Bibliography of Ioan Couliano

Published: 2021-05-29

Selected and annotated bibliography of Ioan Petru Couliano (Culianu) (1950 – 1991). Biographical information about Couliano, as well as a complete list of his works, was published in: Anton, Ted. Eros, Magic, & the Murder of Professor Culianu. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996, 281-91. This bibliography is not intended to replace or duplicate Anton's work. I focus primarily on books attempting to provide helpful remarks and create a better sense of continuity within Couliano's corpus by highlighting connections between different texts.

Religione e accrescimento del potere (Religion and the growth of power). In G. Romanato, M. Lombardo, I. P. Culianu. Religione e potere (Religion and Power). Torino, Marietti, 1981, 173-252

This early work of Couliano, written in Italian, is a chapter that consists of two smaller essays – “Pseudo-Specific Cultures” and “Nihilism and destiny of Western civilization.” The first deals with the role of ritual in obtaining social power and a phenomenon of antinomialism, including certain aspects of Taoism, Tantra, Buddhism, and Gnosticism. He also discusses Carlos Castaneda (pp. 207-212) in a section called “Se non è vero, è ben trovato” (“If it is not true, it is well conceived”). The second essay is dedicated to nihilism – another long-standing interest of Couliano that he will return to in The Tree of Gnosis. Here, nihilism in analyzed as another form of antinomialism (cf. Couliano’s article “Sacrilege” in Encyclopedia of Religion).

Psychanodia I: A Survey of the Evidence Concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance. Leiden: Brill, 1983

A comparative monograph about myths and techniques of achieving ecstasy based on Couliano’s dissertation written in Sorbonne. Couliano’s scope covers the period from Hellinism to Islam. He begins the work by criticizing “religionsgeschichtliche Schule”, a group of German scholars who defended an idea of Iranian origins of early Christian and particularly Gnostic mysticism (pp. 16-7). In contrast with this, Couliano defends an idea of Greek origins of Gnosticism, tracing it back to iatromantis, Platonism, and so on.

Expériences de l’extase: Extase, ascension et récit visionnaire de l’hellénisme au Moyen Age. Paris: Payot, 1984

This work expands the second chapter of Psychanodia I. It incorporates new information that corresponds with his later ideas in The Tree of Gnosis, and chapters 8-11 of Out of This World correspond significantly to this book.

Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 (originally published in French: Éros et Magie à la Renaissance. Paris, Flammarion, 1984)

Couliano begins his work with the history of imagination, phantasy, or pneuma. He points out that an idea of imagination as an intermediary realm between soul and matter played an important role from Antiquity to the Renaissance. He traces the concept of pneuma back to Sicilian medical school of the sixth century B.C., specifically to Alcemaeon of Croton (early 5th century BC), but especially and even more so to Empedocles (c. 494 – c. 434 BC) (p. 6). Its function was to provide a solution for a mind-body problem by positing an intermediary realm that is neither mind, nor matter, but a sphere of very thin, almost immaterial, matter, or (if one looks from the different direction) of a very condensed, partly materialized mind.

From Sicilian medical writers this idea was adopted by Stoics and (to lesser extent) by Aristotle. From their it went to the second century physician Galen who, via Arab medicine, was finally reintroduced in Europe at the twelfth century. Finally, European philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth century combined Galen with Aristotle – a doctrine that was expressed by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (c. 1203 – 1272) as well as other representatives of scholasticism, including Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, and Thomas Aquinas.

For Renaissance philosophy, the pneuma constitutes a separate level of reality together with material reality and a world of abstract ideas. This medium layer is filled with phantasms, reflections of thing in pneuma. This theory is quintessential for both magic and explanation of falling in love, erotic relationship. When a person falls in love, it means that a phantasm of a loved one possesses the lover, residing constantly within their imagination. Magic works in a similar manner filling in and controlling imaginations of single individuals or big groups of people. In this sense Renaissance magic was close to contemporary psychology, marketing, and PR that essentially utilizes very similar mechanisms.

The big changes in Western culture happened during the Reformation. It effectively prohibited and suppressed imaginary thus leading to construction of a modern variant of Western collective psyche. On the one hand, it allowed to create modern science (as well as modern type of religiosity), but at the same time it leads to new types of psychological and political problems associated with Modernity.

Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Boston: Shambhala, 1991

The main topic of this book is out-of-body experiences that people have been experienced historically in all cultures. This kind of experience, however, is not a function of a distant past. Not only it is still present today, but it is also on rise as many people report out-of-body and near-death experiences that contribute to the same kind of literature.

In the first chapter of the book, Couliano focuses on contemporary experiences of this type. He starts with discussion of a short story of Jorge Luis Borges Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius that tells about a secret society Orbis Tertius that was established in the seventeenth century to create a new country, a country of Uqbar. Later on, the goal was expanded to create the whole new universe, Tlön, quite different from our own. Inhabitants of Tlön are subjective idealists of Berkeleyan type. Their languages do not have an idea of consistent, immutable objects, but rather utilize impersonal verbs or adjectives (e.g. “it mooned” rather than “the Moon appeared in the sky”). Because of that, people of Tlön perceive reality not as given or external, but as a product of experience and consciousness in more general sense. To bring this fictitious world to life, Orbis Tertius produces Encyclopedia of Tlön, and gradually as people start to read the encyclopedia, our own historical and present reality begin to transform into Tlön.

The story of Borges has a historical background. A prototype of Orbis Tertius was the Brotherhood of Rosy Cross, created in the seventeenth century. Couliano attributes its creation to a circle of Johann Valentin Andrea. The goal of the society was that “of leading humankind to incredible spiritual and technological achievements” (p. 14). According to some historians, the idea of the Brotherhood of Rosy Cross played an important role in inspiring transformation of modern Western society, specifically by promoting an idea of scientific progress and its transformative value. The real transformation of our thinking in the twentieth century could be attributed to new scientific models of reality, one of the most important of which was Einstein’s theory of relativity that changed our understanding of material world, space, and time.

An underlying idea behind Einstein’s theory of relativity was a mathematical idea of the fourth dimension. Its popularity in decades preceding Einstein’s publications was related to a name Charles Howard Hinton, who wrote books about the fourth dimension A New Era of Thought (1888) and The Fourth Dimension (1904), which, as Couliano speculates, could be read both by Einstein and Borges. Hinton proposed a set of exercises aimed to teach a person to perceive (or, at least, imagine) reality in four dimensions and presumed that a training like this will empower people to develop radically new abilities (one can call such abilities paranormal).

In the following chapters, Couliano turns to specific historical manifestation of the otherworldly travels in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Chinese Taoism, Buddhism, ancient Iran, Greek medical tradition, Jewish Merkabah mysticism, Platonism, Christian literature (Apocalypse of Paul), Islam (ascension of Muhammad), and Dante.

Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy (14th cent.) played a central tole in popularization of the topic of otherworldly journeys in early Modern Europe. “With Dante our survey of otherworldly journeys comes to a conclusion. … Reduced to its nucleus, Dante’s story is a shamanistic story that could have taken place in any space or time setting among those we have surveyed above. This is probably why it continues to captivate our attention, in an epoch in which there is no less interest in near-death and out-of-body experiences than there was in the thirteenth century” (p. 230-231).

There are several common patterns in stories of otherworldly journeys. First, an idea of “free soul” (i.e. soul is potentially independent of body). Separated from a body, a soul can travel to the otherworld in dreams, during near-death situations, or under influence of certain medications. Shamanism was one of the currents that utilized this idea, but the pattern itself predates formation of shamanistic complex and can have roots as early as Paleolithic. The question is how this idea survived from such distant times to the present day. Diffusion theory is insufficient in these regards. Rather, stories about otherworldly journeys developed in parallel from analogous premises (p. 233).

Specific components of these stories changed together with changes within the society. They became more elaborated and reflected the development of philosophical and scientific ideas. Our own period of history, even if it made literal readings of earlier narratives about otherworldly journeys implausible, provided new instruments to imagine other words through concepts of higher dimension and, in general, through new scientific theories. The radical difference of modern period is “a state of advanced other-world pluralism”, a period of “unprecedented expansion, not coordinated by any basic world view” (p. 234).

The Eliade Guide to World Religions. San Francisco: Harper, 1991 (with Mircea Eliade and H. S. Wiesner)

This book was conceived as a companion to The Encyclopedia of Religion. It is a brief dictionary that includes an index for Encyclopedia and provides preliminary information for people who are preparing to dive into more elaborated entries of Encyclopedia. It also has some additional insights concerning Couliano’s cognitive approach. This book was written together with Hillary Wiesner, Couliano’s fiancée and a scholar of al-Kindi.

The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992 (originally published in French: Les Gnoses dualistes d’Occident: Histoire et mythes. Paris, Plon, 1990; translated into English by Couliano together with H. S. Wiesner)

Couliano begins the book with a proposal of revision of theoretical approaches in the study of religion. He uses Einstein and his relativity theory as an example to demonstrate that our understanding of reality and methodology has significantly shifted in the beginning of the 20th century. The principal methodological novelty of Einstein’s relativity theory was related to his observation that physical phenomena might be better explained with four-dimensional rather than three-dimensional geometry, where time is considered the fourth dimension. Using this approach, rather than study particular events independently we might realize that they are in facts just elements of holistic interconnected system.

Applied to history of religion, that means that instead of limit ourselves to the study of historical manifestations we need to try to make a step deeper. What does “deeper” means in this case? That means that, according to Couliano, historical religious currents are nothing more than manifestations of ideal objects. It is these ideal objects, rather than their historical manifestations, that should be of utmost interest for a scholar of religion. Couliano proposes a cognitive approach as an instrument to find a way to such ideal objects. By cognitive approach Couliano means an attempt to reveal basic and universal psychological mechanisms underlying the history of religion.

An ideal object underlying Gnosticism is, for Couliano, dualism. Dualism is understood not as a simple philosophical conception but as a fundamental cognitive mechanism that manifest itself in different historical forms. The term “dualism” itself was coined around 1700 by Thomas Handy to describe Zoroastrianism. In Zoroastrian cosmology everything is about the fight between good and evil gods; they are equal in principle and both are creators of some things (good and bad respectively). Thus, in this type of dualism separation is horizontal rather than vertical. In the history of philosophy, however, the term was applied in different manner. Philosophers like Plato created dualistic cosmologies with matter below and the word of ideas above. To this second kind of dualism belong such movements as apophatic theology, Platonism and Gnosticism.

Couliano believes that philosophical dualism is a subspecies of religious (or ethical) dualism. Metaphysical systems of philosophers like Plato are highly charged with ethical statements. Not only the world of ideas “higher” than the cave of material world, it is also superior in ethical terms. The ultimate concern of dualism is theodicy, or, in other words, explanation of evil. The introduction of another side, or another layer, of reality allow explain the fact we observe – that is, that the world is not necessary a good a loving place to be. The range of historical forms of dualism includes a wide gamut of currents, not only ancient Gnostics, but also Cathars, Bogomils, and even contemporary Nihilists.

Gnosticism is a range of dualistic currents that developed in antiquity. Gnostic narratives develop around hypostatization, a mechanism that implies depiction of abstract concepts, such us Church or Truth, as personalized and deified entities. To put it in Couliano’s own words, the pivotal mechanism of Gnosticism is “elaboration if divine parts or powers into active entities” (p. 70). Two central myths of Gnosticism are: (1) fallen Wisdom and (2) ignorant Demiurge. Gnosticism, according to Couliano, was only one form of dualism in antiquity. Another two forms are Marcionism and Manichaeism.

In the core of Manichaean myth there is a story of good and evil forces that fight each other. For a brief formulation of this idea, Couliano cites an 7th-8th century Nestorian bishop Theodore bar Kanai who wrote: “Before the heaven and the earth and all that is in them existed, there were two principles, one Good and the other one Evil. The Good principle dwells in the Kingdom of Light and is called Father of Greatness” (p. 162). Its evil counterpart, the Kingdom of Darkness, “is a symmetrical antithesis of the Luminous Earth. Called Matter, it has five Members, Worlds, ‘Five compartments of Evil,’ or antra elementorum (elemental recesses): Smoke, Fire, Wind, Waters, Darkness” (p. 163). The Father of Darkness is Yandabaoth, a “lion-faced serpent with sparkling eyes of fire” (p. 163). In Manichaean cosmology both principles are uncreated and independent from each other.

We live in the intermediary period between primordial war between light and darkness and the future war in which all light will finally set free. The light is saved little by little of “great machinery, the water mill (that is, the Zodiac) with twelve buckets (the twelve astrological signs). The first fifteen days of every month, the Light freed from Darkness in the form of souls of the dead rises along the Pillar of Glory, which is the Milky Way, to the Ship of the Moon, which gradually fills up and becomes the full Moon. During the last fifteen days of the month the Ship of the Moon gradually pours all its cargo of Light into the Ship of the Sun, which transmits it to the Kingdom of Light. The Moon is emptied until it disappears, then fills again” (p. 174). Unlike other dualistic systems of antiquity, in Manichaeism the creator of material world is not an evil entity, but the Living Spirit. The world is an instrument to save the light from the darkness. In the end of the history material world be destroyed and the light will be saved. General attitude of Manichaean religion is therefore optimistic.

The Encyclopedia of Religion. Macmillan, New York, 1987

Couliano was one of the editors of the encyclopedia. He also wrote the following articles: Ascension, Astrology, Bendis, Dacian Riders, Gnosticism: from the Middle Ages to Present, Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Sabazios, Sacrilege, Sexual Rites in Europe, [Sky:] The Heavens and Hierophany, Thrakian Religions, Zalmoxis.

“Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.” This article neatly summarizes some of the main arguments from Eros and Magic. In this work, Couliano identifies and discusses four main sources of European modern magical tradition – On Dreams by Synesyus of Cyrene (4-5 cent.), Sefer ha-Razim (6-7 cent.), Picatrix (circa 11 cent.), and On Rays by al-Kindi (12 cent. Latin translation).

“Sacrilege.” A topic of the use of religion and magic vis a vis political power was one of the central Couliano’s interests. This article provides yet another view on this issue in a context of antinomialism (“subversion of a religious or moral code”), of which sacrilege is a form. As Couliano points out, “for the historian of religion, sacrilege becomes interesting primarily when it is identified as an element of some movement that that is intended either to reverse or to reform an established religion.” Sacrilege is a relative category – for instance, in polemics between Roman pagans and early Christians the former could see actions of the latter as a sacrilege and vice versa (another example that Couliano uses are Taoism and Confucianism). In European context two notable forms of sacrilege that Couliano addresses in the article were accusations against Knights Templar and witchcraft trials.

Castaneda and the Soviet Union

Published 2020-07-31

For some, popularity of Carlos Castaneda in Soviet and post-Soviet esoteric milieu comes as a surprise. In this post, I will try to briefly discuss reasons for popularity of Castaneda in Russia and a way in which his works were adopted in post-Soviet context.


Interview with Glenn Alexander Magee

Published 2016-12-28

A year ago I interviewed an American scholar Glenn Magee, the author of Hegel and the Hemetic Tradition and the editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism, for a Russian journal Research in Religious Studies. The interview was published in Russian in issue 2(12)/2015 of the journal (pp. 109-117).