Call For Papers, Presentations, Workshops, Rituals and Performances Mapping the Occult City: Exploring Magick and Esotericism in the Urban Utopia

A pre-conference for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions in Chicago, on Friday November 16, 2012, presented by Phoenix Rising Academy and DePaul University.

In his classic essay, “Walking in the City,” ethnologist and historian Michel de Certeau distinguished between the “exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive” that comes from viewing the city from a high vantage point and the quotidian negotiations of the walker at street level, who creates his or her own map, takes shortcuts and resists the strategies of typical urban planning.

One perspective is totalizing and distancing, constructing an illusory, unified view of the metropolis, while the other seeks out hidden avenues of knowledge and intersections of stories, myths, and happenings. The occultist tends to shift between both views, sometimes spinning grand narratives of the city as a New Atlantis, a utopian civilization of knowledge and wonder, other times imagining a secret world of dark mysteries, unknown to most passersby, that lay just beyond the twilight of the streetlamps.

Many esotericists, conspiracy theorists, and urban fantasy authors have speculated on the occult meaning of symbols, monuments, and architecture in major cities, from Cleopatra’s Needle in London to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. Or they see powerful sigils in the neon signs, building facades and billboards. Some speak of urban ley lines and “energy centers” that bubble with occult power ready to be tapped into by those with the right sense and ability. These energy centers are focused on geometric street patterns or the lines created by the placement of sacred sites in the city, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries. Others speak of haunted places, charged with story and legend, often full of the sense of violence, trauma and the urgency of events that occurred there.

Historically, cities have been home to countless esoteric groups who have met, planned, and conducted ritual within the towering buildings that glitter the metropolitan skyline.

For instance, Chicago, the location of this year’s AAR conference, was once the home of the 32 floor Masonic Building, owned by the Illinois Freemasons, and the tallest building in the world in 1892. Prominent figures in the esoteric world have spoken, performed and offered their wisdom to the masses through the many salons, lectures, performances, congregations, conferences, and world’s fairs that have been either publicly advertised or available only to those with the right password and invitation.

Cities are where the ideas of Western esotericism spread to the masses through these public events and the many urban publishing houses. Cities are also home to public events and happenings that connect the esoteric, the theatrical and the political world through protest and public actions and happenings, such as the W.I.T.C.H. protests at Chicago’s Federal Building on Halloween 1969.

Finally, cities are centers of diversity and diaspora and often become hothouses for the development of hybrid traditions based on immigrant cultures, such as Santeria and Vodun. For scholars of magick and esotericism, cities like Chicago can offer up rich resources for tracking group activities and events through library archives and public records.

Understanding occult life in the city, in both its historical and contemporary contexts, is crucial in mapping the proliferation of ideas and connections between practitioners and traditions. Popular practical texts have addressed how the practice of magick changes in an urban setting, especially when the magician or witch must adapt a nature-centered practice to a city-based practice.

nvestigating esoteric actions in the city can reveal the ways in which the practitioner is caught up and complicit with strategic structures of power while also offering possibilities for the occultist to resist those structures through the kind of tactical, magical moves described by de Certeau. As the Occupy movement and other political protests proliferate, especially in America’s election year, what are the possibilities for harnessing and directing the energy of the occult city?

Phoenix Rising Academy would like to explore these intersections of the esoteric and the urban, focusing on the city as a locus for power and knowledge, both hidden and revealed. Are cities oppressive entities that stifle creative and esoteric drives or do they hold in their structures the potential for powerful action? To this end, we invite scholars and practitioners to submit proposals for papers, presentations, rituals and performances that address these questions pertaining to the occult city.

Though our focus is primarily on American cities, particularly Chicago, we welcome explorations in other prominent global metropolitan centers. For this pre-conference, we plan on creating 2-3 panels of papers, presentations, performances, rituals, workshops, roundtables, or discussion groups.

Possible topics may include (but are not limited to)

• The activities of certain groups, traditions, and communities, both historical and contemporary, in particular cities.

• The city life of prominent esoteric figures and how that city life shaped their ideas and practices. · Particular events, meetings, lectures, performances, happenings, protests whose urban setting featured prominently in their execution and influence.

• The mythology of the occult city, based on legend, occult symbolism, and esoteric symbolism of architecture and urban planning.

• A practical approach to working magick and ritual in the city, perhaps based on Urban Shamanism or Chaos Magick.

• Interpretations of the city and its occult power by urban fantasy authors.

• The intersections of the occult and the political through the use of ritualized protest actions, focusing on setting and urban scene.

• Though not focusing on hauntings per se, an investigation of spiritualism, mysticism and psychic practices prominent in urban settings.

• A study of how hereditary or hybridized indigenous practices survive, evolve and adapt in an urban setting.

With your submission, please include the following: Presenter information (name, mailing and email addresses, phone number) Type of presentation (paper, non-paper presentation, workshop, performance, roundtable).

Note: if you are proposing a roundtable discussion, please submit info for all participants. Title and affiliation (institution, organization, independent scholar, or practitioner). Proposal or abstract (not to exceed 250 words). Should include title of presentation and a clear description of the presentation’s intent, plus any audio/visual needs. Biographical data (not to exceed 200 words).

Please email all submissions by August 20th to Dr. Jason L. Winslade, DePaul University, Please include “PRA Pre-Conference” in the subject line. All submissions will be reviewed and you will be notified of a decision one week after the deadline

Dr. Taverner and the Dreamer’s World

Not Sherlock Holmes, it's Dr. Taverner

Robert Moss, novelist and noted writing on dreaming, has a series of posts on his blog about Dion Fortune’s Secrets of Dr. Taverner.  Supposedly, the occultist/psychiatrist Dr. Taverner is based on a real doctor whom Fortune knew in the early twentieth century, and the “secrets” are retellings of actual cases.

 In my opinion, she succeeded beyond her ambition. The Taverner stories are both gripping and entertaining, and a valuable source of practical guidance on psychic protection and spiritual cleansing and many other facets of psychic well-being that are missed in our standard approach to healthcare and therapy. In its fictional wrapping, The Secrets of Dr Taverner is a practitioner’s casebook, of the greatest value to subsequent practitioners. It is perhaps the most accessible of all Dion Fortune’s works for the contemporary reader.

I once suggested to Stewart Farrar that he adapt them for television—how perfect for PBS’ Mystery seriesand he agreed that they would work well on “the box.”

Only, he said, the current leadership of her Society of the Inner Light was very protective of the copyrights. Too bad. Stewart would have brought both his writing talent—which had included dramatic scriptwriting—and a Witch’s experience to the job.

Pentagram Pizza for May 18th

Twelve words for for bloggers, pointed towards people in the medical professions, but likely appropriate for academia as well.

• While we are in the workplace, some thoughts from a Psychology Today article on why “diversity training” is a waste of time. Or why good manners are better than rules enforced by bureaucratic idiots.

• More thoughts on cult-occult films of the 1960s, this time from Zan at The Juggler. I have a couple in my Netflix queue now.

Pentagram Pizza for May 15, 2012

• At The Allergic Pagan, a three-part series on Neopaganism in America (link goes to the third part) with a lot of “whatever happened to?”.

• Jason Pitzl-Waters uses the reunion of the band Dead Can Dance (one of my favorites) to look back at the history of Pagan music.

• A new blog devoted to the history of Chicago occultism has me excited, since I will be there in November.

Gallimaufry with Forbidden Phrases

• According to John Rentoul of the British newspaper The Independent, these phrases should be banned due to overuse. He tips his hat to George Orwell, all well and good, but someone in the comments notes that the Irish satirist Brian O’Nolan also eviscerated bureaucratese in his day, which was even earlier.

• Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is a staple of introductory psychology classes. But Gary Lachman (a/k/a Gary Valentine of Blondie, etc.) at The Daily Grail notes that it can take some odd twists in the world of the esoteric: “Maslow’s vision of a kind of Brahmin caste of ‘self-actualizers,’ uninterested in the kind of material gratification that most people desire, and oriented toward more ‘spiritual’ concerns, is a recurring fantasy in the world of occult politics.” Read the rest.

• If you have a book proposal in mind, does it include zombies? Get on the zombie bandwagon! Consider this one: “Christ, mythras [sic], and Osiris as zombie archetypes – a new spirituality for a new age…”

• Odd manners of dying in sixteenth-century England.

Occultism and Mushrooms

Not necessarily psychotropic mushrooms. To learn more about them, read Andy Letcher’s Shroom or the works of Paul Stamets, Dale Pendell, etc.

These are metaphorical mushrooms—or mushrooms as metaphor—from an article by Wouter Hanegraaff on the German scholar of esotericism Will-Erich Peuckert (1895-1969):

To me, [Peuckert’s] book [Pansophie] breathed  an unmistakable mycological atmosphere: the mushrooms I used to collect during my trips through the forest, and the strange ideas and personalities that Peuckert had collected during his forays through the tangled woods of early modern history, simply “smelled” the same. The effect of the book had a lot to do with Peuckert’s inimitable prose … by which he introduced his readers to a forgotten world that seemed to be suffused with the same mysterious atmosphere of magic and fairy tales which, to me, had always given mushrooms their special attraction. Whereas green plants, trees and flowers flourish in broad daylight for all to see, mushrooms were half-hidden creatures of twilight, ambiguous and potentially poisonous plants-that-are-not-really-plants (what were they, really?) associated by popular tradition with the forbidden domains of magic and witchcraft. In short, mushrooms might be defined metaphorically as the occult in biology—and conversely, one could say that Peuckert now introduced me to what seemed like the mushrooms of history. Just as mushrooms grow in the autumn and are thus associated with decay and the decline of the life cycle, Peuckert described the magic of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the final flowering of a grand worlview in decline, inevitably doomed to be dissolved by the rise of bourgeois culture.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “Will-Erich Peukert and the Light of Nature,” in Esotericism, Religion, and Nature, ed. Arthur Versluis, et al. (Minneapolis: Association for the Study of Esotericism, 2010), 282-83.

That Wicked Man

Aleister and Rose Crowley, 1910
Via Plutonica, a Life magazine  slideshow on Aleister Crowley and his influence on pop culture.

I had not known that Sidney Blackmer played his character, Roman Castevet,  in the occult thriller Rosemary’s Baby, partly on impressions of Crowley.

When the movie came out, I was too young to appreciate the depth of its scariness, let alone know who Crowley was. I should watch it again.

Our Secret Order Will Rule the Empire

What is it with secret societies and magical orders in the movies these days? The Da Vinci Code. National Treasure: Book of Secrets. . . I could go on.

Now M. and I are back from watching the new Sherlock Holmes, which felt like “screenplay by Dan Brown and Dion Fortune, from the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.”

The villain, Lord Blackwood, is a cross between Aleister Crowley and Benito Mussolini.

Historians of costume, if you are out there: do not Irene Adler’s dresses with the elaborate bustles seem about 15-20 years out of date for the time of the movie? (I date it to the late 1880s, since Tower Bridge is under construction, assuming that is the bridge in the movie.

Good movie though, with lots of little bits of cinematic homage to “the canon,” such as the pocket watch with pawnbrokers’ marks or the steam launch on the Thames.

"Dowsing for the Dead"

I cannot improve on the headline that Dallas religion journalist Rod Dreher put on his own blog post.

But if you hang around dowsers, you will not hear the world “occult” much. The old ones, at least, were a practical bunch, although a newer generation got all wrapped up in “earth mysteries” and “ley lines.”

I learned to dowse for underground pipes on a Talpa, New Mexico, construction site at age 20.

M.’s father, a civil engineer, also did some dowsing. We once all attended the national dowsers’ convention in Danville, Vermont–which happened to be the town where he grew up.

No one knows why it works, but it does — although in my opinion, a strong mental desire for a certain outcome is counter-productive. That is why dowsing for gold is not reliable!