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Ronnie Pontiac

Interview With Sasha Chaitow: Artist and Esoteric Scholar

sectitle-features10574209_10202778252597494_8797798037782182724_nSasha Chaitow looks like she just stepped out of a Minoan or Mycenaean fresco. Her knowledge of esoteric history combined with her vocation of artist contributes to her oracular quality. She’s an extraordinary example of the new breed of academics in the young field of esoteric studies, and of a new generation of artist intellectuals raised by parents whose own breakthroughs in non-traditional beliefs and practices have laid the foundation for a greater understanding of spirituality and healing.

As a founding director of the Phoenix Rising Academy of Esoteric Studies and the Creative Arts, Sasha is at the cutting edge of de-stigmatizing esoteric studies in academia while also providing a thorough western esoteric education for students outside of the traditional educational system.

As a former promoter of concerts in Athens, Sasha has used her organizational skills to create unique events such as Mapping the Occult City Conference in Chicago in 2012, where a Situationist respect for urban geography as revelation met academic appreciation for architecture as a language of symbols.

CHT247739As an academic her specialties include alleged Rosicrucian Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, which she presents as an initiatory path, and the work of visionary artist philosopher Nicholas Roerich. Her doctoral thesis and her website The Péladan Project concern an enigma of western esoteric history, an occult writer, novelist and initiator popular in his own time, but now almost forgotten: 19th century French Symbolist Joséphin Péladan.

To know about Péladan is to wonder why he wasn’t standing next to Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. His influential Salon Rose Croix influenced the likes of Debussy and Satie.

Salon_de_la_Rose+CroixAs Sasha has written: “Péladan produced hundreds of books dedicated to promoting his vision of regeneration through art, based on Platonic thought, Rosicrucian principles, and an eclectic mix of world mythology and esoteric philosophy. Ridiculed for years, then consigned to oblivion, his work had not been studied in any depth until I undertook this as my PhD project.”

The people Péladan most wanted to reach out to were artists, poets, and visionaries. “The key to his work,” she writes, “was his belief that esoteric, symbolic art could effect change in the viewer, and change in society, and he wrote lengthy guidelines for artists proposing how they could use their talent to inspire, and ultimately regenerate society.”

painting by Sasha Chaitow

Painting by Sasha Chaitow

According to Péladan’s cosmology, “art was the gift of the angels to mankind, as the key to the reintegration with the divine. According to Péladan, mankind is the creation of the angels. He rewrote Genesis and the story of the Fall (based on his understanding of Plato and Enoch), claiming that the angels were cast to earth as eternal guides of mankind – but only if mankind evolved through becoming creators themselves, could they redeem the Fallen. Hence art and the creative impulse lie at the heart of his teachings.”

Newtopia is delighted to present Ronnie Pontiac’s interview with Sasha Chaitow along with her essay: “Symbolist Art and the French Occult Revival: The Esoteric-aesthetic vision of Sâr Péladan.”

 You’ve commented on the resemblance between the plight of the Yezidi and the Albigensian Crusade. Please share with our readers the tragic similarities.

The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was a military campaign instigated by Pope Innocent III to eradicate the Cathars, a Christian sect whose members were persecuted as heretics in medieval Languedoc (Southern France). The Cathars held certain traditions that some scholars have identified as Gnostic, and some sources suggest that quite ancient traditions survived within their practices. It has also been suggested that there are some Gnostic features in the Yezidi faith, such as their perception of a supreme deity and a separate Demiurge figure incarnated in Melek Taus, the peacock angel that some identify with Lucifer. This is not entirely accurate, nor is there a historical connection between these two communities. Nevertheless, the Yezidi appear to be among the sole remaining “guardians” of ancient traditions that have died out elsewhere in the region, and their persecution is a sustained, targeted campaign to eradicate a people whose only crime is to hold onto their way of life and tradition. This has happened before, yet we do not seem to be able to learn history’s lessons.

1381978_10200928904484947_846161893_nYour “A Child of Earth I Am, and of the Starry Sky” art exhibition in 2004 in Corfu presented paintings on non-traditional surfaces presented in a non-traditional way. The paintings seem like sacred relics or altars, with companion objects that cause them to spill out of the work toward the viewer.  What inspired this approach?  And why did you give the exhibit a name drawn from a famous Orphic formula?

I love your impression of these paintings! The wooden surfaces I used are antique bakers’ boards used for rolling out dough. I bought a job lot from Greek gypsies who told me they are salvaged from French farmhouses under renovation. As to the actual paintings: I’ve been fascinated by the story of fallen angels for many years, and this exhibition coincided with some of my closest reading of various accounts and interpretations of the Book of Enoch. The actual exhibition design was a result of serendipity. This was a joint exhibition in collaboration with Greek jewelry designer and silversmith Panagiotis Merekos. The exhibition space I had booked cancelled my booking one-month prior to the opening date because they said they couldn’t guarantee the security of the jewelry while on display. In the new space we managed to book, we couldn’t hang the paintings, so we had to come up with alternatives. We borrowed fabrics, gathered natural objects, combined some of Panagiotis’ creations with my paintings, and set it up literally overnight. So it was a very spontaneous setup, but one which worked well regardless! The title reflects the themes I explore in my paintings: some esoteric writers have drawn parallels between the tale of the fallen angels and the Orphic creation story, so it was quite fitting, as the symbolic stories I explored in my artwork reflected the idea of the divine spark within matter and within mankind, narrated through images drawn from the tale of the Fall.

From 2004-2009 you were a promoter of live concerts in Athens.  What was the music scene like then?  How did the 2008 meltdown impact it?  What’s it like today?

I was involved in the rock, gothic and metal music scenes at a time when rock was aging and becoming part of the fashionable mainstream, the gothic scene was blooming, and the metal scene evolved either towards hardcore or infused the (very strong) Greek black metal scene. The Greek rock scene had its heyday during the ‘90s, but by the ‘00s rock bars were springing up everywhere, capitalizing on a sense of nostalgia and new-found acceptability as the erstwhile teen rebels matured and acquired spending power. For a few years during the ‘00s, the goth subculture was the new destination for disillusioned teens and older romantics and creatives who couldn’t, or wouldn’t fit into mainstream society. It was a tight-knit community where in a city of 5 million people, we all knew each other and when we gathered, it was like a village moot centered around “Dada,” the oldest rock/alternative/goth club in the city. I think it was the most creative mix of people I’ve seen, while it lasted – bar theater, local bands, poetry performances, art and craft shows everywhere – for a while it really blossomed. We brought over a variety of European bands and each show was like a tribal gathering. The Greek economic crisis hit in 2010, a couple of years later than in the UK and US. Its impact on these music scenes was slow and insidious. Because this was always an underground scene, we were used to doing things on a shoestring, since mainstream sponsorship and commercial support weren’t forthcoming anyway, all the events and gatherings were the result of hard (often unpaid) work by dedicated individuals – from the fans, to the bar owners, to small indie record stores and craft centers. Due to the crisis many of these small businesses died a slow death, and the folks who kept the scene alive scattered, many of them forced to give up their creative pursuits in search of work. That said, while the big events are now few and far between, many local bands are still determinedly recording and performing, whether in back-room bars or impromptu gatherings. Some of the musicians whose early work was part of these events are now rising stars on the international scene (notably Maxi Nil, formerly the voice of Visions of Atlantis, and Babis Nikou, who have now founded Jaded Star; and bands such as Illusion Fades and Mani Deum). So while the scenes are more marginalized than ever (because going to gigs has become a luxury), they’re still alive and growling, and local musicians and artists are using internet resources more and more to reach out for crowd funding as well as to international audiences. It’s a time of transition as well as nostalgia for the good days, but I think something good will come of it.

Hermes by Sasha ChaitowHermes, by Sasha Chaitow

Contemporary Hellenic Paganism and Nationalistic Politics in Modern Greece, what’s the connection?

Culturally speaking, Greece is not a Western country, no matter what the maps and politicians say. Our culture is a unique East-West blend in which many different identities are still vying for domination. Due to the Ottoman occupation (1453-1821), Greece never experienced the Renaissance, nor the Enlightenment, and this history has forged a specific mentality that is still visible today. Modern Greece was essentially founded in 1830. As a nation and a culture, it is still experiencing the transitions and growing pains of the twentieth century, compounded by distinct aspects of pre-Enlightenment mentality and a post-colonial inferiority complex towards the West. Within that context, there is a strong nostalgic streak trying to identify with our “heroic past,” which blames Christianity and foreign interference for Greece’s travails – and we also have a dreadful educational system where history is strongly revisionist in many ways and the Church controls a lot of what is taught. So the nationalism springs from a deep-rooted anger towards external influences (both historical and imagined) for all Greece’s ills, while at least one main group of contemporary pagans identify with the past as the only way to reclaim past glory and shake off the corrupting modern influences. Their reactivity takes extreme forms, as you’ve seen with the rise of extreme-right politics in Greece. They count Christianity as a foreign influence that destroyed the ancient religion. It’s important to stress that while some extreme nationalists are also Hellenic pagans, not all Hellenic pagans are tarred with the same brush – I’m well acquainted with one group of revivalists who have emphasized the philosophy and paideia (cultivation) of antiquity, and who are much more historically aware. They have made fantastic attempts to study and revive the ancient religious and cultural traditions, and while some may be staunch patriots, they do not subscribe to extreme methods and beliefs.

Since 2010 you’ve been founding director of the Phoenix Rising Academy, a school where non-academics can receive a thorough education in esoteric history.  What inspired you to start PRA? 

Despite my academic pursuits, most of my work experience has been outside academia, where I’ve taught at secondary and undergraduate levels for a number of years. This taught me the necessity of explaining complex ideas in simple terms, while striving to avoid oversimplification or dumbing down. I also saw a rapid development of interest in esoteric topics, with terrible misinformation being bandied about as fact (this is particularly prevalent in Greece). I wanted to take what I’d learned, and put it into a form that a general reader could understand, to help to dispel much of the stigma – and many of the misconceptions and myths attached to esoteric topics. This needed to be done in a form intelligible to the non-academic layperson, and that was PRA’s mission. PRA targets the thinking person who is not interested in – or able to – follow a full blown academic pathway, but wants access to clear, accurate information about these topics; a sort of road map if you will, that rests on current scholarship translated into accessible terms. (Phoenix Rising Academy continues to be fully functional, but the Phoenix Rising Academy website is temporarily offline following a severe hacker attack. It is currently being rebuilt and normal service will resume soon.)

At the risk of generalizing is there anything you’ve noticed about PRA students?

They truly come from all walks of life. We’ve had undergraduate and mature students, some with academic backgrounds, some with esoteric ones, from vastly different cultural and economic backgrounds. I suppose the one unifying factor that I’ve observed is the desire for self-cultivation and a proactive approach to education and individual responsibility.

newyear2003New Year, 2003 by Sasha Chaitow

Having grown up in Corfu and London, what was studying in Athens like, personally and artistically?

Athens is a city of contradictions. The Parthenon’s shadow falls on a stinking concrete kaleidoscope, as horrifying as it is magnificent. As the crisis has taken its toll, it has turned into a hellhole with small pockets of hope scattered through the concrete jungle. When I moved to Athens in 1998, for me it was Dorothy’s return to Kansas, as I was never able to fit in culturally in the UK. That’s one of the main reasons I returned to Greece to study. Back then, the underground Athens I wanted to experience was reaching the tail-end of its glory days – but there were musical and artistic happenings everywhere, and I fell in with a rock music group, helping backstage and with promotion, so I got to enjoy the lifestyle I’d craved and make connections that later led me to organize more professional events. Artistically things weren’t so good. For me this was a time of experimentation and exploration. Now, in Greek art schools, Modernism still dominates almost every aspect of aesthetics and technique, so we were expected to emulate this and aim for abstracted techniques. Anything outside of that was frowned upon. Ever since I was still at school, I’d had a penchant for surrealism and a deep interest in symbolic expression, and I went to art college hoping to hone my technique and draftsmanship. Instead, I was constantly told to forget my preferred, unfashionable style and focus on learning the “accepted” approach. Meanwhile, I quickly learned that any hope of gallery representation rested on networking, nepotism, exchange of favors – and if you were a woman, this frequently meant sexual favors. My outraged rejection of such offers that came my way closed many doors pretty rapidly. In addition, gallery selections tend to follow the fashion of the day: I’ve actually had a curator say to me that if I could reproduce some of my paintings in that winter’s fashionable colors, then she’d take them to sell to fashionable ladies of leisure seeking to match them with their decor. Suffice it to say I was disgusted by the situation and became extremely disillusioned. This led me to quit before I graduated, and that’s when I took a more academic pathway. I reached a point where I’d either have had to give up art altogether, or use my wits and take the indie route, so that’s what I did. Although I’ve exhibited quite a bit in Greece, in recent years my academic pursuits have left me much less time to paint. Now that I’ve finished with my PhD, and have honed my technique to where I’m much happier with the artistic results, I’m hoping to return to painting with a vengeance, and have already begun to do so.

Did studying art in Athens make classical art more immediate?  How does modern pop culture come across in the ancient capital of democracy?

I think the immediacy of classical art is something that Greeks, especially those living in Athens, take for granted. Imagine working, or going to school every day in the shadow of the Parthenon! I used to walk past some of the most emblematic monuments every day to get to college. It’s part of the fabric of our culture, so it’s quite hard to take a step back from it. To get into art school you need to learn one of the classical techniques of constructing and drawing ancient statuary according to classical proportions, so I cut my artistic teeth on ancient busts and reliefs, which I see almost as old friends now. As far as pop culture is concerned, there are some startling contrasts: horrendous kitsch in some cases, a unique fusion of cultures in others, and a lively underground scene which is probably the most representative of the somewhat anarchic Greek mentality – when it’s not trying to mimic Western models. As I said earlier, Greece is still struggling to reach a consensus on its modern identity, and Athenian urban reality is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. I suspect that creative fusions will grow out of the current crisis – Athens is going through a very dark time right now, but hopefully when the renaissance does come – as it must – I expect to see a much stronger creative identity emerge, which can finally reconcile the weight of our cultural heritage with modern reality.

What was it like presenting your paper on Hieroglyphics of Nature and the Renaissance Emblematic Worldview at the Vatican?

Mind-blowing. As I presented, I couldn’t stop thinking of the irony and glorious developments that made it possible for what was an inspiring conference featuring many topics that would have been considered heresy in times past. The crowning moment was the treat we were offered by the conference organizers, a nighttime tour of the Vatican museums. We were free to wander as we pleased, and I cannot begin to communicate the artistic beauty I witnessed. You’re bombarded on all sides by two thousand years of the ultimate in human creativity and inspiration, and I’m not ashamed to say I had a Stendhal moment… when I reached one of the anterooms just before the Sistine chapel, I stood before Raphael’s School of Athens and broke down in tears. It’s an overwhelming experience for anyone, but having been focused on Renaissance art for my paper just brought it all to life for me.

sin2013Sin 2013 by Sasha Chaitow

Michael Maier’s Atlalanta Fugiens is one of the first multimedia artistic creations, you’ve written about it as an initiatory path.  Tell our readers something about this fascinating blend of imagery, music, and text.

This was my thesis topic in the Exeter MA in Western Esotericism. It explores the notion that Maier actually designed the Atalanta fugiens as a kind of alchemical initiatory handbook. Maier drew on a vast array of mythological and mystery traditions to suggest that alchemy is the supreme mystery. I argued that Maier’s book was designed to simultaneously stimulate the senses, the intellect and the spirit to induct the reader into the secrets of alchemical knowledge through the active imagination with the aim of igniting a spiritual and intellectual transmutation. Combined with practical alchemical work, this would transform the alchemist into a conscious intermediary in the process of redeeming dualities between man and nature, matter and the divine.

You’ve written on the subject of Thought Forms and the Creative Process.  What is your definition of thought forms?

Speaking strictly from an artistic perspective, I perceive thought forms as the ideas that we then take steps, consciously or unconsciously, to manifest in material reality. These might be quite mundane, such as an idea for a business that we plan out and then establish. They may be creative, such as the idea for a painting or a song that we visualize or hear in our mind’s eye or ear before we create it, or otherworldly, such as our perceptions of deities or spiritual situations that we may then incorporate into our worldview, and from there, into our behaviors. From an esoteric perspective thought forms are sometimes perceived as conscious entities fueled by human belief or supernatural energies, but I prefer to think of their motive force as being the power of human will and ingenuity, shaped by our imagination. At its simplest, I perceive the notion of thought forms and the process of their manifestation in Platonic terms of ideas and forms that manifest in the real world and can affect our lives, in psychological terms, through the behaviors we develop in response to them.

You’ve helped reveal revolutionary Masonic secrets on Corfu.  Tell us something about how the masons influenced Corfu and vice versa.

This was a research paper I wrote for a conference in Strasbourg, 2009, which looked at various geographical locations in relation to esoteric currents. Corfu enjoyed a unique status in the Mediterranean for many centuries thanks to Venetian military protection, which allowed the island to flourish culturally during the years of Ottoman rule in mainland Greece. Corfu became a safe haven for scholars and intellectuals fleeing occupied Greece, a place where liberal and eventually, enlightenment ideas could converge and evolve. Across Europe, these ideas proliferated in the literary salons of the day, Masonic lodges, and quasi-Masonic secret societies. As the revolutionary movement for the liberation of Greece developed within the expatriate network of Greeks across Europe in the 19th century, many revolutionary expatriates used these networks to disseminate the pro-liberation movement. The first Masonic lodges on Greek territory were established in Corfu, with a strongly political character. They established schools, cultural centers, musical conservatories and libraries, and played a crucial role in supporting the revolutionary movement that led to the liberation of Greece and its inception as a modern nation state. All the details are available online in the full article.

Tell us about the revolution in academia de-stigmatizing esoteric studies.

The “revolution” began with the appointment of Prof. Antoine Faivre to the Chair of History of Esoteric Currents in Early Modern and Contemporary Europe at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Religious Studies Section, Sorbonne, Paris) in 1979. This in itself was revolutionary for the time as these topics had been both neglected, and derided by scholars as insignificant. The work undertaken by scholars over the next two decades was key to establishing the significance of esoteric studies to fields throughout the humanities, particularly Religious studies, History, and cultural studies. It took twenty years for the next center for esoteric studies to be established in Amsterdam, 1999, under Prof. Wouter Hanegraaff. The Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism at the University of Exeter followed in 2005, under the late Professor Goodrick-Clarke. These programs all ran advanced academic MA and PhD programs, and the careful work of these, and many other scholars gradually carved out the – very active – field of Western Esoteric studies. The numerous scholarly publications, conferences, and other academic activities within the field are testament to its new-found acceptability within academe, as are the numerous courses and programs that have sprung up at other universities such as the University of Groningen (Netherlands), Gothenberg (Sweden), and numerous courses at other universities in Europe as well as the US (notably Rice University and the University of Michigan). There have been growing pains en route, and there are some disagreements between scholars, particularly on matters of definitions and methodology. In recent years there have been calls for more interdisciplinary approaches that will help to highlight the degree to which what we have dubbed “esoteric topics” are closely interconnected with cultural and historical matters, putting to rest the notion that “esotericism” is somehow separate, or “other” in comparison with any other Humanities subject.

You studied with Professor Goodrick-Clarke, one of the founders of The Society, the informal gathering in London of professional and amateur enthusiasts who were a groundbreaking step toward de-stigmatizing western esoteric studies.  Can you share with us something memorable about him?

I think that one of the late Professor Goodrick-Clarke’s greatest achievements was his manifestation of the groundbreaking EXESESO program at Exeter, which incorporated the MA and PhD in Western Esotericism. Delivered long-distance, it allowed students from anywhere in the world to take the course, and this created a unique cohort of students, with a passion for esoteric studies in common. We really came from all walks of life, and Professor Goodrick-Clarke’s vision brought us together. Many of us continued with our studies, or used them as grounding for our various pursuits; and even though the program has had to close following his sad and untimely death, his legacy lives through everything he taught us. He always set high standards of scholarship and expression, and I know I certainly learned to express myself and to think in a more disciplined and accurate way thanks to his tutelage.

Your father Leon is one of the most prolific writers in the healing arts, the first naturopath/osteopath appointed as a consultant by the UK government to a medical practice. For eleven years he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster.  He is author/editor of over seventy books and is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed, Medline-indexed Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies.  Growing up with that dad you must have some interesting insight into sickness and health.  Can you share any useful simple tips with our readers?

My father’s philosophy has always been to treat the whole person, not just to focus on a symptom, and to focus on homeostasis, which means a balanced state of stability of the body on all levels. He’s taught me that wellness is the body’s natural state, and that given the chance, if we modify behaviors and habits (posture, diet, mental processes, breathing patterns) and help to remove stressors and imbalances, it is the primary factor that can assist in recovery from many illnesses, and perhaps more importantly, in the prevention of illness. Even when orthodox therapy is necessary, the holistic approach can help to rehabilitate an individual after severe illness. The premise is deceptively simple: follow nature in seeking to reinstate balance where there are imbalances. One of the most important parts of my father’s work has been to back this up with hard science, and this has contributed to the integration of these approaches within medical establishment practice. In simple terms, it’s common sense following the ancient axiom of “nothing to excess”: eat well, sleep well, watch your posture, make time for both work and play, learn to handle stress effectively, and trust in the body’s powers of regeneration – if given the chance.

szeged_ppt_-_11What is Peladan’s Platonic Legendarium?

Joséphin Péladan was a 19th century French occultist and author whose work is the topic of my PhD thesis. The “Platonic Legendarium” is a term I’ve coined to describe Péladan’s huge output: a collection of novels that rest on a cosmology that he constructed out of an eclectic mix of mythologies, and discussed in his theoretical works. I call the body of his work a legendarium – a term borrowed from Tolkien studies – based on Tolkien’s own definition: “a majestic whole… a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story … mainly concerned with Fall, mortality, and the Machine.” This description fits Péladan’s output, which I call Platonic because the heart of his philosophy, though couched in esoteric and mystical terms, is pure Platonic philosophy.

Peladan is often dismissed for being self-aggrandizing and extravagant; please explain how his kaloprosopia was actually a form of protest against the conformity of his contemporaries. 

Péladan’s doctrine of Kaloprosopia refers to what he called an “art of personality.” It rests on his consideration of “the human being in its three elements of body, soul, and spirit.” He defines it thus: “The first of the arts of personality is kaloprosopia, (from καλός, beautiful, and πρόσωπον, person); […] the embellishment of the human aspect, or […] of the moral character through everyday acts.” Péladan explained his flamboyant behaviour and dress by saying that “in a time when honors are dishonoured, where function signifies incapacity, there is a kind of public virtue in proving, through wearing a costume, that one is oneself, one is free, one is outside the frame.This was not meant as an affected pose; Péladan’s rationale was simple. He cited St. Ignatius (1491–1556) to explain: “Make the acts of faith, and faith will come. […] That which manifests the external form of an idea, will realise its internal essence, […] equally, the internal essence can bring forth an adequate external form.” This is the key to kaloprosopia: Péladan exhorted his readers to observe and amend their behaviours and responses to the world according to the ideal that they were aiming to manifest. Péladan conceived Kaloprosopia as a form of “self-creation,” leading to collective spiritual evolution that could be sparked, not just through exposure to symbolic art, but by individuals turning themselves into symbolic art by exteriorizing their own ideal individuality.

 Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.




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