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It seems like every few decades there is a mainstream revival for the occult and esoteric. Not that it ever fades away, but there is a periodic surge in fascination with the unknowable, the rites, rituals, and art that make up its history.
Last year, the publisher Thames & Hudson relaunched their Art & Imagination series, which has art-heavy mini-explorations of everything from alchemy to Celtic mysteries, with a punchy new colorful look from graphic design firm Barnbrook, starting with Sacred Tibet, Atlantis, Tantra, and The Temple. Now this month they’ve re-released Angels by Peter Lamborn Wilson and Books of the Dead by Stanislav Grof. The Art & Imagination series started in the 1970s, when the interest in the esoteric and the occult was high, a curiosity that seems to again be emerging (compare the 1972 “Occult Revival” cover of Time magazine with Newsweek’s recent “Hexing & Texting” article).
Both the book focused on angelic entities and the one on the afterlife give a wide lens to the esoteric from ancient beliefs all the way to modern interpretations. Grof, a psychiatrists interested in “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” jumps right into our current state with the esoteric in his introduction:
“One of the major tolls modern humanity has had to pay for the rapid technological development following the scientific and industrial revolutions is a progressive alienation from our biological nature and loss of connection with the spiritual source.”
Luckily, for those who are curious, there are guides back in the form of the long tradition of Books of the Dead that center on the journey into the underworld or some form of the great beyond, this idea of experiencing “dying before dying.” The Art & Imagination books have been updated with new images, some rarely printed, although it’s really the text that is interesting as Wilson gives his studious chronology with heavy tinges of religion and Grof with his interest in how out of everyday consciousness, aka tripped out, those looking at the world of death were. For example, he compares a psychedelic 20th century painting of a tree and flower feeding off a corse beneath the Earth to a similar image of the Egyptian god Osiris sprouting his own arbor. In this way, he looks at the books as, academically, “accurate descriptions of the experiential territories traversed in non-ordinary states of consciousness.”
The angels book is a little less hallucinatory, intrested more in how “man has always been visited by ethereal messengers,” and not just in the Biblical way. As Wilson writes:
“Most westerners when they hear the word ‘angel,’ think of Christianity; many assume that only Christianity and Judaism demand belief in such creatures, and that only Christian artists have depicted them, since Jewish law forbids all such representations. That is simply not so.”
He then tracks through myths, the visions of shamans (okay, he’s a little into altered states of mind, too), Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, gods that manifest like birds, and birds that are spiritual beings such as Raven in the tribal tradition of the Pacific Northwest.
Both of the books are very much introductions to their subjects, although with enough information to entice you to delve further (perhaps with some hallucinogens). They’re a bit like Eyewitness Guides for adults with their images and wide geographical focus, and as again the undercurrent of the occult in culture ripples back to the surface of our collective consciousness, it might be good to brush up on your underworlds, angels, and alchemy.
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