Taschen is one of my favorite publishers and they have recently launched an intriguing new book series titled the Library of Esoterica. The series is dedicated to examining “how centuries of artists have given form to mysticism, translating the arcane and the obscure into enduring, visionary works of art.” The Library of Esoterica showcases modern as well as archival imagery from private collectors, museums, and libraries around the world while documenting “the creative ways we strive to connect to the divine.”
The first book in this multi-volume set is titled Tarot and it was released in August last year followed by Astrology in December 2020. The third volume is reportedly titled Witchcraft, and it is scheduled for an Autumn 2021 release.
The Library of Esoterica was originally the idea of Taschen’s founder Benedikt Taschen who reportedly wanted to create a series of books that explored “secret knowledge.” Editor, writer, and filmmaker Jessica Ann Hundley was brought on board to helm the series and in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times she explained that she was striving to “create a super introductory, very inclusive and seductive way into these practices, which is through the art.”
I have only seen sample pages from the books but this new series from Taschen appears to be a lovely visual reference that is somewhat light on information but lushly illustrated. Like many of the Taschen releases, each volume is beautifully designed and getting rave reviews. The consensus seems to be that they are great books for beginners just discovering these topics as well as the initiated looking for an informed overview of the subject or something to liven up their occult library.
The new Taschen volumes are reminiscent of other occult encyclopedias released during the 1970s and well into the 1990s. The first of these that I am aware of was the successful British series Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural originally published by BPC Publishing, Ltd. in 1970 and edited by occult historian and author Richard Cavendish (1930-2016). When interviewed by the Australian newspaper The Age in 1970 Cavendish explained that the purpose of the encyclopedias was to explore what was behind magic and mysticism adding “What excites me, too, about all these subjects is the marvelous poetry and insight on human nature and the situation of man in this world.”
Man, Myth & Magic began life as a weekly magazine, but the articles were collected and released as a 24 volume hardcover book series. The first volume features a compelling cover image by the influential British artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) based on his work The Elemental aka The Vampires are Coming. It also contains a fascinating introduction to the series proclaiming, “At last it is possible to bring the discussion of the supernatural out of dark – a privilege even denied to our parents.” It goes on to describe the series in enthusiastic terms as “a complete encyclopedia of the supernatural” adding:
“It is this still dark side of the mind of man, the dimension which baffles hard reason and fact, which Man, Myth and Magic examines. For the first time the full range of this fascinating subject has been assembled in a single authoritative work of reference. All the facets of man’s experience are brought together as a whole, to provide you with a unique study of man and the supernatural which takes you deep into the resources of your own mind – your inheritance, your uniqueness and your future.”Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural
The popularity of Man, Myth & Magic inspired the publication of other similar series such as A New Library of the Supernatural (1975-79) and Great Mysteries (1978) both edited by various British occult experts and authors including Colin Wilson (1931-2013). These collections were followed by Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown (1987-1991) and Mysteries of Mind, Space & Time (1992).
Long before home computers and cellphones made access to esoteric information easily accessible, book series such as these were invaluable to occult enthusiasts eager to learn more about a wide range of topics that had been disregarded and ridiculed or were still relatively taboo. If you didn’t want to buy them in a store you could typically purchase occult libraries by mail. The books would arrive discreetly and in the privacy of your own home you could begin studying the history of alchemy or parapsychology while researching lost civilizations and divination. These lavishly illustrated condensed volumes covering a variety of subjects encouraged exploration and allowed reader’s imaginations to take flight.
It’s heartening to see the return of occult encyclopedias thanks to Taschen’s new Library of Esoterica series. Despite the much welcome democratizing of information on the world wide web, it’s hard to deny the pure physical, as well as the mental pleasure, derived from holding a beautifully bound book in your hands. Particularly when they promise to reward readers with arcaneknowledge and unveil marvelous mysteries.