28.4.16

TO PHILADELPHIA AND BEYOND

by Gareth J. Medway

Jack Parsons was the only disciple of Aleister Crowley to have a crater on the far side of the Moon named after him. A rocket fuel expert, he blew himself up in his own laboratory in 1952, but his contribution to the science was remembered and commemorated. Half a century after his death, he was the subject of a biography, Strange Angel by George Pendle, and I just got around to reading it. His life is not well documented, and little is known about his early years beyond the fact that he was brought up in Los Angeles, and was interested in rocketry and science fiction from childhood onwards, so Pendle gives us potted histories of Los Angeles, rocketry, and pulp science fiction.

It is now largely forgotten that, except in Germany, few people took rockets seriously, until V2s started falling on London and Antwerp. So the Suicide Squad, as Parsons’ little team was known from their regular handling of dangerous chemicals, usually had to fund their experiments themselves. The book is of interest for several reasons, but I want to look at a single paragraph whose possible significance seems not to have been noticed by the author. During the war, Parsons was invited to join the Mañana Literary Society, a forum for science fiction authors, though his own contribution was limited to an unpublished novel. It met at the L.A. home of Robert Heinlein.

“The Mañana group did not last long. By the middle of 1943, the authors had been drafted, not for their writing or fighting skills but for their scientific pedigrees. In its dissolution the group provided one more good story. When word got out that Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp had all been sent to work at a research laboratory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, rumors spread like wildfire among science fiction fans that they had been ordered by the Naval Research Board to create a think tank, heading a project that aimed to make their own futuristic inventions, ‘super-weapons and atom-powered space ships,’ into realities. The truth was a little more prosaic; the three had been called up by the materials laboratory in Philadelphia but in order to investigate, among other things, hydraulic valves for naval aircraft, ‘exercises in monotony,’ as de Camp called them.”

Some readers will by now already have thought of the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’, said to have taken place at the dockyard there in 1943. The Second World War was a fertile breeding ground for rumours about secret inventions, and some of them, such as the atomic bomb, turned out to be true. Others were not. R. V. Jones, in Most Secret War, tells how just before the war he belonged to a scientific team who tried to find a way to detect aircraft at night by the infra-red radiation from their engines, a project that was abandoned when radar proved to be more effective. This was to be done on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, so when a man from another department questioned him during a lunch break, he said that they were working on a project to make ships invisible. They had succeeded in making a gunboat invisible, but unfortunately its crew could still be seen.

John Keel gave another possible origin: “As near as I can put it together, during the Second World War, the leading magician in the United States, Joseph Dunninger, who was also a master showman, came up with a proposition to the U. S. Navy that he would make ships invisible. He may have been talking about some form of camouflage; but in time, Dunninger’s claim did get publicity.” Two other facts that may have contributed to the legend are that Albert Einstein was then lived in Philadelphia, and was consulted by the navy; and that the dockyard was the site of degaussing, which was designed to make ships invisible, at least to magnetic mines.



Be all that as it may, the story took a long time to get any publicity. In 1956 astronomer and archaeologist Morris K. Jessup received two letters headed ‘Carlos Miguel Allende’, giving a box number in Pennsylvania as return address, but were signed Carl M. Allen. They were inspired by Jessup’s The Case for the UFO. In his rambling missives Allen(de) claimed that in October 1943 the navy had applied Einstein’s Unified Field Theory to making a ship invisible. They succeeded, but afterwards half of the crew were found to be ‘Mad as Hatters’, while others ‘froze’, burst into flames, or faded away once more and were never seen again. On one occasion the ship was teleported to its other dock in Norfolk, Virginia, but after a few minutes returned to Philadelphia. He knew of this because: “This was also noted in the newspapers but I forget what paper I read it in or When It happened.” He also implied that he had seen it from a neighbouring ship.

Soon afterwards, Jessup was invited to the Office of Naval Research in Washington, where they showed him a copy of his own book, The Case for the UFO, which had been mailed to them in the summer of 1955. It was full of marginal annotations in three different coloured inks, ostensibly by three different persons, but at least one and perhaps all of them seemed to be by the mysterious Allende. They purported to give the truth about flying saucers (they are piloted by beings who once lived on earth, but have evolved to permanent residence in space, only returning here to abduct the occasional human).

It was subsequently determined that he was indeed a Pennsylvania man named Carl Allen, and that he had joined the navy in July 1943.All this remained unknown to the general public until 1968, when Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour printed extracts from the letters and annotations in their New UFO Breakthrough. In 1974, Charles Berlitz included a section on it in The Bermuda Triangle, based upon what Jessup’s friend Manson Valentine had told him in an interview (Jessup himself had committed suicide in 1959). A journalist named William Moore conducted his own investigation, and was able to uncover several independent witnesses. Of course, Ufologists will be aware that off-duty and retired military personnel are often willing to proved researchers with exactly the information they were looking for, though usually demanding anonymity, and Moore is good at locating them.

Eventually he met Berlitz, and the two men had a bestseller with The Philadelphia Experiment, 1979. This, and the subsequent film, produced more witnesses, some of whom had ‘buried’ their memories for many years. Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Information has maintained that nothing happened except routine degaussing – well, that’s what they want you to think. Many writers have dismissed the case as a hoax, without giving coherent reasons. There is actually an obvious objection to it having really happened, however: if half of the crew of a destroyer had all suddenly gone insane, whilst others had mysteriously died, or disappeared entirely, then the navy would have been besieged by relatives of the men demanding an inquiry, or at least a full explanation. This did not happen, indeed, nothing is known to have been written about it for more than a decade. This is not to say that it was a hoax, exactly: Allen’s letters were so disjointed that he may well have believed what he was saying. What is impossible to say, at this distance in time, is how far it was inspired by gossip among science fiction fans.

Later, having written the above, it occurred to me that, whilst sci-fi fans may not have been able to build super-technological weapons to defeat the Nazis, there was nothing to stop them from writing about such things. Though Allen said that he could not recall the name or the date of the newspaper in which he had read about the affair, he thought he would be able to do so under hypnosis. If this had ever been tried, I suspect that he would have remembered that it had actually been a pulp science fiction magazine. This hypothesis is not easy to verify. The British Library does have microfilms of old numbers of Amazing Stories, but their holdings are not complete, and there are none from the Second World War. The editor was then Ray Palmer, who went on to edit Fate and Flying Saucers (despite having told a correspondent to Amazing Stories, in 1938, that “We do not believe in the possibility of interplanetary travel, but the subject has given many good stories”); when the Philadelphia Experiment came to be widely discussed, in the late 1960s, he would surely have recognised it as corresponding to a fictional story that he had published a quarter of a century earlier, and said so.

The British Library also has Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for Astounding, a history of Astounding Science Fiction from its foundation in 1930 up until 1960, when its name was changed to Analog. He gives a summary, if only a very brief one, of every story that they ran, and I can find nothing that matches. But there were many other such magazines, including Astonishing, Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown, Fantasy, Comet Stories, Captain Future, Dynamic Science, Unknown Worlds, and Miracle Science. Presumably copies of all of these were deposited with the Library of Congress. There may also be issues in the Special Collections of some American universities, such as the Sprague de Camp archive at the University of Texas in Austin. Perhaps someone in the United States, or planning a long vacation there, could find the time to look into this?

23.4.16

THERE’S AN OVER-EDUCATED MONSTER FROM EARTH ABOARD THIS LIGHTWEIGHT UFO…HELP!

Robbie Graham. Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies. White Crow Books, 2015.

Brenda S. Gardenour Walter. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema. McFarland, 2015.

In theory the idea of reading these two books on (a) Hollywood’s relationship with the UFO and (b) Western Culture’s relationship with mythic monsters, and their representation in horror cinema, seemed appealing. They appeared serious accounts of phenomena that are perhaps not taken seriously enough. Unfortunately they are unduly over-serious and overlong. Robbie Graham (UFO expert) did nine years of research. Whilst Brenda Walter (Monster historian) sounds like she’s devoted a lifetime to her project. I admire them for all their hard work but not for giving me a hard read. Their dogged duty to scholarship results in pages and pages of footnotes, chapter synopses and repetitive interviews.


Take Robbie Graham’s Silver Saucer Secrets. It was never properly revealed to me why he thinks UFOs still have an enduring status in popular culture. Near the end of his nearly 300 pages, Graham gives us the most blindingly obvious of conclusions - “My position is this: Hollywood draws extensively from fact-based discourse on UFOs – a phenomenon whose existence is already rejected by consensus reality. The presentation of this UFO discourse on-screen (and particularly within the context of the sci-fi genre) serves to blur the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy.”  Before I’d read a page of Graham’s book I had basically understood this to be true.What I wanted to know was why these practices occurred and what it tells us about being human, or maybe even alien!

I wouldn't have had such a problem with Brenda Walter’s full book title, Our Old Monsters, Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema, if she’d made salient connections between those old monsters and their new incarnations. Unfortunately she relentlessly bombards you with her impressive knowledge of medieval history so as to loose her, as a film-book writer, in a plethora of huge slabs of factual information. Walter frequently uses the arresting and poetic term “the melancholic earth” to describe where the monsters roam. Yet I had little sense of how the title chapter 'The Transgressive Monster' became for me 'A Cured Embodiment' - another chapter title. I’d have loved to have known the stages through which say 'the melancholic werewolf' crossed over into a kind of public acceptance. Yet the author makes it so difficult when her language contains such sentences as “Like the witch and the vampire, the modern werewolf is a flesh canvas on which we inscribe our ever-changing constructs of abject otherness.” this having been preceded by a heading entitled 'Post-Modern Fluidity: The Transformative Power of Otherness.'

At this point I wished for more meaningful fluidity in Walter’s argument, so as to explain what she meant by those terms: followed by an in-depth exploration of the ideas that monsters engender in film culture. I yearned for an essay comparable to the lucidity of Robin Wood’s essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” but Brenda Walter just gave me historical fact after fact. This learned information was most apparent when tagged onto the book’s photographs. Take the description of an image from John Carpenter’s film, Prince of Darkness: “In an inversion of Christ’s conception and birth, Kelly (Susan Blanchard) is impregnated through the mouth and eyes by a Satanic goo and becomes an inside-out and decaying vessel for the Antichrist.”

That might be all historically true but it somehow didn't make me want to rush out to see the film. And that’s the issue here; Brenda Walter is a historian and not a film critic. She has written a solid history book that doesn't join up well with her chosen films. The virtue of Robbie Graham’s ‘flying saucer’ book is that his tone is lighter and not in-your-face academic. Yet like Walter he’s also written two separate narratives of UFO’s and cinema that don’t make for a unified whole. At least he’s more readable and humorous. Fun is not to be found with the Monsters & Co.

 If I've sounded rather harsh then don’t let that put you off buying these books. If you’re obsessive about UFO studies then you will definitely want to cover the Hollywood slant on such mysterious sightings. Whereas if you want a feminist reading of film monsters, still on the rampage, then this effort will greatly appeal. I shall wait for someone else to tackle the subjects one day with a leaner essay or compact monograph. Maybe I should pack away my scholarly stake, remove my silver bullet and watch the skies for inspiration? -- Alan Price.

18.4.16

HEART OF THE MATTER

Paul Davies and Caitlin Matthews (Editors). This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self. Moon Books, 2015.

This is an anthology of essays by thirteen authors exploring the threefold relationship between the landscape, ancestors and ourselves. Each writer gives a unique and idiosyncratic viewpoint on pagan themes of honouring the ancestors, connecting with nature and following a spiritual path or practice.

When we consider the word 'ancestors', we usually think of those unknown human antecedents from whom we have descended. Many of us, but by no means all, had a living relationship with both of our parents, and perhaps with both sets of their parents. It would be quite unusual to know personally the generations above our grandparents, but at least we might have glimpsed them through old photographs and stories. Even with a well-researched family tree, there comes a point where we simply cannot know the thousands of humans who happened to meet and interbreed in a lineage that made you and me as individuals with a unique DNA imprint. It is both science and mystery.

In his Foreword, Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University, suggests that modern Western society has largely abandoned interest in, and veneration of, our ancestors. Modern rationalism has tended to replace religion as a modus operandi of organising our societies and deciding our priorities. Yet he claims that "something curious is happening in the world....something to do with ancestors". Religion has not died but seems to be morphing into other forms of spirituality.

In keeping with that Foreword, Paul Davies in his Introduction makes the point that by virtue of our DNA and spirit we are "the ancestors reborn". As a Quaker, Druid, absolute pacifist and holder of degrees related to Archaeology and Anthropology, Davies is known for his work in bringing the subject of ancestors into the public domain. In particular he was instrumental, with others, in a campaign to have ancient human remains from various sacred sites reburied with appropriate ritual. This aroused local and national interest, further stimulating interest in the ancestors and "a sense of self as part of the spirit of the place".

"Time and the Grave" by Emma Restall Orr is a thoughtful and poetic essay on the questions of life and death. This is a deeply felt consideration of questions such as "what happens to us when we die?" She points out the great diversity of beliefs and possibilities, whether they be religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific, and the resulting dilemma for agnostics. Some may be quite willing to accept death as oblivion, while others may persist in fear and denial. Yet there is still grief at the death of a loved one, and an in-built emotional urge to dispose of the physical remains with respect and honour. All of this is strong food for thought. However, she does not claim to know the answer as she concludes this fine essay: "What happens to this thinking I, this centre of me, will actually remain a mystery to me until, perhaps, the day I die. Whatever happens, I will be thankful for the presence of the ancestors, asserting the importance of that gratitude and the need for true respect".

"Tribes of Spirit: Animals as Ancestors" by Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass) is a personal account of the writer's discovery of his guardian Wolf spirit. His revelation came during a sweat lodge on a Druid camp in England. Such ceremonies and initiations are usually considered to be of Native American tradition, but there seems to be some evidence that they were also used in Bronze Age Britain. From that initiation 20 years before, Greywolf had increasingly intense encounters with his Wolf-spirit. He eventually realised that he had found his true self or essence, for he says: "I am Wolf. Wolf is me." He considers the real possibility of having wolf ancestry. As a Druid, he acknowledges ancestors of "blood and spirit". Therefore kinship may be of both types. Not surprisingly, he likes to wear pelts, drumming, chanting and howling at the moon.

"Ancestors and Place, Seidr and Other Ways of Knowing" by Jenny Blain takes us to the Nordic countries and the practice of Seidr. This is defined as a way of gaining knowledge and insight, and then making desired changes in physical circumstances or in human relationships. The author describes herself as a practising Heathen and first developed Seidr work while in Nova Scotia while she was researching Nordic sagas. "At the centre of Heathenry is the concept of the world tree, Yggdrasil....and the pool of Wyrd at its foot, tended by three women, the Norns, who craft or create fate or Wyrd for individuals or communities." 

Wyrd is not considered as fixed fate, but rather a combination of obligations and potential for change as people create their own lives. In this philosophy ancestors are important, not only in a physical sense but also in a spiritual and cultural sense. 'Oracular Seidr' usually involved a seeress holding a staff and sitting on a raised platform before the people. Singing and chanting would bring about a shift in consciousness and access to 'entities', ancestors or spirits, that could provide the required knowledge. Healing, protection, or exorcisms might be performed. Yet in some cases quite mundane but useful knowledge might be imparted. One seeress reported that she was instructed by departed great-aunts who gave her instructions on cooking and questioned what she was doing.

Now we come to "Wights, Ancestors, Hawks and Other Significant Others: A Heathen-Archaeologist-Falconer in Place" (sic). This rather unlikely title belongs to an author by the name of Robert J. Wallis. Mr Wallis may be a lovely man to know, I am quite sure, but getting to know him would appear to be quite a difficult challenge, nigh on impossible if you get off on the wrong foot with him. 

His essay begins thus: "'What do you do?' a question I dislike, as if my working life in a university defines me. 'Are you married?' and the subsequent, 'Do you have kids?' presume a heteronormative frame and a requirement to procreate when perhaps unusually, Claire and I have lived happily together for half of our lives and children are still not top of the list. 'What are your hobbies?' suggests work and play are separate, leisure activities, a distraction or escape, when as a falconer my relationship with a hawk, a significant other and companion species, requires daily commitment, involves emotional investment, is a research subject (Wallis 2014) and bleeds into my 'spirituality' (a term that's a poor fit for what I'm getting at). Worse yet, 'What do you believe?' - the wrong question for a non-believing heathen animist whose Gods are ancestors, ancestors sometimes animals, plants occasionally allies, and allies wights. I fit in, but not quite. I'm an archaeologist, but I don't dig holes. I identify as a heathen animist (in understated lower case) but not Asatru, Odinist or Shaman. I recognise my grandmother Gladys, Gyr-falki, Woden, the plant Mugwort, the builders of Bush Barrow, yew trees and the hare Freyja caught a few days ago, within my loose approach to 'ancestors'. I'm a hedge-sitter, an out-sitter, and the ancestors are all around me and within me, part of my identity although I would not necessarily say that mine is an 'ancestral heart'. Let me attempt to explain, by starting here, in this place, just now."

I suspect that after such an eccentric and irritating introduction many readers will not wish to stay on for the attempted 'explanation'. Enough already. Quite why Mr Wallis is so tetchy at being asked what he does and then tell us in such excruciatingly pompous style what he does is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Actually, it's not such a bad essay, with some nice poetic touches to the prose, if you manage to get past that introduction.

Moving swiftly on to what may be considered the keynote essay, Caitlin Matthews, co-editor of this anthology, is on solid ground with "Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space". As a seasoned writer of over 60 books Matthews has a concise readable style that draws you in, as in a conversation, with human warmth. She opens with a comparison of human life to a pilgrimage. The longed-for place is where we are in communion with all that is and has been. It is always within us, and is always within reach, but somehow we keep losing it. Modernist culture defines ancestors as the bloodline from which we descended, but the ancient wisdom is that we are truly related to everything in existence.

Matthews draws on her family history to illustrate our need for family and a place of belonging. I was touched by her description of her mother's life-long sense of loss for being adopted and raised separately from her parents and brothers and sisters. So much of society's ills can be traced back directly to the breakdown of the extended family and a link with the land. Her essay is filled with practical techniques for healing these painful rifts that lie within our souls, or, to use her phrase "restoring the ancestral communion". That is how we can finally "come home".

"Memory at Sites of Non-Place: A Eulogy" by Camelia Elias starts with the author's reflections on her thoughts when asked to submit her contribution to this anthology. For some unknown reason she comes up with the word "symmetry" and spends most of her essay trying to fit her concepts into that single theme. It doesn't work for me, but there are many useful points of information nonetheless. One of these concerns Colin Murray, a great Celtic scholar and founder of a Druid order who ended his life at the age of 44 by ingesting yew leaves. He had apparently made a pact with trees shortly after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. "In other words, trees had become mediators between life and death." It seems like a tragic waste of a young life with much unrealised potential. There is no explanation given for his motives. For that reason I have some difficulty with the author's statement: "From the standpoint of storytelling, Murray's life and death strike me as fascinating, precisely as it ties in with the man's sense of symmetry and what he was trying to achieve...." However, I do fully agree with her later observation: "What we call the Ancient Heart has to do with the ineffability of the mystery that always stares us in the face."


"Tuning into the Landscape" by Sarah Hollingham is a delightfully light piece, filled with the simple joys of finding stillness within and tuning in to nature. As a Quaker, the author attends meetings where participants sit in silence until the spirit moves them to speak. She transfers this practice to solitary meditations in a natural setting such as woodland. As an exercise, using a technique called 'soundmapping', she describes the great insights provided by simply listening to all of the sounds around us. At first you may find that your mind is full of inner chatter.

By paying attention simply to everything you are hearing, and mapping it, you can attain much greater inner peace and harmony. Using a pen and paper, you can write a word or draw an image of each sound around you, with yourself as a circle in the middle and the location of sounds in front, above, behind, and either side. Some sounds, such as traffic noise, may seem to clash, but they still belong to the 'here and now'. There is no need to block any sound, as many do these days with headphones and earphones. Wherever we are it pays benefits to be mindful of what is happening around us. Finally, the author reminds us of the joy and pleasure of taking off our shoes and feeling the grass and earth under our feet. This is simple and direct communing with Nature. -- Kevin Murphy.

15.4.16

POLTERGEISTS INTERNATIONAL

Patrick J Gallagher. (Editor and compiler) The Guyra Ghost: Original Newspaper Accounts of Australia’s Most Prominent Poltergeist Case. CreateSpace, 2015.

I have shown in Magonia how useful local newspapers are as sources of Fortean stories and this little book provides an extensive example of how the Australian press dealt with a “poltergeist” case back in 1921. It centred around the home of a working class family in a small New South Wales town and involved mainly stones being hurled at the property from sources which evaded detection even when crowds of people ringed the house.

Everything from spirits to the local kids (larrikins) and even exploding rocks was blamed, until a scapegoat was found in the family’s twelve-year-old daughter, whose confession to faking a small segment of the stone throwing was used to close down the story. There seems little doubt that the girl was disturbed in some way and was the centre of the outbreak, which began when she complained that she had been pestered by a strange man who followed her and thrown stones at her. Later the girl claimed to be in communication with the spirit of her dead sister. All of this looks like a classic case of attention seeking.

British readers will be interested to note that the Australian press carried quite a few stories of a poltergeist case in Hornsey, North London, at the same time. This book should be of interest to Forteans, folklorists and anyone interested in how stories mutate through press coverage.

Darren Ritson and Michael J Hallowell. Contagion: In the Shadow of the South Shields Poltergeist The Limbury Press, 2014.

Written in 2009 but only published five years later, the authors present another poltergeist case, this time from Jarrow and describe some of their own paranormal experiences and introduce the idea of contagion (ironically having some similarities with Richard Dawkins' and Susan Blackmore’s notion of memes) and that polts are part of some vast hive like entity. One learns that the outwardly normal house in which the polt is alleged to have manifested seems to have the layout of a fairground haunted house, that the couple at the centre had filled the house with horror film memorabilia and that the male in the household had the delightful hobby of writing to serial killers for memorabilia. A little girl was being raised in that house! -- Reviews by Peter Rogerson.

12.4.16

ON THE LOOKOUT

John Asher Johnson. How Do You Find an Exoplanet? Princeton University Press, 2016.

The author was asked to write this book because of the large number of students who want to study exoplanetary science for the same reasons that exoplanets are so popular among the general public, because their interest has been aroused by science fiction and by the possibility of "answering some of humankind's most ancient questions about our place in the universe".

The treatment of this subject is aimed at students who have a good knowledge of physics, which of course includes the possession of the appropriate mathematical skills. Johnson's teaching method is based on the idea of describing the orbits of planets as circular rather than elliptical so that " . . . at the outset the focus should be on the basic physics rather than the detailed mathematics".

To illustrate the kind of work he does, Johnson gives us a description of a night spent observing a star catalogued as HD94834, in the constellation Leo. Modern observational astronomers spend far less time at the telescope than earlier ones, as the guiding of the telescopes, and recording images of stars and other data, are now done by computers. Just as much time, though, is spent planning the observing schedule, analysing the data obtained, and publishing the results.

Johnson's interest in HD94834 was because of the possibility of detecting planets orbiting it. He first started observing it in 2007, when its velocity appeared to be constant. In 2008 a decreasing velocity was detected, which indicated the presence of an orbiting planet. He goes on to show the reader (at least, the mathematically competent reader) how it is possible to work out not only the mass of the planet, but its distance from the star and the eccentricity of its orbit.

He then goes on to try studying the planets that transit their stars as viewed from Earth. This might seem to be just the detection of a slight drop in brightness as the planets transit them, but we are told that by taking repeated accurate measurements of transits it is possible to discover information about the physical characteristics of the planet, as well as information about its orbit. Johnson's work led to improvements in the accuracy of these measurements and there were further improvements resulting from the use of the NASA Kepler space telescope, which removed the distortions caused by viewing through the Earth's atmosphere.

A particularly interesting finding from the studies described in this book is the data obtained about the distribution of planet sizes. This shows that small planets of 1 to 2 Earth radii are an order of magnitude more abundant than giant planets, those bigger than 4 Earth radii. The finding that Earth-sized planets are common throughout the galaxy was confirmed by different kinds of surveys, and indicates that planets on which life might be possible are quite common.

This book will probably appeal most strongly to science students with an interest in recent developments in astronomy. -- John Harney

9.4.16

THE NAZI OCCULT - FACTS AND MYTHS

Monica Black and Eric Kurlander (editors). Revisiting the ‘Nazi Occult’: Histories, Realities, Legacies. Camden House, NY. 2015.

There have been dozens of books examining the purported links between occultism and the rise of Nazism in Germany, ranging from the scholarly to the most abjectly crass and sensationalist. Probably the most authoritative title easily available to British readers in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. This present book is a collection of papers by a wide range of writers, largely university professors and researchers in Modern European History, but with special interests ranging from punk rock to theosophy.

The essays are collected into three groups, as shown in the title: ‘Histories’ looks at the period from the late nineteenth century, to Hitler’s coming to power in 1933; ‘Realities’ deals with the period from 1933 to the end of WWII; and ‘Legacies’ with the post-war period and the rise of new interests in both Nazism and occultism in Germany and elsewhere.

It is the ‘Histories’ section that is perhaps the most academic, looking at the host of occult and paranormalist societies and tendencies in Wilhelmite Germany. It is important to understand that although we now tend to see paranormalist and occultist ideas as being anti-scientific and anti-Enlightenment – Carl Sagan’s ‘candle in the dark’ metaphor encapsulates the view – in the mid-to late-nineteenth century such ideas were seen as progressive and radical, and an advance on, not an opposition to ‘academic’ science. Organisations like the Society for Psychical Research, founded in this period, still follow the style of traditional academia with Journals dense with jargon and mathematics, painstakingly referenced and refereed.

Groups like the Theosophists gained a great deal of popularity amongst the middle-classes who were increasingly seeking an alternative to the stifling conformity of Imperialist Willhelmite society, and occult ideas seemed to bridge religious and scientific ideas. Many people who were drawn to occultist thought associated themselves with a wide range of groups and societies. The author of this chapter, Peter Staudenmaier instances the occultist Karl Heise, who was a prominent figure not only in the Theosophical Society, Mazdaznan, a neo-Zoroastrian movement, and Guido von List’s Ariosophist society, often highlighted as a leading influence on early Nazi development.

Staudenmaier points out, however, that it is an over-simplification to assume that any one turn of the century occultist group of movement can be directly identified as a predecessor of the Nazi movement, as occult ideas were so prevalent across society, and Nazism arose from a very tangled web of often contradictory ideas. Although some occultists went on to join the Nazis and even rise to prominence, it is a mistake to think that this was an inevitable result of their occultist beliefs. Staudenmaier notes “Esoteric adherents made active and deliberate choices according to their own perception of the possibilities they confronted. Rather than reading history backwards from the vantage point of 1933, we would do well to give full due to the contingencies and complexities of the past”.

The chaos and near-anarchy of post-WWI Germany encouraged a growth in apocalyptic and utopian, which at times veered into almost ‘fortean’ phenomena. Max Hoelz was a soldier who after the war organised a Communist guerilla movement in the Vogtland, an area close to the Bavarian border with Czechoslovakia. In the lawless atmosphere of the time his group raided properties, stole and distributed food, attacked the police and judiciary, released prisoners, and challenged the civil authorities. Hoelz became legendary for his ability to elude capture and taunt the police. At one time the police stopped and searched a wedding party, suspecting he was hiding amongst the guests. He claimed that he was there – disguised as the bride! Soon he became a semi-legendary figure, part Robin Hood, part shape-shifting Spring Heel Jack, able to vanish at will, or even appear in two places at once.

The cultural atmosphere of immediate post-war and Weimar Germany is discussed by Jered Poley in a chapter examining the work of the writer and film critic Siegfried Kracauer. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of the German Film, published in 1947, Karcauer suggests a direct link between the cultural artifacts of the Weimar period and the rise of Nazism, particularly expressed in films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Waxworks.


There has been an enormous amount of speculation about the relationship between the Nazi state and practitioners and promoters of occult and ‘pseudo-scientific’ ideas, who at times seem to have been accepted and then persecuted. This particularly involves the ‘Special Action Hess’, a round-up of occultists and astrologers suspected to have been connected with Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain in 1941. Before this the authorities seemed to be fairly lenient to practitioners, but even after the clampdown imposition of restrictions often seemed haphazard. Whether or not an individual was destined for a labour or concentration camp, or just forgotten about, depended on many other factors than simply their particular occult beliefs, including their perceived benefit to the State.

In fact the Nazi Party’s attitude to these topics was quite pragmatic, with ideas such as the Steiner-influenced ‘biodynamic agriculture’, Horbigers’ ‘World Ice Theory’, astrology, and dowsing all being tried out to see if they could be of any practical use to the State. After Mussolini’s arrest and subsequent disappearance in 1943 a group of clairvoyants and dowsers were employed to search for his location. One official involved remarked sardonically: “These seances cost us much money, as these ‘scientists’ need of good food, drink and tobacco was quite enormous”. Nice work if you can get it, particularly in the middle of a war! The German Navy also seems to have experimented with dowsers in an effort to locate Allied submarines.

One example of the authorities’ pragmatism was the case of the Catholic stigmatic Therese Neumann, who attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the small village of Konnersreuth in Bavaria. Although now promoted as a sort of ‘resistance’ figure, and being presented as a candidate for canonisation, at the time she and her circle were careful to distance themselves from any overt political involvement. The Nazi authorities’ attitude to Neumann was also nuanced, seeing her and her followers, the ‘Konnersreuth Circle’, as potentially troublesome but also, being politically conservative, capable of being tolerated. In some respects the Circle created more problems for the Catholics hierarchy than for the Nazis.

The final set of essays, ‘Legacies’ looks at ways in which the idea of the ‘Nazi Occult’ has been incorporated into contemporary ideas about the regime, and how occult ideas and phenomena have been accommodated by the post-war governments in both East and West Germany. In the immediate post-war period the ‘healer and prophet’ Bruno Gröning rose to prominence, with reports of mystical healings and apocalyptic visions. Crowds of thousands of people gathering in Hamburg, purely as the result of a rumour that he might be living there after he had been banned from practicing his ‘healing’ in his home town of Herford. Critics, and the civil authorities, seemed to fear that his chiliastic ideas represented a continuation of the irrationality of the previous era.

Another figure from the pre-war occult and paranormal scene fared better with his post-war re-invention, the parapsychologist Hans Bender [right]. Bender’s interest in what he later described as ‘borderline science’ began while studying in Paris in 1933. He was impressed with the way in which Joseph Rhine was establishing psychical research as a subject for serious study at Duke University in the USA, and worked to establish it similarly in Germany at the University of Freiburg. In 1941 he was appointed to the post of Director of the Institute for Psychology and Clinical Psychology at the Reich University in Strasbourg, which had been established by the National Socialists. Bender had been a Party member since 1937, although this was more or less obligatory for anyone wishing to pursue an academic career.

As well as his academic role in Strasbourg, Bender was also responsible for overseeing the work of the Paracelsus Institute, which was established to research astrology, etc. and which gave him the opportunity to teach conventional psychology but also involve himself increasingly in the parapsychological world. The clampdown on occultists after the Hess’s flight did not affect his work, as it was aimed almost exclusively at occult practitioners, rather than those who were deemed to be conducting scientific research into the subject. In fact he may have befitted from this action through receiving books and other documents which had been confiscated by the authorities. Anna Lux, the author of this chapter, comments: “Such experiences … reflect the vacillating stance towards occultism and parapsychology prevalent in the Third Reich”.

After the Allied occupation of Strasbourg Bender was held prisoner for six months, returning to Freiburg in 1946. As a former Party member he was not able to resume his academic career until 1956 when he was reappointed as an associate professor. In subsequent years Bender gained a reputation as one of the first ‘media parapsychologists’. His columns in the mass-circulation magazine Bild produced thousands of reports of ESP and para-psychological phenomena, and he became a familiar figure on German television. Lux concludes that Bender was instrumental in creating a ‘popular discourse’ on parapsychology.

Jeff Hayton is a professor of modern European history, with a particular interest in alternative cultures. In his survey of the ‘Nazi/Occult’ connection in contemporary computer gaming, he suggests that the myth of the 'Nazi Occult' is used as a substitute for the realities of the Holocaust. By inviting the participants in them to destroy Nazis because they are vampires, black magicians or creatures raised from hell, rather than for of the atrocities they did commit, they become insulated from the historical reality and the gamers avoid from having to examine the reality of Nazism and its legacy, or confront the complexities of real warfare. He also examines the shocking world of pro-Nazi gaming.

The final chapter, ‘The Wewelsberg Effect’ also looks at the ways in which the myth of Nazi occultism has permeated a range of contemporary culture, with particular emphasis on rock and heavy metal music, and how the visual imagery of Nazism has a dark, seductive appeal. Although the shortest chapter in this collection this is possibly the most disturbing in demonstrating the depth to which Nazi ‘kitsch’ has penetrated popular culture and the level of acceptance it seems to have gained.

Apart from one or two of the earlier essays which require considerable background knowledge of philosophy and modern German history, this is an accessible work, although the general reader will probably be prepared to ignore the lengthy scholarly references. Translations of German titles and technical terms are provided, but the English reader may still be disconcerted by such words as Gendarmeriehauptwachtmeister, which apparently means ‘constable’.

This collection of essays is a very important contribution to the historical study of the Nazi era and the way in which an obsession with its so-called ‘occult’ elements have influenced subsequent ideas. The Editors’ introduction notes that the ‘persistent investment’ in Nazi occultism as a gateway to neo-Nazism suggests that the links between neo-Nazism and esotericism “remain a crucial topic of continued study”. – John Rimmer.

5.4.16

CROWLEY FOR BEGINNERS

John S. Moore (text) and John Patrick Higgins (illustrations). Crowley - A Beginner’s Guide. Mandrake of Oxford, 2015.

Aleister Crowley is one of the most notorious occultists of modern times. His name is known by many, even outside esoteric circles and those whose interests touch upon such matters. When compared to his contemporaries, Crowley’s name is probably the most familiar to laypeople. Whether one is a Fortean or not, his name is widely known and he is, in one form or another, still influential on popular culture. Often, despite his fame, this effect is not initially obvious, as is the case with certain writers such as W Somerset Maugham and musicians like Jimmy Page. It is probably fair to say however, that his fame extends far wider than that of most gurus, certainly in this day and age.

The series of books produced under the banner A Beginner’s Guide goes back to well before such series as For Dummies and An Idiot’s Guide. Influenced by comic books, whose appeal in using pictures to convey much of the narrative won over generations, writers and artists worked together to produce a new kind of learning aid. Covering such subjects as socialism, ecology and quantum physics, they combined quirky illustrations and pithy explanations in order to teach their subjects simply and in a less daunting fashion than traditional textbooks. Since then this has been a popular format, especially for those who may be put off by what they may see as too sequential and verbose an approach.

The stated aim from the back cover is that this book neither promotes nor condemns him. Covering a broad brief, especially for a small book, it attempts to look at as many aspects of his life and influence as can be squeezed into this compact tome. It also wishes to act as an introduction to the man himself, feeling that he is simply too strong an influence in the wider world to ignore. There is also the not inconsiderable obstacle that it seems that, for everyone who has heard of Crowley, there is a separate opinion. So, this is someone who, at one end of the spectrum, is a demon, a charlatan or deluded, to being a mystic, a poet or hierophant sans pareil. The author and illustrator have set themselves quite a task, then.

Provided that the reader does not expect the rigour and analysis of a more lengthy and traditional biography then this small volume covers much of what it sets out to do. Many aspects of Crowley are covered and, whilst one gets the feeling that the author is living up to the brief and looking at him from many sides, that there is an undercurrent of approval, slight though this may be. The birth of Thelema, the religion that he started, is included as well as the more mundane factors of his upbringing, education and so on. Details of how he interacted with the world are covered, even those of an improbable nature. When these are included, then they are labelled as such. The line drawings are accurate caricatures of the subjects. The artwork in general is bold and moves the narrative onward in both an efficient and an entertaining manner. Subjects rarely cover more than a page or two, thus making this ideal for dipping in and out of. The reader can get as much from it in this way as from reading it serially. The pages are referred to at the front of the book under the contents, and this also acts as an index, albeit without being alphabetical. There is a bibliography at the end.

As a beginner’s guide, this succeeds in covering a lot of ground, especially for such a small book. It conveys a mostly even-handed treatment of this extraordinary individual’s existence. The mixing of text and illustration not only comforts some, it also works as a teaching aid. This friendly approach should work in bringing more data concerning the Great Beast to a wider audience. -- Trevor Pyne.

2.4.16

NEW AGE, SAME OLD STORIES

David G Robertson. UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016 (Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies)

Why have the dreams of a new and glorious future, a new age of peace and plenty as imagined by the hippies 50 years ago failed to materialise? For a surprising number of people the answer is that They have prevented it happening and They are not just the generations of unimaginative second rate politicians or over greedy business folk, They are the forces of cosmic evil, the secret Cabal that controls the world. This is what Robertson sees as the central thesis of millennial conspiracism, the merging of occultism, speculative science of conspiracy theory that one can see, for example, in The X Files.

After a couple of introductory chapters charting the rise of new age ideology and some of the leading folk motifs of ufology, Robertson devotes the bulk of the work to an exploration of the background, ideas and following of three leading figures, Whitley Strieber, David Icke and David Wilcock. While the first two are familiar, I must confess I had never heard of Wilcock, who apparently considers himself (or promotes himself) as “the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce, and was one of the major figures in the 2012 apocalypse movement. In each case Robertson goes to conferences and talks with the people who go to listen to their views.

Strieber will be the author best known to Magonia readers, and Robertson tries to make what sense one can of his life and ideas, the latter of which change at a bewildering degree. At the 2012 Dreamtime Convention hosted by Strieber, which Robertson attended, the speakers consisted of Strieber’s (now late) wife Anne; abductee and 'life coach' Raven Dana; animal mutilation and UFO conspiracist, Lynda Moulton Howe; Jim Marrs a conduit for far right conspiracy theories into UFOlogy; psychic Marla Frees; stargates promoter William Henry; free energy proponent Charles “Chip” Wilkins - and Nick Pope. Strieber is now clearly enmeshed in the whole new age counter culture, and perhaps always was, for he turns out to be have been a follower of the teachings of Gurdjieff.

Much more in the heart of conspiracism is David Icke, whose probably promotes, or did promote the wildest conspiracy theories of them all, involving the notion that the royal family are shape shifting reptiles. Icke’s journey from the left of politics to the wilder hinterland of the far right is certainly a curious one, and is perhaps illustrative of the rise of 'fusion paranoia'. Needless to say that 'Zionists' and 'The Protocols' feature in all this.

It would appear that Icke and his supporters are now latching onto the child abuse hysteria, a theme which Robertson clearly sees as more than slightly unhealthy. It, along with the obsession with the royal family, give a clue to who might be manipulating Icke behind the scenes, for these were among the obsession of the La Rouchistas back in the 1990s (they are the source of the wild allegations about political figures which have recently surfaced, see Philip Jenkins, Intimate Enemies: Moral Panics in Contemporary Great Britain,  Aldine De Gruyter, 1992) One of the advantages that Icke gets from his crazy talk about reptilians is that it makes people assume he is mentally ill, and therefore not worth suing for libel, and thus he can smuggle in other stuff under the radar. I hope the same applies for academic textbooks but I am not going to take the risk of repeating them here.

The section on Wilcock raises the question as to how to people respond to failed prophecy, after all the world has failed to end or be transformed since 2012. Wilcock appears to blaming the 'Orion entities' who control the world’s governments and corporations. Against these are 'The Wanderers' who have volunteered to be repeatedly incarnated in human form to work for spiritual development. That sounds familiar for it was the theme of the writings of George Hunt Williamson (his real name by the way), side kick to American Nazi occultist William Dudley Pelley.

If there is a notable omission in this book it is the lack of a detailed treatment of the likes of Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs. The latter in particular merges traditional American far right tropes of the alien-other seeking to infiltrate society and a bring about the downfall of rugged American individualism, and to pollute the pure white blood line. In Jacobs’ ideology the 'others' are designated as hybrids and could be anybody (your neighbour might be a witch/Satanist/communist etc.) The hybrids are envisaged as sexually voracious and the greys replace the 'communist conspiracy' or the United Nations as bringers of the monolithic New World Order.

This book is written by an academic for academics but the core chapters are easily accessible and should be of interest to a wider readership, although readers might want to skip the section on 'the critical study of religion' in chapter two. -- Peter Rogerson.


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