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Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible – Reed Carlson

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Categories: mesopotamian, Tags:

Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible cover Bearing the subtitle Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena, Reed Carlson’s Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible is an exploration of how the Hebrew Bible treats the phenomenon of spirit possession; something more commonly associated with late Second Temple Jewish literature and Christianity’s New Testament. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the Director of Anglican Studies at the United Lutheran Seminary and this book is based on his 2019 doctoral dissertation at Harvard Divinity School, Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena in Biblical Literature, which it hews to very closely. In both dissertation and book, the core thesis argues that hitherto little-explored themes of possession and other spirit interactions are present in the bible, though rarely conforming to those paradigms established by Christianity and Western intellectual history.

Despite this book’s obvious grounding in Hebrew texts, Carlson begins with a contemporary if somewhat incongruous scene from the 1980s, detailing a case, later used as the basis for one of the Conjuring movies, in which Arne Cheyenne Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for the killing of his landlord, having unsuccessfully pleaded not guilty by reason of demonic possession. This is used, not by way of comparison to what follows, but in contrast, as exemplary of the more dramatic and popular idea of spirit possession, but one that is not found in either the Hebrew Bible, or in many contemporary spirit practices.

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Given the dearth in considerations or even acknowledgements of this theme within the Hebrew bible, it is understandable that the examples here are rather limited, with Carlson beginning with, and making much hay from, King Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor and her summoning of the shade of the prophet Samuel. As Carlson shows, this emphasis makes a lot of sense, not just because of the strength of the image of a dead prophet being summoned from his grave, but because Saul’s involvement with spirits predates that later sequence, with 1 Samuel providing a catalogue of incidences that confirm his standing as one of the most dynamically spirit-affected people in the bible. He is possessed by the spirit of the Lord whilst entering the city of Gibeah, temporarily becoming a prophet and being explicitly “turned into a different person” as the text has it. Later, though, after displeasing his fickle divine patron, Saul finds that not only does the spirit of the Lord depart from him (seizing, instead, his successor, David), but that the Lord doubles down on the punishment by sending an apparent replacement, a harmful spirit that torments the king. Carlson argues that these events, as well as the later séance scene, are indicative of how Saul, along with Samuel, David and the Endor witch herself, are presented as having porous spiritual borders. They are possessed of a metaphysical permeability that makes sense of actions that, by virtue of having their root in the spirit world, may otherwise seem erratic or irrational. Carlson uses this premise, in which spirit interaction is so integrated into society that specific technical details are deemed unnecessary and left unsaid by the narrator, to cast the Endor séance not as a visible summoning but as an act of possession, with the witch channelling Samuel’s spirit and acting as a vessel for the prophet to speak through.

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Carlson’s core methodology compares the sparse clues found in the biblical record with extant spirit practices in contemporary communities. He often leads with these anthropological and ethnographic examples, providing an experiential context from which the reader can themselves draw comparisons when the biblical text is discussed, and which he then affirms in commentary. In the case of Saul’s spirit sickness, the template is found in twentieth century Cuban Espiritismo, in particular the most popular form in Cuba, the Santería-adjacent Espiritismo Cruzado, in which each person is connected to their own collective of spirits, with whom Espiritistas (mediums) cultivate a relationship. Similarly, Brazil’s Yoruba-influenced religion of Umbanda is used as the analogy for the fifth chapter’s discussion of intersections between spirits and medicine, contrasting the use of spiritual triage in Umbanda with the preponderance of medical idioms that are used to describe spirit phenomena in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature.

Carlson employs these analogies with a masterful narrative touch, never drawing analytical attention to them immediately, but patiently calling back to them later in the chapter when they’ve been almost all but forgotten. In the interim, he presents engaging explorations of biblical sources and themes, crafted with an erudite and engaging voice that assumes a reasonable degree of knowledge and familiarity from the reader, but never asks too much.

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The spirit interactions of the Gullah people of the Lowcountry and Sea Islands of the United States preface the third chapter’s general discussion of rûah as both spirit and breath in Hebrew cosmology, with the analogy providing an emphasises on talking with the dead. Later in the same chapter, a Sakalava spirit-possession ritual from Madagascar is compared to the story of the prophet Micaiah from 1 Kings, with Carlson picking up on the motif of competing spirits, in which narrative and existing political alliances and hierarchies find their proxies in the supernatural realm. A similar motif can, it is suggested, be seen in the myth of the fallen angels, but the analogy seems generously stretched in order to make it.

This speaks to a common experience when reading Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible and it can sometimes feel like Carlson is finding exactly what he wants to find in his biblical sources. Interpreting the Saul séance as an act of possession, though appealing, goes against most conventional readings of the scene, and uses the smallest of ambiguities to extract thesis-corroborating details. Similarly, one can sense a palpable preference in how the concept of ‘spirit’ is interpreted in texts, leaning towards the idea of actual entities, rather than a more pragmatic approach which would see the phrase as referring to metaphorical embodiments of abstract concepts, such as the spirit of jealousy mentioned in Numbers or the general idea of the spirit of the Lord. There’s also the risk when analogous models are used to unduly apply a wholesale interpretation from one situation to another, confusing minor correlation with total similitude. This is very much the case when Carlson draws on the sometimes irreverent approach to the gods and spirits in Haitian practices, applying it to Elijah’s competitive encounter with the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When Elijah mocks the rival prophets for their inability to entreat Baal, Carlson deploys the Haitian comparison and frames the event not as two separate rituals but as a joint ritual in which the two cults battle. The 450 prophets killed on Elijah’s orders in the waters of the Kishon river might not see it in quite so cooperative a light.

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With all that said, even if one finds Carlson’s conclusions not as convincing as one would hope, Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible makes for an interesting and indeed valuable consideration of its themes. Its survey of rûah and of the distinction between abiding and migrating spirits, along with the in-depth considerations of the Saul séance and other key moments, makes this a work that has much to recommend it.

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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.

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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.

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Demons in Late Antiquity: Their Perception and Transformation in Different Literary Genres – Edited by Eva Elm, Nicole Hartmann

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Categories: classical, satanism, Tags:

Demons in Late Antiquity coverThis anthology, edited by Eva Elm and Nicole Hartmann, is the 54th volume in the Transformationen der Antike series, produced by the Collaborative Research Centre’s Transformations of Antiquity project and Humboldt University of Berlin’s August Boeckh Centre of Antiquity. It considers the myriad way in which demons were perceived in late antiquity, drawing variously from spells, apocalypses, martyrdom literature and hagiography to show how this perception was moulded, as anything is, by context both cultural and religious, and considers the specific influence of literary genres on this. The eight articles that are presented here originated from a conference that took place in Berlin in November 2015, with the slightly different title of The Perception of Demons in Different Literary Genres in Late Antiquity, and reveal a variety of voices with different approaches.

The first four papers in Demons in Late Antiquity focus on the rendering of demons in a variety of genres, including magical amulets, apocalypses and the Vetus Latina (the earliest Latin translations of the Gospels), while the four remaining papers address how the theme appears specifically in late antique hagiography. The intersection between demons, disease and cultural influences is a focus of the first two entries, with Christoph Markschies considering the transformation of pagan concepts of demons to Christian ones on apotropaic talismans, while Annette Weissenrieder’s Disease and Healing in a Changing World concerns itself with the exorcisms performed by Jesus as recorded in the Vetus Latina, in which then contemporary Roman medical ideas inform the narrative. Markschies provides examples of the overlap between pagan and Christian ideas of demons, drawing attention to how in his dialogue Theophrastus, the fifth century Neo-Platonic philosopher and convert to Christianity, Aeneas of Gaza, talks of the airy materiality of demons, ideas that had precedent two centuries earlier in the work of another Neoplatonist, Porphyry. A similar overlap occurs in the work of the presumed-Christian philosopher Calcidius whose fourth century translation into Latin of Plato’s Timaeus includes, as part of his commentary, an excursus on demonology, describing demons as ‘associates of the enemy power,’ a phrase that can be traced back to Porphyry as well. Weissenrieder’s essay, meanwhile, focuses heavily on technical etymology, highlighting difference between the Afra versions of the gospel and the European Vetus Latina versions. By deep-diving into the intricacies of language and the terms used, Weissenrieder argues that the latter texts present a more pragmatic and medical view of the process of exorcism, in which Jesus removes the plague of illness, rather than a plague of demons and unclean spirits. A similar exploration of language at a technical level is found in The Ambiguity of the Devil, in which Nienke Vos employs a discourse-linguistic analysis to focus on the appearance of the devil in Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin.

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Editor Nicole Hartmann’s On Demons in Early Martyrology is not so much about demons but rather a lack of demons, arguing that they feature little in early martyrology. She shows how despite the unquestioned belief then current in a variety of unseen spirits that surrounded the faithful in the everyday, they, and in particular daimones, play little active role in early martyrdom accounts; This early martyrology had little impact in the shaping of Christian demonology, and indeed, later stories of martyrs reflected this evolution, with a reversal in which less focus was placed on the martyrdom itself, and more on contests of power between martyrs and adversarial, malevolent spirits. It is this later period that is addressed in Robert Wi?niewski’s Demons in Early Latin Hagiography, in which he draws specifically on Athanasius’ Life of Antony, Paulinus’ Life of Ambrose, Jerome’s Life of Hilarion and Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin; the latter two of which are also dealt with individually within this volume by Eva Elm and Nienke Vos respectively. Wi?niewski provides a wide ranging survey of the role of demons in such literature and draws attention to the fact that encounters with demons occur more frequently in the lives of monks than those of bishops, with spiritual combat and the fight against temptation often being quintessential to a monk’s monastic and eremophilous existence, whereas the ecclesiastical life didn’t quite present the same opportunities for interaction with the demonic.

Editor Eva Elm’s consideration of demons in Jerome’s Life of Hilarion is titled Hilarion and the Bactrian Camel and focuses rather less than one might expect, given its titular prominence, on said rabid camel, which appears only in passing references to its exorcism by Hilarion. Instead, Elms presents a thorough account of Hilarion’s life and interaction with demons, including a significant, and ever-so-slightly diverting, preamble discussing his appearance in Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 novel The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which he acts as an adversarial figure attempting to sway his mentor from the monastic life.

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Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of this book’s themes is found in Emmanouela Grypeou’s Demons of the Underworld in the Christian Literature of Antiquity, though the demons concerned here are actually punishing angels. Grypeou suggests that later fifth century images of demons as infernal administrators of punishment were informed by earlier themes of angels, not fallen and still aligned with heaven, acting as arbiters of divine justice within Hell itself. She focuses little on transitional examples that might confirm this supposition and instead provides a thorough documentation from a variety of texts of various punitive angeli Tartarum; texts in which they along with personified figures associated with death effectively constituted a ‘mortuary pantheon’ for Late Antique Christianity. Grypeou focuses specifically on second and third century Christian apocalyptic texts such as the Hellenic-influenced Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul. Both apocalypses mention several hell-bound angels who administer punishments, as well the angel Temelouchos, a figure who appears here as a benign guardian of the victims of infanticide but who in later works, such as the First Apocalypse of John, also becomes a divine arbiter dispensing specifically igneous punishments. Grypeou acknowledges the precedent of tormenting angels in early Jewish apocalyptic texts, such as the Parables of Enoch, the Second Apocalypse of Enoch and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and also documents significant examples in later Coptic literature, where the angelic demons of Amente are often thought to be evidence of the survival of ancient Egyptian eschatological ideas.

Save for an epilogue by Jan. N. Bremmer, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe brings this volume to its conclusion with Demon Speech in Hagiography and Hymnography, in which she exhaustively covers various examples of the speech of demons and their characteristics. She contrasts the utterances of demonic actors in late antique saints’ lives with Syriac and Greek catechetical hymns, such as Ephrem’s Nisibene Hymns, in which infernal beings are given voice as characters in an instructional narrative.

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In all, Demons in Late Antiquity is an interesting compilation of texts, that show a variety of themes even if there are certain through-lines such as disease, and a focus on some particular texts more than others. Demons in Late Antiquity is presented as an oversized 6.8 x 9.6 inch hardback in a fetching shade of red. Illustrations are limited to Christoph Markschies’ essay with slightly muddy photographs of some of the manuscripts he references, and the text 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 is ever-so-slightly unconducive to reading.

Published by De Gruyter