Quick Review: Sex, War, and the Tarot

That is the subtitle I mentally add to Alan Richardson’s novel The Lightbearer.

It starts with the landing of Allied paratroopers in Normandy just after midnight on June 6, 1944, a meticulously planned operation that ended up scrambled by Murphy’s Law.

In the novel, a transport aircraft carrying some of the pathfinders goes astray (as some did) causing one Private Michael Horsett to land far off-target. Horsett is taken in by a group of French Thelemite magicians — all female.

Complications ensue. The Thelemites have their own agenda. Local Resistance fighters have another agenda. Private Horsett, new to war, wants to prove himself as a soldier. And there is a Tarot puzzle built into the text. It is not easy to combine occultism with a thriller plot, but Richardson pulls it off.1)Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

Trolls through Time

troll.jpg

Storybook troll by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1900.

Translating the Chanson de Roland — the epic poem about Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778 — for a Norse audience,1)In Norse, Karlamagnús saga. the Norse poet describes one Muslim emir thus: “The man was full of magic and sorcery and fraud and would be called a troll if he were to come up here to the northern part of the world” (33).

And you thought trolls lived under bridges? And how did we get from that to ugly-cute plastic dolls and Moomintroll?

“Troll” is an elusive category, but John Lindow does his best to sort it out historically and thematically in Trolls: An Unnatural History (160 pp.)

This short but well-researched book tells how troll in the old sagas overlapped with giant, witch, land-wight (landvaettir) and people — not just fierce warrirors but shape-shifters, Saami shamans, and even Greenland Inuit, whose lifeways seemed so unusual to the Norse settlers there (43).

One 14th-century saga describes trolls encountered in Helluland, usually taken to mean Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (35). Were these indigenous trolls?

To “give someone to the trolls” meant to kill them.

The word’s origin is uncertain. It might have come from verbs meaning “to enchant” or “to tread” or “rush away,” with Lindow himself leaning towards an origin connected with magic.2)In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51). It was “an all-purpose word for supernatural beings” (51).

A troll transformation occurred in the 19th century with the rising interest in folklore-collecting. Still huge, trolls were depicted affectionately by a variety of Scandinavian artists.

Trolls (by that name) entered in the English-speaking world only in the 1850s, notably in George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse, published in 1859, which familiarized Anglosphere children with the Three Billy Goats Gruff (100).

The movie Trollhunter (which is a lot of fun) invokes and tweaks all the old images — giants, bridges, goats, hostility to Christianity. In Lindow’s opinion, it is the best modern troll-flick. “Trolls have some way to go before they catch up with zombies, but they are certainly a presence in film and media” (122).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Norse, Karlamagnús saga.
2. In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51).

Assessing a New Book on Jesus’ Wife


I used to think that of course Jesus was married — what normal 1st-century small-town Jewish man would not be married? Answer: most of the Essenes, to name one group.

The perennial interest in an actual bloodline of his descendents is periodically stoked by books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code, and more recently, by The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.

Ah, Mary Magdelene, who was she? A minor disciple of the wandering preacher? Or the disciple who understood him best? A wealthy follower who financed his wanderings? His wife and mother of their kids? Some combination of the above? Or as Robert Graves imagined in the 1940s, the priestess of some surviving Canaanite Paganism who sexually conveyed to him a sovereignity over the land — the thesis of his novel King Jesus, which predated The White Goddess by two years.

The Lost Gospel’s authors, “Simcha Jacobovici, author, and TV personality perhaps best known for his series The Naked Archaeologist, along with Prof. Barrie Wilson of York University,” make a textual argument over a  “6th century Syriac text that records the apocryphal tale entitled Joseph and Aseneth.”

So this is a text written some centuries after Jesus lived but maybe copied from a much earlier original about two biblical characters who might be read as allegories for Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

My quotes come from a four-part entry on the University of Toronto’s Religion Beat blog, written by Anna Cwikla, a graduate student in religion. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

She pokes some holes in their argument and faults them for taking the rhetorical stance sometimes called “They laughed at Galileo” — If  the established experts  are against me, then I must be right!

But I might still read The Lost Gospel anyway, just for cultural reasons. Whereas we Pagans are comfortable with the idea of female religious leaders, the Middle Eastern monotheisms mostly still are not. Cwikla quotes an MCC pastor:

The possibility of Jesus having a wife sparked positive responses from some female clerics. For example, in a blog post on the Huffington Post website, Moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson expressed tempered optimism about the fragment’s potential to change the patriarchal position of many Christian denominations: “Will a little snippet of ancient writing change the Christian world? It is possible, and I am hopeful.”

Plus, like The DaVinci Code, the book is “scandalous,” particularly for the Roman Catholic Church. She cites Anthony Le Donne, author of  The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (another one for the reading list):

By looking to the past for evidence of women as leaders in early Christianity, we are attempting to look for a way to change the longstanding tradition of women having less power in most Christian traditions that is still evident in modern society. By wedding Jesus, we may be trying to make him more “human-like,” or, as Alex Beam suggests: “The purpose, animated by the all-powerful secularism of our time, is to bring him [Jesus] down to our level.”

There is a potential irony there for the liberal Christians: If you add female clergy but lose the divinity of Jesus, what is left? Where is the “juice” of your religion?

A Top Nazi’s Library, “Violent” Heathens, and a Middle Eastern “Old Religion”

himmler and hitler

Heinrich Himmler (front, leather coat) chats with der Führer.

According to the Daily Mail (dial skepticism appropriately) a collection of occult books1)Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle. owned by Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler has been found in the Czech Republic.

The bulk of the collection was called the ‘Witches Library’ and concentrated on witches and their persecution in medieval Germany.

One of Himmler’s quack theories was that the Roman Catholic Church tried to destroy the German race through witch hunts.

UPDATE, March 31, 2016: The Wild Hunt reports that the news story quoted above resulted from a misunderstanding, and that there were no “occult books,” just some Masonic books.

• At Religion Dispatches, thoughts on how the History Channel series The Vikings both “subverts and supports the violent heathen trope” (my italics).

In one scene, the Christian Prince Aethelwulf, who earlier in the series said that “it is just not possible to imagine a world in which there is both one god and several,” unleashed genocidal fury on a settlement of unarmed, pagan [sic], Viking2)“Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice. farmers who had been promised protection by the king. Yet,3)No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it! the show includes vestiges of the violent heathen trope that’s been a staple of how dominant religious groups have portrayed minority religious groups throughout history.

• According to this article, some Kurds, who are various in conflict with Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Iranians, are going back to the Old Religion, that of Zoroaster. (It has hung in some places all these centuries since the Arab Muslims rolled over Persia in the 8th century.)

The small, ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is being revived in northern Iraq. Followers say locals should join because it’s a truly Kurdish belief. Others say the revival is a reaction to extremist Islam.

One of the smallest and oldest religions in the world is experiencing a revival in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The religion has deep Kurdish roots – it was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives. However this century it is estimated that there are only around 190,000 believers in the world – as Islam became the dominant religion in the region during the 7th century, Zoroastrianism more or less disappeared.

So does this count as a “Native Faith” movement, like Rodnoverie, etc., but not polytheistic?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle.
2. “Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice.
3. No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it!

The Scholar’s Mistress

scholar's mistress_sm

I learnt a new expression late last year: “the scholar’s mistress.” What it means is the pile of books that accumulate beside the bed, books that you are reading, plan to read, ought to have read, might read again.

At my house, the dog’s kennel does for a nightstand. Note highlighter pen at the ready. Also — right-most pile, lower — a stack of academic journals.

It is time to talk about some of these books—short reviews, quick comments, whatever. Then maybe some of them can move on to their new book-lives, while others can stay there at the bedside longer for re-visiting.

Watch this space.

Get the Harvard Classics, Free

The Harvard Classics, also known as  “Dr. Eliot’s/The Five Foot Shelf of Books,”  are available as a free download.

From a time when university presidents actually cared what people read, as opposed to just the size of their donations:

What does the massive collection preserve? For one thing . . .  it’s “a record of what President Eliot’s America, and his Harvard, thought best in their own heritage.” Eliot’s intentions for his work differed somewhat from those of his English peers. Rather than simply curating for posterity “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), Eliot meant his anthology as a “portable university”—a pragmatic set of tools, to be sure, and also, of course, a product. He suggested that the full set of texts might be divided into a set of six courses on such conservative themes as “The History of Civilization” and “Religion and Philosophy,” and yet, writes Kirsch, “in a more profound sense, the lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is ‘Progress.’” “Eliot’s [1910] introduction expresses complete faith in the ‘intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization.’”

These books were in the public library of the Colorado town where I went to most of high school. The one that I checked out over and over, of course, was the mythology volume: Beowulf, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel — tales like that. Over and over.

Isis Gets Some Ink*

A fairly straight-forward article on one of the Denver area’s longer-lived occult bookstores, Isis Books, appeared in Sunday’s Denver Post.

“Makeshift Egyptian temple” is not quite right, though. The building used to be a mortuary with columns out front (where the limos used to pull up) that lent themselves to an Egyptian-inspired paint scheme.

The store started in Denver on East Colfax Avenue, not far from Hubcap Annie’s, the used hubcap store, which gives you a sense of the neighborhood.

If I remember correctly (always debatable), the first owner wasn’t making a go of it, and her landlord, this Jewish guy with no interest in Paganism, etc., took over. Karen Charboneau moved up from clerk to manager to owner, overseeing moves first to a bigger space on Colfax and then to the close-in suburb of Englewood, as well as developing a large mail-order operation.

*My reference point is always printing, not body art.

It’s All Right. I Have a Book

Bridget on the necessity of reading materials:

Nothing for me is worse than being in the back of an airplane or at a hotel with nothing to read. When in one mountainous far off place, I had to downsize a bag as the little airplane being piloted by what I believe was a Yeti, was weight restricted and my books were left behind for materials I had to have for the mission. I almost would have given up my tools, my poncho and my hiking boots than my little collection of paperbacks, of Earth Abides and Stranger in a Strange Land and a small leather bound book of Shakespeare sonnets.

Read the rest.

Fields Books to Close on Polk Street and Move Online

The last time that I visited Fields Book Store, San Francisco’s long-time esoteric bookshop (older than the Golden Gate Bridge), was the last time that I was in the city. I can’t remember what I bought — something — and I spent a while skimming the last volume of Mircea Eliade’s journals.

Then I heard that it was closing, which was sad. But it will continue online after January 2013, says owner David Wiegleb:

So, we’ll need to pass the baton of “San Francisco’s oldest brick-and-mortar bookstore” to someone else, as it was passed to us. I think it goes next to that beatnik youngster over in North Beach, City Lights, founded in 1953 — certainly one of San Francisco’s treasures. While we hope that Fields can continue to serve you on our website for many years to come, I urge you to also support your local brick and mortar stores as well. Each time we lose one, we lose a bit more of the fabric and texture of our cities and towns. The low prices of the mega-stores — real and virtual — have a very high cost. Make your purchases consciously whenever you can.