Crowleyanity, Viewed with Alarm

If you thought that everything has been said about Aleister Crowley, think again.

There is Henrik Bogdan and Martin Starr’s new edited collection, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, which I have to buy.

Also on my reading list is Marco Pasi’s Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics. Had the universe moved slightly differently, I would have copyedited and thus read it, but now it must be bought.

And a blogger for First Things, a journal of [Christian] religion and politics, sits and notices something:

Crowley is not dead yet. If anything, he is more alive today than he was when he claimed to have created the “V for Victory” sign as a magical talisman against the Nazi swastika.

And a Crowley tattoo at the farmers market (photo at the link)!

Investigating a “Grandmother Story”

Robert Mathiesen and Theitic, The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Providence, R.I.: Olympic Press, 2005), 167 pp., $17.95 (paper).Book cover of Rede of the Wiccae

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Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.

Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.

According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”

This study of her claims has two authors. One, Robert Mathiesen, never met her. Now retired from the Dept. of Slavic Languages at Brown University, he has “a life-long interest in the history of magical practices and doctrines and alternative religions” Theitic, on the other hand, was Thompson’s student from 1974–78 and is now considered to be the historian of the NECTW tradition.

Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”)  that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”

Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated  Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.

But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.

It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.

Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.

My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:

  • A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
  • A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.

Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.

* Yes, I include Philip Heselton’s work here, as detailed in this book review.

New York Occult Revival (2)

In February I linked to a description of a “magickal revival” in New York City. People say these things are cyclical.

Now Joe “Vampires” Laycock weighs in: “Why Hipsters May Be Perfect Source for Brooklyn Occult Revival,” a sort of Durkheimian look at the same idea.

More than their magical services, magicians offer their clients the chance to interact with a fascinating personality. Exotic objects and spiritual narratives help clients to feel that they are receiving personalized attention from metaphysical forces, directed at them through the magician.

In this sense, it is not surprising that Brooklyn—commonly associated with Hipsters—is producing compelling magicians. The Hipster’s project of cloaking oneself in an air of aloof mystery and repurposing strange objects into emblems of one’s personal brand is excellent preparation for the magician’s craft.

Or does magick bloom in difficult economic time or times of psychic shifts?

‘Cosmos’ Misrepresents Giordano Bruno

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos tries to remake Giordano Bruno as a martyr of modern science, but he was nothing of the kind.

He was a lot more of an occultist. Even The Daily Beast gets it.

As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

New York’s ‘Occult Revival’: Everything Old Is New Again

From The Revealer (see blogroll under Religion and Journalism): “Chapel Perilous: Notes From The New York Occult Revival.”

There’s been a magical revival happening in New York City for two to three years,” Damon Stang, the “shop witch” for Catland Books in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, told the New York Times last year. “I think it’s a nostalgia that people have for a sense of enchantment with the world.”

There is some material evidence that a new interest in magic and esoteric subjects is growing. Catland itself, an active center for pagan rites and magical ceremonies, opened last February. The Times article, which appeared ten months after opening, is an indication of that interest, although it was albeit a local-color piece called “Friday Night Rites”  in which the shop was erroneously located in  Williamsburg. More substantially, NYU hosted its first annual Occult Humanities Conference in October — a gathering of researchers, practitioners and artists from all over the world who engaged in work with the occult and esoteric. The Observatory, Park’s home base, has been offering well-attended lectures on magical topics since 2009, including a few by Mitch Horowitz. . . . .

In the academic study of religion, “the occult” is neither settled as a term nor a community. At its most basic level, it indicates a kind of hiddenness — a concealed truth. In popular usage, this usually means pagan nature worship, witchcraft, spirit communication, magic and other fringe religious ideas. The scholar Catherine Albanese, in her magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit, investigated many American practitioners of these forms as “metaphysicals,” a particular variety of religious actor for whom the power of the mind and the existence of a concealed “energy” within the body and the world, are essential. It’s a useful term, but hardly ever applied outside of the academy. The people I met at the conference preferred the words “occult” and “esoteric” to describe their interests, often using them interchangeably. How can a revival be studied when it is unclear what, exactly, is being revived?

Worth reading, among other things, for the reminder about Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of the “chapel perilous.” I could tell stories . . .  and I am certain that you could too.

Doggerland, a Professor of Esotericism, and the Passing of a Priestess of Isis

¶ That  Doggerland existed is not news (do you expect breaking archeology news in the Daily Mail?) but here are some cool images of this lost land. I am still waiting for someone to create an authentic Pagan tradition based there.

¶ Ethan Doyle White interviews a Norwegian scholar of Paganism and esotericism, Egil Asprem. Asprem credits role-playing games, among other things, for his ending up as a professor of esotericism at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

¶ Philip Carr-Gomm reports on the passing yesterday of Olivia Robertson, founder of the Fellowship of Isis.

M. and I visited her (and became members, of course) in 1978 when honeymooning in Ireland.  At that time the household of Clonegal Castle (a Jacobean great house) in Co. Carlow, consisted chiefly of her, her brother Derry, and her brother’s wife, Poppy, whose role seemed to be the “voice of normality” while Olivia and Durry (a retired Anglican clergyman) planned for the future of Goddess-worship — all while living in a mostly unheated and crumbling 17th-century manor.

Once while walking down the drive after a visit with a member of Stewart and Janet Farrar’s coven, the covener, who was English, turned to us and said in amazement, “One reads about people like that.”

And now that is all that we will be able to do.

Conferences of Interest to Scholars of Paganism and Esotericism

¶  The 6th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality (PDF) includes some Pagan-friendly themes.

¶ The Association for the Study of Esotericism will meet in June at Colgate University in upstate New York.  Egil Asprem has more to say about that one.

¶ The Conference on Current Pagan Studies, held in Claremont, Calif., will be held on Feb. 8–9, 2014. More information will be forthcoming.

Esotericism and the ‘Walking Wounded’

Last night I watched The Master, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively playing an L. Ron Hubbard-type esoteric group’s leader (making stuff up as he goes), his wife and collaborator,  and an erratic alcoholic sailor who becomes, for a time, his follower.

I rented it mainly because I have long been a big fan of Hoffman as an actor who disappears into roles (especially Capote), rather than just playing variations on himself. And The Master is more about character than plot — the plot itself could be summarized in one sentence.

Walking the dogs this morning, I started fantasizing that if there were a School of Esoteric Management, this movie could be shown in class, followed by lengthy discussion, because what esoteric group does not have its “Freddy Quells” (Phoenix’s character)?

Eighty years ago, the occultist Dion Fortune made dismissive references to “lecture room tramps,” the people who came to lectures and presentations by this teacher or that, but who never really committed to any system.

Freddie is not looking for teaching necessarily — he literally stumbles into “The Cause,” and “Lancaster Dodd” (Hoffman) decides to demonstrate his method of quick psychological breakthrough and cure on him. For a time, Freddie becomes a loyal follower, even a kind of enforcer. But in the end, he is too damaged for “The Cause.”

Esoteric groups always attract the psychological “walking wounded” who are looking for a quick fix and excitement. Even Jesus of Nazareth had Judas the Sicarius, who seemed OK for a while but was really the kind of unstable fanatic who today would strap on a suicide vest.

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Lemuria

51119-243x366The Los Angeles Review of Books offers a review of two books on Ray Palmer, the Shaver Mystery, and pulp-esoteric publishing of the 1940s–50s: The War Over Lemuria and The Man from Mars : Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey.

From the review:

Of course, the underground worlds of Richard Shaver did not spring full grown from his brain, no matter how fevered it might have been. Subterranean adventure has long been a staple of science-fiction. Even more to the point, the belief in the existence of subterranean civilizations itself has a long history, and not just among the ancients who believed in one form or another of an underworld abode of the dead.  Indeed, there are other instances in which fictional stories about the underworld have been regarded by some readers as revealing a hidden, sometimes religious truth. The Shaver Mystery, it turns out, is not without precedent. John Cleve Symmes’s hollow-earth novel Symzonia (1820), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), and Willis George Emerson’s The Smokey God (1908) are all examples of fictional tales of underground civilizations that have been treated as true accounts and the source for religious belief by some members of the Theosophical and occult communities. Shaver’s stories are darker than the similar works that preceded them, but Palmer’s claim that Shaver’s tales contained truths about the hidden world under our feet is part of a long tradition.

Ray Palmer went on to found Fate magazine, which has done several retrospective articles on the Shaver Mystery over the years. Until 1988, Fate was published in Chicago, which just adds to that whole “occult Chicago” meme. (See also the work of occult journalist Brad Steiger.)