I gave a talk at the weekend called Esoterica 101. It’s a whistlestop tour though esoterica with a few fun biographies attached. Enjoy…
Esoterica: Things that are esoteric
Esoteric: Mystical concepts understood by only a small number of people with a specialised knowledge or interest, or an enlightened inner circle. Often hidden.
Occult: knowledge of the hidden. A deeper spiritual reality beyond reason & science.
Occult Practices include:
Magic: the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures, and language with the aim of utilising supernatural forces.
Alchemy: transmutation of base metals into noble metals, creation of an elixir of immortality,
the creation of panaceas to cure all disease.
Astrology: the study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects as a means for divining information about human affairs and terrestrial events
Extrasensory perception: also called sixth sense or second sight; psychic abilities such as intuition, telepathy, psychometry, clairaudience, and clairvoyance, and their trans-temporal operation as precognition or retrocognition.
Spiritualism: he belief that the spirits of the dead have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living.
Religion: any cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, ethics, or organisations, that relate humanity to the supernatural or transcendental
Divination: the reading of signs, events, or omens, or contact with a supernatural agency in order to gain insight into a question or situation.
Lets talk about magic in a little more detail:
Sympathetic Magic: a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. An object can affect another similar object if connected in some way; “like affects like” as it were.
Imitation uses effigies, or poppets to affect people or their direct environment.
An example of imitation would be a poppet where whatever happens to the effigy happens to the target. A lock of hair from the victim would create a link between the person & the doll.
Correspondence is the idea that one thing can influence another based upon it’s relationship or resemblance to it. A lot of folk medicine is based upon this.
For example a cunning folk cure for hernia or cleft in a child is to find an Ash tree near to the home of the child cut a cleft in the tree & every day before dawn for seven days carry the child out to the tree & as the sun rises pass the child through the cleft from west to east pass the child through the cleft 7 times. On the 7th day tie the cleft Ash tree together & as the tree heals so will the child.
Natural Magic: the medieval concept that there is an elemental force pervading all natural processes. Natural Magic was proto-scientific, Astrology & Alchemy come under the definition of Natural Magic.
It’s magic as technology, magic as science. Which is what these fields became: Astrology into Astronomy & Alchemy into Chemistry
Ceremonial Magic: also known as Ritual Magic. It covers a wide variety of long, complex & elaborate rituals to effect a supernatural outcome. The magic of Aleister Crowley & the Hermetic Order Of The Holy Dawn certainly fall into this category, as does the Enochian Magic of Doctor Dee & Cabala too.
It pretty much goes without saying that since the founding of an organised Christian church, magic has been thought to be antithetical to Christianity, drawing it’s power from evil places, but Christianity’s relationship with magic is complicated.
Some magical practitioners were devout Christians. Doctor Dee, the adviser to Queen Elizabeth the First was certainly devout. His magical practice was based largely upon communication with Angels.
William Lilly, the Astrologer who advised the Roundhead Parliamentarians during the War Of The Three Kingdoms (popularly known as the English Civil War) was a devout puritan who believed Astrology to be a science.
Aleister Crowley, however, was not a Christian
Chaos Magic: is a 20th century magical discipline the central concept of which is that belief is a magical force in itself. Chaos magicians attest that the beliefs we have are flexible & by consciously changing our beliefs instead of thinking of them as absolute parts of our personalities. Other Chaos magicians don’t believe that to be true. But they would wouldn’t they.
As you might see by now, esoterica is can complicated & obscure & have odd, confusing & often complicated concepts associated with them.
I’m going to talk about a few interesting figures from esoteric history now.
Doctor Dee: 16th century scientist, alchemist, astrologer, mathematician & practitioner of natural magic. Queen Elizabeth 1st’s scientific adviser he also used astrological charts to choose the most auspicious date for her coronation.
Dee was a pioneer of the concept of Natural Magic. Dee believed that God’s creation of the universe let loose a divine force which causes planets to turn, the Sun to rise, the Moon to wax & wane. Magic would be the human ability to tap into this force. Dee’s Magic is technology; the more we understand how it drives the universe the more powerful it gets.
Dee was also a Cabalist. Hebrew Cabala emerged from Palestine in the 1st century AD. Cabala was a combination of language, mathematics & mysticism based around the Hebrew language . For Cabalists, Hebrew was more than just a language, they believed the language itself had the secrets of the universe encoded within it.
St John’s gospel starts “In the beginning was the Word”. Dee believed that this word would have been in Hebrew. Thus an analysis of Hebrew was a way of finding the underlying structure of God’s creation. The laws of nature were were it’s grammar, matter it’s nouns.
The Cabala was preoccupied with Angels. One of the functions of Gematria was to calculate how many there were (301,655,172 apparently). The Cabala provided a means for working out the names & relationships of Angels.
Cabala had a magical side: since language was tied to the formation of the universe, words had the potential to change it. Cabalism provided a magical technology for making incantations to summon spirits & influence events which would act as prayers which would always work.
Dee had an interest in another practical use of Cabala which is the creation of secret codes & ciphers.
Since Dee was most likely a spy among other things the codes & ciphers would have interested his next door neighbour in Mortlake, the Elizabethan spymaster, Walsingham, greatly.
Dee was obsessed with optics & believed that with the correct lenses & if you were sensitive to such things you could communicate with angels.
Dee together with his scryer, a cunning man by the name of Edward Kelly, performed many rituals, known as actions to communicate with the angels. Kelly stared into a crystal & dictated what he saw & Dee transcribed it. Kelly spoke with angels in their own language & Dee translated it.
Dee is considered to be a pioneer of Enochian magic. According to those who believe in such things Angels converse in the language of Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. It’s really complicated.
Dee & Kelly parted company after Kelly told Dee that a spirit had told them that they should swap wives for the night & they did.
This is just the tip of the iceberg with Dee who lived a pretty crazy life.
Aleister Crowley was born in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 12 October 1875. His mother had a strained relationship with her son; she described him as “The Beast”, a name that he revelled in. 666 was his favourite number. His parents were Plymouth Brethren; ultra conservative christians.
At the age of 11 he inherited a fortune from the family brewing business when his father died.
As a teenager, Aleister became increasingly sceptical regarding Christianity, pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible to his religious teachers, and went against the Christian morality of his upbringing by smoking, masturbating, and having sex with prostitutes. It is fair to say that Crowley lived a highly promiscuous life.
At Cambridge University he became an enthusiastic mountaineer & climbed all the Alps required to become a member of the alpine society.
It is quite likely that he was recruited by British intelligence to spy for them, as he appears to have acted on behalf of the crown on several occasions. He started publishing erotic poetry, something he would do for the rest of his life. One notable collection of poetry was published under the title “White Stains”. He also started to become interested in the esoteric.
He was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a masonic lodge with a specialism in occult ceremony, in 1898.
He learned about ceremonial magic & the use of drugs in ritual first hand. Aleister was fascinated by Doctor Dee & incorporated Enochian Magic into his practice. He went a little overboard by trying to summon demons too.
After a fight in the street outside the Golden Dawn temple involving Crowley in full highland dress, the Irish Poet W.B. Yeats & a professional wrestler. Crowley parted company with the order.
Crowley than went on a worldwide mountaineering trip which may have been a cover for spying. He went to Mexico & the far east. He was the first westerner to organise an ascent of K2 which he had to abandon due to having recently contracted syphilis.
In 1903 he married a Camberwell vicar’s daughter, Rose Edith Kelly & while honeymooning in Cairo they received a visitation from a spirit messenger of the god Horus. Crowley spent 3 days writing a book called “The Book Of The Law” & thus sowed the seeds of the occult religion of Thelema.
The famous cornerstone tenet of the religion is; “Do what thy will for that is the law”
On 28 July 1905, Rose gave birth to Crowley’s first child, a daughter named Lilith, with Crowley authoring the pornographic book, Snowdrops From a Curate’s Garden, to entertain his recuperating wife. It’s filthy.
Shortly after this Crowley went on a mountaineering trip to the Himalayas which it has been speculated was on behalf of British Intelligence to assess the state of the opium trade.
Crowley assessed opium very thoroughly.
He regularly engaged in magical rituals to communicate with Angels & Egyptian Gods & also became interested in & pioneered a new kind of ritual magic to the esoteric world. Sex Magic.
Sex Magic rituals were very much Crowley’s thing & he would perform them with whoever was up for it.
In 1909 Crowley sued for divorce of Rose giving the reason as his own adultery.
The Australian violinist Leila Waddell soon became Crowley’s lover, his “Scarlet Woman”, his muse. Deciding to expand his teachings to a wider audience, Crowley developed the Rites of Artemis, a public performance of magic and symbolism.
Over his life Crowley would have a succession of scarlet women & somewhat dreamy male secretaries.
In the 1st World War Crowley acted on behalf of British Intelligence by entering into the employ of a German propagandist in New York & discrediting the German cause to such an extent that America entered the war on the side of Britain.
In 1920 he started a Thelemic religious community in an old abbey in Sicily. He was deported from Italy by Mussolini after a man died in mysterious circumstances & the British tabloid, John Bull, labelled him “The Most Evil Man In The World”
By this time Crowley was a hopeless heroin & cocaine addict & had to have operations to repair his somewhat destroyed nose. He continued to perform notorious magical rituals involving large amounts of drugs & sex. To an outsider it is almost as if the point was to take large amounts of drugs & to have a lot of sex.
By the 1930s Crowley was a somewhat dissipated figure spending time in Germany, quite likely gathering information for British Intelligence in between numerous acts of filthiness.
He died in 1947 aged 72.
Madame Blavatsky: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a 19th Century Russian occultist, spirit medium, and author who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. She gained an international following as the leading theoretician of Theosophy, the esoteric religion that the society promoted.
Blavatsky was a controversial figure during her lifetime, championed by supporters as an enlightened guru and derided as a fraudulent charlatan and plagiarist by critics. Her Theosophical doctrines influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West as well as the development of the New Age Movement.
According to her believers she was a powerful psychic & occultist whose nascent powers were brought into fruition after waking from a several month long coma caused by a fall from a horse.
She claims to have spent time in Tibet where she was taught an ancient, unknown language known as Senzar, and translated a number of ancient texts written in this language that were preserved by the monks of a monastery; she stated that she was, however, not permitted entry into the monastery itself.
She also claimed that while in Tibet, she was able to further develop and control her psychic powers. Among the abilities that she ascribed to these “Masters” were clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, the ability to control another’s consciousness, to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and to project their astral bodies, thus giving the appearance of being in two places at once.
After a variety of spectacular & not necessarily provable adventures including shipwrecks & fighting on the side of Garibaldi in revolutionary battles she co founded Theosophy, which she attested was a revival of an “ancient wisdom religion” which had once been found across the world, and which was known to various ancient figures, such as the Greek philosopher Plato and the ancient Hindu sages.
The Theosophical society aims were
1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.
3. To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Blavatsky was a pantheist, and emphasised the idea of an impersonal divinity, referring to the Theosophical God as a “universal Divine Principle, the root of All, from which all proceeds, and within which all shall be absorbed at the end of the great cycle of being”
By the time of her death in 1891 she was the acknowledged head of a community numbering nearly 100,000, with journalistic organs in London, Paris, New York and Madras. Her writings have been translated and published in a wide range of European and Asian languages.
L Ron Hubbard: Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was a 20th century phenomenon who transformed from science fiction author to head of a worldwide religion which is structured very much in the way an esoteric organisation would be with levels of initiation from novice to master.
He was born in 1911 & died in 1986
Many aspects of Hubbard’s life story are disputed.
Scientology history celebrates him as child prodigy who could ride horses before he could walk & who was a blood brother of the Native American Blackfoot tribe by the age of 6.
There is no record to corroborate this.
According to Scientology he studied nuclear physics at university.
He attended one class on atomic & molecular phenomena.
You can continue with this biographical guessing game throughout his life, but in fact his actual life was really interesting & he was undoubtably an exceptional person.
He was a highly prolific pulp fiction author able to write at an astonishing rate: at his peak he was writing around 100,000 words a month. He is best known for his science fiction & was a contemporary of Isaac Asimov & Robert A. Heinlein.
In August 1945 Hubbard moved into the Pasadena mansion of John “Jack” Whiteside Parsons. A leading rocket propulsion researcher at the California Institute of Technology and a founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Parsons led a double life as an avid occultist and Thelemite, follower of the English ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley and leader of a lodge of Crowley’s magical order.
Hubbard befriended Parsons then seduced his girlfriend. Despite this Parsons was very impressed with Hubbard and wrote in a letter to Crowley:
[Hubbard] is a gentleman; he has red hair, green eyes, is honest and intelligent, and we have become great friends. He moved in with me about two months ago, and although Betty and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual affection to Ron. Although he has no formal training in Magick, he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field. From some of his experiences I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel. He describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times. He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles.
The two men collaborated on the “Babalon Working”, a sex magic ritual intended to summon an incarnation of Babalon, the supreme Thelemite Goddess. It was undertaken over several nights in February and March 1946 in order to summon an “elemental” who would participate in further sex magic.
Parsons used his “magical wand” to whip up a vortex of energy so the elemental would be summoned whilst Hubbard (referred to as “The Scribe” in the diary of the event) scanned the astral plane for signs and visions.
The “elemental” arrived a few days later in the form of a lady called Marjorie Cameron, who agreed to participate in Parsons’ rites.
Soon afterwards, Parsons, Hubbard and Sara agreed to set up a business partnership, “Allied Enterprises”, in which they invested nearly their entire savings—the vast majority contributed by Parsons.
The plan was for Hubbard and Sara to buy yachts in Miami and sail them to the West Coast to sell for a profit. Hubbard had a different idea; he wrote to the U.S. Navy requesting permission to leave the country “to visit Central & South America & China” for the purposes of “collecting writing material”—in other words, undertaking a world cruise.
Aleister Crowley strongly criticized Parsons’s actions, writing: “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick—Jack Parsons weak fool—obvious victim prowling swindlers.”
Parsons attempted to recover his money by obtaining an injunction to prevent Hubbard and Sara leaving the country or disposing of the remnants of his assets.They attempted to sail anyway but were forced back to port by a storm. A week later, Allied Enterprises was dissolved. Parsons received only a $2,900 promissory note from Hubbard and returned home “shattered”. He had to sell his mansion to developers soon afterwards to recoup his losses.
For some reason this episode is not recorded in the annals of Scientology.
In 1950 Hubbard founded Dianetics, from which Scientology came.
Hubbard described Dianetics as “the hidden source of all psychosomatic ills and human aberration”
Hubbard abandoned freelance writing in order to promote Dianetics, writing several books about it in the next decade, delivering an estimated 4,000 lectures while founding Dianetics research organizations.
Hubbard defined it as “a spiritual healing technology” and “an organized science of thought.”
Hubbard expanded upon the basics of Dianetics to construct a spiritually oriented doctrine based on the concept that the true self of a person was a thetan—an immortal, omniscient and potentially omnipotent entity.
& Scientology was born.
Hubbard taught that the thetans, having created the material universe, had forgotten their god-like powers and become trapped in physical bodies.
Scientology aimed to “rehabilitate” each person’s thetan to restore its original capacities and become once again an “Operating Thetan”.
Hubbard insisted humanity was imperiled by the forces of “aberration”, which were the result of engrams (memories) carried by the immortal thetans for billions of years.
Like all esoteric religions Scientology is complicated. It is also expensive as each ascension to a new level costs money.
This concludes Esoterica 101. I hope you liked it.