I wrote earlier here about Isaac Newton’s intense interest in the occult. He sought the Philosopher’s Stone, (It’s not just something from a Harry Potter book), studied alchemy, and believed that a Diana’s Tree was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.” Newton lived in a time when the distinctions between science, superstition, and pseudoscience were still being formulated.

I find it fascinating how many serious scientists and artists cross over into studies that are considered the occult or at least at the fringe.

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Today is the birth day of the poet William Butler Yeats. In his teens, his aunt gave him a book called Esoteric Buddhism that was popular at that time. It is about Eastern mystical philosophy and Yeats really picked up on the idea that the world of matter was an illusion.

At age 20, he formed the Dublin Hermetic Society with some friends and they conducted “experiments” into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers. He also got involved in the London Theosophical Society. Theosophy (religious philosophy or speculation about the nature of the soul based on mystical insight into the nature of God) led him to Hermeticism (the study and practice of occult philosophy and magic, associated with writings attributed to the god Hermes). He attended séances and tarot card readings and being in sessions with mediums and learning about reincarnation inspired him to study Celtic myths and folklore.

At 24, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish independence. Although he considered her to be the love of his life, she refused his proposal of marriage. She claimed that they were “spiritually married” and believed they could communicate telepathically. She also believed they had been brother and sister in a past life.

Yeats joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. Their society initiation was a series of ten levels. The three highest levels could only be attained by magi (who were thought to possess the secrets of supernatural wisdom and enjoy magically extended lives) and he became fascinated with becoming a magus.

Though it might not be obvious in his poetry, he was convinced that the mind was capable of perceiving past the limits of materialistic rationalism.

This was no fad for Yeats. He was an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years. He achieved the coveted sixth grade of membership in 1914, which was the same year that his future wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, also joined the society.

Yeats’s wrote an essay titled  “Magic” that gave his philosophy and expanded on that magic philosophy in A Vision (1925):

I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are —

(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.

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