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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sexual Mysticism

Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Jeffrey J. Kripal (Aries: Brill Academic) From rumours about gnostic orgies in antiquity to the explicit erotic symbolism of alchemical texts, from the subtly coded eroticism of medieval kabbalah to the sexual magic practiced by contemporary occultists and countercultural translations of Asian Tantra, the history of Western esotericism is rich in references to the domains of eros and sexuality. This volume, which brings together an impressive array of top-level specialists, is the first to analyze the eroticism of the esoteric without sensationalism or cheap generalizations, but on the basis of expert scholarship and attention to textual and historical detail. While there are few other domains where the imagination may so easily run wild, the various contributions seek to distinguish fact from fiction--only to find that historical realities are sometimes even stranger than the fantasies. In doing so, they reveal the outlines of a largely unknown history spanning more than twenty centuries.  

Excerpt: In recent years, the academic study of Western esotericism has been developing rapidly from a somewhat obscure specialty pursued by a few dedicated researchers into a burgeoning professional field of scholarly activity and international organization. Once a domain restricted to the relatively secluded circles of specialists and hence hidden from the sight of most academic and non-academic readers, it is now becoming an increasingly popular topic of public and critical discussion in the context of journals, monographs, conferences, and scholarly organizations. The book you now hold in your hands is the fruit, one of many, of this growing branch of knowledge.

That there are connections between Western esotericism and the domains of eros and sexuality (which extend far beyond what we nor­mally mean by "sex") has, of course, been recognized before, not least by practitioners, and the various contributions to this volume provide abundant illustration of that fundamental and indubitable fact. But scholarly analyses of how and why the two domains of esotericism and eroticism are so intimately interwoven are difficult to find. Moreover, the closely related problem (or is it a promise?) of how the history of sexuality in the West might be related to the history of Western eso­tericism implies a range of further questions that still remains virtually untouched. In the absence of any such developed analysis, only a few tentative suggestions will be made here. In a historical field this new, this rich, and this provocative, all we can reasonably do is point to the heavy fruit hanging low on the branches, and then hope a sufficient number of readers will choose to begin plucking it. Our own general sense is that such fruit contains its own important truths, but these are, at best, difficult to grasp for a whole host of intellectual, linguistic, political, historical, and social reasons.

In different ways and for different reasons, or so we would suggest, the domains of Western esotericism, on the one hand, and that of eros and sexuality, on the other, have both tended to become the object of censorship, suppression, concealment, and a certain polite public silence. Both the esoteric and the erotic have, in effect, been repressed, made to hide, "made occult," as it were. Rather like the Greek god of fertility Pan, whose iconography was transformed into the cloven-footed and horned "Devil" within the repressions of the Christian imagination, that which is repressed always returns, but as something else, as something "dark" and "dirty," even "demonic," that is, as something we should not talk about. And so we don't. It was one thing to speak of Pan. It is quite another to speak of the Devil.

If we ask ourselves how and why this has happened, it may be useful to distinguish between five categories of "things we do not talk about": those that are concerned, respectively, with secrecy, taboo, concealment, intimacy, and ineffability.  As each of these terms carries a different, if also related, semiotic range and its own set of connotations, it seems wise to discuss each in turn before we proceed to the essays. In the process, we hope to give some sense of the essays themselves—their content, their excitement, their own spoken secrets.

Secrets and Rumors

To begin, we might note that the term esotericism has often been under­stood as referring to "secrets reserved for an elite," and hence to the concept of initiation into hidden wisdom in contexts such as mystery cults or secret societies.' The basic idea here is that certain kinds of knowledge should not be divulged to the multitude, because they would inevitably be misunderstood, misused, or profaned. Certain truths are considered too profound, too complex, too unconventional, perhaps even too shocking to be understood by the common man or woman. Therefore they should be revealed only to those who have gone through a process of careful selection, training, and preparation and have thereby shown themselves capable of a correct understanding. Other truths may be considered too dangerous to be made public. For example, such truths might involve knowledge about techniques and procedures for gaining superior occult powers that should not fall into the wrong hands. Or they may be concerned with secrets about "what is really going on" in history or society: here the assumption is that if the general public would discover the truth, revolts and other threats to social stability and the status quo could be the result.' And finally, the supreme divine truth may simply be considered too sacred to be made available to the profane public: the pearls of spiritual wisdom should not be thrown before the swine, but should remain rather the preserve of a dedicated and pure elite.

It is only to be expected, of course, that the need for secrecy will be emphasized even more strongly if such esoteric truths are somehow associated with sexual matters, imagination and mysteries. In such cases, after all, the risk of misunderstanding and profanation is particularly strong.' In some real sense, sex is the secret par excellence. Perhaps this is why the two domains have historically been linked in the social when they have not been necessarily linked as historical fact. Indeed, on, even the fact that numerous groups and organizations have had a practice of secrecy has often caused suspicions about sexual goings-on: things that are so carefully kept hidden from the light of day must surely be somehow scandalous and obscene, that is, the secret must be x. Examples of both cases—sexual teachings and practices about the sex secret, and secret teachings and practices believed to bat are kept sexual are discussed by various authors in this volume: from the Borborites and the Valentinians discussed by Roelof van den Broek and April DeConick to the Utopian communities treated by Arthur Versluis, and from the sexual techniques and rituals described by John Patrick Deveney and Marco Pasi to the sex-magical orders central to the chapters by Hugh Urban and Hans Thomas Hakl. As such essays reveal, many times the suspicions of sex, though exaggerated for polemical purposes, were in fact more or less accurate.

Taboo and Transgression

Whereas the category of esotericism, then, has often been understood as referring to secrecy, the terminology of Western esotericism that is basic

(bto the present volume has a very different meaning. Since the 1990s ut building on older traditions, particularly in the French academic context), it has come to be understood by scholars as an umbrella con­cept that covers a complex domain of interrelated historical currents and ideas that have existed in Western culture from late antiquity to the present and which may or may not (that is to say, which do not necessarily) include a dimension of secrecy.'

The current debate about precise definitions and demarcations of the professional field of Western esotericism is complex and technical and need not detain us here. What can be said, however, and with some certainty, is that, until very recently, most of the currents that fall under the rubric of Western esotericism ended up in the category of "things we do not talk about." Note that in this case we are not dealing with secrecy per se, but with the power of taboos in academic discourse itself. Scholars were aware that by including the various manifestations

of Western esotericism within the domain of "legitimate" academic research they ran a serious risk of finding themselves excluded: topics associated with "the occult" have tended to be perceived by most aca­demics as a "no go area" unworthy of serious study, and hence scholars who published studies of them easily evoked suspicions of being inspired by other than scholarly agendas. In all fairness, it must be said that often enough, rather like the traditional suspicions of secrecy meaning sex, such occult suspicions were in fact more or less correct.6 But, inevitably, the sum effect of the taboo on studying esotericism was that neutral, critical, and historical research was strongly discouraged along with the crypto-esoteric scholarship. This has resulted in a very serious lack of expertise among academics about what are in fact large and important dimensions of the Western heritage. It is this defect of knowledge that the modern study of Western esotericism seeks to correct. It is time to talk about the things we do not talk about.

Needless to say, open and critical discussion of eroticism and sexual­ity and their relevance to broader issues in the history of religion and culture was likewise taboo in academic research, at least up to the twentieth century. This censoring situation changed dramatically after the definitive emergence of psychoanalysis before World War II, the sexual revolution of the shared European and American counterculture of the 1960s (catalyzed by such radical psychoanalytic figures as Wilhelm Reich, who actually coined the term "sexual revolution"), and, about the same time, the birth of the women's movement and its subsequent waves of feminist criticism and critical gender analysis. Finally, the gay rights movement of the late 60's and 70s was followed by academic research and writing on the intimate ways that sexual orientation figures into religious discourses and practices. Because of these central psychological, intellectual, and social revolutions, scholarly attention to the importance of eros and sexuality in religion and culture is by now quite normal and uncontroversial, at least within Western academic culture and open liberal societies. The situation is quite different in many other parts of the world, where such open discussions are still taboo and more or less impossible.

That sexual and erotic dimensions are present in Western esotericism is hardly surprising, as such dimensions are omnipresent throughout the history of religion. Every human being, after all, has had a gendered body with sexual characteristics, regardless of time and clime. In some basic sense, then, sexuality transcends time, at least that brief micro-fraction of it we can access through historical-critical methods. But there is reason to assume that, in addition to these obvious biological universals (themselves always informed by relative cultural practices, that is, by history), we are also dealing with an elective affinity of some kind between the two domains of esotericism and eroticism. That is, we have reason to suspect that "something else" is going on here.

Some clues in that direction can be found, for instance, in Elliot Wolfson's essay on discourse and intercourse as reflective of divine being in kabbalistic contemplation, and of what he dialectically names "the erotic nature of secrecy and the secret nature of eros." In the rhetorical revealing and concealing structures of secrecy itself, Wolfson notes, "one can discern something resonant with the nature of eros." Other hints can be had in Lawrence Principe's discussion of how the use of sexual symbolism in alchemy results quite logically from the nature of pre-modern science and its conflicting needs to explain and to conceal; and in Allison Coudert's analysis of the gendered demono­logical discourse in early modern Europe through which firm gender polarities were protected and preserved through, for example, female curiosity being symbolically linked with sexual promiscuity. The link­ing of forbidden knowledge, women, and sex extend well beyond the primordial garden, it turns out.

And there is still more. Indeed, what is so striking about so many of the figures treated in these essays is their conviction that in the depths of human sexuality lies hidden the secret of religion, occultism, magical power, spirituality, transcendence, life, God, Being itself. This astonishing connection, such figures would insist, is not metaphorical, or rhetori­cal, or symbolic, as some would prefer to have it. It is fundamental, cosmic, ontological, religious. We are not dealing here, then, with a politics or sociology or anthropology of sex. We are dealing with a metaphysics of sex, itself intimately entwined with the destiny of the soul. The historian of Western esotericism, of course, must remain agnostic about such final matters, but the historical data are quite clear about what our sources thought and wrote. Hans Thomas Hold's comments on the sex-magical instructions of Giuliano Kremmerz seem particularly appropriate here:

What is the aim of all these instructions? Certainly not a refinement of sexual pleasures, a subjugation of women, kinky sex games, or sexual lib­eration. By means of a prolonged regimen of fasting, breathing exercises, prolonged chastity, meditation, and years of general magical preparation, a superior magical force is to be developed: a force so strong that it should be capable of conquering everything, even physical death.

Concealing and Revealing

A third category of "things we do not talk about" concerns things we might actually like to talk about but which are hidden and therefore need to be discovered or unveiled first. It is not that they are neces­sarily kept secret or considered taboo: they are just difficult to find, understand, or interpret. They are, in a word, concealed. The history of Western esotericism is full of references to hidden wisdom, hidden messages, hidden powers, and hidden realities. Helena P. Blavatsky's famous Isis Unveiled (1877) is only one among many texts that claim to lift the veil hanging over the true nature of reality. According to the sixteenth-century physician and alchemist Paracelsus, nature could be read as a book: it was full of hidden messages from God that could only be perceived and understood if one learned how to recognize and read the "signatures of things." Hence the term occult means "hidden" (Latin occultus) and was originally a technical term in natural philosophy pertaining to those qualities or forces in nature that were not directly observable by the senses but could not be theoretically accounted for in terms of the reigning natural philosophy either; in other words, the kinds of invisible forces and influences that were particularly important to the so-called "occult sciences" of astrology, alchemy, and natural magic.' In a similar spirit, Islamic esotericism, as explained by Pierre Lory in this volume, treats the normally invisible or "inward" side of reality, as opposed to the outward or apparent reality accessible to the normal senses, as something fundamentally real but also as something somehow dangerous, sometimes demonic, and, potentially at least, something erotic.

The very language of "veiling and unveiling" ("lifting the veils," catching a glimpse of what is "under the veil," revealing as un-veiling) has obvious masculine, voyeuristic, and hence erotic connotations. This

provides us with another explanation for how eroticism comes to play a role in esoteric contexts. Again, the subtle erotic interplay of veiling and unveiling, concealing and revealing, is evident in Elliot Wolfson's reading of kabbalistic texts. Another clear case is Wouter J. Hanegraaff's discussion of Giordano Bruno and the myth of the hunter Actaeon who, spurred on by eros—the desire for eternal beauty—finally glimpses the nude goddess Diana (Nature unveiled) while she is taking her bath. The result? He is both killed and transfigured within this very act of mystical/erotic transgression.

Reversely, however, it must also be noted that a trend towards the "disoccultation of the occult" has become prominent in Western esoteric contexts, at least since the nineteenth century, particularly in the type of Spiritualist discourse discussed by Cathy Gutierrez in this volume, but also in its later esoteric developments, up to and including contemporary spiritual trends such as those discussed by Jeffrey Kripal with reference to Esalen and what we might call a democratization of Western esotericism. The erotic secret is out. We know now And we can talk about what we know.

Intimacy and Poignancy

The "things we do not talk about" may be secret, taboo, or concealed; but they can also be considered too intimate to be easily shared. With­holding them from public discussion and scrutiny may be considered a simple matter of discretion rather than a cause for putting up barriers of formal initiation. In the context of the history of Western esotericism, this brings us to the domain of personal religious experience and its sub­jective psychological description. We possess numerous texts that make discrete allusions to (rather than spell out) certain events that occurred in the author's personal spiritual life, or that refer to subtle feelings and emotional nuances which resist straightforward verbalization or logical analysis. We also know of cases of specific communities devoted to a spiritual way of life whose members shared a common experience of divine presence that they preferred to keep among themselves, and which indeed might not have been accessible to anyone except through active daily participation.

The erotic dimension comes into play almost inevitably whenever such personal or communal experiences concern intimate contact with personified spiritual entities. There is something deeply personal, and deeply poignant, here. A particularly clear example is Antoine Faivre's discussion of how Christian theosophers during the seventeenth cen­tury experienced their relations with the virgin Sophia as one of erotic play and actual sexual/spiritual intercourse (even leading to pregnancy on the part of the male theosopher!). Here too we might mention how members of a theosophical community—perhaps not unlike the Valentinians described by April DeConick tried to "rush into the bedroom" of the bride in order to join in the communal love-feast. A comparable dimension of erotic intimacy is likewise prominent in Moshe Idel's subtle discussions of the phenomenology of erotic delight in theosophical Kabbalah and Hasidic literature; the murmured secrets of Elliot Wolfson's chapter; the Latin commentaries on the Song of Songs, with all their kisses, analyzed by Claire Fanger; Marsilio Ficino's homo-erotic desires diagnosed in Wouter J. Hanegraaff's contribution; and Arthur Versluis's elaborate discussion of the erotic mysticisms of nineteenth-century American visionaries. As we approach the present, such intimacies, we might notice, become more and more descriptive, self-confessed, autobiographical, that is, they become less private and more textualized. Hence whereas it is exceedingly difficult (though not impossible) to find explicit autobiographical descriptions of esoteric experience in a medieval Latin or Hebrew text, it is not at all uncom­mon in a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century German or Dutch milieu, and it is exceptionally easy to find such things in a nineteenth- or twentieth-century English document. Intimacy is intimacy, but the secret is becoming less of a secret as the centuries tick by. We might also wonder here about European and American cultural differences and their respective effects on esoteric discourse, that is, on what can and cannot be said.

Ineffability and Prolixity

Finally, there are "things we do not talk about" not because we do not want to, but simply because we are not able to. References to the ineffable are more prominent in Western esotericism than one might perhaps think. They are typically associated with a superior knowledge or "gnosis" that cannot be transmitted by words or even symbols, but must be directly experienced. The question of how such gnosis relates to mystical experience (which, at least according to William James, contains a "noetic" dimension) cannot fail to impose itself on the reader of many chapters in this volume. In the present context, it is important to note that the theme of a "higher," "superior," or "abso­lute" knowledge, the contents of which resist verbalization or rational understanding, has often been considered central to Western esotericism as a field of study. Indeed, Kocku von Stuckrad has recently argued that it is precisely this strong noetic quality that finally sets apart the field of Western esotericism from the related semiotic field of "mysti­cism." Such a noetic wisdom or gnosis, however, is seldom of a linear or rational quality. It is typically more immediate, direct, intuitive it thus displays a certain "all at once" quality that is claimed to be com­plete or perfect in itself but will take years, maybe an entire life, to explicate and unfold into a textual corpus (often of literally thousands of pages). It is a paradox often noted: the ineffable tends to produce an almost unbelievable prolixity. That which cannot be said gets said, and said, and said.

Here too we are reminded of the erotic, which is always overdeter­mined as something saturated with meaning, as something that can never be fully articulated. One perhaps does not need to be reminded of the etymological connections and mythological associations between knowing and sexual intercourse (although they certainly help), or of such obvious facts as that sexual pleasure can never be adequately described but only finally experienced (rather like the sacred in some theories), to make the point that Western esoteric sources often describe the attainment of an ineffable mystical gnosis in erotic and sexual terms, that is, as a "consummation," "embrace," "unitive bliss," "rapture," "kiss," "cleaving," "marriage," and so on.

All languages of sexual union, however, imply a polarity, that is, two figures that embrace, that unite, that become one. This is the most basic sexual polarity that structures, universally, the innumerable erotic languages, mythologies, and symbolisms of the history of religion. Enter the modern categories of gender and sexual orientation. The history of erotic mystical literature, after all, is filled with biological males uniting with male deities. Indeed, as one of the two editors (Jeffrey Kripal) has argued elsewhere, in the history of Western religion (and indeed, of much of Asian religion as well), male mystical systems that employ sexual symbolism inevitably tend toward an orthodox sublimated homo­erotic structure.' Precisely to the extent that a heteroerotic structure is set up for males—that is, to the extent that the divine is imagined as a female with whom the male aspirant enjoys hidden intercourse—the system tends to become heterodox, if not actually heretical.

Such a comparative thesis is certainly borne out in the present collec­tion of essays, so many of which treat male heteroerotic traditions that were suppressed, persecuted, or simply forgotten by their surrounding orthodox religious cultures. Thus whereas those traditions that featured an active or explicit heterosexual symbolism like the bridal chamber of the early Valentinian Christians studied by April DeConick, or the modern sexual magical traditions studied by Patrick John Deveney, Thomas Hans Hakl, and Hugh Urban—became heterodox or heretical, those traditions that were successfully incorporated by their surrounding religious cultures, like Latin bridal mysticism, Kabbalah, and Sufism, tended strongly toward a male same-sex structure, with male mystics loving and enjoying "hidden intercourse" with a male God. This is not to say, of course, that we do not find homosexual practices within heteroerotic systems (Theodore Reuss's phallus cult or some of Aleister Crowley's more transgressive rituals come to mind here), or that we do not find heteroerotic features in the orthodox mystical systems (Mary as the bride of Christ, or the Sufi jinniya or female spiritual consorts), only that it is virtually impossible to win orthodox approval for any explicit heterosexual mystical or magical system.

Intriguingly, Wouter Hanegraaff's essay on the two Renaissance figures of Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno demonstrates both sides of this same thesis. Hence Ficino, whose "Platonic" desires Hanegraaff analyzes as distinctly homoerotic, turned to a translation project involving Plato's Symposium and a sublimated celibate life. He was thus embraced by his own Roman Catholic tradition. Bruno, on the other hand, whose desires appear to be anything but homoerotic, was burned at a stake. It is important to admit, of course, that Bruno was not burned for his heteroerotic desires per se, but these, we might speculate, hardly helped him to fit into the reigning homoerotic religious system of his time and played, in turn, into his elaborate language of "fire" and "passion," a fiery passion that could not be fitted into the male homoerotic structures of Italian Catholicism. For such a promi­nent male to think heterosexually about divine things in the West is to think heretically.

Such thoughts raise fascinating questions about the linking of eros, (hetero)sexuality, heresy and secrecy in the history of Western eso­tericism. Is not the presence of a male heterosexual system an almost certain sign that the symbolic system will be ignored, denied, repressed, in the end made "occult"?

* * *

This is one, and only one, question. The essayists ask and advance their own specific questions and proffer their own answers. Among their numerous illuminations, we might briefly mention the following figures and themes, not to summarize the content of Hidden Intercourse, much less to offer any premature closure, but simply in a spirit of temptation:

  • A common esoteric reading of the fruit of the garden of Eden as a patent sexual metaphor, with sexual differentiation understood either as a sign of the "Fall" and a subsequent mortality (hence the ascetic components of these traditions), or as the bipolar basis for a sexual technique of reunion and restoration of the primordial Adamic androgyne (hence the erotic practices of these traditions);
  • An ancient Christian mystery involving sacramental sexual union in the "bridal chamber";
  • The Levites of ancient Christian heresiology as a homosexual "priestly" trope;
  • Hermeneutical techniques that out-Freud Freud through readings like that of Psalm 1 and its flowing water as symbolic of seminal emission, or the Christian eucharist as a kind of secret spermatophagy or sperm-eating (with examples from the fourth century to the twentieth);
  • Sufi saints coupled spiritually with jinniya or feminine spiritual beings in order to increase and transmit their baraka or supernatural power;
  • The erotic nature of secrecy itself as a simultaneous revealing and concealing, that is, as a kind of linguistic strip-tease;
  • God as the delight of all delights, erotic and otherwise;
  • Mary as both the virgin mother and bride-lover of Christ; Marsilio Ficino as a conflicted homoerotic scholar who turned to an interpretation of Plato's Symposium at the instigation of his younger male friend in order to work through his sexual melancholy;
  • Sulphur as paternal seed, mercury as menstrual blood;
  • Two-headed hermaphrodites;
  • Male sex with a (male) bull hide;
  • A popular sixteenth-century artist who drew things like women rub­bing (psychotropic?) ointment on their genitals in order to "fly" to the Witches' Sabbath, a naked witch looking backwards through her vagina to see the Devil (on a Christmas card no less), and a dragon performing cunnilingus on a witch;
  • The Platonic model of the brain as producer of semen, with the spinal cord as the transmitter of this cerebral substance to the penis;
  • A Christian, goddess-like Sophia, who marries herself to a German theosopher on Christmas day, sensually "plays" with him for years, finds an appropriate house for him in Amsterdam, and then helps edit her departed lover's letters through a disciple;
  • The forward-looking social liberalism of the nineteenth-century American Spiritualists, which included such marvels as Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, who also happened to be a famous spokesperson for free love, which she believed would help implement a kind of millennial utopia in which young women would date the dead;
  • Thomas Lake Harris married to his divine faerie, the Lily Queen, and living in celibate chastity with his second wife;
  • The "internal respiration" of Harris and his community, experienced as a kind of bodily electricity flowing from the reproductive organs, particularly the vagina;
  • Hashish, magic mirrors, and a cosmic domain of scintilla-like souls or monads, each a reflection of God as Light accessible through the secrets of sexual magic;
  • The father of psychoanalysis in Italy involved in occult traditions;
  • The "practice of separation" of the solar Self and the alchemical creation, through sexual magic, of a second subtle "glorious body" to survive the physical death of the mortal frame;
  • A fictional Tantric town in the American Midwest called "Paradox," where the Wizard of Oz meets the human potential movement, Asian Tantra meets Western sexual magic, and the counterculture comes to the heartland.
Admittedly, this is a dizzying and still entirely unexplained list. Expla­nations will come in due time. We will leave it now to our readers to discover all these things in the pages that follow and, most importantly, to begin talking about those things we do not talk about.


The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism: Sacred Practices and Spiritual Marriage by Arthur Versluis  (Destiny Books) Beginning with the ancient Greek Mystery traditions, Gnosticism, and the practices in early Christianity, Arthur Versluis uncovers the secret line of Western sexual mysticism that, like the Tantra of the East, seeks transcendence or union with God through sexually charged practices. Throughout antiquity, and right into the present day, sexuality has played an important, if largely hidden, role in religious traditions and practices. This includes not only Christian but also kabbalistic, hermetic, and alchemical currents of sexual mysticism, many discussed together here for the first time.

In the Mystery tradition of hieros gamos (sacred marriage) and the Gnostic tradition of spiritual marriage, we see the possibility of divine union in which sexual union is the principal sign or symbol. Key to these practices is the inner or archetypal union of above and below, the intermingling of the revelatory divine world with the mundane earthly one. Versluis shows that these secret currents of sexual mysticism helped fuel the rise of the troubadours and their erotic doctrine, the esoteric tradition of Jacob Böhme in the early 17th century, the 19th-century utopian communities of John Humphrey Noyes and Thomas Lake Harris, the free love movement of the 20th century, and the modern writings of Denis de Rougemont and Alan Watts.

Versluis presents in this small tome a remarkable treatment of a subject seldom mentioned in the mainstream media. Within its 167 pages you are taken on a journey beginning with the ancient Greek Mystery traditions, slips into the Gnostic practices, strangely and thankfully not introducing the Essenes into the picture, but dwelling more on the aspect of gnosis itself, the direct spiritual knowledge. A side venture into early Christianity and we find ourselves fully immersed into the secret roots of Western sexual mysticism in such a way that provokes thought and conversation without resorting to the tawdry when one discusses the divine unions that are inherent in the ancient sexual practices discussed within this wonderful little book.

What I enjoyed immensely with this book is that Professor Versluis shows us in precise and deliberate pathways the patterns that criss-cross the essential spirituality of the ancients with a distinct religious history. I especially liked the fact that he brings the reader far into the near-present age of American Sexual Mysticism with introspective thoughts on Thomas Harris, Alice Stockholm, the poet H.D. and into the recent past with Denis de Rougemont, and his seminal work of 1938, Love in the Western World. And into one of my favorites - Alan Watts

What do we find after reading this book? We come to realize that sexual mysticism has incredibly deep roots that go back for thousands of years. And because of and in spite of...it is made clear to us that Christianity introduced a particular dynamic of antimysticism and antisexuality...or at least has tried to.

One of the more valuable insights I have gathered from this reading is that our perceptions of Western Sexual Mysticism are consistently oriented towards the transcendence of the self. I can no longer accept the standard path of others that sexual mysticism is not the rejection of this world as it is seen from the religious and societal fundamentalists but rather a true and pure affirmation of other worlds to us as seen through the beauty of sexual mysticism. I can now see the intertwining of the mysteries of human creativity with the mystery of self-transcendence.

William Blake's Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision by Marsha Keith Schuchard

Magic and the Power of the Goddess: Initiation, Worship, and Ritual in the Western Mystery Tradition by Gareth Knight

Esotericism, Art, and Imagination by Arthur Versluis

Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford Historical Monographs) by Lauren Kassell (Oxford: Clarendon Press: ,2005. xviii + 281 pp. Illustrations, tables, abbreviations conversions, astrological symbols, chronology, bibliography, manuscript index, general index. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-927905-5)

Reviewed for H-Albion by Lisa Wynne Smith, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan. 

The Magical World of Elizabethan Londoners 

Simon Forman, an astrologer and physician in Elizabethan London (1552-1611), is a well-known figure amongst scholars of literature and medicine for this period. Besides having a reputation for sexual lechery, four years after his death, he was implicated in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (1616).[1] His influence continued throughout the seventeenth century, with Robert Napier and Elias Ashmole each inheriting his papers in turn and William Lilly writing his biography in his own _Life_ (2nd. ed., 1715). In this study, Lauren Kassell (Lecturer, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) provides an examination of "the circulation of esoteric texts, the politics of medicine, the popularity of astrology, the vagaries of Paracelsianism, and the powers of magic" (p. 13). 

The book is divided into four sections: "The Making of an Astrologer-Physician," "Plague and the College of Physicians of London," "The Casebooks," and "Alchemy, Magic, and Medicine." Part 1 considers the nature of Forman's knowledge, using his autobiographies and diary, his pamphlet on longitude (1591), his unpublished astrological and medical tracts, and his correspondence with Richard Napier. Despite "a passion for learning," Forman left Oxford after a year and ended up in the Low Countries "to seke for arte and knowledge" (pp. 24-25). Much of his education was informal, coming from books that he read and divine revelation. Longtitude, for example, he claimed to have learned only "by the grace and helpe of God" (p. 38). Kassell also intriguingly explores the ways in which Forman perceived himself: a magus--a truly great individual with the divine gift of being able to read the stars--who was persecuted by lesser practitioners (both of medicine and mathematics). 

In part 2, Kassell examines the College of Physicians' pursuit of Forman as an irregular medical practitioner. This detailed study of one practitioner's confrontations with the College is invaluable, especially since this case has accounts available on both sides. Through his unrepentant opposition to what he saw as the "corrupt methods of traditional physicians" rather than his combination of astrology and physic, Forman offended the College (p. 74). After 1600, he was able to avoid the College's pursuit through patronage. Forman's encounters with the College occurred against the background of the plague. Astrologers, he believed, were well placed to judge the past, present and future of the plague. The only true cure, he argued, was repentance and adherence to God's will, which could be identified through astrology. Physicians, in contrast, were morally corrupt for fleeing the city during outbreaks and ignorant for practicing medicine without knowing astrology. 

Using Forman's casebooks, Kassell assesses his medical practice in part 3. Kassell focuses on Forman's use of astrology to establish authority, particularly over women (60 percent of his patients). Another book review of _Medicine and Magic_ argues that "Forman's fixation on power relationships and his attitude toward women ... [makes it] impossible to evaluate Forman's career without considering his incessant preying on women."[2] Kassell's avoidance of Forman's philandering is actually more effective, focusing on Forman's professional life and his patients rather than on the salacious details of his private life. These female patients were not "preyed upon," but extremely active in their decision-making, as Kassell demonstrates. Kassell also clearly indicates how Forman's misogynistic ideas shaped women's medical treatment. Forman distrusted women and, immediately upon consultation, he cast their horoscopes to determine the truth; only an astrologer, therefore, "was fully equipped to understand women" (p. 161). It was necessary to reveal the hidden in order to find answers--a process at the heart of astrology and medicine. The process of uncovering truth established Forman's expertise and encouraged patients to be open with him as there were no more secrets. 

In part 4, Kassell reconstructs Forman's world view and its influence on his use of remedies, connecting his magical and alchemical activities and his medical ideas. His magical remedies were diverse, including remedies that were Paracelsian, ancient and modern, and Jewish, Arabic and Christian. For example, Forman used antimony ("cako," as he called it)--a remedy hotly debated between Paracelsians and Galenists--for both alchemy and medicine. Forman even called spirits (preferably angelic, but sometimes demonic) to obtain alchemical and medical knowledge.

Through his practice of "astromagic," Forman brought together the microcosm (the patient) and the macrocosm (the secrets of the universe).

Whatever his aspirations about being a magus, Forman was a practical man who needed to make a medical living, and his research into the occult ultimately aided his medical practice. 

Overall, this is an excellent, well-researched book about an interesting man, his scientific and magical investigations, and his medical practice. However, Kassell's discussions of social status, gender, and religion could be strengthened. First, by reading between the lines of the casebooks for a more extensive consideration of patients' social status, Kassell might further her analysis of Forman's authority.

Chapters 1 and 4 refer to Forman's connection to an Oxford group interested in alchemy and astrology, and to the patronage networks that protected Forman from the College, which raises the question of the influence that such people might have had on Forman's career. He may have been a "creature of the city, not the court," but Forman certainly had some very high and mighty patients, as his later implication in the Overbury trial emphasizes; at one point, he even hoped to attract the Queen's patronage (p. 12). Patronage from a core group of patients could have been integral not only to building his career, but to his establishment of authority.[3] 

It is understandable why Kassell concentrated on Forman's relationship with female patients and her portrayal of the practitioner-patient relationship is fundamentally persuasive. However, her analysis of "gender," as specified in the chapter title, "Gender, Authority, and Astrology," is misleading. She only examines women, not gender issues in relation to male patients (still a substantial part of his practice) or Forman. Kassell justifies this because Forman "did not display an interest in conditions specific to men" (p. 166). Gender, however, is not merely a question of sex-specific diseases. Rather, Kassell might have looked at the workings of gender more broadly, such as the extent to which Forman treated his male and female patients differently when it came to non-sex specific diseases. Indeed, even looking at sex-specific ailments is not necessarily clear cut. As other historians have shown, menstruation was not seen as specifically female in pre-modern Europe.[4] Identifying medical treatments as gendered is problematic if men have not been examined alongside women. 

Finally, Kassell dismisses the importance of religion to Forman's magical and medical enterprises, despite repeated returns to the subject under other rubrics. Forman, she suggests, "was curiously, and perhaps prudently, almost silent on the subject of religion" (p. 11). However, throughout the book, she refers to several of Forman's unpublished writings about religion. Forman may not have spoken publicly about his religious ideas, but they certainly formed an important component of his medical and magical practices. For example, relatively little of the chapter "Plague and Paracelsianism" is about Paracelsianism, while much of the chapter considers Forman's use of religious ideas to justify his authority. Forman's religious ideas are central to the chapter, "The Food of Angels," in which Kassell examines Forman's transcription of the _Life of Adam and Eve_ (1599) from a medical perspective. The transcribed text, however, also explored several religious themes that reappeared elsewhere in his manuscripts: the composition of body, soul and spirit and the relationships between "man, the cosmos, medicine and disease" (p. 208). Although Kassell has overlooked the role played by religion in Forman's work, the true strength of her book is the way in which this constant slippage between medicine, magic, and religion can be seen in Forman's ideas and practices 

This book can be situated within the histories of London, religion, medicine, science, and magic and incorporates different approaches (intellectual, cultural, biography). In particular, it is an exciting microhistory of one man's understanding of the cosmos. Historians have questioned how typical were the ideas and reading style of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century miller of Friuli who was tried for heresy because of his distinctive and vocal interpretations of books.[5] As Forman's reading habits and world view reveal, the miller's creative ways of looking at the world were perhaps not so unusual. Both men took ideas from many different sources and combined them in personally meaningful ways.[6]. However, this book is not only a story about Forman as a unique man. It is also about the continued existence of the magical world for Londoners--a group supposedly more educated and likely to reject superstition. The popularity of Forman's practice demonstrates that his skills were thought to be useful to a wide range of patients.

In this book, Kassell successfully responds to Keith Thomas's argument that English people's belief in the magical world declined after the Reformation.[7] Kassell reveals both the long-standing continuity of the magical world in post-Reformation London and the practical applications of those ideas. For practitioner and patient alike, medicine, magic, and religion--the natural and the supernatural--could not be separated.

Whatever Protestantism's official rejection of the magical world, it was thriving in Elizabethan London. 


[1]. On Forman, see also Barbara Traister, _The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001) [see Louise Hill Curth, "Review of Barbara Howard Traister, _The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman_," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, August, 2002 (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=25701046648682)]; Judith Cook, _Dr Simon Foreman: A Most Notorious Physician (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001); and A. L. Rowse, _Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age_ (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1974). For recent accounts on the Overbury Affair, see Alaistair Bellany, _The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) [see David Underdown, "Review of Alastair Bellany, _The Politics of Court

Scandal: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660_," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, May, 2002 (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=265621024068269)]; and David Lindley, _The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[2]. Mordechai Feingold, "A Conjurer and a Quack? The Lives of John Dee and Simon Forman," _Huntington Library Quarterly_ 68 (2005): p. 550.
[3]. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated the importance of patronage to the development of a practitioner's career. Many others have discussed the importance of a practitioner's reputation amongst patients in furthering his practice. Cf. Margaret Pelling, _Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians, and Irregular Practitioners, 1550-1640_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) [see Lisa Wynne Smith, "Review of Margaret Pelling (with Frances White), _Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians, and Irregular Practitioners, 1550-1640_," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, November, 2004, (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=142721106927101)]; Joan Lane, "'The doctor scolds me': The Diaries and Correspondence of Patients in Eighteenth-Century England," in _Patients and Practitioners:
Lay Perceptions of Medicine in Pre-Industrial Society_, ed. Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and Nicholas Jewson, "Medical Knowledge and the Patronage System in Eighteenth-Century England," _Sociology_ 12 (1974).
[4]. John Beusterien, "Jewish Male Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century Spain," _Bulletin of the History of Medicine_ 73 (1999); and Gianna Pomata, "Menstruating Men: Similarity and Difference of the Sexes in Early Modern Medicine," in _Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity to Early Modern Europe_, ed. Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee (London: Duke University, 2001).
[5]. Carlo Ginzburg, _The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller_, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).
[6]. On the reception of texts and ideas, see Roger Chartier, _The Order of Books: Readers, Authors and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and the Eighteenth Centuries_, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane
Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994); and Robert Darnton, _The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History_ (New York: Basic Books, 1984).
[7]. Keith Thomas, _Religion and the Decline of Magic_ (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1973). 

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