The Embassy of the Free Mind

A rather strange and fascinating collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects has been digitized. The digitization of these rare texts is being done under an  education project called “Hermetically Open.”

The project also received a generous donation from author Dan Brown, who certainly has an interest in these things and has used texts like these in his novels. Who knows – maybe his next novel will come from these texts.

Amsterdam’s Ritman Library has made the first 1,617 books from the project available in their online reading room at It is still a work in progress, but you will have full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. My Latin is quite elementary and that was the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods so there are plenty of Latin texts. I have to say that my first browsings have been more to look at the illustrations, front pieces and the visual aspects.

Some books are in German, Dutch, and French, so us language poor monolingual English speakers are at a reading disadvantage.

I do love the idea of digitizing texts that would otherwise be lost or not available to the masses. Now we need some kind of tech babel fish who can read and speak all these books to us.

The Name of the Rose Is Eco

umberto eco

One of the extraordinary humans we lost last year who won’t make the celebrity In Memoriam lists is Umberto Eco. He was an Italian semiotics scholar who wrote an unlikely best-selling novel that launched a literary career.

Semiotics was a field I had never heard of when I encountered Eco’s book and looked up the word in a print encyclopedia. It was 1980. It is the study of meaning-making. It turned out to include many of things that I had been trained to use as an English major, such as analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor and symbolism.

The novel that brought him to the attention of many people was The Name of the Rose. It was an unlikely bestseller being a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. It is filled with  biblical references and discussions of Christian theology and heresies.

It is set in 1327 in a Benedictine Italian abbey that is being investigated for heresy by Brother William of Baskerville who becomes our detective after seven bizarre deaths occur at the abbey. He may be a character in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but he would say he was influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are plenty of ciphers,  secret symbols and coded manuscripts in the novel that darkly twists like the labyrinth passages of the abbey.

It was an international best-seller. It even became a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I once described the book to a friend who said, “So, it’s like the Dan Brown books?”  Though it may share some aspects with Brown’s Langdon bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons),  Umberto Ec’s novels have very different intentions. At the risk of sounding snobby, I would say his books are much more cerebral and literary.

That being said, I tear through the Dan Brown page-turners too. Eco said of his first novels’ success that he thought that “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Another Eco novel is Foucault’s Pendulum which in brief does sound like a Brown novel. Three bored editors in Italy create a hoax that weaves in Kabbalah, alchemy, conspiracy theories and connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. The hoax and plot involves a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled. This point is in Paris at the site of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. The Foucault Pendulum is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who created this simple device as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. It turns out that some of the occult groups included in the hoax are real and not happy about someone’s attempt to wrest away their power.

I met Umberto Eco very briefly after he gave a reading in New York. His talk was hard to follow. More of it was about his teaching at the University of Bologna and the application of semiotics to popular culture like films, James Bond and even the comic strip Peanuts characters. He was funny, even though I wasn’t always sure I got the joke, I knew it was a joke. It reminded me of my undergraduate philosophy classes when I understood all the words being said, but I wasn’t sure what they meant as sentences.

I had a hard time with two of his other novels – The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011), but the books always get me thinking and also digging around for more information about the people and ideas alluded to in them.

Novelist Salman Rushdie was not a fan. In writing about Foucault’s Pendulum he said it was “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Then again, I’m not a Rushdie fan.

Someone asked Eco at the reading if he would prefer to live in the Middle Ages. He quickly answered no, and said that he prefered the Middle Ages of his imagination to the actual historical period which was probably a very depressing time to be alive.

Fact, Fiction and Magic

Pythia, Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier. Pythia was inspired by the smoky pneuma rising from below the ground.

That same radio program that I mentioned in my last post about the Codex Seraphinianus also covered some other books that mix fact and fiction in ways that lead us to be unsure about what is real, unreal or even supernatural.

One of those books is The Book of Pythia which is part of the sacred scrolls of the Twelve Tribes of Kobol. The Pythia was more commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi. She was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In mythology, the Pythia was widely credited for her prophecies inspired by Apollo, the Book of Pythia also figured in the four seasons of the re-imagined television show Battlestar Galactica. The fictional universe utilized the real book.

Like many films and novels, the mixture of fact and fiction can confuse viewers and readers about what is real and what is the fiction. (Here’s a slide show of the book.)

Another mix of fact and fiction occurs in The Aleppo Codex. The book is said to be the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible. The mystery comes from it going missing.

The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books is a story going back a thousand years.

This very real codex was kept safe and was said to be housed in the 1940s in a dark grotto in Aleppo, Syria, and so it took on the name Aleppo Codex.

The book is a tale by journalist Matti Friedman of his pursuit of this precious manuscript that was smuggled from Syria into Israel.

How did it get there? What about the pages that went missing?

Partly Indiana Jones, partly Dan Brown, partly National Treasure, it involves secret agents, clergymen, collectors and politicians, all in pursuit of the ancient book.

And finally there is a book of magic about a book of magic.

1001 nights

Alif the Unseen follows an Arab-Indian hacker whose shady clients he protects from surveillance. Alif (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) has the misfortune of having the new fiancé of his ex-girlfriend be the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security. They go after Alif. He goes into hiding and in doing so discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn.

That book is not the One Thousand and One Nights that we know from the rather distorted Westernized/Disneyfied stories of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Have you heard of the jinn? This Arabic word is probably more familiar to Westerners as genies. But these spiritual creatures are also mentioned in the Qur’an and other Islamic texts. They exist in a world we do not see because it is in dimensions beyond the visible universe of humans. Parallel universes? The jinn, humans and angels make up the three sapient creations of God.

The Qur’an mentions that the jinn are made of a smokeless and “scorching fire” which makes me think back to those seraph mentioned earlier. They can interact physically with people and objects and be acted upon and can be good, evil, or neutrally benevolent. They have free will like humans and unlike angels.

Does this mix of fact and fiction create magic? It seems to work for Dan Brown, author of Inferno: A Novel.

His 2013 mystery thriller novel is the fourth book in his Robert Langdon series (Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol).

Langdon, a Harvard professor of symbology, gets pulled in again to a mystery centered on the literary masterpiece, Dante’s Inferno.

Mixing lots of real locations and real people and groups in with a liberal dose of suppositions and fiction, Langdon has to try to solve an ingenious riddle. The puzzle also mixes classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science. Of course, Dante’s dark epic poem is fiction, but it also mixed that fiction and guesswork with things that readers of his time would know as real or at least that they believed.