Sunday, February 04, 2007

Gooey Things II -- Prelude

It occurred to me that there are a few points about the powers of context - and text - that are appropriate for a discussion of occultism in literate cultures.

One of my favorite alternative process photography gurus has noted that there's no such thing as "Photography". Rather, there is "Photography-As-We-Know-It". She recognized that any sort of meaningful dialog or discussion is founded on the paradigms that the self-identified group (in this case a computer mailing list) holds to be valid. There are tacit if unspoken agreements that are necessary for dialog to occur. Construction of a narrative is the act that may best reveal the strengths and weaknesses of our species. We are tool using, story telling primates with opposable thumbs and agendas. In looking at source documents that tell the tales of any subject, it helps to remember that:

1. Not everything important was put into print. Conferences, Chataquas, Lyceums and Assemblies were major vehicles for sharing information prior to the era of cheap newsletters and books. Very few of these left footprints.

2a. Not everything in print survived into the present day.

2b. Not everything in print that survived is of equal value. Some of it was and is rubbish.

2c. Information makes a great circuit from the West to Asia and back again. Chinese authors of the late 19th and 20th century would read New Thought, Physical Culture, Martial Arts and Spiritualist books as source documents. In turn, these books from the East were translated into English, completing this circulation of information, with the serial numbers conveniently ground off at each point of the exchange. Our 18th century "magnetic healing" is 19th Century Chinese chi kung, and vice versa.

3. From the point of view of a practitioner, there is no single globally valid history that can subsume all events into a coherent narrative that reflects what happened.

4. History, like politics, is local and based on a variety of experiences that are unique to a biome, era, region or group.

5. No author is free from bias. All of them that aren't reference librarians writing bibliographies "cherry pick" their data.

There's this belief that excreting ink onto paper (to paraphrase the late, lamented author Robert Anton Wilson) grants a sort of authority to ideas. Within the subculture of the occult this is generally if unknowingly expressed as the quest for the "black book".

The basic notion is that someone, somewhere,somehow got hold of a book that holds all or many of the secrets of the Universe. In Iceland it was said that such a book was written in luminous ink on black paper, was only visible at night and could be given to a wizard or sorceress by the devil or some similar agent of evil, like Interlibrary Loan. This notion seems to hold greater importance in the Americas than in Europe.

Not only is such a book an item of power, its use crosses into the realm of talismanic operations--the rumor that such a book being possessed by someone is oftentimes as esoterically potent as the book itself. To use a hypothetical example, if I were to claim, say, that I had all of the documents from an early 20th century Rosicrucian lodge in England and other participants in the occult community believed this to be true, this belief in a book by members of the Body Esoteric would generate usable power for me, without any additional work on my part. Acceptance of the assertion in a community is oftentimes as potent as ownership of such a work.

Now, there was no shortage of grimoires to choose from in 19th century America. The 6th and 7th Books of Moses were two of the most used additions to this corpus. An old standby filling a similar niche would be an antique or antique looking bible. Bibles were used for bibliomancy and had other less common uses, such as removing warts by smacking them with that Good Old Book. The psalms were held in high regard as well. Carrying the text of a psalm on a piece of paper in one's garments was a frequent custom. The German community would contribute to this literature, giving us "Pow-Wows: Long Lost Friend, a Collection of Mysteries and Invaluable Arts and Remedies by John George Hohman. This volume would become a staple for occult practitioners in the New World, where its influences would be present from the Pennsylvania "Dutch" settlers who were the book's audience to the blossoming of hoodoo in the Deep South. Other texts would include the "Oraculum" also known as Napoleon's Book of Fate. If a printer didn't have one of these works in stock, putting a custom cover on whatever volume they did have and titling it the 6th Book of Moses was a commonly accepted practice.

Gooey Things II

Returning to the early days of Spiritualism, it is important to remember that this particular manifestation of religious activity took the Americas and England by storm. The Fox Sisters had their experiences in 1848. By 1849 there were Spiritualist conferences, books, tracts, lectures and the establishment of its preferred mode of operation, that of the "Home Circle". While damned few books were written on how to organize a home circle,its presence is a given in spiritualism/spiritism in the Americas. Small groups were the preferred format for participation in occultism. Spiritualism is more about the living than the dead---don't think of those who have passed on as "dead" think of them as differently embodied. If these folks were to manifest it was thought that these bodies would be composed of "ectoplasm", or spirit-force goo.

At least in this world, living things need water. Not too surprisingly, NASA has adopted a similar search strategy in looking for life on Mars, Europa or elsewhere. "Follow the water!" is the rallying cry for exobiologists, at least in this era. Similarly in spiritualism, we "follow the ectoplasm".

The term "medium" is revealing. It suggests transmission of a force through space and demands an interaction between the medium, the spirit realm, and the members of the home circle. For lack of a better term, the assemblage of the home circle, its spirit band and the rest of the local environmental manifestations determines the sort of information that can manifest.

The first consistent messages through mediums were interpreted as a call for Women's Suffrage and the abolition of slavery, with a small but vocal minority advocating "free love" as an innate Spiritualist doctrine. Spiritualists were oftentimes criticized for being involved in the abolitionist movement, possibly because spiritualism was widely and quickly accepted by large numbers of slaves in the South. This adoption would help to shape the emerging folk culture of hoodoo. In Brazil, Cuba, and almost any other place in the Americas where slavery was present, Spiritualism began influencing the interpretation and practice of Afro-diasporic practices. Allen Kardec would write a series of books and hymns on Spiritism that ultimately formed the basis for Brazilian espiritismo and the 20th century Brazilian religions of Candomble and Umbanda, along with many similar manifestations in the New World.

Spiritualism arrived on the British, American and other New World religious scenes with an inherent stubborn practicality that did not depend on formal institutions, leaders or theological training. It proved to be an omnivorous faith, gladly swallowing elements of virtually any other spirituality it encountered. Native American motifs and spirit guides were adopted in quite early, and there was a lot of material to be had in the 19th century Americas. Any cross-pollination that could happen with religions, spiritualities and cultures basically did happen.

At this point it would be appropriate to discuss a seance. From the French term "to sit" a seance consists of several people sitting, including a medium and a control or conductor.
As noted in "Gooey Things I" there are three distinct phases--"Entering the Silence", "Concentration" and "Meditation or Manifestation".

The initial state needed for a successful home circle is the ability to "Enter the Silence". Tons of printer's ink were sacrificed in an attempt to teach this concept to 19th and 20th century Spiritualists. In short, the "monkey mind" needs to quiet down and the doors of perception need to creak open a bit. (Please see "Tools for Druid Companions I" for further information.) Seances facilitated this by providing a stable context--the same songs, prayers, members of the circle, positioning of the chairs and hands, position of the head provide us with a Western asana, mudra and mantra. Spiritualists scheduled meetings at the same time every month. It might have been the third Wednesday at seven pm. Regardless of their choice, they felt that the spirits liked keeping to a regular schedule.

In examining the procedures of Spiritualism and Mesmerism, I offer the following analysis. This is not the only way to parse the data, but it is one that offers quite a few benefits in describing the activities of occult practitioners of the Americas from the 19th to the 21st century.

After summoning the Spirit Band (those positive entities that have ties to members of the home circle), there are three components in any sort of working.

The first component of an early Mesmeric or Spiritualistic working is intention. There is a definite desire or purpose to accomplish that is held by the Mesmerist (or Control) and the medium.

The second component is motion--Mesmer used gestures in his working and initially manipulated metal crosses or other objects over the body of the Subject. Mesmer abandoned the use of objects and used his hands in later years.

The third component is a sub-set of the second---sound. Seances began with a song or other music. Shape-note hymns were a favorite, taken right out of the Primitive Methodist hymnal. Later Spiritualists used the inspired volume from Peebles, titled "The Spiritual Harp", available as a Kessinger reprint.

The glass harmonica was used in seances through the 1850's where it lost popularity reportedly because it was considered too spooky. I've never heard one in person, but I have a cd by Thomas Bloch, entitled "Music for Glass Harmonica" that conveys some of the power of this instrument. Spiritualists weren't limited to the glass harmonica, of course. They were at home with church organs, pianos, guitars, drums, trumpets, sistrums and other instruments. A quick read of the literature from the mid-19th century suggests that the oboe, bassoon, mouth harmonica and accordion were the only musical instruments that Spiritualists didn't use in a seance.

There are frequent allusions to music in Spiritualist writings. Andrew Jackson Davis titled one of his works on Spiritualism "The Great Harmonium". This lies at the heart of Spiritualism as a discipline--the notion was that there is a medium of forces that flow between the Cosmos, the Mesmerist and the Subject or medium. This medium or "aether" will be characterized as "animal magnetism", at least early in the 19th century. It was viewed as an energy that could be produced, directed, absorbed and was capable of altering the subject or their perceptions. Again, the notion of a flow of energy is the basic concept, one that is found in virtually every society on earth. These energic systems are not all the same--the ways that they are characterized are as varied as the terms for this energy. There's more than one chakra system from India, these don't neatly equate to the tan tien centers used in China, and neither are of any help in discussing the energies directed by members of the Native American Shaker churches in Washington State. Pick one or none, and don't worry because they do things differently in Maine.

At heart Spiritualism can be characterized as a a system of practical and happy esoteric discipline that is founded on the subtle worlds that have intercourse with our realm, accessing it through sound, movement and directed intent. These elements will form the base of much occult teaching in the Americas for the next two centuries.

There are just a few other points to make. Spiritualists had (and have) quality control measures to weed out ectoplasmic posers. Quite frankly, there were "humbugs" in the 19th century just as there are in the 21st. Some spiritualists just put on shows. They could palm objects, alter photographs, throw their voices, tip tables, blow horns and rig elaborate mechanical hoaxes in a fashion that would have impressed Rube Goldberg. The existence of wigs does not prohibit the existence of head hair, it just makes it harder to find.

In the midst of these religious innovations, hermetic and alchemical doctrines brought over from Europe were not forgotten. Many of the Founding Fathers of the US were Masons and had connections to various esoteric groups. Our ambassador to France, Ben Franklin, founded the US Postal System (possibly as a way to more easily coordinate Hellfire club parties), mapped the flow of the Gulf Stream, invented the bifocal, popularized an almanac that is still being published, and experimented with electricity, a frequent pastime in that era. As noted earlier, there were more than a few magical manuscripts circulating among folks interested in such things.

Here is a list of generally recognized principles of spiritualism. Although this was compiled c. 1900, it reflects fairly accurately how earlier spiritualists felt and operated.

Many Spiritual Churches accept the Seven Principles of Spiritualism, of which principles, full individual liberty of interpretation is reserved to each member. This set of principles was delivered through the medium Emma Hardinge Britten:

The Divine Eternal Parenthood (sometimes called "the Fatherhood of God")
The Family of Humankind (sometimes called "the Brotherhood of Man")
The Interconnectedness of all Creation.
The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels
The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul
Personal and Social Responsibility, including compensation and/or retribution hereafter for the good and evil deeds done "on Earth"
Eternal progress open to every Human Soul

Those of you with experience in Fraternal lodges may recognize some of this language. It isn't a coincidence.

Next time, Victorian Arts and Sciences, along with the only course in Magnetic Healing you'll ever need.

(Please see "Tools For Druid Comrades" for the technical materials for this weblog series.)

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