I hope my readers won’t object at this point if our conversation takes an excursion into the outer reaches of American popular spirituality—yes, that’s been spelled “occultism” since about a week after Helena P. Blavatsky got off the boat in New York and translated the term out of French. Very often, the best way to make sense of a habit of popular thought is to watch what happens when it goes its length, and the spiritual fringes of a nation that was largely founded by religious fanatics is a great place to watch that process in action.
It’s a mistake to assume, by the way, that all the religious fanatics in question were ordinary Protestant Christians. That’s the impression you get from the usual watered-down versions of American history retailed by the schools and the media, of course, but like a great deal else that comes from these same sources, it doesn’t happen to be true. When European colonization of North America began, the reality wars of the late Renaissance were not yet over, and all three of the contending sides ended up with a substantial presence in the colonies before 1776.
All three sides? Yep. In one corner of the triangular boxing ring, you had Christian orthodoxy in its various contending forms. In the second corner, you had scientific materialism, which hadn’t yet openly embraced atheism—that could get you jail time in England until the 1830s, and in many other European countries was illegal until later still—but settled for the “clockmaker god” of Deism, who wound up the universe and then went somewhere else to let it run unimpeded. In the third corner, finally, you had the phenomenon that historians these days call Renaissance Hermeticism, which is among other things where modern occultism comes from.
The first two contenders are familiar enough to most people these days, but it’s probably worth talking a little about the third. One of the things that happened during the Renaissance is that people all over Europe discovered that the magic, astrology, and alchemy they’d inherited from their ancestors, and enriched with borrowings from the Arab world during and after the Crusades, were fragments of a rich philosophical and religious system dating from classical times. They got that memo in different ways—some from the writings attributed to an Egyptian sage named Hermes Trismegistus, whence the term “Hermetic;” some from the medieval reworkings of classical spirituality found in Jewish Cabalistic writings; some straight from the hose via the writings of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, and other Neoplatonist philosopher-mystics. As a result, the Renaissance was awash in wizardry, sometimes blending with one of the other two contenders, sometimes standing right out there in a tall pointed hat with moons and stars on it.
Historians of the sort who set out to make the past justify the self-image of the present—that is to say, the great majority of those who write history—have had to work overtime to avoid talking about this. There was a great deal of fluttering and squawking in scholarly dovecotes a few years back when Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs published two fine volumes on Isaac Newton’s alchemical work, which showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the patron saint of scientific rationalism had been up to his eyeballs in Renaissance Hermeticism. There was even more of the same sort of fluttering and squawking a little further back when Frances Yates started writing a series of groundbreaking histories that took Renaissance Hermeticism seriously as an intellectual and cultural force in its time, as indeed it was. That reality is less shocking now than it was in the late twentieth century, but you can still find an embarrassingly large number of books on the origins of the modern world that pretend that it was all about rational science triumphing over religious orthodoxy, full stop, end of sentence.
Au contraire, the reality wars of the late Renaissance ended when early materialist science and Christian orthodoxy negotiated a truce so they could jointly stomp the bejesus out of the third contender. The terms of the truce were that science got jurisdiction over everything material as long as its promoters didn’t publicly disagree with the Bible, religion got jurisdiction over everything moral and spiritual, and both sides turned on Hermeticism with hobnailed boots. Ever notice that one of the few things that hardcore fundamentalist Christians and hardcore atheist rationalists agree about is that astrology is really, really bad? Now you know why.
The armed truce between science and religion in the Western world endured, despite occasional bursts of sniping from both sides, until Charles Darwin led an army of cave men across the border in 1859 and inaugurated a new round of open warfare that hasn’t stopped yet. Ever since, the promoters and cheerleaders of science have been busy rewriting history to make it look like the fighting started in Galileo’s time and never stopped. That was partly a matter of trying to justify an unprovoked invasion, of course, but it was also an annoyed response to the fact that victory kept on slipping out of their grasp. It wasn’t just Christianity that held its ground, either. Despite repeated stompings, modern occultism, the raffish and plucky descendant of Renaissance Hermeticism, flatly refused to get with the program and just lay down and die.
Occultism, as we may as well simply call it from this point on, thus has been here in European-settled North America since long before the Revolution. The first colonial governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop Jr., was a passionate alchemist; George Starkey, who made a name for himself as an alchemical writer under the nom de crucible Eirenaeus Philalethes, was born in the colonies and got much of his alchemical education there; Rosicrucians from Germany fled here all through the colonial period, bringing with them a vast amount of Christian Hermeticism, and the list goes on. Three of the original colonies—Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—embraced the idea of religious liberty long before anybody in Europe got around to it, and that guaranteed that anybody who chafed under the harsh legal prohibitions against occultism in most European countries had an obvious escape route. Many of them took it.
So the land of the free and the home of the brave also became the haven of mages, astrologers, alchemists, diviners, folk healers, visionaries, and students of strange lore. That doesn’t mean that things were always easy for occultists here. At intervals, religious authorities whipped up mobs, political authorities passed laws defining the practice of astrology as fraud punishable by serious jail time, medical authorities led crusades against people giving health care dollars to someone other than them, and so on. Occultists accordingly became very good at sticking to the letter of the law while undermining its spirit. (Some years ago, for example, when I was taught a system of spiritual healing that was part of a particular occult order’s curriculum, it came with a detailed discussion of what you could and couldn’t say and do, in order to keep from being accused of practicing medicine without a license. The medical industry is very protective of its monopoly, but there’s more to it than that: to deal with the psychospiritual roots of many common health conditions is to threaten the foundations of the scientific-materialist worldview.)
Since early on in the 19th century, though, the pervasive presence of occultism in American society has tended at intervals to produce an odd phenomenon that doesn’t really have a name yet. The word “occult” literally means “hidden”—when your doctor runs an occult blood test on a stool sample, she’s trying to find blood that’s not visible, and when a planet occults a star, that means the star is hidden behind the planet. (It has nothing to do with the word “cult.”) Occult philosophy, to give it its older name, is the hidden philosophy. Occultists deal in secrets, partly because of all that persecution down through the years, and partly because learning to keep secrets is a potent way of training the awareness and snapping awake from the shallow trance of aimless chatter that most people are in most of the time when they’re not sound asleep.
What happens at intervals, however, is that somebody takes a few basic occult techniques, decides that those are what occultism is all about, surrounds them with an ideology that combines bits of borrowed occultism with the latest hot topics in contemporary pop culture, and goes loudly public with the result. That’s the phenomenon I have in mind. I suppose you could call it Occultism Lite, as the results generally relate to the rich strong brew of trad occultism the way that a fizzy yellow light beer mass-produced by a global corporation relates to a good imperial stout from a microbrewery. The comparison’s apt, because trad occultism, like really dark beer, is an acquired taste for many people, while light beer is popular precisely because it’s so bland.
If you know your way around American popular culture from colonial times forward, you’re familiar with the results. Transcendentalism is a great example; so is Spiritualism; so is New Thought; so is Theosophy; so is the watered-down astrology and vaguely Asian mysticism that pervaded the hippie scene; so is the New Age movement; so is the generic goddess-worshiping Neopaganism that has been such a significant pop-culture phenomenon for the last forty years (though the somewhat older traditionalist Wicca from which it got some of its DNA and much of its symbolism is another matter). The formula’s reliable enough that you could just about manufacture another pop-culture phenomenon of the same type to order, and I don’t doubt in the least that there will be more of them in future years.
What’s more, while a lot of trad occultists tend to grumble about the various forms of Occultism Lite, I’m far from sure the grumbling is justified. Serious occult study is not for everyone. It takes roughly as much work to become good at ceremonial magic, say, or astrology, or Tarot reading, as it takes to become good at playing a musical instrument, and the work is of exactly the same sort: there’s theory you need to study and works in the standard repertoire you need to learn, but above all else you have to practice, day in and day out, until you’ve developed the skills that you need to get past the beginner’s level. That’s a lot of time and effort and commitment, and most people have other things to do with their lives.
The various forms of Occultism Lite don’t have that drawback, and so can reach out to people who don’t have the time and energy and passion to take on serious occult study. To extend the musical metaphor a bit, if trad occultism is like learning to play the violin so you can perform Mozart and Vivaldi. Occultism Lite is like learning to strum three chords on an old guitar so you can accompany your friends around the campfire and have a great time. That is to say, there’s a place for both, and for many things in between.
So far, so good, but difficulties tend to creep in from two sources. The first is that far more often than not, the people who get into some system of Occultism Lite manage to convince themselves that they’ve gotten hold of everything that really matters in trad occultism, and insist that everyone ought to discard all that fusty old stuff and take up whatever the Occultism Lite du jour happens to be. Some trad occultists respond to this sort of talk slyly, by picking up the basic symbolism of the Occultism Lite du jour and repackaging trad occultism in those terms. All the occult schools that suddenly started talking about Atlantis once Theosophy made the lost continent fashionable again are good examples of the type.
On the other hand, especially when there are serious differences between trad occultism and the currently popular Occultism Lite, you get occultists who talk about those differences, and get pushback from the pop-culture end of things. A good many trad occultists, being human, respond to this sort of thing by rolling their eyes and taking the occasional pot shot—yes, the phrase “Occultism Lite” could be considered one of those!—and are accordingly accused, not without reason, of being arrogant metaphysical snobs. Sometimes they’re accused of worse than that. Those of my readers who were into fantasy fiction a few decades ago may recall the lively series of novels by Mercedes Lackey about a paranormal investigator named Diana Tregarde; in those stories, far more often than not, the good people were into pop-culture Neopaganism and the villains (and a villainous lot they were!) were a bunch of old-fashioned occultists.
So that’s one source of turbulence you can count on seeing when some form of Occultism Lite seizes a portion of the public imagination. There’s another, though, and it comes out of the same odd conviction we’ve been discussing for the last several months: most of the versions of Occultism Lite that become really popular in America buy into the claim that the world is obliged to give you whatever you think you want and become whatever you tell it to be.
For all the downsides of pop Neopaganism, that’s a bullet that it more or less dodged—it’s hard to embrace the archetype of the persecuted witch, as so many Neopagans did, if you don’t give the world the autonomy from your desires that it needs in order to persecute you. The same bullet, though, went straight through the middle of most other pop-occultism countercultures. Take Christian Science, one of the classic forms that Occultism Lite took in the 19th century; the basic claim of Mary Baker Eddy is that all sickness, suffering, and limitation is pure illusion, and if you have enough faith none of those things can affect you at all. Does that work in practice? Sometimes, sure—but I know a guy who nearly died in his teens because he got appendicitis and his Christian Science mother insisted on trying to pray him back to health. His father intervened just barely in time to save his life. One of his sisters wasn’t so lucky; years later, as an adult, she tried to pray herself free from cancer, and even though her faith was strong enough to keep her from seeking other treatment, it wasn’t strong enough to spare her an agonizing death.
For that matter, I knew a lot of people when I lived in Ashland, Oregon—“the northernmost suburb in Marin County,” a local joke had it, and full of New Age true believers—who piled into Rhonda Byrne’s Occultism Lite classic The Secret and tried to use the Law of Attraction to make fracktons of money in the real estate bubble of 2005-2008. They all lost their shirts, and a fair number of them had to declare bankruptcy and let go of large parts of their preferred lifestyles. It’s a theme that runs straight through the history of Occultism Lite in America: from the Millerites standing on hilltops waiting for Jesus to show up in glory on October 22, 1844, straight through to their spiritual descendants today waiting for their spells to banish Donald Trump, it’s absolutely standard for American subcultures influenced by pop occultism to convince themselves that the world has to do what they tell it, and learn otherwise the hard way.
I’ve long wondered why it is that the United States in particular should pup so many subcultures who fall into this particular trap. All things considered, I suspect it’s rooted in one of the many ironies of our national history. It so happened that most of the people who colonized America after 1492 came from the cramped and rocky little peninsula off the western end of Asia that calls itself Europe. They were used to life on the densely textured European scale, where the same family tolerably often lived and farmed the same ground from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution, and people a week’s walk away spoke the language with a different accent if they spoke the same language at all—and then they got off the boat and raised their eyes and saw, stretching out before them, a continent so vast that you could drop a couple of European countries into it and never be able to find them again.
The temptation to think that you can live your life on the same gargantuan scale is a recurrent hiccup in our national psyche. The title of a book I once read on the history of the mountain West, Men To Match My Mountains, more or less sums up the hubris involved. Thus it’s not accidental that the icons of American pop culture have included Paul Bunyan and Superman, that the fantasy of infinite expansion into outer space sank such deep roots into the American psyche, or that American pop spirituality—very much including those aspects of it influenced by occultism—should so often fall into what amounts to delusions of omnipotence, and end up finding out the hard way that you can tell the world what to do all you want, but the world is under no obligation to listen.
Traditional occultism by and large doesn’t fall into that trap, as the old occult teachings are very clear about the distinction between the microcosm (i.e., you) and the macrocosm (i.e., everything else). If these two mirror each other—“That which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above,” as the Emerald Tablet puts it—the mirroring goes both ways, and includes immensities against which the individual human being stands revealed as very small beer indeed. Students of trad occultism thus learn ways to gauge which way the current of events is headed so they can move with it, rather than wasting their efforts and their lives trying to row against tide and wind. They also cultivate a sense of scale, so they can judge which desired changes are within their reach and which ones aren’t.
That sense of scale and attentiveness to the flow of events are well worth cultivating just now, and not just if you happen to be an occultist. Next week we’ll take the discussion further, and in the process sort out another recurring source of confusion in contemporary life.