15 January 2020

THE GODS OF IRISH MYTH

Mark Williams. Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Princeton University Press 2016

Despite being close neighbours, the cultures of England and Ireland are quite different in many respects. In England, you would expect a book entitled 'England's Immortals' to glorify and celebrate its sporting heroes. Try a Google search of the phrase and you will find that the majority of results are related to football, followed by rugby and cricket. Virtually all results from a search of the phrase 'Ireland's Immortals' relate to this book by Mark Williams, with an abundance of glowing reviews for this 'History of the Gods of Irish Myths'. One review called it 'the go-to book on the gods of Ireland for the foreseeable future'.

As an 'Anglo-Irish' (brought up by an Irish father and English mother), I have always found it fascinating to compare the cultures of both nations. Ireland somehow seems to have a deeper living connection with its ancient mythological past. England does not in general seem to acknowledge its ancient gods, although the names of four Anglo-Saxon gods are memorialised in the days of the week (Tiw, Woden, Thunor, and Frige).

In his Preface, Williams addresses this anomaly with good insight about the effects that Christianity had on the peoples of Europe, suggesting that they had a problem with how to think about the gods of their pagan forebears. They might conclude that they had been "demons who should be forgotten or only contemplated with a shudder. Not so the Irish, who continued to make a conspicuous imaginative investment in their island's native gods; one of the enigmas this book addresses is why this habit of mind should have obtained in Ireland but not in (say) Anglo-Saxon England."

He explains how this uniquely Irish viewpoint was able to incorporate their ancient gods into the Christian worldview by the "assigning of exotic orders of being to former gods", such as fallen angels or superhuman beings with extraordinary powers. The author warns, however, that although "the literature we have is rich, references to lost manuscripts and tales makes it clear that we only have a limited sample of what once existed and what we have may not be representative."

A piece of blurb on the back cover, by R F Foster of the University of Oxford, calls it "an important contribution to the history of religion, nationalism and Gaelic culture; it is so well written as to be unputdownable". I agree it is well written, and the text is well laid out for readability, but I guess I am not the only reader who found it harder to pick up than to put down. Well, it is more than 600 pages, including acknowledgments, a useful glossary, bibliography, index, etc. and it weighs well over one kilogram.


Arranged in two parts, the first concentrates attention on medieval Irish texts and the second on writings in English from the 'Celtic Revival' of the late 19th century to the present day. It is the first part that may prove challenging for the general reader who is unfamiliar with Irish mythology. Here the author examines and analyses texts written in the Irish language, mostly from the medieval period. Some texts written in Old Irish, the oldest form of the Gaelic languages, date back as far as the seventh century.

One text, known as 'The Scholar's Primer', contains an amusing story of how the Irish language was first created. A legendary Scythian king, with the unlikely-sounding name of Fenius Farsaid (Irishman the Pharisee), was said to have assembled all the best bits of the languages scattered at the Tower of Babel and "from them pieced together the world's first artificial, 'perfect' language: Irish". Or perhaps, I wonder, if this was the first recorded instance of the famous Irish 'Blarney'?

In any quest to find the original Irish gods it is important to remember that all written texts, from the seventh century onward, were written by Christian monks and scribes after the conversion of Ireland. The scholar's immense challenge is to decipher their references to pre-Christian texts and oral traditions about an ancient race of supernatural beings known as the Tuath De (tribe of the gods). This phrase was modified by the scribes to Tuatha De Danann (Peoples of the goddess Danu) to avoid confusion with the Israelites, or peoples of the god of the Bible.

It is clear that all available texts were written in monasteries, because "all literary composition, vernacular and Latin, depended on alphabetic writing and book production. This was only available via the technology of ecclesiastical education." Therefore, "a secular literary tradition in Irish could only have emerged in a Christian context, and the Bible remained at all times the wellspring and core of Irish literacy." The secular, learned professionals responsible for vernacular composition were known in Irish as filid. This word, commonly translated into English as 'poets', meant much more than that. They were also genealogists, keeping records of aristocratic lines, and as such may also be considered as archivists.

The filid are therefore key to the preservation of the ancient romantic tales of the origins and actions of the Irish gods. They preserved a "body of learning which was not shared with ecclesiastical scholars". It appears that in general they did not believe in the ancient gods ("though we enumerate them we do not worship them"), as of course you would expect from those working under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church. But these learned men wrote as they had been taught to read. Bible stories obviously carried several layers of meaning, so they likewise may have added their own constructions to the ancient texts. As Williams puts it, "it might be a development entirely of medieval scholarship, and thus tell us literally nothing about how those gods had been envisaged in the pre-Christian era".

Although not the author's fault by any means, reading this book can be quite frustrating. He is often at great pains to caution against accepting the medieval writers' versions of the ancient legends. Discussing the 'Mythological Cycle', a grouping of Old and Middle Irish texts of stories about divine beings, which provides much of the source material, he says: "...it is hard to gauge the degree to which any of these sagas reflect lost pre-Christian myths ... it is overwhelmingly clear that the mythic patterns and motifs present have been transmuted and transfused with meanings tailored to medieval, Christian Ireland - the period in which the sagas were written".




A good example of this is the most famous story from the 'Mythological Cycle': 'The Children of Lir', a tragic saga of humans with supernatural, magical powers and a jealous stepmother who intends to kill her husband Lir's four children. Unable to carry out the foul deed with a sword, she instead uses a spell to transform them into swans. It is a classic fairy tale until the Christian ending (evidently added by the medieval scribe) in which the children are finally transformed back into very aged humans, who receive a baptism from a kindly monk before their deaths. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale called 'The Wild Swans' with similar themes.

Going back to the question 'Who are the Irish gods?' Most of us would be unable to name even one, while we could probably name several gods of the pantheons of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Scandinavia. The Irish gods are hard to pin down, shifting between human and divine attributes. "Such elusiveness is their calling card: they dissolve into the landscape, here one minute, gone the next... Paradox is key, for these gods are also fairies; they are immortal, but - like the Norse gods - they can be killed. They are simultaneously a pantheon and a people."

As a pantheon, they do have a father figure, a deity named 'the Dagda', meaning 'good god'. He corresponds to Zeus or Jupiter in that he has many children and is "conspicuously highly sexed." His daughter was Brigit, associated with spring, fertility and healing. Saint Brigit is her Christianised form, with a feast day on 1st February, the pagan date of Imbolc, the Celtic first day of spring. Of course Christmas and Easter are prime examples of how the Church was able to incorporate ancient pagan celebrations into its calendar.

Other outstanding Irish gods are: "the heroic Lug, a radiant and royal man between youth and maturity; the Morrigan, a gruesome war-goddess, shapeshifting between woman and crow, eel and wolf; the Manannan, the sea-god, speeding his chariot over the ocean churned to the colour of blood." It is said that they were eventually overcome by encroaching humans taking their space and took up residence in sidhe (hollow hills), where they might be perceived as fairies.



In the 'Celtic Revival' of the late nineteenth century, the Irish gods received something of a resurrection as writers and intellectuals looked beyond Christianity for inspiration. Did the gods emerge from their hiding places to inspire the re-birth of Ireland as a sovereign nation? Gladstone's Home Rule Bill had nearly succeeded in 1893. It was only a matter of time before Ireland became an independent country. Cultural and political nationalism was on the rise.

Two outstanding writers of that dynamic phase of Irish history, W B Yeats (1865-1939) and George Russell (1867-1935), provide much of the material in the second part of the book. The two men met at art school in Dublin and became lifelong friends, although not always in agreement. In 1896, Russell stated in a letter to Yeats that 'the Gods have returned to Erin', noting 'the increased faith in faery things' throughout the country. Yeats and Russell were instrumental parts in that spiritual and cultural revival: "Others have set important precedents, but fundamentally it was their creativity between 1885 and 1905 that shaped the ways in which the Irish gods were imagined by modernity."

While Yeats was famous for his interest in the occult, Russell was even more of a mystic, becoming an enthusiastic Theosophist. It is well worth reading this book for understanding the influence Russell had on Yeats and other great Irish writers, including James Joyce, and the wider society. Russell's influential role in Irish history and culture deserves to be better known. While a strong advocate of Irish independence from British rule, he was a strict pacifist and opposer of violence as a means to that end. That viewpoint, unfortunately, did not prevail, as shown in the bloody 1916 Easter Uprising, followed by summary executions. Ireland's nightmare continued for many more decades, as we all know, but its culture is alive and well, despite continuing arguments about the status of Ulster and the 'six counties', as well as religious disagreements.

Williams summarises the whole matter in a single sentence: "In short, the distinctiveness of the Irish setup lies in its restless refusal to resolve." While referring to its gods, it could equally apply to its people. -- Kevin Murphy


7 January 2020

A YEAR OF GREAT BOOKS

It is now an old Magonia tradition, going back, oh, several years, to look back at the previous year's reviews and rank the top ten. Of course, those which were posted at the beginning of the year, and have been on line the longest, tend to have been read the most, and this year is no exception.

The tenth spot is taken by Alan Price’s review of The Paranormal Surrounds Us, Psychic Phenomena in Literature, Culture and Psychoanalysis, by Richard Reichbart. He finds it an illuminating account of how paranormal ideas have influenced literary and artistic thinking.

The number nine place is taken by my review of a collection of essays edited by Edward Beyer and Randall Styers, Magic in the Modern World. Ranging from the inability to prove the reality of magic by scientific methopds,. to examining the use of H P Lovecraft's Necronomicon as a text for magical practitioners. I conclude that the book helps to confirm "contemporary magical practices as subjects worthy of scholarly study."

Next on the list, at number eight, is Jenny Randle’s overview of volume four of Jacques Vallee’s ongoing diary of his UFO and paranormal research and writing, Forbidden Science 4, The Spring Hill Chronicles. Covering the last decade of the twentieth century. Although "the book ranges over many topics in a haphazard manner and rarely goes into depth", she concludes "as reader you get what really happened day by day from a true giant of the UFO field. That is worth any deficiencies the diary format inevitably brings. Roll on Volume 5!"

At number seven, we find Nigel Watson looking at bizarre stories of cattle mutilations in Ireland. In States of Denial the authors Dermot Butler and Carl Nally suggest that there is a global conspiracy to hide the truth about these cases. Unsurprisingly Nigel is doubtful, but still finds the account “nightmare inducing”!

Sixth position is taken by my review of two books looking at how occult and magical beliefs developed through the horrors of the First World War, looking at issues such as the growth of Spiritualism as people tried to contact the souls of relatives killed in the trenches, the use of lucky charmes for protection, and how the conflict affected belief in conventional religion. The titles under review were Leo Ruickbie’s Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War, and Owen Davies’s A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War.

At number five is Clive Prince’s discussion of Occulture, the Unseen Forces that Drive Culture Forward, by Carl Abrahamsson. He finds it an interesting and readable account of the influence of occultism and that “Abrahamsson doesn’t confine the influence of those impulses – the hidden forces of the subtitle - to the arts. As he writes, the occult ‘has also been the breeding ground for ideas and concepts that have later on been integrated in the natural sciences, religion, and psychology.”

Number four is my own review a review of a collection of essays by the always interesting Mike Jay, Stranger than Fiction. Covering topics as varied as nineteenth century decadence, the Lewes bonfire, drug-taking engineers in India, and how Humphrey Davy was ultimately responsible for painless dentistry, this is a book which has something for everyone

Third in the annual list is Kevin Murphy’s review of The Inkblots, by Damion Searles, which is not, as he points out, about the popular 1950s American singing group the Inkspots, but an account of the life and work of Hermann Rorschach, deviser of the famous ‘ink blot’ psychoanalysis test. He concludes that Rorschach deserves to be remembered “as a man as well as a name.”

Gerrard Russell’s review of Peter Shaver’s The Rise of Science: From Prehistory to the Far Future, is our second most read review of the year. He concludes that the book is “an ideal introduction to the development of scientific thought for the interested general reader, and could well be a standard textbook for schools, which would instil a real enthusiasm for science as well as provide the basic facts.

Although published at the beginning of the year, so not unnaturally coming high in our listings Gerry Russell's review of Rare Astronomical Sights and Sounds, by Jonathan Powell is not only the top read for the year, but even a year after its initial publication this piece still shows up amongst the top-read reviews each month, and is now the third most read piece on Magonia review since records began in 2011! Mr Russell is impressed by the book, which he says demonstrates that the author “revelled in writing this book and he is filled with the wonder of collecting data on the celestial movements of this Universe”, but not as impressed as I am by the popularity of his review with Magonia review’s readers!

So wishing a happy and peaceful New Year to you all, and assuring you of another twelve months of fascinating books and insightful reviews. – John Rimmer.

6 January 2020

I REMEMBER IT WELL

Charles B. Jameux, Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges: Esoteric Secrets of the Art of Memory, Inner Traditions, 2019.

Fans of TV’s Sherlock will be familiar with the idea of the memory palace, the trick used by the great detective, in his contemporary reimagining, to mentally file away and retrieve the vast quantities of information he needs to solve crimes. How many, though, realise that the memory palace isn’t an invention of the scriptwriters but – at least until it was eclipsed by the rise of the printed word - a time-honoured mnemonic technique, the Ars memoria, which also, as this book’s subtitle indicates, had an esoteric or ‘occult’ form?

In Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges, translated from a 2013 French original, Charles Jameux – a high-ranking Freemason of the Grand Loge de France and former editor of its journal (as well as a part of the 1960s Parisian surrealist scene) – argues that the art of memory wasn’t only an important formative influence on Freemasonry, but that it also offers a solution to one of its enduring mysteries, the ‘night of origins’ as Jameux calls it: how and why did a purely practical guild of professional workers in stone – ‘operative’ or ‘craft’ Masonry – became ‘speculative’ Freemasonry, an initiatory network devoted to arcane rituals whose members had never touched a chisel in their lives?

The Ars memoria was developed in ancient Greece and used the imagination for memorising information. The practitioner picked a large, many-roomed building – the memory palace - with which they were familiar and could therefore easily picture in their minds. When they wanted to remember a flow of facts – to deliver a speech, for example – they formed, using a set of rules based on the association of ideas, a vivid and striking mental image (imagine) representing each one and ‘placed’ them in consecutive rooms (the loci). To retrieve the information they imagined themselves walking through the building room by room, seeing in their mind’s eye the imagines, and this automatically recalled to mind the data encoded in them. It was a system that could produce prodigious feats of memory (à la Sherlock).

During the Renaissance, the system was combined with concepts taken from the magical arts – particularly Hermeticism – to create a method for not merely remembering learned facts but one that could, it was believed, be used to acquire information. The imagines were devised using magical associations, in a similar way to talismans, and their contemplation gave the practitioner direct access to spheres of knowledge that are normally hidden. The foremost exponent of this ‘occult’ art of memory was the Neapolitan Dominican-turned-heretic Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).


A musical memory palace, from Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Utriusque cosmic maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica 

Collection, Centre Canadien d'Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal


The notion of a connection between this variant of the art of memory and early Freemasonry isn’t new. As far back as the 1960s, Frances Yates speculated about it in her classic The Art of Memory. Her suggestion was developed by David Stevenson in another ground-breaking work, 1988’s The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710. Stevenson made the important observation that in the seminal 1599 document known as the Schaw Statutes – in which James VI’s Master of Works (i.e. chief architect) William Schaw set out the rules and regulations of craft Masonry in Scotland, but which includes elements that appear later in the speculative form – stipulated that every member was expected to be proficient in ‘the art of memorie and science thairoff,’ thereby linking, in Stevenson’s words, ‘the operative Mason craft with the mighty strivings of the Hermetic magus.’

Based on the work of these historians, but noting that neither was a Freemason and so had missed some vital clues, in a 1995 paper (included as an appendix) Charles Jameux advanced a wider hypothesis, which he revisits here in the light of his further study. He aims to show that ‘the classical art of memory, which was practised during the late Renaissance in the British Isles, was a major source that directly influenced the structuring of the mechanisms of the initiatory transmission of the then emerging speculative Freemasonry.’ It’s a slim volume, just over 100 pages – and 60 of those are given over to two appendices – but provides plenty of food for thought for those of us with an interest in the subject.

Unsurprisingly, Jameux gives pride of place to his own obedience, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, which originated in eighteenth-century France but which claims, as its name suggests, a Scottish heritage (and which is distinct from the systems practised in Britain but predominates, albeit in a modified form, in the USA).

Presumably as Jameux wrote it primarily for his fellow Masons, the book does assume familiarity with, although not an in-depth knowledge of, Masonic history and practice. It’s written in the rather discursive style of French academic writing that does sometimes require an extra effort of concentration to follow. (This is even more so of the other appendix, by historian Claudie Balavoine on the connection, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the art of memory and attempts to develop a ‘hieroglyph script.’ This highly specialised paper takes up a quarter of the book, even though it’s only of peripheral relevance to the central thesis.)

For Jameux, the formative period of speculative Freemasonry was between 1583, when Bruno arrived in London for a three-year stay during which he published some of his key works on the ‘occult’ art of memory, and 1730, by which year Freemasonry had reached its recognisably speculative form. That process happened in the British Isles – beginning in Scotland and moving into England – ‘through a series of phenomena akin to sedimentation.’

The hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that one of Bruno’s great supporters in the controversy he unleashed in England was Alexander Dickson, a Scotsman who a decade later was prominent in James VI’s court alongside William Schaw. Jameux argues that craft Masonry, being all about architecture and buildings, was a natural home for practitioners of the art of memory, who adopted its symbols – the tools, for example – as their imagines.





Jameux’s suggestion is that the Masonic focus on Solomon’s Temple came from the use of that legendary edifice as the memory palace, drawing attention to the tracing boards representing the Temple, the laying out of which marks the opening of the lodge meeting. He also links the art of memory with the mysterious ‘Mason Word’, first mentioned in 1637.

He makes much of the coincidence that the same year saw the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, marking the beginning of the split between ‘the mathematical and utilitarian rationalism of conceptual thought on the one hand and the symbolic and imagistic language of analogical thought on the other,’ which led to ‘the decline of the meaningful image to the increasing benefit of the letter.’ Jameux regards this as a great error, championing – as might be imagined from a surrealist - the virtues of the ‘imaginary world (that is to say, a real world) that has not yet been disenchanted,’ and which is accessed by the art of memory, over ‘the reductive anthropology heralded by Descartes in which the world would be henceforth a machine.’

However, the art – with its emphasis on the imagination - was kept alive in the Masonic lodges: ‘this “resurgence” of the art of memory in the British secret societies of the seventeenth century appears to me to be taking place, referring now to the spiritual content of the ancient memory, in a clandestine manner as a form of counterpoint.’ But it wasn’t just a counterpoint to mechanistic rationalism, as Jameux argues that Freemasonry became a way to ‘reconcile the re-emerging Neoplatonic Hermeticism and the ascendant scientific approach.’

For Jameux, then – as for Yates and Stevenson - speculative Freemasonry was a vehicle for the transmission of Hermeticism (and its philosophical cousin, Neoplatonism). It’s instructive to compare this reconstruction with a book I reviewed a couple of years ago, Speculative Freemasonry and the Enlightenment, in which American Freemason R. William Weisberger argued that speculative Freemasonry was invented in England in the 1720s specifically as a vehicle for transmitting the new scientific method and other Enlightenment ideals. It’s hard to come up with two more divergent interpretations – although the evidence, in my view, backs Jameux’s.

As well as the Masonic symbols becoming the imagines of the art of memory, Jameux proposes that the degrees and their rituals represent the loci, with the ‘palace’ being the rite in its entirety. This leads him to an intriguing – and to many Masonic historians controversial – explanation of the Scottish Rite’s addition of extra degrees, above the three basic ones held in common with other systems, to make up its famous 33. Rather than the higher degrees, as most would dismissively have it, being dreamt up to make the Rite more grandiose, Jameux explains them as a natural development of Freemasonry as the embodiment of the Ars memoria, expanding the palace to incorporate more loci for more imagines. If so, he is implicitly arguing that his Rite is the most legitimate heir to the Scottish prototype, whereas in most historical reconstructions that place is given to the English form, all the other rites being considered modified copies.

But what’s it all for? For Jameux, the Masonic lodge as memory palace – not just the physical space, but the symbols, rituals and legends employed within it - is designed to remind the initiate of Freemasonry’s ideals and goals, and of their commitments, duties and path towards those goals.

However, there was much more to the Hermetic art of memory than that. It was, as I noted above, a method for gaining esoteric and spiritual knowledge through magical means, seemingly by inducing a meditative or altered state. Jameux says little about this side of the art in the context of Freemasonry, but does perhaps hint at it when he writes, ‘Through my own personal inner practice and my initiatory convictions shared with other men whose own choices have sent them here, I now know how to gain access to certain states of Being and, sometimes, to the meanings that are hidden from our world that we label as real.’

And it wouldn’t, of course, just be the Hermetic art of memory that was brought into Masonry: it was just one part of, as Jameux puts it in his conclusion, the ‘grafting of a post-Renaissance Hermeticism on the professional milieu of the “craft” in Scotland.’ So the picture is bigger than simply the perpetuation of the Ars memoria.

Given the paucity of information about Freemasonry’s origins, it’s not easy to say whether or not Jameux is right in everything he proposes, but his arguments and conclusions certainly have something going for them, and following the trail they open up may well shed new light on Freemasonry’s place in esoteric history and tradition. -- Clive Prince


31 December 2019

DEVIL OF A TALE

Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito. The Secret History of the Jersey Devil; How Quakers, Hucksters and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Although its fame is not quite as universal as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil can claim to be by far the senior mystery monster. Haunting the Pine Barrens, an isolated wooded area of New Jersey, the Jersey Devil is usually described as a goat-or horse-like creature, usually walking on its hind legs, with bat-like wings growing from its withers. It has reportedly been seen since the 1600s, although most reports come from the twentieth century.

The Pine Barrens had always been an area with a bad reputation, going back to the days of the earliest European settlers, and even earlier in Native-American beliefs. The local Lenapi Indians saw it as home to a variety of spirits, among which was the M’Sing, “a deer-like creature with leathery wings or a deer being ridden by a man.” In the Colonial Era the area became a haunt for highwaymen and outlaws, and its small hamlets attracted outsiders who were despised by the more settled inhabitants of the larger towns as ‘primitive’ and only semi-human, a trope which continues even today in the racist portrayal of the ‘hillbilly’ family in The Simpsons.

In the ferment of the witchcraft persecution and the constant religious religious conflicts between various groups of colonists, rumour and accusations of evil-doing became common currency, including claims that ‘monstrous births’ were the result of consorting with demons, or being involved with devilish practices.

The history of the Jersey Devil begins here, with the legend of a witch known as ‘Mother Leeds’ whose thirteenth pregnancy resulted in the birth of a monstrous being. Either as the result of her cursing a local preacher, or her cursing the child to which she was painfully giving birth - “let this one be a devil” - her offspring was a monster with wings, claws and a horse’s head.

Depending on which version of the story you take, the creature either immediately flew off up the chimney into the pinewoods, or was looked after by the Leeds family for several years until killing its parents and then fleeing to the Pine Barrens, to haunt the location for centuries to come. Although no-one seems to be particularly clear about the origin of this legend, it may be linked to an actual historical incident, in New England rather than New Jersey.

Anne Hutchinson was a religious rebel who was prosecuted for heresy and banished from Boston, to take up residence in the more tolerant colony of Rhode Island, along with a number of her followers. At the time of her exile, she became pregnant for the sixteenth time, but her child was grossly deformed. Just before this one of her followers had also given birth to a severely deformed child. The general belief at the time would be that these were punishments for the women's heretical and blasphemous behaviour.

There was a real Leeds family in New Jersey, headed by a Daniel Leeds, who arrived in West Jersey (the Colony was originally divided into an East and a West section) in the 1670s, probably from the small village of Leeds in Kent, rather than its larger Yorkshire namesake. Daniel was a Quaker, and when he arrived in the New World the Quakers who had originally settled in Boston were fleeing persecution by the Puritan establishment in the Bay Colony. Some settled in Rhode Island, others moved to West Jersey and Philadelphia.

At first Daniel settled into the Quaker community in the newly founded town of Burlington, where he assisted in the building of the first Meeting House constructed from the timbers of the ship in which he sailed to the New World. He became a prominent landowner and attained the post of Surveyor General. It is at this time that the location of Leeds Point gained its name, which is an area strongly associated with tales of the Devil.

Daniel Leed’s association with the Quakers became fraught when he began publishing an Almanac of useful seasonal information for an agricultural community, along with a series of philosophical works which were intended to provide a scientific background to religious belief. As his work grew more philosophical, and he became interested in the mystical beliefs of a group of German settlers who were followers of the writings of Jacob Boehm he earned the hostility of the Quaker establishment who were unhappy with the astrological elements of his Almanac.

He got involved in a publishing war, with books, pamphlets and counter-pamphlets being produced by the various factions, in some of which Leeds was referred to as a ‘Devil’. This continued after his death, his son Titan taking on the publication of his Almanac and getting involved in a bizarre dispute with Benjamin Franklin, then making his name as a young controversialist. Franklin had his own publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and delighted in exposing what he saw as religious fraud. The Leeds' Almanac became a target for his barbs, jokingly linking it with necromancy and Satan by implying Titan Leeds was receiving messages from his deceased father.

But by this time the Leeds family began to fade from public attention, the American Colonies were in revolt against British rule, and Benjamin Franklin’s attention moved to other matters. The Leeds Devil story more or less died away for nearly a century. But in the nineteenth century monstrous creatures began to attract public attention again, this time from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one.

The discovery of the fossilised remains of prehistoric beasts, and the possibility of their still-living relatives, stimulated not only serious scientific speculation but a series of hoaxes. Most notorious was Richard Locke’s ‘Great Moon Hoax’ in the New York Sun, which held readers entranced with accounts of the amazing animals and semi-human creatures which had been revealed on the moon via Sir John Herschel’s wonderful new telescope set up in South Africa.

The exposure of this hoax did not discourage others, such as the ‘Cardiff Giant’ intended originally as a spoof of Christian anti-evolution fundamentalist, but eventually becoming a fairground attraction and producing a number of copies. The appearance of a Spring Heeled Jack figure in New Jersey, and newspaper reports of mysterious footprints seemed to revive the dormant story of the Leeds Devil. Now renamed the Jersey Devil it was ready for its latest appearance on the public stage, which has continued to this day.

By the start of the twentieth century the story had received enough attention that Charles Brandenburgh, the proprietor of the ‘Dime Museum’ in Philadelphia thought that the Devil was just the attraction he needed to revive the fading fortunes of his establishment. The ‘Dime Museum’ was basically a theatre which staged spectacular acts and freak-shows, rather like London’s Royal Aquarium, which flourished at the same time.

Along with Norman Jeffries, the promoter of the earlier ‘Devil’s footprints’ story, they staged a hunt for the Devil. Hiring a clown from the Ringling Brother’s Circus to play the brave huntsman, they headed off into the woods in search of the monster. A few gunshots later, and a good deal of shouting and screams, a caged and shrouded figure was brought back to the Dime Museum in a wheelbarrow.

The creature that then went on show was a kangaroo, with the help of a local taxidermist who painted the creature with stripes and attached a pair of home-made wings. The hoax didn’t survive for long, it’s doubtful if many of the paying punters really thought is was the Jersey Devil, but simply enjoyed the curiosity value of it. Despite the success of the event, the Dime Museum didn’t last long after the unfortunate kangaroo had been de-winged and returned to its home in Buffalo. But by now the myth of the Jersey devil was very much alive.

The authors describe how the Devil developed as a social phenomenon throughout the twentieth century, its physical form being set partly by the appearance of the winged marsupial, partly by traditional images of devilish winged creatures, from the original legend of the monstrous creature born to ‘Mother Leeds’, and the stories of the Leed’s family’s diabolic contacts helped along by Benjamin Franklin.

The Devil is now regarded with something like patriotic pride by many New Jerseyites, being adopted as ‘Official State Monster’ by the state government (leading one to wonder how many other states have official monsters), the nickname of the local ice hockey team, being sung about by the state’s favourite son Bruce Springsteen and featuring in any number of movie and TV productions, and no doubt bringing in a significant amount of tourist income via monster hunters exploring the Pine Barrens.

Regal and Esposito conclude: “[A]ll this began in the eighteenth century because an energetic and thoughtful man wanted to write an almanac and improve the life of his neighbors”.

This is a detailed and exceptionally well-referenced account of the birth, growth, survival and triumph of a legendary monster, and one would like to see other similar phenomena examined in such detail, particularly the infamous Brentford Griffin – John Rimmer.


30 December 2019

ALCHEMY BY THE BOOK

Theodore Ziolkowski. The Alchemist in Literature. Oxford University Press, 2019.

What, no Colin Wilson? I searched in vain for him skulking round the index to The Alchemist in Literature. Not to be found. I shall presently return to this missing author. In his chapter titled 'Popularizations, or Projectio' the very found author Theodore Ziolkowski states.

“In some cases, finally the term 'alchemist' is used only metaphorically in fictions that have nothing whatsoever to do with alchemy.”

But for Ziolkowski we do have Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel The Abyss (1976) chronicling the life of the 16th century alchemist-physician-philosopher Zeno. A character inspired by Yourcenar’s reading of Jung and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This book is said not to be about the practice of alchemy but, in part only, a recollection of Zeno’s “alchemical speculations which had begun in school, or rather, in defiance of the school.” And we are informed that Yourcenar’s intense research into the period was an attempt to “try and visualise ever more exactly the images which they create beneath their closed eyelids.” This is a practice “like Hindu ascetics” and for me, on Yourcenar’s part, an alchemical act of the imagination: the basic material of her research will be transmuted into a golden plethora of ideas and associations permeated by historical atmosphere.

Ziolkowski sees The Abyss as belonging to the genre of the bildungsroman – that is a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education. Now Yourcenar is a brilliant writer (The Memoirs of Hadrian is a masterpiece) and she undoubtedly writes a bildungsroman in as elevated a manner as the letter autobiography form of Hadrian.

Yet though Zilolkowski isn’t just examining high literature (Evan S. Connell’s 1991 The Alchemist’s Journal, Katherine MacMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter and Jeremy Dronfield’s 2001 The Alchemist’s Apprentice are some of his cited popular fiction), but these books don’t have very much (according to Zilolkowski) to say about alchemy.

It’s time to return to Colin Wilson and his 1976 SF/Fantasy thriller The Philosopher’s Stone – a work as erudite as Yourcenar’s The Abyss but far more down-market. However Wilson’s pulpish and Lovecraftian novel does play very cleverly with the alchemical process as a deep idea, for its protagonist has a metal alloy in the brain inside the pre-frontal cortex which results in a higher form of consciousness. I can’t defend The Philosopher’s Stone as serious literature, compared to the many scientific and non scientific / literary material carefully poured over by Ziolkowski but it’s a wonderfully entertaining read about the transformation of the self.

I have ticked Wilson’s book to re-read after Ziolkowski’s. This isn’t in any way a form of mischief-making in order to criticise or dismiss The Alchemist in Literature, but simply a means of temporarily taking a reader of Ziolkowski away from the hot furnace of serious conjecture on alchemy – though unfortunately a lot of these early literary texts that Ziolkowski had to read sound very cold and dry. At least he mentions scientific books devoted to “the pseudo science of alchemy” (My Collins dictionary definition) that appear more readable for the charm of their arcane language.

Half way through The Alchemist in Literature I almost gave up reading: for the cultural satirists dominate, in an obvious manner, the cultural scene until the end of the 1600’s. After that there’s a dearth of interest in alchemy until the very late 18th and early 19th century.

When the Romantic Movement entered the picture I picked up the book and read on with interest. Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Goethe are highly significant writers who ‘opposed’ the rationalism of the Enlightenment by creating wild fictions containing references to alchemy.

In his youth Victor Frankenstein, of Frankenstein, (1818) fell under the spell of “the masters of alchemy” only to eventually become a student and be told to read books on natural philosophy and chemistry. William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834) doesn’t seek out an easy target for satire but attempts to be a moral warning, to practitioners and readers, of the suffering and loneliness that can result from a fruitless search for the philosopher’s stone. Whilst Goethe’s great drama Faust, part 1 (1808) and part 2 (1832) hardly mentions alchemy for its main theme is necromancy. However as a young man Goethe was a real, practising alchemist (It’s what he had in common with August Strindberg who also didn’t insert alchemical ideas into his plays.)

However what the three Romantic Age writers had in common was a new scientific sensibility.

“While the older alchemists are not rejected by their modern successor with contemptuous dismissal but praised for their achievements, their methods are replaced by the discoveries of modern science. Frankenstein’s education, in other words, exemplifies the historical shift from alchemy to chemistry that took place in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the persons of such scientists as Boyle and Newton.”

The Alchemist in Literature is a curious book: a very academically sound but somewhat tedious read. For Theodore Ziolkowski, in his search for relevant alchemical literary texts, has to settle for many books that reference in alchemy but are not about the personality and practice of the alchemist. This means he’s forced to paraphrase the contents of antiquarian books (Especially those pre – Romantic Movement tomes) that, to excuse the description, come across as old dross rather than relevant gold. Admittedly once past the 1800’s we’re into more persuasive territory – here an inter-play of interesting ideas occur, though without attempting to imagine the workings of an alchemist.

But, still no Colin Wilson: yet even his thriller didn’t reveal the redemptive face of God or evidence for the elixir of life. The big downside of Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone was that Lovecraft’s evil old ones of the Cthulhu Mythos were behind everything. At least Ziolkowski’s sensible and sincere book never reaches such a fanciful conclusion! -- Alan Price.



21 December 2019

NEW AGE GNOSTIC

April D. DeConick. The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutioniseed Religion from Antiquity to Today. Columbia University Press, 2016.

For those expecting to read what the author promises in the title, there will be great disappointment, since the theme of the history of countercultural spirituality is barely mentioned until the last chapter when the author states that "this brief chapter is not the place to map the complex movement of Gnostic spirituality from antiquity to the present"! Similarly those with a smattering of knowledge of the Gnostic gospels might have expected more than just one mention, in the opening chapter, to the gospel of Thomas.

What this book provides however is a compendium, one might almost say, a dictionary, of Gnostic movements. I am not in a position to tell whether the author has provided a complete compendium (I suspect not) but as such it no doubt has its uses. In fact the book recites the bewildering collection of sects, which sprang into being alongside Christianity in the first two centuries AD (or as she prefers to term it CE).

Unfortunately at no point does the author attempt a definition of what the term "Gnostic" encapsulates for the purpose of her book, and although it is probably beyond me to attempt such a definition, I would say that some of the common threads which emerge are belief in the idea that the body is the covering for a divine spark, and in the efficacy of secret rites, words and rituals which had the power to translate the initiated through star-gates to union with God. Often the sect was founded by a self-proclaimed religious visionary, who would take large segments of biblical texts and re-interpret them.

The variety of ritualistic practices was innumerable and no doubt worried that they would be tainted by association, Christian authors took up the quill to flail there enemies and competitors. Once Christianity got the upper hand, it engaged in perhaps the most successful suppression of a belief system in history. It would appear that book burning is highly efficacious, since our knowledge of Gnosticism derived, until the twentieth century, almost entirely from the Christian authors Irenaeus and Tertullian, whose tracts denouncing the movement unwittingly preserved knowledge of their beliefs and practices.


In some places the author's description of such Gnostic rituals and beliefs are both powerful and evocative of those lost religions. It was particularly interesting to note that some Gnostic sects engaged in silent practices, suggesting a kinship with the modern interest in meditation. The book is undoubtedly educative but inevitably a style of writing, which engages at great length in describing their ritualistic practices, at some point runs the risk of becoming tedious for the general reader.

His or her interest would be better kept if the author had given more on the historical context in which these movements emerged. Why for example is there no mention of the Council of Nicaea? Such context as is sometimes given is too sparing on detail, and there is little or no attempt to place the movement within the wider setting of Roman history, nor indeed to do what the title of her book promises. Also each chapter is introduced by the portrayal of a plot from a film, which the author felt demonstrated some aspect of Gnostic spirituality. This I found highly unconvincing, and it sat uneasily alongside the actual often heavyweight academic contents of the chapter.

In her final chapter the author makes wide claims for the influence of Gnosticism: "it is embedded in the literature our ancestors wrote". This sweeping statement is made without any evidence proffered in support, and I would have thought, as a non-expert, that the exact opposite of what she says is the case, since Gnosticism was successfully trampled under foot by the Roman Catholic church after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and was largely forgotten for about 1500 years. It is only in more recent times, thanks to archaeological discoveries, that the true wonder of Gnosticism has been made more widely available to the modern world.

Inevitably, bearing in mind the breath-taking scope and ambition promised by the title of this book, the author has failed in what she set out to do, but, at a humbler level, for the curious reader there is plenty of interesting material to ponder. -- Robin Carlile.


14 December 2019

LEONARDO DECODED

François Quiviger, Leonardo da Vinci: Self, Art and Nature, Reaktion Books, 2019.

The 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death has naturally unleashed a tsunami of books about the Renaissance genius, few of which add anything new to what’s been written before. This one, though, stands out by offering a novel approach to an understanding of Leonardo’s character, the thirst for knowledge that drove him, and the way he navigated the rigid and often precarious society into which he was born - and how his art related to all this. 


In the author’s own words, his aim is to examine ‘the processes through which Leonardo used his own understanding of art, nature and society to shape his pictorial work as well as his own persona, which, seen from the distance granted by history, is as remarkable as his artistic legacy.’

As the title suggests, the book examines the interplay between Leonardo’s sense of self, his ‘immersive relationship with nature’ and his paintings. As Quiviger writes, ‘it could be said that he had two masters, Nature and Art, and it was through these that he produced images that changed the course of art history and gave new shape to the Western imagination.’

It’s a work that comes from a solidly academic perspective – François Quiviger is a Fellow of the Warburg Institute (as well as the editor of Reaktion’s Renaissance Lives series of which this volume is a part) – so unsurprisingly there’s nothing in here about codes or Da Vinci’s esoteric interests and heretical beliefs. (He does note, though, that despite Leonardo’s main output being religious images – all commissions, of course - his surviving writings ‘cast him as distinctly anti-clerical’ and make little reference to religion, displaying ‘more annoyance with monks and priests than interest in religious matters.’)

Although biographical in plan, taking us through the various phases of Leonardo’s life and discussing his output in the order in which it was produced, the book’s second chapter breaks with the chronological narrative – just after he’s established his reputation in Florence - to explore the writings on the theory and practice of painting that Leonardo composed later for his apprentices, so that Quiviger can apply these principles to his works as the story unfolds.



The author extracts from these writings an important insight for understanding Leonardo and his work: his emphasis on the reflective relationship between the artist and the work, in which – in a way reminiscent of alchemy - perfection in painting can only be achieved through the painter perfecting (or at least striving towards perfecting) himself, an effort carried out through the act of painting itself. According to Da Vinci, imperfections in the painter’s character will lead to an incorrect perception of the subject and therefore distort the finished picture. Quiviger writes that ‘this stage of self-shaping features in Leonardo’s thought as an intermediate stage between using a mirror as a guide and becoming oneself a mirror in order to reflect the world, without the deforming lenses of human quirks and defects.’ One could almost say that, to Leonardo’s mind, the painting creates the artist as much as vice versa.

It goes further, as the ultimate aim is that the artist takes himself out of the picture entirely (pun intended), Leonardo having developed ‘a style intended to obliterate the artist’s individualistic self’, with ‘painting as a means of erasing his personal self to become a mirror of nature.’ (Quiviger notes the irony that, despite this intention, Leonardo’s paintings have become the most expensive in the world precisely because they are identified with him.)

There’s plenty here to muse upon, as Leonardo is using almost spiritual language to describe the act of creating a work of art.

As well as Leonardo’s ‘individualistic self’ there was also his ‘civic self’ – the outer persona that he displayed to the world. Quiviger emphasises Leonardo’s rise through the usually rigid strata of fifteenth-century Italian society and the familiarity it gave him with all levels of that society. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and lawyer father from the Florentine bourgeoisie, whose childhood was spent among farm workers, Leonardo became part of the artisan class, which gave him entry into ‘European high society as part of the entourages of kings and rulers’: ‘It can be said of Leonardo that he began as a peasant, grew up as an artist, matured as a perfect courtier and left behind him the image of a Renaissance man.’

This is all the more remarkable given – as also emphasised by Quiviger - how at odds Leonardo was with the norms of that society, through his vegetarianism, dismissal of religion (at least of the conventional sort), disinterest in politics, and his almost-certain homosexuality. (Quiviger is more neutral than most biographers on the last, noting that ‘Leonardo left hardly any trace of his erotic inclinations and energies’ and concluding that sex and sexuality of any kind played a minor part in Leonardo’s life and work.)

A significant aspect of this social mobility for Leonardo’s civic self was learning to adapt his personality and image to the various circles in which he mixed: ‘The correspondence Leonardo left merely suggests he adopted what he deemed the most suitable stance with which to address a given interlocutor – an ability enabled by his deep and panoramic knowledge of human beings.’ Quiviger likens this ‘fashioning himself to the ideals of the time’ to his innovatory sfumato technique, which blurred the outlines of the subject of a portrait to blend them in naturally with their background.

Quiviger compares this shapeshifting ability to the ‘malleability of self’ displayed by modern icons such as David Bowie, Madonna – and even Lady GaGa (surely one of the strangest comparisons ever made to Leonardo). He also makes much of the fact that ‘Leonardo’s understanding of the world is indeed compatible with much twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought.’ Thinking about this, it’s probably why people today get him so much more than they do other artists of the past.

Quiviger makes the crucial point – so often overlooked - that Leonardo, despite the reputation given to him by history, ‘was not primarily a painter,’ which will be a surprising statement to many. Painting may have been his ‘core discipline’ but ‘not as an end in itself but rather as a means to investigate the energies, variety and abundance of nature. So many aspects of representation led him to inquire into real things – and to set painting aside for the purpose of research…’ It was the way in which he ‘accessed and questioned the world.’

The author sums it up: ‘As the first painter-aristocrat, Leonardo thought of painting and drawing as a means to acquire, represent, examine and transmit knowledge, rather than as ends in themselves or as a means to generate income.’

As the term ‘painter-aristocrat’ suggests, the author gives a much more upbeat verdict on Leonardo’s life and achievements than many modern commentators who, judging him by today’s notions of success, regard him as something of a failure both in his personal and professional life, and imagine that he must, as a consequence, have ended his days in bitterness and regret. As Quiviger points out, as well as the achievement of that rise from rustic Vinci to friend of kings, Leonardo enjoyed a comfortable life and lived out his final years in his own castle – he described it as a ‘palace’ – bestowed on him by the King of France.

He also managed to live life on his own terms – no mean achievement in those times. As much as he shaped himself to the environments in which he moved, Leonardo was able to shape those environments to himself: ‘Alongside this multifaceted public embodiment of the human ideal of his time Leonardo lived an unusually independent life during which he successfully protected his privacy and thinking space from external disruptions.’

And as for his professional life, Quiviger concludes: ‘From the fifteenth century onwards, European artists were aspiring to be recognized as intellectuals, on an equal footing with writers, mathematicians, philosophers and astrologers. Leonardo was the first to truly make it, and probably the first artist to have become an international celebrity, eagerly sought after for his company and his work by kings and rulers, living like a philosopher-prince with his assistants, his servants and his horses.’

Not bad for an illegitimate country boy.

Self, Art and Nature is a fairly short book – 185 pages of main text – but covers the subject in greater depth than many weightier tomes. It’s admirably written, clear and concise and assuming little background knowledge of Leonardo, his times or the practice of art – Quiviger’s explanations of Leonardo’s painting techniques and style are particularly clear, especially for a non-artist like myself, and his analysis of the paintings mercifully free of the pomposity of much art history. The book is also attractively produced on high quality paper and lavishly illustrated in colour.

It serves as an ideal introduction to the great man as well as providing deeper insights into his personality and motivations than many biographies. – Clive Prince.


9 December 2019

LOST TREASURE, LOST PLOT

Daniel J Duke. Jesse James and the Lost Templar Treasure. Destiny Books, 2019.

The notorious outlaw Jesse Woodson James started his life of crime in a guerrilla band known by the name of Quantrill’s Raiders. They were affiliated to the Confederacy by virtue of a piece of legislation known as the Partisan Rangers Act. This enabled groups of people to commit various acts of violence akin to that of regular troops in the name of the Confederate States. This was where Jesse and his brother Frank started their life of violence that escalated later into bank robbery and train-robbing.

The Knights Templar were the first of the mediæval military orders. They ostensibly lived a monastic lifestyle whilst training for battle. The nature of their coming into existence, their allegedly lukewarm attitude to Christ and their bloody dissolution by the French king, Phillipe IV, seems to have made them into poster children for believers in the occult and assorted New-Agers. Their memory is amenable to having almost any outré theory pasted over their image, thereby muddying the waters for serious research into them and their practices.

The Knights of the Golden Circle was a society dedicated to the creation of a “golden circle” of states and nations where slavery was a major economic and social component. The intended states not only included some on North American soil but also Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and San Salvador. Some historians maintain that, after the end of the American Civil War, the KGC went underground and turned into a secret society.

Daniel J Duke, the author, spent his life surrounded by tales of Jesse James and treasures associated with him. To quote the author: “My hobbies include hiking, writing, genealogy, history, beekeeping, treasure hunting, researching symbols and codes, healthy cooking and good coffee.”

The book under review purports to ascertain that Jesse James faked his own death and lived out his remaining years in Texas, where he died. Jesse James is also reckoned to be the ancestor of the author, because this is what family lore has maintained. James, according to the author, was a man named James Lafayette Courtney, who also happened to be a Freemason. Associating the reformed James/Courtney with the Knights of the Golden Circle, Duke goes on to speculate that the KCG, with the aid of the likes of James/Courtney, obtained and concealed sizeable stashes of gold in order to finance their grandiose, empire-building schemes.

However, despite this, Duke maintains that James’/Courtney’s knowledge of the places where treasure was hidden was not of the KCG but those communicated to him via the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, who in turn received their knowledge from the Knights Templar. The treasures included not just gold but knowledge; Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ works, wisdom from the past and such, tucked away by the good offices of that polymath, Roger Bacon. The Kaballistic Tree of Life, church windows and the like lead to something known as The Veil, which may be placed over maps, including those of the USA, in order to find treasure concealed by the Freemasons. The author produces examples of this and explains how that notorious painting Et In Arcadia Ego by Poussin ties in with the aforementioned arcana.




Where, then, to start? The vociferous and desperate claim to kinship with a slavery-supporting outlaw, who doesn’t seem like the kind of person most people would want to give house room to? The dropping of said outlaw after a few pages as we venture into Dan Brown/Holy Blood Holy Grail territory? The sinking sound my soul made as this volume descended into sub-Henry Lincoln speculations concerning landmarks, maps and geometry?

The link between HBHG and this tome is deliberate. As a (much) younger person with a meagre historical education I took much of Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh’s fantastic tale at face value. The experience from that has, mostly, made me more sceptical when it comes to grandiose claims such as those made here. Duke invokes HBHG too, which is a large red light, considering how the book has not stood the test of time. Here we have the crunch. Many claims are made yet evidence is thin on (or, indeed, under) the ground. The Kabbalah is invoked yet is misused. I could go on. Mercifully for all concerned, I will not.

The best part of this book? The title. It may inspire some form of dramatic endeavour that will be considerably more entertaining than attempting to read it. Considering the exotic nature of combining the activities of a violent crook with Freemasons, Rosicrucians and other such societies, this is a surprisingly tough book to read. It also brings attention to the rather distasteful acts that may have been involved had there been proof, such as James hoarding gold for an organisation attempting to set up a chain of slave states. However it does have an index, such as it is, and a bibliography. Oh, and where’s any of the treasure? -- Trevor Pyne