I gather, from conversations I’ve had with occultists younger than I am, that few people who weren’t there at the time have any clear idea what things were like before the dawn of the occult boom that’s now fading around us. It really was a different world in those days, and not in any of the ways that so many of today’s occultists seem to think.
A large part of what drives the collective amnesia in question is the historical mythology with which Wicca, far and away the most influential of the Neopagan faiths, tried to surround its own origins. Until relatively recently, when straight talk about Wiccan origins finally became acceptable in Neopagan circles, the received wisdom in the community was that Wicca had been around since before recorded history, and various attempts were made to carry out retrospective Wiccanizations on any number of figures in the history of magic, or to come up with reasons why this or that famous mage wasn’t a Wiccan even though everyone else was. I recall one earnest author who claimed that Aleister Crowley refused to be initiated as a Wiccan because he didn’t want to join an organization that was run by women—which is very much in character for the Beast, granted, but didn’t happen to be true.
The actual reason why Aleister Crowley never became a Wiccan, of course, is that Wicca wasn’t invented until after his death. Gerald Gardner, who was one of Crowley’s students, tried to take over from Crowley as titular head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the magical order-slash-sex club that Crowley had more or less hijacked from its founder Theodor Reuss, but found out very quickly that Crowley had left such a bad taste in the mouth of the English occult scene—and yes, you can read that any way you wish—that nobody was interested. As Francis King pointed out trenchantly, a magician without an order is like a politician without a party, and so when Gardner’s attempted revival of the OTO fell flat, Wicca appeared promptly thereafter.
It’s not as though Gardner didn’t have access to all the necessary raw materials, after all. He was a close friend of Margaret Murray, the British archeologist whose books popularized the claim that medieval witchcraft was actually the survival of a Pagan fertility cult. Another of his close friends, Ross Nichols, had introduced him to the Druid Revival, which Nichols was busily redefining along Pagan lines in those years. He also had connections in Woodcraft, a back-to-nature movement launched at the beginning of the twentieth century by Ernest Thompson Seton, which had taken on a decidedly Pagan flavor in its English manifestation.
For that matter, it’s entirely possible, as Gardner later claimed, that he had been initiated some years previously into a Pagan-flavored sex cult of the sort discussed in an earlier post. Gardner, like many Englishmen of his generation, liked to be flogged by unclad women, and that sort of entertainment was very often pursued in sex cults at that time. Thus it’s quite possible that he was initiated by Dorothy Clutterbuck into some such group dating from before Gardner’s return from Sumatra, and in the usual way—fake origin stories were basically de rigueur in the sex-cult scene in those days—claimed descent from some suitably romantic source dating back to at least six weeks before the beginning of time itself. As already noted, there were plenty of groups like that in England before the sexual revolution of the 1960s made the whole point moot.
The problem was that this was not the way that American Wiccans thought about their history, or wanted to think about it, when the great Neopagan boom got under way. Quite the contrary, to the great majority of participants in the glory days of that boom, Wicca was the Old Religion, the original and universal faith of humankind that had been handed down unchanged by an unbroken succession of high priestesses since the Stone Age. Any evidence that Wicca had borrowed something from some other source was turned into the claim that the other source had borrowed it from Wicca. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course they didn’t; in ordinary conversation, assertion is more powerful than argument, and there was never a shortage of assertions, from the nine million witches supposedly put to death by inquisitors in the Middle Ages (scholars agree that the actual figure was around 50,000) through the dubious historical pedigree already mentioned.
There were any number of awkward consequences that unfolded from the gap between Neopagan faith and the crass realities of actual history, but one of them was a near-total failure to take into account the differences between the Neopagan mainstream and all previous occultism. At most, you got to hear a great deal of grumbling about “ceremonial magicians”—that is to say, operative mages in the Golden Dawn and OTO traditions. Those of my readers who want to sample the sort of rhetoric Neopagans liked to direct at ceremonial magic in those days may wish to read the early fantasy novels of Mercedes Lackey, in which the heroes and heroines are basically practicing American pop Neopaganism in fancy-dress costumes borrowed from the Society for Creative Anachronism, while the villains are for all practical purposes modern ceremonial magicians dolled up in Ming the Merciless outfits.
What made this all the more damaging is that the ceremonial magicians—the people who were working with the Golden Dawn, the OTO, and so on—adopted, usually without noticing it, a good many of the attitudes and approaches of the Neopagan mainstream. On those rare occasions that people in the occult scene became aware of older modes of occult study, these latter were rejected with a great deal of heat by pretty much everybody. I can testify to that, as I was no exception to that general rule; after some initial dabblings in the older mode of occultism, I picked up the common attitude from the books I studied, and it took decades of experience and reflection before I realized just what it was that I’d failed to understand at the time.
The core of the older mode of training in magic can be summed up simply: “occult philosophy first, occult practice later.” If you enrolled in one of the old-fashioned occult schools, as I did for a while, your weekly or monthly lesson was mostly philosophy, with a few very basic practices—relaxation, breathing exercises, some rudimentary form of meditation—to keep you occupied, and not incidentally show your tutor whether you could be counted on to follow instructions and actually set aside time for practical work. You did that for at least a year, more usually two or three years, before you started getting more practical work to do, and even then it was doled out a little at a time: this month you learn the Cabalistic Cross ritual, a month later you learn how to trace a pentagram, the other pieces of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram come over the next two months or so, and then you do that for a year while studying more philosophy before the Middle Pillar exercise comes your way.
What was the occult philosophy that occupied so much time and space in these courses? The details depended very much on the school in question, but it normally started out with a very basic summary of the magical view of reality, and went on from there to touch on at least some of the core elements of the Western esoteric tradition—the Cabala, astrology, Tarot, alchemy, maybe sacred geometry or music, maybe the myths of Egypt or Greece or the ancient Celts—in whatever order and degree of intensity the founder of the school thought you needed in order to make sense of the practical work later on. Somewhere in there you were pretty much certain to get a great deal of potted history which was very questionable in terms of factual content but extremely rich in terms of its symbolic meaning, which you were supposed to unpack by daily meditation. Somewhere in there, too, you were just as likely to learn the rudiments of at least one system of alternative healing—the cell salts, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post here, were among the most popular choices, but you might instead, or also, get herbalism, or energy healing of the sort more recently popularized by Reiki.
The practical training, though it took its time coming, generally covered a pretty fair selection of the options as well. The major divide among schools was whether or not you learned operative magic—most schools didn’t teach this, though there were always some that did. Aside from that, you could count on learning and practicing meditation, at least one form of divination, and some kind of healing practice; you might also learn a set of physical exercises to help keep you in decent health. If you persevered, and could get to a place where the school had a local lodge (most had at least a few of these), you could pass through initiation rituals and then learn how to perform them yourself, and there were usually other kinds of group workings a lodge could perform as well. All in all, if you finished the course of study offered by a competent school of occultism, you ended up with a good general grasp of the Western occult tradition and a toolkit of practices that would serve you well for a lifetime.
That’s the system that was rejected, generally with quite some heat, by almost everyone in the occult scene as the magical revival of the Seventies got under way. Nobody objected to the practices—well, not to the fun ones, the magic, the divination, and those alternative healing practices such as herbalism which had a boom at the same time as Neopaganism, though meditation got short shrift, and cell salts and sacred geometry got dropped like a hot rock. What people objected to, more than anything else, was the philosophy. The claim generally circulated at that time was that all this was just padding, meant to stretch out a correspondence course to absurd length and keep those monthly checks coming in. In some cases, mind you, that may have been true, but a lot of what drove that reasoning was a failure to grasp the point of the philosophical studies.
Another force at work, I’m sorry to say, was one of the less helpful legacies of the Theosophical movement. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the colorful occultist who helped found the Theosophical Society in 1875 and took it over thereafter, took the “occult philosophy first, occult practice later” rule to its extreme, and insisted that students of Theosophy should study occult philosophy, but steer clear of occult practice altogether. Theosophy’s massive presence in the occult scene guaranteed that this attitude would become very widespread. To this day, if you take up Theosophical study or any of its galaxy of offshoots, you’re encouraged to meditate, and in most cases you can study astrology or an alternative healing system with the genial permission of your instructors, but if you let them know that you’ve taken up any kind of magical practice—no matter how spiritual its focus—you face instant pushback, and in many cases, potential expulsion.
Mind you, every school has the right to determine who it will and won’t teach, and what behaviors it will or won’t consider acceptable in candidates for advancement. For all I know there are elements in the higher levels of Theosophical training, communicated in secret by the Esoteric Sections of the various offshoots of the original Society, that react disastrously when combined with operative magic; such things definitely happen. The difficulty here is simply that a great many people took the Theosophical rule and applied it wholesale to every kind of esoteric spirituality, whether it made sense there or not. Thus you could readily find occultists who insisted loudly that the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, say, was a tremendously dangerous ritual that couldn’t be done safely by anybody who hadn’t yet become an ascended master—I received portentous warnings along these lines more than once, long after I’d learned the ritual in question, begun practicing it regularly, and had learned from personal experience that it’s a good safe practice for beginners.
That sort of thing doesn’t exactly build confidence in the portentous warnings in question, and the effect is considerably worsened when the people offering the portentous warnings go on to tell you that instead of doing such basic practical work, you should read the collected works of Alice Bailey and wait patiently for the ascended masters to contact you, which they would doubtless do at some point in the next three lifetimes. Yes, that’s advice I got more than once—it wasn’t always Bailey’s books, to be sure; I also got pointed toward the collected works of Rudolf Steiner, who is at the very least a more interesting writer, and once to the collected writings of Maurice Doreal, whose real name was Claude Doggins and who ran a occult school out of a small town in Colorado. (These days I wish I’d followed up with Doreal/Doggins; he was among other things a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, with a world-class collection of the same gaudy paperbacks I adored, and it’s at least possible that a lively correspondence might have ensued once that common interest surfaced. Still, the ascended masters apparently had other plans for me.)
So the idea of studying occult philosophy as a useful, or even necessary, preparation for occult practice got dropped by the great majority of American occultists. It never found its way into the main currents of Neopaganism in the first place, and got shoved aside in those older traditions that once had that approach hardwired into their structure. I mentioned earlier that the revival of the Golden Dawn tradition here in the United States got drawn into Neopagan habits, and this is one of the places this happened most obviously. In the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, you joined the Outer Order and spent about two years there, passed through a series of gloriously gaudy initiation rituals, studied occult philosophy, and got given a few basic practices—the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, a simple form of meditation, and the divinatory art of geomancy—to keep you occupied.
At the end of that time, if you’d shown sufficient commitment and interest, you got into the Inner Order, and found yourself handed an extraordinarily complex and effective system of operative magic among many other things. If that didn’t happen, or if you didn’t choose to pursue the path of operative magic, you could stay a member. There was plenty for you to do, from taking part in the Outer Order initiation rituals through studying various kinds of occult teachings to practicing astrology, alchemy, or some other practice distinct from magic, and no small number of people made the Outer Order their spiritual home and never saw a need to go on to operative magic.
Nearly all of the Golden Dawn lodges in America during and after the 1970s revival, though, saw things differently. The Outer Order training was redefined, and packed with magical practices of various kinds; the reprinted books of traditional occult philosophy the Golden Dawn used as recommended reading to supplement its knowledge lectures, the Collectanea Hermetica series, vanished entirely from the collective imagination of the Golden Dawn scene; and a great many temples adopted an “up or out” rule, whereby if you didn’t keep progressing through the grades at whatever pace the temple chiefs thought was appropriate, you were tossed out on your ear.
Outside of the Golden Dawn tradition, things went even further in the same direction. A very large majority of the magical orders founded during and after the Seventies revival made operative magic the be-all and end-all of their training programs, and limited the study of occult philosophy to the minimum that would allow students to do magic—very often no more than a book or two on the necessary symbolism. The rejection of occult philosophy became a point of pride in many cases and, as usually happened, people who wanted to be antinomian and edgy did it by rebelling against something everyone else had rejected too, and vied with each other in displaying their hostility toward a collection of things that nobody actually approved of any more.
The difficulty with this was at least threefold. First, it meant that a great many people who took up magical training in the United States after 1975 or so have a stunningly narrow idea about what occultism is, what it does, and what it includes. The sort of broad general education you got in the old occult schools, whatever its vices may have been, unquestionably gave students a background that helped them make sense of the raw diversity of occultism, and very often pointed them toward classic texts and gave them the context needed to read them intelligently. Many competent mages these days lack that context, with results that range from the unfortunate to the simply embarrassing.
Second, studying occult philosophy isn’t simply a matter of packing your head with disconnected facts about Atlantis and the like. Dion Fortune let the cat out of the bag in her own deceptively slender book of occult philosophy, The Cosmic Doctrine, when she noted that “this book is designed to train the mind, not to inform it.” That’s true, actually, of any kind of education worth the name; learning to think through unfamiliar thoughts trains the mind to move in ways it would not normally move, and can significantly expand the ability to do certain things with consciousness. The student of an old-fashioned occult school, as he or she studies the weekly or monthly lectures and meditates on the contents, is getting a subtle but powerful training in how to think like a mage, which is a crucial step on the road to becoming a mage. Lacking that training, the way to the same goal is a good deal rougher, and not so easy to complete with any certainty of success.
The third difficulty, though, is to my mind the most critical. Not everyone who is interested in occultism is cut out to be an operative mage, nor should they be. The occult traditions of the Western world, like their equivalents in other cultures, include a wild diversity of practices, disciplines, and fields of study, most of which have nothing to do with operative magic, and a system of training that makes magic the one and only road that’s available leaves no room for the many gifted people who might otherwise bring their talents to the community in other ways. If your interest and talents lead you to focus on astrology, for example, and you have no interest in ritual magic and no gift for it, there’s no point in requiring you to practice it. On the other hand, a good general background in occult philosophy, and some exposure to meditation and other basic occult practices will give you a useful toolkit and a broad understanding of the overall occult field, and membership in a school that provides these things also gives you a community and a network of friends and associates with which you share a common language of symbolism and ideas.