Tag Archives: Occult America

Digital Discussions and the Esoteric Renaissance

In 2004 the Esalen Institute Center for Theory and Research hosted it’s inaugural conference under the interesting title: Esoteric Renaissance.

The conference was organized by Wouter Hannegraff, professor History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam,  and Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, and hosted some of the finest scholars from around the world working in the field of esoteric studies.

During the 1960’s Frances Yates and A. J. Festugiere began to look deeper into the history of science and Western thought, addressing areas that the academy had largely ignored. Up to that point the insurmountable evidence of alternative paradigms at the root of our culture had remained the ground for artists and specialists who were less direct in publicizing their explorations. By the late 1990′s a number of colleges and universities around the world began to offer courses in the history of esoteric movements and philosophies to support professors who took up the torch to organize these investigations with more discipline.

The Esalen conference marked a further development of this organizational interest. Jeffrey Kripal’s remarkable history of the Esalen Institute, and his work on the history of heterodox religious movements in the 20th century, shows that an undercurrent of mystical thought has moved throughout the major cultural changes of the last century. With this in mind he has organized a ground breaking series of conferences at the Esalen Institute to bring together scholars, writers, public intellectuals, artists and academics to discuss this ‘hidden’ history.

With the global economic instability formal support for these initiatives has become less forgiving, but communications technology and digital media is making these efforts even more accessible to the global community.

Jeffrey Kripal is currently working on a documentary called Authors of the Impossible which focuses on what he sees as phenomenon that exist in the liminal ground of the convergence of the subjective and the objective, of narrative and science. Along with the documentary itself he also hosts a series of podcasts that go deeper into the individual scholars and scientists featured in the documentary.

For Kripal the problem with the hardline skeptics is that they fail to appreciate the subjective power of the mystery narrative. He thinks there are better tools for investigating human potential that allow for both subjective and objective techniques to aid each other in the investigation.

Other initiatives have sprung up with the support and foresight of Esalen conference attendees. Arthur Versluis, Michigan State University and Editor of Esoterica: The Journal of Esoteric Studies, was at the commemoration of the Phoenix Rising Academy of Esoteric Sciences and Creative Arts, a digital school that is seeking to fill the gap left by the closing of many humanities departments. They are using communication technology to facilitate scholarship and discussion across the field.

Erik Davis and Mitch Horowitz, both authors and scholars who explore the esoteric influences behind pop culture, will be hosting a workshop at the Esalen Institute on the weekend of March 25-27, 2011, called The Occult in America: An Adventure in Arcane History. Both Erik and Mitch attended one of the conferences in the Esoteric Renaissance series, bringing a contemporary perspective to the role of esoterica in the cultural narrative.

Erik recently released his latest study on the intersection of culture and anomoly titled Nomad Codes. It features essays published in the Village Voice, Wired, Salon, and Slate over the last decade exploring a wide range of mythically resonant topics from the pulp horror auteur H.P. Lovecraft to Burmese transsexual nightlife.

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation is Mitch Horowitz’, editor at Tarcher/Penguin, latest book dealing with history on the fringes and the intersection of mysticism and politics in the United States. This is not a conspiracy tome, but a serious work of popular scholarship which investigates some of the more baroque aspects of American history.

With the continued development of online networks and digital connectivity it will be interesting to see how these efforts grow and influence the emergent field of esoteric studies. Through new insights from scholars like Jeffrey Kripal, Woulter Hounegraff, Arthur Versluis, Erik Davis, Mitch Horowitz and the innovative teaching techniques of the Esalen Institute and the Phoenix Rising Academy, we are seeing a return of the academy to public discourse and a renewal of investigations that have lain dormant for quite some time.

*Resources and references are linked in the text, this article was originally posted at openmythsource.com

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Become Who You Are

On some recent trips to Chicago I’ve noticed that a number of buildings have Pythagorean symbolism worked into their facades. These are visible on brownstone apartment buildings, as well as commercial buildings, and it got my little mind wondering what lead to their inclusion in so many seemingly mundane examples of architecture.

If you jump back a century Chicago was a buzzing hub for the New Thought and Mind Science movements, and home to a number of publishing houses that were responsible for the creation of everything from the Kybalion ( a Neo-Hermetic text put out by the Yogi Publication Society ) to popular pressings of the famous resource of respectable Conjure Doctors, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Frank Loyd Wright, who spent much of his time in Oak Park, had some theosophical meanderings (he was married to a former student of Gurdijeff’s) and his connection to Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft movement puts him in touch with various streams of Rosicrucian thought, but Wright wasn’t responsible for the buildings in question.

In the process of searching out clues online I became side tracked by the publishers and nearly forgot the architecture. One of the beautiful things about Google books is the ability to not only access books, but archival material from journals, news papers and publications as well. What I found was a whole host of material that gave me a new appreciation for the diversity that can spring out of a single source of inspiration.

It seems that most of these publishing houses were in one way or another connected to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, famous for it’s influence on  Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., C.C. Zain‘s Brotherhood of Light and a number of other groups that have spread out far from their initial origins,  while always keeping a similar thread of thought. The same folks who were publishing New Thought, American Yoga, and Mind Science were also putting out books on Hoodoo, Rosicrucianism, Western Kabbalah and Hermetic science.  Just like in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, these publishing houses (often using different names from the same office) covered diverse esoteric territory.

As I read through some of these books I started to wonder, what happened to the creative impulse that lead to this massive production? For all the pseudo-scientific jargon and ahistorical theorizing found in many of them, there always seems to be a focus on civic responsibility, personal integrity and community development, a sort of wide eyed optimism for the potential of humanity to move beyond petty differences and grow into something better.

Mitch Horowitz points this out in his book Occult America, talking about C. C. Zain (Elbert Benjamine) he writes:

“In the midst of the Great Depression, Benjamine conceived of a universalist belief system he called the Religion of the Stars. He saw it as an occult religion that could unite humanity under a peaceable, nonsectarian creed based in the study of ancient astrology…His 1930’s print ads for the Religon of the Stars reflected the social values of Henry A. Wallace’s “The New Deal of the Ages.” One showed a torch-bearing horseman riding a winged steed labeled The New Civilization and holding a flag that echoed Benjamine’s motto: Contribute Your Utmost to Universal Welfare. The horse and rider leaped over the words Want, Fear, Censorship, Atheism.”

Today when we think of the “occult sciences” what all too often comes to mind is some fear mongering nonsense about secret societies and cults plotting against the good intentions of the common people. Yet if you go back and read the historical works that were being published in the late 19th century…there isn’t much of a secret, and all of these organizations were pretty open about their intentions. Horrible intentions like self respect, helping the disenfranchised, providing for the common good, realizing the full potential of life and other dark designs on the future of humanity.

Here’s an example of an ad for The Hermetist that ran in a number of publications at the time:

THE HERMETI8T
Is a sixteen-page monthly magazine, the organ of the Hermetic Brotherhood. Its motto is “Get Understanding.” It deals with Mysticism in a common-sense way. It teaches that If Occult Power can be of help to mankind, It ought to be made practical. It seeks to tell its readers how to use the powers they have neglected for so many centuries. Send 10 cents for sample copy. Yearly subscription $1.00.
HERMETIC PUBLISHING CO., 4006 Grand Boulevard, – Chicago, III.

Terrifying stuff indeed.  It may be tempting to think that the entire focus of these groups was some massive deception, or perhaps some kind of long running scheme to cash in on people’s hopes. Thoughts like these usually come from the fears and malintention of the accusers and fly in the face of the fact that the consistency in the message, the austerity that many of the members of these organizations lived in, and the undeniable earnestness of their writings shows that, whatever their personal failings, there is an honest sense of integrity behind these movements.

It’s been very heartening to see that there are contemporary esoteric groups beginning to get back to this sense of social consciousness. Scarlet Imprint recently put out Geosophia, by Jake Stratton-Kent, which looks at the Goetic arts as a means for cross cultural understanding, bringing it out of the mire of misinformation that they’ve been stuck in for centuries. Another upcoming publication by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold, Palo Mayombe – The Garden of Blood and Bones, is an honest appraisal of the Palo tradition, one of the many African diaspora traditions that get’s so much bad press due to it’s raw honesty with the facts of life and death. Nicholaj is an anthropologist who has been initiated into a number of Western and diaspora traditions, and makes the astute observation that much of the fear that surrounds paths like Palo are nothing more than veiled racism.

Beyond publications there are also organizations reemerging to tackle the self flagellating victim script that we’re being constantly given by the Western media. The New Extreme Individual Institute runs on a simple motto:

Become Who You Are – There Are No Guarantees

This isn’t the Victorian era, and the problems that we face today are definitely nothing to slight. Paranoia, fear and self victimization, however, are not going to get us out of the hole. Along with the NEII’s motto is a further elucidation of their principles:

Just as there are athletes of the sports and the arts, so are there athletes of the spirit. The first search for excellence and perfection in their chosen field of endeavour and are so recognized, while in the latter there is similarly a search for excellence of technique and perfection of all the vehicles of the Self.”

As our economy continues it’s rolling descent into oblivion, our cultural institutions sit paralyzed with inertia and our supposed leaders continue to puff out weak rhetoric,  avoiding any recognition of the realities that we face, we’re going to need some spiritual athletes to lead us past the finish line.

Are you ready?