November 24, 2003

The Devil's Catalog

Before I go any further, I should note that the title of this post is entirely in jest, chosen largely because I'm reading In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton. (It's an interesting book, by the way -- Norton tries to situate the Witch trials in the broader context of the late 17th century First and Second Indian Wars -- I may have some comments on the book later.) Reading the quoted testimony of those who claimed to be bewitched -- how the Devil promised them riches and finery and good things if only they would sign their names in his little red book -- somehow seemed related to the Pyramid Collection catalog that arrived in the mail, along with dozens of others, over the weekend. Like its brethern, it was aimed at the holiday shopper, although I imagine a non-traditional shopper was intended. Pentagrams, skulls, spellbooks (and I don't mean the New England Primer, complete with the Westminster Assembly Shorter Catechism), and the like. It's an odd collection of things, but really -- that doesn't bother me at all (a point I'll return to in a moment). But the catalog advertises itself (I'll quote the Web version, though the paper isn't much different) as offering "personal growth and exploration."

The items for sale do not seem to include the Confessions of Augustine. There's a Witches' Datebook that "features monthly rituals, Wiccan holidays and important dates, prize recipes, best days to plant/harvest, moon signs/phases," and so on, a Witches' Bible, cauldron and broomstick, even vials "of Salem Witch Laurie Cabotís special potion," which I gather is a sort of perfume.

Lest I give a false impression, items for the practicing witch or witch wannabe make up only a fraction of this treasure trove. There are pages (both virtual and printed) devoted to the Renaissance, Egypt, Celtic heritage (read: Druids), "Tarot, Astrology and the Oracle" (all one category), and Eastern Philosophy, which features such classic works as the Harem halter and matching Harem pants, the Tibetan Phone Bell (which apparently replaces the irritating ring of the telephone with a soothing gong sound), and, for those inclined to more serious studies, the nude Yoga VHS tape. Not that it's particularly odd, but one thing I noted: the Renaissance section features a few anachronisms, but not Egyptian goods -- there was a real fascination with "Egyptian" religion during the period -- but rather Druid goods. And nothing says authentic Renaissance like the 100 percent polyester Princess Rose Dress (but I digress...).

My pedagogic nature is a little offended by the many missed opportunities (why not offer the Corpus Hermeticum, and other Egyptian items, on the Renaissance page instead of the crushed velvet Druid capes?), but those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Littering my shelves are dozens of odd volumes, from what I presume is either a very bad translation or a very faithful translation of the badly written Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the Nag Hammadi Library, works by Marx and La Mettrie, a half dozen or so translations of the Bible, three translations of the Qur'an, volumes by Descartes, Bacon and Breton, even a volume of selections by Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus. What is worse, I do not even pretend to have mastered any of these texts. It's a little hard for such a sorcerer's apprentice to sit in judgment of the small number of people who peruse a catalog hoping to find "personal growth and exploration" (as opposed to those searching for the nude Yoga VHS tapes).

Posted by Ideofact at November 24, 2003 11:24 PM

And Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili?

Posted by: tm at November 26, 2003 09:08 AM

I didn't even realize the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili had been translated. I probably won't be adding it anytime soon to the shelves of esoteric literature, although I do have Aldus and His Dream Book.

Posted by: Bill at November 29, 2003 11:15 PM

It's quite recent: 1999. The translation is by Joscelyn Godwin and published by Thames & Hudson. As is noted on the flap of the dust jacket, it's been printed in the same size and format as the original, and with all of the woodcuts. I found it purely by chance, in the discount section of the American Book Store here in Leuven (Belgium), at about a third of the normal price. It's definitely my best book-find ever.

As chance would have it, I saw an edition of the original a couple of weeks ago, along with Orlando Furioso and Vesalius, at an exhibition curated by Umberto Eco. The entire exhibition is organized around Titian's Venus, with everything else contextualizing or somehow enriching one's understanding or appreciation of that one painting.

Posted by: tm at December 1, 2003 07:34 PM