Counterculture icon and essential figure in the early postwar Los Angeles art scene, Marjorie Cameron is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman opens October 11 and will feature over 90 artworks and ephemeral artifacts, including correspondence with husband and occult mentor, the engineer and Thelemite Jack Parsons. “Her hallucinated vision, at the edge of surrealism and psychedelia embodies an aspect of modernity that deeply doubts and defies Cartesian logic at a moment in history when these values have shown their own limitations. Her work demonstrates that the space in the mind is without limit,” states MOCA Director Philippe Vergne. The exhibition offers a rare look at the life and work of a female occult practitioner — too frequently depicted as mere muse or lunatic, even though female-centric mysticism has existed for thousands of years. Here are a few other female occultists who deserve mention.
Author of the pioneering esoteric text The Secret Doctrine and co-founder of the Theosophical Society (focused on exploring the origin of humanity and the divine “without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color”), Helena Blavatsky is one of the progenitors of the New Age movement. Attempting to unify Eastern tradition with Western occult practices, Blavatsky traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States studying various doctrines. She reportedly underwent training with Hindu gurus in India. In her first major book Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky raised eyebrows when she claimed that science and religion was not the way to true enlightenment (she also believed she was psychic), though she did find legions of followers in America during the Spiritualist craze (and later in India once more). She was frequently declared a fraud — a vastly different reception than in her native Russia where she was born into an aristocratic family. Her coarse demeanor and seemingly exaggerated personal history didn’t help her reputation, but Blavatsky’s contributions are still celebrated today.
While researching a book about extrasensory perception with her husband, writer Jane Roberts received messages from a supernatural male identity named Seth. Soon after, Jane was entering a trance state and dictating messages from Seth to her spouse Robert Butts who transcribed the otherworldly dispatches. These were published as the Seth Material, encompassing conversations held from 1963 until Jane’s death in 1984. Jane’s experiences helped popularized the channeling movement amongst New Age and occult practitioners, and tapped into the core New Age belief that individuals controlled their own reality. Many detractors believed Seth was simply Jane herself, a fractured identity possibly stemming from her troubled youth and abusive mother, or an act of autosuggestion.
“She rides astride the Beast; in her left hand she holds the reins, representing the passion which unites them. In her right she holds aloft the cup, the Holy Grail aflame with love and death. In this cup are mingled the elements of the sacrament of the Aeon,” wrote Aleister Crowley of his “Scarlet Woman” in The Book of Thoth. Described as a goddess figure in Thelemic literature, Crowley believed several of his lovers and fellow magical practitioners embodied the universal feminine principles of the Scarlet Woman — particularly his muse while writing The Book of Lies, Leila Waddell. She received co-author credit in several of Crowley’s texts and helped promote the mystical order, the Argenteum Astrum.
Artist Moina Mathers was married to English occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the founders of the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but she oversaw an offshoot group, the Alpha et Omega, after his death. She had a keen interest in Egyptology and became a notable medium, helping to form the Second Order of the Golden Dawn, associated with “magic, including scrying, astral travel, and alchemy.”
Pamela Colman Smith
The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot was one of the first decks that illustrated all 78 cards (the major and minor arcana). It’s arguably the most popular deck used around the world today. English artist Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the tarot in collaboration with British poet and mystic Arthur Edward Waite. Smith was associated with the Symbolist movement, but was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later the splinter group known as the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn (Holy Order of the Golden Dawn). She believed she was gifted with synesthesia, which allowed her to paint mystical visions inspired by music. She also illustrated some of W.B. Yeats’ work — a fellow occultist.
The Fox Sisters
Originating from the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, Spiritualism swept the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. It became a religion by some definitions, but was rooted in certain occult-related phenomena (like mediumship, psychic abilities, and possession). The Fox sisters became key figures in the movement’s popularity, famous for their so-called ability to communicate with spirits through a series of “rappings.” They conducted public séances in New York and attracted quite a following — at least until they confessed the “rappings” were a hoax and actually the sounds of finger and toe joints cracking. The sisters eventually rejected all associations with Spiritualism, but the Fox family played a large role in the formation of the Spiritualist church existing today. Some view Spiritualism as a precursor of the New Age movement and influential to the serious study of parapsychology.
“The popular focus on Norton’s occultism and the sexual nature of some of her paintings meant that her artistic talents were largely ignored. Most knew her only as ‘the Witch of Kings Cross,’ one of Sydney’s more colourful eccentrics,” Teitan Press writes of Australian occultist Rosalee Norton. “She died in December 1979, leaving the world a rich and unusual artistic legacy that is only now starting to be appreciated.” Norton’s bohemian lifestyle and controversial artworks of pagan gods engaged in “devious” acts made her a target of authorities and censor boards. Norton was a practitioner of sex magic and studied Crowley, the Cabala, and other esoterica.
Described as “a Mystery School within the Western Esoteric Tradition,” the Society of the Inner Light was founded by British artist and mystic Dion Fortune. Fortune believed she had psychic abilities since childhood. Her studies in psychology and psychoanalysis led her to the Theosophical Society and later Moina Mathers’ Alpha et Omega, where she honed her skills as a medium. A prolific author of mystic writings (fiction and non-fiction), The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic became influential texts during the formation of Wicca. Other titles have seen resurgence in popularity amongst fantasy fiction writers and readers. The Society of the Inner Light started as an offshoot of Mathers’ group and continues to operate today.
Author and Craddock expert Vere Chappell writes of the 19th-century women’s rights advocate:
Ida Craddock was an early advocate for women’s rights and sex reform who helped hundreds of couples to improve their marriages with her sex education counseling and tracts sent through the mail. She was also an avid occultist and mystic who reported having regular sexual encounters with angelic beings. This was an incendiary combination in late nineteenth century America, inevitably attracting the attention of moral crusader Anthony Comstock, who devoted himself to her destruction. Although suffering exile, commitment to an insane asylum, and hard labor in prison, Ida’s courage and refusal to compromise her beliefs would lead to her ultimate triumph, even in death.