Primordial Traditions (BlueBeer Book Club Review)

I remember coming across Primordial Traditions in its original format, as a small self-published webzine and then its book format. Having owned both the first edition and the second edition, it’s very easy to see the difference. Firstly, the cover and layout of the book is vastly improved with a glossy new hardback cover and original typography. The interior is laid out much more clearly, and the content is now demarcated with the section on Tradition being the largest in the book. This deals with the philosophy behind spiritual traditions –explaining that the term ‘Primordial Tradition’ is a substitute for perennial philosophy or the sophia perennis – the ‘eternal wisdom’.

This first section covers everything from religious soteriology though to explanations of what the term ‘Primordial Tradition’ means, and how such ideas influence our laws, economy and culture. Almost all of this section is penned by the editor (Gwendolyn Taunton). With the exception of the article on alchemy, this part of the book is almost exclusively devoted to philosophy.

The book then proceeds to discuss the different religions of the world, divided into geographic regions. The first chapter of these is on Middle Eastern religions. I must admit I know very little about this topic and was surprised to see this section was not as I imagined it. I’ve always associated the Middle East with Islam, but what I read here was very different. The paper on Mithras was fascinating and a real eye-opener to ancient religion in the area. Also of interest here were the papers on the Sufi and a strange half demon half angel being worshipped by a group known as the Yezidi. I had no idea that such religions existed as I had only heard of Islam in the Middle East.

From this point things kept getting better. Next up were the Eastern Traditions, with the entire chapter of this book being penned by the editor, Gwendolyn Taunton. Here we are taken into a world of Buddhism which, again, offers completely different ideas to what I expected. This section includes the use of holy magic by monks in Thailand and the evil temptations deployed by Mara (who appears to be the Buddhist equivalent of Satan). This is followed by some very complicated texts on Tantric Buddhism in Tibet – these texts deal with advanced techniques of yoga and are not topics for beginners. Taunton here reveals her depth of expertise in Asian religions. She then moves on to Hinduism to describe the different forms of the Hindu god Shiva followed by an examination of aesthetic theory in the Hindu Tradition. Much of this is again reasonably complex; particularly so the content dealing with a philosopher called Abhinavagupta. There is also an interesting paper on Tantra referencing the topic in terms of the earlier Vedic Tradition.

Following this, we are returned to Europe. Here we see a different side of Europe, and the religions which pre-date Christianity. Damon Zacharias Lycourinos whisks us off to a shadowy, hidden world in ancient Greece. We are also allowed to gaze into the religions of the Vikings and see how radically different their religion was to Christianity. Taunton again reveals her expertise in this topic by adding a paper on oneiromancy (divination by dreams) and one on Nietzsche’s use of the god Dionysus in philosophy.

The final section is another obscure topic and it offers a lengthy explanation on ceremonial Mayan astronomy (again, something I never even knew existed).The author appears to have been onsite for this too as pictures of the ceremony have been included. It was good to see this piece included to contrast it with the larger religions.

When compared to the first edition, there are major differences. All of the short papers appear to have been removed, and these have been replaced by longer ones. Taunton’s article Sophia Perennis & the Doctrine of Ascension, Damon Zacharias Lycourinos’ papers on the Sufi and Hellenic magic are all new, as is Krum Stefanov’s interesting piece on how tradition relates to money – or rather, it doesn’t, at least to modern paper money.

All in all, the differences between the first and second edition are so vast, they basically have to be regarded as different books. What Gwendolyn Taunton has done, is to take a book which was already an award winner….and improve on it. This book is highly recommended for anyone looking for a balanced and sensible approach to religion in the modern world, even if some of the authors appear to be against it.