Why Care About America’s Occult Past?

I like history, but I love occult history. Anything that involves magick or the supernatural I have a high interest in. That doesn’t mean I believe every spell I’ve ever read about works or that every ghost story is literally true. By way of comparison I don’t think the fall of Troy happened in exactly the way it’s laid out by Homer, but that doesn’t mean I simply dismiss it. For the Fourth of July weekend I put together a little article on America’s occult past. That article ended up being widely read (always gratifying!) but it attracted some negativity too, a commenter left me this little note:

“I’m not sure what the point is? Americans have been ignorant and poorly educated, for even longer than we care to admit? . . . . . .This is the 21st century, however, and belief doesn’t change facts, no matter how long it’s been around. Shouldn’t we be escaping superstitions, not celebrating them?”

But here are all sorts of reasons to celebrate America’s occult past!

America’s Occult History is a part of America’s History. We don’t ignore slavery, racism, or the Great Depression simply because they are unpleasant (and horrific) moments in our history. Instead we write about them, try to figure out what wrong, and then do our best to make sure they never happen again (well, maybe not in the case of the Great Depression). Whether or not one believes in the occult is immaterial. People believed in these things. The question then becomes why did they believe in these things? What can we learn about America by accurately and honestly reviewing our past? Great religious movements evolved out of ideas that many trace to the occult and some legendary Americans were inspired by forces and influences many have linked to the supernatural.

People who practiced magick were intelligent. Magick wasn’t for the “ignorant and poorly educated,” if anything it was just the opposite. Anyone capable of getting through Barrett’s The Magus had to have been a pretty smart cookie. Ceremonial Magick takes a great deal of thought and has long been the province of the educated. Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist for instance. Most practitioners of ceremonial magick were literate, and so were most of the people we might think of today as “village witches.”

Magick often serves as cultural memory. One of the most amazing things about folk magick is that certain spells and practices have survived for thousands of years. Modern Hoodoo contains traditional elements from Africa within it, a few of the spells in a grimoire like The Long Lost Friend date back to the Roman Empire. Not caring about our magickal past is like not caring about the origins of an old folk song. Some magickal practices are essentially living history. I don’t know about you but I think that’s worth caring about.

Magick and the occult serve as creative outlets. Hate on magick and the occult all you want, but both have served as creative outlets over the last two thousand years. Magickal ideas are a part of our art and literature. Crafting a good spell requires time, toil, and imagination. One doesn’t have to believe in something to admire the work that has gone into it.

Most seances were faked, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. I’ve always been fascinated with the Shroud of Turin. I don’t think it’s the burial shroud of Jesus or anything, but it’s incredible because it’s such a well thought out forgery. To me a lot of Nineteenth Century seances are exactly like the Shroud of Turin: fakes but fascinating! Levitating tables, music instruments floating in the air, strange sounds . . . . . that’s cool stuff. I’m sure people have been steered in the wrong direction by fake mediums, but I’m also sure that some people have had genuinely moving experiences too. If a seance gave someone a degree of reassurance or a sense of closure isn’t that a good thing? (Even if it were faked?)

People are sometimes too quick to dismiss the supernatural. I’m generally very dismissive when it comes to supernatural matters, but I’ve had a small hand-full of experiences that just can’t be explained away. I’ve been in the middle of my own ghost story and no one will ever convince me that what happened that night was anything but real. I’m not alone either, lots of people had had encounters with those who have gone beyond the veil. Even if one doesn’t believe in them they are worth thinking about.

Understanding our occult past presents a more truthful portrait of American history. America has always pretended to be this pious, dour, Christian nation, but that’s never really been the case. Why care that more people practiced magick than went to church in the year 1790? I don’t know, possibly because it’s the truth? America has always been a land of diverse spiritual and magickal beliefs and to suggest that everyone two hundred years ago simply sat uncomfortably in a church pew is a rewriting of history I’m not comfortable with. Writing about our occult past is like throwing a pie in the face of rightwing gas-bags like Rush Limbaugh. That alternative and magickal beliefs have been sprouting up in the United States nearly from the beginning speaks well of my country, so I’m going to share it!

As a Pagan, Western Occultism is my heritage. I have a teacher who once told me that “Wicca is a part of the Western Magickal Tradition,” and I completely agree with her. I can find traces of my faith in folk magick, Renaissance alchemy, and Freemasonry. I’m sure atheists ponder the great thinkers who influenced them, why can’t I ponder the beliefs and practices that have led me to where I am today? A great many early Pagan communities were extremely inclusive too, shouldn’t that be celebrated?

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


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