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The Occult Sylvia Plath, by Julia Gordon-Bramer

The Occult Sylvia Plath: The Hidden Spiritual Life of the Visionary Poet, by Julia Gordon-Bramer
Destiny Books, 1644118629, 416 pages, May 2024

Poetry is a form of spellcasting, and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) continues to captivate readers as her following grows through BookTok. Plath was best known for her confessional poetry and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which she published just before her suicide under the pen name Victoria Lucas. Beyond her iconic status as a tragic heroine, Plath was fascinated with the occult. Biographers have often overlooked this aspect, but Plath scholar Julia Gordon-Bramer delves into this profound influence in her book The Occult Sylvia Plath: The Hidden Spiritual Life of the Visionary Poet. A poet and tarot reader herself, Gordon-Bramer unveils Plath’s fascination with Qabalah, Jungian alchemy, astrology, tarot, and even the Ouija board, revealing the sorcery woven into her writing. 

I first encountered Sylvia Plath in an undergrad poetry class. The lecture focused on lurid biographical details, reducing her to a tortured poet with daddy issues, who was driven to suicide by her husband’s infidelity. Dissecting poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” which were laced with disturbing holocaust symbolism, made my skin crawl. Reading her poetry was like eating wild honey straight from a swarming hive. The honeycomb was blackened with dust and mold spores, and dead bees were trapped in dark, viscous amber. There was a vague sense of danger, as if internalizing her words might infect me with the same madness that drove her to end her own life.

She instantly became one of my favorite poets. Plath gave me permission to harvest radioactive material from the dregs of my soul, to be raw and unfiltered in my writing. Nothing was off limits. While this provocative introduction to her poetry inspired me and granted me greater creative freedom, I now realize that I was so spellbound by her mythical image that I lost sight of the transcendent nature of her work. 

In The Occult Sylvia Plath, Plath scholar Julia Gordon-Bramer dismantles the oversimplification of Plath’s poetry as confessional, arguing that previous biographers have overlooked the influence of world events, Plath’s social circle, and most importantly, her fascination with the occult. Informed by over fifteen years of research, Gordon-Bramer deep dives into letters, journals, and even marginalia in Plath’s personal library, weaving together a web of occult connections that resonated throughout Plath’s oeuvre. Gordon-Bramer’s compelling insights have enriched my own appreciation of Plath’s poetry, as viewed through the kaleidoscopic lens of her spiritual journey. 

“For over fifty years, Sylvia Plath’s story was controlled and severely restricted by the estates of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,” says Gordon-Bramer. “Until recently, editors of Plath’s and Hughes’s published letters downplayed their interests in the occult.”1 It turns out that the tortured poet facade I had idolized as an undergrad creative writing student was carefully curated for mass appeal. “Even many of Plath’s better photos were not published, possibly in an effort to cast her as a dowdier, more depressive poet,”2 Gordon-Bramer says. In this book, she hopes “to break the world from the habit of reading Plath’s work solely through the lens of autobiography.”3

Each chapter is named after the title of a Plath poem. In “April Aubade,” Gordon-Bramer humanizes Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, a German immigrant who, during World War I, was flagged by the FBI as “an ‘alien enemy’ for having pro-German sympathies and expressing a desire to return to his homeland one day.”4 Otto was in fact a pacifist and a victim of the persecution that many German Americans faced during those troubled times. “Becoming a young man, alone with no family and few friends in a foreign country, Otto Plath endured it all, probably not without significant emotional damage,”5 Gordon-Bramer says.

Knowing these details about Otto Plath casts “Daddy” in a new light. The poem feels both intensely personal and transcendent. As Plath exorcizes the ghost of her German father and identifies with the Jews, she also seems to be grappling with a shared sense of horror for the atrocities of the Holocaust. The pain in this poem is visceral, and with the added context of her father’s struggles as an immigrant, the final stanza stings with deeper resonance:

“There’s a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you./They always knew it was you./Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”6

Plath’s rage transcends the personal, becoming a powerful voice for collective trauma.

Bees are prevalent in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and she inherited her fascination with them from her father, who earned the childhood nickname “Bee King” because he had a talent for “charming bees to steal their honey.”7 This passion continued into adulthood, as he studied and cared for bee colonies at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts from 1922 to 1928. Gordon-Bramer highlights the occult significance of bees, revealing that Otto was initiated into Freemasonry in 1928 and bees are a potent Freemason symbol, representing the alchemical transformation of pollen into honey through the hive’s collective efforts. Gordon-Bramer also notes that Sylvia’s mother, whose name, Aurelia, means “golden”8 in Latin, wrote her master’s thesis on the famed alchemist Paracelsus, which Otto read and admired.

Sylvia Plath was a Scorpio, born on October 27, 1932, under the looming shadow of the Great Depression. Gordon-Bramer explores how Sylvia’s early life was shaped by both environmental influences and her parents’ personalities. Her father Otto, an authoritarian Aries, exhibited a demanding and emotionally distant parenting style, while her mother Aurelia, a possessive Taurus, could be both smothering and invasive. The cross-pollination of Sylvia’s parents produced a precocious child who sought love and approval through academic achievement and perfectionism.  

“Because of his ill health, Otto never hugged or kissed his family for fear that he might spread disease,” Gordon-Bramer says. “Perhaps, for reasons he thought were kind and sensible in those times before antibiotics, he kept his distance, rarely talked to or played with his children, and quietly stayed in his room, already existing like a ghost.”9

Otto’s death could have been averted if he had sought medical treatment sooner. In a vain desire to preserve an image of masculine strength and independence, he stubbornly soldiered through the pain, refusing to see a doctor until it was too late. He was suffering from pneumonia and advanced diabetes, and his left leg had to be amputated due to a gruesome gangrene infection that horrified his daughter, plaguing her with nightmares even towards the end of her own life. Otto died of a lung embolism on November 5th, 1940, during World War II. Sylvia was only eight years old.

The name Otto means “wealthy,” but he failed to leave behind an inheritance that would sustain his family after his premature death.10] However, he bequeathed a Plutonian wealth of emotions to Sylvia, which she excavated at great length to fuel her artistic creativity. She mined a wide variety of emotional ores, from gilded veins of pride in his accomplishments as a “self-made man,” to the ancestral iron of blood and war she so eloquently smelted into poetry.11

In the summer following Otto’s death, the precocious eight-year-old Sylvia published her first poem in the Boston Traveler. Her father’s passing was a catalyst for her pursuit of literary fame, and the lingering influence of his high standards had conditioned her to seek external validation through artistic achievement and academic excellence. 

Otto’s death also initiated a profound spiritual crisis for Sylvia. Feeling abandoned by her father and resentful towards God, she declared, “I’ll never speak to God again.”12 Despite flirting with atheism, Sylvia was fascinated with religion and spirituality, and her personal beliefs were influenced by a blend of Unitarianism and paganism, leading her to identify as a “pagan sunworshiper”13 in her college years.

In 1953, after a month in New York City working as a guest editor at the magazine Mademoiselle, Plath had a “nervous breakdown” and attempted suicide with sleeping pills. Plath was institutionalized afterwards, and her doctor used tarot as part of her therapy. After her release, Plath continued reading tarot “for creative and personal growth”14 rather than fortune-telling. The arrangement of poems in her manuscript Ariel was based on tarot, and her nervous breakdown inspired her novel The Bell Jar.

After delving into Plath’s life story, The Occult Sylvia Plath offers an intriguing exploration of her complicated relationship with her husband, the British poet laureate Ted Hughes, through the lens of the occult. Gordon-Bramer weaves in vignettes of the couple using a homemade Ouija board to commune with a spirit named Pan, giving an intimate glimpse of how their shared creative process was influenced by the supernatural. Plath modeled her first poetry collection, The Colossus, after Hughes’s Qabalistic structure, which he used in his own poetry. “The title, The Colossus, and the inspiration for the title poem, probably should have been credited to Pan, the Ouija board spirit,”15 Gordon-Bramer says.

While it’s tempting to demonize Hughes as a monster who drove Plath to suicide with his philandering and alleged abuse, Gordon-Bramer paints a more nuanced picture, depicting him as a flawed but remorseful man. The pain and guilt he must have felt are palpable in Gordon-Bramer’s portrayal, and I was surprised to find myself moved to tears by the end of the book. Gordon-Bramer describes the lengths to which he went to preserve Plath’s legacy, leading one to believe he “had fallen more in love and under Plath’s spell than he ever had in her lifetime.”16 Thanks to his diligent work, so have we.  

The Occult Sylvia Plath is a spellbinding biography documenting the volatile alchemical marriage of two literary titans. By the end of the book, I felt a sense of catharsis, as if I had vicariously experienced Plath’s struggles and emerged with a deeper understanding. This is a must-read for fans of both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen Tarot, by Travis McHenry

Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen Tarot, by Travis McHenry and illustrated by Cristin Gottberg
Rockpool Publishing, 1922785849, 128 pages, 80 cards, October 2023

Travis McHenry has created an awesome tarot deck for those who love dark history. Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen Tarot opens the portal for modern readers to reach into the depths of the past and gain wisdom from the life journey of those who have dared to push the bounds of reality, ultimately becoming enlightened or losing themselves in the process. As someone who thoroughly enjoys delving into the biography of my magical role models to glean insight into the circumstances that shaped their body of work, this deck is a treasure trove of interesting characters to learn from!

McHenry is a detail-oriented creator who brings new life to arcane occult knowledge, and for this I immensely appreciate his work. His previous decks Angel Tarot, Vlad Dracula Tarot, and Occult Tarot have a palpable energy to them, and this deck is no different. Once again, Henry has ventured afar and gathered what he’s learned for others in a dually gruesome and glorious deck.

Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen Tarot casts a wide net in regard to the people included. While some might be considered unsavory, McHenry reassures readers “even the most terrible person in the deck had one or two redeeming qualities.”1 In his desire to bring these stories to life again, he sticks to the facts, though it becomes clear some of these characters’ realities are stranger than fiction. 

This being said, the first entry in the guidebook, The Fool, features James Douglas, who “was discovered roasting the cook’s body parts over an open fire and eating pieces of the meat.”2 Instant stomach turn, right? But if you’re like me and also feel utterly fascinated by the story, then it’s worth continuing on in your work with this deck!

McHenry is true to his word about finding the redeeming qualities, writing in the description of the card “As the first card in this deck James Douglas represents brash behavior, jumping without thinking and the folly of committing acts of violence. However, it also shows a person who knows themselves, knows what they want in life and just goes for it. . . James Douglas knew from the start he wanted to be a cannibal killer. He didn’t wait until he was old enough to pursue his dream and he didn’t wait for somebody to give him permission![/efn_note]page 12[/efn_note]

“Hopefully when you read the short biographies of these historical figures you’ll discover that it doesn’t take noble birth or divine favor to transform yourself into a magic, martyr, or madman!”3

For every entry in the guidebook, there is a short biography of the person or people featured, highlighting their ultimate acts of magic or madness, and then a few lines tying in the traditional meaning of the tarot card with the story of the characters’ lives. And overall, McHenry does a REALLY great job matching the person of the card with the card’s meaning, conveying the message of the card in a way that brings a trio of scary shivers, enlightened new perspective, and dash of humor. Nothing elicits a laugh like the true utter depravity and darkness of humanity, nor prompts self-reflection as a magical practitioner like reading about the escapades of both con artists and true mystics, who often end up vilified regardless.

Illustrator Cristin Gottberg has done an exquisite job in the design of these cards. The cards themselves are a deep blue with a red sigil on the back and golden tinted edges. Her original paintings in this deck are primarily darker colors – reds, oranges, browns, and blacks – and there’s a slightly blurred quality to each image, leaving room for the imagination to creep in and fill in the gaps. Gottberg has infused the images with a sensual and fluid feeling, perfectly capturing the essence of the person on the card.

And it’s worth noting there are plenty of women featured in the deck too, despite the title of the deck which seems to focus primarily on men. The reason Henry chose the title is because it was the name of the book consulted by the Ghostbusters in Ghostbusters II as they hunted fictional Vigo Carpathian. Disappointed the book did not exist, Henry “vowed to someday bring it into reality.”4Some of the women Henry includes are Catalina de los Rios, Agnes Bernauer, Catharina de Chasseur and Eva Courier and Juliette Bisson.

Speaking of the last two, another neat feature of the deck is the inclusion of three Lovers cards: a female/female card, a male/male card, and a female/male card. This allows for customization of one’s deck based on personal preference; it also gives us more interesting stories to read!

Overall, Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen Tarot is absolutely a worthwhile collector’s deck for those with an interest in dark history. There’s so much murder, mayhem, and mysticism to revel in while working with this deck. This deck will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the unique flavor of the deck absolutely has its time and place and is a macabre delight for the resonant audience. Sometimes we all need to teeter on the edge of wrong and right in our magical practice, and finding out more about the path of others can certainly help to clarify your own boundaries.

 If you’re seeking more of McHenry’s work, you can also check out Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen: A Compendium. He wrote this book using primary sources, often the words of the person themselves or sources from the time period they were alive. The biographies in this deck are condensed versions of longer entries featured in the book.

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary, by Tamra Lucid

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: My Seven Years in Occult Los Angeles with Manly Palmer Hall, by Tamra Lucid
Inner Traditions, 9781644113752, 160 pages, December 2021

I have quite the collection of Manly P. Hall books, which I have amassed because I live about two hours outside of LA and can score incredible finds at used book stores. From The Secret Teaching of All Ages to Man: Grand Symbols of the Mysteries, Hall’s books are what I am most proud to display on my bookshelf.

While recently I’ve been reading Hall’s The Secret Destiny of America to better understand the USA’s Pluto return this year, I will admit the aforementioned books haven’t been delved too far into yet. Most of the time, I’m intimidated by the sheer amount of history, knowledge, and occult wisdom stored in the books and feel like they’re not relics rather than learning manuals. I refer to them in dribs and drabs, taking what I need and then quickly shutting it again, almost afraid to unleash the power.

However, reading Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: My Seven Years in Occult Los Angeles with Manly Palmer Hall by Tamra Lucid has completely changed my perception of Hall – in a very good way! Lucid has painted a new picture of Hall for me, granting unique access into his life that reveals so much about his final years.

I love reading fiction books about people in history that I admire. Learning about their personality, daily life, and close association always puts their achievements in perspective for me. It’s easy to deify those we admire, but remembering they are an ordinary person helps to better understand their motivation behind their success.

Lucid and her boyfriend Ronnie, a troubled yet insightful man determined to make some changes in life, discovered The Secret Teaching of All Ages in the early 1980s. The content was life-changing, and they were surprised to find out the author, Hall, was not only still alive but gave talks regularly every Sunday morning. For over 50 years, every Sunday at 11am, Hall would give a lecture at his Philosophical Research Society (PRS) headquarters on various topics. Curious about the content of the book, Lucid and Ronnie decided to attend one.

Ronnie experienced a life-changing moment where it felt as though Hall was speaking directly to him, which many people in Hall’s life claim he had an uncanny way of doing. Following the lecture, Ronnie was eager to make a contribution to PRS, so he and Lucid decided to volunteer.

Ronnie wasn’t sure what he could contribute and was plagued by self doubt. Therefore, when Hall picked Ronnie to edit the bibliography of his alchemical books, he was honored yet doubtful he could fulfill the role. In fact, he told Hall no at first, but Hall insisted. And just like that, Lucid and Ronnie became a part of Hall’s inner circle, ushering in a whole host of characters in their lives.

There were tons of regulars at PRS; each there for their own reasons and the atmosphere was very open to ideas, research, and general philosophical questioning of the Universe. People from all walks of life from gurus to musicians gathered around the hall, making PRS an eclectic, thriving community.

Lucid describes Edith, a hip old woman that taught the couple astrology,  musicians Arthur and Lynn who called their home “New Temple of Freedom”1, Mr. Louis, who’d visit their house and go silently meditate in the corner, and many more! Reading about the variety of people, each on their own spiritual quest, coming together through the PRS community made me see how a sense of belonging can help one to flourish.

And this question of, “What brought you here?” is something that Lucid explores throughout the book for everyone she writes about. This makes the book interesting that she’s not merely just describing people, places, and events; she’s painting a picture of this time period, capturing the atmosphere and highlighting the deeper motivations and personal journey of everyone she writes about.

“We asked Steven what brought him to PRS. A dream. Dreams had been guiding him on an epic journey to gather information from all around the world about alternative and unusual methods of healing involving color, electricity, herbs, elixirs, the recipes of medieval sages like Paracelsus, and the advice of psychics like Edgar Cayce.”2

Meanwhile, Lucid and Ronnie are on their own spiritual journey. For instance, they begin visiting the Seer of the Sunbelt, Reverend Edward A. Monroe, “who would be answering questions about earth change.”3 through his Scottish spirit guide Jock. Another time, Ronnie was having trouble overcoming an illness, so Hall took him to Dr. Sabia to have a session with The Electro Stimulating Machine.

If you try to Google these things, no information comes up. And this is why Making the Ordinary Extraordinary is such a value book for one’s occult collection. There’s little to no records of these things that were happening. And reading about them opens so many doors of perception, as well as topics of research to further inquire about. When you consider this was all happening pre-Internet, you begin to see how unique of a scene this must have been. Reading Lucid’s story helps me to understand what occult Los Angeles was like in the 1980s, and oh how I wish I had been there!

In time, Ronnie began rising in rank at PRS, even delivering his own lectures on Sundays. There’s a really, kind of crazy story too at how Lucid and Ronnie wound up married because of the Halls, with Manly P. Hall as the officiant! Quite abruptly though, Hall subtly forced Lucid and Ronnie out of the PRS community. Things were changing, and Hall knew it.

What ended up happening to the community PRS, splintering and fracturing, was a heartbreaking story. For some reason, even with the great admiration and reverence I have for Manly P. Hall, I had never heard about the sketchy circumstances of his death. Lucid’s experience of leaving PRS and even warning Hall about the people he was surrounding himself with absolutely cast his death in a new light for me.

Hall did at least guide Lucid and Ronnie to this next endeavor: music. Their band Lucid Nation rocks. I totally went and listened to their music after I finished the book. Plus, I was inspired to check out all of Lucid’s other work including writing for Newtopia Magazine and documentaries Exile Nation: The Plastic People, End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, and Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War. Totally, totally amazing stuff!

But there’s just one more person I have to write about, which I saved for last intentionally because she’s been all I’ve wanted to talk about: Marie Bauer Hall. Lucid delves into Marie’s fascinating theory that Sir Francis Bacon (and his contemporaries) was Shakespeare, detailing how she went to the Burton Church in Virginia to try to dig up his tomb. Marie’s cosmology also involved the Space Mother.

Lucid describes how “In her magnum opus, Inquiry Into the Nature of Space and of Life in Space, Marie expressed optimism that it would be the mother of humanity whose conscience and consciousness would first awaken.”4 I’ve gotten so into researching more about Marie that I even bought God as Mother by Victoria Jennings, who organized and shares Marie’s work in the book. I really hope that more occult historians focus on Marie, from her life as Manly’s wife for decades to her own cosmologies – there is so much to uncover! A real treat is that Lucid includes the recipe for Marie’s zucchini pancakes at the end of the book!

All in all, Making the Ordinary Extraordinary is a must-read for anyone interested in occult history. Manly P. Hall is one of the most well-known modern occultists of our times, and Lucid’s up close and personal stories of working for Hall and being immersed in the PRS is fascinating insider information. Lucid does a wonderful job of sharing her personal experience with objectivity and genuine insight and reflection about the past. While it focuses on time-passed, it opened so many new doors for me to explore going forward; occult Los Angeles lives on through Lucid and Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.

Three Books of Occult Philosophy, translated by Eric Purdue

Three Books of Occult Philosophy, by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, translated by Eric Purdue
Inner Traditions, 164411416X, 864 pages, November 2021

As a practicing astrologer and magician, of course I’ve skimmed Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Corenlius Agrippa. It’s a foundation of Western occultism after all. But if I’m being honest, the editions thus far, such as the one edited by Willis F. Whitehead in 1898 or more recently Donlad Tyson in 2018, just never seemed to keep my attention. My experience reading Eric Purdue’s translation of Three Books of Occult Philosophy thus far has been entirely different though. I’ve been utterly engrossed, pouring over the information, meticulously researching references to other sources, and for the first time comprehending the text.

And I think this is because there is a prominence to this set. The sturdiness of the black box that houses the three books (The Natural World, The Celestial World, and The Divine World) takes up space, making itself known on my bookshelf. This is one of those sets I know I’ll return to year after year, making the quality of it very important. Plus, I feel pretty cool having it displayed in my living room. It is a truly collector’s item for one’s occult library, as well as a worthy investment for extensive amounts of wisdom within the text.

The books themselves are very big! I measured them, and they are over 10 inches tall and 7 inches wide. I personally love this because I am often referring to them in my practice and it’s helpful to have such a heavy-duty, substantial book where I am not constantly having to try to keep the pages open or squinting to read the writing. For instance, I’ve spent hours drawing the planetary seals for sigils and the size of the book makes it much easier, especially since sometimes I even lay paper over the images in the book to copy from.

Another significant thing about Purdue’s translation of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy is the first English translation published in the last 350, adding to the distinctiveness of this particular set. I thoroughly enjoyed, as well as found helpful, Purdue’s “Translator’s Introduction” that describes why a new translation was needed, in addition to how his translation differs from others. Some reasons cited for the need for this new translation include mistranslation, lack of technical knowledge of previous translators, archaic English that is distracting to read (yes, I concur on this one!!), and incorrect graphics. In some cases, Purdue explains, flaws in previous translations have continued to be compounded rather than corrected with additional translations.

Purdue’s intention in producing this translation was to create a new edition of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy directly from the original Latin and to cross-reference Agrippa’s sources.

“Our translation attempts as much as possible to cite sources that were available to Agrippa. This has allowed us to largely reconstruct Agrippa’s library and has demystified his method of obtaining it. This shows that Agrippa, rather than the writing from texts now missing or obtaining books from secret sources, instead was a mainstream scholar of his day, using texts widely available.”1

And this is where Purdue’s translation really shines, especially for any studious practitioner. The footnotes and sources provided have led me in so many new directions. Being able to look at the footnotes and see the source where Agrippa’s content is being drawn from has been immensely helpful in doing my own research. Two topics prominent in my practice, which I often write articles about, are the hierarchy of angels and numerology. It’s been tough finding primary sources on both these subjects, but suddenly, in reading this version of Three Books of Occult Philosophy, I have new leads from the detailed footnotes of books I can further explore. I am deeply appreciative of Purdue’s dedication, concentration, and effort to add these references into this translation. There is also a very interesting bibliography and comprehensive index in Book III, which again, is monumentally helpful for occult practitioners and researchers.

Another really interesting addition to this translation is quick summaries on the side of what Agrippa is talking about. For instance, in Book I’s section “Of lights and colors, lanterns, and lamps, and the colors distributed among the stars, houses, and elements.” there are side notes of what Agrippa is writing about such as, “The color of the planets.”2 and “The color of the humors.”3. These are incredibly helpful when doing a quick skim while looking for something in particular.

From a historical standpoint, Three Books of Occult Philosophy is the primary source of Western occultism, and it’s interesting to see how long some beliefs have existed, such as astrological correspondences or concepts about the elements. Even if one feels they are an expert, going back to these foundational texts really helps to see the origins of many occult beliefs embedded in our culture. It’s like a beginner’s 101 course, but one that is dated nearly 500 years and really encourages one to put themselves into the minds of magicians of the past.

However, what I’ve found most surprising is the relevance of the text centuries later. Not everything (I certainly cringed a bit reading about the bewitchment women use to lure men into love and the poisonous effects of their menstrual blood on crops), but a good majority of the text is viable for one’s modern magical practice. This is particularly true if one is drawn to arcane magical practices of times long gone, rather than the current trendy paradigms, such as chaos magic. And I think Purdue’s translation really aids in making the content of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy accessible for all.

Overall, this is by far the best translation I’ve ever seen of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Purdue has done such a great service in producing this new translation. From the physical heftiness of the book to the detailed footnotes, I’ve felt so connected to this set. It’s as though the arcane wisdom had just been waiting for the right translator to revive it to make it obtainable, on many levels, by a new generation, and Purdue was just the right person to do this. I highly recommend this translation above others, yes, even the free PDFs available online, because it feels alive with a potent spiritual energy. There is so much to learn from this new translation – sources to explore, wisdom to remember, and inspirations to be had.

Astrology for Mystics, by Tayannah Lee McQuillar

Astrology for Mystics: Exploring the Occult Depths of the Water Houses in Your Natal Chart, by Tayannah Lee McQuillar
Destiny Books, 1644110515, 176 pages, March 2021

There’s so many lenses through which one can embrace astrology, but my personal favorite has always been a spiritual perspective. Astrology for Mystics: Exploring the Occult Depths of the Water Houses in Your Natal Chart by Tayannah Lee McQuillar is a soulful dive into the element of water in one’s natal chart. By tapping into the healing, mysterious currents of the 4th, 8th, and 12th house, McQuillar takes us on a journey to discover and illuminate the depths of our astrology chart as shown by the sign and planet placements.

I think my favorite part of the entire book was the Introduction, “What is a Mystic?”, most likely because I’ve been pondering this question myself recently. McQuillar’s writing demonstrates such wisdom and insight that it makes it clear her spirituality has emerged through authenticity, originality, and genuineness. I immediately felt both trust and respect for her, which made me feel safely held as I proceeded onward.

“Mystics are the foundation of all religious and spiritual systems in the world. Someone, somewhere, at some time had to be the first to wonder if what she was being told about the divine was true and to seek a direct mystical experience in order to confirm or deny it for herself. Then, from that experience, that person formed ideas regarding the truth or nature of existence.”1

Her assurance that this book is meant to assist one in creating their own “individualized occult philosophy and spiritual regimen, one that doesn’t require you to believe anyone else, follow everyone else, or become someone else”2 greatly put this Aquarian at ease as I dove into the water in my chart.

Honestly, water has always been the element I connected with least, so I was looking forward to hopefully taking my time reading to figure out why and how I could better establish a connection to the energy of these houses in my chart. McQuillar lays a wonderful foundation by sharing a bit about what sets water apart from the elements. From how we can consume it and feel its nourishing effects, to the wide spread healing properties, her writing made me take a moment of pause in gratitude for all the water in the world.

By looking to the role of water in mythology, and sharing with the reader different spirits, gods, goddesses that are related to the water, McQuillar highlights water as the foundation of creation. The origin story of many cultures through time have evolved from a watery abyss, likewise the destruction of civilizations occurs through water when people have forgotten the importance of living in alignment. On that note, I appreciated McQuillar’s words on how our current society is allowing for the sacred waterways to become polluted. She puts forth an impactful call to stop these harmful practices and cherish the water supply here on earth.

For those who may be new to this level of astrological exploration, McQuillar teaches the reader how to look up their own chart and see the houses within it to discover the zodiac sign the house is located within and any planets there. She discusses the glyphs to help the reader know what to look for in their chart, and also gives a little overview of each sign with keywords to get a feel for them.

After this introduction into glyphs and astrological energy, McQuillar goes through the 4th, 8th, and 12th house respectively to give a bit of information about the zodiac sign and planet. First is an introduction to these houses, followed by each zodiac sign in those houses.

For every house, McQuillar focuses on the main themes of that house and explains how the energy in the chart of each sign would come through. For example, the 8th house sections are Sexual Intimacy, Your Elevated Self-Image, Your Secret Power, and Transformation and Endings. Based on which sign their 8th house is located within, the reader can learn more about the specifics of their chart.

Next, McQuillar discusses the specific meaning of each planet, providing information about their zodiac sign ruler and co-ruler as well. She then goes through the 4th, 8th, and 12th house and gives a description of each of the seven planets (thankfully, she included transpersonal planets!) in each one. I found her descriptions to be very illuminating, and reading this book came at a particularly apt time for me personally.

While doing a zodiac meditation earlier this week, I realized that I had immense trouble connecting with my Jupiter in Cancer in the 12th house; I simply could not sense the energy, nor get an intuitive grasp on this area of my chart. Reading the description of Cancer on the 12th house brought to my attention some traits that I didn’t immediately recognize within myself, but in reflection saw how they were in play in my life.

I think with the 12th house especially it’s beneficial to have an “outside” perspective because this can often be one of the tougher spots to see about oneself, as it’s related to our hidden, unconscious self. McQuillar calls this the house of “Unspoken Expectations, Confinement, Karma, Loss, and Self-Sabotage,”3 which can make it a bit difficult to delve into these placements lightly.

Luckily, I felt a bit of an optimistic boost from reading about Jupiter in the 12th house. It reaffirmed the initial connection to my spirituality that I usually always feel, and it also reminded me of the feelings of good will I get from being active in communities where I get to share my spiritual gifts.

This all being said, there were a few descriptions that I didn’t resonate with immediately, such as my Pluto in the 4th house, which implied a violence or abuse in my upbringing. However, I don’t think it diminishes the quality of information being shared, even if it felt like a more textbook description for me. I took McQuillar’s mystic approach of embracing what resonated with me and releasing what did not stick.

Plus, I am aware enough to know that sometimes energy and the meaning of the planets and signs can take time to sink in. Since this book is centered on the water houses specifically, it may take a bit more time to dive into these depths, swim within them, and emerge with a fresh breath of clarity. I would advise readers to have patience in moving through this book and taking the time to really explore their chart house by house using all the wisdom McQuillar has graciously offered.

I highly recommend Astrology for Mystics for those who want a guide for navigating the watery realms of their chart. For astrological novice, this can be a wonderful book to tap into the uncharted energy of the 4th, 8th, and 12th house in their chart. Those with advanced knowledge in astrology are sure to discover something new as well since McQuillar offers her own insight, which is soulful and poignant. It can be so very nice to have a “hand to hold” or a book to anchor us as we take the plunge into the occult depths of our natal charts, and McQuillar perfectly holds that space for us.

Mystical Vampire, by Kim Farnell

Mystical Vampire: The Life and Works of Mabel Collins, by Kim Farnell
Mandrake, 1869928858, 240 pages, June 2005

There’s something about exploring the past through a biography that takes you on a stimulating journey. While nonfiction is entertaining, I’ve always enjoyed being immersed in the ups and downs of a person’s life and reading about the way things unfolded for them. Recently, I’ve been extremely into reading about occultists of the past — it’s as though these older texts are now my illumination for a future path. Spiritualism and Theosophy have been front and center in my current studies, but I’ve been seeking more beyond just the popularized figures, such as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB). Therefore, I was absolutely delighted to read Mystical Vampire: The Life and Works of Mabel Collins by Kim Farnell. 

Mabel Collins, who lived from 1851 to 1927, was quite a dynamic woman, especially for living in England during the Victorian era. From being a popular novel writer to a well known Theosophist (for a time!), Collins made her mark on the occultists of this time period. Her story The Blossom and the Fruit was an influence on the young Aleister Crowley, and she personally organized and edited HPB’s The Secret Doctrine. She even potentially dated Jack the Ripper, who ravaged London committing gruesome murders of women!

In this book, Farnell has done a brilliant job piecing together information to gift readers with a well-sourced biography detailing the escapades of Collins’ extraordinary life. I can only imagine the research Farnell put into writing this because it is so well-rounded, as though she saw all the possible questions a reader might have and filled in the gaps to precede them before they arise. This is most evident in the way she describes the historical background, providing ample context for what it was like in this time-period, to draw the reader fully into an engrossing experience. One is able to slip out of modernity and step right into this era, feeling as though they are within the dynamics of the Theosophists at the time.

And oh goddess, it is thrilling to read about the drama, gossip, and relationships among the “who’s who” in Theosophy at the time. The cast of characters that passed through Collins’ life include William Butler Yeats, Annie Besant, Robert Donston Stephenson, who she believed to be Jack the Ripper, and a very influential relationship with HPB. It’s one thing to read a biography about HPB, the founder of the Theosophical Society – who was supposedly the most “enlightened” and connected to the ascended masters – but it’s an entirely different experience to hear about her from Collins’ point of view, who in many ways was a foil for HPB, though still an ardent supporter and collaborator.

For a time, Collins hosted HPB at her home and attended to the variety of guests that came calling. Eventually, Collins and HPB even worked together to create the magazine Lucifer, which ran from 1889 to 1897. However, HPB ultimately expelled Collins from the Theosophical Society, citing improper sexual conduct, or more specifically, black magic Tantric rituals. Also documented in great detail by Farnell is Collins’ writing of Light on the Path, which is the book she is most well-known for among Theosophists, and the ultimate fall out between her and HPB in regard to the source of this channeled book. And I’m only giving you the basic lowdown of this all because my mind is still reeling from all that Farnell has shared in Mystic Vampire, and what I’ve included thus far is hardly the whole of Collins’ life.

What I am most excited about now that I’ve finished reading the book is going back through my multiple sticky tabs of reference to further research the writings of others during this time. For instance, right now on my desktop I have a downloaded PDF of Geometrical Psychology or The Science of Representation: An Abstract of the Theories and Diagrams of B.W. Betts by Louisa S. Cook, who was Collins’ sister-in-law. Additionally, I have found PDF copies of Collins’ Light on the Path, Idyll of the White Lotus, and The Blossom and the Fruit. Now that I’ve read her story, I am eager to delve into her writing.

Like I said, I’ve been very into researching prior occult texts recently because there is something rich about what was going on during this time with the rise of Spiritualism and then later Theosophy. Luckily, Farnell has provided detailed references for all the information in the book with a very thorough list of footnotes and pages of sources, including books, periodicals, and online sites. I always deeply appreciate this level of scholarship and the way it aids me in discovering new things to read, research, and explore.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know Collins through this biography, and I can say she definitely has become one of my spiritual role models. Her role in Theosophy has been overshadowed by more popular names, but she contributed much to the movement, while also succeeding in other areas of life as well, such as writing romantic fiction and fashion columns for decades. Given the Victorian time period, her ambition is all the more impressive. Farnell has done an exquisite service in writing this book and keeping her memory alive.

Mystic Vampire is a must-read for anyone interested in occult history and seeking to learn more about the happenings in the late 19th century. Collins seems to me a feminist icon in her own right, dabbling in the occult arts and making her way in the world through her writing and activism. Farnell has brought her back to life in these pages, reclaiming her legacy and opening a channel for her spirit to carry on into the 21st century. Due to Farnell’s diligent research and writing, over a hundred years beyond her lifetime, Collins continues to inspire and guide those on a spiritual path.