The Black Arts after Fifty Years
This essay is adapted from my introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Black Arts (2017).
This year marks the 50th anniversary of historian Richard Cavendish’s landmark study of the occult, The Black Arts. The publication of Cavendish’s book — 1967 — could be seen as a banner moment for the rebirth of occult and esoteric spirituality in the modern West.
In 1967, toy giant Parker Brothers relaunched the Ouija Board, having bought rights the prior year from descendants of manufacturer William Fuld, and sold a record two-million talking boards, surpassing sales of its leading game Monopoly and installing the mediumistic device into playrooms across America.
As governor-elect of California, Ronald Reagan in January 1967 raised eyebrows by scheduling his inauguration at the perplexing hour of 12:10 A.M., prompting persistent questions — which ran throughout his presidency — over the extent of his and wife’s dedication to astrology. Reagan would admit only that “Nancy and I enjoy glancing at the daily astrology charts in our morning paper.” At that time, about 1,250 out of 1,750 daily papers featured daily horoscope columns, a post-war high.
In 1967, The Beatles learned Transcendental Meditation (TM) from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, indelibly marrying the youth culture to the pursuit of Eastern and esoteric wisdom. The following year, The Beatles’ famous sojourn to the Maharishi’s northern Indian ashram in Rishikesh resurrected the ideal of the Westerner seeking wisdom in the Far East, a template laid in the late 1870s by Russian-born occult explorer Madame HP Blavatsky, who left behind the relatively cushy environs of New York City to move to India, a place then as alien to most Westerners as the surface of another planet.
Also in 1967, the bestselling biography of psychic Edgar Cayce, Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet by tabloid journalist Jess Stearn, brought renewed attention to the early twentieth-century medical clairvoyant. Cayce’s popularity was followed by a wave of “channelled” literature — Cayce first used the term channel in the mystical sense — under the names of such other-dimensional entities as Seth, Ramtha, and Abraham.