Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Epoque

Tobias Churton is described by his current publisher as “Britain’s leader scholar of Western Esotericism, a world authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism.” His 2016 study Occult Paris is therefore based on many years of study and wide reading. This makes it uniquely valuable as a source of information on individuals in that city who contributed to the esoteric milieu of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Although there was little known contact between the French and American members of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor after Max Theon relocated to Paris in 1886, two Parisians were especially significant among the spiritual ancestors of The Church of Light. Marie, Countess of Caithness, was associated with Emma Hardinge Britten during the 1870s and 80s and influenced Britten’s books Art Magic and Ghost Land.  Gerard Encausse, best known as Papus, was the most influential individual ever involved with the French HBofL,  although his greatest fame was as the chief proponent of Martinism.  Churton’s expertise on the esoteric subculture of fin-de-siecle Paris makes him a reliable guide to the labyrinth of orders and magi that flourished therein: Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Martinists all being relevant to the ancestry of the HBofL. From the publisher’s web page for the book:

Exploring the magical, artistic, and intellectual world of the Belle Époque, Tobias Churton shows how a wide variety of Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Martinists, Freemasons, Gnostics, and neo-Cathars called fin-de-siècle Paris home. He examines the precise interplay of occultists Joséphin Peladan, Papus, Stanislas de Guaïta, and founder of the modern Gnostic Church Jules Doinel, along with lesser known figures such as Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, Paul Sédir, Charles Barlet, Edmond Bailly, Albert Jounet, Abbé Lacuria, and Lady Caithness. 

The book is so information dense that it reads almost as a reference work rather than a narrative written for popular audiences, but in that role it has great value for filling in many blanks in my own understanding of the era and that of comparable readers. Churton’s subsequent book, Deconstructing Gurdjieff, is more chronological and less thematic, hence more fun to read.  I am pleased that he found useful and cited my own research relating Gurdjieff to Mme. Blavatsky. But for readers of this blog interested in getting deeper into the French background and associates of the spiritual ancestors of the CofL, Occult Paris provides a wealth of relevant and useful background that no other book to my knowledge offers, and perhaps no other author could. .

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