I really wonder sometimes how many people nowadays realize just how drastically the great occult revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has been scrubbed from the officially approved histories of our time. It’s hard to discuss the matter without bringing in words like “censorship.” Whole chapters of the cultural history of the Western world have been blanked out, and figures who had a massive presence in the collective life of the time have been erased as completely as former Politburo members from a Stalin-era Soviet photograph.
When scholars and pundits today discuss Victorian novelists, for example, how often does Marie Corelli’s name come up? She was the number one bestselling British writer of her day; she was Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist, and a major cultural presence. Since she was a feminist, a lesbian, and the illegitimate child of Rev. Charles Mackay, the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, who overcame the stigma of her birth to become a wildly popular public figure, you’d think today’s woke academics would be busy lionizing her, right?
Think again. Marie Corelli has been all but deleted from the history of Victorian literature. Her unforgivable sin was that her bestselling novels view the world through the perspective of standard late nineteenth century occultism, and Christian occultism at that. Her occultism offends today’s rationalists, and her tolerant, mystically oriented Christianity offends today’s evangelical Christians just as much as it does today’s Neopagans. Mariecorelli.org.uk is maintained by devoted fans of her work, and Corelli gets some discussion in the better grade of Victorian-themed websites, but other than that and the occasional mention in odd corners of academia, she’s been canceled for her deviations from the modern-culture party line.
(And if the fact that Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist was a lesbian occultist suggests to you, dear reader, that maybe, just maybe, a few teensy little things got left out when the talking heads in schools and the media taught you what you know about the Victorian era, good. You’re beginning to catch on.)
Corelli is far from alone in being plunged into posthumous oblivion. Consider G.R.S. Mead, the most important scholar on ancient Gnosticism in the English language in his time; he’s been purged from the realm of acceptable scholarship because of his connections to the Theosophical Society. Consider Jessie Weston, one of the first women to become a major presence in the field of folklore studies and the author of a book on the Holy Grail that T.S. Eliot used as the basis for his brilliant poem The Waste Land; she’s been made a nonperson in today’s scholarly literature because of her connections to G.R.S. Mead, and also because her interpretation of the Grail legends strayed into territory that materialists and rationalists won’t touch with a ten foot pole. I could go on; there’s quite a profusion of other examples.
Some people were too famous to be erased, however, and it’s one of these that I want to talk about this week. The Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1923, William Butler Yeats was one of the dozen or so greatest poets the English language has produced, and he was also a political figure of some importance, a proponent of Irish independence in the last turbulent decades of English rule over Ireland and a senator in the Irish Free State once the long struggle was won. As a poet, a dramatist, and a promoter and supporter of Irish arts and literature, he played a crucial role in helping the Irish to see themselves as a nation rather than as second-class Englishmen and Englishwomen.
He was also an occultist—not merely a dabbler in occultism, but a serious lifelong practitioner, widely respected as such by other occultists. Like G.R.S. Mead, whom he knew and disliked, he began his occult studies with the Theosophical Sociey as a young man. Unlike Mead, he found Theosophy unsatisfying, even when he advanced to the Inner Section of the Society and studied directly with Madame Blavatsky herself. After a short time he proceeded to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most famous and influential occult order of the time. In the early days of his career, when he was scraping together a meager living in London and had to dye his stockings black with shoe polish to keep from drawing too much attention to the holes in his shoes, he still found the time and resources to pursue the Golden Dawn’s demanding course of study in magic, divination, and occult philosophy.
He was not simply your run of the mill Hermetic occultist, however. One of the things that always set Yeats apart from most of the other members of the Golden Dawn is that he recognized the wider possibilities of magical action in the world. He joined the Golden Dawn in 1890, and by 1891 he was already writing to Maud Gonne, the woman of his (unfulfilled) dreams, about the potential for using magical ritual to rekindle the Irish spirit, invoke the gods of old Irish paganism, and bring about a cultural and political resurgence in Ireland that would make the country’s independence a foregone conclusion. On his urging Gonne joined the Golden Dawn, though she did not remain a member for long.
In 1895 he discovered what he thought would be the perfect setting for the project. In Lough Key, a lake in Ireland, is a small island named Castle Rock; unsurprisingly, it has a castle on it, no longer inhabited in his time but still intact enough to be renovated and put to use. When he first saw it, the thought of that castle on its island as a center for an Irish occult order seized Yeats’s imagination. Further brooding over the idea inspired him to draw together all his occult knowledge and call on his large and enthusiastic network of occultist friends to work on a project for a new occult order, which he called the Castle of Heroes.
The papers of the Castle of Heroes project make unexpected reading for those whose sole exposure to occultism has to do with ceremonial magic. There isn’t a magical ritual, in the ordinary sense of that phrase, in the entire collection—nothing, that is, intended to summon spirits, charge talismans, or make things happen in the world. Instead, the Castle of Heroes papers include a series of rough drafts of initiation ceremonies for members, an extensive sequence of exercises in meditation and the training of the imagination, and a great deal of material for study, dealing with old Irish myth, legend, and symbolism, and with the basics of occult philosophy. That selection of subjects was anything but accidental. It went straight to the core of what his project was about.
Yeats had his own distinctive understanding of occultism, which was powerfully shaped not only by his own experience as a poet and dramatist, but also by his friendship with William Morris—the colossus of the Victorian art world, a man whose creative talents covered so broad a range that it’s easier to list the things he wasn’t good at than the ones he was—and by scores of other creative people: writers, poets, painters, actors, and the list goes on. He understood, perhaps more fully than anyone else before or since, the shifting borderlands where occultism overlaps with the creative arts, and where both of them spill over into the realm of archetypal patterns that shape the collective consciousness of a culture.
That last defined what he meant to do with the Castle of Heroes project. To awaken the Irish people to a different future and transform the oldest and most thoroughly plundered province of the British Empire into a modern nation, he believed, required more than politics or propaganda. To succeed, such a project had to reach down to deep places where the collective consciousness of humanity merges into the secret inner life of the land itself. Do that, he hoped, and the Irish cultural renaissance of which he was a part might become an enduring presence, transforming the collective landscape of European culture and making continued English rule over Ireland not merely unsustainable but absurd.
The traditional mythology and folklore of Ireland provided the symbolic keys he meant to use for his project. He had already explored Irish myth and lore for poetic purposes, and his close friend Lady Gregory was hard at work compiling her famous collections of Irish legend and folktales. He had the raw material. He needed to synthesize it into a coherent symbolic system, and test it out with the help of other experienced occultists. Once that was done, he simply needed to raise funds to buy or lease Castle Rock, renovate the building as needed, and start admitting members to his planned occult order.
The first half of that project went well. His connections in the Golden Dawn and the Celtic literary world made it easy for him to assemble a team of gifted visionaries and occult practitioners, Maude Gonne among them, who could waken the old mythic imagery to life using the standard toolkit of the occult societies of his day. Surviving letters and documents from the project paint the picture of an eager circle of capable mages devoting many hours of time to study and practice, with the dream of an Irish occult order hovering just ahead of them like a mirage.
It probably would have happened, too, except that the Golden Dawn was heading toward a major crisis. Like many another occult society, it was better at teaching philosophy and practice than it was at managing its own internal politics. Worse, the effective head of the order in its last years, Samuel Mathers, and his wife Mina were among the most effective and influential figures in the group helping to create the Castle of Heroes—and Yeats and the Matherses ended up on opposites sides of the conflict in the Golden Dawn when it finally broke out in 1900. By the time the rubble had finally stopped bouncing in 1903, the Golden Dawn had split into three competing fragments, many of its members had left in disgust, and the team Yeats had assembled around the Castle of Heroes project was shattered beyond repair.
Yeats became one of the leading figures in the Stella Matutina, the largest of the three fragments of the original Golden Dawn, and he had his hands full for years with that order, so there was another reason for the Castle of Heroes to go onto the shelf. Another member of the Stella Matutina was Georgie Hyde-Lees, a talented occultist and clairvoyant in her own right, who fell head over heels in love with him. Yeats still had his heart set on winning Maude Gonne, but years passed and it finally sank in that he was wasting his time. In 1917, after proposing to Gonne one last time and being turned down flat, and then proposing to Gonne’s daughter and being turned down more gently but just as firmly, he finally accepted the inevitable and married the woman who loved him.
Georgie Yeats has rarely been given the respect she deserves as an occultist. Like her husband, she had risen through the Golden Dawn system to the rank of Adeptus Exemptus, the highest grade of initiation the order offered. In the process she had mastered the entire body of Golden Dawn occult studies: not a small achievement, and one that embarrassingly few occultists these days have managed, even among those who work in the Golden Dawn tradition. Occultism was inevitably part of the Yeats family’s married life from the beginning. Four days after the wedding, Georgie began work with automatic writing—a practice that involves taking pen in hand, releasing the control of the conscious mind, and letting the hand and pen write whatever comes through. Yeats described his reaction vividly:
“What came in disjointed sentences, in nearly illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or more a day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’”
The resulting texts provided the imagery and metaphors for most of Yeats’s most famous poems, but they also became the raw material for A Vision, the longest and strangest of Yeats’s prose writings and his one published foray in the field of occult nonfiction. A Vision starts by setting out a basic pattern of two interpenetrating gyres, alternately widening into the void or narrowing to unity. The gyres are defined by two paired factors: Will and Mask, which are desire and the object it seeks, and Creative Mind and Body of Fate, which are mind and the world it tries to comprehend. There are twenty-eight positions or, in the language of the book, phases in the cycle set out by the expanding and contracting gyres, and these relate symbolically to the twenty-eight nights of the lunar cycle and the twenty-eight Mansions of the Moon in astrology.
Every completed sequence of events in human life, A Vision argues, goes through the complete cycle of the phases. This is true, it claims, of every creative project; of every individual life; of the sequence of lives through which every soul passes in the process of reincarnation; of the rise and fall of every artistic, cultural, social, or political movement; and of the rise and fall of entire civilizations. Our civilization began the 23rd phase of its history in 1927, entering the last quarter of its existence; exactly where it stands on the wheel of the phases, each student of A Vision must sort out personally, for Yeats does not say. Even so, it’s easy enough to realize from the material in the book what to watch for, and Yeats has already scored some direct hits. “What discords will drive Europe to that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilization?” Nowadays we all know about the discords, and can put a name quite readily to the bundle.
Had the Castle of Heroes project succeeded in founding an Irish occult order, offering initiations to members in the halls of the old castle on Lough Key, it seems likely that the material that went into A Vision would have become the core teachings of its inner circle. Given the way that the material gave him “metaphors for poetry”—some of the greatest poetry in the language, in fact—and the rich and complex interface between occult practice and artistic creation generally, it seems entirely plausible that the project would have done what Yeats hoped it would do, and transform the Irish renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into an enduring phenomenon.
But the project never got that far, of course. From an occult perspective, it’s worth suggesting that the work Yeats and his fellow occultists did on the Castle of Heroes project may well have contributed substantially to the transformation of Ireland’s thought and culture that ended nearly a millennium of English domination over the island and saw the Irish Free State and then the Republic of Ireland established. The act of reaching down into the deep levels of mythic consciousness to give strength to a nation is far more effective than rationalists dream; that was how a network of German and Austrian occultists headed by Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels set out to transform the collective consciousness of the Germanic peoples beginning just after 1900, and how a network of British occultists headed by Dion Fortune set out to strengthen the collective consciousness of Britain in the dark days of 1940, when the metastatic horror launched by the heirs of von List and Lanz von Leibenfels stood poised on the brink of the English Channel.
As this last example suggests, the power that can be summoned from the deep places of the psyche and the land is just as potent for destruction as for the opposite. The Ariosophists who set out to waken the Germanic folk-soul never understood that a working of this kind succeeds when it focuses exclusively on building up what it wants to support, not on tearing down what it thinks it opposes. You can win temporary victories along that latter path, as the example of Nazi Germany shows, but every victory you win simply gives additional strength to your opponents, and eventually they will overwhelm you—as the example of Nazi Germany also shows.
Yeats, and for that matter Dion Fortune, knew better than to go down that path. His work with the myths and powers of ancient Ireland was aimed not at defeating the British Empire but solely on strengthening the Irish folk consciousness until British rule over Ireland disintegrated of its own weight. There is only one reason why Irish occultists today can’t pick up where Yeats left off and try to complete the trajectory he set out, to rouse the mythic forces of the Irish land and create the kind of self-sustaining cultural efflorescence he hoped to spark; there’s only one reason, for that matter, why people in other parts of the world can’t draw on his example for similar projects elsewhere.
The reason is that the Castle of Heroes material has never been published. Practically everything else Yeats ever wrote, down to stray jottings in notebooks, has already seen print, but the only place I know of where his Castle of Heroes writings have appeared since his death is in an obscure doctoral dissertation in the 1970s—I have a copy, which is how I know the details of the work. His draft initiation rituals are vivid, fascinating stuff, and so is much of the other material in these papers. Even for those who don’t happen to be interested in occultism, but simply want to know more about the imagination of one of the western world’s great poets, they’re worth reading.
I have no idea if they’ll ever see print, however. The prejudice against occultism that has erased Marie Corelli, G.R.S. Mead, Jessie Weston, and so many other major figures of their time from the memory and imagination of ours remains fixed in place; a good many Yeats scholars still edge nervously around his lifelong commitment to occult study and practice, and ignore as much of the occult dimension of his work as they possibly can. Maybe that will change someday, but in the meantime, much of our own past remains hidden away behind a conspiracy of silence.
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Not coincidentally, Jessie Weston, G.R.S. Mead, William Morris, and a flurry of other forgotten figures are central to my latest book, The Ceremony of the Grail: Ancient Mysteries, Gnostic Heresies, and the Lost Rituals of Freemasonry, which is hitting the bookstore shelves as I type this. It’s a sequel of sorts to my earlier book The Secret of the Temple, and focuses on Jessie Weston’s theory that the Grail legends are lightly garbled accounts of a Gnostic ceremony of initiation—a theory for which I introduce significant new evidence. The book’s a bit of a wild ride, and admittedly speculative in places, but it covers quite a bit of fascinating ground. If you’re interested, you can order it here in the United States, and from your favorite full-service bookstore or online venue elsewhere.