20 February 2020


Carolyn Collins Peterson. Discovery Of The Universe. Amberley Publishing. 2019.

This book charts the evolution of astronomy from sky watching to observatories throughout history and delivers an informative understanding of the primitive to the technological marvels used today to reveal the secrets of our Universe. The author shares her experience of astronomers that now routinely scan the cosmos for objects that existed from nearly the beginning of time: “There is stardust in your veins. We are literally, ultimately children of the stars”

Peterson starts her narrative by explaining the tools that are used for cosmic exploration. These “observatories are humanity’s portals to the universe”. They are multi-wavelength mariners that guide us across the gulfs of space and time, taking our eyes and ears on voyages of discovery. They contain telescopes that are time machines revealing distant objects as they once existed.

She explains that early in history, intrepid heroes peered at the night skies studying the objects overhead from hilltops, massive pyramids, and stone circles to record and map the stars and other heavenly bodies. Chinese astrologers, Greek philosophers, Persian astronomers and Polynesian navigators were among the many who codified the connection between the sky, the march of time and our planet.

Modern astronomers follow in their footsteps. One Miss Mitchell in 1847, with just a telescope standing on top of her building, found something “faint & fuzzy” in the sky, thereby discovering a comet that made her famous. Its designation is C/1847 T1, or “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Many other “lone heroes” at the telescope who made important discoveries include Galileo, Herschel, Messier, Lovell and Tombaugh.

In the 20th Century Edwin P. Hubble, while taking photographic plates of the night sky, had an idea that the universe was bigger than what we now know as the Milky Way Galaxy. That was accepted as the sum total of the universe at that time. He discovered pesky things on his photographic plates that he labeled spiral nebulae, the term used by Herschel and others in the 1800s that were thought to be within our Galaxy. He studied early plates by Shapley and found a Cepheid variable, a type of star that varies in brightness over a known period of time and can be measured to establish its distance from the observer. It turned out it was further away than any star measured in the Milky Way, thus his conclusion was the discovery of a much bigger universe than previously perceived.

One hundred and twenty years later after Miss Mitchell’s discovery, and 44 years after Hubble showed the universe is expanding, a young woman named Jocelyn Bell discovered signals coming from an unknown source in deep space. Using her rudimentary radio array she had helped to detect “a bit of scruff” on a chart recording of observations she had made, named LGM-1 for Little Green Men, that we now know is a pulsar.

Peterson informs us that optical telescopes detect visible light, or optical wavelengths, that enter through a tube, bounce off a mirror and are directed into an array of detectors and instruments. The types can be a refractor, reflector or a catadioptric that combines reflectors and refractors in their design. The most common variant today is the Schmidt-Cassegrain that the Gemini in Hawaii or the orbiting Hubble Space Station use. Most telescopes are set on mounts that swivel to allow for the Earth’s rotation and this is true for all ground-based optical, infrared, radio, and submillimeter instruments. In space gyros stabilize these instruments.

All observatories on mountains or even buried deep underground must operate under optimum conditions. Mirrors need to acclimatise to the ambient air temperature as glass can expand and contract giving false readings. CCD cameras will have a heat sink or fan to curb excess heat and some detectors use nitrogen gas for this purpose. In particular infrared-sensitive detectors need to be kept chilled for best observations and other instruments such as neutrino detectors are located deep underground to avoid stray cosmic rays.

I enjoyed the straightforward way these facts are delivered, as the author explains that this book is “a very general look at the main components of an observatory”. In spite of this comment there is a lot of interesting information to be found, for example optical is a small part of a larger spectrum that includes gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwaves and radio frequencies. Beyond-optical infrared light allows observers to look at very young objects as they existed at the beginning of the universe, as it can easily pass through dust clouds around young stars. In addition, solar system objects can be spotted in infrared light.

It was Sir William Herschel who discovered in the year 1800 what he called 'invisible' radiation. He had put a prism in sunlight and measured the temperatures of the colours noting that they increased from the blue to the red part of the spectrum where there was no visible light and the temperature was even higher. It was later found these “calorific rays” could be reflected, refracted, absorbed and transmitted like visible light.

Peterson explains that the technique of interferometry is important in optical wavelengths as well as radio frequencies, and was first used in observations of the sun in the year 1940. It combines light or radio frequencies from two or more telescopes and these can be ganged with a number of other telescopes. Ten of these observatories were plugged together to gain more detail about the event horizon of a distant black hole.

She outlines how space-based observatories contain a variety of telescopes sensitive to different regimes of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Hubble Space Telescope uses visible/ultra violet and infrared instruments. Today professional observatories have an array of instruments and hardware to record and study light from distant objects. Computers can analyze an image as well as dissecting light into its component wavelengths for deeper study.

In prehistoric times when rock art appeared early astronomers created paintings, carved tablets or sketches on the walls of caves. Galileo drew on parchment but today the digital camera can provide time-exposure images of distant objects.

Astrophysics, the study of the physics of stars and galaxies, depends on the study of light and other energies. Spectroscopy is used to dissect radiation similar to sending light through a prism. The incoming wavelengths and frequencies have data buried inside them, and thus give information about the source’s chemical makeup, speed through space, magnetism, temperature and other important characteristics.

Observatories today offer a glimpse of the most distant early reaches of time and space but the details of some of those primordial events, the Big Bang itself, still elude our vision. Over the past few thousand years astronomy has changed radically from simple observations to a huge data gathering enterprise, the worlds major observatories delivers multiple terabytes of data daily and by one estimate astronomers are swimming in at least 200 petabytes of information about the universe, we are becoming data managers.

The 21st century is rapidly becoming the Age of Giant Ground-based telescopes (ELT’s) the worlds new telescopes will be sensitive to optical and near-infrared light and be positioned by actuators, these will help the mirrors focus light the same as one large mirror of the same size to a single-piece secondary mirror to deliver high-resolution final images. The next steps are to identify Earth-type worlds and in particular, to study their atmospheres that hold clues about possible life forms. 

There is a hard limit to how far we can “see back” in time, it’s a time called the Cosmic Dark Ages that lasted 400,000 years after the Big Bang and the young universe was extremely dense and hot, light and matter were closely coupled and photons could not travel very far. Eventually the rapidly expanding universe cooled enough so that hydrogen could form and light could travel freely. Finally there is the question of dark matter and dark energy we know they exist but their nature is elusive. This is the sort of exciting detail I like to see from Science Authors and makes the Book more valuable in my eyes.

The author further tells us about Extrasolar Planets, Nebulae, Clusters and Superclusters then a general history of astronomers, the spread of observatories, Japanese and Chinese astronomy, space-based observatories, observatories of the future and much more in detail.

I enjoyed reading and learning from this book. The colour images are fantastic and although there is a lot of detail it is written in a style that is easy on the eye and brain cells. And you might just find yourself drawn to look more at the night sky or even venturing into the world of star gazing through a telescope I hear there are still a few more galaxies left to explore somewhere out there. -- Gerrard Russell

15 February 2020


Maja D’Aoust, Familiars in Witchcraft: Supernatural Guardians in the Magical Traditions of the World, Destiny Books. 2019.

I really wanted to like this book. I like the idea of the author of an occult work being an expert practitioner – Maja D’Aoust is known, apparently, as The Witch of the Dawn. This book is also peppered with her own often-Picasso-esque artworks, which while perhaps not appealing to all tastes, are certainly skilled and intriguing, helping to draw the reader into the subject at a deeper level. They’re a good idea and work more often than not.

But I had my problems. For a start, the title and subtitle are technically about two admittedly closely allied but actually different categories of entity. The witch’s familiar, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is ‘a small animal or imp kept as a witch’s attendant, given to her by the devil… a low-ranking demon that assumed any animal shape, such as a toad… or black cat.’ That’s the standard explanation, hallowed by the ages. Supernatural guardians are different, usually with more power, more altruistic agendas - and considerably less of a whiff of sulphur about them. But the author has, it transpires, chosen to redefine both ‘familiars’ and ‘supernatural guardians’. One might say, with an airy wave of the hand, that it doesn’t matter much when discussing such an insubstantial topic anyway, but sadly an aura of confusion surrounds this book from the outset.

Immediately one’s soul mate – often in the shape of a beloved animal – is described as a ‘familiar’, though then we’re told the familiar is a kind of ‘devotional servant’, which somewhat demeans the soul mate. (As if it’s a revelation, we’re told, ‘the concept of humans having servants… is an old one’, though that might be a result of slightly wobbly sentence construction.)

The relationship between the witch and the familiar is likened to the practice of good animal husbandry. We’re told that losing control of your familiar is like losing control of your dog. But hang on, sometimes the familiar is a soul mate. Isn’t being so controlling of a soul mate edging into actual abuse?

There is an alarming subtext to much of this book. It blithely describes, for example, the familiar – this time in the shape of one’s ancestral spirits – as often demanding offerings such as blood. This is potentially rather dark and dodgy territory.

(And while some might acknowledge a new and challenging way of seeing Christianity, others might reel back from lines such as: ‘Jesus stated that by offering his own blood no other blood would be needed to feed the spirits as he was offering the Holy Spirit as a familiar spirit to all through him – a blood sacrifice to end all blood sacrifices…’ But to confirm which side she’s on, the author adds quickly, ‘… according to the story, anyway.’ Not quite. Those weren’t his actual words and the original context was – unsurprisingly - quite different. Also, perhaps this is the place to point out that, despite what this author implies later in the book, Origen did not write the New Testament via channelling or any other way!)

When discussing the relationship between a living person and a spirit – a familiar or discarnate entity, perhaps - there is only lip-service paid to the very real danger of such practices or even a belief in them. Personally, I found it horrifying that the author seems to approve such encounters – often trysts with what used to be called ‘demon lovers’ - almost without question, while admitting that underlying this is usually an obsession or fixation. In other words, you start from an unhealthy position. And she admits that such encounters can sometimes be violent. Translate this sort of relationship into the real, #metoo world, and there would be little tolerance for it, let alone a casual acceptance.

While extreme emotion might indeed help rituals work, perhaps there should be some kind of health warning attached. Certainly, to rely on a demon lover to fulfil one’s emotional and sexual needs is courting appalling mental trauma, if not complete breakdown. At the very least, there is a strong case for arguing that the author should have included techniques for psychic self-defence.

(And arguably the greatest proponent of defending oneself against paranormal nasties is the late Dion Fortune – the pseudonym of Violet Firth – whose fierce intellect and background in psychology, besides vast experience of many occult manifestations, helped to make her very, very wary of such encounters. But of Ms Fortune there is no mention in this book.)

With the author’s wide-ranging definition of familiars, we are taken on a somewhat breathless world tour of sometimes only arguably relevant topics, such as historical prophecy, telepathy and deities, including the Delphi Oracle and the Egyptian Gods. There’s some fascinating stuff about the animal-headed deities originating in the priests’ shamanic visions, which is almost certainly the case.

But then there are the glaring infelicities, such as the mention of Islamic pilgrims regularly being trampled to death when ritually circling the Kaaba stone. The author says, ‘Although officially it is held that the worship is focused on Allah rather than the stone in the Kaaba, the fact that people are willing to give up their lives to the stone is an indication of how much value it holds for them in their beliefs.’ Excuse me? Willingly give up their lives? Getting trampled to death was not on their bucket list. Whenever it happens, it’s a horrible, tragic accident – not a religious ambition.

Then again, we’re told that pagans modelled their stone idols on the idea of creating statues from meteorites. But didn’t they already create them from stone anyway? Or wood, for that matter? Meteorites created very special religious foci, but they didn’t kick off the whole idea of spiritual sculpture.

Though studded with some interesting stories and insights, sadly there are simply far too many annoying slips, slapdash logic and some startling omissions. At random…

Was Reagan’s astrologer really in the same league as the Dalai Lama as a spiritual advisor? Do all Catholic altars really contain holy relics? Is it not pushing it rather far to label Jesus Christ as a familiar spirit – or, for that matter, the Egyptian goddess Isis? And traditional Guardian Spirits are not familiars – try getting a fire-breathing, treasure-guarding dragon to do your bidding as you might your pet tabby …

In discussing the Virgin Birth, there’s always a major point to bear in mind: as a literal story, essentially there is no point. It was pure invention, not even featuring in the first canonical gospel, Mark (nor, incidentally, did the resurrection). And when discussing the elderly Saint Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, surely it would only be polite to mention who she was pregnant with – actually John the Baptist. Plus, perhaps the author missed a trick in not explaining that the Holy Spirit was originally female?

The ancient Egyptians didn’t have angels. What Christians took to be their ‘angels’ were really lesser gods. Surely, it’s a tad ironic that a witch would happily promote the Christian interpretation.
A doppelganger or double is not a familiar spirit.

And it would be very helpful to get some historical context for the various people named – even the dates of the likes of Aleister Crowley or Anna Kingsford would have helped.

Also, there are some truly startling omissions in a book on this topic, particularly one with such a potentially wide scope. Apart from the work of Dion Fortune mentioned earlier, where are the servitors of ritual magicians? (As in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.’) Or the thoughtforms, called tulpas, of Tibet? Or the egregores created by a group’s consciousness? And when, all too briefly, touching on the far-reaching subject of invisible spies, where is the whole vexed subject of travelling clairvoyance, now called remote viewing?

And while being happy to throw Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings into the mix, the author never so much as mentions Philip Pullman’s novels, which are, of course, centred on the concept of familiars. Plus, where, oh where is any reference to the absolute classic, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Other World (2003) by Patrick Harpur?

Clearly, the author is passionate about these subjects and has much personal experience of the otherworldly. Perhaps we could have done with more of that. I suspect – and I’m guessing here - that had she had more time at her disposal, the book would have been considerably better. There’s evidence of haste on every page, and all authors know how damaging that can be. (While I’m truly sympathetic if that was the case, sadly a reviewer has to focus on the end product - not the ideal that might have been.)

Ms D’Aoust is clearly an accomplished writer and artist, and a knowledgeable witch. Try as I might, however, I could only nod when I came across the line: ‘What if, dear reader, we are confused?’ -- Lynn Picknett, co-author: When God Had A Wife: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

10 February 2020


Kathleen M. Fernandez. Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community. Kent University Press, 2019.

A number of times recently Magonia has looked at books examining utopian ideas and communities. When I have reviewed any I have been influenced by Peter Rogerson's last article for Magonia, where he spoke of the 'dangers of purity', the manner in which the search for a pure ideal, has destroyed the humanism of those involved in it.

Although literary fantasies of pure societies have made for interesting and sometimes inspiring reading, they have also revealed the 'worm in the bud' which would ultimately destroy that ideal, and eventually lead either to the collapse of the society, or its descent into an authoritarian dystopia. Some of these I have reviewed HERE.

In the nineteenth century, and earlier, many such communities were set up by groups and individuals who fled to America after facing religious intolerance in Europe,. History soon reveals that these communities, as they settled, often developed their own persecuted groups, who were expelled and forced to set up newer settlements.

The origins of the Zoar settlement can be traced back to early nineteenth-century Germany, with the political and religious upheaval caused by the Napoleonic wars. In the Kingson of Wurttemberg the state religion was Lutheran - “State and Church rules intermingled, Church attendance was mandatory, all citizens were required to be baptized, schools were run by the Church, and citizens were forced to pay for a minister they could not choose”

Over time disillusionment with a Church that seemed to be concerned more with its secular role that with the spiritual welfare of its congregation led to the growth of a ‘Pietist’ movement, that laid greater emphasis on the individual worshiper’s direct personal relationship with God. This initially operated as a faction within the established Lutheran church, but increasingly found itself in opposition to it, with members forming ‘Separatist’ communities.

After a number of failed attempts to establish settled communities in Wurttemberg and other parts of Germany, which involved continual harassment and imprisonment by the secular authorities, one group of ‘Separatists’ gained permission to emigrate to America in 1817, where they found a welcome from the Quakers of Philadelphia, who helped them establish themselves in the new land.

One of the original emigrants was Joseph Baumler – later anglicised to ‘Bimeler’ - who bought a tract of land in Ohio, intended as an area for settlement. This caused a rift with the Quakers, who also began to find the ‘Separatists’ were not quite as similar to them in belief and practice as they had first thought. Under the guidance of Joseph Bimeler, they began to raise a new community on the land he had aquired, called Zoar, after the place in the Bible where Lot and his daughters fled after the destruction of Sodom.

The Separatists’ original goal was simply freedom of religion, and they had no distinctive plans for how their community should be organised. The idea of a communal form of living seems to have arisen gradually, partly as a result of the sharing of resources that was forced upon them by the harsh conditions they originally found, with a particularly harsh winter, and partly through contact with existing communalist groups such as the Harmonists, as well as a shared German identity.

The idea of a communal existence was formally established in a series of ‘Articles of Agreement’ which established such principles as “every member does hereby renounce all and every right of ownership of his . . . property and leaves the same to the free disposition of the directors of the Society . . .”

It is not hard to see that this, and other similar clauses giving the ‘Directors’ practically total control of all the property and all the ‘business transactions’ of the community might have been a recipe for corruption and even tyranny. Especially when most of the control was exercised by one man, Joseph Bimeler. However it seems that Bimeler was not only a shrewd manager of the Society’s property and finance, but also a man of remarkable probity, and the affairs of the Society seem to have been run efficiently and honestly until his death in 1853, and his influence continued after that.

One of the doctrinal differences which caused the Quakers to distance themselves from the Separatists was the latter’s insistence on celibacy. However it seems that this might have been an economic necessity as much as a religious edict, attempting to avoid the burden of new mouths to feed during the earliest years of the struggling settlement, as this seems to have been dropped later, when young people would become a resource rather than a burden.

Unlike many other dissenting communities in the USA at this time, the Separatists were only separate in religious matters, and in other respects were open to communication and commerce with other towns and settlements, particularly those with a German background. As Zoar grew it became a prosperous community, selling agricultural produce around the region, and establishing a wood mill, a print-shop, metal workshop and even a hotel and brewery. It was also instrumental in the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal,with Society members digging a considerable length of it themselves, and establishing wharves for the distribution of agricultural and other goods.

Apart from a few specialist occupations, most of the general work in the community was directed centrally, the members would assemble in the centre of the town to be given their jobs for that day. This was determined by the Directors, and seems to have been generally accepted by the workforce. In later years outside labour was sometimes employed, and this was one of the factors that led to the eventual dissolution of the Society.

For a community which was established for religious reasons, religion seems to have played a remarkably small part in community life. There was a church building, and services were held their regularly, although attendance was almost universal it does not seem to have been compulsory. There were no formal religious ceremonies, even for weddings and funerals, and the services seemed to consist mainly of sermons by Bimeler, Bible readings and hymn singing. Religion, it was assumed was between the individual and God, and needed no third-party mediation.

Nor in later years was the lifestyle overly strict. There were festivals with singing and music, alcohol was permitted, mostly the locally produced beer, and the early prohibition on eating ‘swine’ was quietly dropped at some point. All in all, Zoar seemed to be a well run small community, with just one or two oddities – direction of labour, and largely communal living in dormitories and shared houses, as directed by Bimeler and the Trustees.

Inevitably compromises were forced on the Society from outside. The use of money was banned originally as goods were distributed equally to members by the Trustees, but when outside workers began to be employed it became inevitable that cash was used, but even then, half their wages were paid in credits for buying goods at the Society’s store. The strict rules of pacifism were stretched during the American Civil War, and several young men left to fight in the Union army. Most Society members were able to accept this, in view of the righteousness of the cause.

Using her extensive research into the still-extant records of the Society, and the memoirs of society members, Kathleen Fernandez has been able to build up a detailed picture of life in Zoar, and she gives us a vivid picture of the community, using their own words and records. What emerges is that Zoar is remarkable largely because it is so unremarkable. Unlike many other communitarian endeavours, in America and Europe, it did not descend into any form of extremism, nor did Bimeler’s strong leadership develop into any form of personality cult, Bimeler was a careful, honest administrator, rather than a religious leader. Anybody who wanted to leave the community was free to do so, although they would not be allowed to take any of the common property of the Society with them – a principle which was taken as far the US Supreme Court to establish.

Gradually the town of Zoar, a seemingly idyllic retreat from the world, started to become a tourist attraction. The hotel, originally built to accommodate passing traffic on the Ohio-Eyrie canal, lost its original purpose with the coming of the railroads which drew off its traffic. Rebuilt and extended it provided accommodation for the ever-growing numbers of visitors who just wanted to enjoy what was, even in the late nineteenth century, becoming the old-world charm of the town.

Increasingly young people were leaving the town, and more and more of the routine work was being undertaken by paid workers, not part of the communitarian system. Many Zoarites began to feel that they were being deprived of the ability to own goods and property in their own name, and the religious aspects of the community were less and less important. One visitor observed that most of the religious services were now done by rote – something that had led to the separation from the establishment Lutheran Church in Wurttemberg in the first place.

Eventually the community was formally disbanded, property being auctioned and sold off to residents and outsiders. The Zoar community ceased to exist as an entity in 1898, although many of the residents stayed on, now running their own businesses and owning their own homes. A local historian who visited the community around the time of its dissolution, reported how some of the new property owners felt when he spoke to the wife of the town’s baker, who now owned his own shop and had bought a horse and buggy for themselves “I shall never forget the tone of self satisfaction with which she promptly replied,. - ‘that is OURS – we bought it, isn’t it nice to have your own horse?’”

He continues: “This innate propensity for personal proprietorship is a factor in human nature that the advocates of universal communism fail to properly appreciate or consider”.

Was Zoar a success? It would be hard to deny that in most ways it was. It gave a small exiled community the opportunity to live without fear of harassment, and to practice their religion in the manner they saw fit. It provided a simple but comfortable level of existence in peaceful surroundings. In its early years at least it did have a great degree of ‘purity’ in the way in which it provided for all equally and in common. And even at the end of its formal existence it continued to provide for many of its inhabitants, but as a tourist attraction rather than as a working example of communal economy and living. Much of its success can be traced to the work of Joseph Bimeler, who led as more of an administrator than a prophet.

The town remains much as it was at the time of the Society, with many of the older buildings restored to their original state, and it is preserved by the Ohio Historical Society as an important historical site in Ohio history. It is still a popular tourist destination.

So maybe Utopias can be made to work, for a good while at least, so long as they’re not too ‘pure’, and maybe if they have their own brewery! – John Rimmer.

31 January 2020


James Poskett, Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920, The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

In Materials of the Mind James Poskett, assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Warwick University, uses phrenology as a case study in the writing of ‘global history’ in order to make a wider point that’s aimed squarely at his profession.

Apparently, since the 1970s science historians have framed their work on the nineteenth century strictly in national terms, treating scientific developments in different countries in splendid isolation. This is part of a wider rejection, presumably for ideological reasons, of science’s claim to be universal in its application and ability to explain the natural world. Poskett, in contrast, argues that, given the way ideas and discoveries were exchanged and cross-fertilised across the world, the subject can’t be properly understood without taking a global perspective: science wasn’t confined within national borders so, he asks, why should the telling of its history be?

The book therefore builds his argument for two conclusions: "historians of science need to abandon the distinction between the local and the global," and "all good history of science must be grounded in global history" – conclusions that his peers will, again apparently, find radical and contentious.

Is it just me, or is Poskett’s ‘radical’ thesis a statement of what is, or should be, the obvious? Given the way the world opened up during the nineteenth century - all the improvements in transport and communications that were shrinking the world and allowing information and ideas to be exchanged as never before - is there any way to look at the history of the time other than globally?

As it was news to me that there was a problem, I couldn’t really form an opinion on how well Poskett succeeds in fixing it; he had me from the start. For me, the revelation of Materials of the Mind isn’t about phrenology, or nineteenth-century ideas about race, or even Poskett’s argument about the need for a global approach, but rather the way today’s history of science is done.

That said, I found the detail of the book fascinating. As Poskett is making a case for the global treatment of his chosen subject, he naturally has to cast his net as wide as possible, not just geographically but also in terms of the social, cultural and political issues with which phrenology engaged. His study covers a lot of ground, both literally – from Arctic exploration to Pacific Island prison colonies – and figuratively, with material on, among much else, the Haitian slave rebellion, Inuit burial customs, life on the frontier of the Cape Colony and the academic debate over evolution, as well as descriptions of the processes for manufacturing plaster casts, different types of printing press, and the technicalities of early photography.

It’s all told in a way that communicates Poskett’s own fascination for and knowledge of these diverse but interconnected subjects. Although written in a properly academic style, it’s far from being a dry read.

Poskett picked phrenology for his study because it was "the most popular mental science of the Victorian age" - the operative word being ‘popular’, as although widely accepted and practised, phrenology’s status as a science was controversial from the start (in fact the term ‘pseudo-science’ was, I learn here, first coined to describe it).

Poskett builds his study around the ‘material world of manufacture and exchange’ within which phrenology operated, concentrating on six types of object – the materials of the title – that the (popular) science used: the skulls of indigenous peoples collected by European colonialists; the casts made of the heads of living individuals, because they were either considered typical or atypical specimens of a people; books; the letters exchanged between phrenologists; the phrenological periodicals and journals; and the then cutting-edge photographs. He devotes a chapter to each, showing how they were exchanged, studied and discussed across and between continents.

Phrenology was, of course, closely tied in with racial ideas, being used to make sweeping generalisations about the intelligence, moral character and other traits of different ethnic groups - and not just by the European imperialists and American slaveowners who used it to justify their assumed superiority. Both sides in the struggle over slavery in the USA used phrenology to support their positions, including African American phrenologists who argued that it demonstrated the lack of difference between black and white. Similarly, in India a group of educated Bengalis, mostly medical students, formed the Calcutta Phrenological Society to use phrenology to challenge British assertions of natural superiority (while simultaneously claiming that it showed the mental inferiority of women).

The book isn’t just about phrenology and race, though, as Poskett shows how phrenological theories were also applied to penal reform and education – again with ideas being swapped across the globe.

George Combe of Edinburgh, from an architectural feature
on the Museum of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society building

There are plenty of interesting snippets along the way, such as phrenology, in India, being brought into a debate among Hindus about whether the material world really is an illusion. And the story takes in some fascinating characters (as well as some downright obnoxious ones).

A central figure is George Combe of Edinburgh, an energetic promoter of phrenology who lectured all over Europe and the USA and wrote the phrenological ‘bible’, The Constitution of Man (1828) – a work that outsold The Origin of Species during the nineteenth century.

There’s Eustache Belin, a Haitian who achieved celebrity in 1830s Paris as ‘le bon nègre’ for saving his owners from the revolt, plaster busts of whom were pored over for clues to what made him different to the rebels. And Lucretia Mott of the Philadelphia Phrenological Society (one of the few to admit women), a passionate abolitionist who sealed her letters with an image depicting a kneeling African slave woman with the legend ‘Am I Not a Woman and a Sister.’

Madame Blavatsky gets a couple of pages, as one of the critics of William Eliot Marshall’s influential Phrenology Amongst the Todas (1873), which used photographs of the Toda people of southern India’s Nilgiri hills to support Darwinian theories about the origins of humankind. HPB, who of course took a different line, accused Marshall of fiddling his conclusions by using photos of another ethnic group entirely – and she appears to have been right.

Poskett argues that taking a ‘global history’ approach shows that historians’ general understanding of the rise, decline and fall of phrenology is wrong: "phrenology did not simply fade away during the second half of the nineteenth century. From soldiers fighting in the American Civil War,  to Indian nationalists seeking independence, phrenology found new audiences and new political uses throughout the nineteenth century. This becomes clear only once we abandon the closed approach to national and imperial contexts that has dominated the history of science for too long."

Aside from that, what comes across from Material of the Mind is those ‘political uses’ – how holders of diverse and opposing political and ideological positions could shape phrenology, like other sciences, to fit their beliefs. And judging by what Poskett has to say about the practice of contemporary science history, I wonder how much things have changed. -- Clive Prince

27 January 2020


Martin Shough with Wim Van Utrecht. Redemption of the Damned, A Centennial Re-Evaluation of Charles Fort's 'Book of The Damned'. Anomalist Books, 2019.

I suppose the first thing to ask about this book is why has it taken a hundred years for the data in Charles Fort's Book of the Damned to be re-evaluated?

I think the main reason is that Fort makes it clear on the opening pages of the Book of the Damned that he does not want them re-evaluated, for what he is dealing with is not data, which would be subject to evaluation, but rather a theatrical display, a carnival of entertainment and astonishment, to draw forth gasps of wonder and cries of delight or fear at the parade of “corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering … Here and there will flit little harlots … There are things that are theorems and things that are rags … There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices; whims and amiabilities.”

And to make it absolutely clear, “The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.” With capital letters! Dogmatic Science, he tells us, 'excludes' such things; if it cannot fit any of this anomalous data into one of its pigeon holes, then it is cast out and damned.

So from the start we are warned that if we try to explain any of these harlots or stenches we are doing the work of Dogmatic Science, and this has been more or less the attitude taken by Fort's readers and followers since the book's publication in 1920. Read it, enjoy it, marvel at it, but do not ever try to explain it, it's just not the done thing.

Fortunately here are a couple of Fortean iconoclasts who have set out to violate the First Law of Forteanism. They have decided to test whether or not the 'little harlots' and 'pale stenches' are quite as damned as Fort claimed. In this very substantial volume they have looked at the reports Fort recorded which seemed to suggest anomalous objects and phenomena within the earth's atmosphere, or in the immediate surroundings of the planet – mostly between the earth and the moon. They have found 82 such references in Book of the Damned.

Fort was usually meticulous in giving details of his sources, which were generally from scientific books and journals, and this gives the authors a good starting point for their investigations. I was going to write 're-investigations', but that would be incorrect, as Fort simply noted the original accounts and developed a volume of speculation from them, but was in no position to investigate the reports as such. Now we are in such a position, with the whole range of the modern Internet as our resource, which Shough and van Utrecht have exploited to its limits.

The cases reviewed are taken in chronological order, starting with the French astronomer Charles Messier’s observation of a large number of “small globules” crossing the disc of the sun in 1777; and concluding with an account from West Virginia in 1916.

The Messier account is particularly interesting because in retelling this and many other similar incidents, Fort “whimsically supposes them to be ‘super voyagers’ in space” and that this has provided a grounding to much post-1947 speculation on UFOs.

Although this particular case seems almost a throwaway remark by Fort, just two lines in a list of similar incidents, Shough and van Utrecht take ten pages of this large format book to discuss it in detail, and this is typical of the depth of their research in the other cases they examine.

Fort gives just the brief note ‘Arago, Oeuvres, 9-38’. The authors have found Messier’s original report in the Mémoires de l’Acadamie Royal, and reproduce ten pages from the journal, which includes an original illustration based on Messier’s drawing, along with detailed calculations attempting to determine the distance of the objects from the observer.

Shough and van Utrecht [henceforth 'S and vU'] look at the possibility that Messier was actually observing a flight of migrating birds and that his expressions of certainty that the objects were circular ‘globules’ to be an artifact of the focusing of his telescope, considering at the likelihood hat Messier adjusted the focus of his instrument at some time during his observation, allowing for irregularly shaped objects close to the lens, such as air-borne seeds or ‘ballooning’ spiders, to appear more perfectly circular in the eyepiece. 

Messier appears to have been meticulous in recording his observation, and the authors have been equally meticulous in analysing his report. Messier concluded that what he had seen were “more probably small meteorites”, but in 1777 that word could mean virtually any atmospheric phenomenon, and certainly did not mean the stony, extraterrestrial object that we use the term for today.

However, this report, in Fort’s truncated version became a staple of ufological history from the 1950s. It reached its height with the publication in 1954 of Flying Saucers from Mars, allegedly by ‘Cedric Allingham’ but in reality by the famous TV astronomer Patrick Moore. He spins the story, saying that Messier reported “they were large and swift, and they were like ships and yet like bells”. ‘Allingham’ claims to have read this in “one of Messier’s diaries.”

S and vU conclude their analysis of the case by commenting “Today this mutated canard – unattributed - is all over the Internet. The fable has grown on its own, but arguably Charles Fort is to blame.”

Of course Charles Fort was to blame for a lot more as well.

One of the cases that the authors look at is a curious sighting from Bermuda, first reported in the island’s Royal Gazette for September 8, 1885. A Mrs Bassett reported “a strange object in the clouds, coming from the north”. It was triangular, with chains suspended from it which descended close to the ground, but when going out over the sea it ascended until out of sight." I don't see anything in this account to suggest that it is anything other than a balloon.

Fort, as we would expect, finds this unlikely, “I don’t think much myself of the notion that it was an escaped balloon, partly deflated." A correspondent to Nature, J H Lefroy, make this suggestion, but Fort takes him to task accusing him of “correlating with Exclusionism,” in accordance with his theory that Science is ‘excluding’ topics that do not fit – the 'Damned'. His suggestion, presumably not meant literally, is “a super-dragnet – that something was trawling overhead?” This is where we get the famous speculation, “I think that we’re fished for. It may be that we’re highly esteemed by super-epicures somewhere.”

He is, probably rightly, dismissive of the suggestion that the Bermudan object was an escaped balloon from a display in Paris, but from the description, a balloon of some sort does seem a reasonable – even if Exclusionist – explanation.

S and vU run with the balloon hypothesis, and look at further details, published in Nature after Lefroy’s initial letter. Lefroy was General Sir John Henry Lefroy, KCMG, CB, FRS, who had been a scientist and a colonial administrator, and was in no doubt that the object was a balloon, moving as it did in accordance with the winds recorded at the time. The main objection to the balloon theory is the difficulty in determining the source of the object, and how it sailed so far out into the Atlantic. However, there had been two tropical storms in the area shortly before the sighting, and S and vU suggest that a balloon from the east coast of the USA may have been taken up to a high altitude in the storm updraught, floated around in the higher atmosphere for several days, then descended over the island. The have discovered that just such a fate overtook an American airship 25 years later.

They conclude saying “It seems plausible that a similar this happened in 1885, although the likelihood of proving it is vanishingly small.”

And of course this is the problem with almost any re-examination of Fortean accounts from this era, and probably any account of strange phenomenon at any era. We were not there, we do not have direct access to the witnesses, everything we know about such incidents is usually mediated through two, three or even more intermediate sources.

The great value of this book is that it strips away most, even if not all, of the intermediaries. One of the best examples is the case of mysterious lights seen in 1893 in the straits between Japan and Korea, north of the city of Nagasaki. S and vU take 28 pages exploring every detail of the accounts of this phenomenon. Their research included digitally scouring the files of newspapers from Singapore to Sydney; examining the structure of a dormant volcano; determining seasonal wind and weather patterns; looking at accounts of possible mirages; a detailed examination of the local squid-fishing industry, and even an excursion into eighteenth century Japanese woodcuts and fire-festivals.

On this occasion the authors are able to be pretty certain that they have unearthed the correct explanation, asking “What is the probability … that images resembling fires on boats were not fires on boats in a part of the world where fleets of boats with smoky fires on them did operate in the late nineteenth century? Clearly a lot less that p=1.0!”

It would be tedious to go through every individual Fortean report analysed in this book, but in the overwhelming majority of cases the explanation offered by the authors is detailed enough, and backed by sufficient documentation to be almost certainly the correct one. Obviously, there are a number of cases where there is insufficient evidence for such certainty, but in these instances the explanations suggested are very plausible, and just ‘smell right’, although the authors are honest enough to admit that there are still one or two cases which left them scratching their heads, and that there may be “in a very few [cases] hints of information relevant to marginal new science in the areas of, for example, upper atmospheric physics, meteorites or thunderstorm electricity."

Each case is a model of how historical Fortean investigation should be done. The authors take us to the source quoted by Fort, showing us reproductions of the documents quoted, and then go beyond that to related material, scientific papers, newspapers, and other contemporary sources. There is a wealth of illustrations showing phenomena similar to those described in the reports, and in many cases maps and views of the locations involved. They have used modern online tools such as Google maps and Streetview to guide us to the places themselves.

This is a remarkable achievement of not just Fortean study, but more general historical study, and I am eager to see their next title, which will look at anomalous reports from the sea and from space.

But finally, one important question is answered. The authors conclude that the reports that they have studied in such detail do not support Fort’s claim that this data has been ‘excluded’ or suppressed by a scientific establishment, or that anything in them tends to suggest any sort of “intrusions into our reality from an Otherworld of limitless reality”.

Which leads to the question, what is Fort really doing in this book? In a recent Fortean Times (FT388, 46-51) the philosopher Ian Kidd has attempted to show that far from being an enemy of science – an impression which comes across strongly to me when reading his books – Fort was a philosopher proposing a world of constant flux, experimenting with ideas on the nature of reality. Well, Mr Kidd is the philosopher, and I’m not, but to me Fort’s writings when not simply describing the hundreds of anomalous reports, seem to be putting the English language through an endurance course. He is, as I said in a previous review, almost unreadable en masse. But he does have one massive achievement to his name, which allows us to forgive anything else.

He invented Forteanism – John Rimmer

21 January 2020


Jeffrey J. Kripal, Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

One of the most original and fearless thinkers around, Jeffrey J. Kripal is that rarest of creatures: an academic (Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought) at a respected institution (Rice University) who is willing to admit his acceptance of paranormal and Fortean phenomena of the highest degree of strangeness. Well, rather more than just admit: he places the paranormal at the very heart of his understanding of religion and, indeed, humanity.

He decries our secular, materialist culture’s denial of paranormal experiences, as well as the shaming of those who unwisely talk about or declare their belief in them, a response he calls ‘immunological.’ A big part of his mission is to restore the balance - as he puts it to make the impossible possible again - and that’s even led him to co-write a book with Whitley Streiber (2016’s Super Natural). How many other academics would dare something like that! I told you he was fearless.

And he writes like a dream, clear, passionate and with a wry humour, effortlessly throwing off incisive and oh-so-quotable turns of phrase. (Sample: "A religion is a fantasy that an entire culture is living in.") He delights in paradoxes, ironies and wordplays.

As you might have guessed, I’m a fan, since his 2007 study of the Esalen Institute and, especially, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics, one of the first books I reviewed here.

Secret Body - the title is Kripal’s free translation of Catholicism’s corpus mysticum, referring to both the community of believers and the presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine – doesn’t disappoint. It is, as he describes it, part memoir and part manifesto, being made up of essays, lectures, extracts from his books and other writings from his 30-year career, with introductions putting each in context and, where necessary, afterwords updating or adding new reflections on them. By showing how his thinking has evolved, it serves as a perfect introduction to Kripal’s work and ideas.

Kripal’s intellectual journey falls into two distinct but (at first glance unexpectedly) related halves. In the first, he explored the link between mysticism and sexuality, or as he sums it up ‘the comparative erotics of mystical literature, first applied to my own Christian tradition, then to a Hindu Tantric saint, then to the Western monotheisms as a whole.’ (Kripal uses the words ‘erotics’ and ‘mystics’ in the same sense as ‘physics.’) The second is concerned with the meaning of the paranormal.

The two major parts of the book, ‘Corpus’ and ‘Mysticum’, are devoted to those halves, with a shorter conclusion, ‘Meum’, in which Kripal takes stock of where his road has brought him and sketching his ‘future theory of religion’ or ‘new sacred’. He laces the book with 20 ‘gnomons’, or theses – the insights and conclusions he’s reached in his professional life.

One of the key gnomons (no. 13) – explored in books such as Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics – is that ‘The Paranormal is a Kind of Story’. It has a ‘narrative dimension’, being "a potential story that wants to be told in and as us, a kind of writing of the real writing us," or more pithily, adapting a quote of Philip K. Dick’s, Wwe are not the writers but the written." In Secret Body Kripal has taken that insight to its logical conclusion and applied it to himself, writing the book ‘as if I were a myth become real’ (his emphasis). If it comes across as trippy, he says, that’s because that’s the way his life has been.

Kripal’s career has been controversial and provocative from the start. His early work on religion, in the 1990s, led him to his first gnomon, that of ‘Heretical Heterosexuality’: "in the history of religious literature that employs gendered and erotic language to express a man’s union with the divine, a religiously expressed male homoeroticism tends toward orthodoxy and a religiously expressed male heterosexuality tends toward heresy."

The insight had its origins in Kripal’s time in a Catholic seminary in his native Nebraska, studying to be a monk, when he realised that he was virtually the only straight guy there. His exploration of why this should be was what turned him to an academic, rather than monastic, career.

Kripal’s dictum can be clearly seen in Christianity, in which those texts that present Jesus as a celibate who surrounded himself with an all-male band of disciples became the canon (‘there is nothing straight about the historical memories of Jesus that Christianity has preserved as its canonical New Testament’), while those that give space to his female followers, and which depict him in a close personal and even sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, were condemned and suppressed.

Kripal embraces the theory – as he set out in a 2008 lecture ‘On the Fiction of a Straight Jesus’ - that Jesus really was gay. Unsurprisingly, given the books that Lynn Picknett and I have written, I disagree with him there (it comes down to which set of texts – canonical or heretical - you think most accurately represent the historical Christ), but in terms of Kripal’s overall point it doesn’t really matter as, either way, through its selection and editing of those texts the early Church certainly created a ‘nothing straight’ Jesus.

The seminary revelation awakened an interest in the psychosexual aspects of mysticism and religion, which led Kripal to the realisation that there is a deep connection between the mystical and the erotic. And he continually found the same ‘rule’ of orthodoxy being expressed in homoerotic, and heresy in heteroerotic, terms. (He notes with his usual delight the irony of ‘orthodoxy’ literally meaning ‘straight teaching.’)

Kripal’s study of Eastern mystical traditions, primarily Tantra, led to his discovery that the ‘secret talk’ of the nineteenth-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna included not just sexual, but homoerotic elements that, while blindingly obvious, have been ignored or suppressed by his later devotees. The result was his first book, Kali’s Child (1995), which stirred up a huge controversy in India, even leading to calls for his imprisonment.

Another pivotal event during his time studying Tantra in Calcutta was what he calls ‘That Night’, a personal, mystical-erotic experience of the presence of the goddess Kali, which not only helped his understanding of the mystic but, later, of paranormal ‘entity’ encounters such as Strieber’s.

The study of Eastern religions drew Kripal to their place in the American counterculture – what he calls the ‘North American guru traditions’ - which in turn led him to the California human potential movement and his seven-year Esalen project. And this inevitably brought him into contact with accounts of ‘exotic anomalous experiences, from the parapsychological to the ufological,’ in which he saw striking parallels with the mystical texts and traditions he’d studied.

Kripal takes a panoramic view of the paranormal, covering everything from psi (the British psychical research tradition, especially the work and theories of Frederic Myers, has a big place in his thinking), through ghosts and spirits to bigfoots and UFO encounters. As he emphasises, you can’t separate these things: alien encounters routinely have a psychic element, for example.

For Kripal, paranormal and psychical events are the ‘elephant in the room’ of religious studies: "…I have come to think that very similar psychical phenomena lie at the core of the history of religions, right behind what we traditionally called 'myth', 'miracle', and 'magic'" - what he calls "the countless interventions of the fantastic into human historical time."

Because of religious scholarship’s blindness to the connection, Kripal set out "to fashion a new intellectual language or way of speaking that could take the paranormal seriously and reinsert these key phenomena back into the heart of religion, from which they first emerged and to which they really did belong," seeking – ambitiously - to put the study of the "American paranormal’ on the same academic level as that of the Kabbalah, Tantrism, shamanism, European esotericism and Gnosticism. Or as a colleague put it, ‘to make UFOs sound Ivy League.£

Kripal calls for religious scholarship to accept the reality of present-day paranormal events and to use them to understand religious and mystical events from history - "the burning 'I Am' bushes, haunting ghosts, egoless enlightenments, lightning struck shamans, possessing spirits, throwing poltergeists, and revealing angels (and aliens) of the history of religions" - in what he calls a ‘new comparativism’. Although, as he points out, it’s really a return to the approach of the nineteenth-century psychical research tradition.

It was his own attempt to apply this that led to his collaboration with Whitley Strieber. He argues that, when seen in the context of the history of religion, there’s actually nothing anomalous in Strieber’s experiences: "What I see in the abduction phenomenon, and particularly in the use of hypnosis as a generator of the narrative, is a dramatic model not of aliens and little gray humanoids, much less of some future extraterrestrial assault on planet Earth, but of the irreducible complexities and projections of religion itself."

In one of his characteristic inversions, he challenges the widespread notion that the ancient gods were really aliens: rather, today’s aliens are really the ancient gods.

The next stage of Kripal’s journey was an even stranger one, as he discerned that the roots of sci-fi and superhero fiction, which have had such an impact on America’s (and then the West’s) culture and psyche, were firmly planted in the paranormal (as set out in Mutants and Mystics). And because of his association of the paranormal and the mystic, he came to see the impulse behind the creation and appeal of superhero fiction as essentially religious. Indeed, in another - brilliant - inversion, he writes that religion was the superhero fiction of the ancient world.

In short, Kripal sees mystical traditions, paranormal encounters, and superhero literature as all being expressions of the same thing. No wonder he calls his area of research "the Area 51 of the study of religion".

For Kripal, as I’ve said, the paranormal is a story. A paranormal experience is "a narrative expression, partly empirical, partly symbolic, of a real event that overflows and exhausts any rational explanation." He writes that "paranormal events will never be understood with the mechanistic thinking and causal models of the sciences as they stand now, or any other kind of rational reductionism. They will never be understood in mechanistic terms because they are not about mechanisms. They are about meaning. They are about narrative or, if you prefer, 'myth.'"

It’s something that sooner or later strikes all of us in the Fortean/Magonian camp (and which makes those phenomena impossible for the mechanistic-minded ‘skeptic’ to accept): paranormal events aren’t of the same kind as those in our everyday lives, but seem designed or scripted - and "intentionally, if often mischievously, meaningful" – for those who experience them.

Ultimately it all comes down to the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. For Kripal, paranormal experiences offer clues to the nature of that relationship, representing as they do ‘a temporary collapse of the binary structures of self/world and subjective/objective into the anomalous and the monstrous.’

Kripal considers both literalist religion (exemplified by creationists) and materialistic science (represented by the ‘new atheists’) as equally naïve. Clearly, he wants to shake both up, writing that he wants to make the believer anxious and to provoke the nonbeliever.

For Kripal, ultimately, the point of studying religion isn’t what it tells us about God or the gods, or its theological, ethical and social dimensions, but what it shows us about ourselves, both as we are now and what we might become: "Clearly, if the gods exist, they need us to speak. In truth, I think the gods are us, but that we are not ready to see this yet. I think they are the unconscious, unintegrated part of us speaking to the conscious integrated part of us."

This overview merely scratches the surface. There’s so much more in Secret Body: a lambasting of the current state of the humanities for their materialism and pessimism ("If a truth is to be declared in the humanities, it must meet one criterion: it must be depressing"); the lessons of quantum physics ("I simply do not see how we can go on and on about how everything is local, historical, and contextual when the physicists are telling us, with compelling empirical evidence, that deep down none of this is in fact true"); material on Robert Monroe and his Out-of-the-Body travels, ‘weird Will Blake’, Philip K. Dick’s ‘Valis’ experience, Aldous Huxley, Charles Fort ("the man who did more than anyone to shape the American paranormal") and many others; the parallel between Marian visions and UFO encounters; an original and fascinating exploration of the racial aspects of ET encounters and the place of UFOs in new African-American religions such as the Nation of Islam… and much, much more.

Well, if there’s not enough there to make you want to read the book, I don’t know what will.

In short, Secret Body is, like Jeffrey Kripal’s other works, an important and inspiring book, presenting a sweeping vision not just of the paranormal and religion, but of what it means to be human. -- Clive Prince

15 January 2020


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