Saturday, 10 October 2009

"The New Encyclopedia of the Occult" - sifting through history

No booklist of mine would be complete without an entry about this remarkable book which was published in 2004. The author, John Michael Greer, is described in the front of the book as having been "a student and practitioner of the Western mystery traditions since 1975".

When I first came across it I was a little put off by the cover: it gave the impression of perhaps containing spells under whose influence I might fall, so I was a bit nervous when I started reading. It turned out to be a gold mine and exactly what I needed - a more objective view of the occult aspects of spiritual and religious practices than I had found elsewhere by an author who was willing to talk about what was true and what was not. This is what proper education should be about: the promotion of dialogue and informed discussion, a characteristic which is conspicuously lacking in the vast majority of literature about religion and spirituality generally.

In the introduction Mr Greer describes the book as "a reference work for practitioners of the many occult traditions of the Western world, as well as for people who are simply curious about magic, alchemy, astrology, Pagan spirituality, or any of the other fields of lore and practice that make up the complex, lively realm of modern Western occultism".

He points out the value of such a book being written by an occult practitioner, and brings a scholarly approach to seeking out historical facts which have often been obscured by mis-interpretation, lack of information, even deliberate fraud.

Testimony to the human desire to be convinced of the supernatural can be found in a range of instances in which the public has resolutely refused to believe disclosures of fraud when these have been made plain, a notable example being the Palladian Order. This determination of the public has given rise to certain untruths being perpetuated as historical fact, which in some cases came to form the basis of cults. The writer chronicles all this with a careful pen and good humour.

It certainly hit the mark for me. When I came across it I was struggling with what amounted to a loss of faith. I had dismantled all my belief systems and had miserably come to the conclusion that most of what I had previously held dear and true was imaginative fiction. Most of my beliefs had centered on New Age 'teachings'. Those of you who are practicing Christians may be nodding your heads sagely. With good reason, you say? Well, you're right, but just so that we are clear, I'll add that I'm not in your camp either. At present I'm standing back from 'believing' and looking rather for what I find contributes to my ability to live a positive, creative and useful life.

One particularly prominent character in the New Age pantheon is Saint Germain. An artist's rendering of him hung on the wall of my childhood home, and in times of trial I would think of him as a source of strength, protection even. I could think of Jesus too, but with somewhat lesser efficacy on account of the dreariness I associated with the Christian church. The literature I had formerly come across described Saint Germain as a French count and part of the French court prior to the revolution. I was familiar with the story of his 'ascension' from the mortal realm to loftier and divine heights from which he could appear and disappear at will. I had also heard of his attempt to warn the French court of the coming revolution after his supposed ascension. As my disenchantment with all things New Age grew, a question mark formed over this personality. What did Mr Greer have to say about him? Here is a small portion of the detailed entry:

"Saint-Germain, Comte de." (Note the hyphen.) "European adventurer, 1691?-1784. Very little is known for sure about this extraordinary person. [...] He was fluent in at least six languages, a brilliant raconteur and conversationalist as well as a skilled musician, painter, chemist and physician. [...] He was also compulsively boastful and vain, surprisingly inept as a diplomat, and not above some exceptionally shady financial dealings." He had many aliases. Mr Greer continues: "The mystery Saint-Germain cultivated lived on after him and his reputation grew uncontrollably after his death." Then, to cap it all: "His last host [...] reported that when the two of them talked about philosophy or religion, Saint-Germain held purely materialist views and rejected both religion and occultism."

As for him appearing to the French court warning of imminent disaster this was a deliberate fraud invented by "a nineteenth century hack writer who made a living from forging fraudulent memoirs." Mr Greer describes these remarks as having been endlessly re-quoted by occult writers. It is a lengthy and colourful entry and closes with the remark that his name remained "one to conjure with".

Oh dear! Despite my increasingly jaded view of New Age and Theosophy-derived thinking I was shocked to read this somewhat sordid tale. Shocked, but not altogether surprised, and after taking time to reflect I concluded that the character of Saint Germain was like the material that grew up around him - full of illusions which appear to have the loftiest content and turn out to be as insubstantial and misleading as fools gold. In fairness to the natural world I must add that minerals which are mistaken for gold are not at fault, it is we who make the mistake in identifying them as such. I do not extend this indemnity to the perfidious if charming Count, so called. Saint he certainly was not.

It's a large book and contains hundreds of entries. Want to read about the history of palmistry or the tarot? It's there. Curious about Madam Blavatsky, the history of alchemy, Gnosticism and the Masonic Lodges, the origin of the mythology of Atlantis? It's all there. Ever heard of the Shaver mystery? Read all about it. Readers with a Christian background need not be put off by there being an entry about "Jesus of Nazareth". It's simply a different view from the one to which you may be accustomed. I found it all fascinating and spent hours wandering from one set of entries to another.

The author closes his introduction with the following: "As this may suggest, the realm of the occult contains truth and nonsense, profound wisdom and prodigious folly. While human beings confront the realms of transformative power that lie just outside the ambit of ordinary consciousness, they reveal their humanity most completely - with all the strengths and weaknesses, brilliance and blundering that this implies. I have tried to present all sides of the picture as clearly as possible; the traditions themselves deserve no less. I hope you, the reader, find the result as entertaining and enlightening to read as it was for me to research and write."
It was. Thank you, Mr Greer!

Book shop links for interested NZ readers:
The New Encyclopedia of the Occult

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