then translated and thoroughly documented by Fanger, there’s a personal feel to the considerations here. Watson discusses the relationship between the McMaster manuscript and another one discovered in Munich, as well as contextualising the work in terms of the broader devotional and mystical tradition upon which it draws. Watson is exhaustive in his analysis, resulting in the longest entry in Conjuring Spirits, running to 52 pages, aided and abetted by extensive endnotes and several appendices: structural analyses of the McMaster and Munich manuscript, as well as individual summaries of both versions. After that, Fanger shows that there’s still more to be said about John the Monk’s text with her own essay in which she considers its relations to the Ars Notoria on which it is modelled. For her own appendix, Fanger provides a synopsis of a prologue from a version of the Liber visionum from the University of Graz library.

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John the Monk makes another appearance in Michael Camille’s consideration of examples of ars notoria imagery from various manuscripts, which opens with a vituperative quote from the Grandes Chroniques de France in which the monk of Morigny is pilloried for his wish, through his curiosity and pride, to renew the heretical and sorcerous notary art under another name. John the Monk’s own Marian 0figures are not the focus here, though, and Camille considers the notae from the thirteenth century Turin manuscript (MS E. V.13) and the fourteenth century Paris BN lat. 9336. The images are recipients of detailed discussion, with Camille bringing to them an art historian’s focus by tracing provenance and making comparisons with other examples of medieval pictorial and diagrammatic content. Photographic examples of the notae, as well as their analogues, are included, many at full size, though the quality of reproduction is not the greatest, with a blurry murk and a lack of contrast.

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Conjuring Spirits concludes with Richard Kieckhefer’s The Devil’s Contemplatives, in which he considers the two titles already exhaustively discussed within this volume: the Liber Iuratus Honorii (aka the Sworn Book of Honorius) and once again, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum. Kieckhefer’s point of difference, though, is analysing how both texts are evidence of the Christian appropriation of various elements from Jewish occultism. He emphasises the way in which both the Liber Iuratus and the Liber Visionum focus less on the typical goetic summoning of demons and rather on a form of devotional mysticism; an approach, he argues, that has little precedent in Western occultism and is instead drawn from Kabbalah, particularly the vision-rich Merkabah tradition. The previously-discussed ritual for attaining the beatific vision from the Liber Iuratus is an obvious example of this, as is John the Monks devotional reverence towards the Virgin Mary. While the attitude of these Western and Kabbalistic systems is circumstantially similar, Kieckhefer has no smoking gun, with the closest being a version of the Liber Iuratus that includes the Shem HaMephorash, Kabbalah’s secret name of God, in the design of a seal used for acquiring a dream vision.

Despite this book’s title, there’s relatively little that concerns itself with the conjuring of spirits here, with far greater focus on the devotional and reflective elements seen in works such as the Sworn Book of Honorius and Liber Visionum, and even in considerations of the mental self-improvement and memory aides showcased in the Ars Nortoria and the Secretum Philosophorum. With John the Monk looming over many of the contributions here, Conjuring Spirits is a valuable resource on the Liber Visionum, being the largest consideration of the text at the time of publication; though now rivalled by Fanger’s 2015 book, Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, also published by Pennsylvania State University Press.

Conjuring Spirits, like other titles in the Magic in History series, appears to be available in two editions. One of them features the classic, sombre and refined Penn State Press Magic in History cover template, whilst the other, reviewed here, has a cover design that is slightly more in keeping with an Inner Traditions or Weiser mass market title, all green gradient, low opacity goetic sigil and large drop-shadowed type. In at least this copy, apparently printed-on-demand by Ingram, there is a printing error, where the cover has skewed a couple of degrees off base, meaning that the spine print is noticeably misaligned, with a crooked sliver of the cover’s green gradient creeping into the spine, and a corresponding slice of black spine sneaking round onto the back matter. This same on-demand printing may account for the poor quality reproduction of images.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Occult Roots of Religious Studies – Edited by Yves Mühlematter and Helmut Zander

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Categories: esotericism, tantra, Tags:

Occult Roots of Religious Studies coverGrandly subtitled On the Influence of Non-Hegemonic Currents on Academia Around 1900, this anthology focuses on the interconnections between religious studies and occultism, advancing the thesis that the academic discipline of religious studies has hitherto unexplored, and literally and purposefully occulted, roots in esoteric traditions and the occult. As such, occultism and esotericism provided a fertile ground for the development of academic interests in comparative religion, with several scholars of the occult being directly and indirectly involved in the emerging field. The exploration of this scholarly evolution takes the form of case studies of figures such as Paul Masson-Oursel, John Woodroffe, Nees von Esenbeck, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, Walter Andrae and others. In addition, this volume concludes with what are described as ‘short biographies’ of various contributors to religious studies whose interest in both occultism and science have been little explored, revealing how esotericism, despite its othered status, can be an intrinsic part of the hegemonic culture to which it otherwise appears to be a contrary counterpart.

The case studies in Occult Roots of Religious Studies compile papers presented at the 2018 conference The Birth of the Science of Religion: Out of the Spirit of Occultism, hosted by the Université de Fribourg, and featuring Marco Frenschkowski, Daniel Cyranka, Boaz Huss, Julian Strube, Jens Schlieter, Léo Bernard, Sabine Böhme, and Dilek Sarmis. Editors Yves Mühlematter and Helmut Zander open the proceedings here with a joint introduction that presents the central thesis. Zander follows this with a contribution of his own, less of a case study and rather a setting out of terms in answer to the titular trinity of questions: what is esotericism? Does it exist? How can it be understood? As an academic setting of terms and definitions, this is all fine and de rigueur, but one finds oneself itching to skip the grounding and get to the case studies. Also offering something of an overview is Marco Frenschkowski’s The Science of Religion, Folklore Studies, and the Occult Field in Great Britain (1870–1914), in which he documents how the emerging field of religious studies in late 19th century Britain both influenced and competed with occult and esoteric groups who were pursuing similar but one might say, more invested, avenues of investigations. Despite being an abridged version of a longer study, Frenschkowski’s contribution feels relatively exhaustive, providing a context that extends beyond the geographical boundaries of the Great Britain of the title.

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The first case study of an individual is Daniel Cyranka’s Magnetism, Spiritualism, and the Academy in which he considers perhaps the oldest figure to be profiled here: the German botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck, president of the famed German Academy of the Natural Sciences Leopoldina from 1818 to 1858. As the title suggests, Cyranka is not concerned here with just Nees’ involvement in matters of the academy but with his interest in the then emergent trends of magnetism/vitalism and spiritualism, two fringe belief systems that, to varying degrees, embraced a scientific veneer. Cyranka’s archly disagrees with Johanna Bohley’s 2003 biography of Nees, in which she interprets his involvement with spiritualism as ’senile mysticism,’ painting him as someone for whom ‘infirmity’ and decrepitude made him descend into the comforting murk of pseudo-science. Cyranka contradicts this image, showing how there was a continuum between his academic works and later interests, and that his attempts to align the otherworldly with the scientific were hardly unique, being indicative of similar conversations occurring at the time.

In Academic Study of Kabbalah and Occultist Kabbalah, Boaz Huss profiles several 19th and 20th century scholars of Kabbalah including Gershom Scholem, Adolphe Franck, Moses Gaster, Joshua Abelson, and Ernst Müller. Although such scholars of Kabbalah, and Scholem in particular, were dismissive of occult Kabbalah because of its practitioners’ lack of academic expertise, and its independence from a specifically Jewish framework, Huss argues that the relationship betwixt the two fields was more nuanced than one might expect. He notes that Kabbalah scholarship and experiential Kabbalah have common genealogies, with significant connections, shared ideas, and nomenclature, and with the scholarly side of the aisle going so far as to identify Kabbalah as a form of theosophy (with the lowercase ‘t’). Scholem was even appreciative of Arthur E. Waite and Joseph Franz Molitor (both Christian kabbalists rather than occult ones) and the insights they provided, commending Waite for his appreciation of kabbalah’s sexual symbolism.

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This volume’s sole illustrated essay is Sabine Böhme’s The Ancient Processional Street of Babylon at the Pergamonmuseum Berlin, with its focus on the Anthroposophical background to Walter Andrae’s reconstruction in Berlin’s Pergamon Musuem of the Ishtar Gate and other archaeological objects from the same region, creating what is known as the museum’s Processional Way of Babylon exhibition. Böhme emphasises Andrae’s membership of Die Christengemeinschaft (The Christian Community), an esoteric denomination influenced by the works of Rudolf Steiner, though not directly affiliated with him, arguing that the community provided Andrae with an understanding of Steiner’s system of Anthroposophy and that this influenced the design of his museal concept. Assigning ancient intent to an apparently theoretical master architect called Zaratos or Nazarthos, Andrae conceived of the processional way as a device to purify those who walked down it as they headed into the Holy City of Bab-ilu, with the various stelae of lions, bulls and the chimerical mushhushshu dragons that lined the way creating a metaphysical experience for them. In such animal figures, and in the sphinxes he imagined standing guard at the beginning of the journey (going so far as to include two sphinxes from a different area and time period at the start of the museum’s processional way, one a restoration and the other a replica of it), Andrae saw a depiction of Steiner’s idea of humans being comprised of four parts: a physical body, a life body or etheric body, an astral body bearing sentience or consciousness, and the ego. Böhme’s illustration of how Anthroposophical ideas informed Andrae’s thinking is convincing, drawing principally from his own writings, while said thinking is rather less so, coming across as supremely speculative and prejudicial, with preconceptions colouring the archaeological interpretations.

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Three of the entries here concern themselves with the intersection of the West with Indian and Buddhist ideas, beginning with Julian Strube’s Tantra as Experimental Science in the Works of John Woodroffe. This provides a welcomed profile on the English author, perhaps better known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, whose comprehensive works on Tantra and Yoga first introduced those ideas to many in the West. Strube shows how Woodroffe’s advocacy for Tantra as an empirical, rational and ultimately scientific form of mysticism had an enduring and substantial influence on figures such as Mircea Eliade and Carl Gustav Jung, amongst others, with the system being considered analogous to the emerging Western fields of spiritualism and occultism.

A broadly similar vein is mined in Jen Schlieter’s A Common Core of Theosophy in Celtic Myth, Yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism, but with the focus on the American Theosophist Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, who, like Woodroffe with whom he communicated, was a Westerner who directly engaged with indigenous experts and intellectuals; including the Indo-Tibetan scholar and translator, Lama Kazi-Dawa Samdup with whom he collaborated on three titles, the most famous of which is the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol. Schlieter does not solely focus on Evans-Wentz’s relationship with Tibetan Buddhism, rather contextualising it within a Theosophy-inspired embrace of all religions and spiritualties that saw him study Celtic mythology, search for Egyptian wisdom, and only later explore Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. Highlighting the book’s concern with comparative religion, Evans-Wentz saw themes of animism and reincarnation in all of these religions, as well as in the beliefs of certain Alexandrian Christians and Gnostic sects, arguing that they were fundamental principles of a perennial spirituality.

As the final part of this similarly-themed trio, Léo Bernard’s profile of the orientalist and philosopher, Paul Masson-Oursel, subtitled Inside and Outside the Academy, charts his oscillation between hegemonic and non-hegemonic poles, as exemplified by René Guénon’s scathing assessment of him as exhibiting a tendency towards appeasing everyone, “a result, no doubt, of his quite indecisive character.” Understandably, Bernard is nowhere near as a vituperative in his consideration of Masson-Oursel, highlighting his role in developing an academic approach to comparative religion in which the idea of philosophia perrenis played a central role, as well as showing his links to the growth of Neo-Vedanta/Neo-Hinduism in which Hindu thinkers and reformers such as Vivek?nanda and G?ndh? redefined Hindu dharma as an essentially universal, ethical religion.

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The short biographies with which this volume concludes makes for a significant contribution of twenty-seven pages despite their individual brevity. Each on average runs to a page and a third with usually a biographical paragraph as a contextual grounding, followed by one or two on their scholastic endeavours as they pertain to this title’s central thesis. Profiled here are Mehmet Ali Ayni, Hermann Beckh, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Baron Omar Rolf von Ehrenfels, Antoine Faivre, Charles Johnston, Anna Kamensky, George Robert Stow Mead, Georges Méautis, Erwin Rousselle, Friedrich Otto Schrader, Karl Bernhard Seidenstücker, Daisetsu Teitar? Suzuki, and Mari Albert Johan van Manen.

Occult Roots of Religious Studies runs to 283 pages of main content, bound as a sturdy hardback. The text in is presented in the De Gruyter house style, with the body set in a mild slab serif that almost scans as a sans serif, giving a distinctly modern look that, as has been mentioned in other reviews, is ever-so-slightly unconducive to reading. Images in Böhme’s consideration of Walter Andrae are reproduced at a small size and with their captions are somewhat awkwardly formatted.

Published by De Gruyter

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