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Sunday, August 24th, 2008

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5:31a
Into the mind of a butcher ...
Needless to say, those who have been following my reading will not be surprised that I had very strong reactions to this book. The destruction that has been wrought world-wide by Christianity (and Islam, and, to some extent, other religions) is numbingly massive. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest is, at base, a document to one of these abominations. Written by Friar Diego de Landa in 1566, this was initially a part of a defense that he was mounting, having been recalled to Spain to face charges of irregularities in his performance of duties as head Franciscan in the Yucatan (not so much for mistreatment of the natives, although this was a charge brought against him by more compassionate clergy at the time, but for having assumed the "rights" of other orders and divisions of colonial management in his crushing the local culture). His defense worked, as he was returned to Yucatan, in a higher post. This Dover edition is a reprint of a 1937 publication by translator William Gates, who is also outspoken in his disgust for Landa:

The position of Diego de Landa in history rests upon two of his acts, one the writing of (this) book ... and the other the famous Auto de fé of July 1562 ...
... It is perhaps not too strong a statement to make, that ninety-nine percent of what we today know of the Mayas, we know as a result of what Landa has told us ... or have learned in the use and study of what he told.
... If ninety-nine hundredths of our present knowledge is at base derived from what he told us, it is an equally safe statement that at that Auto de fé of '62, he burned ninety-nine times as much knowledge of Maya history and sciences as he has given us in his book.
Yes, Landa was the monster responsible for the destruction of every scroll that could be found under his watch, despite having had some translated and speaking highly of their contents (except that their contents were not Christian and so needed to be burned). Gates points out in his notes how oblivious Landa appeared to be to the cognitive dissonance of on one hand commenting on the sophistication and development of the Mayan learning, and on the other hand having no compunction in committing them to the flames. Landa will also praise the bearing and nobility of various Mayan chieftains, in the same breath where he claims their are tools of Satan and noting how he had various of them tortured to death ... with no hint of irony creeping in. How much clearer example can there be of the religious need to hew to doctrine at the expense of reality? Every Christian Church is stained with the blood of innocents, every Christian a karmic participant in the obliteration of whole peoples.

Much like later Soviet agrarian policy, Landa (on behalf of the Spanish crown) destroyed what were millennial-old cultural/farming structures in the interests of bureaucracy, forcibly relocating widely-spread villages (whose size and systems fit to the "carrying capacities" of the land) into Spanish-styled cities, the better to "Christianize" and tax the natives. Extensive famine and death followed. In supporting documents that Gates adds, there are analyses of the official tax rolls of the Yucatan ... between 1549 and 1579 the population (as expressed by the Spanish "take" in officially-demanded tax items) dropped by 80% ... The Spanish over-lords, who had been awarded regions of the Yucatan for their service in the conquest were very vocal in protesting how their revenues had declined by 4/5th over the course of a generation!

It is a miracle that as much of the Mayan culture has survived ... of course Gates could not have known (when positing the 99% figure above) that we would eventually be able to read the glyphs, and find much knowledge (of at least the highly advanced Mayan calendar) encoded in stone carvings which had escaped obliteration at the hands of the Friars ... but the Auto da fé erased so much more. This is a crime on the level of the burning of the Library at Alexandria (also at the hands of a Christian mob!), and should never be forgotten, especially when considering the characters of Popes and their various lackeys.

I highly recommend Yucatan Before and After the Conquest to all and sundry ... it's a glaring light thrown onto the vileness of institutionalized religion, and should shame every Christian (and especially every Catholic) who reads it. This is, thankfully, still in print in the very reasonably priced ($8.95 cover) Dover edition, an should be available through your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. Both Amazon and BN.com have it at cover price (with the new/used vendors being at a disadvantage due to that low cover plus high per-item shipping), so you might put this on the list for pumping up a book order to that free-shipping zone.


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7:25p
Not newage fluff ...
I had some nagging doubts when I picked up Perle Epstein's Kabbalah:The Way of the Jewish Mystic that it might be one of those "new age" Kabbalah books (ala Madonna, etc.) and that I was going to loathe it. Fortunately, this is not the case, this coming (originally published in 1978) well before the current cultish craze. The author certainly predicts it (the epilogue is entitled Personal Musings on a Future Kabbalah) yet while spinning out hypothetical "pop Kabbalah" forms, says: "Today there are no actively recruiting Kabbalists - no posters on college campuses announcing intensive meditation sessions, no encounters, only now and then a scholarly Kabbalist who might drop a hint or two in a lecture on Jewish mysticism." ... certainly things have changed in the past 30 years, and, unfortunately, the author (as "Perle Besserman") seems to have been one of driving forces behind the "celebrity cult" form.

Given that, this book is a remarkably informative over-view of traditional Kabbalah (for example, virtually no mention is made of the "western occult tradition", the likes of Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley, and their use of these systems), tracing back through Jewish history and literature. It is divided into three sections, "The Mystic Life" which looks as the Kabbalah as a path, and how it had historically developed, "Kabbalistic Paths" which looks at meditative, scholarly, and ecstatic forms of Kabbalah, and finally a section "Cleaving to God" which deals with prophesy, etc.

One very interesting point is that nearly every major text on the Kabbalah was greeted as an outright forgery, but had substantial (and evidently quite functional) schools of Kabbalistic learning based on them ... this reminds me of Crowley's insistence that you could use the New York City phonebook as your grimoire if you went about your mysticism with sufficiently focused intent!

The author does seem to have an interest in placing Kabbalah in context of the various "new age" movements of the 70's, noting that many (if not most) of the followers of various Eastern gurus were Jewish youth who had fallen away from their ancestral faith. She compares many Kabbalistic practices with those of the Taoists, and there are certainly clear parallels to the visionary aspects of Vajrayana. Even "goddess" worship is introduced here via the aspect of the Shekhina/Matrona, noting "the very presence of the living God in the world is female" (and so providing a link to Catholic Marian devotion).

However, the strength of this book is in it's density, with a vast lot of history and philosophic development being funneled into the middle sections where the assorted "schools" of Kabbalah are walked through. The names, practices, and treatises run thick, and often inter-woven, making it hard for me to provide a brief thumb-nail sketch of the flow, but the process of reading through does provide a sense that you're being provided with a particularly clear window into a rather important (yet frequently ignored) aspect of the human search for the divine.

Epstein, though, refuses to let what could be an arid recitation of names and dates fall into that trap, but keeps her writing lively, with personal details (and foibles) of various figures, and evocative descriptions of such places as Safed, which she introduces as:

Safed is a natural mystic's retreat, the perfect landscape for cultivating Awe, an ethereal town that could just as well have been a tiny Tibetan enclave or the setting for an isolated monastery in the Himalayan foothills; a Jewish Shangri-La. And so it was, once.
She also peppers in dry humor such as the off-hand comment that a particular community where some famed teacher lived was now beneath a runway of Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Certainly if you have an interest in the mystic paths, Kabbalah:The Way of the Jewish Mystic is a book that should be added to your bookshelf, and if your exposure to the Kabbalah is only via the Crowley material, this will provide history, context, and grounding. It is too bad that this seems to be just a prelude to the "Kabbalah craze", but I think that it manages to stand on its own.

Oddly, Amazon has this hardcover edition listed as by Besserman rather than Epstein, while listing the still-in-print paperback in the original name. I am assuming that these are the same woman, but one never knows with Amazon. There are "very good" copies of the hardback available for 1¢ and "new" copies for as little as 24¢ (plus shipping, of course). Despite where this led over the past few decades, I'd recommend this as a primer on the traditional Kabbalah.


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