Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hermes in Print

None of the books I am posting on here are newly published books. Why that is not a problem is because I rather doubt most of the audience here has already read them. Yet, if you are interested in the subject of Freemasonry, and even more generally Hermeticism, then you need to have read at least these.

If one change needs to begin happening in the world of North American Freemasonry, it is the notion that one can get by reading the same old standards of 19th Century American Freemasonry. They were not accurate then, and they are far from sufficient today. Fine, you can treasure your Pike if you want, I  admit to having a deluxe edition of Albert Pike's Masonic Formulas and Rituals bound in leather, which I enjoy looking at from time to time. However, that will not make you an educated mason. That is not seeking light.

Today it is necessary to know and understand the advances in our knowledge of ancient culture and traditions which have been made in the past 150 years. If you don't ride to lodge using a horse and buggy, you have no business seeking light relying solely on resources that are equally antiquated. Don't throw the old standards away, but reach beyond them, far beyond them. 

The following suggestions represent nothing more than a point of departure.

The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind 
by Garth Fowden. 
Princeton University Press: Princeton and Chichester. 1986.

Although Fowden, perhaps unsurprisingly, critiques Black Athena in the Preface to the 1993 edition of this book, charging among other things that it was overtly political, as if his own work were not, this book represents none the less, a wealth of information about the place of Hermeticism in late Ptolemaic Egypt. The single greatest strength of this text lies in Fowden's ascertion that Hermeticism can only be properly understood if seen as a practical spiritual path. This title is also valuable for the insight it offers on both the technical and philosophical Hermetica of late classical Egypt. Once this material, little of which was directly available to the Victorian authors who make up the mainstay of American Masonic literature, and which was even less understood by them is apprehended, the confusion so common to contemporary Masonic discussions is easily understood and dismissed. 

What this book also succeeds at, is to contextualize the social and political environment in which the ideas central to Hermeticism, and so influential to Freemasonry, evolved during the late Ptolemaic period. This represents perhaps not the most exhaustive text, but certainly an invaluable one. It is even possible to forgive his establishment objections to Bernal's Black Athena, a work which had an infinitely greater impact on the field than Fowden's work, and which, being published only a year after this title, unquestionably stole a great deal of the attention this book might otherwise have received.

The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity)
Kevin Thomas Van Bladel 
Oxford University Press: Oxford. NY 2009

As is noted in the preface, this book represents the first in-depth study of Hermes Trismegistus - the legendary ancient Egyptian sage, as he has been represented in early Arabic literature. Van Bladel acknowledges Fowden as the standard source on Hellenic Hermetica, which is founded upon centuries of labor and research, this book represents a plunge into uncharted waters, examining for the first time many of the examples of Hermetic writing which found their way into Arabic literature. Here, there is a freshness and less of a sense of adhering to the tried and true. As a result, while equally solid in skill and scholarship, Van Bladel is willing to take greater chances, to speculate on conditions in which certain pieces were written and how they might have been aprehended by their audiences. He does this without losing sight of his academic and historical responsibilities, and the result as fascinating and stimulating. Indeed, some of the Arabic works, although coming after the Greek, may even suggest the connections which connected the Greek texts to earlier purely Egyptian originals. This gives us fresh insights into the earlier, and at time more familiar materials. Examining Hermetic literature and philosophy as it came to be understood in the young capital city of the largest empire the world had ever seen, as he was in Bagdad of the 8th century, is to approach Hermeticism from an entirely unique direction. It is well worth the effort, and the understanding of the range of Hermes in literature, provides a renewed appreciation for the remarkable traditions of which Freemasonry is heir. 

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization 
(Volume 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985) 
(Volume 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence) 
(Volume 3: The Linguistic Evidence)
Martin Bernal
Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, 1987.

Without getting mired in the never ending controversy over Bernal's works, suffice it to say that the defenders of the status quo - the supporters of European Classicist theory, find nothing of worth in Black Athena. It has been argued that intrenched scholarship, like many contemporary politicians operate on the principle that if an idea is repeated often enough, it becomes fact. Most other factions have championed Bernal's work.  The gist of Bernal's perspective is that he rejects the theory that Greek civilization was founded by Indo-European settlers from Central Europe; that theory (which Bernal calls the Aryan model) became popular during the 19th century. Bernal returns instead what the ancient model; pointing to the fact that both Egyptian and Phoenician influences on the Greek world were widely accepted in Antiquity.  Bernal emphasizes African elements in Ancient Near Eastern culture and denounces the Eurocentrism of 19th and 20th century research, including the idea of "Ex Oriente Lux" of Orientalists which, reflects  Western appropriation of ancient Near Eastern culture. 

In the extreme, Bernal's work has been used by Afrocentrist authors to support the agenda that all civilization is direct and traceable African foundations, which more extreme supporters of the 19th Century schools may be accused of taking racist stances in their reactionary assaults on Bernal's theories.

Where ever you may stand on the subject, all these books should be read as they provide a much more dynamic and often provocative examination of the Hermeticism on which the philosophy and work of Freemasonry is founded.

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