Unheard of Curiosities: Rare Books on the Occult and Esoteric Sciences


Unheard of curiosities in exhibition of rare
books on the occult and esoteric sciences, showcases where books from special collections
in university archives that display evidence of the enduring popular interest in a diverse
constellation of occult topics, from the 16th century to the present day. The exhibition
primarily features books collected by the late Rutgers professor of English, Clement
Fairweather, and it’s referred to as the Fairweather Collection. The majority of the Fairweather
Collection covers topics related to Astronomy and Astrology, ranging from mathematical and
scientific treatments to its importance in popular culture. One significant portion of
the exhibition and the Fairweather Collection pertains to alchemy. While alchemy is a multifaceted
subject, it is clearly an exploration of the nature of substances. The history of chemistry
is represented by alchemical works of the 16th and 17th centuries. OFten associated
with astrology, it is also a philosophy of the cosmos and of mankind’s place in it.
Within the Fairweather Collection and in the exhibition, works on witchcraft and magic
fall into two categories, those texts of the 16th and 17th century regarding witch trials
in Europe and 19th century books. The works largely pertaining to witch trials include
multiple viewpoints of the time. Predominantly in England, witchcraft is a subject of considerable
scholarly attention as well as enthusiastic popular interest. A major portion of the Fairweather
Cult Collection and the exhibition features the 19th century revival of astrology and
the occult. Not really a revival, but a transformation in the broad scope and popularity of this
complex world view. The myriad of philosophies and phenomenon familiar to us today gained
impressive popularity at this time. A significant section of the exhibition deals with Aleister
Crowley. Crowley was a British poet, novelist, and Occultist infamous throughout England
and the United States as the wickedest man in the world. Crowley was one of the most
important figures in the revival of modern western occultism and magic in the 20th century.
During his later years, he focused on building the OTO and publishing his writing. The exhibition
features several works by William Godwin, one of the first exponents of utilitarianism
and a founder of modern anarchism, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles
of London in the 1790’s. Godwin explored the themes of life extension and immortality
in his gothic novel featured here, St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century. An interesting
section of the exhibition and the Fairweather collection pertains to ancient Egypt. Some
specific examples of items in the exhibition on Egypt include Lorenzo Pignoria’s Mensa
Isiaca. The hieroglyphs are nonsense and the scenes are in Egyptian style, but do not depict
true Egyptian rites. Nevertheless, the central figure in the chapel can be recognized as
ISIS. Another work on Egypt and the near east, and also the inspiration for the exhibition
title is Jacques Gaffarel’s Unheard of Curiosities. It was an encyclopedia of talismans, horoscopes,
popular astrology, and near east astrology. The occult, like beauty, is in the eye of
the beholder. This come to be an umbrella term for any number of beliefs or practices
deemed unscientific. Those shunned or forgotten knowledges, or perhaps more importantly, that
knowledge which exists on the fringes of the mainstream or popular belief systems. Out
of this came the assemblage of rejected knowledge that makes up the occults.

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