Given his achievements in the realms of both poetry and painting, to say nothing of his compulsions to religious and philosophical inquiry, it’s tempting to call William Blake a “Renaissance man.” But he lived in the England of the mid-eighteenth century to the near mid-nineteenth, making him a Romantic Age man — and in fact, according to the current historical view, one of that era’s defining figures. “Today he is recognized as the most spiritual of artists,” say the narrator of the video introduction above, “and an important poet in English literature.” And whether realized on canvas or in verse, his visions have retained their power over the centuries.
That power, however, went practically unacknowledged in Blake’s lifetime. Most who knew him regarded him as something between an eccentric and a madman, a perception his grandly mystical ideas and vigorous rejection of both institutions and conventions did little to dispel.
Blake didn’t believe that the world is as we see it. Rather, he sought to access much stranger underlying truths using his formidable imagination, exercised both in his art and in his dreams. Cultivating this capacity allows us to “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”
Those words come from one of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” Despite being one of his best-known poems, it merely hints at the depth and breadth of his worldview — indeed, his view of all existence. His entire corpus, written, painted, and printed, constitutes a kind of atlas of this richly imagined territory to which “The Otherworldly Art of William Blake” provides an overview. Though very much a product of the time and place in which he lived, Blake clearly drew less inspiration from the world around him than from the world inside him. Reality, for him, was to be cultivated — and richly — within his own being. Still today, the chimerical conviction of his work dares us to cultivate the reality within ourselves.
“My name, ‘Alan,’ means ‘harmony’ in Celtic and ‘hound’ in Anglo-Saxon. Accordingly, my existence is, and has been, a paradox, or better, a coincidence of opposites.”
Zen Buddhism is full of paradoxes: practical, yet mystical; seriously formal, yet shot through with jokes and plays on words; stressing intricate ceremonial rules and communal practices, yet just as often brought to life by “wild fox” masters who flout all convention. Such a Zen master was Alan Watts, the teacher, writer, philosopher, priest, and calligrapher who embraced contradiction and paradox in all its forms.
Watts was a natural contrarian, becoming a Buddhist at 15 — at least partly in opposition to the fundamentalist Protestantism of his mother — then, in the 1940s, ordaining as an Episcopal priest. Though he left the priesthood in 1950, he would continue to write and teach on both Buddhism and Christianity, seeking to reconcile the traditions and succeeding in ways that offended leaders of neither religion. His book of theology, Behold the Spirit, “was widely hailed in Christian circles,” David Guy writes at Tricycle magazine. “One Episcopal reviewer said it would ‘prove to be one of the half dozen most significant books on religion in the twentieth century.'”
As a Buddhist, Watts has come in for criticism for his use of psychedelics, addiction to alcohol, and unorthodox practices. Yet his wisdom received the stamp of approval from Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Zen teacher often credited with bringing formal Japanese Zen practice to American students. Suzuki called Watts “a great bodhisattva” and died with a staff Watts had given him in hand. Watts didn’t stay long in any institution because he “just didn’t want his practice to be about jumping through other people’s hoops or being put in their boxes,” writes a friend, David Chadwick, in a recent tribute. Nonetheless, he remained a powerful catalyst for others who discovered spiritual practices that spoke to them more authentically than anything they’d known.
Watts, a self-described trickster, “saw the true emptiness of all things,” said Suzuki’s American successor Richard Baker in a eulogy — “the multiplicities and absurdities to the Great Universal Personality and Play.” It was his contrarian streak that made him the ideal interpreter of esoteric Indian, Chinese, and Japanese religious ideas for young Americans in the 1950s and 60s who were questioning the dogmas of their parents but lacked the language with which to do so. Watts was a serious scholar, though he never finished a university degree, and he built bridges between East and West with wit, erudition, irreverence, and awe.
Many of Watts’ first devotees got their introduction to him through his volunteer radio broadcasts on Berkeley’s KPFA. You can hear several of those talks at KPFA’s site, which currently hosts a “Greatest Hits Collection” of Watts’ talks. In addition to his 1957 book The Way of Zen, these wonderfully meandering lectures helped introduce the emerging counterculture to Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, forgotten mystical aspects of Christianity, and the Jungian ideas that often tied them all together.
No matter the tradition Watts found himself discussing on his broadcasts, listeners found him turning back to paradox. Hear him do so in talks on the “Fundamentals of Buddhism” (top), and other talks like the “Spiritual Odyssey of Aldous Huxley,” the “Reconciliation of Opposites” and a talk entitled “Way Beyond the West,” also the name of his lecture series, more of which you can find at KPFA’s “Greatest Hits” collectionhere.
The history of birth control is almost as old as the history of the wheel.
Pessaries dating to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt provide the launching pad for documentarian Lindsay Holiday‘s overview of birth control throughout the ages and around the world.
Holiday’s History Tea Time series frequently delves into women’s history, and her pledge to donate a portion of the above video’s ad revenue to Pathfinder International serves as reminder that there are parts of the world where women still lack access to affordable, effective, and safe means of contraception.
As Holiday points out, expense, social stigma, and religious edicts have impacted ease of access to birth control for centuries.
The further back you go, you can be certain that some methods advocated by midwives and medicine women have been lost to history, owing to unrecorded oral tradition and the sensitive nature of the information.
Holiday still manages to truffle up a fascinating array of practices and products that were thought – often erroneously – to ward off unwanted pregnancy.
Some that worked and continue to work to varying degrees, include barrier methods, condoms, and more recently the IUD and The Pill.
Definitely NOT recommended: withdrawal, holding your breath during intercourse, a post-coital sneezing regimen, douching with Lysol or Coca-Cola, toxic cocktails of lead, mercury or copper salt, anything involving alligator dung, and slugging back water that’s been used to wash a corpse.
As for silphium, an herb that likely did have some sort of spermicidal properties, we’ll never know for sure. By 1 CE, demand outstripped supply of this remedy, eventually wiping it off the face of the earth despite increasingly astronomical prices. Fun fact: silphium was also used to treat sore throat, snakebite, scorpion stings, mange, gout, quinsy, epilepsy, and anal warts
The history of birth control can be considered a semi-secret part of the history of prostitution, feminism, the military, obscenity laws, sex education and attitudes toward public health.
Michelangelo didn’t want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Having considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter — and, given his skill with stone, not without cause — he felt that taking on such an ambitious project could bring him to ruin. But one does not simply turn down a job offer from the Vatican, and especially not when one is among the most respected artists in sixteenth-century Italy. In the event, Michelangelo proved equal to the task, or rather, much more than equal: he completed his ceiling frescoes in 1512 for Pope Julius II, and 23 years later was commissioned again by Pope Paul III to paint the Last Judgment over the altar.
Long before Michelangelo touched a brush to the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, a team of painters including Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Pinturicchio had already adorned the building’s interior with frescoes depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus Christ.
The fruit of a half-decade-long collaboration between the Vatican and two publishers, Callaway Arts & Entertainment and Scripta Maneant, The Sistine Chapeldemanded 65 nights of consecutive work from its photographers, who shot 270,000 high-resolution images. Capturing the masterworks on the walls and ceiling down to the textures of their paint and brushstrokes necessitated climbing up on scaffolding, just as Michelangelo himself famously did to make his contributions in the first place. Limited by the Vatican to a print run of 1,999 copies, the set is now available for purchase at AbeBooks, though it will cost you $22,000. In a sense that’s a small price to pay, for as Goethe put it, “without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Find The Sistine Chapelbook collection here.
Generations and generations of Americans dissatisfied with life in their hometowns have acted on the same migratory impulse: to go west. Many have done so in order to make their fortunes, but a fair few have been seeking varieties of satisfaction altogether less tangible. In the human spirt in general and the American spirit in particular, there is a yearning for “secret knowledge” of reality’s hidden workings. Those whose spirits most yearn for that knowledge tend to end up in California, the logical end of American civilization. There they’ve found vibrant communities of yogis, spiritualists, Aenerians, theosophists, healers, Unarians, alchemists, Rosicrucians, witches, tarot readers, astrologers… the list goes on.
More recently, California has also been home to Taschen’s American headquarters, the acclaimed publishers of lavishly produced books on art and culture with no compunction about exploring the fringes of human experience. A couple of years ago we featured their visual history of tarot Divine Decks here on Open Culture; now they’ve put out a three-volume coffee-table Library of Esoterica that includes books on not just tarot but astrology and witchcraft as well.
Assembled and designed to Taschen’s usual aesthetically painstaking standard, the set comes edited by writer and filmmaker Jessica Hundley, who used the opportunity to open the most “inclusive and seductive way into these practices, which is through the art” they’ve inspired.
That’s what she told Los Angeles Times‘ Steffie Nelson, who writes that “Hundley has been fascinated by alternative spiritualities and the occult since she was a goth-punk teenager on the East Coast.” Later she moved to Los Angeles, “drawn to the city’s legacy of esoteric exploration and its renown as a place where dreams are made manifest and identity is mutable.” This project’s worldwide search for art and other materials related to these fields of esoterica began at Los Angeles’ own Philosophical Research Society, founded in the nineteen-thirties by mystic Manly P. Hall. With its richly reproduced imagery and accompanying explanatory essays, the Library of Esoterica offers a reading experience liable to open anyone’s doors of perception. The age of Aquarius may be over, but there’s a seeker born every minute.
The Book of Revelation is a strong competitor for weirdest text in all of ancient literature. Or, at least, it is “the strangest and most disturbing book in the whole Bible,” says the narrator of the video above from a channel called hochelaga, which features “obscure topics that deserve more attention.” Most of these are supernatural or religious in nature. But if you’re looking for a religious or theological interpretation of St. John of Patmos‘ bizarre prophetic vision, look elsewhere. The examination above proceeds “from a secular, non-religious perspective.”
Instead, we’re promised a survival guide in the unlikely (but who knows, right) event that the prophecy comes true. But what, exactly, would that look like? Revelation is “highly symbolic” and very “non-literal.” The meanings of its symbols are rather inscrutable and have seemed to shift and change each century, depending on how its interpreters wanted to use it to forward agendas of their own.
This has, of course, been no less true in the 20th and 21st centuries. If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, for example, you were bound to have come across the works of Hal Lindsay – author of The Late Great Planet Earth (turned into a 1977 film narrated by Orson Welles). And if you lived through the 1990s, you surely heard of his entertaining successors: the bloody-minded Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The Apocalypse has been big business in publishing and other media for 50 plus years now. Revelation itself is an incredibly obscure book, but the use of its language and imagery for profit and proselyting “made the Apocalypse a popular concern,” as Erin A. Smith writes for Humanities. Lindsay’s book sold both as religious fact and science fiction, a genre later evangelical writers like LaHaye and Jenkins exploited on purpose. The influence has always gone both ways. “A kind of secular apocalyptic sensibility pervades much contemporary writing about our current world,” Paul Boyer, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells PBS.
Whether it’s a discussion of climate catastrophe, viral pandemic, economic collapse, the rise of artificial intelligence, or civil strife and international warfare, the apocalyptic metaphors stack up in our imaginations, often without us even noticing. Get to know one of their primary sources in the video introduction to Revelation just above.
We have become quite used to pronouncements of doom, from scientists predicting the sixth mass extinction due to the measurable effects of climate change, and from religionists declaring the apocalypse due to a surfeit of sin. It’s almost impossible to imagine these two groups of people agreeing on anything other than the ominous portent of their respective messages. But in the early days of the scientific revolution—the days of Shakespeare contemporary Francis Bacon, and later 17th century Descartes—it was not at all unusual to find both kinds of reasoning, or unreasoning, in the same person, along with beliefs in magic, divination, astrology, etc.
Yet even in this maelstrom of heterodox thought and practices, Sir Isaac Newton stood out as a particularly odd co-existence of esoteric biblical prophecy, occult beliefs, and a rigid, formal mathematics that not only adhered to the inductive scientific method, but also expanded its potential by applying general axioms to specific cases.
Yet many of Newton’s general principles would seem totally inimical to the naturalism of most physicists today. As he was formulating the principles of gravity and three laws of motion, for example, Newton also sought the legendary Philosopher’s Stone and attempted to turn metal to gold. Moreover, the devoutly religious Newton wrote theological treatises interpreting Biblical prophecies and predicting the end of the world. The date he arrived at? 2060.
So then the time times & half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, recconing twelve months to a yeare & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of lived [sic] kingdoms, the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end A.C. 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner.
Newton further demonstrates his confidence in the next sentence, writing that his intent, “though not to assert” an answer, should in any event “put a stop the rash conjectures of fancifull men who are frequently predicting the time of the end.” Indeed. So how did he arrive at this number? Newton applied a rigorous method, that is to be sure.
If you have the patience for exhaustive description of how he worked out his prediction using the Book of Daniel, you may read one here by historian of science Stephen Snobelen, who also points out how widespread the interest in Newton’s odd beliefs has become, reaching across every continent, though scholars have known about this side of the Enlightenment giant for a long time.
For a sense of the exacting, yet completely bizarre flavor of Newton’s prophetic calculations, see another Newton letter at the of the post, transcribed below.
Prop. 1. The 2300 prophetick days did not commence before the rise of the little horn of the He Goat.
2 Those day [sic] did not commence a[f]ter the destruction of Jerusalem & ye Temple by the Romans A.[D.] 70.
3 The time times & half a time did not commence before the year 800 in wch the Popes supremacy commenced
4 They did not commence after the re[ig]ne of Gregory the 7th. 1084
5 The 1290 days did not commence b[e]fore the year 842.
6 They did not commence after the reigne of Pope Greg. 7th. 1084
7 The diffence [sic] between the 1290 & 1335 days are a parts of the seven weeks.
Therefore the 2300 years do not end before ye year 2132 nor after 2370.
The time times & half time do n[o]t end before 2060 nor after 
The 1290 days do not begin [this should read: end] before 2090 [Newton might mean: 2132] nor after 1374 [sic; Newton probably means 2374]
The editorial insertions are Professor Snobelen’s, who thinks the letter dates “from after 1705,” and that “the shaky handwriting suggests a date of composition late in Newton’s life.” Whatever the exact date, we see him much less certain here; Newton pushes around some other dates—2344, 2090 (or 2132), 2374. All of them seem arbitrary, but “given the nice roundness of the number,” writesMotherboard, “and the fact that it appears in more than one letter,” 2060 has become his most memorable dating for the apocalypse.
It’s important to note that Newton didn’t believe the world would “end” in the sense of cease to exist or burn up in holy flames. His end times philosophy resembles that of a surprising number of current day evangelicals: Christ would return and reign for a millennium, the Jewish diaspora would return to Israel and would, he wrote, set up “a flourishing and everlasting Kingdom.” We hear such statements often from televangelists, school boards, governors, and presidential candidates.
As many people have argued, despite Newton’s conception of his scientific work as a bulwark against other theologies, it ultimately became a foundation for Deism and Naturalism, and has allowed scientists to make accurate predictions for hundreds of years. 20th century physics may have shown us a much more radically unstable universe than Newton ever imagined, but his theories are, as Isaac Asimov would put it, “not so much wrong as incomplete,” and still essential to our understanding of certain fundamental phenomena. But as fascinating and curious as Newton’s other interests may be, there’s no more reason to credit his prophetic calculations than those of the Millerites, Harold Camping, or any other apocalyptic doomsday sect.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.
Even with 21st-century teaching aids, the written Japanese language isn’t the sort of thing one picks up in a few weeks’ study. A few hundred years ago it would’ve been much more difficult still, especially for those engaged in learning the sūtras or scriptures of Buddhism. “The stakes of correct recitation were high in the pre- and early modern era,” writes The Public Domain Review’s Hunter Dukes, “with strict rules for pronunciation existing since the 1100s, and sūtra recitation (dokyō) becoming an art form in the following century.” Imported from India and rewritten in classical Chinese with few clues as to how its words should actually be spoken, the Buddhist canon of east Asia set a mighty challenge even before the perfectly literate.
As for the illiterate — of whom, in complete contrast to modern-day Japan, there were many — what chance did they stand? Salvation, or at any rate a chance at salvation, arrived in the 17th century in the form of texts written just for them. “Japanese printers began creating a type of book for the illiterate, allowing them to recite sūtras and other devotional prayers, without knowledge of any written language,” writes Dukes. “The texts work by a rebus principle (known as hanjimono), where each drawn image, when named aloud, sounds out a Chinese syllable.” Geared toward an agricultural “readership,” this system drew its imagery from what they knew: farming tools, domestic animals, and even figures of myth.
“Because these pictures represent sounds, rather than objects or ideas, they don’t really act as pictograms the way emoji do,” admits the writer of the Library of Congress’ post. “But in their icon-like appearance, succinct and functional, they do bear a resemblance to our use of emoji today.” It was then reblogged on Language Log, one of whose commenters offered some explanation of the system as seen in the pictures: “The Sanskrit phrase ‘Prajñāpāramitā’ is rendered ‘Hannyaharamita’ in Japanese. ‘Hannya’ here is written with a drawing of the hannya demon mask from Noh. ‘Harami’ appears to be a picture of a body (mi) in an abdomen (hara), and then ‘ta’ is a picture of a ricefield (tanbo, the “ta” of many Japanese names, like Tanaka and Toyota).” Hands have been wringing about the potential of internet communication to deliver us into a “post-literate” society; perhaps these curious chapters in the history of the Japanese language show us where to go from there.
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.
Open Culture (openculture.com) and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalise ads, support social media features, and analyze our traffic. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.