Tag Archives: occult

The Occult Revival Will Not Be Reported Upon

Several recent news articles have suggested that there is an ongoing occult revival in the U.S.  Maybe there’s an actual occult revival, maybe there isn’t.  But you won’t find out from these headline salesmen because they don’t understand what they’re reporting upon.

Katie J. M. Baker, the author of Newsweek’s article Hexing and Texting, cobbled together a few factoids and some light observations about pop culture trends and used them to draw some very hasty and condescending conclusions about the current state of the occult.  Not only is Baker uneducated on the subject (she doesn’t even know the difference between black magic and a moon ritual),  she doesn’t know she’s uneducated and doesn’t care.  Although she  had access to Pamela Grossman, an expert on the occult, she only gave her one short quote.  The rest of her article was spent making fun of people and events she didn’t take the time to understand or contextualize.

Zach Schonfeld used Baker’s piece as a launching point for a gleeful stomp through all things pop-occult in his article Brooklyn’s Millennials Are Turning Into Witches.  His sarcasm and derision have no bottom.  It’s unfortunate that his reporting skills and knowledge of the subject don’t go half as deep.

My advice to Baker and Schonfeld: when you report on pop culture, call it a pop culture report, not a report on the occult.  If you decide to report on real occult studies, start by doing some introductory research.  Next visit some blogs, like The Fire LizardLetter from Hardscrabble Creek, Freeman’s Reviews, New World Witchery, The Wild Hunt, or any of the thousands of other great blogs that could inform you about actual trends in the occult.  Then interview occult scholars, attend lectures by recognized experts, or go to events like the Pagan Studies Conference or the Occult Humanities Conference (which Pamela Grossman could have told you all about if you had asked, because she organized it).  If you do, take a dictionary.  Real occultists use bigger words than those to which you are accustomed.

And for those interested what the occult really is and what occultists do, here’s my favorite definition, courtesy of André Nataf’s Dictionary of the Occult (Wordsworth Editions, (1994), page 80):

“Occultism holds that humanity is only revealed to itself by transcendence…religious feeling is a necessary part of humanity, with the important provision that this religious feeling is the ‘raw material’ on which the initiate works in order to experience glimpses of the sacred, borne within him and all mankind.  This transmutation of the religious into the sacred is the very object of the occult sciences and, especially of initiation.

And as for an actual occult revival, whether or not we are in the midst of one or not I can’t say.  It sort of feels like it, but I’m not going to pretend as though I’ve done the sociological research required to comment intelligently.  I’ll leave the uninformed speculation and slapdash reporting to Baker, Schonfeld, and others like them.

Blue Öyster Cult’s Occult Influence: An Overview

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My framed Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt autographed by (clockwise from upper left) Allen Lanier, Danny Miranda, Eric Bloom, Bobby Rondinelli, and Buck Dharma.

5/16/19 UPDATE: I want to collaborate with Blue Öyster Cult.  To find out why I think I’m qualified and whatnot, click here.

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My earliest three memories of being interested in the occult date back the 70s: buying a Tarot deck at the old B. Dalton book store at Eastgate Mall, finding a copy of Kathryn Paulsen’s Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft (can’t remember where — a yard same maybe?) and listening to the music of the band Blue Öyster Cult.

I still have the Tarot deck, and it’s pretty much the only one I’ve ever used.  Although Paulsen’s book isn’t the very best, I am nostalgic about it.  I lost that original copy and had to buy a used copy just so I could have it around.  As for Blue Öyster Cult, they’re still my favorite band.  I’ve seen them in concert so many times I’ve lost count.

I’m surprised how few occultists have an interest in BÖC.  Then again, I suppose it makes sense if the only BÖC songs you know are Don’t Fear the Reaper, Burning for You, and Veterans of the Psychic Wars.  You have to get past the hits to get a taste of the occult flavor.

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“Mistress of the Salmon Salt” is on the album “Tyranny and Mutation.”

iconTake for example Mistress of the Salmon Salt which is, in my opinion, the creepiest example of the BÖC’s occult overtones (read the lyrics at the band’s website here).  Many people, at first blush, think this song is about a prostitute who kills her sailor customers.  But if you understand the word “reduction” in its various forms (namely chromosomal reduction and alchemical reduction) and note the final stanza, where it describes “the toes that crawl” and “knees that jerk” you’ll see that what the female protagonist is really up to.  The lyrics and the eerie guitar work come together in a way that gives me chills.  Occult rock doesn’t get any better or darker than this.

You can keep your oxymoronic, overtly occult heavy metal.  As far as I’m concerned, if you plaster your album covers with pentagrams (inverted or otherwise) and give your songs titles that contain references to occult books and occult ideas, that’s not occult.  The word occult means hidden, not in-your-face.  If I don’t have to dig a little, it’s not occult.  If I wanted my food pre-chewed I’d eat baby food out of a jar.

Most of the band’s occult influence came from Sandy Pearlman, Richard Meltzer, and Albert Bouchard.  It saddens me that the band’s occult influence left with the departure of those guys.  The material they produced with other collaborators (like Michael Moorcock, John Shirley, and Jim Carroll) is solid but lacks the occult depth of Pearlman and Meltzer.

They say the band, back in the old days, during song writing sessions they used to keep around a stack of notes and papers written by Pearlman and Meltzer.  Somebody should find those notes and tell the band to get back to basics, to return to what made them great.

If you’d like to dig into the occult underpinnings of Blue Öyster Cult, here is a short list of resources:

  1. The Blue Öyster Cult FAQ
  2. Blue Oyster Cult: Secrets Revealed! by Martin Popoff
  3. Wikipedia article on the Imaginos album

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The Templar Papers by Oddvar Olsen

I just read The Templar Papers edited by Oddvar Olsen, a compilation of material from The Temple magazine. Some of the articles are better than others.  The best ones don’t have the phrase “what if…” in every paragraph.  There are a couple of sections that chain together five or six “what ifs” to arrive at a “fact” which is then used as the launching point and a reference for one of the other writers.

I’m not sure, but my impression is that these writers are all in their own secret abbey somewhere trading bits of speculative information and nourishing each other’s ideas.  And although that sounds like fun, the level of speculation in this books puts it more the the realm of fiction than non-fiction.

It’s great to read as entertainment and it is valuable as such.  It excites the imagination into flights of fancy and its fun to read along and let your imagination run wild.  Unfortunately, it seems like most of what it contains is, well, just that.

Don’t pick it up for scholarship, pick it up for fun.

A-Bombs, Rock Music, and Fission vs. Fashion

In 1945, in advance of the first test of an atomic bomb, scientists feared that as each atom split it might split another creating a chain reaction that could ignite the atmosphere and destroy planet Earth.  But they went ahead anyway.

A decade later Elvis Presley started another fission-like explosion with his ’56 performance on the Ed Sullivan show, witnessed by a record-breaking 60 million viewers.  He had performed before, and parents and network execs feared he would destroy America, but Sullivan dropped the bomb anyway.  By ’64 we had Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ and yes indeedy they were.  Rock and Roll exploded, a fissionable material that split into dozens of genres and sub-genres.  We had the Beetles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Rush, and a thousand others, Acid Rock, Punk, Prog Rock, Heavy Metal, and the list goes on.  Everywhere you looked, kids were hanging out, listening to Rock that was meaty, dense, deep, and potentially transformative.

But, as it turned out, just as the first atomic bomb had not started the never-ending explosion some scientists feared, the bomb that was Rock and Roll began to fizzle.  By 1984, completely without irony, Eddie Van Halen was performing with the Jacksons, Ray Parker’s Ghostbusters was a hit,  and cats were sleeping with dogs.  Fission had been replaced by Fashion.  The streams had crossed but it was another kind of destruction.  We had gone from American Woman and  L.A. Woman to Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Like a Virgin.  Sure, there were pops and bangs, explosions of light, albums like Dreamtime, Too Tough to Die, Stop Making Sense, and many others.  But ’84 saw a lot more albums like Van Halen’s 1984 than it did albums like the Eurythmics’ 1984.  The explosion was fading like ripples in a pond.

By 1984, the kids who sprawled on the bedroom floor listening to the same album fives times in a row while handing the liner notes back and forth had been replaced by kids plugged into their Sony Walkmans.  The conversations were gone.  The cassettes had no liner notes, not like the albums did anyway.  By the time Judas Priest came to trial in 1990, the idea that playing rock backwards could reveal dangerous and radical messages was on the decline.  The science just didn’t support the idea that the messages had any impact on the listener, and according to many scientists and even the artists themselves, the ‘messages’ were only random phonemes.  The threat just wasn’t there — even it you played it frontwards.  By 1990, the idea that Rock could inform, inspire and teach the mainstream was dead.  If you wanted to be challenged by your Rock you had to go digging.

As Angus Young of AD/DC famously said, “We never hid the messages.  We called the album Highway to Hell.  It was right there in front of them.”  But Angus and boys didn’t really have a message that was all that deep.  Occult means hidden, not right out front, and hedonism is not occultism or even radicalism.  AC/DC is not a radical band or an occult band, and Angus missed the point.

The biggest occult bands, in terms or records sold at least, are/were probably Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Doors, and Blue Öyster Cult.  All four of these bands come at youth with messages overt and covert, lessons exoteric and esoteric.  Square parents who wanted their kids to conform didn’t have to work very hard to hear the danger in songs like Black Dog, War Pigs, Sweet Leaf, and Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll.  But if John and Jane Parent wanted to hear something dangerous in what their kids were listening to they might have to work a little harder if they wanted to find offense in Break on Through, Stairway to Heaven or Lips in the Hills.  These bands made albums that you could listen to over and over again, dozens of times, finding something new with each and every play — a reference to something obscure that could lead you to another album, to the library, to the picket line, or simply into a thousand conversations, inspirations, and lines of inquiry.

The only one of the big ones you can still see live is Blue Öyster Cult.  For me they are the best of the occult rock bands, with messages either in your face (as in The Red and the Black about a sadistic Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman) or hidden (not by backmasking but by vocabulary, metaphor, and double entendre, as in Mistress of the Salmon Salt, probably the darkest, most unsettling, and subtlest occult rock song ever written).  They are still on tour forever, playing newer tunes like See You in Black from ’98 and older songs like E.T.I. from back in ’76 (you could write a book about the occult references in that one).   Sadly, the newer stuff doesn’t contain the occult influences they once flaunted.  Perhaps those influences withered when Sandy Pearlman stopped actively associating with them.

Sandy Pearlman is still around and still relevant.  In addition to his extensive work as a lyricist and producer for BÖC, he was the producer behind some great records by the likes of The Clash, The Dictators, Pavlov’s Dog, and Dream Syndicate.  Currently he’s the Schulich Distinguished Professor Chair at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal.

If you want to hear some really intense occult revelations, check out a couple of his recent offerings at Huffpo.  In his Patti Smith obit he talks about her as an incarnation of Athena, discusses the British Invasion as the new death of the Goddess cult, and much more.  You might also like this article on the death of Ellie Greenwich, wherein he reveals the secrets behind her largely forgotten place as perhaps the greatest songwriter of all time.

Sandy is still the same I guess.  He reveals a little here and there, stepping out into the light to reveal just enough to pique your interest, and then stepping back into the shadows.  In your face just enough to get your attention, holding back enough to keep you interested.  A few people that is.

There was a time when bands like Blue Öyster Cult could fill stadiums, night after night, across a worldwide tour.  And while there have been and always will be bright lights in the constellation of Rock — Rage Against the Machine for example, but sure not the only one — the days when almost every kid in the world spend entire afternoons and evenings thinking, comparing, criticizing, commenting, getting inspired by their Rock, are gone.  Looks like the one-two punch of Walkman-iPod stopped the conversation dead in its tracks.

Compare the old material — albums based around the occult origins of World War I, the literal and metaphorical importance of  the alien abduction phenomenon, the nature of free will, and on and on and on — to the kind of material that packs stadiums today: songs about sex, violence, materialism, or simply nothing.

Tell me John and Jane Parent, which is the most subversive and dangerous: the old music or the new?  If I were you, instead of an iTunes card I’d hand my kid a $50 bill and send her down to the new corner vinyl store that probably cropped up recently.  My guess is that there are some very deep conversations taking place over there, and that those kids and those stores promise hope for our future.

Sabotage Times: My Journey Into The Heart Of The Russian Occult

This article is fascinating and informative. Just try to ignore the way the writer uses the words “magic” and “mysticism” interchangeably.  These two things are not the same as I pointed out in a previous post.

Try not to let it annoy you when he clearly believes in the pop culture version of Rasputin. For the record, Rasputin didn’t cast spells or work magic (at least not consciously). As a religious mystic he used prayer and faith healing to keep alive young Alexei, the Tsarevich, when the doctors had no treatment options.  Remember, Rasputin was loyal to the Tsar and his family during a time when the Tsar was very unpopular.  Almost everything written about “the mad monk” was written by people who despised him.

For an positive look at Rasputin I highly recommend Rasputin: The Untold Story by Joseph Fuhrmann.  Great book.

The Forgotten Impact of the Occult

Thanks to Chas Clifton for pointing out this great article by David Metcalf.  Lots of this stuff I already knew, but I wasn’t aware that,

In 1876, when retired Union Army Col. Henry Steel Olcott conducted the first public cremation service in New York City, he was lambasted in the press as a heathen presiding over a “pagan funeral.”

Olcott was an occultist and President of the Theosophical Society.  Nowadays cremations account for a third of all interments.  Who knew?

 

You’re an Occultist? What’s That?

My business card.

First off, as an occultist I think I’m in pretty good company.

It might surprise you to know that the greatest scientist who ever lived, Sir Isaac Newton, was an occultist.  So were Francis Bacon (who might the real Shakespeare), Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author and creator of Sherlock Holmes), as well as poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats.  Popular NPR reporter and author Margot Adler, filmmaker David Lynch, and author Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) are all occultists as well.

As to the question “what’s an occultist?” an occultist is someone who studies the occult.  What’s the occult? I prefer André Nataf’s definition from his Dictionary of the Occult (Wordsworth Editions, (1994), page 80):

“Occultism holds that humanity is only revealed to itself by transcendence…religious feeling is a necessary part of humanity, with the important provision that this religious feeling is the ‘raw material’ on which the initiate works in order to experience glimpses of the sacred, borne within him and all mankind.  This transmutation of the religious into the sacred is the very object of the occult sciences and, especially of initiation.

Of course, literally speaking, the occult is simply hidden knowledge.  According to the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary:

Occult [L. occultus, p.p. of occulere to cover up] Hidden from the eye or the understanding; inviable; secret; concealed; unknown.

Occultists and occultism have gotten a lot of bad press.  But then, so have football coaches, priests, and clowns.  But we don’t let these outliers give football, religion, and carnivals a bad name, now do we?

Here are a couple of links to articles about “occultism” that you may find helpful:

Definition of “Occultism” from the religioustolerance.org website

Definition of “Occult” from Wikipedia