Fragments: “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism”

“Newton was by no means the only natural philosopher who had drawn upon magical traditions. Indeed, Newton’s own interest in various magical traditions can best be understood by locating it within a late-Renaissance movement to reform natural philosophy by paying closer attention to various magical or occult traditions.

Although it is now (at last) diminishing, there is still enormous resistance among the more positivist philosophers and historians of science to any suggestion that magic might have been instrumental in the emergence of modern science. It is remarkable, for example, that the authors of two recent books on the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution, one introductory and the other advanced, both felt the need to justify the claims they were making on behalf of alchemy because of its ‘associations with magic and the occult’. For the most part, the arguments against the possible influence of magic on science are presented a priori, while the historical evidence is simply ignored. So, magic is characterized as irrational and its influence upon a supremely rational pursuit like modern science is easily dismissed as inherently implausible. Similarly, magic is said to be concerned with the supernatural and therefore could only be antithetical to mankind’s heroic intellectual endeavour to explain phenomena in entirely naturalistic terms. What is particularly unfortunate about this approach is that, by dismissing magic at the outset, it fails to put any effort into understanding the nature and significance of magic in the pre-modern and early modern periods. But this ahistorical approach is intellectual chauvinism of the most arrogant kind, and the result is undoubtedly a diminishing of our understanding of the origins of modern science. To carry on in this vein is to repeat the errors of Sir David Brewster, Isaac Newton’s first biographer. Taking  the opportunity to scrutinize Newton’s manuscript remains, Brewster soon came across the huge mass of alchemical manuscripts. His appalled response is well known:

… we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.

When seen in the light of Brewster’s overwhelming admiration for Newton this is highly significant. An observer might have expected that Brewster would be led by his otherwise slavish veneration for his great forebear [sic] to conclude that, if Newton was so interested in alchemy, then there must have been something in it. But no, evidently Brewster’s conviction that alchemy was worthless rubbish outweighed even his awe of Newton’s genius.

It seems perfectly clear that something recognizably like modern science first emerged as a direct result of the absorption of various aspects of the magical tradition into traditional contemplative natural philosophy.”

Henry, John. 2012. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic“ in Religion, Magic, and the Origins of Science in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate) 4-7.

Fragment: Primitive Culture, Spiritualism and “The Philosophy of Savages”

“The Received Spiritualistic theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. As to such matters as apparitions or possessions, this is obvious; and it holds in more extreme cases. Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit-séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits, manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings; for such things are part and parcel of his recognized system of Nature. The part of the affair really strange to him would be the introduction of such arts as spelling and writings, which do belong to a different state of civilization from his. The issue raised by the comparison of savage, barbaric, and civilized Spiritualism, is this: — Do the Red Indian medicine-man, the Tartar necromancer, the Highland ghost-seer, and the Boston medium, share the possession of belief and knowledge of the highest truth and import, which, nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement of the last two centuries has simply thrown aside as worthless? Is what we are habitually boasting of, and calling new enlightenment, then, in fact, a decay of knowledge? If so, this is a truly remarkable case of degeneration; and the savages whom some Ethnographers look on as degenerate from a higher civilization, may turn on their accusers, and charge them with having fallen from the high level of savage knowledge.”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Vol 1. p. 141.

Fragment: More Philology of the Future

Thoughts such as this, I suspect, can help explain why I’ve moved increasingly from Nietzsche to occult studies. Not that Nietzsche was an occultist (he was quite disappointed by the one seance he did attend), but his emphasis on traditions, mysteries, symbols myth and the force of will can certainly lend itself to a intriguing reinterpretation of thought at the fringes of society.

“If on one level, then, the Dionysian is a thoroughly modern myth, on another level the Dionysian is a symbol for the ineradicable need for myths in modernity. Nietzsche thus uses the Dionysian to expose, in a rhetorical rather than declarative way, the most transparent and therefore most invisible myth of all: the myth of mythlessness that prevails in the modern world, its presumed ‘timeliness.” Philology as a discipline is what helps to sustain this myth and the modern needs for myth in the contemporary present. That those needs are said by Nietzsche to be consistent with religious needs that develop in antiquity is only a sign of the deeply rooted nature of the phenomenon described and of its seeming ineradicability.

Traditional philology is the agency that helps to sustain the mythical shape of the present, in part by alienating myth as an object of dispassionate study. It is one of the forms that forgetfulness assumes. Exposing this condition is the work of a critical philology. And because there is no philology that does not stand in the shadow of its own history, philology for Nietzsche must become a self-reflexive, self-critical, and often paradoxical undertaking.”

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 224.

Fragment: “Psychic Television”

Some time ago I attended a conference at the University of Michigan where Dr. Andriopoulos gave a Skype-mediated keynote lecture in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. During the talk he mentioned his work on the technology of television and remote viewing. I looked into his article on Psychic Television and found this interesting passage:

“The coincidence of texts from 1929 describing occult “domestic phenomena” and the magical properties of the new technology in one’s own home can be related to a more fundamental interrelation of television and clairvoyance. Walter Benjamin understood spiritualism and occultism to be the “backside” (Kehrseite) of “technological development.” In contrast, I would like to establish spiritualist research into the psychic television of somnambulist mediums as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the invention and implementation of the technological medium. Spanning a period from the late nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth century, television’s gradual emergence in no sense relied exclusively on “factors immanent to the technology,” as suggested by Joseph Hoppe and others. The slow accumulation of technical and physical knowledge, beginning around 1890, accelerating in the 1920s, and enabling the first wireless transmissions of moving pictures in the last years of that decade did not take place in a vacuum that could be separated from its contingent cultural contexts. Instead, occultist studies on psychic “clairvoyance” (Hellsehen) and “television” (Fernsehen), carried out in the same period by spiritualists who emulated the rules and procedures of science, played a constitutive role for the technological inventions and developments of electrical television.”

Andriopoulos, Stefan. 2005. “Psychic Television”. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Spring ), p. 618-637.

The Fearful Figures of Carlos Schwabe

Le Faune, 1923.

The German symbolist painter Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926) spent most of his professional life in Paris. He composed illustrations for the works of authors Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire and had notable Rosicrucian sympathies. Taking up such symbolist motifs as death, beauty, mythology and the monstrous, he apparently modeled the angel in his “The Death of the Grave-Digger” after his own wife.

La Vague, 1907.

File:Mort du fossoyeur.jpg

La mort du fossoyeur, The Death of the Grave-Digger, 1895.

La Douleur, The Pain, 1893.

From Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”.

Poster of the First Rosicrucian Exposition by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa, 1895.

For More Information:

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

For More Information:

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

Omnia and Pagan Folk Lore

On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.

Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.

In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.

There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.

I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.

The Awen, Neo-Druidic symbol of the Order of Ovates, Druids and Bards.

Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.

In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.

For More Information:

Paul Rumsey and the Seeker of Yesterday

Perhaps it could be said that any meditation on tradition, if be carried through to its consistent conclusion, comes up empty. That the castles of consciousness, to withstand a siege, must forget that their foundations are forever rooted in the air. For each eager, then ever more desperate inquest into authenticity, derived from the longing for some single, unbroken thread connecting you to the past, to some stable, certain, linear, guiding spool that would allow everything else to somehow fall into its rightful place, with time and circumspection these things begin to invite the inquirer to look with some suspicion on what is ‘real’ and what ‘contrived’. As soon as doubt creeps in, the thread is cut, and often cut. It can, indeed, I believe, it must be tied again, if that is what we feel compelled to do, but the consequences of denying that the knots thereafter exist is that you can then never use them to clime back up into, then above yourself, and some greater whole of comprehension.

It is human, indeed, perhaps characteristic of any finite intellect, to seek profound answers to where they come from, where they belong, where are they going, but how could we ever be anything but active participants in the answers to these questions? However, that we feel a certain psychological resonance, here and there, with elements of the past we see, or seek to see within ourselves, seems certain.

It will come as no surprise that for me, part of this tradition has been woven from the fabric of the weird, and so I was pleased to find a contemporary artist who seems to have so effectively characterized some key quandaries of my psyche.

His name is Paul Rumsey. In his own words:

The use of fantastic metaphor and poetic allusion allows me great freedom, to portray any idea from the exterior political to the interior psychological. And the materials I work with give me freedom; charcoal is very flexible, and can be wiped, erased, sandpapered and redrawn. It is open to chance effects that can lead to unanticipated directions and solutions. I make constant revisions and alterations. Even with a medium like pen and ink which would favour the permanent, spontaneous, linear mark, I have found a way (by using sandpaper on card) of reworking, to end up with textures, tones and atmospherics.

For my work to conform to modern taste it should be more gestural, ‘marks on paper’, linear rather than illusionistic. My work begins sketchy and gestural, and some artist friends urge me to leave it like that and not spoil it by wasting weeks bringing it to a more finished state – but I can’t stop myself. I am addicted to the moment when the marks and smudges metamorphose, solidify into an illusion of real space, with solid objects and figures under a unified light and atmosphere. It is only when I feel I can climb into the picture, wander about and touch things that I am happy with it. ~ From Paul Rumsey’s Website, “Artist”.


Triumph of Folly




The Library-head drawings were in part inspired by Rumsey’s reading of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel”



Crawling City

Building Dream



For More Information:

Serafino Macchiati, Spiritualism, and a Lacuna in Wikipedia

The images above, Le visionnaire and Spiritism (Scena spiritica) were done by the Italian artist Serafino Macchiati (1861-1922). I’ve not been able to find out much about Macchiati’s interest in spiritualism. Indeed, the only substantial source of biographical information about him seems to be a site dedicated to two volumes of his works that were produced  by his grandson. I find it exceedingly unusual that, while he was made a Knight of the Italian Crown and produced a series of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, there is still no Wikipedia article on him in English, French, German or, most surprisingly, Italian. If anyone knows anything about Macchiati’s relationship to the occult, I’d be curious to find out.

For More Information:

Emblemata: An Iconographic Overflowing

The emblematic world view, a modern term for the ways in which late medieval and Renaissance scholars saw the intertextuality and symbolic elements of the natural world, was popularized among historians of science by William B. Ashworth in his essay “Natural History and the Emblematic World View”. Here, he attempted to ascribe the fall of the emblematic world view near the end of the 16th century to its inability to account for certain aspects of human experience, such as the discovery of the new world, or the discovery of a new kind of history. While these factors most likely played a part in its decline, this explanation closes the door on several important considerations that would apply to other kinds of taxonomies as well.

Perhaps the decline of the emblematic world view was caused by a mechanism which was not particular to it alone. It is possible to imagine that when those working within a specific method of taxonomic interpretation come to feel that it has no end in sight, through either its increasing age and complexity, or when it finds itself presented with an abundance of intermediary forms or anomalies, the general body of its adherents could begin to grow disillusioned with the hope that that method of interpretation would lead to a kind of conclusive knowledge. In this instance, then it would seem that knowledge is only truly accepted as knowledge if it is believed to have an end.  This can apply to both its purpose and its progression to some ultimate goal. Conversely, the rise of the literal view of natural science wiped the slate clean, so to speak, giving early modern natural scientists a new hope for an exhaustible source of knowledge through observation. The seat of authority for this new standard of knowledge could be attributed to its ability to be reproduced numerous times, something to which the previously inexhaustible emblematic system of knowledge had less of a claim.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich

As Ashworth points out, the essence of the emblematic world view “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible”.  Furthermore, these hidden meanings are connected symbolically to other things in the cosmos, making it necessary to be constantly searching for the interconnectedness of as many signs and symbols as possible. For example, Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), in his zoological encyclopaedia History of Animals, includes an exhaustive study of the signs and symbols associated with the animals under discussion because he “believed that to know the peacock [or any other thing] you must know its associations”. It would be fair to say that Gesner was not doing this because he was uncritical or obtuse, but because emblematic knowledge required such exhaustive measures in order to have the complete picture of the natural world.

Two things are at first noticeable from this account. Firstly, emblems make their ultimate appeal to be representative of reality through their meanings in relation to their parts and to each other. As Ashworth states: “In the ideal emblem, each element was necessary, but not sufficient, for comprehension”. Sometimes they point to God for authority, sometimes they point to the ancients, but they always demand that the reader return back to the structure in which they are presented, namely, each other. For example, a creature such as the bee could be understood in a variety of ways depending upon what other symbols were placed alongside it. In one English emblem they are a symbol of prosperity in peace: “Which doth declare, the blessed fruites of peace, / How sweete shee is, when mortall warres doe cease”, or in one German emblem it could be said to be a symbol of a well-ordered society. These two emblems taken together could then indicate that a well-ordered society is one that is benefiting from the fruits of peace. In such a way the emblems could be built upon each other to create more complex layers of meaning. Furthermore, because these meanings are hidden, they are necessarily subject to diverse interpretations.

When combined with the removal of any sort of earthly authority over the interpretation of the nature of symbols, this trend allowed a wide proliferation of emblems with a variety of meanings. Indeed, God himself could be understood as the ultimate emblem maker. In Huston Diehl’s article “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England” he points to two different emblem maker’s opposite assessments of the meaning of the same biblical brass serpent: “the image of the brass serpent, […] is neither inherently good or bad. Rather, what the viewer makes of the image, how he uses it, determines whether it is an idol to be condemned or a sign to be remembered”. Fundamentally, the emblem book asked the reader to interpret it and to see as many relations as one can, both among the emblems themselves and in the natural world.

This is further seen in the intentions of their original maker, Andrea Alciati, who wanted to “devise epigrams that were especially enigmatic, so that the readers would get a sudden and pleasing illumination when they figured them out”. Yet their being enigmatic would only add to the multiplicity of meanings that were derived from them. The emblem books could be open to such a wide array of interpretations because nature was seen to work through correspondences and patterns which were directly related to the understanding of human beings.

“Mind, not outward form, prevails.”

This extreme multiplicity of symbolic interpretation makes itself apparent if we examine one of the most theologically understood animals in the emblematic world view. The generally accepted symbolic role of the Pelican in the moral language of the Middle Ages was that its act of self sacrifice for the sake of its young reflected Christ’s sacrificing himself for all mankind. As it says in the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: “There are different versions of this emblem, but the pelican is always shown pecking open its breast to allow the young to feed on its own blood. […] the pelican represents Christ’s mercy”. With a precursory glance at some of the examples of pelican symbolism, however, we see the self-sacrifice of the pelican go through a number of transformations.

As per the generally accepted symbolism there are those, like the example from the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution, which show the Christian importance of the pelican. However, there were many associations drawn from the pelican other than this interpretive norm. The pelican, it seems, can also serve as a symbol of the king who sacrifices himself for his people in emulation of Christ. While this is not too far from the generally accepted iconography of the pelican there are others that diverge significantly from this symbolic norm. One emblem in particular “Pelikan baut sein Nest auf dem Boden” Pelican: builds its nest on the ground. This diverges from almost every other pelican emblem, only preserving the nest in its symbolism. Rather than espousing the virtues of self-sacrifice, as even the more secular emblems of its kind tend to, it warns against hubris, citing the placement of the pelican’s nest (which itself varies from emblem to emblem). Furthermore, this warning against arrogance is also reincorporated in another pelican emblem that depicts a mother holding her infant carelessly above the ground by one leg, while the pelican in the foreground moves to protect its young from their flaming nest. It condemns mothers who hold their own well being above that of their children. The nest in this emblem is also, incidentally, placed on the ground. It is no wonder then, that when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) tried to make an encyclopaedia of the emblematic knowledge of his time, he did not finish until he had compiled thirteen massive folios on the subject. As Ashworth states: “It is one thing to talk about a ‘web of associations’; it is much more impressive to see this web laid out, strand by strand, as Aldrovandi does”. What allowed this massive swelling of emblematic knowledge was in part the extreme fluidity of meanings, which was shown to be the case with the pelican example above.

If the rise of the emblematic interpretation of the world first seemed to correspond with the Protestant Reformation, it would be that same Reformation that would set up the conditions for its downfall. As Peter Harrison discusses in his work The Bible Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science: “The demise of allegory […] was due largely to the efforts of Protestant reformers, who in their search for an unambiguous religious authority, insisted that the book of scripture be interpreted only in its literal, historical sense”. This search for an unambiguous authority worked its way into all forms of knowledge both sacred and secular, and was the start of a process that would spell the end of the emblematic world view.

“To insist now that texts be read literally” writes Harrison, “was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things”. The Protestant reformers, in their efforts for a single textual authority with a fixed meaning and unambiguous understanding, could not coexist with a view in which there was no one textual authority, no fixed meanings and that thrived on these very ambiguities. The Bible needed to be the only authority on matters of religious doctrine and thus it would necessarily be interpreted in such a way so as to remove all doubts and ambiguities. “Only a literal method, or more strictly a method which allowed but a single meaning to be assigned to each passage of scripture, could serve this purpose”. When taken into the realm of natural science this approach was incompatible with views based on ancient authorities or traditional symbolism. Interpretations of natural entities could no longer look to each other for their justifications, but could only appeal to the final authority left in the literal world: the senses. More than any other force, the disillusionment with the possibility of a set end to the emblematic understanding of nature served to discredit the possibility that meaning could serve as any solid basis for knowledge, for as a product of human convention it had no end but itself. This threw the entire view that meaning was the measure of knowledge into question, and helped set the stage for a view of observable truths to take its place. As Harrison writes:

A disturbing implication of this development was that the purportedly natural representative functions of living things were in fact merely conventional, that the things bore no universal, God-given, significance, but instead had been arbitrarily given meaning by human agents.

It is important here to note the difference in language used to describe what constituted knowledge in the emblematic and literal world views. When discussing the knowledge of the emblematic world Ashworth does not mention the word “truth” until he arrives at Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) attempt to demystify the symbolic associations of several animals in his section entitled: “Browne and the quest for truth in natural history”. In this section Ashworth recounts how Browne held the emblematic account of animals to the test of repeatable experimentation and observations, as he says about one of his works: “in the Pseudodoxia [Epidemica], Browne asks the remarkable questions: Are these stories true? Can they be demonstrated?” In this section Ashworth implies, if he does not state, that the measure of knowledge in the emblematic view is not truth, but meaning.

These two concepts are also paired off against each other in Harrison’s account, in which he describes St. Augustine’s focus on spiritual truths (the theological meaning beyond the literal sense of a text) as being elevated at the cost of literal interpretations. Mapping St. Augustine’s approach to scripture onto accounts of the natural world, he goes on to argue how the meaning of the “spiritual truth” undermines the truth of the literal interpretation of the natural world. What is perhaps more interesting, in a later section Harrison goes on to describe how Thomas Browne sought to demystify the mythological representations of animals. He did this with an account based on observations that explained where the mistaken belief about the animal’s behaviours may have come from. This shows a reversal of St. Augustine’s original evaluation in which the meaning is actually a misinterpretation of the truth of a particular creature. As Harrison states: “Thomas Browne, for example, suggested that the allegory of the pelican might have arisen from observations of the birds scratching their breasts during preening, and drawing blood”. This is the exact opposite of the earlier accounts of the natural world and is evident in the word choice of “meaning” as opposed to “truth”, a distinction that arguably did not exist until the rise of the literal view. Thus it could be summarized that meanings are variable, of uncertain authority, and potentially endless in their permutations, whereas truths as seen to be pinnacle of certainty, appealing to one firmly established authority and above all a limited number of viable permutations. In the decline of the emblematic world view a new concept of “truth” had displaced “meaning” in providing the conceptual framework under which nature was studied.

John Ray (1627-1705), in his preference to The Ornithology of Francis Willughby states that the chief error of previous natural philosophers trying to document the physical world was that they multiplied, unnecessarily, the number of species. This new focus on facts above meanings also necessitated a different ordering principle than that which had dominated the emblematic world view.  Harrison states that even with the emergence of Baconian empiricism, there was no set structure guiding observational knowledge: “Physical collections of objects bear witness to the same taxonomic anarchy […]. Vast amounts of new data might have been accumulated, but in the absence of an alternative conception of natural order, these could not constitute a new science”. What provided this order in the case of the literal world view was both the thesis, or hypothesis, and the developing science of taxonomy. As Harrison notes: “An overarching ordering principle is conspicuously absent in critical and constructive humanist works on natural history”, though arguably this lack of an overarching principle was part of the point of the humanist approach to knowledge, it does provide a key insight into the differences and similarities of the two. The emblematic world view could not have a thesis because that would require some end to the process of associations; it could not have a taxonomy based on the smallest parts of animals because its form of knowledge was based on building them up in associations, rather than breaking them down. In comparison, the literal world view needed a thesis and a set taxonomical language around which to structure it as its ordering principle to some observable end.

Thus the need for some set thesis led to the new pressure to develop a uniform taxonomy of the natural world, so that it could be discussed in definite terms that allowed for conclusive answers. Ray, commenting on his deceased colleague Willughby describes in his work the mentality that would be necessary to develop such a taxonomy:

Now that he might clear up all these obscurities, and render the knowledge and distinction of Species facile to all that should come after, he bent his endeavours mainly to find out […] certain Characteristic notes of each kind. But if in any kind no singular mark occurred whereby it might be certainly distinguished from all others, he did minutely and exactly describe all its parts, that at least a Collection of many accidents, which all together could not be found in any Species else of the same kind, might serve for a Characteristic.

At first glance this method could be seen as being similar to the “taxonomic anarchy” of the emblematic world view. However, one must keep in mind that the reason why such exhaustive detail was needed was to fulfill the set task of ready identification and separation of species, instead of the more general task of “accumulating vast amounts of new data”. Furthermore, we see that this massive accumulation works downwards to more minute details, rather than upwards to more complex meanings. Harrison argues that this taxonomical process is the offspring of the attempt to find a universal language capable of filling the gap left by the death of the emblematic world view. As he states:

[N]o-one thought any longer that such universal languages would somehow unlock the secrets of Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge. The best of the schemes offered a way of ordering and symbolizing what human ingenuity had discovered, [and gives us] a glimpse of the future direction of such systems – taxonomy.

In considering the comparison between these two world views it seems wise to offer an alternative explanation for one of the main changes seen in the shift from one to the other. While it is argued by Harrison that such an account shows a turn to a demand for more “useful” knowledge, it is more elucidating to consider that the question is not one of use as opposed to uselessness, but rather of what was considered useful to the various practitioners of these interpretive methods. The medieval interpretations of nature as allegory served the use of spiritual enlightenment, the emblematic interpretation of nature served the use of holistic wisdom, both of these concepts were more highly valued in their times than what we would today consider practical use. In contrast the literal world view was the only one of these interpretive methods to focus on practical uses, whether they were coming to know God or being able to describe more accurately the anatomy of a pelican. If anything, this trend shows a greater intolerance for uncertainty than a turn away from supposedly useless knowledge.

The effort to develop a set taxonomy described here is the literal equivalent of the expanding series of relations that had developed in the emblematic tradition. Ashworth quotes François Jacob’s comment that: “Living bodies were scraped clean, so to speak. They shook of their crust of analogies, resemblances and signs, to appear in all the nakedness of their true outer shape”. If this was the beginning of the literal world view, it certainly was not its end. What the efforts at taxonomy show is the literal world view’s alternative, or renewed, quest to build itself up, not through a web of associations, but by a chain of facts that would point to the ultimate knowledge of natural entities. If in the emblematic view creatures were systematically expanded into a growing web of associations, then the literal one could be said to have systematically stripped creatures down in a sort of reductionist taxonomy. This method had the new goal of identification, which itself served the purpose of expanding the literal knowledge need for a single, specific, unambiguous language with which to address the natural world.

Ultimately then, the mechanism most likely to have caused the demise of the emblematic world view and the rise of the literal one was the growing feeling that knowledge based on meanings could potentially continue forever. In contrast, knowledge based on observable truths promised a specific end with definite results. The shift was caused by a change from valuing the holistic knowledge of nature as associations to valuing the repeatable and observational knowledge of nature as sensations over and above human history and meaning. One could not repeat the “experiment” of a symbol or emblem, and their uses were discredited in light of their potential for endless ambiguities and interpretations. What is present in the one case is the valuing of knowledge as being incomplete without those necessary uncertainties that make psychological relationships possible, as opposed to the very definite demand for certainty present in a literal account of the world.

As such, meaning and their symbolic representations were eclipsed by a notion of truth and its association with observable facts as the measure of knowledge. The new interpretive tools provided by the literal world view, however, in their need to fill the space left by the receding emblematic tool set, demanded some new descriptive standard. That standard was taxonomy. The physical taxonomy of things being interpreted in terms of their more minute physical components is a method not dissimilar in kind to that of the emblematic world view, yet it benefits from being younger and having the renewed promise of a definitive end. Yet understood this way, the door is open for the possibility that the literal world view could succumb to the same pressures that were the ruination of the emblematic cosmos. The processes may be slowed somewhat by the specialization of knowledge, but one must eventually ask oneself the question: What would happen if this method of interpretation were to encounter the same explosion of “facts” and the same seemingly endless pursuit that led to the demise of the emblematic world view? That is, however, a question for another time. For as has already been stated, when operating under the literal world view, the demand for a thesis under which to organize a collection of information contains within itself the demand for a recognizable, definitive end.

For More Information:

Geoffrey Whitney. A Choice of Emblems 1586 Yorkshire: The Scolar Press Limited, 1973.

Henkel, Arthur, Albrecht Schöne, Ed. Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts.

John Ray, Francis Willughby. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby London: Printed by E. Cotes, 1658.

(Accessible online at:

Ashworth, William B., Jr. “Natural history and the emblematic world view”, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 303-325.

Diehl, Huston. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England”, Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1986): 49-66.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tapp, Kevin. “Emblematics”, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, Ed. Wilbur Applebaum. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, 203-205.