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.
One of the oddest and most enduring occult books of modern times is called The Kybalion. Dan Brown mentions it twice in The Lost Symbol. The book exists in a multitude of editions and claims to be an ancient work of practical occult wisdom. Its pages brim with canny advice on how to get what you want from life. The "author" of The Kybalion is a hidden entity called Three Initiates. Speculation rages online that one of these Three Initiates was a twentieth-century magician, occultist, and writer named Paul Foster Case. Case, so the theory goes, co-conceived the popular book in early twentieth-century Chicago, a city bustling with occult impresarios. I consider the Case connection and The Kybalion in Occult America:
Chicago was a great city for a budding occultist in the early twentieth century. It was home to the influential New Thought teacher Emma Curtis Hopkins and hosted bustling subcultures in "mental science" and metaphysical publishing. A Chicago lawyer named William Walker Atkinson produced an imaginative array of occult books from his Yogi Publication Society based in the twenty-two-story Masonic Temple Building, once a jewel of the city's skyline and later demolished. Atkinson himself wrote many books, under the pseudonyms Yogi Ramacharaka, Magus Incognito, and, most famously, Three Initiates. The Chicagoan used the last of these aliases in 1908 to publish his most successful book, one of the occult classics of the twentieth century: The Kybalion.
This compendium of "lost" Egyptian-Hermetic wisdom read a lot like New Thought principles recast in antique language but nonetheless enthralled readers, partly due to the secrecy of its authorship. A long-standing rumor, which now abounds online, named Paul Foster Case as one of the Three Initiates. But The Kybalion reads to the letter like Atkinson, and it was published before the two men would have been likely to meet. The Kybalion is often misdated to 1912. But the copyright and first edition were actually from 1908, when Case had barely arrived in the city. The error arose from a 1940 edition in which the publisher listed the initial registration as 1912, almost certainly in an attempt to reassert control over a copyright that had fallen into public domain after failing to be renewed at the required 28-year interval.
Whatever its authorship, The Kybalion is an enticing guide to wise-living. I publish a new, redesigned edition at Tarcher/Penguin, which is probably the first to specifically credit Atkinson on the about-the-author page.