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Mitch in NYC. Photograph by Gabriel Dean Roberts.

Crucial Books for the Occult Seeker

A short list of metaphysical greats actually intended to be read

I was recently asked for my crucial picks of occult books. I devised this short list based not on completeness (the occult is an ancient and morphing philosophy — no list is ever complete) but on selections that I believe can alter your practice and point of view within a fixed period of time, perhaps as little as one year.

My criteria for inclusion are, in varying measure: 1) historical importance, 2) applicability of ideas, and 3) likelihood of being read (rather than being talked or written about but not read — a problem I’ll cover another day).

I define the occult simply as an unseen dimension of life whose forces are felt upon us and through us. The occult is traditionally characterized as existing outside common religious structures, which is why is it not subsumed within congregational spirituality.

My reading order is somewhat anarchistic though also purposeful. You can alter it if you like.

THE SECRET DOCTRINE by HP Blavatsky (1888)

You may or may not accept Madame Blavatsky’s cosmology but this is the book that impacted generations of modern occultists, and you should know the ground you stand on. Blavatsky changed everything and interjected the term “occultism” into modern intellectual and artistic vocabulary. Don’t pretend to have read it, read it. You’ll stand apart — and be challenged. Same below.

BEELZEBUB’S TALES TO HIS GRANDSON by G.I. Gurdjieff (1950)

The spiritual teacher’s epic allegory will puncture all inflated notions of self, which is an important place from which to begin any search or magickal practice. A friend once observed that, taken on whole, this massive book could be seen as an allegory against war (within and without us). If you find Gurdjieff’s masterpiece “impossible” to get through all the better. Just turn the pages. Several editions, all excellent, are available.

THE DOCTRINE AND RITUAL OF HIGH MAGIC by Eliphas Levi (1854)

Do yourself a favor and read the 2017 translation by John Michael Greer and Mark Anthony Mikituk. What Blavatsky brought to a head in the modern world was begun by Levi. Part of the purpose of this list is horticulture — know your modernist roots.

HERMETICA translated by Brian P. Copenhaver (1992)

This is my personal favorite of the few really quality translations of the late-ancient Greek-Egyptian Hermetic writings. When people say “Hermetic” they reference Egyptian oral tradition transferred into Greek written form in the generations immediately following Christ. Book XI: “Suppose nothing to be impossible for yourself.” This is the most important time capsule we possess of ideas that reemerged as “occult” (Latin for hidden) during the Renaissance.

THE PICATRIX (anonymous, circa 11th century) and THREE BOOKS OF OCCULT PHILOSOPHY by Cornelius Agrippa (1533)

New translations are appearing of these seminal early-modern works of magick from scholars including Christopher Warnock and Greer (co-translators of Picatrix) and Eric Purdue (Agrippa). Unfortunately in the latter case cost and availability are a barrier. Even a lesser translation of Agrippa by the writer called J.F. (1651) is important to have some familiarity with. Several reprints exist.

THE SATANIC BIBLE by Anton LaVey (1966)

This, kids, is your dessert for having eaten your vegetables. Once you’ve absorbed all the books above you can allow Uncle Anton to let you set it all aside and forge your own path, call it what you will. You’ve earned it. Eat the apple.

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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