Thursday, October 12, 2006

This project has been fermenting for an awfully long time----my notes on Physical Culture go back to the controversial bits on Woodcraft that I've researched and discussed in other forums, and that work was done in the 1990's. My cross-check of data through the pages of "Physical Culture" Magazine (by Macfadden) revealed something interesting in the ad pages---there were lots and lots of ads for what John Michael Greer has termed "Self-Improvement" books, courses and retreat centers.

"Self-Improvement" embraces quite a few disciplines, many of which are enumerated in the list below. It has taken me about a decade to realize that how popular all of this was. If a minister of the 1880's would have predicted the Christianity of the 20th century, Fundamentalism wouldn't have been in the running. It surprises me that the Spiritualist Churches and New Thought didn't fare that well after WWI.

I've finally gotten somewhat of a handle on sorting through the messy history of Victorian spirituality of the 1890's. There were a lot of overlapping movements that many people participated in at the same time. The short list is:

Suffragette Movement
Public Health Movement
Physical Culture Movement
Spiritualism, including all derived techniques, (i.e."Magnetic Healing" "Practical Psychology" "Mental Alchemy" etc.)
The Rise of Psychology as a Discipline
The Closing of the American West
Folklore Movement
Discovery and publication of the Egyptian Book of the Dead Text and other works on Egyptian Mythology by many authors, includng Budge and Murray. (Yep, that would be Margaret Murray)
Fantasy Literature, with particular attention paid to the Goddesses in Fiction ("She" by Haggard was a best seller, and quite a few authors were writing about Goddesses, reincarnation, etc. at this time, as I have pointed out for the past 22 years)
The notion of evolution as progress
Fraternal and Sororal Lodges
Delsarte dance, statue posing and oration techniques
Archaeology as a scientific discipline
The "Rest Cure" and books on relaxation and the Will
The Parliment of World Religions Conference in Chicago in 1892
Victorian Pornography (Swinburne, the journal "the Pearl" gay and straight suggestive pictures)
Other Writers, including Walt Whitman and dozens of poets not as good as Whitman
The rediscovery of animal intelligence. (Prior to this time, science such as it was viewed animals as automotons lacking feeling or decision making ability)
Memory Training Courses

What is fascinating in all of this is how many women were active in quite a few of these activities as leaders. Mary Baker Eddy founds Christian Science in this timeframe, and quite a few of her cohorts were almost as successful in organizing churches that fall under the broad category of "New Thought", a movement resulting from the Spiritualist practices of Quimby in the 1850's. As one historian of physical culture has written, quite a few of the women involved in Physical Culture in the 1870's (earlier and later as well) were spiritualists or into kindred movements.

We can't forget other figures of the times, like Elsa Barker, who managed to be active in the Golden Dawn, New Thought, Mediumship, and Seton's Red Lodge in the Woodcraft League.

The prize for overlap, however, goes to Genevieve Stebbins, who provided a bridge between the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and Delsartism. As a bonus she spans the gap between the metaphysics of the 19th century and the 20th, as she was influential in helping the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) getting started, while her statue posing as Isis was the event that spurred Ruth St. Denis to dance Goddesses and found Modern American Dance with Ted Shawn, her sometimes husband and co-choreographer.

William Walker Atkinson, aka Yogi Ramacharaka, aka Magus Incognito, aka Theron Q. Dumont, etc., was one of the pivotal figures in this whole mess. Atkinson was originally a highly successful lawyer who suffered a nervous breakdown. New Thought practices proved to be healing for him, and he at some point started writing for Nautilus Magazine (the premier journal of New Thought in Chicago, IL). Sometime later he became involved with the Chicago Golden Dawn temple. His major contribution viewed from our time (but probably not his) was the almost seamless integration of classical Hermeticism with New Thought through the slender but deep book "The Kybalion".

I read Atkinson's writings as a corrective to the perspective held by many Golden Dawn initiates of the present day, which sees no Christian basis for the implementation of the HOGD other than the Church of England. New Thought played a role, certainly, in US Golden Dawn materials. I doubt few people have read all of Atkinson's works (he was prolific), but a glance at the list of titles should be enough to let folks realize that Clairvoyance, Gazing, the development of the Will, Magnetic Healing, etc. training programs and clubs were wildly popular from roughly 1860 through the 1920's. I'm working on appropriating, um, that is developing my own explication of all of this as the context in which the Golden Dawn would have been implemented by its first and second generation of practicioners. Folks did not show up in the H.O.G.D. empty handed---they would have had a better than nodding comprehension of all the fields of study mentioned above. Cementing this was the high participation in Lodges such as the Rebekahs, the Odd Fellows, Masons, and dozens of other organizations that didn't survive into the late 20th century. John Michael Greer has written an excellent and under-appreciated book on this topic of the connections between Fraternal and Ceremonial Lodges that the wise reader of this blog will seek out and purchase.

The Temperance Movement and the Battle for Women's Rights requires the drawing of yet more Venn diagrams between these communities as well. The Spiritualist, New Thought and derived philosophies were not just active in large cities like Boston, but rural communities in Kansas, California and elsewhere supported clubs or lodges that sponsored correspondence courses in quite a few disciplines.

I'm tenatively planning the release of my course in Victorian Self-Improvement for my 50th birthday (May of 2008), with a few days of lectures on the topic and simultaneous publication on a web site. Between now and then I'll need to plow through about six to seven thousand pages of source materials, spend a year or so sorting through all of it, before I can say much that is relevant on the subject.

This material will form what amounts to the first and middle third of my book on druidry, provisionally titled "Coming Forth By Star and Stone: A User's Guide to North American Druidry".

I've realized that I write well in short essays, so will continue that for the book. There's been some fairly enthusiastic reception of my article on Wild-Crafting your own Druidry, and hopefully folks who live in biomes other than the desert Southwest will communicate some of their results to me.

While not wishing to be considered anti-intellectual, I wish that more people in Druidry and kindred movements would consider the Book of Nature to be the primary source work. There comes a time when the texts, with all of their shiny credentials and copious verbage must be put aside as one sees a sunset, walks through the mists in the cool of Autumn or prunes rosebushes. "What has it done to you?" should be the final criteria for experience. One of the main problems with a previous body of work of mine that was co-created with another person was that people confused process for results. I'm going to be much more blunt with text and lecture this time around, and hope that it will result in less misunderstanding

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