Esoteric classics: a list of books


38 Responses to “Esoteric classics: a list of books”

  1. endymion says:

    Sorry to be snippy to a guest blogger, but:

    “esoteric” means “understood by only a chosen few”. Mathematics is esoteric. Literary theory is esoteric. The occult may be esoteric too, but surely esoteric does not mean or imply occult, and therefore, to denote a list of occult books as “esoteric classics” is to use esoteric as a pretty bold euphemism!

  2. WA says:

    @Cognitive Dissonance: The definition they are using is correct even in general use; the definition you are using isn’t supported by the OED. Esoteric does imply a clandestine and selective nature of the knowledge, and using it to refer to science is questionable, as it embodies so many things that science is against. Erudite would probably be a better term for what you’re describing.

    @Endymion: I really don’t think the definition you’re using is the more commonly held one. Both M-W and the OED primarily support the more specific definition.

    I am by no means a member of the occult community, am rather of the opinion that Mr Horowitz does the world a great disservice in his publishing, and am dismayed that he has the audacity to call these books “carefully researched” and not lapsing into “excessive credulity,” but I still know the more specific definition of esoteric.

  3. cosmicautumn says:

    This list is great! I just expanded my Bookmooch wishlist and will hopefully in the future expand my mind.

  4. fyreflye says:

    You can’t get far into heart of the occult without understanding gematria and Qabalah/Cabala/Kabbalah. Gematria is the original version of numerology and goes back at least as far as Pythagoras. Kabbalah in its various spellings is a highly influential way of diagramming the occult universe. You can’t understand Crowley or his predecessors without understanding both.
    For gematria a good start is “The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetical Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World,” by Kieran Barry. For Kabbalah see the book of the same name by Charles Poncé.

  5. HeruRaHa says:

    Glad to see you mention Titus Burkhardt’s Alchemy on here, that is truly one of the best and most concise manuals on the subject I’ve ever come across…

    And while I don’t necessarily agree with the need to be a dick about it, Lordxeno @ 13 raises a few good points – most especially, love him or hate him, no occult education is complete without Crowley. At the very least, Magick in Theory and Practice (chock full of theoretical classroom “bullshit”, I might add – but some of the best ever written). And yeah, eat some mushrooms. At least once. They’re here for a reason, you know. A little Terrence McKenna will help clarify the why, if you’re not already keen on random hallucinogenic experiences.


    * Real Magic, Isaac Bonewits
    * Liber Null and Psychonaut, Peter Carroll

    I’ve got 3 bookshelves worth of stuff but if they all burned up and all I had left the were 4 books mentioned herein (and possibly some shrooms) I’d be content.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with @endymion – a list of esoteric classics (with the broader meaning of “esoteric”) would be highly interesting. I think my list would include:

    – Godel, Escher, Bach
    – The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs
    – VDQI

  7. mdh says:

    endymion, what is ‘pedantic’ a euphemism for?

  8. LordXeno says:

    buncha fucking armchair chin-hair pullers.

    Eat some mushrooms and crack open a tome from Crowley. Get your hands dirty, and forget this theoretical classroom bullshit.

    Paul Foster Case was an occultist pussy who couldn’t even get the correct order of the tarot down nor could he commit the calls of the Enochian keys because he was afraid of the spirits that showed up just because: “I have personal knowledge of more than twenty-five instances where the performance of magical operations based on Order formulae led to serious disintegration of mind or body.”

    This was because he hadn’t contacted the hidden self of the Tiphereth and was playing with fire….


  9. David Pescovitz says:

    @MattF, “Art of Memory”! Yes! That’s an amazing book, albeit slightly off-topic here. I really loved learning about Memory Palaces. I posted about them back in 2001 before I discovered her book. I didn’t know she also wrote a Dee biography!

  10. inphiknit says:

    The Secret Teachings of All Ages – Please do yourself a favor and pass on Mitch’s “Readers Edition” – The Magic of this book is in its lush illustrations and images.

    Mitch – No offense but the readers edition is like a bad remake of a good song. Get my drift?

  11. cognitive dissonance says:

    i agree with ENDYMION at some level.

    ANYTHING that requires some level of investigation or study to understand, and is not common knowledge is esoteric; string theory, the occult, cooking with liquid nitrogen, celestial navigation…

    esoteric gets the point across, but perhaps clandestine is a more appropriate word?

  12. agger says:

    As for insights into the “occult” or supernatural or the “world behind the world”, or however you want to phrase it, a lot of the ostensibly “occult” writings are gibberish.

    For real touching insights I’d suggest Irish poet A.E., also known as George William Russell.

    Russell believed all religion must be based on direct experience, or be not at all:

    The religion which does not cry out: “I am to-day verifiable as that water wets or that fire burns. Test me that ye can become as gods.” Mistrust it. Its messengers are prophets of the darkness. As we sink deeper into the Iron Age we are met by the mighty devils of state and empire lurking in the abyss, claiming the soul for their own, moulding it to their image, to be verily their own creature and not heaven’s. We need a power in ourselves that can confront these mighty powers.

    This is from is Candle of Vision, which can be found at

    His poetry expresses a deep longing after the Irish Otherworld, with which he was personally acquainted and which he describes in COV, among other writings:

    Where the ring of twilight gleams
    Round the sanctuary wrought,
    Whispers haunt me—in my dreams
    We are one yet know it not.

    Some for beauty follow long
    Flying traces; some there be
    Seek thee only for a song:
    I to lose myself in thee.

    Other important writings would be:

    Whitman, Song of myself

    Wordsworth, Prelude (certain passages, note how he

    … shrank with apprehensive jealousy
    From every combination which might aid
    The tendency, too potent in itself, i
    Of use and custom to bow down the soul
    Under a growing weight of vulgar sense,
    And substitute a universe of death
    For that which moves with light and life informed,
    Actual, divine, and true.

    Also interesting is William Blake, whom #14 mentions.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Wow, two books about Edgar Cayce! I’d add another – Harmon Bro’s “A Seer out of Season” to make it three.

  14. Anonymous says:

    How about… The Bible, The Quran, The Torah, The Upanishads, The Vedas, The Baghavad Gita? At least The Kybalion and Qabalah were mentioned.

    A couple of others I can recommend (some of you may need ‘shrooms’ to understand them):

    ‘The Secret Doctrine Of Anahuac’ by Samael Aun Weor

    ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tse

    ‘I Ching’(The Book Of Answers) by Wu Wei

  15. Anonymous says:

    Schwaller de Lubicz is a fraud and a charlatan. Perhaps their are some nuggets in his works, but overall he has been used to propagate some of the worst myths about Egypt and its past. Pass on him.

  16. hawamahal says:

    For anyone who has not seen it, you might want to explore the late R. T. Gault’s annotated bibliography of Fantastic, Visionary, and Esoteric Literature in the 1960s and 1970s, called “Absolute Elsewhere.” Wonderful stuff!

  17. inphiknit says:

    Thanks for the A.E. links all.

    I recommend “The Kybalion” – in my top three list of favorite esoteric titles.

  18. Anonymous says:


    the swedenborg line of esoterica is intriguing, but blake was no follower of swedenborg’s, “jealous” (‘zealous’?) or otherwise. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, like several other books of blake’s, is (in part) a caustic, sharptoothed takedown of swedenborg and all his works. i’ll let blake say it himself:

    Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth:
    Now hear another: he has written all the old falshoods.

    And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro’ his conceited notions.

    Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial, opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.

    ain’t exactly what i’d call “good-natured satire”.

    please don’t try to assimilate a great writer and thinker to a tradition that he studied and rejected.

  19. Anonymous says:

    @27 Anonymous

    I must disagree with you and assert that William Blake was an early follower and student of the work of Emanuel Swedenborg.

    Blake was one of the first attendees at the early New Church (read: Swedenborgian) meetings in Central London, only a few years after Swedenborg’s death. Some even say that Blake and Swedenborg met at an earlier date. Blake was a zealous (AND jealous) adherent to many of Swedenborg’s Christian tenants.

    Blake’s writing is filled with Swedenborgian references. Blake knew enough about Swedenborg’s work to construct an entire work lampooning Swedenborg (“Marriage of Heaven and Hell”)

    “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is scathing and even cruel, but it is also filled with humour and insights into Swedenborg’s religious literature.

    I suggest a deeper, more thorough reading of Swedenborg’s many, many books. And perhaps another reading of “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” would reveal (to you) Blake’s subtle take(s) on Swedenborg. Blake had a keen knowledge of Swedendorg (and his work) many years before others discovered him and appreciated him.

    There is some evidence that Blake eventually renounced Swedenborg’s religious teachings but it doesn’t show in his writings and artwork. Of course, many other scores of writers and artists have been influenced by Swedenborg, including DT Suzuki, Balzac, Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, the Brownings, Goethe, Jung, Kant, etc

    Most certainly Blake was influenced by Swedenborg. Blake owed a great artistic debt to Swedenborg.

    PS – I worked at a Swedenborgian bookstore for many years

  20. mdh says:

    @ endymion. Yes. Yes it actually does. In this case it was euphemism for *ss.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Godel, Escher, Bach esoteric? Yikes. It’s a lovely book, but one of those classics that everyone’s read— I’m pretty certain I’ve heard it referenced in sitcoms. Are, say, the Palliser novels or Three Men in a Boat esoteric? You’re calling the Barelaked Ladies indy, other anonymous, and to a crowd that sniffs at the Pavement reunion and hopes out loud that the media cover real bands one day.

    That having been said, I would stand in line to read a list of the favorite esoteric books of BoingBoing bloggers. Has it been done?

  22. GuyInMilwaukee says:

    I’d like to suggest adding Etidorhpa by John Uri Lloyd for a bit of the strange scifi occult.
    It would make a great movie.

  23. endymion says:

    @wa (#19): Nice post. I see your argument, and I imagine that within the “occult community”, they probably use the word esoteric in the sense you suggest, not as a euphemism as I said.

    To an outsider like me, who uses the more commonly held (and perhaps not completely correct) definition of esoteric, it feels different. This reminds me of the word agnostic, whose precise definition and common definition are pretty different, as I understand it.

    @mdh (#12): This word “euphemism”… I don’t think it means what you think it means….

  24. MattF says:

    Anything by Yates is going to be interesting and edifying– she wrote the ground-breaking biography of Giordano Bruno, as well as books about the ‘art of memory’ and the English mystic John Dee. Highly Recommended.

  25. Anonymous says:

    the Golden Yawn ?

  26. Tdawwg says:

    Quick clarification: Yates’ work is at least a half-decade old. Her work was foundational, but she’s no longer an authority (unless you’re speaking historiographically): she’s been revised, added to, and supplanted by a few generations of younger scholars. Fun reading, but no serious student of the period would regard her as “authoritative” or up to date.

  27. WA says:

    @mdh: That’s not pedantry. Behold true pedantry!

    @Endymion: Esoteric actually doesn’t just mean “understood by a chosen few.” The meaning instead goes beyond this, to mean something intended or appropriate to be understood or known by only a chosen few, and communicated only to them. From the OED:

    Of philosophical doctrines, treatises, modes of speech, etc.: Designed for, or appropriate to, an inner circle of advanced or privileged disciples; communicated to, or intelligible by, the initiated exclusively. Hence of disciples: Belonging to the inner circle, admitted to the esoteric teaching. Opposed to EXOTERIC.

    There is a particular sense of secrecy involved, which is seen more directly in other meanings—an esoteric motive, for example, is a motive that isn’t openly avowed, or is known only to a close circle, perhaps of conspirators.

    Advanced mathematics and similar fields don’t entirely satisfy the definition of esoteric: anyone can learn them on their own, given sufficient study, and the materials are widely available. While obscure and erudite, such fields lack the secrecy, and the idea of a circle of people chosen by other people, and initiated into the group in some way, which would make them esoteric.

  28. Anonymous says:

    This was my special request to Mitch. I’m delighted that I haven’t cracked any of these besides The Secret Teachings! Thanks, Mitch!

  29. relgin says:

    Bob Place is also a very fine illustrator who works freelance.
    I hope he is doing well too.

    Another masterwork you might consider is the anonymous “Meditations on the Tarot — A Journey into Christian Hermeticism”

  30. Antinous / Moderator says:

    The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages by Paul Foster Case

    Don’t leave home without it.

  31. David Pescovitz says:

    Thanks, Antinous! I’d love to hear other essential books in this vein too!

  32. Anonymous says:

    Yates is brilliant.

    No shout out for Cavendish’s “The Black Arts”?

  33. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Some books, even if you don’t agree with them or believe them, still force you to create extra brain space.

  34. pato pal ur says:

    Great list, thanks Mitch!

    I quite like Edgar Cayce and I’d love to see a post that discusses your take on him. How about it?

  35. Anonymous says:

    How about almost anything by Graham Hancock? Velokovski? Also, that one book that links the pyramids to the face on Mars is pretty good….

  36. agger says:

    Talking about A.E., you can read his beautiful Candle of Vision , and you can find most of his best poems at

    And here’s a number of his paintings:

    Also interesting is W. B. Yeats’ The Celtic Twilight, which describes the supernatural creatures which remained part of ordinary people’s lives until the late 19th century:

  37. agger says:

    Hrmmph, the first link came off rather badly. Here’s the link to A.E.’s poems @ Bartleby:

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