Trouw - The House with the Heads is a treasure chamber of hidden knowledge
The House with the Heads is a treasure chamber of hidden knowledge - Trouw
The House with the Heads is a treasure chamber of hidden knowledge
The House with the Heads on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht is the home of the Embassy of the Free Mind and a paradise for all lovers of old and mysterious books. Trouw went to take a look.
Director Esther Ritman (53) reverently opens the centuries-old book on the table. ‘It all started with this book.’ The evening light enters the room on the first floor of the Amsterdam canal house, and there are comfortable chairs near the hearth that are beckoning us to sit down and read and forget about the world for a bit.
The book on the table is called ‘Aurora’ and was written by the German philosopher Jacob Böhme in 1612. It was the first book in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, the life’s work of businessman Joost Ritman (77), Esther’s father. It is some sixty years ago now that Ritman started collecting books on Hermetic wisdom, a body of ideas about the divine unity of the world. By now, the collection which is unique in the world has grown to some 25,000 books and manuscripts on philosophy, alchemy, mysticism and spirituality. Besteller authors Dan Brown and Umberto Eco sought and found inspiration here.
The Embassy of the Free Mind is the outcome of Ritman’s dream, as he wants to make his collection available to as many people as possible. To achieve this, he established the Worldheart Foundation in 2016, which a year later took the decision to open the doors of the Embassy of the Free Mind: a library, a museum and a platform for free thinking. The location is impressive: the Embassy of the Free Mind is located in the House with the Heads, a seventeenth-century canal mansion with high ceilings, large windows and a grand entrance hall. Immediately on the left there’s a café for visitors playing mellow jazz music. Climb the wooden stairs to the first floor and you have reached the study rooms, where tourists, students and researchers can be found poring over old books.
Esther Ritman closes the book and sits down in one of the chairs near the fireplace. She wants the Embassy to become a place of encounter. ‘We are a platform for free thinking: a place where wisdom and knowledge that has been acquired in the past but has been largely forgotten since can be reintroduced to the heart of society.’
To become acquainted with that ancient wisdom you can book a tour by one of the experts, and be shown some of the treasures of the Ritman collection. The museum also regularly schedules lectures and concerts and welcomes some fifty visitors on a daily basis: many of them tourists, but also locals and students.
The books in the collection deal with a wide range of subjects, although there is one underlying principle, namely that the world, God and the cosmos are one. Ritman: ‘ Hermetic wisdom assumes there is a unity in everything: everything is one, everything is connected.’ It is also to be found in ‘Aurora’, the book that was inspired by a mystical experience its author had. Böhme saw in a a flash how God was present in every blade of grass. ‘My mind has seen through everything, and has seen God in all creatures’, he wrote.
The notion of ‘hermetic wisdom’ is associated with Hermes Trismegistus (‘thrice greatest'), the Greek name of Thoth, a mythical Egyptian prophet and god of wisdom and writing. A body of works attributed to him started circulating around the beginning of our era. They are concerned with the question how humans can acquire 'gnosis', knowledge of the true, divine nature of reality.
The key to that divine knowledge lies within us, Ritman explains. ‘Hermes Trismegistus said: he who thinks about himself with his mind, knows himself and knows the all: the all is in man. In other words: we can all find the inexpressible, the divine, within ourselves. Once you have found that wisdom, you start to see the interconnectedness of everything. The funny thing is, it’s a very modern thought that transcends religions. There’s something in it for everybody.’
The works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were embraced in Europe during the Renaissance. The authors who were inspired by his work often wrote in secrecy. They were forced to write in secrecy because their ideas were often contrary to church doctrine.
Ritman: ‘The church did not tolerate any other authority. As the representative of God on earth you cannot allow people saying it is not necessary to appeal to a mediator to be admitted to that divine realm, that part of reality still unknown to us. This autonomous and radical thinking was effectively smothered.’
Ritman does not want to cram visitors to the Embassy of the Free Mind with information, but instead likes to encourage them to think for themselves. ‘During a children’s tour I asked a ten-year-old to choose one of the images one the wall he really liked. He made a beeline for a heart with an eye in it. I asked him: what do you see in it? He said: if you really want to understand something, you have to look with the eyes of your heart. That boy got the message.’
The wisdom that is within us all
Pien Wijn (58) is a lawyer and a psychologist and lives around the corner. She is ofen to be found in the Embassy of the Free Mind, on her own or with friends of her. The place helps her in her work as a therapist. ‘There’s an atmosphere in the House with the Heads that touches me. To experience it, you don’t even need to open a book: it’s in the house itself, the height of it, the space, the colours, there’s a special harmony here.
In my practice I actually try to encourage my clients to be more themselves, just as the Ritman family is trying to achieve here. With my clients I’m looking for mental blocks that prevent them from feeling who they really are. It is important to know what lies deep within you, behind your own facade. The paradox is that you will find something unique if you go there, though at the same time it will also make you feel more connected with other people and the world around you.
There’s a natural power and wisdom we all possess within us, which somehow or other we all know is there. Words like esotericism or spirituality are confusing. It’s within yourself, you’re already getting closer to it when you meet someone who’s on the same wavelength as you, when you dance to your favourite music, or when you’re touched by something beautiful. It coincides with a sense of physical wellbeing, as if your body is able to sense when your consciousness is tuned into that deep inner self, whatever that may be. It’s a condition that’s easy to get into when you’re here.
Here you can read books by people who had discovered something that is universal and who chose to write about it, often against all odds. It helps you to put the hype of the day behind you, to trust yourself and continue your own search.
Everyone here has a certain kind of openness
Allen Caldeira (25) is from the United States. Last year he began a Master’s in Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam, focusing on Inca shamanism. He liked his first visit to the Embassy so much that he volunteered to work there at once.
I well remember a professor mentioning the Embassy during classes. I came here for the first time last April, because I wanted to get to know more people who also have a thing with esotericism. I immediately felt at home here. It’s because of all that knowledge that is stored here, but it’s also the building and the space that makes me feel really good.
Before I knew it I was invited to become a volunteer. Now I’m here every Saturday. As a volunteer I’m to be found in one of the rooms and I strike up a conversation with everybody who comes here, with tourists or researchers alike. I often start talking to people when I sense I have to talk to them, it’s something I can’t explain. Esther Ritman recently asked me to give a course on Taoism, another area of interest of mine. I’m now busy preparing PowerPoints and texts for the course.
To me the Embassy is a great place to meet other people. Some of the people who come here are already adepts of Hermetic wisdom, others have no idea what to do with it. But everybody has a kind of openness and curiosity about the ideas that lie hidden in the library, otherwise you just don’t come here. It leads to really great conversations.