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 re-sold them at a profit. But I didn’t. I just wanted to move on. 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.

Start Your Own Magickal Lodge in Southern Colorado

Does watching TV shows with “Lodge” in the title make yourself wish that you, yourself, headed a magickal order? Or do you need headquarters for your existing esoteric order?

Here is a chance to buy the old Masonic hall (originally a bank with lodge rooms upstairs) in almost-trendy Florence, Colorado.

One warning. Real-estate listings always lie. The Pour House coffeehouse has moved out, so you will need to find a new tenant for that ground-floor commercial space. You can easily find another antiques dealer to rent it — more income for building upkeep, purchase of new regalia, and printing elaborate esoteric books.

As for the Masons, sources tell me that they are about done for. They sold the building, and I think the few elderly members left have consolidated with another lodge in a nearby town.

“Goblins, Goat-Gods, and Gates”: Weird Studies does “Hellier”

I wrote about my encounter with 2019’s take-off[[It doesn’t seem right for say “went viral” right now, don’t you think?))paranormal web series hit Hellier in this post, “Don’t Follow the Lights across the Moor, said the Monk.”

Now my favorite podcasters, J. F. Martel and Phil Ford of Weird Studies, have produced the episode on Hellier and related things — with them, there will always be related things. Usually they send me to the library website with a bunch of interlibrary-loan requests.

It is called “Goblins, Goat-Gods, and Gates.” And you see will that there is a references list.

The podcasters write:

On the night before this episode of Weird Studies was released, a bunch of folks on the Internet performed a collective magickal working. Prompted by the paranormal investigator Greg Newkirk, they watched the final episode of the documentary series Hellier at the same time — 10:48 PM EST — in order to see what would happen. Listeners who are familiar with this series, of which Newkirk is both a protagonist and a producer, will recall that the last episode features an elaborate attempt at gate opening involving no less than Pan, the Ancient Greek god of nature. If we weren’t so cautious (and humble) in our imaginings, we at Weird Studies might consider the possibility that this episode is a retrocausal effect of that operation. In it, we discuss the show that took the weirdosphere by storm last year, touching on topics such as subterranean humanoids, the existence of “Ascended Masters,” Aleister Crowley’s secret cipher, the Great God Pan, and the potential dangers of opening gates to other worlds … or of leaving them closed.

No, I haven’t listened to it yet. Weird Studies episodes are saved for long drives, and M. and I are going to the city tomorrow.

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 Gods Do Not Vote, So Why Are You Asking Them?

Hexing in progress. (Reuters via National Review)

When I was a kid, I read some condensed version of the Iliad for young people. I did not understand the gods.

After all, I was raised to be a Christian. In the Bible, YHWH was supposed to take care of his special people, the Jews, although sometimes he expressed his care and concern . . . oddly. The Christians continued that idea with themselves as the special people, and so on with other monotheistic religions. Obviously, God favored the “good guys.”

In the Iliad, the Greeks are the “good guys,” near as, although the Trojans are not especially villainous, just the other team. But the story is told from the Greeks’ point of view. Yet some of the gods favored on side and some the other. How could that be?1)You don’t really hear about the Trojans’ religion as a separate thing.

Later in life, having changed quite a bit, I would write about the Iliad, linking to the story of a Navy SEAL killed in combat, whose mother reflected, “He was born to do this job.”

That is the polytheistic view of life. The world is a mess. The world is beautiful. The gods are eternal (or as good as). The gods work at cross-purposes, and sometimes humans are caught between them.

Meanwhile, I see some Pagans convinced that they know how the gods vote — or would vote, if they could produce a photo ID at the polling place.

Are these the same Pagans who sneer at that subset of evangelical Christians who apparently think that Jesus is a Republican?2)After 2,000 years of worship, he is definitely a god. And maybe he is a Republican. Or like in the TV version of American Gods, there are multiple Jesuses and one is a Republican.

If you are really a polytheist, then you must accept that the gods do not vote. Their values are not always aligned with our day-to-day political values. Really, what does Aphrodite care about Colorado’s proposal to change the redistricting process or about who wins the race for Pueblo County coroner? Should I consult Hekate about my congressional candidates?

In the context of discussing a Heathen theological question, Galina Kraskova puts the issue this way:

To assume, moreover, that the Gods share our political affiliations is incredibly narrow-minded and naïve. It might help motivate us to become involved politically, it might allow us to feel a certain connection to whatever Gods we venerate, it might even make us feel better but it is a terribly humanizing view of Powers that are well beyond our factiousness, or the limitations of temporality and human foolishness. It’s really a shame that we insist on bringing our Gods down to our short-sighted level (and I think we all do this at times).

On the other hand, statements such as, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” might be comforting but do represent a kind of crypto-monotheism, especially when people capitalize History and treat it as a force equivalent to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Only God.

This “history” is apparently quasi-sentient and going somewhere other than to its own destruction. It is no coincident that the statement is attributed to a Unitarian minister.

Some Pagans I know (or know of) are working with various American archetypes 3)I  use Salmon too! in the sense of asking protection and blessing, which is OK. It’s like always ending a spell with “Or something better.”4)It is always good when you can rid yourself of annoying people by blessing them. That means not ordering the gods around: “[Deity], cause [Candidate] to win the election!”

In the mundane world, stories like “Witches Hex Kavanaugh” are great clickbait.5)For readers outside the USA, the article refers to Judge Brett Kavanaugh, recently added to the US Supreme Court after a contentious confirmation process in the Senate.

Here is the old-line conservative magazine National Review, suffering from a drop in circulation, taking a clickbait-ish shot at “progressive” Witches:

Notes   [ + ]

1. You don’t really hear about the Trojans’ religion as a separate thing.
2. After 2,000 years of worship, he is definitely a god. And maybe he is a Republican. Or like in the TV version of American Gods, there are multiple Jesuses and one is a Republican.
3. I  use Salmon too!
4. It is always good when you can rid yourself of annoying people by blessing them.
5. For readers outside the USA, the article refers to Judge Brett Kavanaugh, recently added to the US Supreme Court after a contentious confirmation process in the Senate.

Pentagram Pizza with Magic Wands (Serves Five)

Years ago I made a wand of alder wood cut somewhere up Ute Pass, west of my Manitou Springs, Colo., home.

And then I made a fancier one in Craft class, a dowel with an iron rod running through it and silver wire wrapped around the handle.

I pretty much guarantee that if you stand a few yards away, close your eyes, and hold out the palms of your hands, you will be able to tell when the wand is pointed at you.

Anne Johnson, blogging at The Gods Are Bored, has something to say about wands.

How to Make a Magic Wand

The Harry Potter series made magic wands kind of popular and trendy, but wands have always been around. There are two kinds: ceremonial wands and working wands. Today, Teacher Annie is going to tell you how to make a working wand!

How Do Magic Wands Work?

Before I address the complicated question of how magic wands work, I feel like I should offer my credentials as a Pagan, so you’ll know I’m not a phony or anything. I see faeries. I worship vultures. I am crackerjack at explaining weird dreams.

Magic Wands and Romantic Love

So now we find ourselves at perhaps the #1 reason that young people want to try wands and spell work: love! Of course! You need supernatural help to get that certain someone to look your way! Okay. Before you do, please read the following cautionary tale. I didn’t write it. My good friend Anansi the Trickster Spider God didn’t write it either (although He wouldn’t mind taking credit for it).

Magic Wands and Why You Need One

If you’re a regular tourist on this site, you too might want to consider making a working wand. I’ve been writing “The Gods Are Bored” since 2005, and I’ve been alive a lot longer than that, and I have never known a time when I was more in need of a magic wand.

Read the series and learn what to do with that wand on the shelf — or how to make a new one.

Not Dead and the House Is Still Standing

william-f-schmalsle

Great-great-uncle Fred,
a dapper Old West sportin’ gent.

Sorry about the lack of content. Everything went topsy-turvy on the 17th and is just now returning to normal, or to a “new normal.”

I left home on the 11th for a trip to eastern North Dakota to go grouse hunting with an old friend who himself was facing heart surgery on the 24th. It’s a thousand-mile drive each way, but I have done it for seven of the last eight years. Lots of restful prairie driving (perfect for audiobooks!), and I can chose a route where the biggest city I go through is Pierre, South Dakota.

This year I tacked on a day and drove via Miles City, Montana, a place that I had never visited but where a number of my paternal grandmother’s relatives lived—her uncles and brothers.

I wanted to see sites associated with my great-great-uncle, whose résumé in the 1870s and 1880s apparently included civilian Army scout, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, occasional deputy sheriff, and landlord of and probably silent partner in a couple of  “boarding houses” for young ladies. My cousins and I are trying to sort it out. (He ended up peacefully retired in Pasadena and left my grandmother a nice inheritance from the money he made “in real estate.”) There is a street named after him, a minor street in a residential area.

nd-badlands

Entering North Dakota from Montana on I-94.

I bought a bottle of Montana whiskey to toast Uncle Fred.  Another day’s drive east brought me to a little town dominated by grain elevators, where my old friend G. fetched up about 14 years ago.

We had a couple of days together; then on Monday the 17th my phone woke me with an emergency call. My little rural fire department was being called (at 6:30 a.m.) to assist with a “100-acre grass fire.” The location was roughly west from my house, conditions were dry, and a strong west wind was blowing, I knew. My guts turned to water.

More calls followed. The fire was blowing up: 9,000 acres. 10,000 acres.1)4046 ha. I could not reach M. at first, but eventually she called (after I was already packed and on the road south) to say she was preparing to leave for a motel in a nearby town as soon as the sheriff’s deputies said she had to go right now. I did not try to reach anyone on the fire department, just texted the chief and told him that I was two days away but on the move. I told M. to pack my wildland fire gear: “Just grab everything yellow.”

What do you do magically in such a case? Something sprang spontaneously to my mind as I drove — a giant Smokey Bear, skycraper-size, standing with shovel at the ready at a key road junction.

That sounds sort of comic book-ish, but it works for me. When I learned something about ceremonial magic in my twenties, I realized that my first (and to that time, only) experience of “assuming the god form” was as a 9- or 10-year-old  wearing the Smokey Bear costume on the Forest Service float during parades in Rapid City, SD.

Smokey was created by a commercial artists, but what the heck, he is a demi-god by now. At least to me.

Magical work should be reinforced by material-plane work. The worst of the fire was over by the time I got home, but I still put in a day and a half on an engine crew, plus another day doing engine maintenance etc. at the fire house

The station also functioned as a disaster-assistance center, with various agencies setting up help centers there. In such cases, you are always overwhelmed with donated food. So I took a platter of two-day-old barbequed pork up to the wildlife rehabilitation center that I frequently mention on the other blog.

They have a couple of bear cubs that they are fattening ahead of an early-winter release. The BBQ was a welcome high-calorie treat.

“Thank you!” said the woman who runs it.

“Not me,” I said. “Thank Smokey.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. 4046 ha

Can You Help Your Ancestors Instead of Rejecting Them?

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a cover blurb for a Llewellyn book, something that does not happen very often.

It was a pretty good book. Some people might have found the title obscure, but that was not my decision. But one thing stopped me in my tracks. The writer tried to use the language of “colonist” and “decolonized”  and “colonialist cultures” in a clumsy way that came across as “You should hate your ancestors because they were bad people.”

I don’t if that was necessarily intended, but it was easy to read a key passage in such a way.

Underneath the language was a message about connecting with the Old Ways (or what we think they were), but the cultural-Marxist thought-template got in the way. For a Llewellyn book, I would phrase things differently. (Or for any book.)

Even a scholar using “colonization” as a psychic metaphor has to tread carefully. Anne Ferlat put her  Pomegranate article on “Conversion as Colonization: Pagan Reconstructionism and Ethnopsychiatry” through multiple drafts, and still some reviewers were nervous about its implications.

Certainly we don’t approve of everything our ancestors did. In the mid-1870s, my great-great uncle Frederick was a commercial buffalo hunter in western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, dropping them with his “Big 50.” Do I applaud him for that? Hell no.1)He did get a couple of line in some 19th-century history books for a separate act of heroism. Do I wish that we as a culture had taken a different approach? Absolutely.2)We shudder at the piles of buffalo bones in the old photos, but the Comanche and Kiowa were reducing the Southern Herd quite well themselves, both through their own commercial hunting and because their huge horse herds competed with the bison for winter grazing in the river bottoms. The Indians thought that bison were inexhaustible, with new ones coming up through a hole connecting to the Lower World. It’s a complicated story.

In my early days of esoteric studies, I was told that in reality, time did not move in one direction; consequently, not only could my ancestors influence me, but I could influence them.3)This might have been in one of Jane Roberts’ “Seth” books. Perhaps this is the real secret of “ancestor worship” so-called.

Some psychotherapists think that we not only carry in our bodies our own traumas, but also certain ancestors’ traumas.

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

In such a case, would “healing” the ancestor help the living?

Some of today’s new shamans, like Sandra Ingerman, teach that this magical work can be done on a collective level as well.

M. and I have a sort of Ancestors Wall of framed photos in our house, now that we have room for it. I look, for instance, at a maternal great-grandfather in his little SE Kansas newspaper office—he is at the desk (editor! community leader!) while the compositor and the press crew cluster further back. What is our relationship? How does the energy flow?4)I did go through a period of fascination with letterpress technology and could have operated— with a little coaching—every piece of equipment in that room.

And great-great uncle Frederick, did he ever in his next line of work — saloon-keeper, Miles City, Montana — look into a scrying glass of whiskey and wonder what he had done?

These are complicated questions. My modest amount of Other Side contact has been with immediate kin—parents, a sister—not with those further back. They seem closer — at times I feel my father in my body, so to speak, in some mundane action like putting on a coat.

Quantum mechanics offers fascinating ideas, as this article suggests:

Yet none of [the]  one-way flow of time is apparent when you look at the fundamental laws of physics: the laws, say, that describe how atoms bounce off each other.

At the same time, I don’t feel qualified to proclaim, “Quantum mechanics proves magic works!” There are of plenty of other people who will, and they’ll write books and give workshops about it.

But if we can somehow heal the past, there is plenty of work to do. It beats rejecting our ancestors — even if they did wrong by our standards, they made us possible.

Notes   [ + ]

1. He did get a couple of line in some 19th-century history books for a separate act of heroism.
2. We shudder at the piles of buffalo bones in the old photos, but the Comanche and Kiowa were reducing the Southern Herd quite well themselves, both through their own commercial hunting and because their huge horse herds competed with the bison for winter grazing in the river bottoms. The Indians thought that bison were inexhaustible, with new ones coming up through a hole connecting to the Lower World. It’s a complicated story.
3. This might have been in one of Jane Roberts’ “Seth” books.
4. I did go through a period of fascination with letterpress technology and could have operated— with a little coaching—every piece of equipment in that room.

The Scholar’s Mistress: The Speckled Bird

William Butler Years

William Butler Years

As an English major at Reed College, I experienced a semester-long combined seminar on William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. To be honest, I probably liked Eliot’s poetry more, and I wrote a just-slightly-tongue-in-cheek paper on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, although I did not have the chops to turn it into a Broadway musical, which is why I am not rich and famous.

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne

Nevertheless, I knew that Yeats was important too. We discussed him only as poet and advocate of Irish cultural identity, not as ceremonial magician,  as prose writer, nor as Irish senator.

I heard something about A Vision, his esoteric Compleat Theory of Everything, but when I found a copy in the library, I bounced off it like a brick wall. I lacked the background to understand, quite simply, and of course I knew next to nothing about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in the early 1890s.

I picked up a lot more over the years, including reading about his long, sexually frustrated (for twenty-odd years) romantic friendship with the beautiful Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne — who was a magician too, at least until the gunfire of the 1916 Easter Rising drowned that out.

Unknown to Yeats, Gonne had an affair with a French journalist and secretly gave birth to a boy, who died at the age of 2; she returned with her lover to the child’s tomb to conceive again, believing that reincarnation would bring back the lost son.

Then last November, in a session of the Western Esotericism Group at the American Academy of Religion, Thomas Willard of the U. of Arizona mentioned an unfinished novel by Yeats that I had never heard of, The Speckled Bird [for the title’s origin, see note below].

Between 1896-1902, “at a point in his career when he was dramatizing his occult experiences in fiction [such as] The Secret Rose, a sequence of stories that embody the conflict between the natural and spiritual worlds,”  Yeats made four attempts at this autobiographical novel [General Editor’s Introduction, The Speckled Bird].

Its central character, Michael Hearne, “is dominated by three passions: his love of Margaret [Maud Gonne], his desire to gain access to the invisible world by means of occult knowledge and techniques, and his wish to devise an appropriate ritual for the inauguration and practice of the Celtic Mysteries” [ibid.].

Michael and Margaret plan a series of rituals based on the quest for the Grail, and in a letter he tells her, “We will only make a beginning, but centuries after we are dead cities shall be overthrown, it may be, because of an air that we have hummed or because of a curtain full of [magical] meaning that we have hung upon a wall.”

And when Michael and Maclagan, the character based on S. L. Mathers, are walking in the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms, Maclagan says, “The old gods are worshipped still in secret and what we have to do is make their worship open again.”

In the most-developed version, Michael Hearne abandons the plan for a Celtic esoteric order and sets off on a journey with Maclagan to Arabia and Persia — which did not occur in Yeats’ real life.

Yeats and Gonne’s Celtic-mystery groups never happened. Outer-world events — the First World War (1914–18), the Irish rebellions (1916, 1919–21) foundation of the Irish Free State (1922), and then its subsequent civil war (1922–23) — were just a little too distracting.

Some would argue that the Fellowship of the Four Jewels carried on something of Yeats’ and Gonne’s idea, and in the person of Ella Young, it has a slight connection with the development of West Coast Pagan movements in the 1960s.

*  *  *  *  *

Note: I am not sure what “the speckled bird” meant to Yeats, although he knew that it came from Jeremiah 12:9. Christian commentators regard the bird as emblematic of the church.

Eurasian eagle-owl

The metaphor is of small birds mobbing an owl or other raptor. Jeremiah seems casual about bird identification, but maybe his audience knew if he meant a Eurasian eagle-owl or some kind of large hawk.

That passage also provided the name of a well-known hymn, here sung by country star Kitty Wells and also by Lucinda Williams.