Since discovering Paganism in the early 1990’s I’ve been obsessed with magickal history. Most of those journeys into the past have tended to revolve around Witchcraft related topics, but I’ve got a weak spot for anyone or anything associated with magick and the occult. As a Witch it’s easy to obsess about European history (and especially that of Great Britain), but America has a pretty nifty occult past. Perhaps it doesn’t extend back as many centuries as that of England, but I still think it’s pretty significant.
What follows are some of my favorite magickal, occult, and Pagan pioneers. Many of them deserve far more words than the few paragraphs I’ll be providing in this article, but in honor of the Fourth of July I wanted to do something mildly patriotic and this is what I came up with. America might not be the home of Gerald Gardner or the Golden Dawn, but it is the home of Marie Laveau and she’s hard to top!
Marie Laveau (1801-1881-Sometimes the date given for Laveau’s birth is 1794)
Everyone knows who Marie Laveau is! She’s arguably the most famous resident of New Orleans ever, and 130 years after her death she’s arguably more popular today than she was during her physical lifetime. I say physical lifetime because Laveau has become transcendent. Today she’s honored as a loa, and I’d argue that she’s a part of Americana, and deserves a seat next to John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed at the table of American folklore.
Thanks to contemporary newspaper reports we know that the original Marie Laveau lived in New Orleans during the Nineteenth Century and practiced Voodoo. Due to legal and church records we know the names of her children and other family members, and some of the properties she owned. First hand recollections from people who knew her and her family that were collected in the late 1930’s also contribute to the very limited body of knowledge we have about Laveau. But many of the details of her life remain a mystery. She was both a Voodoo Queen and a practicing Roman Catholic, and despite reports to the contrary there’s no evidence that she was a hairdresser.
The mystery of Laveau is an important part of her legacy. There are some who believe her legendary grave at St. Louis Cemetery Number One is not her final resting place, and since the 1950’s there have been whispers of a “second” Marie Laveau, said by some to perhaps be a long lost daughter. In 1915, thirty-five years after her death, a book of spells attributed to her first appeared on store shelves, and it’s been in print ever since.
I think Laveau is certainly the most well known American practitioner of a magickal faith ever, and that’s a title she’s not likely to relinquish anytime soon. During her lifetime Laveau was known as a strong and compassionate woman, she was inspiring then and she’s inspiring now.
Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875)
Randolph should be a huge figure in the history of modern magick, but is mostly a footnote these days, but that’s something I’m fighting to correct. A free man of color, Randolph managed to overcome the racism of his day and along the way write over 50 books, obtain a medical license, and work as a trance medium. He was also an early proponent of birth control, which was rare at the time. Randolph also visited every continent but Antarctica during his lifetime and might have been the only person to ever meet both Eliphas Levi and President Abraham Lincoln.
His magickal contributions are probably what you are waiting for in this article, and on that count Randolph does not disappoint. He founded the first Rosicrucian Order in the United States, and the first he group he started still exists over 150 years later. He established other chapters of his order throughout the country and set up “Rosicrucian Reading Rooms” from sea to shining sea. Eventually his reading rooms were all shut down, most likely because they were more likely to be used for sex magick than for reading!
From the pen of Randolph himself:
“The ejective moment, therefore, is the most divine and tremendously important one in the human career as an independent entity; for not only may we launch Genius, Power, Beauty, Deformity, Crime, Idiocy, Shame or Glory on the world’s great sea of Life, in the person of the children we may then produce, but we may plunge our own souls neck-deep in Hell’s horrid slime, or else mount the Azure as coequal associate Gods; for then the mystic Soul swings wide its Golden gates, opens its portals to the whole vast Universe and through them come trooping either Angels of Light or the Grizzly Presence from the dark corners of the Spaces.”
Randolph either introduced or reintroduced the world to sex magick in the Nineteenth Century, and it’s the magickal achievement he’s most well known for. His work was a direct influence on the O.T.O., and while no one is sure if Aleister Crowley actually read Randolph, it’s not much of a stretch to say that sex magick as we know it today would probably not exist without Randolph. (And if you can’t figure out what the ejective moment is, I can’t help you.)