Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review: “Occult America” follows hidden thread of spiritual seeking throughout American history

by Milky Way Maid

A new book by Mitch Horowitz, "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation," reveals a previously ignored thread in American history, the progress of the personal spiritual search. Horowitz writes that “The arcane philosophies grouped under the name of occultism represent an unheralded thought movement in America's national life, one that not only placed horoscopes into nearly every daily newspaper, but that transformed a young nation into the launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that spanned the globe in the 20th century.”

The medieval church had succeeded in squeezing every type of nature worship, astrology and cosmology and related arts, into a dark basement with Satanists and black magic purveyors. But during the Renaissance, church reforms allowed studies of Greek and Roman pantheons, culture, and science; later they discovered old Egyptian texts. Europeans became fascinated with the idea of a subculture of adepts in all the hidden arts or crafts. In spite of astrologers being forced out of respectable colleges during the so-called Enlightenment, European royalty “maintained discreet ties to occult societies and impresarios.”

Across the sea, a new nation became home for religious refugees from Germany and elsewhere. In 1694, and group of Germans were led by Johannes Kelpius to Pennsylvania, where they could practice the arts of astrology, alchemy, numerology, and mystical Christianity. They were followed soon after by the Quakers. Upper New York state was quite a hotbed of religious fervor, giving rise to the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and assorted other 'cults'.

Nowadays it is an open secret that many of the Founding Fathers were members of the Freemasons. Their occult symbols still decorate our paper money, and it is said that their geometry is hidden in the layout of the national capitol in Washington, D.C.

The mid-1800's produced another spurt of spiritual self-discovery in Transcendentalism, shepherded by intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their brand of religiousity was separate from organized religion; in fact they insisted that the only true place of communion was within, not in a church. Transcendentalists drew upon terms from 'Hindoo' texts as well as Hermetic principles.

During the same period, Spiritualism was born and flourished in a phenomenon that has not been matched. A craze for seances, table rapping, and mediumship could never satisfy the incredible yearning for communication with those who have passed on. And I might add, that it is a yearning that is still being actively taken advantage of in the modern media.

Fortunately other, more intellectual, threads of occult wisdom balanced them out. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky created the Theosophical Society, the intellectual equal of Emerson and Thoreau. Blavatsky came to America in 1873, and two years later founded her Society in New York City. It was dedicated to reintroducing Hindu and Buddhist ideas not only here but in India, to which the Society moved within a few years of its founding in the States. Its influence was enormous but in surprising ways. A young Mohandas Gandhi came into contact with her followers while he was still studying in London in 1889. Gandhi credited the Theosophists with bringing him back to Hinduism.

Another thread of American spiritual activism is called New Thought. Founded by a New England clockmaker named Phineas Quimby, it focused on mental healing, sometimes with the aid of Mesmerism. Quimby treated a young lady named Mary Baker Eddy, who drew upon her experiences to found the Christian Science church. You may find related elements in Norman Vincent Peale's power of positive thinking, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Dale Carnegie, (How to Win Friends...), and for that matter in Wayne Dyer (You'll See It When You Believe It), Norman Cousins (humor therapy) and The Secret.

The modern landscape is littered with both successful and moribund belief systems, but at least we have all had a chance to try them out for ourselves. And how many bookstores, not to mention talk shows, would have been boarded up if not for sales of myriad titles on how to fix your own head. The unfortunate result, in my opinion, is that Americans have settled for philosophy a la carte, or to put it another way, believe whatever you want to believe. We are too lazy for rigorous mental exercise, and probably won't even read someone's book if he/she is not also an entertaining speaker. That is our loss. America has been truly blessed with some gifted and wise people, and we would do well to dig out their old books and learn from them.


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