bITS 'N CHUNKS
I used to be a lot more active in the Skeptics blogosphere before I finally dropped them due to rampant white privilege, sexism & misogyny, low key racism just general fauxgressive passive aggressive behavior, but my early years there were pretty formative and educational. One of the names lobbed around was James Randi, who I knew as a friend of Penn & Teller and a magician himself, but at the time did not realize he was a skeptic. What a weird combo.
I ended up reading Flim-Flam! as part of my learning and though it's dated now, it's still a great and highly recommended read. Yes it debunks pretty much everything the Aether Book Club stands for but you should be exposed to as much critical and skeptic literature as possible. Criticism to me defines choice: this person disagrees with the path I'm taking and gives a good argument as to why, but I'm still going to go this way because I want to. Always take that in mind with you. As opposed to just having things delivered to you, which is where I break with religion. Of course.
The good thing about Flim-Flam! Is that it's written for a general audience so I never found it terribly condescending. It is certainly a lot more light-hearted than Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It exposes charlatans that take advantage of people (cough cough, cold reading), busts open pop culture myths of the time and debunks them with reasoning and hard cold facts, and explains some of the science of gullibility. Like Ghostland, it posits some answers to the question of why do people fall for things without stooping to "because people are stupid".
Also like Ghostland, it's a great look into how to research things properly. It will show you how to avoid schemes and abusive practices, which is so important when you think you want to get into mystical practices because there are so, so many people out there willing to take advantage of people not armed with knowledge. And some of it is so confusing and lofty (cough cough, Hermeticism) you could be falling into well laid traps and not even realize it.
I say dated but honestly some of these trends still live or have come back. Seriously, Ancient Aliens? Peoples of Africa or India couldn't have used technology before Europeans introduced it? Randi was debunking that thirty years ago but people just refuse to let go. Seeing how cyclical trends are demonstrates just how readily people will fall for anything without a bit of reason and research.
And now we get to the good stuff.
Hermeticism is very, very, very big. If you feel like you want to get into it or learn about its teachings, there are so many texts -- collectively referred to as Hermetica -- to go through, so many teachings, so many branches, just so much damn material!
Where do you start?
With the short version.
Most of the texts available on Hermeticism all do the same thing, and that is distill the original teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. Like so many figures in the esoteric path, Hermes Trismegistus likely isn't a real single person if he's a person at all; Hermeticism itself usually refers to him as a prophet and the messenger/son of a combination of old pagan gods. To that end, Hermeticism states that all religions are basically united and granted to mankind by a single god. So for example, pagan religions with multiple gods are a reflection of aspects of a single god.
You've probably heard this theory kicked around before, especially when discussing tension between Abrahamic religions ("they all worship the same god!"). This concept is actually very ancient and pre-dates the dates given for the general start of any Hermetic offshoots.
Hermeticism is fascinating but since it's intentionally very broad and encompasses quite a few spin offs it can be difficult to know where the hell to start with it. There's two texts to recommend: the Corpus Hermeticism which forms the base of Hermeticism, and the Kybalion which distills the principles of Hermetic thought.
I go to The Kybalion first because it's easily digestible, set up to be read more like Proverbs than Corpus Hermeticism, which is a much older text and greatly influenced by spiritual thought and the writings of Plato. What really separates them is brevity -- Corpus Hermeticism is exhaustive and The Kybalion is literally the Cliff Notes version.
The Kybalion feels very mystical as well. It is credited to "three initiates" who have never been satisfactorily identified so there is an air of mystery. The principles are fascinating and read as very contemporary, especially the gender shifting, almost nonbinary nature of the Principle of Gender. Most influential to me was the section Cause & Effect and Causation, which are as good a case against any evidence of Meritocracy as I've ever seen.
Ideally you would read both books side by side but I would reach for the Kybalion first to even figure out if you want to go any deeper into the gaping crater that is Hermetic thought.
Ghostland by Colin Dickey is a fantastic book for those of you that like your skepticism neat and your sociology weird. It's not about anything occult, but like James Randi's Flim-Flam! it is a good guide on looking at superstition and religion objectively and asking for evidence of Things Unknown. Ghostland isn't malicious and doesn't really seek to discredit anything, but rather explain why we create ghost stories and hauntings and what those stories tend to mean from a cultural and regional basis. It reminds me a lot of Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions, another neat text that I think everyone interested in the supernatural should read.
Curiously enough, there is also another Ghostland. Or rather, Ghost Land (PDF) as written by Emma Hardinge Britten. Britten was a prominent member of the Spiritualist movement as we'd recognize it today. Like Manly P Hall, Britten is an interesting figure and very influential, but a lot of her life is shadowed in mystery and much of what we know about her stems from her work. What's best to note about Britten is the company she kept (notable women of various occult groups like Helen Blavatsky) and not only was she a prominent member of Modern Spiritualism, but she help lay the ground work for its current principles.
So Britten's Ghost Land actually deals with her research into the occult centering around one Chevalier Louis de B, an eccentric nobleman that comes off a little St. Germaine. I'm pretty sure he's a composite figure. She details his initiation into occult mysteries, séances, mysticism, all that…like, you know, a documentarian. How much of it is true and factual? Who knows. I trust Britten, but she has a much different focus with her information. An agenda, if you will!
But in any case, both books do some pretty good things like identifying primary sources, build upon information, and don't expect you to just take their word for it just because they said so. They also aid in deciphering information by providing commentary backed up with knowledge. Any good investigative text should give you that much. And quips! Oh, the quips.
I love Eliphas Levi as if he were still with us and not dead for hundreds of years.
I have a necklace with his Baphomet imagery. I have his circle of demons on my work desk. He was a pretty big & pretty popular figure back in his day, and especially if you're interested in ceremonial magic you have either read or should read all of his works.
Besides Crowley, I would say Levi is the name in occultism and magick. Levi tried to merge European socialism with an occult bent and he came out successful. You'll recognize that in a lot of modern Wicca. He developed the grounds of ritual and ceremonial magic as we know it (then, you know, Crowley) and to be honest a lot of his disciples really can't touch how mystical and open his language was.
In short, reading Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie will make you feel like you're really getting into some deep shit, and I like that.
It's also a lot more accessible than later texts on ceremonial magic, which assume you're already initiated most of the time. Here, the art is still new and Levi is grappling with separating the magician from quackery (something he's very aware of). It's not for everyone but I still find it very enlightening when I'm in the mood to feel like a grand high priestess.
I think it's because of his political bent but I often find Levi the least condescending so I often relate to his writings. I'm not terribly interested in the tarot but I like watching the metamorphosis of it from parlor card game to divination tool. It kind of…makes sense even if it doesn't. But this book is definitely not for you if you're already swatting your hands at the thought.
So if you think you're not interested, does Levi give any reason to take him seriously? Oh, yes. His passion bleeds from every word and his prose is enchanting. Reading Dogme et Rituel, even the English translations, feels empowering. Levi sets himself up as an authority but doesn't try to convince the reader that he's about to approach this rationally. No, he's here to tell you what he's seen and how you can get there too! So it's a very deeply mystical book that reads like an incantation. Who knows what the hell you'll conjure up by the time you're done.
Manly P Hall is an…interesting dude. You've probably heard of him even if you don't recognize his name as The Secret Teachings of All Ages is a pretty popular book in esoteric circles. Recently, it made news for being found on Osama Bin Laden's bookshelf. What does it mean? Probably nothing, it's not like we can ask.
There's not a ton of information out there about Hall except what he tells us himself, because his uhh "followers" *coughcult* meticulously scrub information about him to leave only the most glowing praise. So what you find on the internet is apologetics and his own prose. Surprisingly, one of the few negative thing present about him online are his kooky racial views. Probably because they're easily dismissed as products of his time (and I am not saying that we should). His relationships didn't seem too happy either, but those couldn't be his fault right? Right?
Anyway, other than being a St Germain-ish type figure, Mr. Hall was an educator first and foremost and a lot of his lectures are available online in audio format. I really love listening to the Wisdom series. There is a surprisingly good amount of practical business advice in there too, especially for those of you that work in a corporate office like I do. I don't care for/about spirituality but good advice is good advice.
The Secret Teachings is actually a very high level overview. And what exactly are all of the things? Literally everything that would pique a young mystic's interest. Hermeticism, Kabbalah, alchemy…all things. All ages.
It does feel like a sampler plate. In fact, the biggest drawback is that it is A LOT. But Manly takes a practical approach to it, too. It's not as condescending as some people we could mention right now nor is it terribly out there. In fact, it's very normal. If I were caught reading this book in public I'd be accused of something at worst, absolutely nothing at best.
Yes, an occult self-help book is exactly what you needed! It sounds gimmicky but Hall writes in a really accessible and objective manner. I prefer listening to specific lectures as his text is a bit dry and pushes the needle to purple, but I still recommend The Secret Teachings to people who think they want to get into certain secret practices but maybe have the wrong idea or no idea at all.
Ia! If you've come this far, you're either looking for weird or you know you've found it...