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Mitch Horowitz is a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today’s most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult. He is among the few occult writers whose work[…]

A conversation with the author of “Occult America.”

Question: What is the occult?

Mitch Horowitz:  The occult is a hot button term and people have very different associations with it.  Some people think it’s diabolical to other people it’s just a mélange of superstition and nonsense, and it’s actually none of those things.  And I use the term for a very specific reason because it has historical integrity. 

During the Renaissance, various religious scholars and translators were just fascinated with the theology of the ancient world; the Egyptian and Greek and Roman religions that had vanished and seemed to have disappeared even without a trace during the Dark Ages.  These religions were studied and rediscovered during the Renaissance in a way that hugely aroused and excited the Renaissance mind. 

Starting in the mid- to late-1400’s, when scholars began to rediscover ancient Greek and even Egyptian texts, they believed they had stumbled upon some kind of primeval spirituality that predated all the modern religions and that all of our religious ideas sprang from this secret, hidden, unknown, pre-Christian, pre-Jewish spirituality, which in many cases they associated with ancient Egypt. 

By the early decades of the 1500’s, that kind of spirituality which involved divination, alchemy, astrology, prophesizing, communing with spirits and angels and hidden forces, that kind of spirituality came to be called, "occult" or hidden, or secret as the term originally meant in Latin.  This was an unchurched spirituality from the ancient world that was being reborn in the modern world, but without a church or a temple or a priesthood.  And this unchurched spirituality, which had vanished during the Dark Ages and was now bubbling back up into the awareness of the modern mind, was called occult for that reason.  It was a reclaiming of something that had been lost and the term has taken many twists and turns over the generations. 

But historically it does mean something, it does refer to the spirituality that was practiced by the temple orders of the ancient world and that has come down to us today in sort of threads and strands.  And that’s why I use the term.

Question: What makes America such a fertile breeding ground for the occult?

Mitch Horowitz: In many respects, America, from its earliest days, was and remains, the religious laboratory of the world.  The entire culture of alternative spirituality, new age spirituality, the rebirth of esoteric and occult spirituality in the modern age, springs from America—and for very decided reasons. 

Even back in its colonial days, America developed a reputation as a safe harbor for people with unusual or radical religious beliefs.  The British Reformer and Quaker, William Penn, founded the City of Philadelphia in the early 1680’s—Philadelphia being the “City of Brotherly Love”—with the express ideal that Philly could be a place where people of different religions could live side-by-side successfully together.  So from very early on in its existence, Philly was home to Quakers, Mennonites, people from radical offshoots of the reformation, people with mystical ideas from the Lutheran Church relocated to Philly.  Eventually you had Catholics and Jews living there.  And surprisingly enough, this all happened fairly quickly. 

Roughly at the same time, Europe was still going through these spasms of violence and famine that grew out of a war that had just devastated central Europe that we all the 30 Years War.  The 30 Years War was a complicated and very confounding conflict, but basically it pitted Protestant armies against Catholic armies.  To some extent, it was a reaction to some of the religious liberalism, and, to a degree, to the occult revival that had emerged during the Renaissance.  The 30 Years War just devastated the German-speaking portion of Europe roughly between the Rhine Valley in the West and Prague and Bohemia in the East.  And its aftereffects were felt for generations.  That area had been a unique laboratory of liberal spirituality and after the 30 Years War was supposedly finished, it was just devastated. 

People who had mystical beliefs, who were interested in various strands of Christian mysticism, astrology, alchemy, number symbolism, the magical uses of hymn and song, those different groups and sects that had once been situated in that area, began to flee.  And by the 1690s, they were fleeing to Philadelphia.  They were fleeing to the New World.  Word trickled back across the Atlantic fairly quickly that Philadelphia was a place where you could practice a whole variety of religious ideas without harassment. 

So from the late 1690s on, Philly not only became a magnet for people who were fleeing this kind of religious backlash that had swept through Central Europe, but people began to arrive in America and discovered you could found communes here, you could found experimental communities.  The earliest was on the Wissahickon Creek in what is now called the Germantown part of Philadelphia.  There were others that spread out to the countryside around Philadelphia, on of the most long-lived and successful was the commune at Ephrata, whose building still stands. 

So from very early on, America became a magnet for people who were fleeing religious persecution.  And particularly people who were fleeing the backlash against the religious liberalism and the occult revival that occurred in the Renaissance.  And if you follow the family tree, right up through 1776 you have different groups coming to this country.  One of the best known is the "Shaking Quakers," or the Shakers, who fled persecution in Manchester, England, came to New York City in 1775; scraped together some money; moved up to the Hudson Valley outside of Albany in 1776, and started the first Shaker village in a town called Niskayuna.  It’s still there.  It’s there as a museum and it’s dilapidated, you can go and see it.  And this was repeating itself again and again. 

And so the fact is, America became a special source of attraction to people who were fleeing the aftereffects of the 30 Years War and the religious persecution that began to sweep through Europe in the period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  And when people got here, very often they succeeded.  They founded their communes and organizations and communities without harassment.  And America became this kind of laboratory for religious experiment. 

Question: What were the crucial moments in the history of the occult in America? 

Mitch Horowitz: The American occult really became established in the firmament of this country probably between the 1690s and the late 1840s.  And there were several very definite personalities and groups and events that made that possible.  As I mentioned earlier, by the 1680s, 1690s, mystical groups began to flee Central Europe and come to America. 

If you flash forward to 1776, you not only have the Shakers organizing their first village outside of Albany in New York, but in the State of Rhode Island, there was a young woman named Jemima Wilkinson who had been caught up on the Baptist Revival, we call “The Great Awakening,” and in the fall of 1776, Jemima, who had grown up on a prosperous Quaker farm, took to her bed with a terrible fever and she was slipping in and out of a coma and her family was sure that she was going to die.  And then one day, without any antecedent whatsoever, she leaped up from the bed, all red and ruddy and filled with this renewed energy, and announced to her shocked Quaker family that she would no longer be known as Jemima, that woman had died and that the being standing before them would be known as the Public Universal Friend.  And she became, in a certain sense, the nation’s first spirit channeler.

By the early 1800s, that area of central New York state became known as the “Burned Over District,” it was the place considered “burned over” with the fires of religious passion.  And that’s where you start to see the first alternative religious culture developing in America, and really, in the modern world. 

The Iroquois Indians had occupied central New York state, but they were pushed off that land by the colonial government just after the War of Independence.  So, central New York was opened to land settlement and speculation and a whole wave of relatively liberal New Englanders began to flood into central New York state and for about a generation or two, in the early- to mid-1800’s, the place produced most of the new religions that grew out of America; Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, is where the Shakers spread; you have the first experiments, large experiments, in American utopianism; the Oneida community was located there.  The place was a hotbed of political reform.  The fist women’s rights conference was held in Seneca Falls, New York.  It was also the birthplace of the movement of what we call “spiritualism,” which involved séances and spirit raps and talking to the dead.  And spiritualism just became the driving engine behind everything because as spiritualism grew in central New York state and it started essentially in a little village called Hydesville, outside the city of Rochester, where two teenage girls, in 1848, told their Methodist household that the bangs and raps and noises that were being heard in their cabin were actually spirit raps. And the girls said: “We can reach to the beyond.”  And people believed them.  They were hungry to believe them because Americans saw themselves as a people who were entitled to a kind of new dispensation from God.  They used to refer to the country sometimes as the “New Israel” or the “American Israel.” 

They were expressing the most radical impulses of the Reformation in which people believed that you could reach the beyond, you could reach the divine, with no intermediary.  You didn’t need the man in robes, you could do it yourself. 

And as soon as people began to organize into séance circles and people began to identify themselves as transmediums who could reach the beyond. It opened up a door for women to assume their first roles of religious leadership in the modern world.  This really can’t be overstated.  Women had no clerical role anywhere in the Western world, period. 

When spiritualism dawned, suddenly women who wanted to engage in the civic and religious and political culture were becoming transmediums.  It is no accident that in this “burned over” district of upstate New York, you had the birth of spiritualism coinciding with the fist conference for women’s voting rights.  The two were branches coming out of the same tree for about a generation in the 19th Century, you could not find a voting rights activist, a suffragist activist, who hadn’t spent some time at the séance table, and vice versa.  The movements just absolutely grew out of one another. 

Once that social and spiritual opening was created for women in the form of spiritualism, suddenly ambitious women who wanted to participate in the culture had a kind of a voice.  So this began a marriage between occult spirituality and reformist or radical politics that just roared through the country, and really, has never gone away. 

So, the 1840s, some historians call that decade “The Mad 40s,” the 1840s was the pivotal moment in American life where an avant-garde spiritual culture began to grow and where a radical and reformist political culture began to grow. 

This was also bound up with ideologies that were coming over to America from Europe.  Chief among them was the method called mesmerism, which we today call hypnotism.  Americans were in love with mesmerism because it was something that you could do in your own home.  You could mesmerize or hypnotize your aunt or your mother or your father and people would go into these trance states and you could introduction autosuggestions tot hem or as some people saw it, you could cure them of illnesses.  And sometimes people would emerge, re-emerge from a trance state and report that they had some kind of out of body experience.  They had traveled to other realms or to other planets, or to the heavens. 

Occult ideologies, all these supernatural ideologies where people said they were in touch with the world beyond, they could see either into other realms or into the future or they could serve as a spirit channeler, they were confirming a very, very deep-seated hope that Americans had about themselves and they served as a conduit for radically liberal religious and political ideas. 
Question: Was Lincoln an occultist?

Mitch Horowitz: The Lincolns moved into the White House in March of 1861 and the country was just enthralled with spiritualism.  Everybody had heard of it, a vast number of people were practicing it with different levels of seriousness.  Shortly after the Lincolns moved into the White House, they lost their 11-year-old son, Willie, to what was probably from typhus fever and the grief was too much for Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady.  And she, as with hundreds and thousands of Americans, more or less converted to spiritualism.  And she began to frequent spirit mediums, engage in séances and she absolutely believed in the authenticity of contact with her departed son. 

There are historical records that attest to séances being held in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War.  And one of the trickiest tasks when you’re approaching the history of the occult—probably with any religious movement—is, which sources do you believe?  Who can be relied upon?  So one of the most convincing historical records of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House appeared in the Boston Gazette.  The President had a trance sitting in 1863, and he permitted a correspondent from the Boston Gazette to be present and the proceedings were pure Lincoln.  He was in good humor, he was in good spirits, to put it a certain way, he was teasing people, he was subjecting his cabinet secretaries to advice about the war from this transmedium who was in touch at one point with the spirit of Henry Knox, who had been George Washington’s Secretary of War.

From the content of the article, I think there’s reason to think that something did go on like what was reported.  But it’s tricky because the transmedium who conducted the séance was named Charles Shauckle, and there’s no Charles Shauckle who appears in any of the spiritualist newspapers of the day which could lead one to conclude that the story was just made up or that it was some sort of a pseudonym.  The historian, Carl Sandburg wondered—he seemed to take seriously that this séance did occur and I think he’s correct.  But he wondered, why, why would Lincoln have permitted a reported from the Boston Gazette to have been present.  And this is where we have to approach spiritualism very carefully and shrewdly to understand how educated folks in the mid-19th Century understood it. 

To some people, like Mary Todd Lincoln, it was a gravely serious matter.  To others, like Abraham Lincoln, it may have been a novelty, an experiment; just something for liberal people to try.  And I think Lincoln actually engineered the whole event for a very shrewd political purpose, which was that during the Civil War he wanted to project an image to the public of a Commander in Chief who was relaxed, who could sit back and try out a parlor room novelty, like other Americans were doing.  A man who was not overly encumbered by the strains of wartime command.  And I think Lincoln actually succeeded in achieving what he set out to do because the piece in the Boston Gazette, which is just enthralling and bizarre, was reprinted in newspapers all over the country—including the newspapers of the Confederacy.  So you see this relaxed Abraham Lincoln joking and teasing his cabinet secretaries, you know, pitching these questions almost as he’s tipping back in his chair just sort of enjoying an experiment. 

There is another record of a much graver, and a much more somber séance that was held in the Lincoln White House.  It’s a more difficult to verify and accept because it’s left behind by a transmedium herself.  And you don’t know when people are just making something up to simply make themselves look good.  Nonetheless, the account has a certain verisimilitude and it squares with how spiritualism saw itself politically. 

In this other account of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House, Lincoln is told by these spirit contacts that if he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had been hesitant to do, that would be the greatest act for which he would be remembered.  And the interesting thing about this story is not whether it’s provable or not because there’s no way to verify it, but it does capture the political mood and ideals of spiritualism in the 19th Century. 

Occultists in other countries had reputations for being people like the Russian monk Gregori Rasputin who wanted to manipulate people in power, take advantage of them, collect goodies and riches for themselves.  American spiritualists wanted to be associated with social progress.  They were interested in suffragism, abolitionism, temperance, which at the time was a progressive cause.  And so, it’s very typical that a transmedium would want to take credit for having urged Lincoln or some other influential figure to do the right thing in the eyes of progressive reformers. 
This is something we’ve lost in the history of spiritualism.  We paint it as the story of fraud and chicanery, but we lose the idea that spiritualism was a political and social force in the country, like any other religious movement. 

Question: Have the scientific innovations of the past century made occultism obsolete?

Mitch Horowitz: Science, as it reaches the public mind, has both served to discredit and unintentionally reaffirmed mystical ideas.  During the age of the Enlightenment, certainly people that were interested in astrology divination, alchemy, mesmerism, were forced out of royal courts and mainstream universities—this light shone throughout Europe and people were interested in Newtonian mechanics never mind the fact that Newton himself also had a lifelong interest in alchemy.  But the irony was that some people who were at the forefront of the Enlightenment were enamored of the religious experiments that occurred during the renaissance.  But, regardless, their experiments and their rationalist philosophy removed occultism forever from respectable courts and universities. 

That was mirrored to a degree in America—although institutions were much more independent in America.  But if you move forward several generations, as you get into the 20th Century, really for the past 80 years, and really right now in our generation, experiments in quantum physics have reignited people’s religious or mystical imaginations.  It’s almost impossible to overstate the strangeness and the peculiar nature, the astonishing nature of what’s been found in quantum physics experiments, say over the past eight decades.  On an atomic scale, scientists are finding that particles seem not to appear until they’re observed.  It’s suggestive of all kinds of incredible and extraordinary things and quantum physicists are rightly concerned that new agers, or people like me, should not be seizing upon these things to say, “Aha!  Look!  Evidence of everything the renaissance occultists were interested in.”  Because quantum physicists themselves don’t understand this material.  It’s the challenge of our age.  It’s the mystery of our age.  And the danger is that it gets overstated in this colloquial way and everybody uses it to say, “Well look, physics itself is proving that our minds create reality,” which is one of the cherished beliefs of occultism, particularly in this country as the mental healing movement and the positive thinking movement began to develop from the mid-19th Century and spread out across the entire country.

That is a hasty conclusion because, first of all, all the quantum physics experiments have occurred chiefly on the atomic scale and we are taught to believe that nature’s laws are consistent.  But we still need proof because when you’re seeing something that extraordinary in a particle accelerator, it doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen to me in a corporate board meeting.  And I encourage people not to make that leap.  At the same time, I encourage quantum physicists not to disparage the new agers who are intelligently interested in this material.  They should be interested in it.  We all should be able to have a conversation without exaggerating what’s going on. 

It’s a very precious time and moment, because also in physics department all across this country and universities, there is a generation that was educated in the 60s and 70s that is attaining positions of leadership and is able to have some influence over funding.  Some of these physicists educated in the 60s and 70s are more open to the question of quantum physics than the previous generation. 

The previous generation felt that physics is not concerned with meaning.  Yes, you can observe extraordinary things in a particle accelerator, but leave it to the metaphysicians, leave it to the philosophers to discuss the meaning.  That doesn’t belong in the lab. 

The younger generation of physicists, classically trained, rigorously rational folks responds to that and says: “Well, but what is physics for if not to explain the nature of reality?”  So I think in this generation we are going to see a blossoming of experiments and funding in the area of quantum physics.  And that’s really something to watch.  That’s the mystery of our age.  

Question: Is occultism still relevant in modern life?

Mitch Horowitz:  I believe it is relevant and it can have a concrete and positive impact.  People need doorways to explore universal religious and ethical ideas.  Pope John Paul II probably beatified more saints than any other Pope in history.  He understood that we need modern doorways in order to drink from very, very deep wells.  And I think occultism or new age spirituality or alternative spirituality, rather than steering people into dark corners very frequently, particularly in our country, steers people toward a renewed interest in universal religious and ethical ideas that they might never encounter if they didn’t find a modern and novel door to enter the tradition with. 

In my book, I write quite a bit about an early 20th Century psychic named, Edgar Casey.  He was claimed to be a medical clairvoyant who could diagnose people's diseases, people that he had never met, people who were far away.  His readings, his psychical readings also contained a great deal of ethical material.  There’s a whole generation of people who I think came in touch with all kinds of eastern and gospel-based religious ideas because they saw Edgar Casey as a person who shone a modern light, as a person who was able to offer some kind of invisible help in the contemporary world.  That’s the experience of people who encounter saints in the Catholic Church.  We need to see people who look and talk and live and act like us sometimes before we can turn a knob and open a door.  That’s what occultism has always provided. 

In the mid-19th century, occult figures in this country were confirming the most radically held views that came out of the reformation.  They were confirming an idea that each individual had a kind of birthright to a non-mediated encounter with the divine.  And I think spiritualism, mesmerism, the mental healing movement, provided some people with the most meaningful experiences of their lives.  These movements also demanded that religion not be just a salvational force but that it be a healing force as well.  And that’s probably the most significant legacy of occult in this country. 

Throughout this nation and throughout many parts of the modern western world, churches and religious organizations are required to address the practical needs of people’s day-to-day existence.  Salvation as an aim hasn’t been jettisoned, but people demand that hand-in-hand with that the church play a therapeutic role.  So you find that a self-help spirituality that spans our religious landscape—from the new age to evangelical medium ministries, the most easily adaptable occult idea has been what we basically call the positive thinking movement, which in its earliest inception grew out of mesmerist circles in this country in the mid-19th century, in New England and the "burned over district." 

The idea that the mind had causative power was a concept that came out of mesmerism.  That has been reworked across our social landscape.  You find it in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, you find it in business motivation seminars, it’s the stock and trade of life coaches.  You also find that idea in ensconced in the sermons that a figure like Joel Osteen will give every Sunday morning to a television audience of tens of millions of people.  It’s also a new age idea that you find expressed in “The Secret.” 

This concept that it had to be cathartic, religion had to be healing, religion had to be practical was unheard of say 150 years ago.  You didn’t hear of that within the Catholic Church, you didn’t hear of that within the Calvinist Protestantism, you started to hear of it within occult circles and eventually that became an American innovation whose roots became somewhat hidden, but it just spread throughout the entire culture. 

I think that’s been a positive trend.  I think therapeutic spirituality has largely been a help in the modern world.  So the fact that people can approach religion with practical needs.  And sometimes that they feel the need to approach religion through either novelty or in some kind of modern terms, that is an aspect of human nature.  And I think that anything that helps people draw closer to some sort of a universalist or religious ethic is probably for the net good in the end.  And to me that’s part of the role that alternative spirituality has played. 

Question: What is the fascination with the Ouija Board?

Mitch Horowitz: The Ouija Board is probably the most successful and recognizable object that came out of the age of spiritualism in this country.  It’s exactly the kind of object that American spiritualists were attracted to because it has this do-it-yourself quality.  In the 1850s, 1860s, American spiritualists who believed ardently in what they were doing had an ideal that eventually talking to the dead would be as effortless and as ordinary and dinnertime conversation.  So they set themselves to the task of figuring out: "How could this be accomplished?  What method could we use?" 

They experimented with transmediumship, automatic writing, there was a little plank called the planchette, which is French for “little plank,” that was used, you would sort of pencil into it, it was a little triangular table on ball bearings that was used for automatic writing.  And eventually spiritualists hit on something they called the “Alphabet Board,” or the “Talking Board.”  This is what became the Ouija Board.  The earliest image of the Ouija Board appeared in the New York Tribune in the year 1886.  There was an article about spiritualists in northern Ohio who were just entranced with this thing that they called the “Talking Board” that was supposed to be the easiest method yet for speaking to the other side. 

And the newspaper featured a couple of drawings.  One of them was just a little matchbox size drawing of the Ouija Board and is the spitting image of the board that we know today.  They also showed a man and a woman using the “Talking Board,” balancing it together on their knees, which this is important because the “Talking Board” or the Ouija Board was also a very flirtatious experience for people in the Victorian Era.  It gave men and women an excuse to sit knee to knee, maybe even join hands while they were consulting this magical board. 

Now the interesting thing is, the Ouija Board was a homemade invention.  The earliest record of it probably is in Ohio as seen in this 1886 newspaper report.  Less than five years later, there were a group of novelty manufacturers in the city of Baltimore who seized upon the board and managed to bet a federal patent on it.  So they got their patent and they called it the Ouija Board, the name is a source of mystery.  Everybody has different stories about where I came from.  Nobody really knows.  But the invention just... the object just took off.  It spread across the country.  People were enthralled with it.

It became so popular that by 1922, the artist Norman Rockwell painted a satire of a man and woman using the Ouija Board which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  If you look at Rockwell’s satire, you see basically the same image that appeared back in 1886, the man and woman with their knees kind of bumping using the Ouija Board together; in Rockwell’s painting it’s sort of weaving this little flirtatious spell around them. 
In 1966, the original Baltimore family that manufactured the Ouija Board sold it to Parker Brothers.  And when Parker Brothers marketing the board for the first time the following year in 1967, it actually outsold Monopoly.  That’s how popular the Ouija Board was at that time.  And the late ‘60’s saw an occult revival sweeping through the nation.  The Woodstock Generation was not only open to Eastern religious ideas, but they were open to all kids of occult ideas that were coming out of the age of spiritualism, that we coming from 19th Century movements in this country.  One of them was called the theosophy movement, which had helped repopularize occult concepts in the late 19th Century.  So the late 60s saw an occult revival, the Ouija Board was at the ready, and young people embraced it.  Ouija circles sprang up in dormitories and interestingly enough, very often it was women who were conducting the nightly Ouija sessions, which unbeknownst to them was a reenactment of spiritualism from the mid 19th Century. 

Question: Why is Ouija board less popular today than in the past?

Mitch Horowitz:  The company Hasbro which owns Parker Brothers and manufactures it, does not seem terribly interested to talk about the board, they continue to manufacture it, but the last time I went on their Web site, they didn’t post a history of the Ouija Board even though they have histories for Twister and The Game of Life and other very story products that they sell. 

People are scared of Ouija, they don’t want to attract boycotts from the Christian right, they don’t want to attract somebody who is going to commit some kind of a crime and claim, “Well, the Ouija Board told me to do it.”  And that’s part of its history.  We never seemed to have been able to digest the Ouija Board because it is an object from the age of spiritualism that has made it into slumber parties and basements and toy rooms all across the country and yet there’s this very frightening and weird urban mythology around the Ouija Board.  Ask anyone, and they have some stranger story of being a kid and using the Ouija board and the lights flicked on and off, or they heard mysterious or ghostly knocks at their door.  There are some people in occult history who warned against using the Ouija Board, who said: "This is a dangerous door to the unconscious.  Don’t approach this thing."

So we like to make fun of it, we’re sort of frightened of it.  There’s nostalgia around it, but the fact is, in some ways it reflects the success of spiritualism.

Question: Is there consensus among scientists about how the Ouija Board works?

Mitch Horowitz:  Well the most common explanation that you’ll find is it’s just a tool of auto-suggestion.  We are just using it to act out communications from our deepest unconsciousness.  There are serious psychical researches who looked at the Ouija Board in the 1960’s and that was the conclusion they came up with.  It’s as reasonable conclusion as any, except when you talk to people who use it and, you know, you hear about the events they describe, they’ll have none of it.  So, it seems to be an object that’s just going to withhold its mysteries from us.

Question: Is Jay-Z an occultist?

Mitch Horowitz:  No.  He’s a genius who has a very shrewd eye for kind of oppositional imagery in our culture.  And he uses these things and he understands the magnetism of these symbols.  You know, symbols like the pentagram and the eye in the pyramid or astrological symbols, they do have a certain magnetic power.  They have a pull on us.  When people look at a crucifix or when people look at a Star of David, they feel something.  There’s some kind of pull.  It may just be a matter of conditioning, but the fact is, when you use the eye in the pyramid, it’s a magnetic symbol.  It possesses something. 

And I think when you’re using imagery that comes from the ancient world or that comes from Renaissance-era occultism, there is a little something going on there.  We’ve never quite figured out a way to digest the image of the pentagram.  Some people are really attracted to it, other people recoil from it.  Jay-Z understands this and when he uses these images in his videos, on his clothing, and in other places, you know, he realizes that we are people who think in images and that you can take an image and you get a response from people.  I was asked at one point whether I thought Jay-Z was a Freemason because of some of the images that appear in his videos.  One of his videos also shows an image of Mao Tse Tung, I don’t think he’s an Agrarian Socialist, but he understand in the same way that street artists do that you can take these images and they touch an emotional cord in us that sometimes is very subliminal, even mysterious. 

I don’t think he’s an occultist, but I do think he is probably a genius in terms of using imagery. 

Recorded on October 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller