New: the “Rejected Religion” Podcast

Stephanie Shea

The number of high-quality Pagan and esoteric podcasts continues to grow, and I am listing some in the right-hand column.

Today’s add is Rejected Religion, created by Stephanie Shea. She writes,

I hold a Research Master in Religious Studies from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My resesarch interests are located in the areas of Western esotericism, and emergent identity groups. During the course of my studies, I realized that there was a gap between the plethora of information being produced by academics and the mainstream public. This platform acts as a bridge, with the goal to bring these two spheres closer together by offering podcast interviews, YouTube videos, blog posts, book reviews, plus a wide array of information that focuses on the ways that ‘the esoteric’ is found within popular culture. My motto is “illuminating the obscure”  — I strive to provide a historical viewpoint that aims to share information and to highlight misconceptions surrounding all things ‘esoteric’ or ‘occult’ in an engaging and entertaining way — no stuffy, boring lectures, but instead, down-to-earth discussions about topics that are often vague and therefore misunderstood

If you do not see the blog-and-podcast roll to the right, that is because you are not on the home page. Click the banner at the top — or here — to go there.

Thelema, New York, and Esoteric Publishing: A Quick Review of “In the Center of the Fire”


James Wasserman, In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966–1989 (Lake Worth, Fla.: Ibis Press, 2012).

(In the cover photo, Wasserman is in back and his business and magickal partner Bill Breeze in the foreground.)

Before I found my first Wiccan coven, a friend connected me with (an) Abby of Thelema, a little group of 20-something magicians living in a run-down old house in a run-down neighborhood of Colorado Springs. Three or four other members lived elsewhere but came over for study and ritual. [1]They did have a lot of Crowley’s books, and if I had been more attuned and had had some extra money, I could have bought them all from the member who ended up with them, held them a while, and … Continue reading There was a certain amount of drug use and not always enough food, but someone was the “imperator.”

I learned some things there, but the combination of high-flown titles, material poverty, and self-delusion was pretty strange. The “abby” hit the rocks before long, and I moved on to a more compatible path.

But yes, Thelema. Here, pre-O.T.O., is our protagonist at (the old) Antioch College in Ohio: “This [academic] quarter was particularly laced with drugs, women, and spiritual seeking. School was simply off the radar.” The first quarter of the book, in fact, is a classic Seventies melange of road trips, dope, spiritual teachers, sexual relationships, and more road trips. (Wasserman and I could have passed on the street in Portland — or maybe in Taos.)

Finally Wasserman is in New York City, working at Weiser’s, a pre-eminent metaphysical store, and meeting other esotericists with whom he shares memorable experiences: “How many mornings we later spent on the pier on Hudson River across from my Greenwich Street loft, greeting the dawn with a hit of speed.” After a time, he shifts to the book-publishing side of the business, where he finds a home.

Aleister Crowley’s magickal heirs are deeply involved with texts — and some of the best tales of this memoir involve books, manuscripts, correspondence, and libraries, complete with international court battles over rights, burglaries of occult libraries, leadership struggles within the O.T.O., and Wasserman’s own adventures in magickal pubishing and with heroin. Some times I wonder if you can have Thelemic magic without heroin; Crowley himself certainly could not.

Wasserman’s recounting of his highs and lows through the Seventies and Eighties are brutally honest. A lot of what he tried, e.g. open marriage and the heavy drinking, simple did not work. They usually do not work long-term. Maybe what carried him through so many destructive periods was the magick — and yet, I have seen others on the same path sink to the depths and never rise. He sank, but he rose. In the Center of the Fire is an honest book, and it stands in contrast to many occult memoirs I have read where I felt the author was hiding all the unpleasant stuff and making his or her life look like a sequence of triumphs.

It should interest anyone interested in the late-20th century history of the O.T.O. (including how more of a place was made for women than Crowley had anticipated) in the American esoteric publishing and bookselling scene, and in the bohemian life in New York in the late Seventies and Eighties. You could put in the same shelf as Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan or even with Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (Smith makes a brief appearance in Wasserman’s book.)

Maybe witches, magicians, and esotericists of the future will look at 1980s New York the way that would-be Hemingways and Fitzgeralds regard the Paris of the “Lost Generation.”.

Notes

1 They did have a lot of Crowley’s books, and if I had been more attuned and had had some extra money, I could have bought them all from the member who ended up with them, held them a while, and re-sold them at a profit. But I didn’t. I just wanted to move on.

Marco Pasi on Sex and Esotericism

Scholar of esotericism Marco Pasi (University of Amsterdam) speaks at a conference in Estonia. Or is that Esoteronia?

If that video does not play for you, try this link: “The Social and Cultural Aspects of Esoteric Sex.”

The Tarot of Dior

Dior handbag incorporating the Motherpeace “Judgement” card.

Boston: November 17, 2017: A group of Pagan studies scholars are walking through a shopping mall adjacent to the Boston Marriott Hotel when suddenly heads swivel to the left.

Our attention subconsciously attracted,  we are looking at images from Vicki Noble‘s  Motherpeace Tarot Deck — in the window of a Dior store.

It turns out the Dior has licensed the images for a line of handbags (full story behind paywall).

It’s another example of using esoteric imagery to sell products, right up there with Prada’s use of the Gnostic text “Thunder, Perfect Mind” more than a decade ago.

(If you can’t get to the video there, go here. Twelve years is a long time in Internet years, and links decay.)

 

Quick Review: Sex, War, and the Tarot

That is the subtitle I mentally add to Alan Richardson’s novel The Lightbearer.

It starts with the landing of Allied paratroopers in Normandy just after midnight on June 6, 1944, a meticulously planned operation that ended up scrambled by Murphy’s Law.

In the novel, a transport aircraft carrying some of the pathfinders goes astray (as some did) causing one Private Michael Horsett to land far off-target. Horsett is taken in by a group of French Thelemite magicians — all female.

Complications ensue. The Thelemites have their own agenda. Local Resistance fighters have another agenda. Private Horsett, new to war, wants to prove himself as a soldier. And there is a Tarot puzzle built into the text. It is not easy to combine occultism with a thriller plot, but Richardson pulls it off.[1]Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

Notes

1 Military historians may note some oddities. For example, Wehrmacht helmets (as with other armies) came in only one size, with the adjustment in the harness.

Remembering Ed Steinbrecher and His Esoteric School

Ed Steinbrecher (1980s?)

Looking for something in the bedroom Craft/astrology/Tarot/magick bookshelves this morning, I ran across a copy of Edwin Steinbrecher’s The Guide Meditation. (It’s still available from Samuel Weiser and it’s good.)

I checked with Dr. Google and discovered that Steinbrecher, an astrologer and occult teacher, had passed away in 2002 — here is an obituary from the Los Angeles Times. 

What the obituary does not say is that in between founding his DOME (Dei Omnes Munda Edunt) astrology and meditation center in Santa Fe in 1973 and moving to Los Angeles in 1984, he and co-founder/partner David Benge lived in Colorado Springs for a time.

Imagine a typical 1970s split-level house, with what would be the living room and dining room filled with bookcases — and all the books organized by zodiacal sign, so that gardening, for instance, would be in the Virgo section. So much more mystical than my habit of putting, say, all the books on Colorado and New Mexico history together! (What Sun sign would encompass them?)

M. and I attended various talks and workshops at the DOME house. Ed was passionate about astrology, and this was the time in my life when I was deepest into it. Later, under pressure of graduate school, etc., I decided that something had to give, and that something was astrology, so I stopped doing people’s charts — these days, I might manage to check my transits once in a while. The last astrology lecture I heard was by Liz Greene (who is one of the best Jungian astrologers) in 2004.

But his Inner Guide Meditation system has a Tarot connection, and that is drawing me back to it. It will be intriguing to re-read the book.

CFP: Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism

(Extended) DEADLINE APPROACHING

In association with the Study of Religions Department, University College Cork

To be held on Friday, 31st March 2017

We are pleased to invite scholars to take part in the launch and first workshop of the Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism (INSEP), a multidisciplinary research network for scholars working on any aspect of Esotericism (historical or contemporary) or Contemporary Paganism that relates to the Irish context. Its mission is to provide a forum for networking and collaboration among scholars who are based in Ireland and those based abroad who have research interests in the subject areas of esotericism and contemporary Paganism as they relate to Ireland. A general goal of the network is to establish a forum for academics — whether established researchers, postgraduate students, early career researchers or independent scholars — to communicate with each other, share information on relevant conferences and other events, and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration among those researching in the areas of Irish esotericism and Pagan Studies. The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism is a Regional Network of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism: http://www.esswe.org/Regional

The INSEP invites papers and contributions on the subject of esotericism and Contemporary Paganism that relate to the Irish context, as well as the study of Contemporary Paganism and Western Esotericism in general, including areas such as:

• Esotericism, political change and social movements
• Ethnography and Western Esotericism
• Contemporary Pagan Studies in Ireland and/or international connections
• Media representations
• The notion of Celtic Spirituality
• Theoretical frameworks/changing paradigms in the academic study of religions

Call for papers: Please submit your proposal in the form of a title and an abstract (max. 250 words), stating institutional affiliation (or independent scholar) to Dr Jenny Butler: j.butler[at]ucc.ie by Friday 13th January 2017. Please put ‘INSEP Proposal’ in the subject line.

Thinking How the Tarot Smuggled Paganism to the Present

In my twenties, the Tarot was about the most “occult” thing around that I could bring out in public settings. I learned to read the cards semi-competently and had some adventures thereby. When I made it through an evening of reading for casual strangers in a nightclub, I figured that I was probably at my pinnacle.[1]I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.

Then I moved into other things more and more, including other types of divination. [2]For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.” I did write a little on the history of the Tarot, then pretty much shelved my cards.[3]They are now unshelved, however. At one point I had thought of collecting Tarot decks — that was right about when the number of decks exploded! From the short list (Marseille, Waite-Smith, Crowley’s Thoth deck, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot, and few others), we went to practically a “Tarot Deck of the Week.” U.S. Games Systems has a few. “The Undersea Tarot,” anyone?

Some months back, I was reading something that Thorn Mooney had written on Tarot, maybe her Tarot Skeptic blog. We see each other at long intervals; otherwise, it’s email, so I wrote and asked her what historical books on Tarot she would recommend. One was out of my price range.[4]It might as well have been published by Brill. The other was The History of the Occult Tarot by Roanld Decker and Michael Dummett.

I bought the book. I read through 200-plus pages of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, ceremonial magicians, astrologers, Western Qabbalists, etc.[5]Overlapping categories, yes. trying to force the Tarot to mesh with these other systems, such as the Hebrew alphabet. If it did not mesh, they hammered on it until some sort of fit was achieved, as in A. E. Waite’s switching of the Strength and Judgement cards to fit his scheme.

It all seemed part of Western esotericism’s ongoing demand for a system Where Everything Fits Together and Corresponds with Everything Else — a demand that seems informed by a quasi-monotheistic or Platonic outlook.

But what if it will not all fit together? The Tarot deck itself is a mashup. You have the four symbolic elements, which are also social groups, as favored in the Indo-European tradition:[6]Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever. Air/spades/swords/aristocracy; Fire/wands/clubs/farmers; Earth/pentacles/diamonds/merchants & craftsmen; Water/cups/hearts/priesthood.[7]If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.

Built on top of that is an upper story derived from “the Pagan dream of the Renaissance,” to borrow the title of Joscelyn Godwin’s excellent book on “the almost untold story of how the rediscovery of the pagan [sic], mythological imagination during the Renaissance brought a profound transformation to European culture.”

As Decker and Dummett write in their section on Tarot-writer Eden Gray, her interpretation of Tarot symbolism was “based not on occult fantasy, but on themes well known to art historians.”[8]Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.” Art historians have more to offer here than do correspondence-obsessed magicians, I suggest.

Consider the observations of William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote a preface to one editing of Charles Williams’ Tarot-based novel The Greater Trumps and created his own Tarot-influenced noir novel, Nightmare Alley. He wrote,

The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrime, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work his own metaphysical and religious equations.

So forget the Hebrew alphabetic correspondences. Think instead of the Tarot as the product of some (probably aristocratic and/or clerical) creative dreamers living in (most likely) northern Italy in the 15th century. They were not Pagan as such, but they might have been what we could call “Pagan re-enactors,” trying intellectually and artistically to reinhabit the world of Greco-Roman Paganism.

They took artistic and philosophical themes of their time and grafted them onto a pre-existing card game. Among the pages of this “book” the old gods and archetypes snuggled in for a journey of five or six centuries.

Notes

1 I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.
2 For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.”
3 They are now unshelved, however.
4 It might as well have been published by Brill.
5 Overlapping categories, yes.
6 Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever.
7 If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.
8 Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.”

Normal for Glastonbury, Normal for Boulder

I love snarky local blogs. Unfortunately, the one for my little mountain county seems mostly devoted these days to attacking one county commissioner candidate, so I will spare you that.

But thanks to a Facebook friend, I was introduced to Normal for Glastonbury, which contains such nuggets as these about the most esoteric town in England, contributed by its readers:

Lisa: ‘Get off my fucking leyline!’ a hedge monkey once shouted at the custodian of the White Spring.

Sophie: “Yesterday, whilst on the top floor of the bus returning to Glastonbury from Bristol I overheard two young men, talking excitedly about visiting Glastonbury for the first time. One French guy explained that he had a calling to go to Glastonbury because people there believe in dragons, as he did himself and in fact he always travels with his dragon. When the other man asked where his dragon was the French man explained that his dragon was riding on the roof of the bus.”

Vijay ” I have a boyfriend in the seventh dimension”

Sam: “I was stood outside St Dunstan’s house on the pavement. Woman walks up and, looking concerned asks “Can you tell me where something normal is?”. I paused and asked whatever did she mean ‘normal’? She said “Something like .. well – an Italian restaurant”. I pointed across the street to point out we had (at that time) two – there and there. She looked relieved, thanked me and walk away. It left me wondering .. why is an Italian restaurant in Glastonbury ‘normal’ and what had led to her concern?”

That comment about getting off the ley line[1]Is ley line one word or two? reminded me of another blog, one devoted to conversations overheard in the too-hip university city of Boulder, Colorado, once famous for its population of Buddhist converts.[2]Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however. (They’re still there, but Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is long gone.) Mirroring a more hipster/New Agey-vibe, it’s called Stay Out of My Namaste Space.

Some samples:

“I do yoga at the Y. They do a poor people’s scholarship which is great ‘cause I look poor on paper.”

“I was thinking about it today and I haven’t been in Europe in 2 whole years.”

“The Universe has blessed me with the opportunity to be unconnected from my smartphone.”

“I swear to God, I was the only person on this earth who thought Iceland was cool before everyone else did. I’ve literally been obsessing over Iceland for twenty years.”

“We ended up naming him Jeffrey. I wanted to name him Stannis but my psychic didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Who’s delivering the snark in your town?

Notes

1 Is ley line one word or two?
2 Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however.

Being an “Oxbridge Scholar”

Yesterday’s mail brought my contributor’s copy of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, to which I contributed an article on contemporary Paganism.

There ought to be a long German compound word for “fear of looking at something you wrote several years ago.”

The back cover of this hefty (2.5 lbs.; 958 g.) volume has the usual blurbs, such as this one from Jeffrey Kripal, whose work I admire: “[Editor] Glenn Magee has brought together a dream team of scholars . . . ”

Then, of course, the voice of doubt: “He didn’t mean you.” But I will take the reflected glory of some of the big names and rising stars in the field, people like Antoine Favre, Joscelyn Godwin, Olav Hammer, Wouter Hanegraaff, Egil Asprem, Hereward Tilton, Hugh Urban, Kocku von Stuckrad, Cathy Gutierrez, Lee Irwin, and many others.

Online, you can read the table of contents, front matter, and index.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I mentioned earlier my struggle to have Paganism capitalized in my entry on same for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.

Some of its entries on are online at that link (not mine as yet). It is a religion nerd’s paradise. Right now the featured online article is “Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome” by Fritz Graf. (In the entries I have looked at, no one else fought for the capital P.)

So it hit me that although I have yet to set foot at either of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I have — in a small way — been published by both of their university presses. Sitting here in my little house in the pines, that is an odd and interesting thought.