North was originally conceived as an engaging survey of the various ideas and literature related to the mystique of the celestial and terrestrial poles. Slowly but surely, a kind of non-fiction narrative took over. Inevitably, the ‘sourcebook’ aspect remains in evidence, so it’s fitting here to round up the various sources that have informed and inspired me. Besides specifically polar themes, works here also address wider issues in cosmology, place, anthropology, psychology, and animism.
The Ancient Wisdom: A Quest for the Source of Mystic Knowledge
Geoffrey Ashe (1977). As much as Arktos, this book opened up the very early stages of rumination which led me to North. There’s much that I’ve learned since which renders Ashe’s thinking dubious for me. But as a page-turning, imaginative quest through history and esoteric symbolism, it has its charms. If the idea of a lost tradition of shamanic visionaries in the Altai Mountains tickles your fancy, shift your expectations to ‘part theory, part fiction’, and dig in. There’s also a follow-up, Dawn Behind the Dawn, which expands these ideas and gravitates towards a ‘goddess culture’ image of this lost tradition.
Artkos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival
Joscelyn Godwin (1996). Probably the first book to give a solid overview of the mythic and cosmological import of the celestial and terrestrial poles. All the juicy stuff about Arctic Golden Ages, the Hollow Earth, Aryan myths, and mystical ascent traditions, presented with a pretty even scholarly hand.
Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
David Abram (2010). Where The Spell of the Sensuous situates animism within philosophical phenomenology, then attempts to sketch the outlines of a new animistic cosmology, this book tries to describe the way such a cosmology might be experienced. Vivid and captivating nature writing infused with a deeply thought-through philosophical engagement with what it means to be alive.
Coming to our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West
Morris Berman (1989). This is part of a trilogy which came to my attention very late in writing North, and which both confirmed much of the thinking I’d already done, and supplied me with crucial final pieces of the jigsaw. The Reenchantment of the World (1981) sketches some important aspects of early modern science, and The Wandering God (2000) ranks alongside The Other Side of Eden as a captivating elucidation of the differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural life. This book sits in the middle of the trilogy, dealing with the ‘ascent tradition’ – the vertically-inclined aspect of mysticism which mirrors the hierarchies and divisions of civilisation. Jewish visionaries, Cathars, and the mass psychology of Nazism are explored in this light, all underscored with an inspiring sensitivity to the importance of direct bodily experience. Highly recommended.
Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity
Stephen Toulmin (1990). An important effort to understand the implications of the Copernican Revolution, and the tumultuous seventeenth century during which this revolution was was consolidated. Toulmin argues that the socio-cosmic uncertainties in the wake of the Copernican shift and the Protestant Reformation led to the nascent modern discipline of science taking on a ‘Quest for Certainty’. This in turn fed into a vision of a new, rational order for society – a delusional order which Toulmin picks apart with his fine mind.
The Cygnus Mystery: Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins In The Cosmos
Andrew Collins (2006). The small niche of ‘celestial polar studies’ is dominated by theories about the importance of Ursa Major. This is an interesting diversion from the Bear to the Swan, an entertaining and provocative tangle of connections asserting the prehistoric heritage of reverence for the Cygnus constellation. The climactic speculations on cosmic radiation and human DNA mutations overreach, but that’s all part of the fun of this genre – to which this book is a refreshing addition.
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination
Francis Spufford (1996). This is a comprehensive, beautifully written, and endlessly insightful survey of the modern English obsession with polar exploration and Eskimos. Rich in historical detail and sensitive to the workings of myth in the ostensibly secular everyday world, it’s a highly enjoyable blend of thorough scholarship and imaginative analysis.
The Idea of North
Peter Davidson (2005). A good companion to I May Be Some Time, this books maps the literary, artistic, and folkloric contours of the North. From the Moomins to W.H. Auden, Davidson explores the romance, desolation, and ambivalent allure of northern climes and the Arctic.
The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism
Henry Corbin (1971). Corbin’s work explores the intersections between various Middle Eastern religious currents: Zoroastrianism, Hermetic and Platonic traditions, and especially Shi’ite Sufi mysticism. This book is the key text of his which concentrates on ‘the Cosmic North’, figuring the celestial pole as an image of our anchor in divine reality. Frequently oblique, there is nevertheless some fascinating material here. Read more in my review.
Neurosis: The Logic of a Metaphysical Illness
Wolfgang Giegerich (2013). Giegerich fits alongside James Hillman as a champion of psychology’s etymological responsibilities towards ‘the soul’. But he pushes Hillman’s aversion to touchy-feely Californian therapies – which avoid soul in favour of feelings – to greater extremes. Where Hillman is charmingly challenging, Giegerich can seem frustrating in his cerebral insistence on the soul as a ‘logical’ and ‘thinking’. But persist, and there are treasures here. This book casts neurosis as a modern disease, a logical response to the modern cosmological situation: ‘the sinking of the stars into the individual and the creation of the “inner”.’ The appendices here, a catalogue of ‘neurotic traps’ illustrating the book’s ideas in common therapeutic situations, unravel any frustrations one may have with his cerebral bent, showing him to be a deeply sensitive and intuitive psychologist.
The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World
Hugh Brody (2001). Despite the Eden metaphor in the title, this piece of popular scholarship – equally accessible and important – will only be found guilty of belief in a ‘Noble Savage’ by people mired in some kind of Victorian superiority complex. Brody is gifted with the balance of sensitivity and shrewdness that makes for great anthropology. Through exploring Eskimo language, customs, and everyday life, he also reflects on the wider historical arc which saw hunter-gatherers largely supplanted by agricultural ways of life. In the end, this book becomes one of the most useful guides to this arc and its consequences.
Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars
Edward H. Schafer (1977). Ancient China possessed a particularly rich web of traditions relating the heavens to magic, alchemy, and royal power – with a special focus on circumpolar stars such as the Plough asterism. And there is no better guide around these traditions than Schafer, whose keen scholarship is matched by an easy-going affability and a sparkling imagination.
The Poetics of Space
Gaston Bachelard (1958). Bachelard started out studying physics, and made important contributions to the psychological study of science. Here, he approaches architecture from the perspective of lived experience, with a thrilling sensitivity to the nuances and ambient subtleties of our embodied relationship to different spaces. Essential as a ‘mindset primer’ for connecting cosmology to bodily being.
The Secret Life of Puppets
Victoria Nelson (2001). Nelson is an independent scholar with a fantastic mind, and this collection of essays fully demonstrates her originality and insight. ‘Symmes Hole, or the South Polar Grotto’ extends Joscelyn Godwin’s work in Arktos with Hermetic ruminations on hollow Earth fantasies. But the rest of the material here is just as relevant for anyone looking to explore the mutated manifestations of archaic cosmologies in modern pop culture myths.
The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe
Arthur Koestler (1959). Koestler’s fertile mind and engaging style make this one of the better wide-angle surveys of cosmological thinking – from Babylon to Newton.
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
David Abram (1996). Along with its more accessible follow-up, Becoming Animal, this is an important attempt to locate animistic perceptions within the Western philosophical tradition, and to begin to conceive a truly horizontal post-Copernican cosmology.
The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination
Eric G. Wilson (2003). A brilliant and original exploration of intersections between art, science, and esotericism in the Romantic era. The book is structured to deal with ice at micro-, meso-, and macrocosmic scales: crystals, glaciers, and the poles. Beautifully written and furnished with eloquent insights.
Stairway to Heaven: Chinese Alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the Art of Spiritual Transformation
Peter Levenda (2008). Alongside Arktos, this is the go-to book for information on the importance of the celestial pole and the concept of the axis mundi in esoteric traditions. Makes a strong case – via Babylon, Ezekiel, Afro-Caribbean traditions, and modern Hermetic orders – that the seven circumpolar stars of Ursa Major have played a much more fundamental role in religious mysticism than is generally recognised.
Technology as Symptom & Dream
Robert Romanyshyn (1989). Romanyshyn, like Wolfgang Giegerich, is another post-Jungian psychologist working in similar areas to James Hillman. In some ways he’s a poetically-minded rival to Giegerich’s hyper-cerebral insistence on logic. But Romanyshyn is far from lacking rigour, applying it – via his background in phenomenology – to the lived experience of the body. This book is a brilliant hidden history of science, mining developments such as linear perspective drawing, the Copernican Revolution, and modern anatomy in order to extract and refine a poetic narrative underlying our progressive estrangement from nature. Essential. Read more in my review.
‘Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major’
William B. Gibbon (1964). Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 77, No. 305, pp. 236–250). This is one of the most interesting bits of research for anyone trying to trace the vintage of awareness of, and perhaps reverence for, circumpolar stars. Gibbon analyses myths about the seven-star asterism known as the Plough or the Big Dipper in both Asian and North American indigenous cultures, and finds such a wealth of similarities that he confidently (and rightly, I think), dates the origin of these myths to Siberian or Asian cultures predating the crossing of the Bering Straits – perhaps 20,000 years ago or more. There is a 1972 piece covering the Milky Way, Pleiades and Orion which is also worth tracking down.
‘Locating the Thing: The Antarctic as Alien Space in John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’’
Elizabeth Leane (2005). Science Fiction Studies (Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 225–239). Leane makes an important contribution here to the understanding of the mythic dimensions of the ‘buried polar alien’ micro-genre, tracing the uncanniness of the Thing (as originally conceived in Campbell’s novella) to the mind-wrenching Antarctic isolation experienced by Morton Moyes in 1912. Drawing on ideas from geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and cultural theorist Julia Kristeva, this is a great bit of science fiction scholarship.
Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog (2007). A fascinating trip into the contemporary realities of the Antarctic, a continent whose vast, remote desolation made it a prime site for modern fantasy literature. Herzog ably demonstrates that our colonisation of it has failed to decrease its weirdness and wonders.
The Last Winter
Larry Fessenden (2006). Some kind of culmination of the ‘buried polar alien’ micro-genre, this low-budget, atmospheric horror film unveils fossil fuels as the ultimate extraterrestrial that we should probably have left in the ground.
John Carpenter (1982). As with many of my generation, this film really made an impression on my early-teenage self. The 2011 prequel/remake isn’t actually that bad, but nowhere are the quivering, fleshly advantages of physical over CGI special effects – not to mention the advantages of having Kurt Russell and few amazing character actors – more in evidence than in comparing these two films. The blend of seriousness of tone (set by the ominous Morricone-does-Carpenter soundtrack) and outlandishness of gore makes for a classic piece of post-Alien cosmic claustrophobia.
The Truman Show
Peter Weir (1998). It has limitations, such as the uplifting ending which betrays the rest of the film’s complexities, but Peter Weir’s contribution to Hollywood’s pre-millennial fling with Gnostic themes does some canny updating of archaic cosmologies. That the film has now provided a label for a new variety of psychosis seems to resonate with the way it managed to boldly represent the modern internalisation of the polar cosmos: the ‘collective interior’ of the sky-encased animate world withdrawn into a cocoon of media spectacle, and the atomised ego replacing the pole star as the world’s axis.
Alfred Hitchcock (1958). The original trailer for this unrivalled classic begins with the dictionary definition of ‘vertigo’. Delve a little further, into etymology, and you’ll find the term belongs with a cluster of Latin words stemming from vertere, ‘to turn’ – a cluster which also includes vortex and its variant vertex, which refers to the pole star, and to the crown of the head where the hair spirals. It’s no surprise that this endlessly rich film can supply the polar-minded researcher with a dizzying array of images and trails of connections, which can shift from tenuous to profound (and back again) in the blink of a trickster’s eye.