Awakening the Esoteric Spirit: Mapping the Occult City

I am fresh from attending the recent American Academy of Religions pre-conference event Mapping the Occult City: Magic & Esotericism in the Urban Utopia, hosted by Phoenix Rising Digital Academy and DePaul University. Convened by Dr. Jason Winslade,  the day-long event explored the interaction of the city as entity, idea, and cultural engine with esoteric philosophy and occult inspirations.

The event’s location in Chicago provided a fortuitous opportunity to dive into the city’s rich cultural heritage as it pertains to historical and contemporary esoteric currents. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was at the center of global culture. Hosting the World Columbian Exposition and the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 represented merely the outer manifestation of a deeply seeded cultural, and often occult, milieu that found a home in the Windy City.

“Chicago World’s Fair” by Thomas Moran, 1894

Imagining the city as it was at the time, we find it host to Ida Craddock, whose Heavenly Bridegrooms introduced a radical exploration of spiritual sexuality; Swami Vivekananda, who would popularize Vedanta and Raja Yoga in the Western World; and Mary Baker Eddy, mother of Christian Science, the marriage of New Thought with Christianity.

The Theosophical Society moved its headquarters there in 1907, and in the same year Chicago would play a part in the life of a young Paul Foster Case, founder of the Builders of the Adytum. An early introduction to magic for him was reading The Secret of Mental Magic (pdf) published by William Walker Atkinson, the Mind Science and Hermetic pioneer, who worked out of offices located in the Masonic Building, a progressive marvel of early 20th-century architecture at the heart of the city.

Rik Garrett, one of the featured speakers at the Mapping the Occult City event, has traced some of these lines of history on his website, Occult Chicago, and is helping to provide a platform for a global exploration through the website Occult Guide. In partnership with his wife, Jane Connelly, Garrett has created a crowd sourced atlas that focuses on highlighting the esoteric historic locations that can be found around the world.

A portion of the day was spent on a walking tour, led by Winslade and Garrett, to some of the locations within a short distance from DePaul’s campus in Chicago’s Loop. As we walked the streets of Chicago, which were full of bustling crowds rapt with contemporary concerns, we sought out the hidden reminders of an esoteric past. On the 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building, now home to a complex of violin building businesses, unattended murals indicate the presence of Theosophical and Thelemic currents that once found a home here. On the walls and ceiling of the Chicago Cultural Center, mosaic tile work reminds us that this was once a library decorated as a memorial to the likes of past initiates such as Ben Franklin and Francis Bacon. There is also a Tiffany Dome, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, which features a Zodiacal wheel to accompany some of the more arcane mosaic designs.

Detail from the Tiffany Dome at the Chicago Cultural Center

With these subtle hints, we are taken into a world of ghosts and luminary phantoms of those whose purpose here touched the borders of the mundus imaginalis, and who used the city as a hub to spread the ideas of New Thought, Theosophy, Thelema, Hermeticism, Hoodoo, Mind Science, Human Potential, and other, less visible streams of influence. Here we can see the ambiguity of urban existence intermixing with the ambiguity of the occult work: in the city, binary oppositions such as good vs. evil have no meaning. All is in motion. Life proceeds hand-in-hand with death. This is no accident, for how would things ever move without the motivation of these impulses? And what else is a city but a cleverly designed catch pot for humanity’s passions, with its buildings and byways created to channel our urges, excitements, longings, and hopes into productive outlets for driving the daemonic engine of civilization?

In the morning, prior to the walking tour, Dr. Joseph Futerman, of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, echoed this sense of ambiguity and anima in the city when he began his panel presentation “Who is the god of Chicago: An Archetypal Examination of Urban Fantasy and Today’s Cities” by quoting the words of Carl Sandburg:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

– Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”

Contemporary myths and archetypal forces often emerge into the urban landscape through fiction, and Futerman’s talk focused on how this has played out in the works of authors channeling the Genius Loci of the Second City.

Dr. Hayes Hampton, University of South Carolina, Sumter, led us into a celebration of sewers and sidereal dimensions of debauchery with his talk “Liminal Hymns: Zones of Derangement in Coil and Crowley.” Highlighting the transgressive gnosticism of urban life as exemplified by the amorphous social history of the sewer, Hampton discussed how the band Coil uses the underworld of London as prima materia for visceral social critique, ritual, and personal renewal.

The role of Sedona, Arizona’s vortexes in the development of the city provided the basis for a presentation from Arizona State University’s Dr. Patricia Boyd titled “The Possibilities of Leaky Cities: Sedona’s Vortexes as Sites for Challenging the Ordered City.” Boyd outlined the experiential factors that affect urban development, such as in Sedona, where a distinctive landscape and the presence of many resident artists have allowed the city to experience a unique and personalized evolution.

“Portobello Spiritualist Church: A Spatial Analysis of an Urban Shamanism” was the title of a presentation by Dr. David Gordon Wilson of the University of Edinburgh, in which he outlined some of the ethnographic work that he has done as a practicing Spiritualist medium. Wilson discussed how the nature of the mediumship circle, which entails training in a specific meditative practice, creates an initiatory chain that forms the core of the Spiritualist church. Without relying on dogma, this experiential approach has been able to support a system that comfortably exists in the contemporary urban space while echoing an ancient phenomenology that crosses orthodoxies and cultures.

“Far from being isolated to specific cities, the current occult revival spans an active network of researchers who are uncovering, exploring, and engaging the hidden riches of past esoteric inspirations to highlight future possibilities for society and culture.”

With its widely varied set of presentations, the Academic Panel provided insights into the multifarious manifestation of esoteric ideas in the world’s urban centers. Whether in Chicago, London, Sedona or Edinburgh, we find different facets of the same quest for deeper knowledge, communion with outre realms, and renewal of ancient ideals. Treated historically, contemporarily, or practically, these strands of thought and expression exist despite the disenchantment of so much of our shared cultural experience.

In the evening, artist and adept Michael Bertiaux gave a talk reflecting on his transition from Anglican Deacon to Theosophical lecturer, an experience that paralleled his development in more obscure traditions that he discovered during time spent in Haiti teaching philosophy. Bertiaux’s work in the Voudon Gnostic current is described by Gnostic Bishop and esotericist David Beth as

unique in the spiritual world. His system of occultism and gnosis is unlike any other. Instead of reworking the occult past and clinging to classical theories, he works mainly on gnostic-radionic lines and esoteric creativity. Deeply rooted and based in the magical world and traditions of Esoteric Voudon, a very elaborate and specialized form of Voudon taught to Bertiaux by his Haitian master Jean-Maine, Bertiaux has managed to introduce a great number of other spiritual currents into his system and thus empower it even further. Esoteric Voudon, being a highly complex and living tradition, allowed the adepts of the Ordo Templi Orientis Antiqua and La Couleuvre Noire, headed by Jean-Maine and Bertiaux, to absorb other systems in a true syncretic and universal gnostic fashion. To unite areas so seemingly apart as German Idealism and Theosophy to Shinto and Bon-Po, Bertiaux has spun a metaphysical web connecting and bringing them into occult harmony through the threads and Cabalah of Esoteric Voudon.

Michael Bertaiux

Bertiaux, who moved to Chicago in 1966, has become a pillar of the city’s contemporary community of occultists. As Dr. Wilson mentioned in his panel presentation, a lasting system of initiatory practice bridges the gap between past and present through effective experiential training. Bertiaux’s system, which blends Eastern and Western philosophies, ritual, initiatory practices, Theosophy, and Afro-Caribbean ideas, presents a vivid example of this process.

It also provides a potent capstone to some of the lines of influence that have run through Chicago over the years. Prior to the walking tour, Rik Garrett discussed the career of L. W. de Laurence, an author, publisher, plagiarist, master salesman, occultist, and Gnostic Bishop, whose publication of Secrets of the Psalms by Godfrey Selig and Pow Wows, or the Long-Lost Friend by John George Hohman became central to the development of Hoodoo and rural folk magic in the Midwest and Southern United States, and also influenced the development of Obeah in Jamaica.  As a notable figure in Chicago’s history, de Laurence centralizes all of the themes and influences that flow through the city’s occult history, and, confirming Futerman’s evocation of Chicago’s Genius Loci, Bertiaux’s system recollects these threads with more sophistication and depth.

L. W. de Laurence

After Michael Bertiaux brought the discussion up to the present day, the evening continued with a panel of contemporary Chicago practitioners and community leaders who were invited to talk about the current concerns and experiences of the city’s esoteric community.  The panel consisted of Angie Buchanan,  the first pagan elected to the Board of Trustees of The Council for the Parliament of World’s Religions, and Founder and Director of Earth Traditions, a pagan church, and of Gaia’s Womb; Joan Forest Mage,  founder and Executive Director of Life Force Arts Foundation, a non-profit organization that advances the field of spiritually based visual, literary, and performing art; Lisa Gruber, co-owner of The Occult Bookstore, which, having been founded in 1917, is the world’s oldest occult shop; Preston Klik, co-founder with his wife Emily of Temple Synphorium, where they hold regular events focusing on performance, sound therapy, and healing; and M. Dionysius Rogers, a scholar and practitioner of occultism, a Past Master of Scarlet Woman Lodge in Austin, Texas, current member of Aum. Ha. Lodge in Chicago, and a bishop of the Gnostic Catholic Church in O.T.O.

Finally, the day came to an end with a performance by Terra Mysterium, “a Chicago-based collective of musicians, actors, dancers, poets, magicians and performers,” in the guise of  “The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment.” Despite having roots in contemporary aesthetics, their presence harks back to Chicago’s late-19th and early-20th century performance and dance culture, which carried on through the post-war years in venues such as the Aragon Ball Room and Cabaret Metro, which eventually turned into concert venues that are still active today. Terra Mysterium also provided a rare opportunity to hear songs sung in vaudeville style and relating first-person accounts of key occult figures such as Austin Osman Spare, Aleister Crowley, and H.P. Blavatsky. One assumes  this is probably something that Chicago hasn’t seen very often over the years.

“We are taken into a world of ghosts and luminary phantoms of those whose purpose here touched the borders of the mundus imaginalis, and who used the city as a hub to spread the ideas of New Thought, Theosophy, Thelema, Hermeticism, Hoodoo, Mind Science, Human Potential, and other, less visible streams of influence.”

During a break in the proceedings, I took the opportunity to talk with Rik Garrett about his motivation for creating the Occult Chicago website. It was interesting to hear that he was inspired by the work of groups like the Observatory in Brooklyn and individuals like Mitch Horowitz, who have been delving into New York’s occult history and reviving a creative curiosity about the liminal areas of life by drawing on NYC’s long engagement with the esoteric. Garrett said he wanted to see the same thing happen for Chicago, whose equally rich historical tradition still swims beneath the surface of city life. Events such as Mapping the Occult City are helping to make this happen, as well as demonstrating that in reviving this focus, a network of communication is reawakened as well, which rides the same national and international currents that were seen in past decades of occult revival.

Far from being isolated to specific cities, the current occult revival spans an active network of researchers. These include Ronnie Pontiac, whose writings for Newtopia Magazine focus on the United States’ deeply occult history, as well as Mitch Horowitz, Christopher Knowles, Gary Lachman, Erik Davis, Adam Parfrey, and a number of others who are uncovering, exploring, and engaging the hidden riches of past esoteric inspirations to highlight future possibilities for society and culture. London and Amsterdam have similar movements afoot, and the international presence of Phoenix Rising Digital Academy shows again that these lines of inquiry into a history hidden in plain sight are becoming part of the public consciousness once again.

Although the diversity of ideas, practices, and philosophies may seem at times confused or chaotic, this is actually an integral part of the truth realm the movement is devoted to unearthing. As William Walker Atkinson said (while writing in the guise of “The Three Initiates”):

The lifework of Hermes seems to have been in the direction of planting the great Seed-Truth which has grown and blossomed in so many strange forms, rather than to establish a school of philosophy which would dominate the world’s thought.

— From the introduction to The Kybalion, 1908 (Yogi Publication Society, Masonic Building, Chicago, IL)

If nothing else, Atkinson certainly spoke prophetically for Chicago, where the seeds that he, along with the many other Adepts who have passed through the city, planted a century ago still grow and blossom, and in stranger forms than perhaps they could rightly have imagined at the time. Somewhere in the city tonight, ancient memories will awaken again, kept alive through obscure and popular publications, secondhand stories, anecdotes, and initiatory chains. Digital communication and the web allow us to revisit the age when the De Laurence Company Catalogue sold “Devotional Materials for the Mystic – Research Equipment for the Psychic,” in a cultural milieu where the line between marketing and magic was paper-thin, occultism and science interbred to birth children of  uncertain pedigree, and gnosis could be found in a commercial con or a candlelit loft.

One of the most amazing insights that emerges from mapping the occult city is the realization that a Curio Catalog is equally as effective as a canonized text in fostering the divine spark in a serious seeker. Rather than lamenting any loss of mainstream legitimacy that attends such materials, the esoteric spirit of the city teaches us to reinvent our symbolic references to fit the times, and to find the spirits wandering where they may. Historians and antiquarians can argue over the specifics, but the living, practical work of esotericism is based on principles that exist beyond fact, fiction, science, spirituality, and, at times, even good taste. So it goes, as the ages roll one into another, and the Great Work continues unabated by the changing face of the urban landscape.

Images: “Chicago World’s Fair” by Thomas Moran, Brooklyn Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. “L. W. de Laurence” by de Laurence, Scott & Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Tiffany Dome detail from Chicago Cultural Center via Occult Guide.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on November 29, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum, Religion & Philosophy, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. David, thank you so much for this post and the associated links. I am in the middle of a fiction project very much along these lines and its slow-going-ness has been compounded by feeling like I’m creating new territory with a machete (so, not with very great skill or finesse).Knowing that I’m not completely bonkers for the ideas and themes I’m working with is really heartening and gives me a boost (and validation) I very much need in the midst of flagging energy.

    I just skimmed your article and will go back to re-read and explore the links, but wanted to say thanks for this.

  2. Thanks Wendy! I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. It was great to be able to share a day discussing these traditions, and to see how there is so much to explore.

  3. I haven’t been able to activate my account. I’m having trouble. and there is no way to contact these people. I was interested in this. Could someone help me? Thanks.

  4. Wouldn’t Watkins Books in London be older?

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