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Not Always So


Perilous Objects and Ghostly Handprints:
Women in Esoterica

I knew that I wanted to write for Binnall of America when I noticed that Tim Binnall always asks his female guests on BoA Audio what it is like to be a woman in the esoteric world.

Most men are not curious about women's experiences as women; women seldom like to ponder it themselves. We females prefer to think of ourselves as already free, the unpleasant battle against sexism over and won. We rarely take the time to trace what the boundaries of our lives really are -- this kind of uncomfortable introspection has long gone out of fashion.

But, in the world of esoterica, it is worth taking a closer look. Women are still not well-represented among UFOlogists or cryptozoologists, but our leadership in the esoteric field literally goes back to prehistory. We belong here.

Graham Hancock writes about female handprints that appear in shamanic cave art from 30,000 years ago, at the very dawn of human consciousness. In the caves at Delphi, generations of female oracles are believed to have squatted over a rift in the rock, inhaling hallucinatory gases that wafted up from the belly of the earth. The Delphic oracles were routinely consulted by heads of state, as was a Biblical prophetess named Deborah who literally led 10,000 men to victory in battle.

It's also worth mentioning the Babylonian temple prostitutes. As far as I know, their identities and the details of their daily lives are lost, but it's not hard to imagine the personal sacrifices that these women must have made.

As official Christianity began to establish itself, a dark cloud settled over many women's psychic lives. "Woman is the gate of the devil," wrote St. Jerome in the 4th century A.D. "The path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word a perilous object." We know that there were witch burnings for hundreds of years, that women with esoteric interests were tortured and murdered during the Inquisition. But mostly what we hear from that time is an uneasy silence, with the sense of muttering behind the curtain. One powerful seer, Joan of Arc, emerged briefly but, despite her proven military usefulness, she was engulfed quickly in the flames.

Fast-forward to the year 1875. Out West, the American military was still fighting Native Americans, and losing. Women would not win the right to vote for more than fifty years. Even the telephone was several years away when, along with several friends, Helena Petrova Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City. A Russian immigrant, Madame Blavatsky had already fled an arranged marriage and traveled most of the world by herself, including India and Tibet. A powerful medium and controversial figure, Blavatsky's writings provided the foundation for the entire New Age movement, popularizing ideas such as karma and reincarnation for an eager Western audience.

A bit more than a decade later, the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in London. Secret magical orders were nothing new, but the Golden Dawn was the first to include women as equal members. Along with her husband Samuel Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers, the artist Moina Mathers was one of its original leaders, and the Order depended to a large degree upon her vision and mediumship. A striking photograph from that era shows a fierce-eyed Moina with mussed hair and a jumble of oversized beads around her neck. Looking thoroughly modern, she could have easily passed for a twenty-first century art student. In all ways, esoteric women have always been ahead of their time.

The great twentieth-century occultist Dion Fortune was one of the only contemporaries of Aleister Crowley who could rival him in every way. Unlike Crowley, who often used his female lovers as his visionaries, Fortune was a powerful medium in her own right. She did all of her own psychic work, producing reams of channeled material. Her forthright guides to the Qabalah and to psychic self-defense are still the gold standards among occultists and magicians today, while her occult novels such as The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic are inspirations for Wiccans and neo-Pagans.

Reading about these women, it's impossible not to notice the mix of disciplines that come so naturally to them: art, sex, religion appear all bound up together like natural ingredients for an amulet. Yet these multi-talented women are footnotes in mainstream histories, if they appear at all. I wouldn't know about them myself if I weren't in the habit of hunting through the dustbins to which they happen to have been relegated. But they are older sisters to all of us in this community, male or female.

One of the first things I learned in drawing class was the concept of negative space. Instead of drawing a flower, for instance, we were taught to draw the space around it, producing oddly vital-looking but empty silhouettes. The handprints made by the female cave artists were made according to the same principle, using a crude sort of spraypaint. They were not representing their hands exactly, but rather the space they took up, as if to say, "I was here."