Believing or Not Believing is Not a Concern at All; You Simply Love. You See a Rose Flower. Do You Believe in It or Do You Disbelieve in It? You Don’t Do Anything, You Simply Look at It… You Look at a Rose and Something of the Rose Reaches to Your Heart. Outside the Rose is Flowering, Inside, the Heart Starts Flowering.
A strange visual language developed from the 18th to the 20th century behind the closed doors of American secret societies. It’s a languae made up of all-seeing eyes, ominous skulls, hourglasses, arrows, axes, and curious hands holding hearts. Each of these icons was deeply symbolic for the thousands of people — mostly men — who participated in rituals of borrowed meaning, where ancient Egypt, biblical Christianity, and some homegrown amusements like wooden goats on wheels met the rise of American folk art. The American Folk Art Museum’s (AFAM) Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collectionexamines this often hidden history through its arcane artifacts.
Mystery and Benevolence was curated by Stacy C. Hollander, chief curator and director of exhibitions at AFAM, and Aimee E. Newell, director of collections at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library. It features over 200 objects recently donated to the museum by Kendra and Allan Daniel, who spent three decades buying up the once-secretive art. Installed in the museum, the objects are an exuberant display of the “golden age” of Masonic and Odd Fellows objects, when American decorative and folk art merged with the need for a sense of belonging in the new country.
“After becoming an independent nation in the 1780s, America was seeking to establish its own cultural identity; Freemasonry offered a source of images that resonated with the new nation’s values of equality and liberty,” Newell writes in the accompanying catalogue. “Freemasonry’s visual language and American style began to intersect almost as soon as victory over the British was declared, and continued to adapt as the nation grew and the fraternity evolved. ”
Much of the exhibition contextualizes this long-hidden art in the history of the societies, such as their charity work. The Odd Fellows, formed in 18th-century London, were organized as a benevolent group to support the sick, orphans, and those who died without money for a funeral. One of their mission statements is proclaimed in red and gold on a large wooden sign: “Bury the Dead.” There are also axes indicating how the Odd Fellows saw themselves as “pioneers in the pathway of life”; staffs topped with a heart in the hand were a reminder to be open to others.
Similarly, even the more ghoulish imagery had some meaning connected to charity, and selflessness. The skulls, hourglasses, and skeletons holding shields painted with the word “fidelity” were all reminders of mortality, and how one’s brief time on earth could be better dedicated to others. Reverend Aaron B. Grosh wrote in 1853’s The Odd Fellow’s Manual: “Only the good or evil of our lives will survive us on earth, to draw down on our memories the blessings of those we have aided, or the contempt and reproach of those we have injured.”
“The outward form of each symbol offers a different point of access, but in its context within the lexicon of the fraternity, deeper meanings are revealed to those for whom the symbols are signified,” Hollander writes in the catalogue. “In this, the art of fellowship is not dissimilar to the art of alchemy, its secret knowledge also protected by its practitioners.”
The Masons are the country’s oldest established fraternal order, with numerous lodges founded in the 18th century across the US. In one painting on view at AFAM, their most famous member, George Washington, stands proudly at a Masonic altar. The Odd Fellows soon followed and quickly gained an important membership of their own, as did other societies like the Knights Templar, Shriners, and Junior Order of United American Mechanics. All were mostly white, male, and protestant, albeit from across different economic classes.
The objects in Mystery and Benevolence are seductive with their strangeness and feel somehow accessible through the ordinariness of the materials. I remember visiting the Masonic Hall on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and the tour guide (a Mason) pointing out that all the grand architectural flourishes were fancy fakery. The Corinthian columns, the Renaissance murals, and the Gothic arches that adorned different meeting rooms were all plaster — beautifully painted, but mimicry of the exotic and ancient all the same.
Likewise, the objects in this exhibition are visually stunning, from a late 19th-century staff wrapped with a snake to a towering column topped with a globe. There are some truly masterful pieces, like an intricate marquetry table by James J. Crozier, yet for the most part, the artists remain unidentified and the closest an object gets to a precious material is in the application of some gold leaf on the edges.
These are rare artifacts of an occult culture, each a labor of love for their ritual purpose, not originally intended as art, but as a tool of connection through shared rites. The value of these pieces goes beyond their folk art status. They represent a clandestine history embedded within the story of the United States, where for decades a large percentage of its men would amble over to the local lodge after dark, have a drink (or several), don a scarlet robe, then ponder a skeletal memento mori — or take a ride on a wooden goat around the lodge room.
“The Arbatel de magia veterum (Arbatel: Of the Magic of the Ancients) is a Renaissance-period grimoire – a textbook of magic – and one of the most influential works of its kind. Unlike some other occult manuscripts that contain dark magic and malicious spells, the Arbatel contains spiritual advice and guidance on how to live an honest and honorable life.”
“The Arbatel is claimed to have been written in 1575 AD. This date is supported through textual references dating from 1536 through 1583. It is believed that the final editor of the Arbatel was Swiss physician Theodor Zwinger, and that it was published by Italian printer Pietro Perna. The author remains unknown, although it has been speculated that a man named Jacques Gohory may be the author. Like Zwinger and Perna, Gohory was a Paracelsian (a group who believed in and followed the medical theories and therapies of Paracelsus).
The focus of the Arbatel is on nature, and the natural relationships between humanity and a celestial hierarchy. It centers on the positive relationships between the celestial world and humans, and the interactions between the two. British poet and scholarly mystic Arthur Edward Waite (A.E. Waite) noted that the Arbatel is clearly Christian in nature. He wrote that it does not contain any form of black magic, and that it is not connected to the Greater or Lesser Keys of Solomon, which were focused on demonology.
The most frequently cited book in the Arbatel is the Bible. In the manner it is written, it appears that the author of the Arbatel must have had many portions of the Bible memorized, and that this highly influenced his writings.
The Arbatel was an extremely influential work for its time. It is said that one cannot understand the meaning of the Arbatel without also understanding the philosophy of Paracelsus. It viewed theosophy in an occult sense, and was perhaps the first written work to do so. Prior to the Arbatel, theosophy was generally used as a synonym for theology. It was the first writing to make the important distinction between human knowledge and divine knowledge.
Not all views of the Arbatel are positive, however. Dutch physician, occultist and demonologist Johann Weyer condemned the Arbatel as being “full of magical impiety” in his book, De praestigiis daemonum. In 1617, two professors at the University of Marburg in Germany intended to use the Arbatel as a textbook for students. Actions were taken against those professors by the University, and the book led to a student’s expulsion. Further, in 1623, an individual accused of being a witch, Jean Michel Menuisier, claimed to have used incantations from the Arbatel.
The first edition was most likely published in Basel. Some claim there had been earlier editions, although there has been no evidence to substantiate this. Since 1575, there have been several reprints. In 1655, Robert Turner translated the Arbatel to English, and printed it in his “Fourth” book of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s “Three Books of Occult Philosophy.” In 1686, Andreas Luppius wrote a German translation of the Arbatel, and in 1855, Scheible completed another German translation, correcting Luppius’ errors. In 1945, Marc Haven created a French translation of the manuscript. Finally, in 1969, it was translated again into English in the British Library’s Sloane Manuscripts. This English translation resulted in many errors and missing sections, and included a “Seal of Secrets” not included in any other version.
Through its original edition and later translations, the Arbatel remains a fascinating look into ancient spiritual advice, and the different philosophies and views of the world from the 16th Century.”
“Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them, but that what they, and all things, really are IS the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.”
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
(courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation)
I don’t know how deeply David Bowie was in to Magick, but it’s clear in the 70’s he was immersed in it. I’ve read he was having drug and alcohol issues at the time, but I find this period of his life in Los Angeles very interesting nonetheless.
Like many people, Bowie had an enormous impact on my life and he’s one of my favorite artists. I was born in 1964 and I grew up listening to him. He has always been there in my life. I can’t remember any point in my life where I wasn’t listening to his music.
As a teenager I studied movement and I wanted to be a ballerina. When “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” came out in the early 80’s I was there at the Lumiere theater off Polk Street, watching the movie 50 times over. In my late 20’s I studied theater, movement, and world religions in San Francisco. Inspired by Bowie’s example, I became a guitarist and singer for my own rock persona – Bettie Black. I wrote and released my own music – always inspired by him. I find his exploration of magick personal and meaningful. I also study gnosticism and the Tree of Life from Jewish mystical traditions.
I’ve read many observations from various people, and I’ve come across some interesting insights! I thought I’d put them all here to share with interested folks.
“My overriding interest was in Kabbalah and Crowleyism. That whole dark and rather fearsome never-world of the wrong side of the brain.”
From “Bowie on Bowie” by Sean Egan
from Secret Sun Blog: “Apparently David Bowie, despite being heavily interested in the Occult and even referencing Crowley lyrically in the 1971 song Quicksand, was actually of the mind that AC was a fraud (from a 1997 interview in NME):
Q: “So were you involved in actual devil worship?”
A: “Not devil worship, no, it was pure, straightforward, old-fashioned magic.”
Q: “The Aleister Crowley variety?”
A: “No, I always thought Crowley was a charlatan. But there was a guy called [Arthur] Edward Waite who was terribly important to me at the time. And another called Dion Fortune who wrote a book called ‘Psychic Self-Defense‘. You had to run around the room getting bits of string and old crayons and draw funny things on the wall, and I took it all most seriously, ha ha ha ! I drew gateways into different dimensions, and I’m quite sure that, for myself, I really walked into other worlds. I drew things on walls and just walked through them, and saw what was on the other side!”
I really don’t know much about Waite, but in a bit of research (Wikipedia, so you know, take that as you may) came upon the info that Crowley apparently hated Waite and mocked him publically in his writing. Checked, and in Bowie’s list of favorite books, there are none by Crowley. The only Occult book listed is Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual by Elphias Levi.”
How a 1974 image reappeared in Bowie’s final music video.
Imagine getting the opportunity to hold a private photo session with David Bowie at the height of his stardom. We’re talking post “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane,” with “Pin Ups” and “Diamond Dogs” still on the horizon. Imagine you had an entire evening to play dress up with the iconic shapeshifter and capture the manifold personas he embodied so swiftly yet completely.
And suppose, over 40 years later, after the iconic artist’s death, you return to those photos you took so long ago and notice what seems to be a message. A message that reappears throughout his later works, culminating with the “Lazarus” video off his final album “Blackstar,” that perhaps illuminates the artist’s feelings about death and immortality.
This is what happened to photographer Steve Schapiro, who spent one fateful night in 1974 photographing Bowie in his Los Angeles studio. “From the moment Bowie arrived, we seemed to hit it off. Incredibly intelligent, calm, and filled with ideas,” Schapiro recalled in a statement. “He talked a lot about Aleister Crowley, whose esoteric writings he was heavily into at the time. When David heard that I had photographed Buster Keaton, one of his greatest heroes, we instantly became friends.”
The two collaborated on many striking images, each transforming Bowie into a distinct character, as unique and otherworldly as a mythical creature. Yet a particular ensemble, the one pictured above and featured on Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station,” holds special significance.
In the image, Bowie dons a navy blue striped body suit and, crouched on the floor, doodles diagrams of Kabbalah’s Tree of Life, a series of 10 spiritual emanations. Lyrics from the title track “Station to Station” echo the language of Kabbalist symbols and beliefs. “Here are we, one magical movement from Keter to Malkuth,” Bowie sings, with Keter (the Crown) and Malkuth (the Kingdom) being the first and last virtues on the Tree of Life.
In his last music video, “Lazarus,” from album “Blackstar” — regarded by many as a cryptic goodbye letter to his fans — Bowie whips out the exact jumpsuit worn in the 1974 image, visible around the two-minute mark. Just as Bowie doodled obsessively in the ‘70s photo shoot, in 2016 Bowie scribbles feverishly in a notebook, heightening in intensity until finally he appears to come to a conclusion, finishing his notes and talking away. (In Bowie style: backward.)
As Albin Wantier interprets in his introduction to Schapiro’s photography book: “He appears to have found the meaning he has been searching for. The connection between both images, 40 years apart, is stunning … He has resolved his enigma, and the curtain can fall at last.”
A close-up of the writing in Bowie’s notebook reveals a trail of symbols. Wantier analyzed these symbols in conjunction with some appearing on a vinyl edition of “Blackstar,” all of which resembled the doodles from the 1974 shoot. The “Blackstar” images, Wantier determined after checking with a friend, were part of a chemical formula depicting the various stages of the nuclear fusion, which leads to the formation of a sun. Or perhaps, a blackstar.
“In the ‘Lazarus’ video, Bowie resolves the enigma of life, which he had been endeavoring to do since 1976,” Wantier summarizes. “His life, which was indistinguishable from his work, led him to enact various characters of his own devising; his life was in itself a work of art. Now that he has finished, Bowie can close the book. However, the last chapter does not end with the artist’s passing — that would be too simple.”
While Bowie’s physical body is no longer with us, his creative energy has catalyzed to create a cosmic eruption, felt around the world, that can never be undone. “David Bowie is not the kind to just disappear just like that from our world,” Wantier writes. “The chemical symbols that accompany the ‘Blackstar’ release point where he’s going: an artistic nuclear fusion of two elements that creates enough energy to make a sun.”
While many acknowledged the poetry in Bowie’s final album, his requiem, and its tremendous impact as his final work of art on this earth, few pieced together the fact that the roots of “Blackstar” trace back to 1974, when a photographer and the world’s biggest rock star became fast friends and spent a single evening creating, contorting and doodling away. As Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti put it: “His death was not different from his life — a work of Art.”
See the image that started it all, as well as the many other never before published images captured that night, in Bowie. A preview of the book is featured below, with all photographs by Steve Schapiro and published by powerHouse Books.
David out of character. One of my favorite photos of David. I particularly like his hands in this shot. Los Angeles 1975. Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
David with cigarette on a break from filming MFE in New Mexico 1975. This became a Rolling Stone cover and a popular image.
David relaxed at his house in Los Angeles, 1975. I particularly liked his hands in this photo.
David with goggles and bike. Los Angeles, 1974
Bowie holding a Buster Keaton book near his face, in his dressing room trailer on âThe Man Who Fell to Earth: set, New Mexico 1975. Buster Keaton was one of David Bowie’s heroes.
David took me by surprise when he came out in the red and white striped outfit during the 1974 photo shoot. It was different from what we expected he would be wearing, Los Angeles 1974.
David with Cher on TV show, Los Angeles, 1975.
In the makeup trailer for “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bowie puts in his cat eyes for a scene, New Mexico 1975.
In Hebrew, Yahweh can be translated into “I am”. This comes from the Book of Genesis, when Moses asked for the name of the being giving him orders, and it responded, “I am that I am”
Yod He Vav He
This could be an ultimate assertion of existence, or even a monotheistic claim of isolated existence, as in, “There are no other gods but me.” This is also a great thing to say during a magickal ritual; you’re becoming the focus of the entire universe and thus have power over matter.
Again, the Gnostic perspective is that there are many gods, but Yaldabaoth, being blind and demented, believed he was alone….”