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.

Quick Review: The Aleppo Codex

If you liked The Da Vinci Code or The Historian or The Name of the Rose, you might enjoy The Aleppo CodexThe difference is that it is a factual story, and its context is modern Syria and Israel, not medieval Europe.

From the dust jacket: “It’s a tale that involves grizzled secret agents, pious clergymen, shrewd antiquities collectors, and highly placed national figures who, as it turns out would do anything to get their hands on an ancient decaying book.”

The codex in question was created in the tenth century by an expert scribe and a noted rabbi working together. The scribe could write Hebrew like it came out of a laser printer, as the author will later note, while the rabbi then added various marginal notes to the completed pages. Unlike the Torah scrolls used in synagogues, this parchment book was designed to be the most accurate and complete reference edition of the entire Hebrew Bible.

It was looted when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem 170 years later, ransomed by Egyptian Jews, studied by Maimonides, then somehow later transported to the chief synagogue of Aleppo in northern Syria.  The codex, now known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” was no longer read but functioned more as a talisman for the Jewish community.

There in November 1947, angered that the United Nations had approved creation of the state of Israel, a Muslim mob attacked Jewish homes and businesses and trashed the synagogue.  Most of the Crown’s pages were recovered after the synagogue was vandalized during the riot—but then the story grows murky, foggy, and complicated.

When author Matti Friedman, a Canadian-born reporter working in Jerusalem, becomes intrigued with the story of how (and how much of) the Crown came to be in an Israeli museum, one of his sources tells him, “You’re entering a minefield . . . . There are traps and pitfalls and mirages and cats guarding the cream. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and ten other doors will slam shut.”

Trying to write the modern story of the codex, Friedman enters a world where public records disappear, where histories have large gaps, and where passions run high. One murder possibly connected with the Crown causes him to write that it was a “story could have been written by Agatha Christie, if Agatha Christie were an ultra-Orthodox Jew.”

A typical interaction goes like this:

My conversation with Zer followed the usual pattern for exchanges with people in the Aleppo Codex Underground: they would float vague pieces of information to see if I knew more than they did, and I did the same.

It is not the information within the codex that makes it so important, but its enormous significance as tangible Judaica—like a lost emperor’s crown or the Holy Grail, it is important for its associations.

Not coincidentally, another of his collaborators, the grizzled retired Mossad agent referred to on the dust jacket, describes how as bullets were still flying in the Six-Day War of 1967, he and an Israeli colonel traveled to Bethlehem in search of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed held by an antiquities dealer there. Eventually the dealer sells it to the government for a high price—but it is an offer that he cannot refuse.

Not only was the new state of Israel seeking to bring back Jews from all over the world, it was determined by any means necessary to bring back texts connected with Jewish history, and in that determination lies the probable explanation of what happened to the Aleppo codex.

Ronald Hutton Responds to His Critics

Even before his interview with Australian scholar/blogger Caroline Tully, Ronald Hutton had written a lengthy article for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies titled “Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View.”

It is now available as a free download from Equinox Publishing.

In it, Professor Hutton discusses the trajectory of his own work as well as responding to Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon.

In the same issue, Peg Aloi reviews Trials of the Moon as well as Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror.

And I review yet another “grandmother story.”

The other articles in the latest issue (listed below) are behind a pay wall, although if you have access to a university library or to a good public library, they should be available through inter-library loan.

The Idol and the Numinous: the Pagan Quest for the Holy
Dominique Beth Wilson

Shamanisms and the Authenticity of Religious Experience
Susannah Crockford

Negotiating Gender Essentialism in Contemporary Paganism
Regina Smith Oboler

The Meaning of ‘Wicca’: A Study in Etymology, History, and Pagan Politics
Ethan Doyle White

The Magical Cosmology of Rosaleen Norton
Nevill Stuart Drury

Vampires of Santa Fe

Corn plant grill work in Acequia Madre neighborhood, Santa Fe, New MexicoA week ago I walked through a snow squall on Cathedral Place in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and thought, “Santa Fe needs a vampire novel.”

I had in mind something like Anne Rice meets Jake Page meets Michael McGarrity.

It turns out that a Santa Fe-based writer, S.M. Stirling, has in fact been writing in that vein (heh).  Here is his protagonist, hanging out in the Plaza, pondering an eternal Santa Fe question—shopping or museum-ing:

A homeless man was approaching, ready to ask for a handout; leathery skin and rank scent and layers of tattered cloth. She glared at him and found the weakness—a blood-vessel in the brain ready to rupture, weakened by drugs, bad feeding, alcohol and stress from the untreated chemical imbalances that rode him more savagely than even her kind could do. She pushed. The world shifted slightly as might-be switched to is, like a breath of cold air up the spine and a tightness that went click and released around the brows. The man collapsed.

Adrienne rose and stepped by him; it would probably be minutes before someone noticed it was more than the usual unconsciousness. She’d planned on spending the afternoon at the O’Keefe Museum, or possibly shopping for jewelry, but…

Sample chapters of the book, A Taint in the Blood, are available at his Web site. Stirling seems to have a fondness for superhuman characters who, we might say, clean out the weak, which fits with the literary-vampire ethos.

(Earlier mentions of Stirling’s work here and here.)

Santa Fe might be called the New Orleans of the West, only “earthy” in an elemental sense rather than “watery.

It caters to tourists and offers them a good time. Tourist Santa Fe, selling High Culture (art and opera) to Texans (and others) co-exists with governmental Santa Fe just hundreds of yards away—after all, it has been a provincial capital since 1608.

But underneath . . . layers and layers. Ethnic balkanization and people cherishing hatreds and triumphs that go back centuries. Martyrs and massacres.  Deep roots in the earth.

Harry Potter Fans not all that into Magic, Witchcraft

Glancing back at Oberon Zell’s sporadic blog, I see mention of the “Azkatraz” Harry Potter convention in San Francisco last July. (Scroll down to the “Escape from Azkatraz” subhead in Aug. 1, 2009 entry.)

The Zells took a vendor space for their Mythic Images business of New Age, Pagan, and Goddess-oriented images, etc.

But it was not a very successful show, as Oberon notes:

And that gets me to the second important lesson we learned: Harry Potter fans aren’t interested in Wizardry, Witchcraft, Magick, an online school, or anything that isn’t specifically and only about the Harry Potter stories and characters. The only successful vendor was the one selling licensed trademark Harry Potter merchandise—such as Hogwarts House patches and regalia, movie replica wands, Harry Potter games and toys—and pointy hats. I bought a really nice new one,as well as several books from the book vendors. And we sold two copies of the A Wizard’s Bestiary: A Menagerie of Myth, Magic, and Mystery by managing to convince some folks that the magickal beasts featured in the Harry Potter stories could be found in this book. This is true, and I do hope they’ll go on to read about other beasties as well.

I don’t doubt his observations. It’s not that the Harry Potter books “drive children to witchcraft,” it is more that some Pagan Witches hope that Potter-readers will wonder what real witchcraft is. Most, however, probably will not, having enjoyed the stories just as stories.