Sunday, 17 October 2010

Occult London by Merlin Coverley

Lot's of writers are attracted to the idea of London steeped in the occult. It's certainly got the pedigree: there's John Dee living at Mortlake, and the possibly occult Masonic shenanigans of Hawksmoor, but things really got going in the 19th century. In those years, the city seemed to be at the centre of attempts to reach through the veil, starting with mystical poetry of Blake, and then Swedenborg established the spiritualist church here, Blavatsky settled the HQ of the Theosophical movement here, the Golden Dawn began here.

I wonder why London attracted this sudden flourishing in mystical thought?

Other great cities don't seem to have quite the same occult reputation, despite rich history and intellectual traditions. Perhaps it's connected to England's history of extreme religious non-conformism, going back to the days when Henry VIII broke with the Roman church. For a couple of hundred years thereafter there was a battle for spiritual validity between the Old Church and armies of puritans, shakers, quakers, and ranters; anyone who might have a valid argument against papal rule was by turns encouraged and persecuted as different political expediencies waxed and waned. Starting with the translation of the bible by Tyndale, there seems to have been a search for biblical authority – the birth of fundamentalism, in fact.

This search for ancient authority drove spiritual seekers to find ever more foundational texts and beliefs in the lost grandeur of the ancient world, fed perhaps by the intellectual appetite for the Grand Tour. From these dubious ancient sources we got Masonic ritual and Rosicrucian-ism, and eventually the Golden Dawn. By the last, at least, it had become clear to many that actual ancient authority was less important than the appearance of such, and Madame Blavatsky had already upped the ante in that regard by claiming direct communication with genuine ancient masters living in Tibet. In the end it took Aliester Crowley to finally admit he was making it all up, although even then he bestowed a fig leaf of credibility by claiming his works were dictated by the disembodied angelic being known as Aiwass.

Maybe, though, there's more than an intellectual tradition. A sense of the occult seems to permeate the London streets. The city is a patchwork filled in during different eras, and walking the streets is like wandering time. From a busy high street of Halal butchers, mobile phone shops and T K Maxx, you can take a wrong turn and find yourself on a curved terrace of tall white Georgian houses. Among the boxy office blocks of the city you can find a winding medieval alleyway leading to tiny court yard that never quite gets the sun, lined with the gravestones of a forgotten churchyard, perhaps even a standing tomb, where the names of the dead have long worn away. The temple of Mithras and the Roman circus under the Guildhall reach through the millennia to remind us the untold centuries of human experience that are the foundation of London. It's not hard to imagine the ancient powers buried beneath the macadam of 21st century London, down at the Medieval level, or the Roman the remains beneath the or the even among the deer skulls and spear tips of the pre-historic people that were here before them.


  1. To the best of my knowledge, Swedenborg never "established a church", spiritualist or otherwise.

  2. You are correct, Anonymous: the first Swedenborgian independent vhurch was created in 1787, fifteen years after his death. The spiritualist movement emerged fifty or so years later; while it draws on Swedenborg's writings on spiritual communication it's not formally connected with the Swedenborgian church.


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