On some recent trips to Chicago I’ve noticed that a number of buildings have alchemical and Rosicrucian symbolism worked into their facades. These are visible on brownstone apartment buildings, as well as commercial buildings, and it got my little mind wondering what lead to their inclusion in so many seemingly mundane examples of architecture.
If you jump back a century Chicago was a buzzing hub for the New Thought and Mind Science movements, and home to a number of publishing houses that were responsible for the creation of everything from the Kybalion ( a Hermetic text put out by the Yogi Publication Society ) to popular pressings of the famous Hoodoo reference book The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Frank Loyd Wright, who spent much of his time in Oak Park, had some theosophical meanderings (he was married to a former student of Gurdijeff’s) and his connection to Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft movement puts him in touch with various streams of Rosicrucian thought, but Wright wasn’t responsible for the buildings in question.
In the process of searching out clues online I became side tracked by the publishers and nearly forgot the architecture. One of the beautiful things about Google books is the ability to not only access books, but archival material from journals, news papers and publications as well. What I found was a whole host of material that gave me a new appreciation for the diversity that can spring out of a single source of inspiration.
It seems that most of these publishing houses were in one way or another connected to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, famous for it’s influence on Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., C.C. Zain‘s Brotherhood of Light and a number of other groups that have spread out far from their initial origins, while always keeping a similar thread of thought. The same folks who were publishing New Thought, American Yoga, and Mind Science were also putting out books on Hoodoo, Rosicrucianism, Western Kabbalah and Hermetic science. Just like in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, these publishing houses (often using different names from the same office) covered diverse esoteric territory.
As I read through some of these books I started to wonder, what happened to the creative impulse that lead to this massive production? For all the pseudo-scientific jargon and ahistorical theorizing found in many of them, there always seems to be a focus on civic responsibility, personal integrity and community development, a sort of wide eyed optimism for the potential of humanity to move beyond petty differences and grow into something better.
Mitch Horowitz points this out in his book Occult America, talking about C. C. Zain (Elbert Benjamine) he writes:
“In the midst of the Great Depression, Benjamine conceived of a universalist belief system he called the Religion of the Stars. He saw it as an occult religion that could unite humanity under a peaceable, nonsectarian creed based in the study of ancient astrology…His 1930′s print ads for the Religon of the Stars reflected the social values of Henry A. Wallace’s “The New Deal of the Ages.” One showed a torch-bearing horseman riding a winged steed labeled The New Civilization and holding a flag that echoed Benjamine’s motto: Contribute Your Utmost to Universal Welfare. The horse and rider leaped over the words Want, Fear, Censorship, Atheism.”
Today when we think of the “occult sciences” what all too often comes to mind is some fear mongering nonsense about secret societies and cults plotting against the good intentions of the common people. Yet if you go back and read the historical works that were being published in the late 19th century…there isn’t much of a secret, and all of these organizations were pretty open about their intentions. Horrible intentions like self respect, helping the disenfranchised, providing for the common good, realizing the full potential of life and other dark designs on the future of humanity.
Here’s an example of an ad for The Hermetist that ran in a number of publications at the time:
Is a sixteen-page monthly magazine, the organ of the Hermetic Brotherhood. Its motto is “Get Understanding.” It deals with Mysticism in a common-sense way. It teaches that If Occult Power can be of help to mankind, It ought to be made practical. It seeks to tell its readers how to use the powers they have neglected for so many centuries. Send 10 cents for sample copy. Yearly subscription $1.00.
HERMETIC PUBLISHING CO., 4006 Grand Boulevard, – Chicago, III.
Terrifying stuff indeed. It may be tempting to think that the entire focus of these groups was some massive deception, or perhaps some kind of long running scheme to cash in on people’s hopes. Thoughts like these usually come from the fears and malintention of the accusers and fly in the face of the fact that the consistency in the message, the austerity that many of the members of these organizations lived in, and the undeniable earnestness of their writings shows that, whatever their personal failings, there is an honest sense of integrity behind these movements.
It’s been very heartening to see that there are contemporary esoteric groups beginning to get back to this sense of social consciousness. Scarlet Imprint recently put out Geosophia, by Jake Stratton-Kent, which looks at the Goetic arts as a means for cross cultural understanding, bringing it out of the mire of misinformation that they’ve been stuck in for centuries. Another upcoming publication by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold, Palo Mayombe – The Garden of Blood and Bones, is an honest appraisal of the Palo tradition, one of the many African diaspora traditions that get’s so much bad press due to it’s raw honesty with the facts of life and death. Nicholaj is an anthropologist who has been initiated into a number of Western and diaspora traditions, and makes the astute observation that much of the fear that surrounds paths like Palo are nothing more than veiled racism.
Beyond publications there are also organizations reemerging to tackle the self flagellating victim script that we’re being constantly given by the Western media. The New Extreme Individual Institute runs on a simple motto:
Become Who You Are – There Are No Guarantees
This isn’t the Victorian era, and the problems that we face today are definitely nothing to slight. Paranoia, fear and self victimization, however, are not going to get us out of the hole. Along with the NEII’s motto is a further elucidation of their principles:
“Just as there are athletes of the sports and the arts, so are there athletes of the spirit. The first search for excellence and perfection in their chosen field of endeavour and are so recognized, while in the latter there is similarly a search for excellence of technique and perfection of all the vehicles of the Self.”
As our economy continues it’s rolling descent into oblivion, our cultural institutions sit paralyzed with inertia and our supposed leaders continue to puff out weak rhetoric, avoiding any recognition of the realities that we face, we’re going to need some spiritual athletes to lead us past the finish line.
Are you ready?