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The Occult Shadow of Hermeticism

Craig Chalquist

The unscrupulous have always been drawn to spiritual paths and institutions. Not to be transformed by them, but to exploit them. Spirituality is a particularly rich mine for digging gold out of open pockets.

From early on, the path of Hermeticism, the way of imaginative wisdom and enchanted reflection, drew its share of miners. Some most commonly taken for mystics and thought leaders appear in the occult rogue’s gallery below.

Let us begin by understanding how the archetype of the Mage could cast such a dark shadow.

The Hermetic Shadow

Although Percy Shelley (1792-1822) openly identified as atheist, a dangerous admission in his time and place, he had fallen under the spell of the Rosy Cross early in life, which is why Rosicrucian motifs pop up in his work, especially St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance.

Alchemical metaphors do too; Shelley, who had fitted out a private laboratory while a student at Oxford, knew Keats, and they agreed on the transmutational power of poetry. As Shelley put it, “Its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life” (2009). In a letter to William Godwin, Shelley admits to identifying with Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, and Cornelius Agrippa (2012). A Hermetic tone adheres to Shelley’s protagonists, who either strive for godlike creative power or, as with Prometheus, are gods already. From Prometheus Unbound:

He will watch from dawn to gloom

The lake-reflected sun illume

The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,

Nor heed nor see, what things they be;

But from these create he can

Forms more real than living man,

Nurslings of immortality! (2012)

While Percy manically celebrated unconventional creativity in his work and in his chaotic life, which ended when he drowned on a boat he was not competent to sail, his future wife Mary Godwin (1797-1851) came in close dreamtime touch with the shadow or dark side of Prometheus. It was as though a pair of alchemists of old worked the same prime matter, but in very different styles. Prometheus, after all, was a trickster.

The story is that in May 1816, Mary, Percy, Lord Byron, and other guests visiting Lake Geneva started reading German ghost stories to pass the time as the rain came down outside. Byron challenged each participant to write a ghost story. For weeks, nothing came to Mary, which made her anxious.

One night, after a group conversation about the principle of life and reanimating the dead, she beheld a “waking dream”:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world (241).

This “ghost story” became, of course, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, with the apt subtitle The New Prometheus. The night after her waking dream, Percy suffered a panic attack.

Although she did not practice alchemy, the novel refers to it several times. Dr. Frankenstein, who calls himself a kind of alchemist in search of immortality, is criticized for admiring Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Mary and Percy had visited Castle Frankenstein (Scriber 2018), near Darmstadt, home of an alchemist who was rumored to have experimented on corpses. The doctor was associated with the University of Inglostadt, where Adam Weishaupt founded the Illuminati to encourage scientific philosopher kings to take charge.

The Romantic poet sought to place art at the service of nature, a project Margaret Cavendish would have approved of. The doctor did the reverse while isolating himself from the warmth of human relationships. As a result, his own shadow merged with that of Hermeticism, and the result was a monstrous homunculus, a creature even Paracelsus had been frightened to create:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? …His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…(Shelley 2018, 45).

Robert Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge felt a similar horror when the bomb they had created exploded at Trinity near the traditionally named Roadway of Death during the world’s first atomic explosion. Once the homunculus has taken form, it cannot be stuffed back into the crucible. Oppenheimer visualized cosmic destruction as described in the Bhagavad Gita; Bainbridge said, “Now we are all sons of bitches” (Wellerstein 2015).

The advice Frankenstein gives Robert Walton, the explorer and witness of the tale, seems pertinent for putting a check on Promethean creativity run wild:

If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Cæsar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed (20).

To put it differently, the shadow of the Magus looks like the Sorcerer if we define sorcery as using magic or enchantment to gather wealth or influence. In some spiritually inclined seekers, this shadow lurks as an unconscious power drive waiting to surge forth.

Distinguishing Hermeticism, Esotericism, and the Occult

An aspect of the Hermetic shadow is its blurring of endeavors that need differentiating from each other. Hermeticism, esotericism, and occultism tend to be lumped together, a habit that confuses differences and obscures how they influence one another.

Since its opening in Alexandra, the Way of Hermes operated as a psychospiritual path of contemplative self-knowing, interpretive study of texts, performance of ritual, service to others, and world appreciation, all gathered around and expressive of the archetype of the Magus. This Way evolved into politically wary Gnosticism (beware of archons!), proto-scientific alchemy, and an informing force in literary, philosophical, and musical Romanticism. It also shows up in Islamic esotericism and, later, Jungian psychology. (Jung liked to wear a Hermetically themed signet ring he refused to talk much about.)

Hermeticism is a form of esotericism: practices, studies, and rituals for accessing wisdom and knowledge that is hidden, deep, and waiting below the surface of the texts, symbols, and events that delineate it. The hierarchical notion of esoteric gnosis as secret teachings was popularized by the cagey and ambitious A. E. Waite, whose Golden Dawn society we will hear of below. Esoteric schools often have restricted access to their teachings, but those not caught up in power games reserve some studies for members whose capacity for them has been enlarged by initiatory studies and procedures.

In 1992, Antoine Faivre defined Western esotericism, which he thought came out of the Renaissance, as “an ensemble of spiritual currents in modern and contemporary Western history which share a certain air de famille, as well as the form of thought which is its common denominator.” (2010) He sharpened this broad and abstract definition with six characteristics, four intrinsic and two secondary. The intrinsic: the idea of correspondences (Hermetic “sympathies”) joining everything in the cosmos; the natural world as responsively and complexly alive; the centrality of imagination and mediating symbols, rituals, mantras, and the like to bridge the material and the divine; and self-transformation through practice of gnosis, or direct intuitive knowing. The secondary: a practice of concordance (a belief that all paths are one), and transmission of teachings from master to disciple via initiation. Except for concordance, these better characterize Western Hermeticism than esotericism in general (2010).

Other scholars add that Western esotericism pushes back against Enlightenment exaltation of rationalism and materialism, although a similar dynamic occurs elsewhere: the deeply gnostic Upanishads of India, for example, written by countercultural seers going beyond the proper forms of Vedic ritualism. Eastern Mediterranean Gnosticism grew as pushback to the patriarchal orthodoxy of Second Temple Judaism.

Hermeticism is an example of esotericism. So is occultism, called “secularized esotericism” by Wouter Hanegraaff, who described it as reinterpretation of esoteric cosmologies in terms of the dawning scientific worldview (2007, 49). Its practitioners grapple with finding meaning in a materialistically disenchanted world. Christopher Partridge coined “occulture” to refer to the spiritual, mythical, and paranormal background of knowledge that seems plausible to Westerners who consume countercultural books, lectures, videos, music, and film in search of secret knowledge and power over circumstances (2014, 11). In other words, a subculture of the occult.

To argue that the occult is the shadow of the esoteric, and therefore of Hermeticism, is not to disparage anyone with an interest in occult matters. Whatever our interests, we should not ignore the documented fact that so many of the founders of Western occultism have been hucksters who swindled their followers. That any field of endeavor has collected such a large group of the unscrupulous deserves attention and inquiry. Seekers who quote from or follow Lévi, Blavatsky, Crowley, Gurdjieff, Ballard, Bailey, Hubbard, Castaneda, Prophet, and the like often have no idea that their guru of choice may have indulged in sociopathic acting out. Such dark figures acquire money and influence by offering a deliberately warped, oversimplified, and literal-minded Hermeticism. Nor do they deserve the excuses their loyal followers muster on their behalf.

Occultism is a child of Modernity. Henry Cornelius Agrippa published his Three Books on Occult Philosophy, a study of ritual magic, in 1533. Gabriel Harvey mentioned the occult in 1593 (Stern 1972), but he lumped into it all sorts of esoteric approaches, including alchemy and Kabbala. Probably the first occultists to consider themselves such were alchemists pretending to make gold.

Although occult practitioners garb themselves in ancient wisdom scientifically framed, occultism arose from the need of spiritually inclined seekers to find a path of meaning apart from organized religion and arid materialist scientism. Some of these seekers also harbored a need to feel special, a breed apart armed with secret teachings and arcane powers.

A key difference between the occult and the Hermetic is that Hermeticism emphasizes spiritual knowledge through imagination, metaphor, and symbol, whereas occult practices tend to emphasize the acquisition of literal power and magic. Often, this emphasis rides with energy talk: the diagrams, crystals, and other accoutrements emanate real force instead of symbolizing powers or realms of consciousness. The notion that wishing hard for something changes reality with no additional labor or responsibility offers an example of an occult endeavor gone mainstream.

Noting the market, opportunists garbed in false attire of mastery stepped forth to flatter them and offer them ersatz kinship. Other seekers less encumbered with unconscious power drives sought tools and learnings for an embodied, world-loving spirituality. Many signed up for occult studies but eventually turned away disappointed when the scales fell from their eyes.

An honest look at key Western occult society founders can help us understand the methods they used in their ambition to build and maintain ongoing popularity.

Founding Fraudsters

In 1614, an anonymous pamphlet titled Rumor of the Brotherhood (Fama Fraternitatis) circulated in Germany. It claimed that a mystic and alchemist named Christian Rosenkreuz had lived long enough—106 years—to study various esoteric traditions, fail to convince mainstream thinkers of their worth, and gather instead a cabal of followers he trained to be secret master alchemists. They wielded an esoteric science that would save the world from itself while bringing practitioners more gold than the Indies gave up to Spain. Other works followed, including the Confessio Fraternitatis in 1615 and the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz in in 1616.

These documents retained their popularity even after their author, Lutheran theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreae, admitted to writing them to make fun of alchemy and astrology. As with the inventors of the Bigfoot hoax in California, his fiction was found preferable to the truth plainly told. It soon became fashionable to be a Rosicrucian, whatever that meant to the bearers of the title. Eminent thinkers like Francis Bacon, Michael Maier, and even Robert Fludd published Rosicrucian-themed works. The parody of spiritualized greed had taken on its own homuncular life, escaped the bubbling retort, and fled the alchemist’s laboratory, never to look back.

Under the influence of Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, which began as a guild for traveling artisans, went mystical. Its initial three degrees of initiation gained many more plus accompanying symbolism and pageantry, some of it hermetically inspired.

Throughout the 1700s, it stirred in doses of Christian mysticism, scientific knowledge, Pietism, Martinism, Neoplatonism, holistic healing, and Swedenborg, and added a few pinches of Knights Templar allusions for seasoning. Sidney, Milton, Byron, and many other poets and playwrights wove Masonic motifs into their works while employing them against critics. Offshoots like the Illuminati sprang forth to proclaim secret knowledge in service to liberty, equality, and universal brotherhood: welcome news to nations sick of strife and poverty.

Political and religious conservatives grew alarmed by all this. In 1797 and 1798, Augustin Barruel and John Robison published conspiracy theories about the Freemasons and the Illuminati (Oberhauser 2020, 555). The claim was that these groups had fomented the French Revolution, replaced God with pantheism, dabbled in Rosicrucian ritual obscenities, and planned the annihilation of Christianity. Although none of it was true, it boosted the status of these societies among outgroups, as had the execution of “Count” Cagliostro by the Inquisition for posing as a soothsayer and arcane healer.

By the mid-1800s, the equation of “occult” with the dark and uncanny fit the agenda of Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse Constant), who had learned from the Fox sisters in America how outrageous claims to arcane powers could command a large following. Abandoning the Catholic path to priesthood, he tried monasticism, odd jobs, various political causes, writing, learning occult lore from teachers he then spurned, and, claiming mystical initiation in spite of this, teaching “magic” to a circle of believers. He was so persuasive that Aleister Crowley sold himself as Lévi’s reincarnation.

Lévi, whose real name was Alphonse-Louis Constant, took the esoteric idea of the evolution of consciousness and, combining it with Joachim of Fiore’s notion of a collective progression through three historical Ages (Father/Old Testament, Son/New Testament, and Holy Spirit/Universal Love), taught of a better Age of the Archangel Michael beginning in 1879 in France. The archangelic age idea and the date came from Benedictine Abbot Trithemius (Steiner 1994), a teacher of Agrippa and a “historian” who made up sources as he went.

Although universal peace and prosperity did not ensue in 1879, in France or anywhere else, the idea of Ages worked its way into Golden Dawn teachings, Crowley’s Age of Horus, Rudolf Steiner’s Age of Michael, Alice Bailey’s Age of Aquarius, and the title of her 1944 book Discipleship in the New Age. Another inspiration for the Ages, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, wrote tediously florid science fiction about a secret super race of elite evolved rulers called the Vril (2017). (Today, he is famous for writing the worst first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.”) All this aging would fuel the French revival of occultism during the late 19thcentury (Lachman 2004, 103) and inspire new ideas in Helena Blavatsky.

Lévi also taught that the Hermetic and Stoic idea of cosmic sympathies, called “correspondences” by Swedenborg, were diagramed in the tarot and the Kabbalah. Aligning the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the twenty-two Major Arcana cards, Lévi popularized the tarot, in part by introducing it in The Key of the Mysteries as a divinatory device originating in Egypt, land of exotic wisdom.

The roots of Hermeticism did run back to ancient Egypt, but the Tarot was designed in 1415 by two Italians. The first was Marziano di Tortona, astrologer and secretary to the war-mongering and wife-murdering Fillippo Visconti, Duke of Milan. At court it was trendy to own artistically crafted playing cards, and the duke wanted his own deck. Tortona commissioned artist Michelino di Besozzo to paint it, to which he added Trumps, Greek gods, four suites, and an accompanying book of allegorical meanings.

Lévi got the Egypt origin idea from Freemason and former pastor Antoine Court de Gébelin (Partridge 2014, 578), who fabricated a long story about Egyptian priests, their esoteric Book of Thoth, popes secretly bring it to France, and so on.

In addition to occultism, Lévi was also drawn to trouble, usually because of his own misbehavior. He supported the rise of Napoleon III, then went to prison for publicly turning against him, and again for writing in favor of violent revolution. He supported and admired Polish messianic crank Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński (222), who pushed fabulous inventions without bothering to explain how to develop them. Challenged to prove his claims of possessing world-changing magical power, he replied that he would not demonstrate his abilities to the unworthy. After impregnating a French school teacher, he married one of her teen pupils, who eventually left him. He lost his fortunes by betting on France as the site of the future world empire, only to see her defeated by Prussia in 1871.

As he traveled around Paris gathering idealizing followers, he popularized the pentagram, presented magic as something anyone could learn, hinted at occult secrets that could bestow superhuman powers, sold exoteric religion as spirituality for the masses, dreamed of a society ruled by elite Magi, and circulated the term “astral light,” renamed “akasha” by Madame Blavatsky (2017) to mean something like the Force in Star Wars. Lévi died in 1875, the year Theosophy and Aleister Crowley were born.

The showy Spiritualism that had swept the States and Europe and impressed Lévi also instructed Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. A year after they met, they founded the Theosophical Society in a New York City apartment. This attempt at lucrative notoriety followed two failures: a magazine and a Miracle Club, both staking claims of otherworldly influence.

Olcott’s past is well documented, but much of Blavatsky’s is not; about all she and her relatives agreed on was that she liked to make things up. Her claims included Masonic lineage, illicit esoteric trainings in Tibet, piano performances with Clara Schumann, saving an opera star from being murdered, studying mesmerism in Paris, surviving shipwreck in the Atlantic, and gaining paranormal abilities after falling off a horse. Her serial swindles, much better documented, forced her to move from the States to India to Europe, where she made up a language called Senzar and claimed it expressed a secret doctrine (Washington 1996).

Her specialty, now a legacy, was turning fantastic fiction like that of Bulwer-Lytton into supposedly esoteric teachings available only to the curious few. His Vril turned into inhabitants of a continent called Lemuria, a name deriving from a theory about where lemurs came from. She made up the idea of celestial memory banks called Akashic Records as well as Ascended Masters overseeing the world, two of whom she gave names—Koot Hoomi and Morya—she evidently thought sounded Indian. She replaced the Jewish origins of Kabbala with “oriental” roots supposedly guarded by the wise men of Chaldea, India, Persia and Egypt. She declared Egypt a colony of ancient India. She also got mileage out of Atlantis, an island invented in one of Plato’s parables.

She had a knack for turning such fictions into marketable metaphysical entities bearing Sanskrit terms. Letters from the Masters materializing mysteriously in her rooms always supported her decisions and power plays. When scholars found large portions of her books to be plagiarized, she claimed mental telegraphy (Washington 1996). (The metaphor would switch to “channeling” with the advent of television.) Her target: those who take the lore of fiction literally.

The Society gained members over the years, but it shed them too, especially as swindles and scandals multiplied and conflicts between colliding egos intensified. William Judge and Annie Besant got into it because of Judge’s claim of receiving instruction from a Master. Teaming up with Besant, Charles Leadbeater provided an elaborate hierarchy of Masters to be instructed by. He also laid out a popular seven-center chakra system not represented in any ancient text (Flood 1996, 98-100); rather, they were appropriated and mutated from 16th-century Bengali tantrism (Strube 1996, 38-68), for which chakras were more images for meditation than literal power centers.

Leadbeater used this system, open only to higher initiates like him, to control young boys, some of whom he got suspiciously close to by claiming knowledge of their past lives. One of these was Jiddu Krishnamurti, stolen from his father by lawyers hired by the Society. He left the fold as a young man and struck out on his own. In San Diego, Katherine Tingley, the Purple Mother of Lomaland, spent herself into debt buying up property, creating schools promoting universal brotherhood, and putting on elaborate pageants before moving to Europe.

Rosicrucianism, Éliphas Lévi, and the Theosophical Society all influenced the “Hermetic” Order of the Golden Dawn, incorporated in 1888 to move beyond esoteric theory into occult practice. Unlike the Society, the Order was friendly to Christian thought. It also concentrated on making magical implements, divination, channeling, astral projection, and, soon, mundane political infighting. It was founded by three men who gave themselves the title of Adeptus Exemptus of the Isis-Urania Temple: former police surgeon William Woodman, translator Samuel Mathers, and coroner William Westcott, who fabricated occult papers and letters as founding documents (Partridge 2014, 234-36). His claims of previous Orders, Egyptian secrets, the lore of Hermes, and directives by mystical Secret Chiefs (taking a leaf from the Blavatsky playbook) were as false as Mathers’ “MacGregor” ancestry and first lieutenant rank.

Mathers, an authoritarian who appointed rather than elected officials, pushed out Westcott and gave way in turn in 1903 to autodidact A. E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Coleman Smith to issue what is now inaccurately known as the Rider-Waite Tarot deck to “rectify” the scandal-rocked Order. He too eventually left, but the deck survived.

Waite and Mathers were envied and loathed by Aleister (real name Edward) “The Great Beast” Crowley, who stole and published a “lesser key of Solomon” edited by the latter and declared the former dead before his time.

Originally from Britain, Crowley wrote erotic poetry, mountaineered, went to Cambridge without graduating, and met Waite and Mathers when he joined the Golden Dawn in 1898. Taking Mathers’ side in the infighting, Crowley traveled widely, claiming enlightenment in India and princely status in Cairo, where he also claimed that one Aiwass, an interdimensional messenger of the god Horus, had revealed a sacred text to him (Lachman 2004, 185).

This became The Book of the Law and the start of Crowley’s own religion, at first called Crowleyanity but later Thelema (“will”). “Our Order possesses the KEY which opens up all Masonic and Hermetic secrets, namely, the teaching of sexual magic, and this teaching explains, without exception, all the secrets of Nature, all the symbolism of Freemasonry and all systems of religion” (Guidice 2014, 278). He might have gotten the sex magic idea from industrialist occultist Karl Kellner, a founder of the O. T. O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), a group that studied its version of Eastern tantra as well as yoga, fiction by white supremacist anti-semite H. P. Lovecraft, and messages from extraterrestrials.

Thelema’s first commandment was, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” (Crowley 2018), which even after 1905 was somehow not interpreted as permission for sociopathy. In that year Crowley left survivors of a mountaineering accident on Mt. Kanchenjunga to fend for themselves, making off with the expedition funds afterward.

The Law ushered in an Age of Horus during which Will would be realized by “magick,” talismans would be consecrated by dipping them in sexual fluids, and the weak and wretched would be stamped down (his words), for “there is no God but Man” (2018).

During WW I, Crowley, whose self-given titles included Laird of Boleskine, Count Svareff, Prince Khan, Master Therion, Great Beast 666, and Reincarnation of Éliphas Lévi, among others, made a living in the U.S. writing pro-German propaganda as well as made-up mysticism. From his art came the Baphomet devil popular in occult circles.

Later in life, Crowley established an Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, where he used heroin and cocaine, performed sex magic rituals seen by children, and watched various Thelemites die from unsanitary conditions. He was deported from Italy, then from France, lived in Berlin long enough to fake his own death as a publicity stunt (he was chronically low on funds), and ended up in Britain, where he published his Book of Thoth tarot deck and struck up a friendship with Gerald Gardner, founder of Wicca. A rite from Crowley’s non-Gnostic Gnostic Mass was read at his funeral when he died in 1947.

Working the Psychological Angle

In addition to the Baphomet image, the “Thoth” tarot, and the word “Magick,” Crowley popularized the psychological turn in occultism. Some of the turn passed over from depth psychology, and some from astrology, where Alan Leo (real name William Frederick Allan) founded an Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society and provided psychological interpretations of natal charts and transits. The planets, guardian angels, seductive devils, and other spirits and elementals continued to appear in occult teachings and workshops but were now understood to have interior counterparts.

George Gurdjieff emphasized The Work of awakening to full consciousness. He lived on bribes, forged travel papers, donations from followers forced into manual labor (“sheep fit for shearing,” he called them) at his compounds, and teaching occult movements he learned, he said, from a group of hidden mystics. He left in his wake foreclosed properties (one abandoned after a faked car accident), duped and abandoned disciples (including Peter Ouspensky and J. G. Bennett), child abuse, malnutrition, medical malpractice, alcoholism, suicide, and a woman impregnated while his wife lay dying of cancer. In Meetings with Remarkable Men he followed boasts about cheating customers to whom he sold painted birds with appeals to believe in a hidden and remote Sarmoun Brotherhood that had taken him in (2011). His influence lingered in idealized form in various self-development movements.

In 1920, Alice Bailey and her husband Foster were excommunicated by the Theosophical Society during one of its many power struggles. They had fought with Annie Besant. The couple went on to found a trust, Lucifer (later Lucis) Publishing, an Arcane School to promote Bailey’s teachings via correspondence, and a magazine. Bailey claimed to have downloaded and dictated teachings from “The Tibetan” (Bailey 1984, 1), also known as Master Djwhal Khul (“DK” for short). To the usual Theosophical array of powers and presences and Himalayan masters she added the mystical world Vulcan inside the orbit of Mercury, an ongoing linkage to Venus and Sirius, a cosmos unified by Seven Rays that also shine within us, a Great Invocation to get divine light streaming forth, mental healing of physical ailments, and, from 1944 onward, a “New Age” of human consciousness (Hanegraaff 2007, 95). She also promoted the highly problematic ideal of a new Caucasian and Aryan root race that would become the dominant one everywhere. R. M. Bucke, who coined “cosmic consciousness” in 1992 (2015, 5), had wished out loud since then for outright Aryan supremacy.

Austin Spare pushed the psychological angle even harder, claiming a highly suspect endorsement by Freud himself. Eschewing elaborate rituals, Spare linked his practice of “chaos magic” to spontaneous ceremony, sigils charged by masturbation, and manipulation of the unconscious, which he regarded as a kind of internal god who could do one’s bidding (2010). His claims included having deep knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs, surviving a troop ship sunk by torpedoes, and painting Hitler’s portrait after initially refusing to.

Dion Fortune (real name Violet Firth) blended esotericism and psychoanalysis to found a Society of the Inner Light as an offshoot of the Golden Dawn. Having fought astrally as well as mundanely with Mathers, various Theosophists, and others along the path of power, she claimed contact with the Great White Lodge (her version of Ascended Masters) and popularized Glastonbury as a site of Arthurian magic. She claimed to have won the Battle of Britain through magic, behind the scenes, the Royal Air Force notwithstanding (2020). Occasionally teaming up with Aleister Crowley and Israel Regardie, she also worked Atlantis and the Aquarian Age and offered the use of mediumship to help make people into gods. Christianity, she initially maintained, was the higher truth toward which all other faiths and systems pointed, however unconsciously. Later, her fiction took up pagan figures and themes, but only those she considered truly Western.

Former Theosophist Rudolf Steiner diverges in some ways from the usual occult pack of self-promoters. What he really wanted, especially after reading Goethe and Ernst Haeckel and the Akashic Records, was not to make money, but to found his own religion, Anthroposophy, as a kind of Theosophical Christianity. He rolled out a whole occult kit: Masters who spoke through him, Lemuria, Atlantis, root races (including Aryan), the planet Vulcan, pyramids built by Iranians rather than Egyptians, the Buddha on Mars, Round Table Knights and Christian Rosenkreuz as actual historical figures, rites imported wholesale from Freemasonry, “karmic” permission to sleep with women other than his wife, and, mixed in with it all, claims to detailed visionary knowledge of the hierarchical evolution of the cosmos (Steiner 2008).

He arranged it all after his own fashion, blending in biodynamic farming, eurythmy performance art, a library of writings and plays, Weleda cosmetic and medical products, a Christengemeinschaft church, and a holistic learning program that developed into Waldorf education. His mixed messages on vaccines fertilized controversy, however, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit (Sobo 2015).

The streak of authoritarianism he got from his father resurfaced now and then—support for Germany during World War I, for instance—which is why his nickname was DDHG, which in German stands for “the doctor has spoken” (Zander 2016, 391). During World War II, which Steiner did not live to see, a sizable number of German Anthroposophists were also members of the National Socialist Party (Zander 2016, 394). Steiner’s description of Indians as degenerate, Blacks as driven by physical urges, and Asians as passive in his very White hierarchy of races may have had something to do with it.

Godfrey Ray King (real name Guy Ballard) wanted both revenue and his own religion. After supposedly meeting the mysterious Count St. Germain (a figure based on an idealized wrinkle cure salesman) on Mt. Shasta, he floated the notion that what we think and feel can make what we want. The Count and other Masters, Ballard claimed in Unveiled Mysteries, concerned themselves greatly with the unique occult mission of America (2019). (Ballard claimed to be a reincarnation of George Washington.) Their vehicle was I AM, the presence of God in a violet flame in each of us, fed by contributions—rather, “love donations”—and a foundation set up by Ballard and his wife Edna. She and her son were charged with fraud after Ballard’s death, but the charge was overturned on technicalities.

Like Ballard, whom he knew, Baird T. Spalding started out a mining engineer; and like Ballard, he had the ear of some Masters, although his still wore flesh. Using Spalding’s program, any of us can walk on water, conjure bread to feed the hungry, or do other amazing Master acts rooted ultimately in Christ Consciousness, another name for enlightenment (2010, 8). Simple facts like where and when Spalding was born seem unreachable, largely because he kept changing the stories. In photographs he seems always to smirk.

Today he is known mainly for carrying forward Blavatsky’s Ascended Master fiction long enough to influence Ballard, the Agni Yoga of the Roerich couple, trance reader and Atlantis survivor Edgar Cayce, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet (real name Elizabeth Wulf), who with her husband Mark transmitted messages from on high, pitched the Path of Personal Christhood, and built bomb shelters for a Soviet nuclear attack supposedly predicted by St. Germain. The attack never materialized, but plenty of donations did.

Enter the New Age

As the Ascended Masters morphed into extraterrestrials, as in Share International, Unarius Academy, and Whitley Strieber, neo-Pagan movements invoked earth goddesses. Together, Austin Spare and Gerald Gardner invented a South London witch who gave out initiations. Gardner combined his with Margaret Murray’s highly questionable and consistently panned claims of pre-Christian fertility covens to fashion Wicca, a modern religion claiming ancient roots even though many of the symbols and festival dates resemble those of early Christianity.

Ross Nichols and associates formed an Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids even though druids had been wiped out centuries ago by invading Romans. Iolo Morganwg (real name Edward Williams), a well-known forger of Celtic mythology (Constantine 2007), linked solstices and equinoxes to druid celebrations. In all this, fragments of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism remain recognizable. According to Irish psychologist, writer, folklorist, and bard Sharon Blackie, much of what is written about Celtic mythology is bunk (2018).

At bottom, what we have just been over and much else, including George King’s Spiritual Energy Radiators and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, is theosophical occultism now bottled and sold as New Age belief, spirituality, and optimism, although practitioners often reject the “New Age” label as well as “religious” for their lifestyle of healings, divinations, vibrations, frequencies, and channelings, with “quantum” this or that thrown in by the likes of Deepak Chopra. The destructive and shaming rhetoric of constant positivity, a peculiarly American psychology that casts an enormous shadow, has garnered severe criticism, especially from real victims who dislike being blamed for their sufferings. Marianne Williamson has implied that marshaling enough positive prayer can deflect hurricanes (Bates 2019). She speaks to thousands of ardent seekers who just want to feel effective for once. Most have no idea of where their rituals and exercises really come from.

They remain uninformed because of healers, scholars, and educators who scorn esotericism as superstitious nonsense and refuse to recognize spirituality when it walks up and shakes their hand. Until recently, the academy wouldn’t touch esotericism, which only abandoned it to anyone who wished to make claims about it (Hanegraaff 2012). A well-meaning psychotherapist who heard the archetype-packed and cosmically themed dreams that burst upon me in my thirties remarked with a touch of pity, “We all want to believe in magic.” Entire schools of therapy, social research, and higher learning stand ready to reduce our visionary life to less than what it is: language games, social constructs, firing neurons, emotional wounds sustained in childhood.

And so we have websites, societies, rituals, and reams of material fun to engage with but as devoid of any root in tradition as the popular Kybalion. It is a forgery by William Walker Atkinson, an occultist who also pretended to be the French personal magnetist Theron Dumont, Magus Incognito, Swami Bhakta Vishita, and Yogi Ramacharaka, among others. Of its 7 supposed Hermetic principles, these are false: 4. “everything is dual”; 6. “every cause has its effect”; and 7. “gender is in everything.” It’s sold because people want the magic it claims to offer.

Denigrated by both materialist scientism and conventional religiosity, the bruised seeker perks up when a wolf in sheep’s clothing aware of this dual discounting appears one day and says, “But I know you are special…”

In some Gnostic tales, the otherwise power-hungry Demiurge tyrant blows his breath into the lungs of newly created Eveadam, a composite entity intended to one-up the Pleroma by being fashioned from dust. Unknown to the demiurge, a hidden spark of Sophia, his heavenly mother, flows from him into the newly born human(s), animating and spiritualizing them.

Likewise, something mysterious and enlivening blows through occultism, the shadow of the esoteric. What if its teachings were not taken so literally? If, stripped of their divisiveness, elitism, racism, and power claims, might they be made to serve as workable fiction?

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