Tag: culture

Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona in May of this year, on the links between art and the occult. As I point out in the talk, this connection goes far back into our past and seems to have been on hand when human consciousness first arose out of its animal roots and became aware of itself and the strange world in which it had awoken. From there I chart some of the main points of contact between the artist and the occultist or magician, until we arrive at our own recent re-discovery of the occult by artists bored to tears with postmodern irony and apathy and the self-censoring requirements of producing work that is socially useful. One expression of this search for something more than ironic self-reflection or social utility is what has come to be known as “occulture,” and at the end of the talk I mention some current efforts to get this across to a, with any luck, eager audience. Here is a link to my talk. And here it is in pixels.

Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

In recent years the occult, the mystical, and the magical have become popular subjects in the art world, but the links between art and the occult reach back much further than we think. The earliest signs of art appear at the very start of our humanity, and even then it was associated with other worlds. 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic, humans like ourselves used art as a means of entering other realms and as a way of recording what they encountered there. Cave art found in places like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain suggest that our prehistoric ancestors used these interior spaces to enter another “inner” world, that of the mind, or, as they more likely would have thought of it, the spirits.

While in trance states – most likely induced by psychedelic substances – prehistoric artists made cave paintings depicting the strange half-animal, half-human creatures they encountered, what are known as “therianthropic figures.” Some theorists suggest these cave paintings later became symbols prehistoric psychonauts meditated on while within these deep spaces.[1] As the hallucinogens altered their consciousness, our ancient ancestors performed rituals and offered prayers to the spirits evoked through the images on the walls. Like later shamans, these early visionaries returned from their inner journeys with helpful knowledge gleaned from the other side. It seems that from the start, the insight that “in art it is necessary to study ‘occultism’” and that the artist “must be clairvoyant; he must see that which others do not see” – as the esoteric philosopher P. D. Ouspensky, whose writings influenced Russian avant-garde artists like Kasimir Malevich and Mikhail Matiushin declared – was in full force.[2]

Architecture in its earliest forms was also concerned with realities beyond the everyday. The earliest dating for the construction of Stonehenge, the most famous megalithic site, is 3100 BC. While perhaps not strictly “art,” the precision with which the enormous stone slabs making up Stonehenge are arranged induces an unquestioned aesthetic effect, which must have played a part in whatever other purposes the site may have served. Many theories suggest why our Neolithic ancestors erected these gigantic blocks, some of which weigh up to twenty-five tons, ranging from the needs of human sacrifice to a landing base for UFOs. Yet many researchers agree that, like other megalithic sites, these massive stones were placed with an accuracy modern engineers would find difficult to match, in order to chart the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Yet these astronomical calendars were not erected simply to record the change of seasons. As the writer Colin Wilson suggests, our ancient ancestors seem to have had some intuitive awareness of a kind of energy coming from the heavens and the earth itself, and they constructed Stonehenge in order to mark the times when this mysterious occult power was most present.[3]

Later, more sophisticated structures, like the great pyramids of Giza, seem to have been made with a similar aim, and suggest that whoever was responsible for them had a knowledge of astronomy and earth science far in advance of what conventional thought allows. There is considerable evidence that during their construction the pyramids served as observatories and that the accuracy with which they were able to pinpoint distant stars had more to do with ideas about the afterlife than with the demands of agriculture. While it is clear that later pyramids did serve as tombs, nothing about the great pyramids of Giza suggests they served as monumental mausoleums. There is reason to believe they served as initiatory temples, within which priests mastered the art of separating the soul from the body, so that it could begin its journey to the stars.[4] The very shape and contours of these spaces are believed to have been designed in order to create specific states of consciousness.

The pyramids are thought to contain much esoteric, occult knowledge. This is perhaps even more true of the Sphinx, which some believe predates the pyramids by millennia. According to the 20th century spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, the Sphinx is an example of “objective art,” which is designed to have the same precise effect on every viewer, unlike our more “subjective” art, which aims to express an idea or feeling of the artist, and about which the individual viewer can decide for himself.[5] We do not know who constructed the Sphinx or who is responsible for the strange sensation it still produces in those who stand before it. The same is true of the nameless stone masons and carvers who built the Gothic cathedrals.

In a highly competitive market, it is important for artists to have their name known. This was not the case during the rise of the Gothic (AD 1150-1220). Artists then did not ascribe their work to themselves; they rather lost their “selves” in the service of something greater. Some have suggested that those responsible for the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris belonged to esoteric “schools,” part of whose work was to embody in stone occult secrets about man, God, and the cosmos.[6] According to the mysterious 20th century alchemist Fulcanelli, the bas-reliefs, decorations, images, and icons depicted on the stones of Gothic masterpieces, speak the strange language of argotigue, which communicates alchemical secrets to those who can read it, and hides them from those who cannot.[7] As in the great Egyptian structures, one can detect the effect of “sacred geometry” in these holy places, the conscious use of the Golden Section and other significant measurements, derived from ancient sages like Pythagoras and Plato. When combined with the vivid stained glass of their enormous rose windows and early polyphonic music, the otherworldly effect within places like Chartres must have been transformative, sending their congregations into communal altered states.

In the sense that we know it, art comes into its own in the Renaissance. Here too we find the influence of the occult. The Renaissance was, of course, about rediscovering the works of ancient sages like Plato, lost for centuries. But as the historian Frances Yates makes clear in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, the Renaissance was even more about the rediscovery of the works of the most famous magician of all time, Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice greatest Hermes.” In 1463, a book scout for the Florentine power broker Cosimo de’ Medici came across a collection of Hermetic texts, believed to have been written by the great magician himself. Marsilio Ficino, Cosimo’s scribe, was busily translating some lost works of Plato when Cosimo pulled him away to work on Hermes instead. The result was a remarkable infusion of Hermetic and occult ideas into the burgeoning Renaissance genius. This can be seen in Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) the painting of which Yates suggests was directed by Ficino and which she describes as a “practical application of magic, a complex talisman.”[8] Sculpture too was informed with the Hermetic vision; as Yates writes: “The operative magi of the Renaissance were the artists and it was a Donatello or a Michelangelo who knew how to infuse the divine life into statues.”[9]

By the early seventeenth century, through an intolerant church and a rising modern science, the Hermetic teachings, hitherto respected, had lost much of their prestige. Yet this was a time when occult art flourished, in illustrated alchemical texts and “maps” of the hidden worlds, what was known as “hyperphysical cartography.” These complex diagrams made of colourful concentric circles, triangles, text, and striking illustrations depicted the secret relations between the physical and spiritual worlds. Alchemical works were crowded with red dragons, green lions, hermaphrodites, suns, moons and other strange symbols, many of which Surrealism would later borrow, conveying to the initiated the inner workings of nature. One of the most remarkable of these works was Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugens (Atalanta Fleeing) which appeared in 1618 and is an early example of multi-media, combining poetry, images, and music to convey the alchemical meaning of the ancient Greek myth.

As science and rationalism drove the Enlightenment on, many artists, wary of the new clockwork universe, rebelled and turned instead to the strange, the unusual, and the uncanny. The new ordered world seemed cold and barren, and they sought inspiration in the mysterious and in visions of a more romantic past. The Gothic revival bred a taste for ruins and desolate places, and for the darker side of human nature. The supernatural, left out of the Enlightenment agenda, was a favourite theme, and Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) expresses the fascination with the hidden, repressed, occulted self. Fuseli was one of many artists, writers and thinkers making up the “occult underworld” of late eighteenth century London; another was Fuseli’s friend, the poet, painter, and visionary William Blake, who himself attended séances.[10] Blake, an engraver, was practically unknown as a poet and painter during his lifetime. Yet Blake’s paintings, full of Michelangelesque men and women and bursting with vibrant vital forms and colours, are now treasured and are recognized, along with his poetry, as expressions of his spiritual, Hermetic vision. As Kathleen Raine points out, Blake was not an untutored “mad” genius. He was well schooled in the Hermetic philosophy, and as is the case with many Renaissance masterpieces, his striking paintings, engravings, and illuminated texts – another example of mixed media – are filled with symbols and images relating to the esoteric tradition.[11]

In the nineteenth century the Romantic rejection of the rising modern world spread across Europe and took root very firmly in Germany, as the eerie otherworldly paintings of Caspar David Friedrich show. Friedrich’s haunting landscapes, depicted in almost hallucinatory detail, leave the viewer with the sense of some other world, shimmering behind nature’s surface. This suggestion of a different reality, just out of reach, would inform the Symbolism that emerged as the century drew on. Rooted in the visions of the Swedish scientist and religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and his belief in a correspondence between the things of this world and the realities of a higher one, Symbolism informed the literature, art, and music of the time, reaching into Baudelaire’s poetry, Wagner’s operas, and the work of painters like Gustav Moreau and Odilon Redon. Orpheus, the poet-mystic of Greek legend, who descends into the underworld, was a favourite subject of Moreau’s lush, exotic works. Redon’s dark visions are best seen in his illustrations for Gustav Flaubert’s hallucinatory novel The Temptations of Saint Anthony (1874).

Redon was a familiar face in the mystical underground of fin-de-siècle Paris, where he rubbed elbows with other artists interested in the occult, such as the composers Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, the poet Stéphan Mallarmé, and the novelist J. K. Huysmans, whose Là-Bas (1891) is a classic of decadent Satanism. Important at this time was the occultist “Sar” Merodack Péladan, who initiated the famous Salon de la Rose-Croix, where, in 1892, Satie premiered his Trois Sonneries de la Rose +Croix. It was in this milieu that René Guénon, the founder of Traditionalism, and René Schwaller de Lubicz, the maverick Egyptologist and alchemist, began their careers. Inspiring the fin-de-siècle obsession with the occult were the thrilling works of the French magician Eliphas Levi, himself a skilled draughtsman, whose readers included Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and many others. In Dogme de la Haute Magie (1854) Levi argued that the most powerful weapon in a magician’s arsenal was his imagination, an insight that later magicians, like the notorious Aleister Crowley, no stranger to the canvas himself, developed considerably.[12]

Ironically it was in the stridently “modern” twentieth century that art’s links to the occult really came into their own. In 1912 Wassily Kandinsky published On the Spiritual in Art (1912), a work predicting a coming “Epoch of the Great Spiritual.” Influenced by his reading in Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner, Kandinsky saw art as a spiritual counterblast to the increasing materialism of the age. Kandinsky was not alone. Other important modernists, like Frantisek Kupka and Piet Mondrian were also inspired by their reading in Theosophy. Where Symbolism suggested another world, somehow hovering behind this one, Kandinsky and the others saw art as a means of entering that world itself, of reaching directly into the higher dimensions. Kandinsky is credited with having created the first abstract painting, but that distinction may really belong to an artist who was unknown at the time, but whose work, because of the recent interest in “occult art,” has come to light.

This was Hilma Af Klint, a Swedish student of theosophy and anthroposophy who is believed to have created an abstract work earlier than Kandinsky. One reason af Klint’s importance has been noted only relatively recently is that she did not exhibit her esoteric art in her lifetime, and asked that it not be shown to the public until twenty-five years after her death. When it was finally shown, more time than that had passed. Another is that, perhaps even more than Kandinsky, af Klint’s paintings were a means of entering into and exploring another level of reality.

Af Klint started out as a conventional painter, but her deeper interests were anything but conventional. Along with spiritualism, mediumship, automatic writing and painting, and other occult, mystical practices, she was also a student of Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. Working with other female artists also interested in the spiritual worlds, af  Klint produced automatic works inspired by higher intelligences, that predate Surrealism by decades, and produced “abstract” paintings in advance, as said, of Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian. But her interest in abstract art for its own sake was negligible. Her paintings were more overtly works of  gnosis than art. That is, they were ways of knowing reality, of entering spiritual worlds and seeing the invisible. But in these areas these pursuits more often than not overlap. And for the esoteric artist, art is a way of knowing.

Hilma af Klint came to the attention of a wider public in 1986 when her work received its first major showing as part of the ground breaking exhibition,  The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and which I had the great fortune to attend. Curated by Maurice Tuchman, the exhibition filled the museum’s new wing with more than 200 works displaying in a variety of ways the influence that occult, mystical, and spiritual ideas had on modern art.[13] We can say that it was the mother of all “art and the occult” exhibitions, and that this one, here today, has its roots in that exhibition, more than thirty years ago.

Another female occult artist whose work has been rediscovered, mostly through the interest shown in af Klint, is Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884). Throughout the 1860s and ‘70s, Houghton produced a series of remarkable “spirit paintings,” nearly abstract water colours guided by angelic intelligences, as well as by some of the Renaissance masters. Houghton was a well-known medium in Victorian spiritualist circles, but her attempt to spread the acceptance of spiritualist art was a disaster – her exhibition in 1871 left her bankrupt – and like af Klint, she withdrew her work from public showing, although it is now getting much belated attention.[14]

A more successful, at least at first, occult artist was the Londoner Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956), who burst on the English art scene as an enfant terrible of the Edwardians, having received acclaim at seventeen in 1903 as the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Yet Spare’s celebrity was soon overshadowed by his interest in the occult, magic, and strange, liminal states of consciousness, and he quickly slipped into obscurity.[15] He developed an art of Beardsleyesque delicacy and magical power, creating an original system of sigils and occult signs, aimed at contacting other planes. Among his many occult influences was witchcraft, a muse he shared with the Australian painter Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979), whose pagan, demonic canvases are often similar to Spare’s.

Spare was for a short time an associate of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) , mentioned earlier, the most notorious magician of the twentieth century, whose ideas influenced Norton and practically every occult artist that followed. Crowley himself painted, and in recent years his crude, disturbing work – like Spare and Norton, Crowley incorporates much transgressive sex in his occultism –  has garnered much attention and been exhibited widely.[16] And with Crowley we enter a realm of occult art in which the distinction between magic and art, ritual and performance, always flexible, becomes practically non-existent, an in-between sphere known as “occulture.”

The roots of occulture, like that of most art movements, reach back in various directions, but we can say that one sure source for it was the remarkable resurgence of widespread popular occult interest that made up the “occult revival of the 1960s.”  World War I had put an end to fin-de-siècle occultism. Interest in spirituality and the occult rose again in the post-war years and we can even see the 1920s as a kind of ‘golden age of modern esotericism,’ with many of its major figures all operating at the same time. And, as I briefly mentioned, Surrealism had more than a passing interest in the occult, André Breton himself being especially fascinated by the Tarot. But by the ‘dirty thirties’ and World War II, attention had turned elsewhere.

Yet by the late 1950s, interest in magic, witchcraft, the paranormal, and especially UFOs, began to spread. The Beat poets of San Francisco and New York had discovered the wisdom of the East, in the form of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the novels of Hermann Hesse. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider sent many off on existential quests. And in 1960, a book appeared in France that sparked an international magical revival. The Morning of the Magicians was a bestseller in France, and repeated its success in its English and other translations. Devoted to alchemy, ancient civilizations, extra-terrestrials , occult Nazis, mutants, and dozens of other strange ideas, in the Paris of Jean Paul Sartre and l’engagement it was as if a flying saucer had landed at the Café Deux Magots. A flood of books, films, television shows, and comic books, all riding on the occult wave dominated the popular culture of the time. By the middle of the decade, ideas that had been of interest to only a fringe segment of society, were now being embraced by the most famous people in the world, the Beatles. The rise in popularity of mind-altering substances like cannabis, magic mushrooms, and most influentially, LSD, seemed to confirm that a strange shift had happened, a return to ancient wisdom, smack in the middle of the modern age. It seemed that as man put his footprint on the moon, a new age of harmony and understanding was beginning on earth.

Yet by the early 1970s, that vision had faded and the dream dissolved. A grimmer sensibility settled in, a harder take on reality, a blacker shade of dark, that was reflected in popular culture. This was beginning of what we can call “dark rock,” the occult inspired current of heavy metal, and the more sophisticated enchantments of artists like David Bowie, who, like others, sought a golden dawn. And it was out of this in-between world, where art and magic meet, that occulture was born.

Allegedly coined by the performance artist/occultist Genesis P-Orridge in the 1980s, and associated with the high randomness of “chaos magick,” the portmanteau “occulture” gained academic credibility in 2004 when Professor Christopher Partridge defined it as a concern with “hidden, rejected and oppositional beliefs and practices associated with esotericism, theosophy, mysticism, New Age, Paganism,” and other ideas belonging to the “occult subculture.”[17] This elucidating mouthful reminds us that an academic discovery of the occult – or rediscovery, as  many pre-Enlightenment scholars were well acquainted with it – coincides with its recent artistic reassessment. This has led to scholars, artists, and practitioners rubbing magical elbows at such events as the conference on “The Occult and the Humanities” held in 2013 by the art department of New York University and which featured artists, mages, and academics deliberating on the place of the occult in today’s culture.[18]

As you might expect, occulture covers a wide spectrum, ranging from the diaphanous watercolours of the contemporary Swedish artist Fredrik Söderberg, to the more aggressive displays of the Swiss mixed-media artist Fabian Marti.[19] It’s roots lie in earlier occult artists such as the Crowleyan filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and the equally Crowleyan actress and painter Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) , in the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs Jr. (1914-1997) and Bryon Gysin (1916-1986), the magical cinema of Alejandro Jodorowksy and the dark “roccult and roll” of Orridge’s Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth and similar acts.[20] Like most esoteric terms, occulture is open for multiple interpretation, and we should not expect it to sit quietly with any single one. According to the “subcultural entrepreneur” Carl Abrahamsson, we should see occulture as a “general term for anything cultural yet decidedly occult/spiritual,” a brief that certainly covers a lot of ground, and allows artists to explore something other than their deadpan apathy –as postmodernism demands – and gives occultists a new way to look at their interests.[21]

If nothing else, occulture has stirred up a lot of action, at least in the English speaking world, from lavishly produced publications such as Fulgur Esoterica’s Abraxas: International Journal for Esoteric Studies, Abrahamsson’s Fenris Wolf, Mark Pilkington’s Strange Attractor Journal, and William Kiesel’s Clavis: Journal of Occult Art, Letters, and Experience, to collectable texts from Scarlet Imprint, Jerusalem Press, and the Ouroboros Press. And there are the conferences, seminars, symposia, book launches, lectures, exhibitions and events, much like this one, that proliferate like errant spirits, let loose by some sorcerer’s apprentice. For something unseen, it seems pretty clear that the occult, at least in the art world, is getting a lot of attention.

[1] David Lewis-Williams The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002)

[2] P. D. Ouspensky Tertium Organum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) p. 133.

[3] Colin Wilson Starseekers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980) pp. 26-27.

[4] See, for example, Jeremy Naydler, Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt (Oxford, UK: Abzu Press, 2005).

[5] P. D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949) p. 27.

[6] Rodney Collin The Theory of Celestial Influence (London: Watkins Books, 1980) p. 241.

[7] Fulcanelli Le Mystère des Cathédrals (Las Vegas, Nev. Brotherhood of Life, 2005) p. 42.

[8] Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971) p. 77

[9] Ibid. p. 104.

[10] For a vivid account of this time see Marsha Keith Schuchard Why Mrs. Blake Cried (London: Century, 2006).

[11] Kathleen Raine William Blake (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970).

[12] For some interesting articles on Crowley’s paintings, see Abraxas International Journal of Esoteric Studies issue 3 Spring 2013 pp. 43-83.

[13] For more on the link between art and the occult, see my article “Kandinsky’s Thought Forms: The Occult Roots of Modern Art” at https://www.theosophical.org/publications/1405

[14] http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/georgiana-houghton-spirit-drawings

[15] See Phil Baker Austin Osman Spare The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2011).

[16] See Abraxas: International Journal of Esoteric Studies Issue 3 Spring 2013 for several interesting articles on Crowley’s painting.

[17] Quoted in Here to Go: Art, Counter Culture, and the Esoteric ed. Carl Abrahamson (Stockholm: Edda Publishing, 2012) p. 7.

[18] See my article “Occulture Vultures” in Fortean Times No. 310 January 2014 pp. 56-57.

[19] See my Introduction to Söderberg’s Haus C G Jung (Stockholm: Edda Publishing, 2013), a collection of water colours based on Jung’s home and my contribution to Fabian Marti and Cristina Ricupero’s Cosmic Laughter No. 1 Time-Wave Zero, Then What? (Berlin: Sternberg Press, Ursula Blickle Stiftung, 2012).

[20] My books Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (New York: Disinformation Company, 2003) and Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World (New York; Tarcher/Penguin, 2014) explore the influence of the occult, particularly Crowley, on popular culture.

[21] Carl Abrahamson Resonances (London: Scarlet Imprint, 2014) p. 156.

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Lost Knowledge, Robots Not Allowed and Occult Politics in Spain

My new book, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, comes out in the UK this month, with the US edition following early next year – although the Kindle edition will be available sooner than this. For my London readers, there will be a launch for the book at Treadwells Bookshop in November. I’ve had great success with launching my books at Treadwells and I suspect this will not be an exception. And let me say that if people launched more books than missiles, the world would be a safer place.

Here’s a link to the first part of an ongoing interview with Greg Moffitt at Legalize Freedom about my biography of Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot. Greg is a great reader of Wilson and I am glad that my book reignited his interest in his work. We will be continuing the interview with at least two more sessions, which will still not be enough to cover all of Wilson’s importance.

Lastly, I am off tomorrow to Madrid and then Leon, Spain for the Ocultura Conference, where I’ll be speaking along side Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, and also Javier Sierra and other presenters at what promises to be a major European Occulture event. My talk will be on Politics and the Occult, and I will be promoting a new Spanish edition of my book on precisely that subject. I am not sure how prominent the occult is in Spain today, but given recent events there, politics is certainly on the agenda. (P.S. Just as I write this, BBC Radio 3, which I listen to fairly constantly, is playing Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie Espangnole  – how’s that for synchronicity?)

Criminal Outsiders

Steven Greenleaf has written a very insightful review of my first book, a collection of  essays on Wilsonian themes that Colin Stanley at Paupers’ Press took a chance on publishing back in 1994, unambiguously entitled Two Essays on Colin Wilson. It is somewhat humbling to recognize that one’s juvenilia was written in one’s late thirties – but then I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer, at least in terms of writing. Some encouragement, perhaps, to others who have put off getting their thoughts down on paper – or a computer screen – until their later years. Some of the material on William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller later found a home in Turn Off Your Mind and originally started life as an essay for a film class when I was working an a soon-to-be-aborted Ph.D in English Literature at USC. My professor thought my criticism of Burroughs etc was “vitiated by moral snipping” – remarkable what we remember. I doubt if the professor, Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, remembers it though.

The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Floris Books has posted the cover art for my new book, The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, which is due out in October of this year. Amazon has it listed as coming out in January 2017, but this is inaccurate. I’ll be posting excerpts from the book closer to publication, but for now let me say that it is a kind of distillation of some of the main themes of The Secret Teachers of the Western World and also of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin WilsonThe central idea is that of imagination as a cognitive faculty; that is, not as something concerned with ‘make believe’ but with a deeper perception, grasp, and understanding of reality. Oddly enough, as I was writing the book the whole question of ‘reality’ became a hot news item, with our descent into a ‘post-truth’ world make of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. And soon after finishing it I was commissioned to do a new book about precisely that, about how ‘reality’ seems to have become peculiarly flexible and pliable these days, and subject to the influence of – the imagination. Some kind of sychronicity seems to be at work – or am I letting my imagination get the better of me? You can find out some time next year when Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump sees the light of day.

The Outsider Goes On

Here’s a brief report on some current Colin Wilson related activities:

I recently sent the text to my talk “Colin Wilson and the Angry Young Outsiders,” given at the British Museum last October as part of the Folk Horror Revival Event, to be included in a book of the proceedings of the day. I hope the editor will be able to include some of the photographs I used in my lecture, especially the one from the Life magazine photo-shoot re-enacting Wilson’s days sleeping on Hampstead Heath.

Speaking of proceedings, Cambridge Scholars has announced that it will be publishing the Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference  on June 1 2017. The conference was held last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Outsider’s publication. Colin Stanley, Wilson’s bibliographer and the editor in chief of Paupers’ Press – which specializes in Wilson studies – has edited an eclectic collection of Wilsonian essays on a wide range of topics and produced a handsome volume. My own contribution was a talk on Faculty X. It’s pricey. But pester your local university library into getting a copy.

On May 11 2017 I’ll be giving a talk on “Colin Wilson: The Outsider and Beyond” as part of the Brighton Festival. I’ll be focusing on the books that came after The Outsider, such as Religion and the Rebel and the others making up Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’. This was his attempt to work out a new, positive existentialism, that could find a way out of the cul-de-sac old existentialists, like Heidegger, Sartre and Camus had found themselves in.

And finally, I am just now working on an Introduction to a new Paupers’ Press re-issue of Wilson’s rare collection of essays, Eagle and Earwig. Here Wilson applies his ‘existential criticism’ to writers like Ayn Rand, Robert Musil, David Lindsay – author of the marvelous A Voyage to Arcturus – and the sadly forgotten L. H. Myers, whose The Near and the Far is one of the best ‘novel of ideas’ written in the twentieth century. I’ve suggested to Colin Stanley that he should bring Eagle and Earwig out in a Paupers’ Press edition many times, and I am glad to see that he has taken my advice.

Secret Societies

This is the text of an “audio essay” I wrote for the exhibition Geheim Gesellschaften or “Secret Societies,” held at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, this summer. The exhibition is moving to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux in November, and on the 23rd of November I will be speaking there on the influence of secret societies on the modern world.

Secret societies have existed almost as long as society has itself. The initiates of ancient Egypt; the priest-kings of China; the acolytes of the Greek Mysteries;the shamans of humanity’s early dawn; the holy masters in their inner sanctums in the hidden cities of the world – all are alive today, and work their strange practices and issue their commands, unknown, unsuspected, and undetected by us.

The Secret Chiefs, the Hidden Masters, the Inner Circle, the Illuminati, the King of the World: we know them all today, perhaps in different forms and perhaps by different names. But we know them. They are the ones in control. They are ones behind the closed doors and within the locked rooms. They are the ones with the secret knowledge, who speak a secret language. They know the magic symbols that unlock the gates that lead to worlds beyond our own. They have passed through the trials and ordeals of initiation. They have found the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Emerald Tablet, the dreaded Necronomicon and the lost continent of Atlantis.

Many have belonged to this school. Some say Buddha, Christ, and Plato were its students.  There were others too, names so great that to mention them in the context of secret schools would shock the uninitiated. All received the secret knowledge and kept it from profane hands. They have spoken with the angels and listened to the music of the spheres. They have travelled to the interior of the earth and brought back the precious metals of the mind. They have confronted the awful Dweller on the Threshold and they know the song the sirens sang. They have taken the Journey to the East and followed the bark of Ra as it sinks into the west. They have set their controls for the heart of the sun. They built the pyramids and the Sphinx, Stonehenge and Notre Dame, the lost library ofAlexandriaand the labyrinth atChartres. They are the elite. They are the elect. They are the few who know, who dare, who will – and who keep silent.

They might be anyone. According to the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky – himself a member of an esoteric society and a lifelong seeker of theInner Circleof Humanity – much secret knowledge was learnt from an Oriental who sold parrots atBordeaux. Ouspensky’s own search for the miraculous and ‘unknown teachings’ led to an unprepossessing café in aMoscowbackstreet, where, after all his travels in the mystic East, he finally found The Man Who Knows.

He might be sitting next to you, or perhaps you passed him on the street. “Knock,” the Gospels tell us, “and it shall be opened unto you; ask and you shall receive.” But you must know where to knock and you must know who to ask. And you must first understand that the entire universe is a secret message, an enormous letter in a bottle made of space and time, washed ashore by the tides of eternity. You must look. You must question. You must take nothing for granted. You must be willing at a moment’s notice to give up everything – riches, position, power, your life – in order to have a single chance of passing from our everyday world, which we think we know so well, to that other world, that world of mystery, magic, miracle, and the unknown. That hidden, dangerous, seductive world of secret societies.

When you take that step, many things become possible. From then on nothing is true, and everything is permitted. From then on you may do what you will for, as the poet William Blake tells us, this world, the world you have left behind, is a fiction, made up of countless contradictions. This ‘real’ world, this world of newspapers, mobile phones, and internets, is, for those who have taken that fatal step, false. It is a trap, a prison house of the soul, where mind and body are constrained by the chains of ignorance and fear, the Archons of convention who keep us unaware of the knowledge, the gnosis, that will set us free. In the world of secret societies knowledge is power, and power is the power to know. It is the knowledge that you have the power to change the world by changing your knowledge of it. The secret writing, the hidden doctrine, the magical correspondences between above and below, lie beneath the thin surface text of everyday life. Here and there cracks appear in the mundane shell and we can briefly catch a glimpse of the real writing. We see connections, patterns, relations between the most disparate things.

As Edgar Allan Poe tells us in “The Purloined Letter,” that which is most hidden is open to view, provided you know how to look for it. Poe’s ‘spiritual detective’ is good at discovering secrets in plain sight. He wears dark glasses at night and keeps his shutters closed and his lamp burning by day. This reversal of the everyday world opens his imagination and enables him to see what everyone else is blind to, but which is in plain view. Like his creator himself, Poe’s detective is a member of the secret society of poets – for what is a poet but a discoverer of secrets that others do not know exist?

Now, with your eyes wide shut look around you and listen to the voices whispering loud and clear. Do not be afraid. Remember, each symbol is a doorway into your Self. The magic theatre waits; it is open for madmen only. As above, so below, and as within, so without. “When we dream that we are dreaming,” the seeker of the blue flower tells us, “we are close to awakening.” You approach the portal and must decide. Are you willing to take the risk? Are you ready to have your world turned upside down? Are you ready to join a society whose members know each other at a glance, who pay no dues, take no minutes? Whose meetings last the ages and take place among the Himalayas, onEgypt’s burning sands, and in the sunken cities of lost worlds? Do you want to know a secret?

Initiation

The candidate for initiation is a man or woman who is ready to change, to be transformed, to become someone different. If it is not a mere parroting of ritual, an initiation ceremony should have a serious effect upon the candidate. He or she should be a different person afterwards. Rebirth and regeneration are the signs that the initiation has been successful. This is usually achieved through some ordeal. Death and violence are never far from an initiation. As the esoteric historian Manly P. Hall tells us, “many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel.”

In the initiation rites of Freemasonry, the candidate re-enacts the murder of the ancient master builder Hiram Abiff, killed by three ‘ruffians’ because he would not reveal the secret Mason’s word. Daggers, a noose, and severe interrogation mark the candidate’s rite of passage. The initiate himself must swear eternal silence about these profound secrets, on pain of torture and death, should he reveal them to the profane, a commitment shared by all the great esoteric societies – hence the fact that we know so little about them. These Masonic rites themselves, or so it is believed, are based on the initiation ceremonies of the ancient Egyptians, a people whose whole society was ordered according to the ancient wisdom guarded by the high priests. In secret chambers built deep into the pyramids and below the temples of their gods, the ancient Egyptians performed rites, dramatic re-enactments of the struggle of the soul in its passage through the underworld after death. Based on the mysterious Book of the Dead, through ceremony, trance, trial, and terror, the Egyptian initiate experienced the journey of the soul through the fearful world of the Duat, that strange region inhabited by demons, gods, and the darker spirits of his own nature, while still alive. Passing through successfully he joined his fellow initiates as a soul freed from the terror of death, and took his place among them amidst the eternal stars.

As the journey to the stars took place via the underworld, many initiation rites were performed in sunken chambers, in caves and grottoes, which symbolized the fallen nature of the Earth. Below the temple of the god Serapis in ancient Alexandria– destroyed in 391 AD by the Roman emperor Theodosius – strange mechanical devices constructed by the ancient priests were found in subterranean crypts and caverns, where the initiatory trials were undergone. In the worship of the lost Persian saviour-hero Mithras, initiation rites were performed in underground temples fashioned to look like caves, which the initiate entered by descending seven steps – representing the ancient planets – and upon whose walls were painted mystic symbols. Here the candidate underwent grievous trials, where he was pursued by the wild beasts and demons of his lower nature. Part of the Mithraic rites involved the tauroctony, or sacrifice of a bull, in which Mithras, the intercessor between man and the gods, stabs the animal with a sword, while turning his face toward the sun.

The theme of a sunken, subterranean, and secret chamber is found in many secret societies. In the myth of Christian Rosenkreutz, founder of the 17th century esoteric society the Rosicrucians, his uncorrupted body is discovered more than a century after his death, hidden in a seven sided underground vault, lit by a miniature sun, and surrounded by occult symbols. This image of a sun hidden in the earth – light sunken into darkness – was carried by the underground streams of esoteric thought into western literature, and appears, for example, in that remarkable compendium of secret knowledge, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by the eccentric 18th century Polish Count Jan Potocki. Potocki himself was involved in several secret societies; among them the sinister Illuminati. In his highly esoteric work, structured like the Arabian Nights (itself a treasure chest of secret lore), after confronting the sheik of a secret Islamic sect, his hero finds himself descending into a subterranean cave, illuminated by innumerable lamps, where he extracts from the dark earth the precious Rosicrucian gold of enlightenment.

Some secret schools, such as the ancient Magi, devotees, like the followers of Mithras, of a form of Zoroastrianism, performed their initiations in the open air, on mountain tops, without temples, altars, or images, and with the entire cosmos as a backdrop. Others, like the Druids, sought out hidden fields and woods, a preference shown by the renegade French surrealist Georges Bataille. Fascinated by the idea of human sacrifice ( a practice associated with the Druids) in 1936 Bataille formed a secret society (as well as a journal) named Acéphale – ‘headless’ – whose symbol was a decapitated Vitruvian Man, a mutilated version of Da Vinci’s famous drawing, holding a dagger, with stars for nipples, exposed entrails, and a skull in place of the genitals. Their meetings were held in forests and woods and Bataille, whose headless man depicts Dionysian frenzy and excess, planned for one member to become a human sacrifice. The ritual murder would link the others in a pact of blood, but plans for Bataille’s gory initiatory crime were aborted shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Following his passage into the new life, the initiate is introduced to the structure of the society he has joined, to the secret knowledge it protects, and to the secret language its members use to speak among themselves. He takes a solemn oath to preserve these sacred revelations, which, as mentioned, he must protect with his life. Family, friends, possessions, position, religion – all now take a secondary role. His new loyalty is to his new brothers and sisters, and even more so to his leaders, his superiors in knowledge and power, whose identity he often does not know.

Hidden Masters

             The theme of Hidden Masters, Secret Chiefs, Unknown Superiors, and Mysterious Mahatmas is one shared by many secret societies, ancient and modern. In the west it is perhaps best expressed in the curious history of the Rosicrucians. In 1614 inKassel,Germany, pamphlets appeared announcing the existence of a mysterious society of adepts, known as the Rosicrucians, whose mission was the ‘universal reformation’ ofEurope. This unknown group of philosophers called on their readers to join them in their work of creating a newEurope, freed from religious, social, and political repression. Many indeed were attracted to this message and sought out the mysterious brotherhood, among them the philosopher René Descartes. Yet try as Descartes and others may to contact the secret brothers, no one could ever find them. Their whereabouts, it seemed, were unknown,  and because of this the Rosicrucians soon attracted a new title, “the Invisibles.”

To some, the Rosicrucians’ ‘invisibility’ meant simply that they did not exist, and that the whole Rosicrucian craze was merely a hoax. Yet others rejected this idea, saying that, like their founder, Christian Rosenkreutz, they had gone into hiding, and only revealed themselves to the most worthy. Following the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, some said they had left Europe altogether and relocated toTibet, a place even then associated with Hidden Masters.

Freemasonry, too, has its own Hidden Masters. In the esoteric rite of Strict Observance, founded in the 18th century by the mysterious German Baron Karl Gottlieb von Hund, initiates must take a vow of absolute loyalty to masked figures known only as the ‘Unknown Superiors’, whose every command must be carried out with blind obedience. In the heady atmosphere preceding the French Revolution, Hund’s secret Masonic rites proved very popular, and the idea of secret leaders controlling events behind the scenes laid the groundwork for the conspiracy theories so widespread today. Stranger still was the belief that some Unknown Superiors were not simply men of position and power, but beings from another world. In the mystical Masonry of the Benedictine Antoine-Joseph Pernety, which combined Masonic ritual with mesmerism and the visions of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, orders were issued, not from a fellow Mason, but by some strange unearthly entity Pernety called “the Thing.” A similar paranormal chain of command was at work in the mesmeric Masonry of Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, who received angelic orders from an “Unknown Agent” via the trance states of a group of women called the crisiacs.

By the late 19th century, a new variety of Hidden Masters appeared through the medium of the remarkable Russian esoteric teacher Madame Blavatsky, responsible for founding one of the most influential esoteric schools of modern times, Theosophy. Blavatsky claimed to be the agent of a secret group of highly evolved adepts, known variously as the Mahatmas, Masters, or Great White Brotherhood, whose provenance was India and whose base of operation was Tibet. Their real identity was unknown but messages from the Brothers miraculously appeared from nowhere, and were signed by secret names such as “Morya” and “Koot Hoomi.”  Hints of the Theosophical Masters were soon linked to other legends of the East. One such was the strange myth of the King of the World, a powerful and sinister figure who resides in the subterranean city of Agartha, which lies unknown somewhere beneath the Gobi Desert. There he sits and “searches out the destiny of all peoples on the earth,” his sunken city linked to all nations through a vast network of tunnels. According to the 19th century occultist Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, founder of the secret political movement Synarchy, who was tutored in the ways of Agartha by the mysterious Haji Sharif, the King of the World is also known as the “Sovereign Pontiff.” His secret agents are at work in all corners of the globe, awaiting the signal to take the destinies of nations in hand, and prepare them for the King’s shattering appearance.

Less monumental but no less hidden are the Secret Chiefs whose edicts guided the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, perhaps the most well known secret occult society of modern times, which included among its members the poet W.B. Yeats and the infamous magician Aleister Crowley. Impatient with the speed of the Golden Dawn’s initiations, Crowleysought out his own Secret Chief, and in a hotel room in Cairoin 1904, he met him. Aiwass, a disembodied intelligence from another dimension, dictated to Crowleythe text of his most influential work, the notorious Book of the Law, the scripture for Crowley’s religion of Thelema. It’s message was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Crowley proceeded to do what he wilt with great enthusiasm, among other ways by starting his own secret society, the Argentinum Astrum  (‘Order of the Silver Star’), dedicated to Crowley’s peculiar blend of hedonism and magical philosophy. Many joined and today Crowley, once known as “the wickedest man in the world,” is an iconic figure within youth culture, his face and ideas informing a wide range of pursuits, from rock music – the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many other groups were devotees –  to drugs and sex.

In more recent times the notion of Hidden Masters or Secret Chiefs has entered more political realms, with Unknown Superiors appearing in the form of influential and powerful men, like the Bilderberg group, making secret decisions behind closed doors that affect – as did those of the King of the World – the destiny of nations. Conspiracy theories have their place in the world of secret societies, but they are, in essence, more of an offshoot than the main branch. Political conspiracies may revolve around important knowledge, but it is knowledge on only one level, that of the everyday world. The knowledge revealed to the initiates of the true secret societies is something very different. It is the secret knowledge relating to man and the cosmos.

Secret Knowledge

            The idea of a hidden, unknown, esoteric knowledge runs like a golden thread throughout the history of secret societies. It is the secret of the Holy Grail, the true meaning of the Philosopher’s Stone, the mysterious treasure of the Knights Templar, and the haunting face of the unveiled Isis. It is the genii of Aladdin’s lamp and the magic of Jason’s Golden Fleece. It is the guarded secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. It is known by many names and it is hidden in many places, but its meaning is one and all who seek it, honestly and with patience, find the same treasure and reap the same reward. “Behind the veil of all hieratic and mystical allegories, behind the strange ordeals of initiation, behind the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of old temples, and in the ceremonies practiced by all secret societies,” so the 19th century French Cabbalist Eliphas Levi reveals, “there is found a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.” This doctrine, the Ancient Wisdom, has been handed down through the ages from sage to sage, initiate to initiate, its profound revelations carefully guarded by the keepers of the secret Book. At its core is the perennial philosophy, the prisca theologia, the divine wisdom revealed to man by the gods at the dawn of time. Through knowledge of the secret doctrine, man becomes aware of his true place in the cosmos, escapes the fear of death, and knows that his real essence is of the gods.

Many have sought the secret knowledge, and journeyed to distant lands to find it. With other members of the Seekers of Truth, the 20th century Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff travelled toCentral Asia, in search of the hidden monastery of the fabled Sarmoung Brotherhood. There he encountered the Masters of Wisdom, agents of theInner Circle of Humanity, who accepted him as a student, and passed their knowledge on to him. In a secret monastery in forbiddenTibet, Madame Blavatsky lived for seven years, tutored by her mysterious Mahatmas in the teachings of the secret doctrine, absorbing the ancient wisdom that is at the core of all religions and esoteric thought. Christian Rosenkreutz himself had journeyed through the near East, the holy land and North Africa, arriving at the secret city ofDamcar, where he studied ancient and forbidden writings that taught the mystical truths about man and the cosmos. On his own journey to the East in search of secret schools, P. D. Ouspensky met others who were on the same journey, and it felt to him that a “secret society” grew out of these contacts, having no name, no structure, no laws, but was formed solely by their intense hunger for knowledge and passionate quest for truth.

Others have sought the secret knowledge in other ways, in ancient myths, in fairy tales, in the ruins of lost cultures and the fragments of lost worlds. In the labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral and the gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris, the mysterious 20th century alchemist Fulcanelli discovered a secret text, a philosophy in stone that transmits, to those who can see it, the fundamental truths of the universe. The medieval builders, Fulcanelli believed, were agents of an esoteric school, and carved into these Gothic masterworks, secret knowledge of the cosmos. Ages before, on the sands of ancientEgypt, the high priests of Isis and Osiris built enormous temples whose geometry embodied the wisdom of the gods, a theosophy in obelisks and strange colossi. To those who know how to read them, the Sphinx, the hieroglyphs, the pyramids are all chapters of a hidden book, a sacred scripture, a monumental text, revealing the mysteries of life and death. Other “syllables of granite” spoke of the mysteries too. According to Victor Hugo, who recognized in Notre Dame a great symphony of knowledge, “the immense pile of Carnac” – in Brittany – “is a complete sentence” expressing the lost wisdom of a people long gone.

To some, the secret knowledge comes in a flash, a sudden overwhelming revelation, like a lightning bolt of insight from the divine. So did the Universal Mind speak to the ancient sage Hermes Trismegistus, when it revealed to him the truth that man is a microcosm, a “little universe,” whose mind itself contains the galaxies and planets. So too did this cosmic consciousness come to others. Staring at the sunlight reflected from a pewter dish, the 17th century cobbler Jacob Boehme was suddenly privy to the “signatures of things”: their inmost essence was revealed to him and he gaze upon their true being. On 14 December 1914 the Lithuanian poet and diplomat O.V. de Lubicz Milosz had a mystical experience in which he rocketed through space carried along by a flying mountain, toward “nebulous regions silent and streaked by immense flashes of lightning.” A gigantic red egg hurtled toward him and was then transformed into a glowing “spiritual sun” which looked deeply into his eyes and revealed to him secrets of space and time. Milosz captured this vision in strange poetry full of mystical arcana, whose insights mirrored those of Einstein and revealed to him the mind of God. Other poets sought the secret knowledge in other ways. Obsessed with piercing the mute surface of things, the young Arthur Rimbaud, a great reader of mysticism and the occult, dedicated himself to becoming a visionary, a voyant. To do so Rimbaud threw himself into a “long, immense, and systematic derangement of the senses,” an initiation into altered states of consciousness that he hoped would open for him the hidden doors of perception.

The secret knowledge, however, is not for everyone. Like Poe’s “purloined letter,” in many ways it lies open to view, there for the taking if only one can see. But although our eyes are open we may still be blind, ignorant of the messages written in the things around us. Like travellers in a foreign land, we need to learn a strange tongue, a new language that will provide the key to unlock the hidden mysteries. This language is not given in dictionaries and guide books, but in the mysterious emblems, images, shapes and forms that make up the secret world of symbols.

Symbols

“Without the help of  symbols,” so Madame Blavatsky tells us, “no ancient scripture can ever be correctly understood.” “The great archaic system known from prehistoric ages as the sacred Wisdom Science,” she tells us, “had it’s universal language, the language of the Hierophants.” This master esoteric teacher is not alone in recognizing the absolute necessity of grasping the ancient language of symbols. In The Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts, the psychologist Herbert Silberer, a colleague of Freud and Jung, tells us that, “Symbolism is the most universal language that can be conceived.” “Symbols,” Silberer tells us, “strike the same chords in all men, and the individual, with every spiritual advance he makes, will always find something new in the symbols already familiar to him.” Speaking of the mysterious universal symbol of the nine-pointed enneagram, which is at the centre of his teaching, Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that it included all knowledge, and that by understanding it, books and libraries become unnecessary. “A man can be quite alone in the desert,” Gurdjieff said, “and he can trace the enneagram in the sand and he can read the eternal laws of the universe. And every time he can learn something new, something he did not know before.” And what is true of the enneagram is also true of all symbols: the pentagram, the hexagram, the yin and yang, the cross, the eye in the triangle. Their meaning is not exhausted by repeated meditation, but increased, just as great works of music, art, and literature reveal new depths and new dimensions each time we come to them with new eyes and ears.

Symbols have their great power because, unlike everyday words or pictures, they reach into the soul and transform it – again, just as great art does. In this way symbols have an initiatory character, and a true grasp of them has a palpable effect upon our consciousness. Unless we are changed by them, we do not know them, no matter how learned our understanding of them may be. They speak not only to the mind, the rational, questioning intellect, but to our whole being, and to parts of ourselves of which we are too often ignorant. According to the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the great works of 20th century esotericism, symbols “awaken new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations” and “require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation.” Symbols conceal and reveal simultaneously that which it is necessary to know in order to fertilize our inner life. To those uninitiated into their secrets, they are merely curious pictures and strange images which, once explained, trouble us no more. But to those who know, they are the seeds of new life.  They are a ‘ferment’ or ‘enzyme’ that stimulates our spiritual and psychic growth. They must, then, be approached with reverence and in secret. We must withdraw into ourselves in order to be immersed in them, to meditate on them and to allow them to reach inside our deepest being. Hence the need for solitude, silence, patience, and respect when approaching the language of symbols.

One aspect of the signs, symbols, and languages of secret societies is as a kind of camouflage, a disguise worn to prevent the uninitiated from gaining access to the hidden knowledge. The ancient Masons recognized each other by certain handshakes and words, and through these prevented outsiders from infiltrating their ranks. The medieval alchemists spoke in a strange, surreal, dream-like language of green dragons and red lions, of sulphur, mercury, and salt, of alembics and retorts, of solar kings and lunar queens who come together in weird androgynous unions to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. Reading their illuminated texts, one enters a terrain of shifting, changing contours, a metamorphosis of identities that is baffling, unless one possesses the key to decipher it. The Gothic architects too developed a peculiar argot, a “green language” (langue verte), a kind of “word play” that, again according to Fulcanelli, “teaches the mystery of things and unveils the most hidden truths” while at the same time remaining “the language of a minority living outside accepted laws, customs, and etiquette.” Through puns, jokes, double entendres and homonyms, this “phonetic cabala” at once communicated secret knowledge to those who knew, and obscured it from those outside the fold.

Passwords and secret signals are, it is true, an important part of secret societies. But they are merely an esoteric ‘firewall’, preventing human ‘viruses’ and ‘malware’ from entering the inner sanctum. Although it is necessary to keep the secrets secret – and hence obscured from profane view – the true essence of symbols is to communicate, and their hermetic, multiple character has always attracted poets. The great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, a confirmed occultist and passionate student of secret societies, wrote that “I believe in the existence of worlds higher than our own, and in the existence of beings that inhabit these worlds, and we can, according to the degree of our spiritual attunement, communicate with ever higher beings.” Pessoa trained himself to remain awake at the point of sleep, and in that twilight realm between two states of consciousness, he closed his eyes and saw “a swift succession of small and sharply defined pictures.” He saw, Pessoa tells us, “strange shapes, designs, symbolic signs, and numbers,” a parade of images similar to the occult signs and symbols, the Masonic and Cabbalistic insignia he perceived during his experiments with trance states. Like Rimbaud, Pessoa knew that initiation into the hidden knowledge may be achieved not only through the rites and ceremonies of a secret society, but through the passage from one form of consciousness to another. By opening the doors of perception and entering an altered state of consciousness, Pessoa, and others like him, reached the source of all mystic, esoteric, and magical symbols: the human mind itself.

Altered States

Human beings have desired to change their consciousness almost from the beginning of human consciousness itself, and if the findings of some researchers are correct, the taste for altered states of consciousness is shared by some animals too. Reindeer, birds, elephants, goats, and even ants have been observed to feel a desire to experience altered states. It seems that “the universal human need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence,” as the anthropologist Richard Rudgley puts it, is not limited to humans after all, and may itself be a fundamental drive of evolution.

The earliest forms of art may be linked to altered states. In some prehistoric sites, the strange spirals, swirling and curving parallel lines, and other highly complex geometric forms covering the cave walls, suggest the abstract imagery often associated with psychoactive experience. They also suggest the “strange shapes, designs and symbolic signs” Fernando Pessoa saw on the point of sleep, and which he believed were messages from “higher beings.” In Neolithic sites, such as the tomb of Gavrinis inBrittany, finely decorated braziers have been discovered, which some researchers have suggested were used in shamanic rituals in which opium was burned and inhaled in order to produce altered states. There is evidence also for cannabis use as a religious intoxicant in prehistoricEurope. Hemp seeds have been discovered in Neolithic sites inGermany,Switzerland,Austria, andRomania, and braziers similar to those discovered at Gavrinis containing burnt hemp seeds have been found in these locations. This suggests that they too were used in religious rituals, in which cannabis was burned to induce a change in consciousness. InChina, Central Asia, and theNear East, similar discoveries suggest that the use of cannabis and other psychoactive substances in religious rituals was widespread in the ancient world.

One of the oldest Hindu religious books, the Artharva Veda, speaks of drugs, their preparation and use, and many scholars have speculated on the identity of the mysterious Soma, an unknown plant whose psychoactive properties play a central role in the ancient religious texts of India and Iran. In the Iranian Avesta it is said that “all other intoxications are accompanied by the Violence of the Bloody Club, but the intoxication of Haoma is accompanied by bliss-bringing Rightness.” Some candidates for Soma include cannabis, alcohol, Syrian rue, opium, and Ephedra, possibly the earliest known psychoactive plant in human history. During excavations in the 1950s, remains of six Ephedra plants were found in a 50,000 year old Neanderthal grave in the Shanidar cave inIraq, suggesting that even our pre-homo sapiens ancestors were interested in altering their state of consciousness.

Another candidate for the mysterious Soma is the fly-agaric mushroom, known to be used by Siberian shamans in their mystical excursions into the spirit world. In the late 1960s, the American R. Gordon Wasson suggested that this sacred mushroom might be the answer to riddle of Soma. But the identity of the mysterious ancient drug remains unknown.

In the 1950s, Wasson had already made psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms’ famous through his studies of their religious and initiatory use inMexico. There,  Wasson learned much about the sacred mushroom from the healer María Sabina, who spoke of the secret knowledge she received through its use. It produced visions of “ancient buried cities, whose existence is unknown.” She “knew and saw God” and could see “inside the stars, the earth, the entire universe.” The mushroom took her beyond space and time, beyond life and death, and revealed to her a great Book that in an instant taught “millions of things.”

It was Wasson’s own experiences with sacred mushrooms that led him, and his colleagues Carl Ruck and Albert Hoffmann – the discoverer of LSD – to believe that some sort of psychoactive plant was the secret ingredient of the mysterious kykeon, the drink given to initiates of ancient Eleusinian Mysteries. Whatever it was, the kykeon  produced a shattering revelatory experience, which all who shared swore never to reveal. Wasson, Ruck, and Hoffmann suggested that the parasitic fungus ergot, whose psychoactive alkaloids are similar to lysergic acid, was responsible for the mystical experience countless initiates underwent during the two millennia in which the Mysteries flourished.

As in the case of Soma, other drugs have also been proposed as the secret behind the Mysteries. Modern shamans, such as Terence McKenna, have argued that the sacred mushroom itself was responsible, and more recently the powerful South American Indian entheogen (‘within-god-making’) ayahuasca has become a popular candidate. Yet, as the truth of the Eleusinian Mysteries remained a secret for 2,000 years, and the Mysteries themselves have been gone for nearly as long – they were finally wiped out in 396 by Alaric, king of the Goths – we may never know their secret.

Yet the appeal of a sacred drug ceremony remains strong in the mythology of secret societies, and in the 1960s a new version of the ancient mysteries appeared in the form of the ‘psychedelic experience’. Its High Priest was the renegade Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. Taking the esoteric Tibetan Buddhist guide to the afterlife, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as a blueprint, Leary sought to ‘turn on’ a generation, dismissive of all authority and unhappy with the American Dream, to the mystery of LSD. Hippies, flower power, free love, and ‘dropping out’ were the products of the new, mind-blowing mysteries that rocked a nation already reeling from civil unrest and the Viet Nam War. By the end of the ‘mystic sixties’ what remained wasn’t the love and peace that many believed were on their way, but the dark suspicions of a ‘bad trip’. By the 1970s we had entered the Age of Paranoia.

Conspiracy Consciousness

            For all their promise of hidden knowledge and profound initiations, the two most famous secret societies in history were adamantly political and sought not deep revelations about man and the cosmos, but ruthless power and control. Their names have come down to us and are synonymous with political terror and paranoia. Legend has it that in 1092 two men stood on the ramparts of the medieval castle of Alamut – “the Eagle’s Nest” – in the Persian mountains. One was a representative of the emperor; the other, a strange veiled figure who claimed to be the incarnation of Allah on earth. This mysterious character was Hassan-i-Sabbah, “the Old Man of the Mountains,” leader of the dreaded Hashishins, a secret society of political terrorists whose very name sparked fear throughout the medieval Muslim and Christian world. The emperor’s representative had come to ask Hassan to surrender, but Hassan had other plans. Pointing to a guard standing watch on a turret-top, Hassan told his guest to observe. At a signal from his master, the white-robed devotee saluted Hassan and without hesitation plunged two thousand feet into the rushing waters below. Such was the unthinking devotion with which the Assassins, as they came to be known, worshipped their holy leader. Faced with such fanaticism, the emperor’s representative retreated.

Many legends surround the Assassins, particularly on how they acquired their name. According to the 13th century traveller Marco Polo, Hassan would pick out likely candidates for his secret society and, after secretly drugging them with hashish – hence the name Hashishins­ – would take them to his luxurious pleasure gardens, kept in a secluded valley. Here streams of milk, honey, and wine skirted palaces ornamented with gold and precious jewels. Fragrant scents filled the air, and beautiful maidens displayed their charms. Hassan’s candidates remained here for some days until, once again drugged, they were returned to court. Hassan then explained that he had sent them toParadise, to which they would return if they served him faithfully. The devotee who cast himself from the top of the castle was proof of the persuasiveness of Hassan’s deception, and by this means the Old Man of the Mountain secured a large and efficient secret society of political assassins that, later ruled by his descendants, led a reign of terror for nearly two centuries.

Although the truth of these legends is questioned, what comes down to us is the seductive idea of being “beyond good and evil.” Hassan convinced his followers that he was above the law, and with them he shared the exhilarating revelation that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” This, with Aleister’sCrowley’ “Do what thou wilt,” has become a catch phrase of occult libertinism. Another political secret society has also become a part of esoteric legend. On 1 May 1776, Adam Weishaupt, a professor of canonical law atIngoldstat,Germany, founded the Bavarian Illuminati, a renegade Masonic group that sought to overthrow the repressive control of the Jesuits. Weishaupt infiltrated the Masons and drew candidates for his society by promising even deeper, secret knowledge and more elite initiations. Yet while he spread word of profound mystical knowledge, Weishaupt’s Illuminati was in truth a strictly rationalist group, adverse to all mysticism and religion, and driven by the Enlightenment ideals of science, atheism, and egalitarianism. His idea was to create a vast organisation and then reveal to an elite corps his secret aim: to rid the world of kings, queens, princes, and nations and establish a rational secular state. Weishaupt’s plan was at first successful, and among his Illuminists he numbered Goethe, Schiller, and Mozart, as well as the eccentric Count Potocki and the notorious Sicilian magician, Cagliostro. Yet his scheme soon backfired. Initiates who demanded even deeper revelations had to be informed of his deception and brothers who were scandalized by his plans spoke openly against them. Eventually the authorities learned of his designs and in 1784, membership in any secret society at all was outlawed throughoutBavaria.

Weishaupt faded into obscurity, but following the French Revolution, his secret society was resurrected in the imagination of paranoid theorists, searching for the ‘hidden hand’ behind the social and political insecurity infecting  the continent. In the writings of the Abbé Barruel, an ex-Mason and priest who had escaped the Terror, and the Scotsman and scientist John Robison, Weishaupt’s humble and quite harmless Illuminati, which at its height numbered only a few hundred members, grew to gigantic proportions. Responsible not only for the French Revolution, it became a monstrous spectre, haunting Europe. Soon the idea that this secret, ruthless society was at work undermining the monarchies and elected governments of the world, took hold, and, with some variations, has maintained its grip on our modern political anxieties. Although the real history of the Illuminati is little known, Weishaupt’s spawn has become a cipher into which we read our own fears and uncertainties, as well as the stuff of sensational best sellers. The novelist Dan Brown, who achieved global fame with The Da Vinci Code – a thriller that taps the secrecy surrounding the mysterious Priory of Sion and the hidden ‘bloodline’ of Christ – scored another worldwide success with his novel Angels and Demons, in which the Illuminati plot to destroy the Vatican. Weishaupt would no doubt have approved of the plot, but would have found Brown’s pseudo-history of his society baffling.

Although the Illuminati pose no real threat and, most likely, do not exist – regardless of the many internet sites devoted to uncovering their evil designs – the idea that some hidden mastermind is behind the scenes, making decisions that affect our lives, has become a part of postmodern consciousness. In a world in which our experience, and the information we use to understand it, is increasingly filtered through a variety of electronic media, the idea that “nothing is true, and everything is permitted” is seen to be less and less improbable. In our age of Al Qaeda, Wikileaks, the Bilderbergs, and other mysterious powers, the individual is increasingly thrown back on his own resources in order to arrive at some idea of truth. If, as many of the followers of secret societies maintain, the everyday world we take for granted is somehow false, then perhaps this is a good thing. We all then must find some way to make sense of what is happening around us. How each of us do this is up to us, and perhaps it is best if we keep that – secret.