Esoteric classics: a list of books

Books Occult

Boing Boing guestblogger Mitch Horowitz is author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin publishers.

(Mitch will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Philosophical Research Society this coming Saturday, October 3 and Sunday, October 4, at 2 p.m. daily on the history of the occult in America. Details here.)

Below is a rundown of books that were unique sources of inspiration to me as I was working on Occult America. Some of these authors are not esotericists at all; others cover topics that I fleetingly reference. But each work represents a carefully researched, keenly reasoned, and pioneering effort at comprehending occult topics and personas without lapsing into the kind of excessive credulity or a knee-jerk nay-saying that often clouds our ability to evaluate fringe movements. Each is a triumph of that rarest of traits: clear thought.

Al-Kemi by Andre VandenBroeck
A window into the intellectual and spiritual world of esoteric Egyptologist RA Schwaller de Lubicz, with an appreciative foreword by Saul Bellow. Posits intriguing ideas about the connections between Ancient Egyptian philosophy and the modern West - and also exposes the ethical failings of this brilliant intellect.

Hidden Wisdom by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney
A 360-degree survey of modern esoteric beliefs by the editors of the legendary Gnosis magazine (the most fondly missed journal on the planet). Their tone is unfailingly judicious, thoughtful, and shrewd.

The Tarot by Robert M. Place
Perhaps the sole guide to Tarot that synthesizes a scholarly exploration of Tarot's roots in the Middle Ages with an understanding of the mystical allegory of its images.

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances A. Yates
Probably the most authoritative works ever written on the occult mood of Europe in the late Renaissance period. Yates was a world-class historian, a tireless scholar, and a uniquely empathic observer of religious/philosophical movements.

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall
The occult classic published in 1928 by the twenty-seven-year old auteur. This encyclopedia esoterica stands up remarkably well - its passages on Pythagorean mathematics, alchemical symbolism, and the competing histories of Rosicrucianism are especially sturdy.

Alchemy by Titus Burckhardt
A uniquely sensitive, subtle, and compact survey of the misunderstood history and ideas behind this ancient spiritual art.

Edgar Cayce by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
The landmark historical biography - unparalleled in detail and breadth - of the grandfather of the New Age. This is journalistic historical writing at its finest.

Edgar Cayce in Context by K. Paul Johnson
A brilliant and engaging study of how the influential seer related to the spiritual trends around him. The author exhibits a rare combination of academic depth and spiritual understanding.

The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement by Michael Gomes
A vivid, precise, and deeply intelligent history of this enormously influential occult organization at its inception in America.

Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter
A beautifully written and highly original exploration of New Thought (or positive-thinking) as a progressive religious and political movement.

Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons edited by Robert A. Hill and Barbara Bair
The Rosetta stone to understanding the Black-nationalist pioneer in a different light: as a spiritual-mystical thinker.

Pioneer Prophetess by Herbert A. Wisbey. Jr.
A painstakingly researched biography of one of the least-known but widely influential occult figures in American history: the Publick Universal Friend, a spirit channeler who became the nation's first female religious leader in 1776.

Spiritual Merchants by Carolyn Morrow Long
Wonderful insights into the growth of the African-American magical system called hoodoo. Likewise, see the comprehensive (and wondrous) work of hoodoo teacher-scholar-curator Catherine Yronwode at Lucky Mojo.

The American Soul by Jacob Needleman
The most incisive understanding of the collective spiritual search in America.

Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn
Quinn employs rigorous scholarship to reveal the occult and esoteric influences on the life of Joseph Smith. A brave, thoughtful, and irreplaceable work.

Women of the Golden Dawn by Mary K. Greer
Fast-moving as a Dan Brown novel and filled with fascinating detail on the life and work of the women who shaped the 19th and 20th century occult culture in America and Europe.

They Have Found a Faith by Marcus Bach
Bach, who published this exploration of alternative faiths in 1946, was America's greatest religion journalist: A reporter who could go anywhere, venture into any belief system, and place himself at its center in order to grasp the values and aspirations of its participants (which is the only way to understand a religious movement). He was my journalistic hero.


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

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

  3. 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?

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

  5. 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!

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

  7. 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

  8. 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. 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.

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

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. @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.

  14. 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”

  15. @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!

  16. 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?

  17. @mayanmargaret:

    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.

  18. @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….

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.

  23. Thanks for the A.E. links all.

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

  24. @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

  25. @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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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

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