‘Cosmos’ Misrepresents Giordano Bruno

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos tries to remake Giordano Bruno as a martyr of modern science, but he was nothing of the kind.

He was a lot more of an occultist. Even The Daily Beast gets it.

As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

New York’s ‘Occult Revival’: Everything Old Is New Again

From The Revealer (see blogroll under Religion and Journalism): “Chapel Perilous: Notes From The New York Occult Revival.”

There’s been a magical revival happening in New York City for two to three years,” Damon Stang, the “shop witch” for Catland Books in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, told the New York Times last year. “I think it’s a nostalgia that people have for a sense of enchantment with the world.”

There is some material evidence that a new interest in magic and esoteric subjects is growing. Catland itself, an active center for pagan rites and magical ceremonies, opened last February. The Times article, which appeared ten months after opening, is an indication of that interest, although it was albeit a local-color piece called “Friday Night Rites”  in which the shop was erroneously located in  Williamsburg. More substantially, NYU hosted its first annual Occult Humanities Conference in October — a gathering of researchers, practitioners and artists from all over the world who engaged in work with the occult and esoteric. The Observatory, Park’s home base, has been offering well-attended lectures on magical topics since 2009, including a few by Mitch Horowitz. . . . .

In the academic study of religion, “the occult” is neither settled as a term nor a community. At its most basic level, it indicates a kind of hiddenness — a concealed truth. In popular usage, this usually means pagan nature worship, witchcraft, spirit communication, magic and other fringe religious ideas. The scholar Catherine Albanese, in her magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit, investigated many American practitioners of these forms as “metaphysicals,” a particular variety of religious actor for whom the power of the mind and the existence of a concealed “energy” within the body and the world, are essential. It’s a useful term, but hardly ever applied outside of the academy. The people I met at the conference preferred the words “occult” and “esoteric” to describe their interests, often using them interchangeably. How can a revival be studied when it is unclear what, exactly, is being revived?

Worth reading, among other things, for the reminder about Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of the “chapel perilous.” I could tell stories . . .  and I am certain that you could too.

Doggerland, a Professor of Esotericism, and the Passing of a Priestess of Isis

¶ That  Doggerland existed is not news (do you expect breaking archeology news in the Daily Mail?) but here are some cool images of this lost land. I am still waiting for someone to create an authentic Pagan tradition based there.

¶ Ethan Doyle White interviews a Norwegian scholar of Paganism and esotericism, Egil Asprem. Asprem credits role-playing games, among other things, for his ending up as a professor of esotericism at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

¶ Philip Carr-Gomm reports on the passing yesterday of Olivia Robertson, founder of the Fellowship of Isis.

M. and I visited her (and became members, of course) in 1978 when honeymooning in Ireland.  At that time the household of Clonegal Castle (a Jacobean great house) in Co. Carlow, consisted chiefly of her, her brother Derry, and her brother’s wife, Poppy, whose role seemed to be the “voice of normality” while Olivia and Durry (a retired Anglican clergyman) planned for the future of Goddess-worship — all while living in a mostly unheated and crumbling 17th-century manor.

Once while walking down the drive after a visit with a member of Stewart and Janet Farrar’s coven, the covener, who was English, turned to us and said in amazement, “One reads about people like that.”

And now that is all that we will be able to do.

Conferences of Interest to Scholars of Paganism and Esotericism

¶  The 6th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality (PDF) includes some Pagan-friendly themes.

¶ The Association for the Study of Esotericism will meet in June at Colgate University in upstate New York.  Egil Asprem has more to say about that one.

¶ The Conference on Current Pagan Studies, held in Claremont, Calif., will be held on Feb. 8–9, 2014. More information will be forthcoming.

Esotericism and the ‘Walking Wounded’

Last night I watched The Master, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively playing an L. Ron Hubbard-type esoteric group’s leader (making stuff up as he goes), his wife and collaborator,  and an erratic alcoholic sailor who becomes, for a time, his follower.

I rented it mainly because I have long been a big fan of Hoffman as an actor who disappears into roles (especially Capote), rather than just playing variations on himself. And The Master is more about character than plot — the plot itself could be summarized in one sentence.

Walking the dogs this morning, I started fantasizing that if there were a School of Esoteric Management, this movie could be shown in class, followed by lengthy discussion, because what esoteric group does not have its “Freddy Quells” (Phoenix’s character)?

Eighty years ago, the occultist Dion Fortune made dismissive references to “lecture room tramps,” the people who came to lectures and presentations by this teacher or that, but who never really committed to any system.

Freddie is not looking for teaching necessarily — he literally stumbles into “The Cause,” and “Lancaster Dodd” (Hoffman) decides to demonstrate his method of quick psychological breakthrough and cure on him. For a time, Freddie becomes a loyal follower, even a kind of enforcer. But in the end, he is too damaged for “The Cause.”

Esoteric groups always attract the psychological “walking wounded” who are looking for a quick fix and excitement. Even Jesus of Nazareth had Judas the Sicarius, who seemed OK for a while but was really the kind of unstable fanatic who today would strap on a suicide vest.

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Lemuria

51119-243x366The Los Angeles Review of Books offers a review of two books on Ray Palmer, the Shaver Mystery, and pulp-esoteric publishing of the 1940s–50s: The War Over Lemuria and The Man from Mars : Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey.

From the review:

Of course, the underground worlds of Richard Shaver did not spring full grown from his brain, no matter how fevered it might have been. Subterranean adventure has long been a staple of science-fiction. Even more to the point, the belief in the existence of subterranean civilizations itself has a long history, and not just among the ancients who believed in one form or another of an underworld abode of the dead.  Indeed, there are other instances in which fictional stories about the underworld have been regarded by some readers as revealing a hidden, sometimes religious truth. The Shaver Mystery, it turns out, is not without precedent. John Cleve Symmes’s hollow-earth novel Symzonia (1820), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), and Willis George Emerson’s The Smokey God (1908) are all examples of fictional tales of underground civilizations that have been treated as true accounts and the source for religious belief by some members of the Theosophical and occult communities. Shaver’s stories are darker than the similar works that preceded them, but Palmer’s claim that Shaver’s tales contained truths about the hidden world under our feet is part of a long tradition.

Ray Palmer went on to found Fate magazine, which has done several retrospective articles on the Shaver Mystery over the years. Until 1988, Fate was published in Chicago, which just adds to that whole “occult Chicago” meme. (See also the work of occult journalist Brad Steiger.)

Resource Website for Scholars of Esotericism in Antiquity

News release:

The Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity (NSEA) is happy to announce our new website. With continually-updated online resources news, and conference announcements, AncientEsotericism.org is intended to be a one-stop location for scholars and students of the field.

What is esotericism in antiquity? This is a broad term that governs the use of secrecy, concealment, and revelation to talk about the really important stuff—from the true identity of the creator of the cosmos (Gnosticism) to the keys to the heavenly palaces (Hekhalot literature) to how to talk about the indescribable One (Neoplatonic mysticism), etc. So if the subject involves arcana celestial and subterrestrial, it’s ancient esotericism. Scholars in various disciplines have struggled to describe a spike in “secret revelations” in Hellenistic and Late Antique religion (Hengel) or the trend towards mythology in the “Underworld of Platonism” (Dillon)—what all this diverse material has in common is an interest in secrecy and revelation for dealing with the divine, and a common reception-history in “esotericism” in the modern era, ranging from Renaissance Platonism to the New Age.

The website is intended provide a guide to the wonderful, but dizzying, online resources available for the study of this vast and difficult body of literature. My goal (in collaboration with Sarah Veale) was to create the website I would have died to see when I was an undergraduate and just starting to get excited about this material, but totally confused about how to go about studying it, what scholarship was already out there, and, most importantly, where to find the most useful primary sources and reference materials on the web. A lot of the resources gathered here will be familiar to you—but perhaps not to your students, or colleagues in an adjoining field, or a friend. So, if someone has come your way who is starting to get into Nag Hammadi, or Iamblichus, or the apocalypses, etc. and asks you for some guidance to what’s out there, please consider making this one of the links you pass on to them. We will do our best to make it worth your while.

We encourage those interested in these fields to submit calls for papers, workshop notices, conference announcements, and other pertinent news and resources for inclusion on the website. You can submit by email or through our online submissions form. Those wishing to get involved with NSEA are invited to contact us for more information.

With best wishes to you and yours,
Dylan M. Burns, University of Copenhagen
Coordinator, Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity

I have looked at the site, and it is large and comprehensive. Congratulations!

When Esotericists Were Really Underground

A 250-year-old ciphered manuscript is deciphered and turns out to have been created by a Masonic-type fraternity.

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans belonged to secret societies in the 18th century, Önnerfors explained to Megyesi; in Sweden alone, there were more than a hundred orders. Though they were clandestine, they were often remarkably inclusive. Many welcomed noblemen and merchants alike—a rare egalitarian practice in an era of strict social hierarchies. That made the orders dangerous to the state. They also frequently didn’t care about their adherents’ Christian denomination, making these orders—especially the biggest of them, Freemasonry—an implicit threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1738 Pope Clement XII forbade all Catholics from joining a Masonic lodge. Others implied that the male-only groups might be hotbeds of sodomy. Not long after, rumors started that members of these orders actually worshipped the devil.

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.

It’s a strange, complex story — were the “outsiders” actually the “insiders” pretending otherwise?

(Hat tip to Grant Cunningham.)

It’s Called “Occult” Because It’s Hidden

In my professional life, I am currently in the middle of Major Drama that I cannot talk about right now. I think that it will be all for the best, but the details will have to remain occult for a bit longer.

Plus I seem to be getting some kind of equinoctial crud (this happens) that leaves me feeling tired and achy. Thus I observe the Turning of the Wheel.

So let me direct you to a post at The Teeming Brain on “Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric ‘Fringe.’

When one starts to look, it’s as if history mirrors physics, where some hypothesize that nearly 84% of the mass in the universe is composed of dark matter. It seems as if the main historical influences that affect us exist in a shadow realm that few give credence to, yet this realm forms the main source of the ebb and flow that pushes us forward. What the media, mainstream science, and academia consider “fringe” is often at the very heart of the issues we face.

Think of it: both the much-lauded leader Mohandas Gandhi and the common funerary practice of cremation (in the context of American culture) have their roots firmly planted in the Theosophical Society, an organization that most people today know of as a New Age joke, if they know of it at all. (See, for example, Gary Lachman’s forthcoming biography Madame Blavatsky: Mother of Modern Spirituality for a look at the ironic “open hiddenness” of both Theosophy and its formidable founder in today’s spiritual marketplace.)

And there is more, so read the whole thing.