Forbidden Fruits: An occult novel by Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro | Inner Traditions | 2020
Forbidden Fruits: An occult novel (2020) is the second novel co-authored by Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro, following 2012’s The Forbidden Book. Godwin is a renowned academic, a long-time professor of music at Colgate College, and author of several excellent books dealing with occult history—including The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994) and Upstate Cauldron (2015). Sospiro is an Italian novelist and essayist who writes regularly for the New English Review, and has written The Story of Yew (2001).
Forbidden Fruits is a deeply esoteric book that uses entheogen lore as its guiding light. Entheogen, meaning to generate God within, was coined by researchers in the late 1970s, including Carl Ruck, R Gordon Wasson, Jonathan Ott, and Richard Evans Schultes. The word concerns psychoactive plants and substances used within a religious and/or spiritual context. Its lore refers to historical projects that seek to elucidate the role of these substances in Western mystery cults and Eastern religions—for instance, the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries or Soma in the Rig Veda. It is the former that underpins this book.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were held for several thousand years near Eleusis in Greece, only ending after violent destruction of the site by the newly Christianised Roman empire in the 4th century AD. It was a yearly initiation rite into the cult of Demeter and Persephone, in which everyone from philosophers to Roman emperors, and all sorts of ordinary people, took part. However, we know very little about what went on due to participants taking a vow of secrecy—death being the punishment for transgressing this. Some facts did emerge, including the use of a ritual drink called the kykeon.
After the explosion of knowledge concerning psychedelic substances in the post-war Western world, not only regarding their effects but also their ritual use among indigenous peoples, researchers began to look anew at the mysteries, wondering if a psychoactive substance was involved. Famously, Wasson, Ruck, and the discoverer of LSD Albert Hofmann, posited an LSD-like substance as being a possible candidate in The Road to Eleusis (1978). It is this lore, contemporary yet rooted in the ancient, that underpins Forbidden Fruits—a strange mix of occult knowledge and altered states.
The novel is largely set in Malta and Italy during the migrant crisis after 2015. Its protagonist, Monica Bettlheim, is an American archaeologist who has been hired by the Maltese billionaire and antiquities expert Sebastian Pinto to help carry out underwater excavations around the island. They soon discover a golden pomegranate (the fruit associated with Persephone in Greek myth) which turns out to contain organic substances--ones confirming the Eleusis hypothesis. However, soon after, a murder takes place, which sends both Monica, and Pinto’s son Rafael, on the run from mysterious pursuers.
Secret occult groups, ancient Christian orders, European Union officials and high Maltese aristocracy combine to create an extraordinary web of intrigue as Monica and Rafael try to stay alive and figure out what is happening. They are aided on their journey by a deep entheogenic experience which allows them to piece together their visions with occult symbolism and unravel the great ‘evil’ that hangs menacingly over Malta. The book’s ending is an extraordinary, grotesque indictment of greed and the European treatment of migrants.
On the whole, the book is well paced and keeps the reader thoroughly engaged. The main trip sequence however, although well told, does break up this pacing somewhat. Monica Bettlheim is a rather flat protagonist. She displays little or no agency throughout most of the book, and while this may be in order to mimic some sort of initiation in itself, it leaves her character as rather weak. Similarly, Rafael is quite two-dimensional and is frustratingly vague—several actions he takes appear to be based on plot elements that the reader is never made aware of. It might be esoteric knowledge, or it might not.
For readers who are themselves deep into entheogenic lore, the book is a marvelous read, filled with occult knowledge and exposition. At times the politics is a little heavy-handed, yet there is something strangely interesting about placing archaic esotericism within a contemporary context.
This review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal, issue XXXV. Check out all our print publications here.