This year marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Cavendish’s classic study of the occult, The Black Arts. The year 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, the 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.
This ferment of occult and mystical enthusiasm soon exploded across the culture as Americans were urged to “be here now,” try psychedelics to “tune in” to higher energies, use new practices in yoga and Zen, rediscover native shamanism (or variants of it) in the books of Carlos Castaneda, and shiver over evils, new and ancient, with the shock of the Manson murders, and the popularity of movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.
Into this atmosphere, British historian Cavendish (1930–2016) launched his enduring and influential study of occult history and practice, The Black Arts. The book won immediate popularity, gaining the affections of Mick Jagger, author Isaac Bashevis Singer, and, well, me, when I first began seriously studying the occult about twenty years ago. I discovered the book on the backlist of the publisher for which I now work, and was immediately enchanted with the green-blue-black psychedelic-goth graphics of the original cover art. At a later date, the book was redesigned in the more ordinary style of a heavy-metal album cover, which hyped up the sinister (serpents coiling from eye sockets of skulls), and played down the mysterious, alluring, and mature. For its 50th anniversary edition, TarcherPerigee has restored the mood of the original, and returned a few missing images to the interior. Mercury, rejoice.
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In the minds of many modern people, the occult stands for the sinister and satanic. This is a mistake, historically and spiritually. The term occult comes from occultus, Latin for hidden. Classically speaking, occult philosophy posits the existence of an unseen dimension of life, whose forces are felt on and through us. In the late ancient world, when the temple orders of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and the folk beliefs and nature-based religions of Europe, were losing appeal to Christianity, the church fathers did what we as humans have always done: labelled the other side, i.e., the historical and theological losers, in terminology of our own liking, in this case as demon worshippers and purveyors of dark sorcery, a characterisation that pre-Christians and pagans had never claimed for themselves. Indeed, for readers who were or are put off by Cavendish’s malevolent-sounding term “black arts” in the title, he quickly explained his choice: “No one is a black magician in his own eyes, and modern occultists, whatever their beliefs and practices, think of themselves as high-minded white magicians” – yet they are driven, as we all are, by the “titanic attempt to exalt the stature of man… this gives it [magic] a certain magnificence.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a shrewd and admiring critical essay on The Black Arts in Book Week on April 9, 1967, agreed with Cavendish noting: “We are all black magicians in our dreams, in our fantasies, perversions, and phobias.”
And, to this I would add, in the pursuit of our highest ideals. As Cavendish and Singer detected, we are not very different from the classical magician when we strive, morally and materially, to carry forth our plans in the world – to ensure the betterment of ourselves and our loved ones; to heal sickness; to create, sustain, and, above all, to generate things which bear our markings, ideals, and likenesses. All of this is the expenditure of power, the striving to physically establish our inner drives and images.
I do not view the search for individual power, including through supernatural means, as necessarily maleficent, and neither, I think, did Cavendish. Historically and psychologically, it is a fundamental human trait to evaluate, adopt, or avoid an idea based upon whether it builds or depletes our sense of personal agency. “A living thing,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is will to power…” The difficulty is in making our choices wisely.
We sometimes deny or overlook this power-seeking impulse in ourselves, associating it with the tragic fate of Faust or Lady Macbeth. It can be argued, however, that all of our neuroses and feelings of chronic despair, aside from those with identifiably biological causes, grow from the frustrated expression of personal power. We may spend a lifetime (and countless therapy sessions) ascribing our problems to other, more secondary phenomena – without realising that, as naturally as a bird is drawn to the dips and flows of air currents, we are in the perpetual act of trying to forge, create, and sustain, much like the ancient alchemist or wizard.
The ultimate frustration of life is that, while we seem to be granted godlike powers – giving birth, creating beauty, spanning space and time, devising machines of incredible might – we are bound to physical forms that quickly decay. “Ye are gods,” wrote the Psalmist, adding “but yet shall die as princes.” Immortality and the reversal of bodily decline is the one magic no one has ever mastered. The wish to surpass the boundaries of our physicality is behind some of our most haunting myths and parables, from the Trojan prince Tithonus, to whom the gods granted immortality but trapped in a shell of misery and decay for failing to request eternal youth, to the doomed scientist Victor Frankenstein, who sought the ultimate alchemy of creating life only to bring destruction on everyone around him.
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In The Black Arts, Cavendish captures the human striving and universality behind the magical search. He also demonstrates virtuosity for explaining ancient and more recent rituals, rites, and esoteric philosophies with splendid clarity. Although he casts a critical eye toward some of the customs he explores, Cavendish never places himself above or in opposition to them. The historian realises that these practices, whether they are to his or your private liking, reflect a basic human need. Nor does the author evaluate his facts from a distant remove. Cavendish, as Singer noted, “does discreetly hint that there may be a kernel of truth in the magicians’ fantastic assertions.”
First appearing in 1967, The Black Arts narrowly predated (and helped foresee) the explosion of mainstream interest in New Age and spiritual-therapeutic philosophies. The book also arrived just as the modern world was experiencing the rebirth of Wicca or witchcraft, a nature-based religion now officially recognised within the US military (whose service members and veterans may select the pentagram from among more than 65 “emblems of belief”). By many accounts, Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in the Western world today. It is not difficult to imagine a cohort of aspiring teen witches among Cavendish’s earliest readers (some of whom probably graduated to his magisterial 24-volume encyclopedia Man, Myth & Magic, which he edited in 1970).
To learn more about the current occult scene, in its popular and esoteric variants, you can select among dozens of twenty-first century books. Indeed, you will get much more from recent books for having read Cavendish’s. But make no mistake: The Black Arts is much more than a well-timed period piece. It stands nearly alone as a simultaneously comprehensive and inviting guide to the world of pre-modern esoterica. Cavendish performed an epic feat of distillation in this well-sifted compendium. He created vivid descriptions of philosophies that many writers botch, such as Kabbalah (an area where Singer felt the book displayed distinction), European spellcasting, and the messy topic of Satan worship, which is not exactly a tradition so much as a patchwork of historical experiments, foibles, and, not infrequently, frauds.
Cavendish’s descriptions are so clear that the intrepid reader can use his book, as I admittedly once did, not only as a historical work but also as a guide to practice. If you are bold enough (and I hope it’s boldness and not fickleness or venom) you can try your hand at variants of numerology, astrology, and divination. I believe strongly that to understand the meaning and ideas behind any faith or spiritual practice (by spiritual I mean belief in extra-physicality), a participatory approach is necessary, even if only temporarily. Whether you view the occult critically or sympathetically, and there are grounds for both responses, you will never understand the pull of the religious or occult appeal without getting involved in it. Messy hands are the fee of entry.
Soon after Cavendish published his study, another writer and journalist, Lewis Lapham, followed The Beatles to the Rishikesh ashram for a firsthand view of their encounter with the Maharishi. Lapham was a progenitor of the “New Journalism” (not a term he claimed for himself), an approach to reportage that included an expressly participatory element. In this vein, Lapham took measure of the charismatic, bearded guru’s influence on The Beatles in a two-part 1968 article for The Saturday Evening Post, “There Once Was a Guru from Rishikesh.” The journalist viewed the Maharishi and his flowered acolytes with immediate suspicion, and regarded them from a sardonic remove. Yet it never occurred to Lapham, who sat in on rap sessions, group meals, and other events, to use the easiest and plainest means available to test his instinct that there was something fishy about the robed man selling bliss: Namely, placing his bottom on a cushion and trying the TM technique. A mantra, if you desire one, is about as easily attained as a learner’s permit to drive – and, indeed, at that particular time and place was much easier.
In 2017, almost fifty years after his visit, I asked Lapham, a gentlemanly and approachable man, whether he had learned TM in Rishikesh or another time. His reply: “Even in Rishikesh I didn’t practice Transcendental Meditation. The Maharishi furnished me with a mantra, but I failed to employ it as a stairway to the stars.” There was no discernible curiosity toward the thing being judged. This is the opposite of Cavendish’s approach. That intellectual quality in Cavendish – to place his hands (and yours) on the driver’s wheel – is what has given his book its posterity, and won it unlikely dedication from both mainstream literary voices and contemporary occult seekers.
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As I have written in my Occult America and elsewhere, occult philosophy is the kernel that gave rise to most of today’s modes of therapeutic and self-help spirituality. Indeed, the idea of an individual spiritual search today now seems like a birthright. This was not always so. During the Renaissance, when occult forms of worship and magic were being rediscovered, translators, artists, and religious scholars began to enunciate the first modern conception of a personal spiritual search, located beyond the parameters of any one congregation or faith. That impulse pulled Thoreau into the woods, set Blavatsky on her globe-spanning search, drew The Beatles to Rishikesh – and lured many readers to this book.
In the closing pages of Occult America, I identified five spiritual principles with which most modern people agree, even those who are disinclined toward religion. These beliefs came into vogue – and have grown only stronger – in the years of occult ferment immediately following Cavendish. These principles found their earliest sounding in Western life through occult and mystical practices. They are:
- Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual and religious ideas.
- Belief in a mind–body connection in health.
- Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages.
- Belief that thoughts, to some greater or lesser measure, determine reality.
- Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to any specific religion or doctrine.
The encounter between modern people and occultism, including many of the practices explored in this book, resulted in a vast morphing and reframing of arcane beliefs from the Old World into the new, boundary-free spiritual culture of our own era. This new spiritual culture is often called the New Age – a term critics use derisively but that I use with respect. New Age spirituality is, quite simply, therapeutic spirituality, and the seeking of self-potential through metaphysical understanding. The New Age extols religious egalitarianism and has, in my view, responded more fully than any other movement in history to the inner needs and personal search of the individual.
In reading The Black Arts you will discover much more than magical systems from the past; you will also discover ideas that have shaped us as a culture – and that likely reflect aspects of your interior life.
This article is adapted from Mitch Horowitz’s new introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Black Arts: A Concise History of Witchcraft, Demonology, Astrology, and Other Mystical Practices Throughout the Ages, out now in all good bookstores.
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