Mogg Morgan (rough uncorrected proof)
‘Write and find ecstasy in writing’
The repeal of the witchcraft act and the explosion of occult publishing
1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was finally repealed, was certainly pivotal in the development of occult publishing. Paper rationing had ended two years previously and this set the stage for a growth of book publishing and enabled newer players to enter the industry. But it was older more established small independent publishing houses that became the real pioneers.
In 1951 G B Gardner, under the pen name ‘Scire’, published an historical novel, written in 1949 and entitled ‘High Magic’s Aid’. Still labouring in what he called ‘the guise of fiction’; Gardner was nevertheless later to claim that his novel was, as far as he knew, the ‘first book written by an initiated witch describing . . . something of what a witch believes.’ (quoted from ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’ - G B Gardner’s 1959 book for Aquarian Press.
It took a couple more years until in 1954 for Gardner felt secure enough able to drop the disguise and come out as a witch - well almost. He wrote of his book ‘Witchcraft Today’ that it was: ‘the first book [as opposed to novel] ever written describing what witches are and what they do, by someone who had actually taken part in their ceremonies, worshipped their Gods with them and made magic with them.’ (‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’, p275.)
Gardner undoubtedly was right about the dangers and obstacles to this kind of ‘confessional’ writing. He makes a point of mentioning in the same chronology ‘The August number of Fate magazine (American edition) [which] carried a story of how, on July 3rd 1955 in Ojinaga, Mexico, eighty-five miles from Alpine Texas, a woman named Josephina Arista was publicly burned at the stake as a witch, without trial, upon the orders of a local priest, carried out by the alcalde and the city police.’ (Witchcraft Today, p.275)
Gardner’s contention that the 1954 publication ‘Witchcraft Today’ was a groundbreaker is almost certainly true. Nothing like it, certainly in the pagan/witchcraft genre had previously appeared. Authors of previous works, for example the widely quoted Christina Hole, (see ‘Witchcraft in England’ 1945) were essentially works of scholarly folklore. Christina Hole certainly had no broom in her closet. But her works were widely read by contemporary practitioners and were often cited, as for example the bibliography of Doreen Valienti’s first book ‘Where Witchcraft Lives’ (Published by Aquarian in 1962). Christina Hole’s was first and foremost a historian and folklorist and therefore immune from any possible strictures under the Witchcraft Act.
Up until 1951 it was pretty much obligatory that author’s adopt a fairly hostile attitude to the subject of witchcraft: For example Christina Hole’s 1945 book, ‘Witchcraft in England’ ends with the following valedictory:
‘When that faith sank, the witch and his craft dwindled to a mere survival from the past; and today, though witchcraft lives on it is no longer a terror even to those who believe in it, [she obviously didn’t know Maxim Sanders!], and has ceased to throw a dark shadow over any of our lives.’(Hole, 1945:160).
A few years later and in another of her books published after the repeal of the act Hole’s tone is still fairly hostile
‘Reports appear occasionally in the newspapers of the unpleasant activities of secret societies practising the more evil forms of ritual magick.’
The author goes on to give the full transcript of some of these reports;
One of these concerns a supposed ritual murder in 1945 at Lower Quinton, a stone’s throw from the Rollright Stones. This story continually resurfaced in 1954, after the repeal of the act and was given the big treatment by the Daily Mirror on the ninth anniversary of the still unsolved slaying - February 13th 1954.
VIII. MURDER AT LOWER QUINTON, 1945
Daily Mirror, February 13th, 1954
Ask in these parts whether seventy-four-year-old Charles Walton, murdered in a hedgerow here nine years ago on Sunday, was the victim of witchcraft, and even the detectives no longer smile.
For I can reveal that new clues and strange coincidences in this unsolved crime have recently come to light. And the idea that Walton was a twentieth-century sacrifice to black magic is no longer a joke in this Warwickshire hamlet.
At the time it seemed quite a commonplace murder. Walton, a hedger, was found with his throat slashed, beneath the hedge he had been trimming.
'Just find the motive and you find the killer,' thought the police.
But whispers of black magic trickled round the cottages of Lower Quinton almost as soon as Superintendent Alex Spooner, chief of Warwickshire C.I.D., and Superintendent Bob Fabian of The Yard started their enquiries.
The gossip about 'witchcraft' and 'a ritual killing' tickled the detectives. They smiled politely. That was nine years ago on Sunday-St Valentine's Day.
The killer of Charles Walton is still untraced. And today the detectives won't mock the word 'witchcraft'.
Although Superintendent Fabian, who spent three months in the village, has retired, his colleague, Superintendent Spooner, has never admitted defeat on the case. Not once has he stopped inquiring. But what facts are there to go on?
First, picture Charles Walton on St Valentine's Day, 1945. The sun was unusually kind for February. It dappled the lanes and fields. Old Charles had a contract to cut the hedges of a local farmer and this was the sort of day his rheumatism would let him work. With his two-pronged hayfork and a razor-sharp hedge-slasher he hobbled from his thatched cottage. He had left his purse containing the little money he possessed at home-Charles Walton didn't believe in carrying money with him. Everyone knew that.
At six o'clock, when he was overdue for his tea, his niece raised the alarm. He was found soon afterwards, dead since about noon.
Those are the facts. Now here are some of the coincidences that have come to light.
The Date. According to the old-time calendar, which is thirteen days behind the present one, the killing took place on February I -the eve of a traditional sacrificial day. On that day a human being was killed in the belief that his life blood dripping into the ground would replace the fertility taken from the soil by the previous season's crops. (1)
The Method. The killer first threw the frail old man to the ground and then, before slashing him, pinioned him by the neck with the two prongs of his hayfork. Then the fork haft was forced over and wedged at an angle-almost as 'though to make certain that his blood would flow to the ground.
The Previous Murder. In 1875 at Long Compton, only a day's tramp across the Cotswold foothills, eighty-year-old Ann Ten-nant was the victim of one of the last known witch killings. She was killed with a two-pronged hayfork.
The police have found one other link between the killings, but I am pledged not to reveal it.
The Dog. Studying books on local superstitions and folklore, detectives have found reference to the 'visions' of a local boy of about fifteen who claimed that he saw headless dogs. That was about sixty years before the murder. The boy's name was Charles Walton. Since old Charles died there has been one other 'murder' on the slopes of historic Meon Hill, where he was found. The victim was a dog. The animal had been strangled by its collar as it struggled to free itself after being hung on a branch of a tree near the murder spot.
The Motive. Though Walton was a bit 'short-tempered', no one held a grudge against him. His only possession unaccounted for was a silver pocket-watch, but there is no proof that he carried it with him that day.
Like Superintendent Spooner-the man who says, 'I will solve this murder yet', but who is left with only one likely motive-I too have made many trips to the hamlet. But at my first mention of the word 'witchcraft', doors have been slammed in my face.
The killer has yet to be found. And that day may be nearer than he-or she-thinks.
This newspaper quoted verbatim in Christina Hole’s book with the added footnote from Dr Margaret Murray saying that the Sabbats of the witch-cult were held on Candlemas Day, May-day Eve, Lammas Day, and All Hallow's Eve. (The God of the Witches, 1933.
Although Murray contributed a preface to Gardner’s 1954 book, they later fell out because of the way she continued to give credibility to stories of the kind quoted above. Stories such as these recorded above provoked Gardner and ‘the witches of England’ to publish to try to set the record straight. Thus Gardner writes:
‘I have been told by witches in England: “Write and tell people we are not perverts. We are decent people, we only want to be left alone, but there are certain secrets that you mustn’t give away.’ So after some argument as to exactly what I must not reveal, I am permitted to tell much that has never before been made public concerning their beliefs, their rituals and their reasons for what they do; also to emphasise that neither their present beliefs, rituals nor practices are harmful.’ (Gardner 1954: 13).
We can see in this that Gardner is still being a bit coy about his connection with witchcraft. He poses as an anthropologist and proprietor of a museum, also founded in 1951. This was the normal way of all occult publishing before this time. For example Francis Barrett’s, author of the ‘The Magus’ (1801) a classic of Georgian alchemy and occultism, is careful to distance himself as merely an observer of certain practices. And this was always the way. The only real exception to this comes in the work of Aleister Crowley from about 1904 onwards. But Crowley, as in many other things is a bit of a one off.
So its maybe not so unusual that writing in 1954 Gardner is very coy and doesn’t really come out as a witch. Being a witch, as Gardner was only too aware, could still be a dangerous thing to admit in the climate of the time. Gardner knew Crowley and his career quite well. Gardner had seen at close quarters the consequences to ones reputation of the wrong stuff getting to the press. Bran, who is someone who was around at the time, thought that the repeal of the act was not really motivated by any libertarian aims of the Lord Chancellor but more as the clearance of obstacles to effective prosecution of other crimes. Another example quoted by Christina Hole shows the sort of farcical incidents that could, given the state of the law before the 1950’s, find there way into the courts:
News Chronicle, January 6th 1947
Gordon Sutton, an Army pensioner of East Dereham, Norfolk, told Dereham magistrates that his neighbour, Mrs Spinks, an old age pensioner, had practised witchcraft on him.
He was summoned for assaulting Mrs Spinks. Both were bound over for six months.
Sutton declared: ‘A witch has been in the witness box. Many a time she tied a bunch of flowers on my front gate and I have spat on them and thrown them away. (Hole adds in a scholarly footnote: ‘Spitting is a very ancient protective charm. Human spittle from time immemorial has been supposed to have magical powers and to be a defence against evil’) [The report continues) You know that is going back to the witchcraft of the Dark Ages. I dare not tell you half the terrible things she has done to me. I have been tortured for five years.’ [Shades of Nora Batty]
Mrs Spinks, who denied she had practised witchcraft, said the trouble was due to her gathering parsley which Sutton wrongly said was in his garden.’ (Hole 1957:106)
What of the publishers?
Michael Houghton, the proprietor of the famous Atlantis bookshop in Museum Street, London, published Gardner’s 1949 novel. But by 1954 he had managed to persuade a much larger and well-established company called Rider to take him on. Gardner says he had to be confessional or reveal something new or they would not have been interested. Ring of truth there. It’s difficult to ascertain whether the repeal of the Witchcraft Act would have played any role in the publisher’s deliberations. Fifty years later and the tracks have gone cold. Rider is now part of global media giant Bertelsmann, absorbed into its UK division Random House. Small presses like to delude themselves that being bought out by a big corporation is some sort of belated compliment to their editorial taste and acumen as publishers. Sadly this is not the case, it’s the backlist the predator craves and has very little sentimental attachments to the entity itself. Rider becomes just another imprint amongst many others. I’m currently awaiting a response from Random house as to whether they have any archived materials of Rider in the 1950s.
Despite these gaps in the record I think it is a reasonable assumption that the legal eagles at Rider would have questioned such a publishing project. They would have asked Gardner’s opinion; they may perversely have liked the prospect of a fight. More likely they would have gone for the publishing maxim ‘Lets take a risk and turn it down.’
Afterall at the time other writers were experiencing censorship problems. I’m thinking of Rosaleen Norton in Australia or Mervin Peak in the UK. Vindictive Christians may well have initiated an action if only to put a spanner in the works. After all, fifty years earlier Madras Christian newspapers, with an eye on ‘market share’ had pretty much destroyed Helena Blavatsky’s reputation.
1951 was also important in other ways. The celebrated Aquarian Press seems to have been founded in that year, with an output of fairly uncontroversial spiritualist books. Titles such as Arthur Bhaduris’s ‘The Key to Health’,
Gilbert Alice’s ‘Telepathy for you: to Mr and Mrs Everyman’,
Bromage Benard’s ‘The Occult arts of ancient Egypt’;
Daphne Viger’s ‘Atlantis Rising’;
Marian Emma Slater’s ‘The Stars at Christmas’,
Vera W Reid’s ‘The Silver Unicorn’.
I wonder whose heard of any of these titles nowadays?
It wasn’t until 1959 that Aquarian as it were ‘moved over’ and published Gardner’s ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’, a follow up to the 1954 ‘Witchcraft Today: And in 1962 Aquarian published Doreen Valienti’s first little offering ‘Where Witchcraft Lives’.
What of Hale, well known publishers of ‘Eight Sabbats for Witches’ etc - did they play any part in the 1951 breakthrough? Sadly not. A long established company they came later on the scene. It was not until the late sixties and seventies that they really jumped on the bandwagon. Before that their output was mainly of the pre-repal folkloric variety, such as Ronald Seth’s study of the seventeenth century witchcraft trials ‘Children against Witches’
Eric Maple ‘The Dark world of Witches’ (1962)
Ruth St Legers-Gordon’s ‘The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor’.
Or in 1972 Lauran Paines’ ‘Sex in Witchcraft’.
You might ask which book was first out after the repeal of the act? I have to tell you it as John Symonds first version of ‘The Great Beast: the life of Aleister Crowley’ (also published by Rider). The Bodleian pressmark says 20 November 1951. This is probably the most radical book of the times and one that as we shall discuss below. It was a time bomb that finally blew in the sixties.
‘The head of the OTO at the time, Karl Germer was shocked when he read ‘The Great Beast’. The Order of Oriental Templars (or Order of the Templars of the East) is a small international body of adepts who practice sexual magic. Germer said that the book would set the Order back a thousand years. He was mistaken. There is no doubt that the widespread interest today (1973) in Aleister Crowley stems from ‘The Great Beast.’ (Preface to 1979 edition of The Great Beast)’
Symonds is certainly right that it did no such thing, the very opposite in truth. Its interesting that the book has gone through many incarnations and rewrites and its in the words of Colin Wilson ‘a kind of appalling classic’ (on dust-jacket of 1989 reprint as ‘The King of the Shadow Realm: Aleister Crowley: his life and magic’). Did the 1951 act have any effect on the publication of this book? Yes I think it did, notice that there is no mention of magick on the cover of the first edition. Symonds says in another edition that at the time this sort of things couldn’t be too obviously cited on the cover and that in later works he was able to add more of the sexual magick stuff. Indeed the more magical material was not published until 1958 and then by another publisher called Mullers, whose output also included the books of Crowley’s disciple Kenneth Grant. It was not until 1973 that a complete revised edition of the Great Beast appeared in various cheap paperback editions licensed by Duckworth.
Symonds biography ‘The Great Beast’ has never been popular with occultists although its impact on popular culture has been, imo, immense. I remember reading one of the shlock horror editions given to me by a climbing friend. I must say I found the book a revelation, as did countless others. Since then other more ‘sympathetic’ writers have tried their hand at writing a more ‘sympathetic’ biography but few have really matched Symond’s panache. When Cecil Williamson, the owner of the witchcraft museum read it, it was a revelation and he immediately decided he needed to know more about the subject.
Returning to Gardner’s publishing efforts, one might ask what was his motivation in publishing his confessional books such as ‘Witchcraft Today’? Recent research shows that the publication of coven secrets earned him no friends amongst his initiators. Maybe they thought it better that witchcraft remain a largely secret tradition.
I contend that Gardner may well have seen the publication of ‘Witchcraft Today’ as a magical act. Yes it would be good for his ego, what author doesn’t crave the kind of recognition that the publication of a book brings? But his motivation goes further than this. Through the publication of the book he sets in motion a revival or re-creation of a cult that was up until this point largely moribund.
It could also be said that he open the flood gates for a kind of ‘confessional’ writing about witchcraft. Accounts by living practitioners of witchcraft were pretty much non existent before this time. As I said most books were either heavily disguised accounts posed in the form of a novel or semi scholarly accounts often quite hostile or distant from the tradition they describe.
Gardner deserves recognition as a pioneer who started a trend that in later years would lead to the growth of a new kind of occult literature. The massive increase in this area of publishing is in the main in books by self confessed practitioners, developing or revealing the secrets of their art. That’s quite an achievement. Familiar images of the occult, such as those shown in the following montage, would have been impossible without him. In a future article I hope to follow further the long associations between writing, publishing and magick.
Writing and words have always had a long association with magick. Some would contend that writing is the invention of magicians. In ancient Egypt the hieroglyphic script seems to have a distinct moment of creation. Their use was to record accurately magical and religious texts. The earliest function of writing is as an instrument for the public reading, aloud of magical or religious formulae. It was only later in the Greek and Roman world that reading began its long development as a medium for silent and private reading of an author’s text.
Witches and magicians are more than any other the people of the book. I know this phrase is usually reserved for devotees of the Abrahamic tradition. But we are the true people of the book - lots of books. Books, reading and the text have always been a crucial part of magical practice. Let me remind you of the phrase ‘Bell Book and candle.’ Remind yourself for a moment of these concepts so familiar:
Grimoires - or grammars of magick;
The Books of Shadows;
Talisma, ‘eating your words’ as in late hermetic practice
‘The Great Beast’ is also a good example of a ‘Liber’. The Liber has been especially important to the magicians of all times. A Liber is magical book written at the behest of a discarnate entity or spirit. Aleister Crowley wrote lots of these including the monumental master work ‘Magick in Theory and Practice. More correctly entitled Liber ABA - Aba / father or by simple cabalistic numerology ABA = 4, book four. Four being a significant number in occult symbolism
Liber ABA or Magick grew out of a magical working between Crowley and his ‘scarlet woman’ of the time, Sor Virakam otherwise know as Mary Desti. The working spirit that made itself known to the pair was called Abuldiz, hence the working is sometimes called the Abuldiz working. The final book was issued in the form of a square of four equal sides priced at four groats (shillings).
The book is in four parts, part II for example deals with the fundamentals of ceremonial magick. ‘Crowley exhorts the reader to magical endeavour in brisk prose on the grounds of common sense and practical psychology’
Lawrence Sutin, a gifted modern biographer of both Philip K Dick and Crowley says that ‘Magick’ was ‘a radical break from the veiling, sanctimonious tone that had dominated writing on magick since the Romantic period. Crowley followed on the basic approach set forth in his 1903 essay ‘An Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magic’ . That is, he argued for magic as a structured, empirical means for developing unrecognised capacities of the mind. The implements and rituals of magic were extensions or projections of mind - however apparently irrational - constituted a course of self-confirming initiation to the open-minded and educated practitioner. Most fundamental of all was the training of the Magical Will, through which yogic meditation became possible.’ (DWTW: 222)
It was also in this work that Crowley first introduced the more archaic spelling of Magick with a K, a convention widely used ever since. Although on a lesser scale, Gardner’s book published after this time key into this long tradition of Magical books as special things.
It also keys into a long tradition of the book as magical object or talisman. The book as we know it was born in pagan Rome in the form of a Codex in fifth century AD. Before that the book took the form of a scroll hand written of course on Egyptian papyrus. The Egyptians held a monopoly on the production and supply of papyrus for writing. The creation of the standardised book was begun in great Alexandrian libraries of the Ptolemies. Before the book there is the text - usually confined for use by Priestly or aristocratic elite minority. Religious and ritual in content. The book creates a new intellectual space that of the reader who can interact the book by recitation and silent reading. In Rome these were most often the augury texts.
The pagan Romans seem also to have invented the Novel. - Reading out loud greatly facilitated by continuous script - needs spoken voice to make sense of it -
The rise of the ‘codex’ - adopted by the Christians - not pages on a roll but a book with pages - parchment rather than papyrus - cheaper - more portable - easy to read and private where necessary. (p15)
In Latin West - a break with the past - reading became restricted in place i.e. churches and subject matter holy scripture. Reading became a silent or murmured activity divorced from his pagan social or dialectical qualities.
Books became fetish objects - more precious and monumental - punctuation to aid silent comprehension - more luxurious as a form of patrimony.
Throughout the early Middle Ages the Jews of the Christian West seem to have sacralised the book in much the same way as contemporary Christian society. For Jews as well as Christians the book was a religious object with magical properties, rather than an instrument for communication through reading. Its supernatural charge made it a relic for pious and contemplative adoration, rather than a reservoir of contents that could be drawn upon freely. In short the book was doubly closed to direct exploitation, it was closed within its binding, and it was closed within the ark, to which ordinary people did not have access. This view was in clear contrast to the idea of the ‘open’ book (in both senses) that began to circulate after the year 1000. One clear example of this view of the book can be seen in the so-called Chronicle of Ahimaaz, an epic genealogical work composed in southern Italy in 1054 on the basis of oral traditions dating back to the second half of the ninth century. It recounts the story of a woman who brought down the wrath of God on her family, causing the death of several relatives, because one Friday she lit a candle before a sacred book, while she was menstruating. The details of the story are somewhat murky; not is the function of the light (or the contents of the book) at all clear. What seems beyond doubt, however, is the custom of keeping a light before the Book of the Chariot, an ancient Hebrew mystical text. The woman’s act is supposed to have contaminated the holiness of the book, here treated as a genuine relic. (Cavallo et al, 1999:150).
We can learn from this that an important ritual activity of the Kabbalah was the reading of the book - reading or more especially chanting aloud a mystical or magical text was a ritual.
Renaissance pagan revival also revival of books and secular reading; abbreviations, two column spreads - sectioning an aids to broader quick understanding. Renaissance Humanism, whose roots lie with
‘On 10th December 1513 Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a letter to his friend. In the previous year, when Piero Soderini’s government fell and the Medici regained control of Florence, he had lost everything he valued most. He had tried to build a citizen army; it collapsed. He has prized his position in the government; he was sacked. Suspected of conspiracy, he was imprisoned, tortured and ended up on his farm outside Florence. Here he yearned for any sort of political occupation, quarrelled and gossiped with his neighbours - and read:
“ Leaving the wood I go to a spring, and from there to my bird-snare. I have a book with me, either Dante or Petrarca, or one of the lesser poets like Tibullus, Ovid and the like: I read about their amorous passions and about their loves, I remember my own, and I revel for a moment in this thought. . . . When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday cloths, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak with them, to ask them the reasons for their actions, and they, in their humanity, answer me, and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them. (Cavallo et al, 1999: 180)”’
Books are and have always been very liberating things.
The 1960s. Renaissance
To close then I have to jump forward to the 1960s, for a brief tour through the major publishing landmarks of the era. For although for occultism, the events of 1950 and the decade represented a sea-change - it was really during the 1960s that the new occult ideology came into its own. If I may borrow a term from Germaine Greer, the 1950s have been called the ‘decade of foreplay’ another the real explosion occurs in the 1960s when for many progressive people the world really began. It was a renaissance although now forty years later, it’s easy for retro historians to try to minimise its importance in the development of the modern sensibility.
To quote from a rather excellent new book on the period, think of the 1960s and you maybe think of ‘a time of revolution - political, social, psychedelic, sexual.
But there was another revolution that many historians forget: the rise of a powerful current that permeated pop-culture and has been a central influence on it ever since. It was a magical revolution - a revival of the occult. Previously rejected and ridiculed beliefs took centre stage, reaching the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, saturating the hippies and flower power, hitting the big screen with Rosemarie’s Baby [a film that featured Anton Le Vey in cameo role as Satan] and the bookshelves with Lord of the Rings. The Tarot, I Ching, astrology, kabbala, yogis, witchcraft, UFOs. Aleister Crowley, yin-yang and The Tibetan Book of the dead became the common currency they are today.’
!960 and the world of occult publishing was pretty much in a state of hibernation. There was interest in occult and magical books but not too much. Then in 1960s France a literary time bomb exploded. It was called Morning of the Magicians by two French alchemists, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. . The publishers Gallimard had expected a modest success but by the end of the decade the mayflower English language paperback alone had sold 1 million copies.
‘Paris in 1960 was the capital of futility, nihilism and dreary ‘authenticity’. It was the Paris of Jean Paul-Sartre and Albert Camus, of ‘nausea’ and ‘the absurd’, of alenation and of being engage, of black turtlenecks and Waiting for Godot. In such an atmosphere, a book on magick would be the last thing one would think would do well. But within weeks f its publication, The Morning of the Magicians had both banks of the Seine talking about alchemy, extraterrestrials, lost civilisations, esotericism, Charle Fort, secret societies, higher states of consciousness and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Lachmann: 2001:15)
I was about six years old when Morning of the Magicians was first published so I don’t remember too much about it. Even so it was destined to be one of those crap books that change my life. I can’t remember quite when I read Pauwels and Bergier’s flawed masterpiece, but it was destined to be for me one of those ‘crap books that changed my life.’ It became underground classic besides The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Steppenwolf, and Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience. I remember how it spoke of the twentieth century as being locked in a struggle between dark and light occult forces. It told of secret societies and ancient knowledge. Every other sentence seemed to be about some mind-blowing piece of history. After a couple of chapters I could really take any more, I wanted to go and find out for myself. I guess this was how it effected many of its readers. After reading Morning of the Magicians one needed a reality check.
The great antropologist Mircea Eliade wrote, there was something ‘new and exhilarating [in] the optimistic and holistic outlook ... in which human life again became meaningful and promised an endless perfectibility. Man was called to ‘conquer his physical universe and to unravel the other, enigmatic universe revealed by occultists and gnostics.’(Mircea Eliade quoted in Lachman 2001: 16)
Morning of the Magicians is quite a thoughtful book, quite intellectual. Many of its ideas have been repackaged over and over again so you have to try to imagine how it was the first time round. The book contains an epic thesis, spanning the whole of human history.
Future perfect: ‘It may be that what we can esotericism, the keystone of secret societies and religions, is a remnant, which we find very difficult to understand or deal with, of a very ancient branch of knowledge of a technical nature, relating to both mind and matter.’
Magicians and witches are revealed as the holders of an ancient secret that they preserve via secret societies that have existed for time immemorrial under such names as the illuminati, the magi, the Atlanteans, the Rosicrucians, or the golden dawn. And what is the nature of this secret? First that humanity has a purpose. Is that a startling thing. Maybe not although most mainstream science and history would maintain that life has no meaning other than perhaps the replication of its DNA. But to the secret council of adepts, humanity’s purpose has always been the creation of a race of perfected beings - the superman if you like. This thesis has lead to a widespread conspiracy and indeed struggle between adepts of the black and white brotherhoods, either to preserve the secret agenda of humanity or to mould it to their own ends. In the twentieth century things are said to have come to a head when the struggle between good and evil magi culminated in two brutal world wars.
In Morning of the Magicians this thesis about the secret history of humanity is illustrated firstly by the presentation of previously unknown ‘secrets’ of ancient technology. The mysteries of the pyramid builders, the ‘miracles’ of ancient medicine etc. Coming up to date it introduces lots of suggestions from literature that talk of dark goings on - thus we read about H P Lovecraft’s paranoid visions of a race of trans-dimensional creatures plotting and dreaming of there return. Or think of Arthur Machen’s Welsh tales about strange races of fairy folk who lurk in the deep forest or snowy heights.
You might not accept all this but, good or bad, it has been a very influential idea within occultism. You can see most of the books of that followed as developments of this theme of the perfected individual ready to take humanity into the future. Take only one example, say the whole sixties psychedelic revolution where drugs and alternative lifestyle are seen as the growth of the new person fit for the future expansion of human consciousness beyond the planet. I wonder if Gerald Gardner in the twilight of his own life was not influenced by Morning of the Magicians. I have in my possession a letter from a then student who describes Gardner as obsessed with pyramids and pyramid power. Impotent and with failing health, Gardner spend long hours within a special constructed pyramid in a bid to renew his powers.
These are quite radical ideas and they cannot be easily dismissed. Perhaps the interest in them as waned slightly but they cannot be completely avoid. The modern magician ought at least to think about them and decide whether in some form or another they ought to be extended or perhaps rejected. Some like Gary Lackman see them as what went wrong in the sixties and what turned magick and occultism into wuite a reactionary trend. What do you think?
It is with this kind of thing that Gary Lackman begins his magical mystery tour of thee occult philosophy of the sixties (no apologies here to Frances Yates: The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age). H P Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, Maharishi Yogi, Timothy Leary, the two Kenneths (Anger and Grant), Aleister Crowley, Tolkein, Castaneda, Alan Watts, Idries Shah, Charly Manson. Down the pub I asked can anyone think of a so-called sixties guru who doesn’t have feet of concrete? Silence for a moment then ‘Alan Watts’ (author of Zen classic ‘The Spirit of Zen’). He who, according to Lachman ‘masturbated daily, drew pornographic pictures, read pornography and had a taste for “various tortures” which he inflicted on himself in order to achieve orgasm’ (p115). He succumbed to ‘alcoholism and killed himself in 1973’ - could happen to any of us after all.
Maybe that why it is so important to know the dark side of the guru. That’s why I like Crowley, what you see is what you get, prepare for your disappointment now. He doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet . . .
The dangers of letting the guard down are nowhere better illustrated that in the tales of Idries Shah recounted in ‘Turn off your mind.’ Shah whose Octagon press published (and perhaps ghost wrote many of witch patriarch Gerald Gardner’s early works). Meeting J G Bennett of ‘The Fourth Way’, a disciple of Gurdjjieff and the founder of a successful alternative community known as Coombe Springs. Bennett became convinced that Shah was the guardian of ‘the secret’ and at the master’s request signed over the deeds to the estate as a gesture of good faith. Shah promptly evicted the entire community and sold the property for 100K, enough cash to prop up his publishing empire.
To my mind, the real dark side of the sixties was the cult of personality and the obsession of good interesting occultists (and not so good) with celebrities. Whether from the music or film world, these people offer rich pickings and an easy path to popularisation of important ideas. But maybe, as Gary implies, the road these people have taken to success makes them inherently empty, craving for novelty; dilettante - good cash cows but not the most serious students. Modern occultists and pagans would do well to heed the warning - not to be dazzled by these fake Lucifers. In the sixties is was Mick Jagger who had some style, now we have some bimbo from Hercules or Zeena signing initiation certificates for quite a well known magical grouping - stop - read this book!
Since the publication of Morning of the Magicians there have been many imitators and indeed if you go to the Psychic Questing Conference or Alternative Egypt you will see many books that follow in the footsteps, not always with as much elegance. Other pagans have reacted against it but picking single themes, such as Tantrism and discovering for themselves whether these were really the work of an ancient super race. In my own case remember reading about supposed wonderful ancient feat of medicine such as ancient transplant surgery or vaccination. As with so much of this kind of thing, if you depart from the main picture and start looking at the individual details in context things may not look quite so clear.
Around about the same time that I read Morning of the Magicians I remember pasting the pages of the Daily Mirror into a scrap book. It was another even bigger literary phenomenon. The Chariot of the Gods had arrived. Its author, a Swiss hotel manager was awaiting trail for embezzlement when a book he written in his spare time sold the first of over 42 million copies! Erich von Daniken had arrived. Like many of my generation it was the first time someone had something interesting to say about pyramids and the wonders of the _pre-Christian_ realm. It may have been crap but it was a our crap.
Van Daniken’s books are essential a reworking of Morning of the Magicians aimed at a less intellectual audience. The first line of his book reads ‘it took courage to write this book and it will take courage to read it.’ He gives the global conspiracy of the illuminates a novel twist. The ‘secret’ now becomes ‘was god was an astronaut?’ He was not an intellectual or good historical researcher but like his many imitators he knew how to present a good yarn and his mad theories about ancient times struck a chord amongst a people hungry for knowledge of their ancient pagan past.
Personally I see the sixties as part of the process of sharpening Occam’s razor - trying out new philosophies and lifestyles. Its seems mad when you look at it but it is part of the collective move away from the really ‘evil’ forces of global governments, whose slaughter policy makes Charlie Manson look quite tame. We are growing and learning from our mistakes, but to make sure we are not just destined to repeat them, I suggest one needs to know what they were, to debate them - and move beyond.
The repeal of the witchcraft act signalled a sea change in occult writing in terms of quality and quantity. As the real ‘people of the book’, pagans have been connected with writing and publishing since the beginning of recorded history. I want to explore some of the mysteries of the book and the injunction to write and publish as magical acts. It been said that even a crap book can change your life, never was this more so than in the 1960s when an cultural renaissance was ignited by a couple of incendiary magical texts.