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The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions [Paperback]

Joscelyn Godwin , Richard Smoley
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 23 2008
In this concise survey, Godwin identifies the great movers and shakers of the Western Mystery Tradition, providing a brief history and description of each. Moving chronologically from ancient Egypt to twentieth-century Europe, he covers Hermes, Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, the Gnostics, the alchemists and Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and the Theosophists, as well as others. Godwin views each of these traditions as stages of spiritual development, but because all stem from the perennial wisdom, the knowledge they offer can be just as relevant and transformative today as it was hundreds of years ago.

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Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
When the Christian humanists of the Italian Renaissance studied the newly-discovered writings of the ancient philosophers, a new era opened in the self-image of Western civilization. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Mystery Tour May 3 2013
Format:Paperback
This is a delightful little book of 150 pages made of 16 easy to read chapters. The content of most chapters previously appeared in the magazine Lapis: The Inner Meaning of Contemporary Life. The end and beginning of each article has been rewritten to adapt them to the book form and make the chapters mesh naturally with each other. It ensured a seamless and coherent presentation.

It is basically an overview of the Western Esoteric Traditions. Not an extensive review, nor a comprehensive one, but still covers the essentials for someone looking for a serious introduction to the subject. The articles have been put together in a way to make it almost a chronological history. So what we have is a brief discussion of each tradition, with interesting comparisons made to help us differentiate them from one another.

The book is written with a descriptive style and mostly on a neutral academic tone. But the author will occasionally make a personal comment, sometime unexpectedly, which makes the book come alive. The comprehensive footnotes are an integral part of the narrative and should not be skipped. They add another 40 pages or so and can be referred to as a bibliography. I would have given the book five stars if it had been more substantial and complete. The material was so captivating throughout that I just wanted more. Still, the book is packed with intriguing informations and challenging ideas. It can be used as a starting point to launch a deeper inquiry into subjects one may be more interested to explore.

Godwin's book took me on a Mystery Tour that showed me many things I had never seen before. It's quite dense, but it feels light. It's also erudite, but the reader comes out illuminated rather than humiliated. Don't be fooled by its diminutive size, for it's the kind of book that can enlarge one's view on life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
The Golden Thread is a lightning tour of the Western esoteric tradition, by one of the world's foremost scholars of esotericism. Crammed with invaluable footnotes, this slim book packs a punch far beyond its meagre size - it's simply chock full of interesting insights.

Basically, The Golden Thread is about wisdom; a wisdom that has survived only as a thin (and infinitely precious) thread - hence the title. This golden thread in fact gave birth to modern science, but 'science' in its contemporary sense has come to mean only knowledge 'about' something...whereas true wisdom comes from experiencing something. As C.G. Jung observed, "belief is no substitute for inner experience."

Richard Smoley notes in his foreword that "the fate of wisdom in the West has been an unusually dark one." This has been partly on account of Christianity (with its totalitarian mental outlook), and partly because of the pseudo-religion of scientific materialism, which "denies any reality other than the purely physical and mechanical." Materialism acknowledges only quantity - that which can be measured or counted.

Each chaper of this book looks at a different aspect of the golden thread. As the author notes in his preface, "each stage is perpetually present," and thus each chapter "makes reference to some aspect of contemporary life." But esotericisms are not for everyone...they are only for "those with sufficient interest, motivation, and capacity to benefit from them." Today, most of these people have become "lonely travellers among the ruined monuments of ancient mysteries. This book is offered by one such traveller, for the guidance and entertainment of others." And as such, it fulfills its stated purpose rather well.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Out of Plato's cave...into the Real World. March 8 2008
By oc9399 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
My first encounter with Joscelyn Godwin's work occurred about 10 years ago while leafing through an issue of the journal Rûna. Godwin's article, "Polar and Solar Symbolism", profoundly opened me to an esoteric school of thought that captivates my mind to this very day. Since then, I have read a handful of his other works, including the truly astounding Arktos which provided a foundation for further philosophical and spiritual inquiry. Henceforth, it continues with his latest book, The Golden Thread. For those who are unfamiliar with Godwin, this latest offering is as good a place to start as any. In fact, it may be his most accessible work to date.

The Golden Thread opens with an informative and insightful Foreword courtesy of Richard Smoley, followed by Godwin's Preface which explains the terms `esoteric' and `exoteric'. Although this book provides a linear history of numerous prophets, priest-kings, and philosophers, the esoteric current underlying their teachings is the gist of this book. Additionally, Chapter 1, "The Prisca Thelogia" (the primordial theology) crucially lays the foundation upon which the subsequent material rests.

Godwin covers a staggering amount of material in the first part of The Golden Thread that can be a bit overwhelming at times. Even so, his coverage of renowned philosophers Pythagoras and Plato (each of whom an entire chapter is devoted) is quite fascinating and highlights their larger-than-life personalities and landmark work in the fields of music, mathematics, astronomy, and politics. Godwin also discusses contemporary figures such as Carl Jung, including some critical remarks regarding Erich von Dänkien's enormously popular but mundane pulps on "gods from outer space."

Subsequent chapters of this book touch upon many facets of the esoteric world including Mithraism, Gnosticism, sacred geometry, and alchemy. Throughout, Godwin never fails to emphasize the timeless essence of these disciplined fields of study, which demand knowledge over devotion or mere worship. The largely secular world we reside in today has relegated these topics to the anachronistic and antiquated dustbins of history. To the contrary, Godwin maintains these are avenues for re-discovery and application in the modern age for the discerning mind.

Overall, The Golden Thread is essential reading for those who are disenchanted with both the religious fundamentalism (in any form) and scientific materialism that hold sway in the modern world. Godwin proposes a "third way" to this unsavory dualism, a transcendent philosophy that ultimately proposes more questions than it provides answers. For those who want easy answers, dogma, for better or worse, is always in vogue and never in short supply. For the former group, Godwin offers the optimistic view of the New Age movement (nebulous as it may be) or the pessimistic doctrine of the Traditionalists. Of the latter, Godwin quotes directly from Julius Evola's Ride the Tiger, "...in the Kali Yuga there is no tradition left, and that the rare person who aspires to a spiritual path must make his own heroic and lonely way." In any case, it is indeed a rare person who can muster the ability to face these dire times with, as Godwin so aptly puts it, "mild amusement."

(Note: In addition to the trade paperback version, a limited clothbound edition of The Golden Thread is available from Dominion Press).
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A few things you should know about 'The Golden Thread' Dec 3 2009
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Golden Thread is a lightning tour of the Western esoteric tradition, by one of the world's foremost scholars of esotericism. Crammed with invaluable footnotes, this slim book packs a punch far beyond its meagre size - it's simply chock full of interesting insights.

Basically, The Golden Thread is about wisdom; a wisdom that has survived only as a thin (and infinitely precious) thread - hence the title. This golden thread in fact gave birth to modern science, but 'science' in its contemporary sense has come to mean only knowledge 'about' something...whereas true wisdom comes from experiencing something. As C.G. Jung observed, "belief is no substitute for inner experience."

Richard Smoley notes in his foreword that "the fate of wisdom in the West has been an unusually dark one." This has been partly on account of Christianity (with its totalitarian mental outlook), and partly because of the pseudo-religion of scientific materialism, which "denies any reality other than the purely physical and mechanical." Materialism acknowledges only quantity - that which can be measured or counted.

Each chaper of this book looks at a different aspect of the golden thread. As the author notes in his preface, "each stage is perpetually present," and thus each chapter "makes reference to some aspect of contemporary life." But esotericisms are not for everyone...they are only for "those with sufficient interest, motivation, and capacity to benefit from them." Today, most of these people have become "lonely travellers among the ruined monuments of ancient mysteries. This book is offered by one such traveller, for the guidance and entertainment of others." And as such, it fulfills its stated purpose rather well.

Godwin's narrative begins in the Renaissance, when the so-called 'Christian Humanists' rediscovered the pagan philosophers of antiquity, and were at a loss to explain how these so-called 'benighted heathens' had been possessed of such wisdom and high spirituality. They were forced to revise their worldview, and admit that certain pagans had been divinely inspired. Gemistos, a Byzantine diplomat, came up with the idea of a prisca theologia, or 'primordial theology', to explain how these ancients had apparently received divine revelation. As a result of Gemistos' influence, the Platonic Academy was founded in Florence.

This kind of acceptance of pagan philsophies had also been advocated in the Muslim world by the Persian theosopher Suhrawardi, who spoke of a state called Hûrqalyâ (translated by Henry Corbin as mundus imaginalis - the imaginal world), the inner world of the imagination, which is as real as the quantifiable world around us, and in fact is superior to it. Godwin elaborates further on this mundus imaginalis in the chapter called 'The Arts of the Imagination': "Rational scholarship knows no intermediary between fact and fiction [...] but rational scholars are typically unacquainted with the workings of the creative mind. They do not know those ecstasies in which the poet beholds 'forms more real than living man', which he later attempts to capture in verse. If they did, they would call them hallucinations."

Godwin also examines the teachings of the Hermetic philosophy. Hermes was the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian god Thoth, who ruled over the esoteric path (i.e. the path of knowledge, as opposed to the devotional path of exoteric religion). The Hermetic philosophy involved the ascent of the soul through the various celestial spheres; if one's life's work was done properly, one would emerge throught the final sphere (of fixed stars) into the realm of the Blessed. This was not a theology, but rather a practical teaching, and thus it could (theoretically) be incorporated within the framework of any given religion.

Later, with Orphism, came the doctrine that each person possesses a small spark of divinity within themselves (this was also no doubt what Aleister Crowley meant in his famous assertion that "every man and every woman is a star"). Then Plato introduced the teaching that each state of being in the cosmic hierarchy emanates from the state above it, which "loves it as its own child, and is loved in return" - an astonishingly beautiful metaphor.

When Christianity came along, the golden thread continued, albeit in a disguised form...you have to really look hard to perceive it. It was guarded by esotericists like Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Eriugena and Meister Eckhart, and also in the architectural secrets of the Gothic cathedrals, to which Godwin devotes a whole chapter. He also discusses secret societies and why secrecy can often be necessary for esoteric work: if a neophyte talks about it to outsiders they may give a false and distorted impression of its teachings. Most people have no aptitude to understand such things anyway, and are better off following an exoteric religion - an attitude which may be elitist and hierarchical, but is true nonetheless.

Godwin also examines various kinds of gnosticism and related forms of dualism (although it should be noted that not all gnostics were dualists). Perhaps the difference between those (like Plato) who see the material world as merely the lower emanation of a hierarchy, and those who regard it as a 'vale of tears' and actually 'evil', is merely a matter of temperament. Godwin speculates that the 'evil demiurge' of gnosticism might only be an egregore - who will wither and die when people stop believing in him.

One of the book's most interesting and contentious chapters is, in fact, devoted to this very concept of the 'egregore'. It is the theory that people or races create their own gods, with limited powers. For instance, Godwin speculates that Ancient Rome may have been essentially kept alive by the belief in its gods, and observance of ritual etc. Then, when the Roman gods were increasingly abandoned and the salvation cults and mystery religions began to flourish in their place, Rome itself began to decline. Attempts were made to fortify the Roman egregore by the establishment of an imperial cult, but this was artificial, and thus doomed to failure.

Godwin conjectures that this may also be why the egregore of Communism failed...because few people really loved it. It would also explain the astonishing survival of the 'revealed' religions (e.g. Islam) into the modern era. "It may be," he writes, "that for a society to flourish, it has to keep its egregore alive; and for this to happen, the emotional and spiritual focus of the population must be on this world rather than on the next." And while Christianity, for instance, began as an otherworldly cult, it soon took on its own egregore - that of the 'pseudoempire' (as Godwin calls it) of the Church.

Godwin rightly perceives that polytheistic religions are superior to monotheistic ones, because the former incorporate the latter but not the other way around. He asserts that semitic monotheism, far from being 'progressive', was "a retrograde step in almost every respect." He is good at translating his historical insights into modern terms. For instance, when discussing Orphism, he notes that the ugliness and depravity of much modern art signifies that our society is suffering from a kind of malnutrition of the soul. For how can modern men and women "enter the soul's domain with no songs to sing, no poetry to charm Pluto and Persephone?"

In the chapter on Plato, when discussing the concept of tyrants and tyranny, Godwin asserts that in our liberal-democratic system, today's tyrants are "the special-interests lobbies, the military, legal, and medical industries, the bankers and speculators, the multinationals etc." In other words, the ones who fund the major political parties. And he is spot on. In times (such as ours) when society is no longer conducive to spiritual values, enlightened people may take one of two paths - the personal, or the political.

For the golden thread has now frayed "into a myriad filaments." While Godwin sees Jung as having been the shining light for Western esotericism in the twentieth century (though Jung was limited in some ways by his self-proclaimed scientific worldview), for the contemporary searcher there is nevertheless "no centralisation, no single curriculum, no diploma of authenticity" to let him know whether he is on the right track or not. To paraphrase Knut Hamsun, we are "on overgrown paths."

At the end of the book, Godwin sums up both the good and the bad aspects of the times we live in. On the one hand, "knowledge has been put into our hands that was once the closely guarded property of initiates, together with the freedom to discuss and follow it without fear of being executed for heresy. Is this not cause for rejoicing?" But, on the other hand, "the price we pay for this historically unique situation is living in the modern world, in which the lunatics quite obviously are running the asylum."

It is up to each man or woman to decide for themselves what to do with the knowledge we have been given from the past. But at the very least, Godwin's book will have given many of us a valuable place to start in our exploration of that knowledge.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book That Is Enjoyable To Read Sept. 11 2007
By Mark Stavish, The Institute for Hermetic Studies - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Golden Thread by Joscelyn Godwin is one of the best introductions to the Western mystery traditions available. Clear, concise, witty, and insightful, it is written with academic rigor while in a style that is flowing and captivating. Dr. Godwin has managed to present to the reader the essential elements of the various streams of Western esotericism in a living and dynamic nature, taking the reader from the early Hermetic and Gnostic periods to the present day. Those unfamiliar with Godwin's work will find this a delightful and informative introduction; those already familiar with this living giant - a genuine Renaissance man in his own right - will find the highest quality of thought and warmth of appreciation for the material that they have come to expect.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Real Dec 6 2008
By Kevin Fuller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In modern Western society, we take it for granted what is real lies outside ourselves and is objective, substantial. Highlighted by Plato, however, the 'Real' was subjective and consisted of ideas...the world then emanated from Mind. Living in Alice's Wonderland, us Westerns have lost grasp of this vital Truth and have spent centuries chasing various rabbits down various holes. Comical. Beginning with Orpheus, Godwin traces this perennial philosophy through such luminaries as Pythagoras and Plato, highlighting how each added their own nuances to the Idealistic Philosophy. A wonderful read for anyone seeking a good introduction to Platonic philosophy and before, as well as for those with more esoteric interests.
19 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Overview of the Western Mystery Tradition Oct. 22 2007
By Stephen J. Triesch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In "The Hidden Thread," author Joscelyn Godwin provides a brief history of the various facets that comprise the so-called Western Mystery Tradition. Godwin traces the tradition back to its origins in Egypt, the Platonists, and the ancient mystery schools, then on through the rise of Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into modern times.

There are chapters on Pythagorus, the Gothic cathedrals, the "negative" mystics of Christianity, the alchemists, the Romantics, the theosophists, the influence of Eastern religions in the West, and the New Age movement, among other topics. (The Kabbalists and the Sufis are not given quite enough attention, in my opinion.)

Godwin has given us a book that is wide-ranging, yet somewhat skimpy. Godwin thus makes a number of interesting observations, yet typically fails to explore their implications in any depth. She points out a number of intellectual dilemmas, e.g., the perceived conflict between science and mysticism, and suggests that the Western Mystery Tradition might be the solution to those dilemmas, but does not spell out exactly how or why.

As a general introduction to the Western Mystery Tradition, I think "The Golden Thread" falls short of efforts such as "Hidden Wisdom," by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney.

Godwin does not explore some key questions with sufficient depth. What is alive and what is dead in the Western Mystery Tradition (WMT)? Is it possible that the WMT can ever revivify Christianity in any of its forms? What would such a Christianity look like? Is the WMT to be forever the province of the solitary practitioner? (Godwin seems to answer "yes" to that question.) Is it possible that a future Western civilization will be based on the esoteric principles of the WMT? What is the future of Islam and Buddhism in the West? Has Christianity ALREADY been altered by contact with the East? Is the New Age the religion of the future? These and other questions are hinted at, but not adequately explored. Godwin points out conflicts and dilemmas, but offers no clear way out, no road map, no inspiring vision of what might be.

This is a good book, but not a great one. The topics interest me, Godwin makes some interesting observations, but I came away thinking there could and should have been more.
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