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Netherworld

by Robert Temple

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441462,761 (3)None
Although this may look like a novel it's not. It is in fact a pastiche of fact and myth, and of history and conjecture about ancient traditions and techniques of seeing into the future and predicting events. Temple focuses on four main traditons, two from the west (Greece and Rome) and two from the east. His prophetic quest includes research on techniques of divination, the interpretations of portents and signs, the consultation of oracles, concepts of the underworld, and Oracle-bone-cracking and the Book of Change in China. One for the general reader - you could say that the book is somewhat stranger than the subject.… (more)
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The author is a cookie, but of the benign variety. The book actually includes some interesting primary source material, especially in the first part about ancient Mediterranean oracles -- the most interesting being the author's own visits to the oracular cave in Baia (Italy). The collection of writings on divination by ancient authors like Pliny (and other, less famous ones) is also interesting.

Unfortunately any original conclusions or extrapolations by the author are to be treated as wild speculation, since he seems to lack any ability to approach his sources critically -- or rather, he seems to lose that ability when the extrapolation goes in a direction that he finds fascinating.

At some point in the course of the book, I gave up howling and screeching at him every half page and started becoming amused instead, and this did improve the reading experience.

The second half of the book is cookier. It starts out with Chinese oracles (bones/tortoise shells and the I Ching), gets entranced with the fact that the I Ching, based on a binary system of whole or broken lines, is -- wait for it -- BINARY!!! But the binary system was only discovered in the West by Leibniz in the 17th century!!! (Not discovered, invented. And binary notation is not the same as binary arithmetic: the I Ching is not binary arithmetic. Sorry Mr Temple -- Ed.)

From here he moves on to hexagons, which he seems to find really exciting. After explaining in detail how they are the most economical way of filling a plane, he then proceeds to find it nothing short of miraculous that so many things that need to cover a surface actually and in the real world do so with hexagons. From two-dimensional hexagons he goes on to "economical" solids, which are related to hexagons!!! (And in those cases where they aren't, it is possible to work out hexagons one way or another by combining selected faces. Or at the very least they will be found to contain 60-degree angles somewhere). This all seems to have deep and portentous significance. There's a longish section where every sentence that contains the word "hexagon" seems to end in an exclamation mark.

Also notable is the "they also laughed at Hoyle and Wickramasinghe" part, if nothing else as a true piece of cookie bravura. (This is in connection to comets predicting plague and other disasters. According to the author, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe clearly "demonstrated" that viruses come on Earth from space via cometary debris -- which is also the origin of life on Earth -- and so comets did predict plagues. Even so, he kind of forgets to explain about the other disasters, but hey.)

In his favour, the author is a kook but not a crook: he comes across as honest and genuinely enthusiastic, which can be endearing and makes the book easier to read -- just a bit lacking in the critical-approach department.

In conclusion: the book collects some interesting facts, but does so under wildly speculative theories that really don't stand up, sorry. Worth having a look at if you have an interest in one of the specific areas he touches on. Just don't give it to young and impressionable readers who may themselves lack critical reading skills and may therefore take it too seriously. ( )
  AnnaOok | Apr 4, 2008 |
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Although this may look like a novel it's not. It is in fact a pastiche of fact and myth, and of history and conjecture about ancient traditions and techniques of seeing into the future and predicting events. Temple focuses on four main traditons, two from the west (Greece and Rome) and two from the east. His prophetic quest includes research on techniques of divination, the interpretations of portents and signs, the consultation of oracles, concepts of the underworld, and Oracle-bone-cracking and the Book of Change in China. One for the general reader - you could say that the book is somewhat stranger than the subject.

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The first part of this book is about ancient Western oracular practices, with an interesting section on the sybils' caves (particularly the one in Baia in Italy) and some speculation on the use of homing pigeons by oracles. Also in this part, chapters on divination by signs, portents, and entrails -- including experiments carried out by the author at a slaughterhouse.

The second part starts out with the Chinese oracles -- bones and tortoise shells and the I Ching -- but is really mostly about hexagons, which are a truly economical way of organising surfaces and spaces. The author appears to find this absolutely fascinating, and goes on about it a bit. Appendixes: a 17th century account of the oracle cave at Baia, a transcript of a talk about riddles and oracles, the anatomy of divination by entrails, and a table of conversions between decimal and binary systems.
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