Welcome to Episode Five, Season Ten of the Thoth-Hermes podcast. This brings us the opportunity to join Rudolf in conversation with Paulina Gruffman, on the subject of GRS Mead. Paulina is a nascent luminary in occult scholarship, currently at PhD candidate at Sweden’s Lund University.
Paulina’s academic rooting began with reading CG Jung in her mid-teens. The relationship between Mead and Jung is explored in-depth during this episode. Paulina notes that Jung cited Mead in his own doctoral dissertation, holding dialogue and friendship with him during the development of his own career; 20 of Mead’s books are currently held in the Jung Archive.
Paulina speaks as a focused and nuanced researcher, in a long-term journey of examining the entirety of George Robert Stow Mead. She details and distinguishes his pursuits as all three of an occultist, theosophist, and a highly capable “amateur” academic. She acknowledges the critique his work has received from 20th Century academics, undercutting his capability as “amateur” from a dismissive definition of the term. Paulina reminds us that while Mead was an informal academic, and in this sense amateur, he was also amateur as a fully capable Cambridge-educated intellect.
Paulina also shares openly regarding her own academic development. Rudolf and Paulina tackle the perennial question of academic objectivity’s tension or coexistence with personal occult practices of researchers. Paulina articulates her role primarily as a “historian” academic, and emphasizes the necessity of using primary sources and critical analysis… which do not preclude nor necessitate personal practices: a refreshing “it depends”!
The conversation explores Mead’s assertion of the term “gnosis” and “gnostic” as definable apart from the associated historical movement; further, as both a staged process and a state of being. Mead’s many years and roles with the Theosophical Society (leaving in 1909) informed his conceptualization. Mead served as the final private secretary to Helena Blavatsky, a member of the Theosophical Society’s Circle of Twelve, and editor of the Theosophical Review. Paulina also details Mead’s founding of the Quest Society, and interest in the development of the (still existent) Eranos conferences.
Just three of GRS Mead’s most important books
Paulina Gruffman is a PhD Candidate in the History of Religions at Lund University. Her research surrounds Cambridge Classicist, occultist, and early historian of ancient religion, G.R.S. Mead (1863–1933). Building on her M.A. thesis on Mead’s role in the Theosophical Society (Stockholm University, 2021), her forthcoming dissertation is the first in-depth biographical study of Mead’s life and work, and considers his role in the formation of the comparative study of religion, as well as his impact on a range of important scholars in the field, including C.G. Jung, Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin.
Music played in this episode
Two composers of classical music, who were bost very much influenced by esoteric and occult themes in the times of GRS Mead are presented here today.
Here is an introductory text by Paulina Gruffmann:
Having posted previously on the innovative and experimental composer Alexander Scriabin and his relation to Theosophy, I would like to continue on the track of Theosophy and music.
Pictured here is the cover of The Hymn of Jesus, composed by the British composer famous for the orchestral suit, The Planets: Gustav Holst (1874–1934).
Those familiar with the works of G.R.S. Mead might recognize this title, as it also appears in his oeuvre. Inspired by Montague Rhodes James’ 1897 translation of the apocryphal text, Acts of John (titled Apocrypha anecdota, published by Cambridge University Press), Mead published his own translation of the apocrypha in 1907, The Hymn of Jesus.
Holst’s choice of title for his composition is not coincidental, as Holst and Mead were friends. After having read James’ translation of Acts of John, Mead gave a copy of the book to Holst. When Mead published his own translation and commentary of the apocrypha, Holst—impressed and moved by Mead’s translation—composed (with the help of Mead, his pupil Jane Joseph, and Theosophist Clifford Bax) a composition largely based on Mead’s translation of the text (which was finished in 1919).
While Holst was never a Theosophist, it is clear that he surrounded himself with Theosophists and was knowledgeable of Theosophical matters, just like Scriabin. We can therefore count Holst as another instance of a Theosophically inspired composer of the twentieth century.
For a more in-depth account and analysis of Holst’s composition, see, for instance, Raymond Head, “The Hymn of Jesus: Holst’s Gnostic Exploration of Time and Space” (1999) and Justin Andrew Owen, “The Handmaiden of Gnosis: Music in Esoteric Societies” (2018).
Photo by Austin Sherlaw-Johnson, Secondhand Music (Oxford).