• Mitch Horowitz: Once More Awaiting "The End"

    It's the end of the world. Again.

    If 3,000 years of history tell us anything, it's that December 21st, 2012 ā€“ a date associated by some with the Mayan apocalypse ā€“ will feel a lot like any other day of the year.

    Human beings have never been very good at predicting the end of the world. Though one would never know given our current surge of enthusiasm for apocalyptic scenarios. Even firearms manufacturers today are marketing real-life (and deadly) weapons as "zombie apocalypse" guns. (We all know that zombies aren't real. Right? Right?). And just consider the last dozen years: Public interest has lurched from Y2K to 2012 to solar flares.
    It's easy to make light of these attachments. But recent events reveal a contradictory and troubling attitude at the back of our fascination with The End.
    TV viewership, radio banter, and online surfing reveal a perverse sense of wonder toward Armageddon. Yet at the same time, we as a society evince a peculiar denial toward predictable and increasingly frequent weather emergencies, such as Hurricane Sandy, which crippled power and left thousands homeless in parts of the northeast.

    Why do we often balance between this odd fascination with fictitious apocalysm and a state of unpreparedness toward authentic urgencies? (more…)

  • Mitch Horowitz: Goodbye, farewell, and Henry Wallace

    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.

    Friends, It has been a pleasure to be a part of the Boing Boing nation as a guest blogger these past two weeks. I hope to stay in contact online and to meet some of you at various gigs around the country, including at the Esalen Institute, where Erik Davis and I will be delivering a weekend workshop on February 19-21 titled "The Occult in America: An Adventure in Arcane History." You can also see me next Friday at 9 p.m. EST on a Dateline NBC special about Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.

    While I was writing Occult America, the figure I came to most admire was Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and second vice president. Wallace was not only a successful businessman (founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred) and an innovative politician (his policies saved thousands of family farms during the Great Depression), but he was also a genuine searcher into cosmic realms, freely exploring Theosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, astrology, Native American shamanism, and various strands of mysticism. His name may be largely forgotten, but he was a model of how to live with purpose.

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  • The Kybalion by "Three Initiates"

    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.

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  • Mitch Horowitz on Occult New York

    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.

    Okay, so New York is supposed to be the city of big commerce, literary culture, and high art – no room here for woo-woo spirituality, the odor of patchouli, or anyone who capitalizes words like Light or Truth. Well, actually not. This Sunday, October 11th I'll be conducting a walking tour of occult New York — and hopefully giving participants a new way of seeing the city: As a once-upon-a-time laboratory for alternative spiritual ideas, which it helped to export to the rest of the world back before there was a New Age. Here are a few of the historic sights – familiar and obscure – we'll be viewing… (more…)

  • Saint Expedite

    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 most interesting aspects of folk religion in America is the enduring figure of Saint Expedite – a youthful, Roman-garbed saint barely tolerated or acknowledged within the upper echelons of the Catholic Church but the subject of loving circles of worship throughout Latin America and many parts of the United States. (I've encountered his statue in a Catholic Church in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.) Simply put, Saint Expedite is the patron of those who need help in a hurry: with jobs, relationships, money, etc. In Brazil, he is the venerated helper of people looking for work; in America, so says Wired magazine, he is the "patron saint of the nerds," i.e., a figure who can help untangle internet connections and the keep communications networks flowing; to church authorities he is merely an icon of "popular religiosity" who never historically existed.

    The story of Saint Expedite's existence dates back to logs of martyrs kept in the Roman Empire, where the surname appears. Some speculate that the Saint Expedite cult got started when a box containing the statue of an unnamed Roman sentry got labeled "expedite" for shipping purposes and fell into the hands (and hearts) of a Paris convent. Whatever the case, church authorities step carefully around Saint Expedite, not wanting to alienate his devoted following among many Latin American Catholics; Saint Expedite is also a focus of devotion among practitioners of the African-American magical tradition called hoodoo, among some New Agers, and followers of Santeria.

    For the story of Saint Expedite, check out LuckyMojo.com and Wired magazine. I also write about him in Occult America.

  • The American Spirit

    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.

    Parade magazine publishes a new poll tomorrow – with a piece on CBS Sunday Morning that I'm part of – which reveals the fluid and expanding meaning of spirituality in America. Fifty-nine percent Americans polled agree that "all religions have validity" and only twelve percent agree that "mine is the only true religion." To an extent, this reflects an attitude introduced into America by Enlightenment philosophy, Freemasonry, Transcendentalism, and, most recently, Theosophy in the late 19th century. Theosophy emphasized the principle that all religions emerge from a universal source. Likewise, the survey reflects the inroads of what might be considered occult or New Age outlooks in America: Seven percent of Americans believe in reincarnation (a concept that few Americans had heard of a generation ago); seventeen percent report having contact with the dead; forty-nine percent read horoscopes "for fun," whereas twelve percent are believers. The poll reveals many other wrinkles, which readers will find cause for cheer or depression, depending upon their outlook. But consider: Gandhi, whose 140th birthday fell yesterday, was making what was considered a radical statement when he declared that "all religions are true" (to which he also added, "all have some error in them"). Today, a majority of Americans agree.

    CBS Sunday Morning runs its piece tomorrow at 9 a.m. EST in which I will discuss "the history of the occult in the United States."

    What We Believe (CBS Sunday Morning)

    Spirituality Poll results (Parade magazine)

  • Esoteric classics: a list of books

    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.

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  • The Occult and Hip Hop

    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.

    Since the late 1960s a very original and unclassifiable inner-city mystery religion called the Five Percenters has served as an inspiration behind some of the language and imagery of New York's hip hop scene. I recently spoke with All Things Considered host Guy Raz about the strange (and persistent) appearance of occult and esoteric themes in the work of Jay-Z.
    "Jay-Z: A Master Of Occult Wisdom?"

  • Mystery School


    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 weirdest and most wonderful sites on the map of spiritual Los Angeles is the Philosophical Research Society (PRS). Occult scholar Manly P. Hall (1901-1990) opened this Mayan-Egyptian-art-deco campus in the Griffith Park neighborhood in 1934. Hall was the author of the legendary encyclopedia of occult lore, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (quoted in the epigraph to Dan Brown's latest novel), and he designed the Philosophical Research Society, or PRS, as his sanctum and school. I'm speaking at PRS this coming Saturday, October 3rd and Sunday, October 4th, at 2 p.m. daily on the history of the occult in America. I'll be considering everything from the career of Manly P. Hall to the growth of "mind power" mysticism. From Occult America:

    Hall fancifully spoke of modeling his headquarters after the ancient mystery school of Pythagoras. More practically, PRS provided a cloistered setting where Hall spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and assembling a remarkable collection of antique texts and devotional objects. His small campus eventually grew to include a 50,000-volume library with catwalks and floor-to-ceiling shelves; a 300-seat auditorium with a throne-like chair for the master teacher; a bookstore; a warehouse for the many titles he wrote and sold; a wood-paneled office (complete with a walk-in vault for antiquities); and a sunny stucco courtyard. Designed in an unusual pastiche of Mayan, Egyptian, and art-deco motifs, PRS became one of the most popular destinations for L.A.'s spiritually curious, and remains so.

    Philosophical Research Society

  • Mitch Horowitz: What is the 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.

    When discussing the occult, a natural question arises: Just what is the occult? In short, the occult encompasses a wide range of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an "unseen world" whose forces act upon us and through us. Here is a piece of my introduction to Occult America that expands on that question….

    Occultism describes a tradition–religious, literary, and intellectual–that has existed throughout Western history. The term comes from the Latin occultus, meaning "hidden" or "secret." The word occult entered modern use through the work of Renaissance scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who used it to describe magical practices and veiled spiritual philosophies in his three-volume study, De occulta philosophia, in 1533. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first instance of the word occult twelve years later.
    Traditionally, occultism deals with the inner aspect of religions: the mystical doorways of realization and secret ways of knowing. Classical occultism regards itself as an initiatory spiritual tradition. Seen from that perspective, the occultist is not necessarily born with unusual abilities, like soothsaying or mind reading, but trains for them. (more…)