“Newton was by no means the only natural philosopher who had drawn upon magical traditions. Indeed, Newton’s own interest in various magical traditions can best be understood by locating it within a late-Renaissance movement to reform natural philosophy by paying closer attention to various magical or occult traditions.
Although it is now (at last) diminishing, there is still enormous resistance among the more positivist philosophers and historians of science to any suggestion that magic might have been instrumental in the emergence of modern science. It is remarkable, for example, that the authors of two recent books on the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution, one introductory and the other advanced, both felt the need to justify the claims they were making on behalf of alchemy because of its ‘associations with magic and the occult’. For the most part, the arguments against the possible influence of magic on science are presented a priori, while the historical evidence is simply ignored. So, magic is characterized as irrational and its influence upon a supremely rational pursuit like modern science is easily dismissed as inherently implausible. Similarly, magic is said to be concerned with the supernatural and therefore could only be antithetical to mankind’s heroic intellectual endeavour to explain phenomena in entirely naturalistic terms. What is particularly unfortunate about this approach is that, by dismissing magic at the outset, it fails to put any effort into understanding the nature and significance of magic in the pre-modern and early modern periods. But this ahistorical approach is intellectual chauvinism of the most arrogant kind, and the result is undoubtedly a diminishing of our understanding of the origins of modern science. To carry on in this vein is to repeat the errors of Sir David Brewster, Isaac Newton’s first biographer. Taking the opportunity to scrutinize Newton’s manuscript remains, Brewster soon came across the huge mass of alchemical manuscripts. His appalled response is well known:
… we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.
When seen in the light of Brewster’s overwhelming admiration for Newton this is highly significant. An observer might have expected that Brewster would be led by his otherwise slavish veneration for his great forebear [sic] to conclude that, if Newton was so interested in alchemy, then there must have been something in it. But no, evidently Brewster’s conviction that alchemy was worthless rubbish outweighed even his awe of Newton’s genius.
It seems perfectly clear that something recognizably like modern science first emerged as a direct result of the absorption of various aspects of the magical tradition into traditional contemplative natural philosophy.”
Henry, John. 2012. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic“ in Religion, Magic, and the Origins of Science in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate) 4-7.
Thoughts such as this, I suspect, can help explain why I’ve moved increasingly from Nietzsche to occult studies. Not that Nietzsche was an occultist (he was quite disappointed by the one seance he did attend), but his emphasis on traditions, mysteries, symbols myth and the force of will can certainly lend itself to a intriguing reinterpretation of thought at the fringes of society.
“If on one level, then, the Dionysian is a thoroughly modern myth, on another level the Dionysian is a symbol for the ineradicable need for myths in modernity. Nietzsche thus uses the Dionysian to expose, in a rhetorical rather than declarative way, the most transparent and therefore most invisible myth of all: the myth of mythlessness that prevails in the modern world, its presumed ‘timeliness.” Philology as a discipline is what helps to sustain this myth and the modern needs for myth in the contemporary present. That those needs are said by Nietzsche to be consistent with religious needs that develop in antiquity is only a sign of the deeply rooted nature of the phenomenon described and of its seeming ineradicability.
Traditional philology is the agency that helps to sustain the mythical shape of the present, in part by alienating myth as an object of dispassionate study. It is one of the forms that forgetfulness assumes. Exposing this condition is the work of a critical philology. And because there is no philology that does not stand in the shadow of its own history, philology for Nietzsche must become a self-reflexive, self-critical, and often paradoxical undertaking.”
Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 224.
I am pleased to be able to announce the launch of the Facebook page for an upcoming journal, “Beyond Borderlands: A Critical Journal of the Weird, Paranormal and Occult”. I’ll be editing it along with a talented group of individuals and we hope to be open to submissions around April.
The link to the page is here:
What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).
Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.
She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).
Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.
In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:
I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.
She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:
I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.
Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?
Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.
I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”
To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:
the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.
And concluded by reminding her:
Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.
The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,
Ida C. Craddock
On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.
And this is where Crowley comes into this. After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:
one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.
While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.
For More Information:
Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: http://www.idacraddock.com/
http://h2g2.com/approved_entry/A51607181 “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”
Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.
On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.
Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.
In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.
There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.
I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.
Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.
In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.
For More Information:
I still do not know quite what to think of the relationship between Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson and the occult. His fifth solo album “Chemical Wedding”, the single “Man of Sorrows” and his hand in writing the recent film also titled “Chemical Wedding”. The songs on the album are harder than the pieces he worked on with Iron Maiden, but they do evince more than a passing familiarity with occult thought and symbology. I have yet to see his film, but my most respected esoteric friend seems very critical of it. Still, I remain curious.
The occult has had a long and productive relationship with art, which is intriguing for the divide between the esoteric and exoteric demands of the tradition. Yet they both function through similar, metaphorical channels and ways of thinking, and, like Goethe’s claim in Faust, can be hidden openly in the artistic work. Not only hidden, I contend, but addressed and developed as well. Representative of the divide between Newtonian and Goethean alchemy, it has been the primary mode of esoteric exploration in the west since the Enlightenment. Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Peter Birkhäuser, Achille-Claude Debussy, William Blake, and many more besides. At the end of the 19th century the Newtonian interest in the occult, that is to say, the experimental, physical emphasis, looked to be reviving in the work of the London Society for Psychical Research, with William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace, Oliver Lodge and the journalist W.T. Stead’s efforts at the scientific popularization of esoteric research. Unlike many other modes of thought, it seems likely that this realm of exploration benefits equally from artistic and scientific exploration, for both its psychological and physical effects on human knowledge, and the primary place of pattern recognition in its myriad manifestations.
For More Information: