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Review of Walter Burkert's Greek Religion:  Archaic and Classical

Reading is my passion.  Here's a running list of what I've been reading lately.

I have always been an avid reader.  Starting in 2017, I stepped up the pace of my reading, engaging in serious scholarship on the subjects of mythology, antiquity, and depth psychology.  So that I might better retain what I read, I have resolved to prepare a short summary of each book after I finish reading it.  It is a challenging goal and I don't always achieve my aims but it is nonetheless a worthy goal to which I still aspire.  As of 2021, new book reports are added in the Blog: Thoughts & Reflections of this website.

Genesis Flashcards

January 01, 2020

This is a great way to test your knowledge or learn more about what's really in the book of Genesis.  The questions are taken from The Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter

The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis and Benjamin Wolkow

December 01, 2018

The Orphic Hymns were part of the rituals of the Greek mystery religions.  A separate poem is dedicated to each god to whom prayers and propitiation were offered.  The best part of this book was the commentary and notes in the end where the authors provided lots of information and background on each mythological figure.

The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art, and Architecture by Gyorgy Doczi

November 01, 2018

This is a fantastic book, tying together geometric concepts with philosophy, social ideology, and aesthetics.  One of the most inspired sources on Sacred Geometry I have discovered.

Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

September 01, 2018

This book report is in 4 separate parts due to size constraints on the website.

Chartres and the Birth of the Cathedral, Titus Burckhardt

September 12, 2018

An interesting book describing the relationship of Gothic architecture and Neoplatonism

The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy by Algis Uždavinys, 2004

August 01, 2018

My scholarly intention is eventually to unite key themes within Platonic philosophy, Pythagorean thinking, Mythology, and Sacred Geometry.  As one of the first steps in that process, I have completed this summary of the book "Golden Chain" by Lithuanian philosopher, Algis Uždavinys.  In this book, Mr. Uždavinys offers a viewpoint on Platonism that emphasizes that components that are consonant with mysticism and sacred rites.  He provides many specific references from Platonist philosophers throughout the ages that support these ideas.   This was an excellent way for me to quickly understand key concepts and position me to be able to explain it to others.

Time Stands Still: New Light on Megalithic Science

May 18, 2018

This book by eminent British geometer, Keith Critchlow, discusses the ancient megaliths of Britain in the context of Platonism and sacred geometry.  Mr. Critchlow is a passionate exponent of the subject and renders many deep and complicated topics in an accessible fashion.  A full book report summary is available in PDF format in the link below.

Genesis, Translation and Commentary, by Robert Alter, 1997

April 24, 2018

The first book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Genesis, is a fascinating mythpoetic journey into the psychological and spiritual mind of the ancient Hebrew people.  The stories are deep and complex, offering invaluable instruction on life's  triumphs and disappointments.  Robert Alter's translation and commentary is approachable and excellent.  He breaks down the book, passage by passage, offering insightful commentary on many relevant details and ultimately, helping the reader to understand the text even more deeply.

Instead of a book report, in this case, I have prepared a set of Genesis Flashcards.  Each flashcard effectively summarizes a key tidbit from the book of Genesis.

The Hidden Geometry of Flowers: Living Rhythms, Form and Number, by Keith Critchlow, 2014

April 16, 2018

This fantastic book is by the eminent geometer, Keith Critchlow.  It is what you might call a practical application of sacred geometry, applying geometrical analysis and philosophy to the analysis of flowers and plants.  One gets a real sense for the thought of Keith Critchlow, down to his Platonic and Pythagorean roots.  I was absolutely enthralled reading this book.

The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer, 1963

February 01, 2018

This book was written in by noted Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer.  I have completed a comprehensive summary and review of the book in a PDF powerpoint presentation attached.  It was the basis for a recent presentation on my work, Hieratica, and the mythology of the ancient Sumerians at the Petaluma Historical Museum during the series on "Women and the Search for Wisdom" featured Sunday Salon during Women's History Month series.

Women and Power, A Manifesto; by Mary Beard, 2017

January 03, 2018

Mary Beard is an esteemed British historian who specializes in Antiquity.  I read her book on Rome, SPQR, about a year ago and enjoyed it thoroughly.  The author has a droll sense of humor and utilizes an approach to history not solely focused on kings and war.  She gives many interesting tidbits on what it must have been like to live in ancient Rome, from their graffiti, to their bawdy jokes.  She sheds light on antiquity in a highly entertaining and readable style.  After this book, I came to greatly admire Mary Beard as a personality, speaker, and author.

Which is why I jumped when I saw that she had recently published a short monograph on "Women & Power".  On the good side, fortunately, this book is short, so I was over and done with it quickly.  On the bad side, it was largely boring and irrelevant.  She discusses how throughout history it has been anathema for women to speak in public forums.  She bounces back and forth between Greek and Roman mythology and more modern figures in the public eye.  She compares the pants suits of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.  She also discusses certain abuses and insults she herself has suffered for publicly speaking her mind on certain issues.  While I still admire Mary Beard, this short volume of her work is really not worth it.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt, 2017

January 02, 2018

An interesting overview of the shifting views on the myth of Adam and Eve across time.  Book Report pending.

Paradise Lost: The Novel, by Joseph Lanzara, 1994

December 28, 2017

I knew that in reading Adam Greenblatt's book on the Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, that he would refer at length to the work and life of John Milton and his life masterpiece, the epic poem, Paradise Lost.  Since I had never before read Milton's great work, before listening to an expert's interpretation of the piece, I thought it might be instructive to read the poem itself.  Knowing that the arcane language would make understanding the original poem quite difficult, I identified a book that "novelized" the poem for the benefit of modern comprehension.  The book is not published by a large press, and seems almost homemade in a way.  Very little can be learned about its author online.  That said, the author of this book has done an excellent job of taking the difficult-to-understand language of Paradise Lost and translating it into a narrative format that can be easily comprehended by the modern mind.  

The poem contains amazingly delightful imagery.  One is treated to the gleaming throne of God surrounded by the heavenly angels, down to the burning pits of Hell, Lucifer and his bunch of dark fallen angels.  One also gets a glimpse into Adam and Eve's relationship, the sweet companionship they experienced, and how they cleaved together in times of trouble.  This marks a change in the depiction of Eve in literature, focusing less on her her sin and guilt, and instead focusing on her marriage and her relationship with her husband.  For anyone desiring to get a quick overview of Milton's Paradise Lost without having to suffer too much, I would highly recommend this book as an easy path into the work.

Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, by J. Philip Newell, 1997

January 01, 2018

This book describes the development of Celtic Christianity, starting with the great Irish monk, Pelagius into the modern day offshoots of Celtic Christianity.  It offers a simple, thorough and fascinating synopsis of this delightful offshoot of Christianity.  I had thought from the title of the book that it was a spiritual guide;  it is not.  It is more of a history book than a spiritual guide.

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1993

December 08, 2017

Sometimes, I just want to read some fiction and take it easy in my reading goals for a while.  I never did read this book when it first came out back in 1993 so, given a quickening interest in the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail,  I decided finally to read it.  The book is exceptionally well-written and easily draws the reader in to a very fascinating fantasy tale.  It retells the story of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from a re-imagined female perspective.  Although it is fiction, one does learn more about the historic confrontation between Christianity and "paganism" that emerged in Britain in around the 5th century, when Roman influence was waning and other groups of people struggled for power and dominance.  The local Britons allied themselves with the Church as well as the Pagans, fighting against the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons.  However, it depicts Christian orthodoxy in conflict with the more nature-oriented Pagan religions that permitted women to serve as revered priestesses and figures of wisdom.  

The Grail Legend, by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, 1960

December 03, 2017

Karl Jung's wife and devoted student, Marie Louise von Franz, collaborated in producing this book that fully explores the archetypes depicted in legends of the Holy Grail.  Although it is by no means a simple book, one gains a perspective on what are the most important archetypes found in these ancient legends and starts to understand why the legends might have gripped people's imagination for so many years.  One also gets a good sense for how a Jungian thinks and how their fundamental ideas are applied to analyzing psychology and literature.

There is a well-known therapeutic value to myths and fairy-tales.  As the psyche grapples with certain symbols and narrative elements, one can be transformed in a way.  Some of the dominant archetypes elucidated and explored are:  the wounded king, the grail vessel, blood, the lance, the sword, the plate, the table, the ideal woman, the process of maturation, leaving one's mother, the magician, and the trinity.

The main character, Parsifal, when first confronted with the Grail cup, fails to ask the all-important question of what the grail cup means.  Silly Parsifal!  All this leads him to go on a grand quest for this knowledge --  the idea of the quest is ultimately a quest for the self which is a quest for finding divine peace within and achieving wholeness and fulfillment in life.  The legend of the grail arose at a time when civilization was struggling to internalize Christian thinking.  The legend played a key role in deepening the symbols and archetypes used to build an understanding of the religion.

The Lost Masters: Rediscovering the Mysticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers, by Linda Johnsen, 2006

November 11, 2017

I wanted to get an overview of Ancient Greek philosophers with mystical roots without having to wade through tome after tome of dense and archaic writing or spending inordinate amounts of time reading.    I chose to read Lost Masters by Linda Johnsen as a means of achieving this goal.  This book is by no means a scholarly book.  However, that does not mean that the author has not done her homework in establishing the intellectuals foundations for the book.  She lays out the key thoughts of many of the ancient mystical philosophers, offering up ditties and anecdotes in a very concise and readable way.  I can easily refer back to the PDF outline attached to jog my memory on any given thinker.

A History of Christianity, by Paul Johnson, 1975

November 09, 2017

\A comprehensive overview of the history of Christianity, from the apostle Paul, to monasticism, and missionary work throughout the world.  By noted British historian, Paul Johnson. 

How the World is Made: The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry by John Michell with Allan Brown

November 01, 2017

In the old Greek mystery schools, nous (meaning "divine intelligence") was achieved through long disciplined studies in number, music, and geometry.  The discernment of heavenly patterns was thought to reveal the very nature of divine intelligence.  In the tradition of our ancient ancestors, the author of this book is a geometer of the sacred variety.  He reinserts joy and spirituality into mathematics.  He has taken out his compass and pencil and rolled up his shirtsleeves and drawn pictures of geometric shapes and patterns.  Through these graphic representations, he helps the reader understand and better appreciate the power of number and geometry at the basis of the universe.  Michell understands firsthand the principles of geometry and what geometry reveals to us about the order of creation.  He deeply appreciates the interactions of each of the numbers within the decad and which geometric shapes are associated with those numbers:  we think deeply about the triangle, the square, the pentagon, the hexagon, etc., and how each of these numbers shows us something different about the way in which nature and being have constructed a universe.  He has a hands-on grasp of the fundamental geometric patterns we see in the world around us, the sacred principles of number that are embedded within each of us.  If we quiet our minds, the disciplines of mathematics will reveal to us the beauty of the universe.   Observation of the deep truths embedded in number reveals to us the nature of the cosmic order.


In the beginning of this book, Michell discusses "gematria", assigning number values to letters and in turn associating a certain number with a word, giving way to such obsessions as those obsessed with the number 5040.  The book was borderline weird at times, with such things as descriptions of gematria,  geometric plans for a New Jerusalem, worship of the number 5040, etc.  But when he comes to reciting the principles of the beautiful dodecad, (the first 12 numbers) the  book really started to take off.  


The author describes how the building blocks of creation are small triangles joining with others to make big ones.  From scalene triangles are formed the tetrahedron, the octahedron, the icosahedron, and of an isoceles in the cube.  He builds our feeling for the numbers of the dodecad, starting with the Monad, the One, the whole entire thing in all its glory and contradiction.  He then proceeds to Two and Duality, Three, the triangle and the Vesica Piscis. Square root of 2 and Square root of 3 are revealed as things of extreme beauty and guiding principles of the universe.  He helps the reader really get a feel for the square root of 2 by describing the ancient philosophical problem of doubling the area of a square and how this problems leads to discovering the square root of 2.   Then we are led to the beautiful, packable, tesselateable hexagon.  Followed by an excursion into the world of the octagon, with its emphasis on balance and justice.  Finally comes the majestic twelve, as well as the Pentagon and its symbolism of life, the golden section and phi, spirals, pentagonal geometry and pentagonal dances.  The book ends with the myth of Atlantis, a metaphor for the consequences of not properly following divine principles of balance and geometric truth.

Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and His Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

November 10, 2017

A great overview of what we know about the life of Pythagoras as well as the origins and development of Pythagoreanism from antiquity up until the Renaissance.  I have prepared a detailed summary of the outline of the book in a PDF file attached.

Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by Carl Gustav Jung (Audio Book)

October 08, 2017

Carl Jung was one of the 20th century's most influential people.  Given the volume and complexity of his body of work, it would be almost impossible in a very short time to understand what he was all about.  Upon recommendation from a friend, however, I decided that a good way to acquaint myself with thought was to read his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.  I really got the sense after reading this book that I understood what Jung went through in his life and what were the key influences on his thinking.  One sees his unique eccentricity as a child and where that eccentricity developed as he got older.  Not only did he become a successful psychiatrist, but he fully explored his own personal workings, actively engaging in a creative process in order to better understand his own unconscious mind.  Any future books that I read about Jung will be more understandable as a result of hearing firsthand about his life experience.

Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by Marie-Louise von Franz

September 14, 2017

Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by Marie-Louise von Franz, 1980


In the last years of his life, Carl Jung immersed himself in the subject of alchemy, unearthing from ancient and medieval texts many psychological lessons and symbols pertinent to depth psychology.  Marie-Louise von Franz, the author of this book, was a good friend and associate of the great Carl Gustav Jung.  This book is a transcription of 9 lectures on the subject of Alchemy that Ms. Von Franz gave in 1959 at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich.  Although the subject is complex and downright confusing at times, my persistence paid off and by the end of this book, things were actually starting to click for me in terms of gaining an understanding of psychological alchemy.  One is exposed to the basic concepts of individuation and active imagination so important in Jung’s work. 


Synopsis:  Humanity’s search for the Soul is really a search for divinity and immortality, how to transform mere dark matter into gold, how to distill the incorruptible essence from life.  The alchemical process starts with nigredo, with a deep dive into the dark, into the unconscious mind.  The unconscious mind speaks in symbols and paradox.  It is “irrational” but not without structure and balance.  One sits with the nigredo, listening quietly and attentively in the darkness.  One then applies the fire to the matter, to the prima materia. This phase of the process is the albedo, the whitening, when dark matter turns to white ashes, where the corruptible is burned off.  As the blackness turns to white, spirit is extracted. Then comes the citrinitas, where golden light spreads itself over the matter.  The incorruptible essence of the matter coagulates and is distilled back into matter.  The unconscious is integrated with the conscious mind and spirit falls back into matter. Only now, the matter is incorruptible and pure.  This phase is called the rubedo or reddening.  One might call this the Philosopher’s Stone, that state of mind whereby one achieves peace and immortality, where one has discovered the true Self or the Soul.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr

September 08, 2017

Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, 2011


Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and ecumenical teacher in Christian mysticism.  He is the head of the Center for Action and Contemplation headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His book, Falling Upward, is both inspiring and healing.  Brother Rohr is fully steeped in the basic concepts of depth psychology and mythology and brings them to life in this book.  He talks about the journey of self-acceptance that comes as part of ageing and achieving true wisdom and maturity.  He quotes a friend saying “God comes to you disguised as your life.”  To know yourself fully and deeply, then, is to know God. 


One is freed in one’s later years from the striving and building of youth.  One feels the sadness and the disappointments of life, and in the face of the absurdity and the deep sadness one feels, ironically, one is pulled back into the dance of life, dancing with deep gratitude for what has been given.  One strikes out on one’s own, deeply content in one’s inner self, sometimes having to leave family and friends behind in the process.  The notion is that the sadness and the darkness must not be avoided but fully integrated into one’s soul.  He quotes Julian of Norwich in saying “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.  Both are the mercy of God.”

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles H. Kahn

September 01, 2017

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans:  A Brief History, by Charles H. Kahn, 2001


Although this book is short (172 pages), it is dense and jam-packed with essential information about the philosophy and impact of the ancient philosopher, Pythagoras. Pythagoras lived in the 6th century BCE but the impact of his ideas was felt for 1,000 years after his death, vivified in particular by his influence on Plato.  In this book, Kahn follows Pythagorean philosophy throughout history, explaining how it changed and grew across time.


Although Pythagoras is known for his famous theorem about the length of the sides of a right triangle, Pythagoras himself was more of a religious and cultural leader than a real mathematician.  His followers can be divided into two categories:  the more mystical school or akousmatikoi and the mathematical school, the mathematikoi.   This book explains the impact of Pythagoras on both schools.


Pythagoras described the cosmos as an ordered whole, divining the importance of numbers as manifestations of the eternal mind and evidence of divine order.  Pythagoras also had a great influence on music, looking for numerical ratios of harmoniai of numbers.

I have prepared a detailed summary outline of the book in the PDF attached.

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number, by Mario Livio

August 28, 2017

This is a book on the beautiful number "phi" (.618 or 1.618), often referred to as "the divine proportion" or "the golden number".  It is written by a mathematician and provides a good general overview of Phi, how it is found in art, architecture, philosophy, cosmology, and mathematics.  It does not indulge in cosmic mystification of the number, desperately banging on everything trying to find phi, but adheres to a more rational and scientific approach.  As such, I really appreciated this book since I didn't have to wade through a lot of woo-woo cosmology in order to arrive at the true beauty of this fantastic number.  

One is exposed to phi in the Platonic solids, the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Spiral, geometric truths, and musical applications.  There is infinite fodder here for growth but this is a good beginning.

I have prepared a more detailed summary of the book in the PDF attached.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

June 16, 2017

Diarmaid MacCulloch's book on Christianity is a 1200 page book.  I have made it through the first 800 pages, the sections of the book that I was most interested in.  As one can tell from the title of the book, the author digs into Christianity's deep past, exploring both its Greek and Hebrew roots.  It is a comprehensive and detailed report on the history of Christianity around the world.   An incomplete draft summary is attached.

A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, Hal Taussig

July 03, 2017

In 1945, a series of ancient Christian texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert.  These were texts that had been excluded from the official canon ordained by the Catholic Church in the 4th century.  The church had its own reasons for excluding certain texts from the official canon -- it had to focus on its own institutional preservation and building its power.  The way the church did that was to 1) create a hierarchical order of priests and bishops, all of whom were men 2) reserve the power of administering the sacraments exclusively to these men, 3) narrow down the discussion of ideas and supplant it with simple creeds that might appeal to an unknowing and unschooled populace.  The texts found in the desert at Nag Hammadi, sometimes referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, posed a challenge to those old patriarchs.  These texts spoke about the truth lying within, as opposed to something which is given to you by experts or priests.  The texts fall within a tradition of speaking of deeper embodied truths about immortality and the human capacity to experience the divine directly.

It is only recently that the fruit of scholars' grappling with the texts that we can start to understand their importance and the lessons about Christianity contained within.  A group of experts and scholars was assembled to put together a new definitive version of the Christian Bible which includes these important gnostic texts.  This book is a compendium of what these scholars agreed should be included as a new canon.

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, by Thomas Cahill (audiobook)

June 09, 2017

Thomas Cahill -- yum yum eat 'em up.  All of his work is delicious and fun to read.  I listened to this book as an audio book.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, by Thomas Cahill

June 01, 2017

I read three Thomas Cahill books in rapid succession, unable to stop reading until I had zealously devoured all three.  In this book, Cahill does a broad survey on personalities of interest from the time of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation.  Cahill’s interest in art, theology, and philosophy makes us kindred spirits as I really loved being exposed to all the topics Cahill highlighted in this book.


It is difficult from our standpoint in the modern world to truly understand the wide-ranging impact of the Black Death of 1347 on European history.  Cahill starts this book by putting into context this important event.  One unintended side effect was the demise of serfdom in Europe as a system of labor.  After the plague had decimated towns and villages, killing off nearly half of the population of Europe, there was plenty of work to be done and very few workers to do it.  As such, the workers commanded a new power and the social structure of Europe started to change, never to return to the former economic system of labor.


Cahill scans a variety of fascinating topics, including a dip into Bocaccio’s rollicking Decameron, written in 1353, early church reformers such as John Ball, and the incredibly important impacts of things like the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press and Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World.  One learns of the rise of humanism, starting with Petrarch, and continuing on to the rise of Lorenzo the Magnificent, famous de Medici and his support of the arts.   Cahill leads us into the artistic world of the Renaissance, where new artistic heights were achieved through the work of such great masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio.  Then along comes that son of a bitch Savanarola, who, like a Jim Bakker or a Jerry Falwell, briefly gains power but in the end is brought down to the size in the end, hoisted, so to speak, on his own petard, a modern Joseph McCarthy. 


One learns more about Martin Luther, who stood firm in challenging the power of the church and reclaimed the right for anyone to read and interpret the bible, wresting it from the hands of the select few in the church hierarchy.  The Renaissance and the Reformation also brought with it such fascinating figures as Erasmus, Thomas More, Rabelais, St. Ignatius Loyola, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art, by Thomas Cahill

May 29, 2017

This book starts in the ancient Hellenistic city of Alexandria in 300 BCE, when this great city became the City of Light, cultural seat of so much learning and intellectual achievement.  Alexandria was the nerve center for philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, literature and dozens of other scholarly pursuits.  It contained the famous Library of Alexandria, said to house all the works that had ever been written up to that time.  We hear tell of many great Alexandrian thinkers including Euclid, Eratosthenes, and Aristarchus.    

Alexandria was a city where Jews were an important part of social and cultural life.  One sees in Alexandria the merging and melding of Hellenic and Hebrew cultures.  The first Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, eventually found its way into the great Library of Alexandria.  The great Jewish philosopher Philo dedicated himself to translating and making acceptable the Hebrew scriptures for the Greek palate.  Because he made the Hebrew roots of Christianity palatable for the Greek-dominated world, Philo, to some extent, became the honorary “father of the church”.

The Greek polis was a social structure that fostered some of the greatest intellectual achievements ever seen by mankind.  One learns about various strains of thought that influenced early Christianity, including excursions into Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Arius.  Origen was a deep theological thinker for Christianity but scorned the Gnostics.  Arius proposed that Christ was less than god and got himself into exile and a lot of trouble with his thinking.  After much hair-splitting over the nature of Christ and divinity, the bishop Athanasius finally settled on the idea of homoousios patri, that Christ was the same substance as the Father, becoming the enduring formula for Christian orthodoxy.  One eventually meets Augustine of Hippo and a division of the church into Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic church. 


Science and philosophy were lost and literacy itself was in danger of extinction with the barbarian onslaught that altered the ancient world starting with the decline of the Roman empire in the 5th century. Gregory the Great who was seen as one of the most humane popes that ever existed, with his openness to the barbarians.  The church and its bishops eventually had to come to terms with the barbarians.  By the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century, the former Roman empire was reconstituted as the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne crowned emperor of the west.


In the 12th century, one meets the fantastic Hildegard of Bingen , an early monastic, whose imagination and talent were astounding and who challenged the church hierarchy in order to maintain her own religious and artistic freedom.   One meets her supporter, Bernard of Clairvaux.  One learns of the rise of the cult of the virgin and the glorification of virginity as a part of religious purity.


Finally, in the journey through this book, one encounters the fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine and medieval alchemists.






The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault (audiobook)

May 19, 2017

Renowned scholar in the subject of Mary Magdalene debunks many myths and misunderstandings about the true role of Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus' most important apostles.  One is offered the chance to explore deeply the meaning of the story of Mary Magdalene, her unflinching devotion to Jesus and her strength and courage.  

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup

April 24, 2017

Jean-Yves Leloup waxes lyrical about the lessons contained in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  Really beautiful writing.

Beyond Belief, The Secret Gospel of Thomas, by Elaine Pagels

April 17, 2017

Elaine Pagels is a foremost authority in scholarship on the Gnostic Gospels.  This is a great introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, which reveals many alternative views on Jesus' teachings.

The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels

January 01, 2020

A great introduction to the subject of the meaning of the Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, one of the most renowned scholars and experts on this subject.

The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, by Francis Weller

April 03, 2017

Francis Weller is a psychologist, a spiritual leader, a mythologist, a Jungian.  He is a deep thinker with a compassionate soul who helps the reader understand that dealing with grief and darkness has an important place in personal satisfaction and well-being.  He suggests that we have lost the community rituals that would allow us to openly share our grief within our communities and find ways of adequately dealing with sorrow.  His writing is lyrical and inspired.  I think so much of this book that I have recommended it to many people to read.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

April 06, 2017

The Norse myths, face it, are some of the coolest myths I have encountered yet.  Starting with Ygdrassil, the tree of life, which supports the kingdoms of the gods, up to Odin, the one-eyed king who gave up his eye to gain wisdom, these stories are excellent.  One comes to love the quirky cast of characters in the pantheon of the Norse gods.

This Kindle book comes with the audio add-on narrative so I found it wonderful to go to sleep listening to these fantastic stories.

A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe by Michael S. Schneider

September 14, 2017

Michael Schneider is an educator in the field of mathematics and an inspired teacher.  He makes tangible an understanding of the beauty of geometry and the deep lessons that geometry holds about the way our world is constructed.  When I first read this book, I could not put it down.  I knew that I had found a topic that I would go much deeper into and I bought a few good geometry compasses and started down a pathway of learning more about sacred geometry.  

This book offers a great simple overview of the topic, touching on most of the main topics at the beginner's level in sacred geometry.  I really admire Schneider's communication style.  It is straightforward and open.   I owe him a debt of gratitude for having exposed me to this rich area of interest.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

March 20, 2017

Mary Beard is a British classicist with a great sense of humor and a wonderful way of telling a story.  I have thoroughly enjoyed her books, including this short tome on Ancient Rome.  

Alchemy and Mysticism, by Alexander Roob

March 07, 2017

This book is a thick volume filled with many pictures related to the field of Alchemy throughout the ages.  What writing there is is almost impossible to understand, as is much alchemical writing.  The main value of the book is in the assemblage of pictures and images contained therein.

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind, by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

March 03, 2017

If only I have could have lived in Alexandria and had the opportunity to go into the Great Library to read from the ancient scrolls!  This book is an eminently readable book describing the history and culture of Ancient Alexandria.  One is exposed to Alexandria as a seat of great learning, a great ancient city, where Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews came together to create a learned and highly cultured society.  One is exposed to the story of Hypatia, female philosopher and scientist from Alexander, who met a violent end when the early Christian patriarchs decided to expunge and destroy all "Pagan" learning.

Man and His Symbols, Carl G. Jung and M.-L von Franz, Joseph Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, Aniela Jaffé

March 01, 2017

This book was assembled rather late in Carl Jung’s career and was actually written in English.  He had been persuaded to lay out some of his most important ideas in language and at a length that would be intelligible to non-specialist readers.  Jung himself contributed only one chapter out of five in the book.  He collaborated with a group of his closest followers, including Marie Louise von Franz, to assemble it.


Described in the book are such basic concepts in Jungian thought as individuation, the unconscious, concepts of anima and animus, the shadow, and the transcendent function of the psyche.  Individuation is described as a process of completeness that is achieved through a union of the conscious and unconscious mind.  This is what is known as the “transcendent function” of the psyche.  


Dream images and symbolism are the key ways that the unconscious mind communicates its content to the conscious mind, receiving important messages from the unconscious.  To ignore the unconscious mind is to lose those aboriginal and archaic connections and symbols that have the ability to convey profound emotional energy to the psyche.  Only when one listens attentively to these messages from the unconsciousness can man achievement his highest goal, the realization of the potential of his individual self.  On the path to individuation, one must approach this darkness or “shadow” carefully to find out what it wants.


The Self is the totality of the whole psyche.  The Greeks called it the daimon, the ancient Egyptians the Ba, and the Romans the genius.  Whatever name it is known by, human subjective experience often conveys the feeling that some supra-personal force is actively interfering in a powerful and creative way. 


Man has a symbol-making propensity and expresses this in his religion and visual art.  One of the symbols that is elucidated is the symbol of the stone.  A stone symbolizes what is the simplest and deepest experience - the experience of something eternal that man can have in those moments where he feels immortal and unalterable.  This is where we find in Jung’s thinking a connection to the symbols of alchemy, whereby the alchemical stone is thought of as something that can never be lost of dissolved - something eternal within one’s soul.  Psychologically interpreted, the alchemical concept of the spirit in matter is the unconscious, which manifests itself when rational knowledge has reached its limits.


Jung also emphasizes the image of a mandala, which is used in many cultures as a symbolic representation of the self.  Wholeness is often most represented in circular forms.  The circular mandala symbolizes the harmonious and balanced relationship with the self.   As an aside, there is often an unconscious tendency to round out the trinitarian formula of the Godhead with a fourth element, which tends to be feminine and dark, even evil.

The Magic Mirror: Myth's Abiding Power, by Elizabeth Baeten

February 28, 2017

Elizabeth Baeten, the author of this book, is an academic philosopher.  The book is extremely academic, and as such, I did not find it at all helpful personally.  It was difficult to understand, but I managed to slog through the whole thing nonetheless.  The author compares the thinking of four key people that have put forth theories of myth -- Cassirer, Barthes, Eliade, and Hillman.  If you work hard and concentrate, you can learn more about how these thinkers viewed myth.  Cassirer and Barthes held rather negative views of myth while Eliade and Hillman discussed the important social and psychological role played by myth.

The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire (Introduced and Edited by Thomas Moore)

February 27, 2017

James Hillman is an extremely creative and often iconoclastic thinker, in my view.  I read this book because I wanted some exposure to this very important Jungian thinker.  This particular work is not a systematic exposition of his thinking but rather an eclectic sampling of his wide-ranging thought.  Other than that, I do not have much to say at this point about the work of James Hillman other than that I would like to know more and why Hillman is so highly regarded in the depth psychology community.

Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life

February 24, 2017

James Hollis is a noted Jungian analyst and mythologist.  In this book, he discusses the topic of myth and the important function that it plays in human existence. Myth helps us answer 1) cosmological questions of genesis and eschatology, 2) metaphysical questions on the nature of the world around us, 3) sociological questions about tribal and collective experience, and 4) psychological questions on how to conduct one’s life.  This is a very short and readable book that offers a good general introduction to the language and key concepts of mythological studies from a depth psychology perspective. 


Through symbols, images and metaphors, humans naturally experience mystery and the human soul.  Interestingly, the etymology of the word symbol is syn + ballein, (to project towards sameness) and of metaphor is meta + pherein  (to carry over or across). As myth utilizes both symbol and metaphor, it helps humankind establish and communicate a meaningful relationship to the mystery of the world.  One is carried beyond the image or direct symbol to another world of meaning. As the “soul” (in Greek, psyche) seeks wholeness, it expresses itself primarily through image.  Image and symbol are, in fact, the key tools of the Soul. 


Our ancestors lived in an animistic world where the soul was seen in all things.  In primitive environments, myth arose from the deep unconscious mind and experience of the divine was a direct human experience.  In modern society, we have increasingly seen a desacralization of nature and the secularization of culture. As Paul Tillich said, the greatest sin of modernism is not evil but rather barren triviality.  In our modern era, with the withdrawal of sacred images from our cultural language, we are left with only the artist that bears us meaningful myths and images.  The artist in modern day is the carrier of the modern mythological project.  It is they who are the agents of the “mythopoesis” of our own age.   Hollis goes on to discuss the contributions of various important artists and literary works of our own age, including Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Camus’ The Fall.


Two key themes in the field of mythological studies are the Eternal Return and the Heroic Quest.  The great mythic pattern of “The Eternal Return” deals with the cycle of sacrifice and the life-death-rebirth dialectic. One gets a better sense for why the theme of sacrifice dominates so many myths, focusing on the great cycle or the killing that is necessary for life. The central meaning of myths of the Great Mother center on the life-death cycle that is fed by sacrifice; all life feeds on other life. Most of these great myths had both male and female images included and as such, were very psychologically healthy and balanced.  The sacrifice of a divine child is found frequently in many narratives.  The erosion of great myths around the Earth Mother and Sky Father leave us looking privately for images to guide and support the soul in the great cosmic drama.


Many other myths are oriented around the quest or hero’s journey, the movement from innocence to experience and individuation. The psychological meaning of “The Journey” involves circling back at a higher level, often in a movement akin to a spiral.  We are obliged to be even more conscious of our developmental task.  This is the hero’s quest.


When we hear the stories of the hero’s journey, we become vehicles for truth that is very difficult to understand, one of these being the knowledge that, in the guise of death there is a secret unity of life.  Mythic representations activate psychic energy and redirect the soul toward healing.  We experience healing when we are in harmony with some great rhythm.  One feels the worth and weight of the soul when we can stand in relationship to something deeper than our consciousness and something longer than our life span. Reading myth is a form of personal and cultural psychotherapy, or a way of “listening to the soul” (psyche = soul and therapeuein = to listen or attend to).


Contemporary westerners must keep in mind the myths of the eternal return and the hero’s journey and be even more conscious because we are not sustained by mythological traditions that activate such imperatives and mediate the woe and wonder of it all.  In fact, there is naivete to those who think they can live without the gods. The same energy that once invested these figures with psychic energy migrated into the unconscious and manifests itself in neuroses and pathologies of modernism. That is why Jung also said that a neurosis is like a neglected god.


In reading books like this, one gets closer to exactly what is meant when Carl Jung talks about the soul and the divine.  Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung’s disciple, put the matter succinctly in saying “Every human being has at the bottom of his psyche a divine spark, a part of the divinity which Jung calls the Self.   The experience of God is the phenomenological experience of the individual; it is not a matter of theology.  A god is defined from a mythic perspective as something that is intimated by, and present in, the affectively charged image that emerges from an experience in depth, an archetypal encounter.  In other words, the human psyche is the matrix for the experience of the gods. An encounter with depth may occasion a mediating image.  The image itself is not divine but for a moment, it does hold divine energy.


By becoming oneself as fully as possible, one serves the larger purposes of history.  If one combined all the myths of all peoples in all times, this would in effect, tell the human story in all its permutations. As humans, we need to feel a connection to a larger order of meaning or some connection with the mystery that courses through history and animates the individual soul. Each myth is the dramatization of these individual energies that flow through the universe and for awhile inhabit us.  Collectively, these stories tell the whole human story and the cosmic drama.


Our ancestors seemed to intuitively know that the psyche is a multiplicity of energies and that they should be in dialogue with these psychic components.  So many stories tell the old stories of how humans and gods intermingled.  And so, in the modern day, our goal should be to achieve a deeper relationship to our own myth and seek a more conscious mythography.  We can pay attention to our dreams and deconstruct the false sense of reality of a constricted conscious life.  We can relinquish the need to be certain, and we can experience, even enjoy, the ambiguity of our condition.  From this enlightened perspective, I am my journey.  I am my dialogue with the angels or messengers of mystery.  Perhaps our myth is, as Lincoln said, to attend the mystic chords of memory and trust the better angels of our nature.  We can accept responsibility for finding our own myth and for developing our ability to sustain the ambiguity.


Jung commented when we have forgotten what our ancestors knew, the silence is not silent, and the dark can be luminous for those who wait upon it.  You can live your own life and serve the mystery.  These are just two aspects of the same thing.  Through the humble task of simply being ourselves we are thus more than ourselves.  Thus in a time when the gods seem to have gone away, we may nonetheless glimpse the divine.

The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine by Christine Downing

February 17, 2017

This book is a personal exposition on how different images of Greek goddesses might be conceived of as helpful figures symbolically in the process of individuation.

Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, by Matthew Fox

February 09, 2017

Hildegard of Bingen was an amazing and powerful medieval woman and leader. She was a really creative force.  As an artist dabbling in religious symbolism, myself, I was curious to spend some time exploring her drawings and art.  These strong images that she produced stay with me.  Her use of the mandala form is akin to the great Carl Jung.

The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman's Sexual Energy

February 01, 2017

The myth of Baubo is a delightful myth.  Briefly, Baubo appeared to the grieving Demeter, intent on sulking and submersing herself in sorrow for her lost daughter, Persephone, who had been abducted into the underworld by the god, Hades.  When the old crone, Baubo, appeared to grieving Demeter and tried to get her to laugh by lifting her skirts and dancing a lewd dance, Demeter finally shook off her depression and started to laugh.  She was thereby healed.  


The story of Baubo contains in it the seeds of empowerment through laughter and the freedom of being an older woman, unbound from restrictive social conventions.  In short, I loved the story and found it freeing and inspiring.  However, this book is written by a woman that is more of a hobbyist than a systematic thinker.  She tended to confuse all images of fertility and the Goddess with the image of Baubo.  As such it is very diluted and is really not that helpful of a book in understanding the powerful story of this laughing old crone.

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari

January 18, 2017

Noah Yuval-Harari's previous book, Sapiens, made a huge splash when it was published.  I read that book and liked it a lot.  Homo Deus is Yuval-Harari's second attempt to come up with a blockbuster.  Unfortunately, he just couldn't hit the high standards set in his first book, Sapiens.  In this book, the author puts forth the notion that through technology and science, man has now himself become as God.  He avers that we are increasingly gaining the ability to conquer mortality itself.  As such, we are at the brink of a vast evolutionary change in human cognition and consciousness.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

January 13, 2017

In recent years, Noah Yuval-Harari has become a sort of rock star of the YouTube and TedX speaking circuit.  He is an Israeli history professor from Tel Aviv University.  He is young, handsome, gay, and intensely creative and intelligent.  He focuses on the dominant trends in "big" history and draws his conclusions from an historical and evolutionary standpoint.  In essence, the author contends that language and our ability to use language and create stories and myths is at the bottom of being human and what makes us special on this planet.  It is not only our large brains and our tool-using abilities that made us human.  Our non-human ancestors had that 2 million years ago.  But it is our ability to use narrative that has been the key success of our species.

Around 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens started to evolve to such a point that our species turned from being merely an insignificant ape to being the master of the world.  If we hold a romantic notion of our species living in harmony with nature in some primitive past, nothing could be further from the truth. We have always been the deadliest animal on the planet, transforming environments and conquering other species at high rates of speed. 


The new ways of thinking and communicating that evolved in our species constitutes what we call the Cognitive Revolution.  One might even refer to it as “the Tree of Knowledge” mutation.  The use of language, in particular, allowed us to communicate more information about food sources and food gathering.  We formed larger social bands that could work together more effectively and efficiently to tame the environment around them. What we discovered was that large numbers of strangers can be made to cooperate successfully by believing in common myths and stories.  The ability to share stories and speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens.  Through its use, we developed an unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.


Our modern institutions function in very much the same way as ancient religions functioned.  Gods, nations, and corporations are imagined realities. 


In summary, the Cognitive Revolution was constituted of:

  1. The ability to plan and carry out complex actions as a group

  2. The ability to operate in larger and more cohesive groups

  3. Cooperation between very large numbers of strangers

  4. Rapid innovation and changes in social behavior, putting us in the fast lane of cultural evolution.


Before going on to discuss the immense changes in the human species that occurred with the Agricultural Revolution, Yuval-Harari discusses a bit about human forager culture, which is quite interesting.   Our transition to agriculture began around 9500 - 8500 BC in the hill country of southeastern Turkey, western Iran and the Levant. Homo Sapiens experienced exponential growth at the time of the agricultural revolution.  Archaeology shows that humans experienced increased arthritis, slipped discs and hernias after the agricultural revolution because we were using our bodies in ways totally different than the way they had evolved as foragers. In short, the essence of the Agricultural Revolution is that it enabled humans to keep more people alive under worse conditions. 


When we start increasingly living in crowded cities and mighty empires, we tend to invent stories about great gods.  One can easily see how the same concepts apply to our societies today.  We also create stories about nations and motherlands, and even stock companies to provide the needed social links.  Armies, police forces and prisons work ceaselessly to force people to act in accordance with the imagined order.  A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively.  Law, money, gods, nations are all inter-subjective imagined realities.  Social order would collapse without these things.  Though we lack the biological instincts necessary to sustain large social networks, our created imagined orders and our abilities to use scripts filled in the gaps left by our biological inheritance and contribute to our success as a species.

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, by Paolo Coelho

January 01, 2020

A fable of sorts.  A little interesting.  But not very.  Sort of a nice story.


All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

January 16, 2017

Decided I wanted to read a novel for a change so I chose this.  A story about a blind French girl and a German soldier that are interwoven during World War II.  Nicely done.

The Odyssey, by Homer (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

January 16, 2017

Stephen Mitchell is a great translator.  He takes ancient works and classics and puts them into language that a modern person can easily understand, thus rendering these ancient stories more accessible and meaningful to us.  If you ever wanted to see what the big deal is about the Odyssey but don't much time or inclination to read the original in ancient Greek, I recommend this translation heartily.

Mythology, by Edith Hamilton

January 11, 2017

Edith Hamilton's classic book on Green and Roman mythology offers brief synopses of some of the most important myths from this period.  I purchased the book with audible narration so that I could listen to ancient myths should I experience sleeplessness, as I often do.  One can certainly learn the most important things about some of the most important stories from this book but the narrative is far from scintillating or gripping.  It is merely an adequate compendium.

Navel of the Earth: The Ancient Wisdom of Delphi, by Marios Koutsoukos

January 09, 2017

This book was put together by an individual Greek fellow who is an enthusiast about the oracular maxims from the ancient sacred site of Delphi.  He offers his own ideas on some of the most important maxims, interspersing background commentary with his own personal reflections.  My favorite part of the book is that most of the maxims are summarized in both Greek and English in the back of the book.  I specifically wanted to look at the sayings in the original Greek alongside English translations.  

The most famous maxim, of course, is the maxim "gnothi sauton", meaning "know thyself".  The rest of the maxims are similarly pithy and to the point and filled with ancient (but still relevant) wisdom.  There is so much wisdom in these old words.  I hope to spend more time with each Maxim in the future, looking at the original Greek and comparing it to the English translations.

My Struggle: Book 1, by Karl One Knausgaard

January 04, 2017

Every bookstore I went into for a while there was featuring the autobiographical books by Karl Ove Knaussgaard on the front table of recommended books.  I wanted to see what was causing such a stir so I bought this book with the audible narration add-on so that I might listen to it when I was going to sleep or when I couldn't sleep.  To that end, the book served its purpose.  It caught my attention with its narrative.  But in the end, I didn't care enough about the character or the story to want to go on with it for another 5 books.   One was left with an empty feeling after reading it; I had felt lured on by the good writing, but in the end, I was just left with a kind of "So what?" feeling.   It was like it was all description but had no heart.

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade

January 02, 2017

Topics covered in this book:


  • The Nature of Religion

  • The Moral Instinct in Humans

  • The Evolution of Religious Behavior

  • Music, Dance, and Trance

  • Ancestral Religion

  • The Tree of Religion

  • Morality, Trust, and Trade

  • Religion and Warfare

  • The Future of Religion

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade

December 28, 2016

FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, in the northeastern corner of Africa, a small and beleaguered group of people prepared to leave their homeland.


This is a history of the human race and changing ape societies to human societies.


One important point is the role played by meat-eating in the human species.  Meat-eating allowed for a smaller gut and furnished the extra nutrition that made possible a larger brain.


The evolution of tools is discussed.


We lost our hair.  We had to develop a way of cooling the body by sweating, which requires naked skin.


Ergaster and homo erectus came around 500,000 years ago.


it is only around 50,000 years ago, we start to see significant social and cognitive changes in the human species

emergence of language evolutionary pressures for language.

Interesting subjects to explore further:  

  • The learnings from genetic research on mitochondrial DNA 

  • The search for the a mitochondrial Eve and Adam

  • Discussion of the mitochondrial genealogy of humankind


What were some of the cognitive changes that came with advancement of our species?


Violent and aggressive males had less chance of breeding, so gradually, our bones became more gracile and our societies became more trusting and cohesive.


With tamer people, we were able to have larger and more complex societies.


We developed the need for leadership and reciprocity.


Our needs for both defense and trade spring from the deepest wells of the contrary instincts of aggression and reciprocity.

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, by Dacher Keltner

December 20, 2016

Dacher Keltner is the head of a fantastic organization centered in Berkeley called "The Greater Good Science Center". They are a team of psychologists and researchers that do work in positive psychology -- the benefits of compassion, gratitude, and awe, etc.   After attending one of their day-long programs called "The Science of Awe", I started following the organization with some interest.  I took one of their courses called "The Science of Happiness" and was very impressed with the learning experience.  It was extremely well done.  

After attending the Awe conference, I was interested to read Dacher Keltner's work.  I read his book Born to be Good and was really impressed with it.  Mr. Keltner does a superior job of communicating his wisdom and learning.  He is a thoroughly likable writer and presenter and argues convincingly for his ideas.   

Although I do not plan to do a full review of Born to be Good, the summary provided below of the notes from the Science of Happiness online course repeats many of the ideas that were found in Dr. Keltner's book.  I really admire the work that these find psychologists are doing and am happy to have encountered them.

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski

December 05, 2016

The authors of this book are modern day devotees of the great Ernest Becker, author of Denial of Death.  Here are a few of the main points made in this interesting book.

  • Another tip of the hat to Otto Rank:  "We are but temporal representatives of cosmic primal forces."

  • Discusses at length the developing of self-esteem in children. Children are troubled about death at an earlier age than most realize.

  • Self Esteem and feelings of personal significance are critical to healthy psychological functioning.

  • When self-esteem is undermined, death thoughts come more readily to mind.

  • Self esteem protects us from our deeply rooted existential fears.

  • We combat mortality by striving for significance.

  • Symbols conferred unique cognitive advantages, especially language, a dynamic cycle of language and increasing self-consciousness.  The capacity to strategize on imagined future represented by words and symbols is something no other creature on earth can do.

  • Highly adaptive cognitive abilities also gave rise to an ever-present potential for mortal terror.

  • Upper Paleolithic Revolution, or the Creative Explosion - the era was marked by the simultaneous appearance of art, burials. 

  • Social unity was forged by coordinated activity

  • Essence of ritual is acting out what we want to happen.

  • Role of art and creation myths

  • Art and religion were essential for the early humans to cope with a uniquely human problem:  the awareness of death

  • Nationalism and passionate affection for charismatic leaders is dubbed “collective immortality”.

  • Our longing to transcend death inflames violence towards each other

  • Our irrepressible urge to view ourselves as significant, as beings who will persist, literally or symbolically, after death.

  • Eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge reveals the worm at its core, awareness of mortality, which in turn makes the naked human body shameful. The fig leaf was the first body adornment.

  • Seek enduring significance through your own combination of meanings and values, social connections, spirituality, personal accomplishments, identifications with nature, and momentary experiences of transcendence. Promote cultural worldviews that provide such paths while encouraging tolerance of uncertainty and others who harbor different beliefs.​


The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

December 01, 2016

When I went to Oberlin College and took my first class in Modern Religious Thought, I knew right then and there where my life would take me further down this path.  Ernest Becker's book, Denial of Death, was the first book in my post-adolescent college career that grabbed me in this way; it shook me to my foundations.  There was something oddly compelling about it; it launched me into an obsession with death and other dark topics that continues to this day.  I was oddly attracted by the theme of death; it was an odd form of rebellion or iconoclasm for me.  After I read this book, almost every paper that I wrote during college had something to do with the theme of death.  In turn, I went on to become a religion major and a lifelong student of religion, philosophy and mythology. 

All I remembered about this book was that it shook me to my foundations and changed my life.  Unfortunately, however, I couldn't remember a thing about the content of the book.  Although I rarely read the same book twice, I decided this was one book that was important enough to me that I would read it again and try to understand what had moved me so deeply the first time.

I will acknowledge that, to some extent, the book is dated.  It was written in 1978.  The field of psychology has changed immensely in that time.  There is much less active engagement with Freud than there was back in the 70's; much of Becker's work is directly influenced by Freud.   Becker received national attention for his book when it was published; ironically, he died shortly after its publication.  However, his work has recently been taken up by some young psychologists and it has been revivified in the work of Sheldon Solomon, whose work "Worm at the Core" will also be reviewed on this site.

In short, Becker describes the development of human consciousness with emphasis on the desire for immortality and the fear of our finitude that drives human behavior.   Here's a few thoughts from the book:

  • Basic motivation for human anxiety is our biological need to control our anxiety and to deny the terror of death.

  • The ever present fear of death is lurking at the bottom of our consciousness.  Since it is so overwhelming, we keep it in the unconscious mind.

  • Society serves as a vehicle for earthly heroism.

  • Society provides a line of defense against our feelings of natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something that is of lasting worth.

  • Man must constantly justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe, he must stand out, he must be a hero, his life must count. This is how we protect ourself against the anxiety of death and meaninglessness.

  • He discusses Otto Rank and Freud at length.

  • Discusses Kierkegaard’s contributions to the field of psychology and understanding anxiety and dread in the human character.  In the end, Kierkegaard concluded that you should question finitude but see beyond it.

  • We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers.

  • Rank concluded that man is a theological being, not a biological one.

  • Religion takes one’s very creatureliness and makes it a condition of hope

  • Man’s continual project to continue to develop the spirit of man in a new birth.​

Betrayal and Survival and Beyond: A Memoir, by Mathis Szykowski

November 28, 2016

This book was written by my former French professor from Oberlin College in 1975.  He lead a tour of students to Tours, France.  I liked him.  He was a good teacher.  Every week, we had to turn in a short paper written in French and he would patiently correct all my clumsy errors, never giving up on the possibility of making me more fluent in French.  We had heard that Mathis had had a difficult past, a Jew from Paris that was forced at the age of 15 lost his parents and had to flee from the Nazi regime.  But, hey, we were 19 years old at the time and I know I certainly didn't have the capacity to really understand what he had gone through.  Neither did he want to discuss it at too great a length with his students.  So we kept the topic under wraps, so to speak.

Mathis Szykowski died in 2017.  I can't remember his actual age at death, but he was well into his 90's and was probably approaching 100.  His mind kept very active right until the end.  Several years ago, he wrote his memoirs from the first part of his life, describing his escape from France, his life in Greenwich Village in the 40's and his eventually being accepted into Stanford and getting his Ph.D. in French Literature.  

It was fascinating to hear my old professor speak of so many things in this narrative.  It was fascinating to imagine him and his Native American wife living in the Village and living the bohemian intellectual and artistic life.  I am grateful that I was able to discover this and that I could easily just download it on Kindle.  My husband also read the book and was profoundly moved when he read it.  He really admires Mathis even though he never met him.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

November 16, 2016

Ever since my gloomier and more introspective teenage years, I have been fascinated with the idea of existentialism.  I never tire of fantasizing about what it must have been like to have been part of the circle of people that originally created this compelling philosophical revolution.  This book is, quite simply, delicious, to my way of taste.  It combines simple explanations of philosophical concepts along with personal details about the lives of the philosophers described.  Included are such figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and of course, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.  One gets an up close view on how each of them reacted personally and philosophically to the events whirling around them in the world of their days.

It's amazing that someone who is not formally a philosopher, the author of this book, Sarah Bakewell, was able to master the underlying philosophical material presented in this book in such a way that she could clearly explain it to others.  She is virtually one of the only people I have ever read that made philosophy relevant and palatable.  When someone understands something very well, they are able to present it simply and clearly and Ms. Bakewell has done such a thing in the writing of this book.

Gods of the Desert: Religions of the Ancient Near East by Glenn Holland

November 10, 2016

After I had taken an online course from the Great Courses Company on Mesopotamian religions that featured the top-notch Great Courses instructor, Glenn Holland, I decided to read the textbook he had written on the topic as well.  This book was very readable while at the same time providing fundamental historical facts about the environment and history of ancient Mesopotamia that are critical if one is to go forward and study the meaning and impact of the myths that the peoples from this world created.  I took extensive notes on the book and perhaps someday, I will write a more extensive summary.

Islamic Geometric Patterns by Eric Broug

November 09, 2016

A really fun hands-on crafts project kind of book that offers step-by-step instructions for drawing and constructing your own intricate and beautiful Islamic patterns.  I used this book extensively in creating my own "Seven Hymns for the Goddess Inanna" project that was created using electronic mosaic tile frames.

Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World, by Barbara C. Sproul

November 07, 2016

Presented in this book are origin myths from many countries:   African myths, Near Eastern myths, European myths, myths of india, myths of China and Japan, Siberian and Eskimo myths, and North American myths, Central and South American myths, myths of Australia and the Pacific

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert N. Bellah

November 04, 2016

Robert Bellah is one of the most important thinkers in the field of Sociology of Religion in recent times.  Before he died in 2013, he finally published a work that he had been working on for 13 years following his retirement.  It was to be his final summation of his life's work and thinking.  It was a long, heavy, and beautiful book.  I committed myself to reading the whole thing.  I was sad to learn that Mr. Bellah had died shortly after the publication of his book.  He had actually finished it the year after his wife died.  His wife had been a big helper to him in his editing and writing so I'm sure he missed her sorely but completed his project nonetheless.

Someday I will present a more complete summary of this important work from one of the century's most important thinkers in the field of religion.  In the meantime, the beginnings of my summary are attached.

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw

November 02, 2016

Turgid and hard to understand.  Took the joy out of reading Dante.  Sorry I read it.

Day-to-Day Dante: Exploring Personal Myth Through the Divine Comedy, by Dennis Patrick Slattery

November 01, 2016

This is a very admirable project where the author extracts themes from Dante's Divine Comedy and then for each day of the year offers his reflections on a different theme. Included also are workbook questions the reader can ask themselves about experiences in their lives that were similar to those of Dante Alighieri in his renowned work.  It could be a useful journaling and psychological tool.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.

October 31, 2016


This is a very useful marriage self-help book.  Dr. Gottman discuss his very well researched theory about the 4 things that kill relationships:  Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.  He discusses the 3 things that can be done to prevent these relationship killers:  Know your partner, respond positively to "bids", and admire your partner.  The best predictor of relationship success is how you and your partner tell the "story of us."  The beginning of the conversation is crucial.  Negativity compounds.  Keep a cool head and resist inertia.  Some pretty good advice.

The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older by Robert L. Weber and Carol Orsborn

October 31, 2016

This book was trite and boring and a total waste of time.  It provided me with nothing helpful to assist in dealing with the aging process.

Viking Mythology: The Children of Odin, by Padraic Colum

October 21, 2016

Easy-to-read summaries of Norse myths.

Viking Mythology: Gods & Folklords by Kalf Yorkson

October 14, 2016

Some very amusing and entertaining stories arise out of Norse myths.

Viking Mythology: Thor, Odin, Loki & the Old Norse Myths Mikael Shainkman

October 07, 2016

This book offers brief summaries of the primary Norse myths.  Norse myths are colorful and amusing.  Some really memorable characters emerge from these stories.  

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