Skip to navigation | Skip to content

2008 reading: Occultism in history

Here’s a few quick capsule reviews of some the books I read last year:

Joy Dixon’s Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (John Hopkins University Press, 2001) is a fascinating study of the relationship between the Theosophical Society and emerging feminist politics from the 1890s to the 1930s. Dixon shows how the relationship between personal transformation and political/ethical change became inextricably linked during this period, and looks at the tensions produced by these debates – both within the TS itself and the wider culture. Also, anyone with an interest in occult gender politics will probably find this book useful, as Dixon reviews the emerging conceptions of sexuality & gender during this period and how they clashed – from the all-too-familiar idea of masculinity as “positive” and femininity as “negative” to the challenges to this position found in the writings of Francis Swiney and Susan E. Gay, for example. She also discusses nascent occult theories of homosexuality, such as the “Uranian” as a spiritually advanced being whose emergence was a “sign of the times”. Some of these debates are still going on today in the contemporary occult scene – and some of the justifications are pretty much the same too.

Owen Davies’ Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (Hambledon and London, 2003) shows how cunning folk (known under a variety of labels) were a part of English culture (both rural and urban) up to the early twentieth century. He estimates for example, that by the nineteenth century, there were several thousand plying their trade across the country. Davies reveals that whilst prosectution was certainly an occupational hazard for them, in fact only a very small percentage of cunning folk were charged under the Witchcraft Act – because, he hypothesises, ordinary people made a distinction between “helpful” magic and “malicious” witchcraft. Cunning Folk is a thorough and engaging piece of historical research with some wonderfully funny moments – such as the account where a farm labourer took a cunning man to court because he had gone to consult him to reveal the identity of a thief who had made off with some produce – only to find that the lost stuff was in the cunning man’s rooms. I’d highly reccomend it to anyone with an interest in finding out how widespread popular magic was in England between 1500 and the 20th century.

Owen Davies’ Cunning Folk website

Finally, Alex Owen’s first book The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Univ. Chicago Press, 2004) examines the intersections between the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the roles played by women within it – and the wider issue of the “Woman Question” from 1860 onwards. Owen examines in some detail the religious background to Spiritualism, and the growth in both secular and Christian Spiritualist organisations and its relationship to Swedenborg & Mesmerism. In examining the rise in the popularity of Spiritualism, she relates it to the growth of social reform movemements – examples being the British National Association of Spiritualist’s stated aims to be that of “To cause the Rights of Women to be recognised in full” and the medium Emma Harding Britten using her “spirit inspired” lectures to assert that women should be allowed to enter the professions.

The relationship between suffrage & other social reform movements and esoteric movements in the 19th century is also a concern of Joy Dixon’s book so The Darkened Room complements it nicely.

Owen shows that women were considered at that time to be innately predisposed towards mediumship due to their “feminine virtues” (one of which was passivity). Yet, she says, women as mediums not only reinforced the Victorian stereotypes of femininity, they also challenged them, insofar as women mediums became “voices of authority” and frequently gained an independent income. She also looks at class issues, discussing one particular case in a middle-class household where the female medium was a servant. Part of Owen’s argument is that women played a central role in the early Spiritualist movement as mediums, healers and pioneers, yet unlike their male counterparts, they were less prone to writing up their experiences for public consumption and becoming ‘spokespersons’ for spiritualist causes. Owen also discusses how women mediums were dismissed by the burgeoning medical establishment as suffering from hysteria (she devotes one chapter to examining the case of a middle-class woman who was incarcerated in various asylums for over a decade on the basis of her practice of automatic writing). Early psychologists such as Janet and Hartmann described mediumship as indicative of hysteria or multiple personalities, yet it was the investigation of mediumship which spurred Frederick Myers to form his theory of the “subliminal mind.” Again, the tensions between medical “professionals” and spiritualist healers are perhaps a continuation of the conflicts studied by Owen Davies in Cunning-Folk. These tensions also shaped emerging sexological discourses.