Mitch Horowitz, Author of the Month for August 2009
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
By Mitch Horowitz
We are pleased to welcome Mitch Horowitz as the August 2009 Author of the Month. Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of the Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam, September 2009), called "a fascinating book" by Ken Burns and "extraordinary" by Deepak Chopra. Horowitz has discussed occult and paranormal ideas on The History Channel, The Montel Williams Show, Air America Radio, Coast to Coast AM, and other popular media. You can visit him online at: www.MitchHorowitz.com. Occult America is available September 8 and can be ordered now online or from your local bookseller. Horowitz is appearing at the Esoteric Quest for Inner America Conference, August 24-28, near Woodstock, New York. For information, please visit: www.esotericquest.org/america/index.html
U.S. Senator James Shields loved a good fight. A former general, he was known to challenge rivals - including future president Abraham Lincoln - to duels. But at the start of a Washington spring day in 1854, Shields startled his Senate colleagues with a gesture that seemed bold, even for him.
On April 17, the Illinois Democrat rose on the Senate floor to speak on behalf of one of the strangest petitions in American history. Signed by a reported 15,000 citizens, the document was, he acknowledged, of a "very singular and novel subject." At this moment his colleagues began to lean forward in their chairs; the hum of conversation on the Senate floor fell silent.
"The petitioners represent," Shields announced, "that certain physical and mental phenomena of a mysterious import have become so prevalent in this country and Europe as to engross a large share of public attention." Citing the neglected work of medieval alchemist Roger Bacon, occult philosopher Cornelius Agrippa, and Hermetic mathematician John Dee, Shields begged his colleagues to take seriously the request of his petitioners to fund a "scientific commission" to study the possibility of talking to the dead - perhaps, Shields offered, even "establishing a spiritual telegraph between the material and spiritual world."
In an era of séances and table-rapping, one senator guffawed that "it would be better to allow the petition to lie on the table." "This is an important subject and should not be sneered away," Shields protested as laughter began to ring from the chamber. Another colleague suggested that the petition be dispatched to the Committee on Foreign Relations. More laughter erupted. Shields, red-faced, agreed to let the proposal drop.
But it was not the last time that Spiritualism had its day in the halls of Congress. In early 1871, the chamber invited the first woman to address a joint congressional committee. That winter day, it was a free-love advocate - and avowed trance medium - named Victoria Woodhull who took the floor (as pictured at left). Poised and handsome, Woodhull delivered a rousing brief in defense of women's suffrage, which she later said had been dictated to her in a dream by a ghostly, tunic-wearing Greek elder-a spirit guardian who had guided all of her public utterances ever since she was a young girl. By the time of Woodhall's appearance, Spiritualism could not be hooted down, even in the Senate. Its acolytes included Mary Todd Lincoln and a range of industrialists, congressmen, and figures from everyday life. The year following Woodhull's speech, suffragists nominated her as the first female candidate for president.
More than a century later, however, the word "occult" seems like a stranger in American life. Today it is tempting to dismiss occultism as no more than the crazy auntie tucked away in the attic of America's history. But that kind of dismissal would be a misreading of occultism's role in America, and of America's role in recent religious history. Indeed, the arcane philosophies grouped under the name of occultism represent an unheralded thought movement in America's national life, one that not only placed horoscopes into nearly every daily newspaper, but that transformed a young nation into the launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that traveled the globe in the twentieth century.
The Occult Renaissance
Today, the concept of a personal spiritual search, one of self-discovery and experimentation, seems like a birthright. But long before such a notion was generally conceived of, and centuries before America and other nations sought to protect a person's inner search as a right, occult tradition was locked in a struggle to survive.
Early Christendom had characterized pantheists and nature-worshipers, astrologers and cosmologists, cultists and soothsayers, in ways that such believers had never conceived of themselves - as practitioners of black magic and Satan worship. This added a new category of villainy, entirely of the Church's invention, to the Western mindset. Once so characterized, the religious minority could be outlawed and persecuted, just as pagan powers had once done to early Christians.
The Renaissance brought on a surprising reversal. The term "occult" - from the Latin occultus, meaning secret - took on new use through the work of Renaissance-era magus Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. He used it in 1533 to define his massive study of pre-Christian rites and esoteric lore, De occulta philosophia. Agrippa's overview of occultism - encompassing astrology, alchemy, spirit conjuring, and prophetic or divinatory rituals - reflected the culmination of a series thought currents, some growing directly from church history: Returning Crusaders brought home myths and tales of exotic lands; church reforms began permitting the study of pantheistic Greek and Latin literature; renewed fluency in Hellenic languages led to an unexpected discovery of Egypt's mysterious philosophies; scholars came to realize that monasteries had preserved some of the ancient Hellenic literature during years of Dark Ages' plague and chaos. Feeding one into the other, such developments elevated interest in the allegories, symbols, and magico-scientific ideas of the ancient world.
The proliferation of esoteric philosophies extended into the Elizabethan era and beyond in the work of figures like Giordano Bruno, John Dee, Francis Bacon, and even William Shakespeare, whose Romanesque depictions of gods and myth drew directly on occult Renaissance traditions. But the Elizabethan age also witnessed a backlash, as church partisans began reasserting authority over intellectual life.
In a development that held future significance for America, occult philosophy briefly revived with the advent of a secretive thought movement called Rosicrucianism in the early seventeenth century. Europe marveled at the rumor of an "invisible college" of adepts - master practitioners of hidden wisdom - whose manifestos extolled mysticism and higher learning, while prophesying the dawn of a new age of education and enlightenment. Rosicrucian writings gave powerful expression to ecumenism - a nearly unthinkable ideal at the time and one that likely influenced the religious pluralism of Freemasonry as it later existed in America.
Renewed persecution, however, lay immediately ahead: Church loyalists assailed Rosicrucian ideas. The papal Hapsburg Empire crushed a brief flowering of occult culture in Bohemia when political events tripped the Thirty Years' War. In later generations, the Age of Enlightenment - contrary to the intent of some of its leading intellects - dealt a near-deathblow to occult philosophy. In echoes of the Inquisition, authorities forced astrologers and alchemists, mystics and seers, out of respectable colleges and courts and onto the margins of society, if not underground, to avoid ridicule or persecution.
In the eighteenth century, members of European royalty maintained discrete ties to occult societies and impresarios. But most educated people saw pentagrams, zodiac signs, and mythical images as little more than decorations or guild insignias. And our story of the occult might simply end there - were it not for a young nation across the sea, on whose shores it was just beginning.