The Modern Mystics Who Changed the World — In Honor Of Occult Day
The landscape of today’s world would look radically different without the influence of thirteen men and women whose experiments in the esoteric and occult changed how we live.
In religion, pop culture, money, psychology — as well as in our most intimate views of ourselves — these thirteen mystics, mages, and magicians revolutionized modern life. In honor of Occult Day here is a look back at their careers.
I. Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830): Mystic Rebel
Many people thrill today to conspiracy theories about the “Illuminati,” whose members are said to range from Jay-Z to Pope Francis to Barack Obama. It’s a paranoid fantasy — but with a germ of truth. There once was a real secret society known as the Illuminati. Organized in 1776 by a Bavarian social reformer and renegade Freemason named Adam Weishaupt, the clandestine group believed in radical equality and separation of church and state. Weishaupt had a passion for occult imagery and ceremonies, and he aimed to infiltrate Europe’s Freemasonic lodges to turn them into vehicles for democratic revolution. But the Bavarian and his contemporaries, including Mozart and even Thomas Jefferson who was a distant admirer, were radical democrats — not shadowy power mongers. Although Weishaupt’s fraternity vanished in less than a decade — when Bavaria outlawed secret societies — it gave rise to an undying myth that an occult conspiracy runs the world. No, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga do not control the Federal Reserve. But Weishaupt’s Illuminati reflected a deeper truth: Modern occultists — who venerated ancient mystery religions and esoteric teachings from Egypt, Rome, and Greece — gave rise to a new era of social rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, and personal liberation.
II. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815): Occult Healer
The self-styled healer Franz Anton Mesmer became the toast — and scourge — of pre-revolutionary Paris with his occult theory that all of life is animated by an invisible, etheric fluid called animal magnetism. The healer placed patients into “Mesmeric” trances during which he claimed to work cures by realigning their animal magnetism. Damned as a fraud by Ben Franklin while lauded by George Washington (who corresponded with him), Mesmer won a fervent following among Europe’s elite. Some trance subjects reported cures, while others experienced out-of-body travels, clairvoyant perceptions, or mysteriously enhanced abilities, such as speaking in foreign languages they did not know. In actuality, Mesmer’s trances provided the first demonstrations of the existence of the subconscious mind — generations before Freud. While Mesmer died in exile, his occult methods laid the earliest roots of modern psychology, and provided the basis for hypnotism, mind-body healing, psychical research, and psychoanalysis.
III. Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910): First Celebrity Psychic
The press jokingly called him the “Poughkeepsie Seer” after his Hudson Valley, NY, hometown, but this uneducated farm boy, Andrew Jackson Davis, enthralled Americans with his mystic visions, and in the 1840s became a confidant to one of the nation’s leading ministers, the Rev. George Bush — ancestor to the Bush presidential clan and the spitting image of George W. (see below) — as well as an inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he had a love-hate relationship. From his mediumistic trances, Davis provided the first instructions for conducting séances, gave us the “Law of Attraction,” and offered Americans a new, liberal view of religion, in which all people — blacks, Jews, and Native Americans — were going to heaven. The prophet of Poughkeepsie became America’s first celebrity psychic and an architect of alternative spirituality.
IV. The Fox Sisters (1833–1893; 1837–1892): Emissaries to the Dead
In a creepy log cabin in central New York State in winter 1848, two young girls — Margaret and Kate Fox — told their shocked Methodist parents that the bangs and raps heard throughout the family home were “spirit knocks,” which the adolescent girls said were part of their system for communicating with the dead. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley and other eminent figures converged on the Fox cabin to test the girls, and concluded that they were telling the truth. The Fox sisters gave birth to Spiritualism — or talking to the dead — a movement that attracted millions of Americans, including Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, who organized themselves into séance circles. Spiritualism also became America’s first religious export: By the early 1850s fashionable Parisians and Londoners grew enthralled with table titling, mediums, and early Ouija boards. Our fascination with the afterworld has never faded.
V. Phineas P. Quimby (1802–1866): Founder of Positive Thinking
One day in the early 1830s, a New England clockmaker and tuberculosis sufferer Phineas P. Quimby discovered that a rise in his mood alleviated the symptoms of his illness. “Man’s happiness is in his belief,” Quimby reasoned — and with this one simple insight, the Yankee seeker laid the groundwork for the massively popular movement called “positive thinking.” Quimby’s experiments into the powers of the mind — which included forays into clairvoyance, out-of-body experiences, and trance healing — formed the basis for later self-help mega-sellers such as The Power of Positive Thinking and The Secret, and set the tone for today’s evangelical prosperity ministers, including Joel Osteen and TD Jakes (who would be loath to acknowledge occult roots). Quimby, this little-known spiritual tinkerer from Maine, provided the key idea of American spirituality: thoughts are causative.
VI. Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891): Globe-Trotting Occultist
The controversial and world-travelled Russian noblewoman Madame H.P. Blavatsky settled in America in the early 1870s and enthralled the public with claims that mysterious “Masters” from the East had directed her to spread a new spiritual vision to the West. If there were any hidden Masters, Blavatsky served them well. Her Theosophical Society ignited the Western passion for yoga, Buddhism, alternative spirituality, and the belief that all of the world’s religions sprang from a long-forgotten “Secret Doctrine.” Blavatsky soon relocated to India, where she and her collaborator, retired Civil War Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, inspired Gandhi with their principles of universal brotherhood; ignited India’s independence movement; and engendered a worldwide revival of Hinduism and Buddhism. Tragically, the Nazis misappropriated and bastardized some of Blavatsky’s symbols and ideas — including the swastika (a Vedic symbol of eternal recurrence) and her notion of a primordial “Aryan” root race. At once reviled and celebrated, the chain-smoking Russian mage became one of the most impactful figures of modern history.
VII. Edgar Cayce (1877–1945): Grandfather of the New Age
This Kentucky-raised farm boy was a devout Christian and Sunday school teacher — with one strange twist. While stretched out on his sofa in a semi-conscious trance, Cayce (pronounced casey) clairvoyantly diagnosed and prescribed cures for the diseases of thousands of people he had never met; peered into subjects’ “past lives;” and channeled (a term he invented) teachings about astrology, numerology, Atlantis, mind-body healing, and a bevy of other mystical topics. Thanks to Cayce’s influence, terms and phrases such as “karma,” “reincarnation,” and “What’s your sign?” are heard everywhere today. Known as the “Sleeping Prophet,” this quiet, bespectacled Southern Christian became the unlikely grandfather of New Age spirituality and natural healing.
VIII. Aleister Crowley (1875–1947): The Beast Incarnate
The British libertine and spiritual adventurer is often mislabeled a Satanist (there’s really no such thing in spiritual history) — an appellation that he did little to dispel by calling himself the “Great Beast.” In actuality, Crowley was a pusher of boundaries, an opponent of staid religious systems, a brilliant distiller of ancient and Eastern spiritual ideas, and a relentless adventurer in sex, drugs, and mountaineering — and he didn’t care if friends and allies got hurt along the way (he left behind a string of injured, emotionally strained, or dead colleagues). Crowley’s boundary-busting behavior, occult artwork, magical ceremonies, and Do-What-Thou-Wilt philosophy inspired everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Jay-Z to purveyors of modern horror films. Crowley is the best-known — and most influential — occultist in history.
IX. William Dudley Pelley (1890–1965): Prophet of Hate
One of the most grimly and tragically influential figures of the modern occult is William Dudley Pelley, a Hollywood screenwriter who came to idolize Hitler, and whose “mystic” visions inspired him to found America’s first neo-Nazi organization, the 1930s-era Silver Shirts. Pelley was a rarity: a hatemonger with actual talent. He was an O. Henry Award-winning short story writer and a successful screenwriter who created scripts for horror pioneer Lon Chaney. In 1929 Pelley wrote a hugely influential article about his near-death experience, which he said brought him into contact with astral “Spiritual Mentors.” When Hitler rose to power, Pelley’s unseen masters directed him to start a uniformed, pro-Nazi militia in the U.S. Pelley’s anti-Semitic writings influenced poet Ezra Pound, who ultimately supported the Axis powers. During the war, the federal government sent Pelley to prison for sedition. But members of Pelley’s Silver Shirts went on to found the deadly Aryan Nations and Posse Comitatus. This grim figure who believed in occult communiqués from the spirit world gave birth to America’s modern hate movement.
X. Gerald Gardner (1884–1964): The Man Who Rediscovered Witchcraft
A retired British civil servant with a passion for folklore (and nudism), the eccentric yet grandfatherly Gardner revolutionized the world in 1954 with the publication of his slender Witchcraft Today, which theorized the survival of an ancient “witch cult” in Western Europe and ignited the global rebirth of Wicca (his term), neopaganism, and witchery. Gardner’s witchcraft revival led to a new vogue in magic and struck one of the first notes of social and spiritual rebellion that reverberated throughout the mystic 60s. Gardner also cranked the cultural wheels that resulted in hit entertainment from Buffy to Wicked to Maleficent. Today, witchcraft is a legitimate organized religion — recognized by the U.S. military — thanks to Gardner’s influence.
XI. J.B. Rhine (1895–1980): Scientist of the Paranormal
The Duke University researcher J.B. Rhine, at one time among the best-known and most widely celebrated scientists in America, devised rigorous (and never disproven) laboratory trials starting in the 1930s that established the scientific basis for ESP, a term he coined. While overlooked in scientific history, Rhine, through tens of thousands of clinical experiments, verified the existence of a non-physical aspect of the mind. If Rhine was correct — and life goes beyond mere flesh-and-blood motor functions — this paranormal explorer left us with an empirical hint of the existence of an afterlife, the immorality of the soul, and, ultimately, of God himself.
XII. Manly P. Hall (1901–1990): Master Teacher
In 1928 this jazz-age Wall Street clerk with no formal schooling produced, at the remarkably young age of twenty-seven, a massive and still-unparalleled codex to the esoteric wisdom and mysteries of antiquity, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall brought the study of the occult into the twentieth century and — quietly — spread its influence to academia, which is now seeing a boom in occult studies. After the Secret Teachings, the prodigious Hall spent the rest of his life in Hollywood where he wrote hundreds of books, constructed a bizarre and beautiful Egypto-Mayan-Art Deco headquarters, and became a distinct influence on Elvis Presley, novelist Dan Brown, and a middling movie actor who was fated to become U.S. president…
XIII. Ronald Reagan (1911–2004): Mystic-in-Chief
While Ronald and Nancy’s proclivities for astrology are widely known, less understood are the New Age, occult, and mystical ideas that pervaded Reagan’s character, from positive-thinking metaphysics, to occult theories of America’s “secret destiny” (courtesy of Manly P. Hall), to beliefs in psychical powers, hidden spiritual masters, pre-destination, and UFOs. Strands of American mysticism ran through Reagan’s famously enigmatic characters — a fact lost on most biographers and journalists who simply didn’t recognize the phrasing and sources behind some of the president’s most deeply held ideas. During his three decades in Hollywood, Reagan befriended figures from Hall to Tarot teacher Eden Gray to psychic Jeane Dixon to astrologer Carroll Righter (who in 1969 became the first and only stargazer to appear on the cover of Time magazine). The sunny Californian who persuaded the nation that “nothing is impossible,” that America is a “living, breathing presence” possessed of a spiritual mission, and who believed that the stars could foretell the future — and also provide for our national defense — was, finally and fatefully, the most impactful of the Thirteen.