"In our DNA"– Hermetic tradition and occult/metaphysical confusion

Fifteen years have elapsed since my last book on metaphysical and occult subjects. The intervening years have entailed a shift of emphasis to racial and political dimensions of 19th century America. In 2010, a chapter examining Quakerism and abolitionism in my mother’s family history was published in the collection Carolina Genesis. Two years earlier, Pell Mellers explored my father’s family roots among Southern Unionists and colonial mulattoes. While working on these multigenerational family history projects, I took a half dozen different DNA tests in a decade of investigation. Each test measured in various ways my kinship to different groups of people; sometimes with crystal clear answers to research questions but often with confusing and ambiguous results. In this post I will propose DNA as a metaphor for different ways of exploring kinship among different spiritual groups. This University of Utah site explains the four types of DNA.

Whether the subject was Theosophical Mahatmas, Edgar Cayce’s Akashic Records, or my father’s legendary ancestor Chief Cucklemaker, the results of my investigations have tended to demythologize stories that some people prefer to take at face value. This caused some rejection of each book, due to the politically inconvenient or embarrassing aspects of what they reveal. But in each case another, unexpected group of readers ended up appreciating the work in ways that succeeded beyond my greatest hopes. Most vividly, this occurred with two branches of my father’s family in recent years. Pell Mellers opens with a chapter called In Search of the Dunlows, and closes with one called Johnson Reunions.  Beginning with a quest focused on one family, I ended with an unexpected connection to another.  Searching for Dunlows, but finding Johnsons, is related to specific differences between two types of knowledge available through DNA testing.  While there is no genealogical difference in degrees of cousinhood with descendants of common ancestors, there is a genetic difference in the knowledge we can have of our kinship.  Tests of Y and mitochondrial DNA yield precise assignments to haplogroups which can be traced through millennia.  But autosomal tests show the approximate ethnic blending that has occurred in recent generations, and give far less consistent and reliable results. Of eight great-grandparents, only one of each gender carries the sex-linked traits: one’s father’s father’s father, and one’s mother’s mother’s mother. The other six contribute to the autosomal DNA only.

Last summer I was interviewed by North Carolina Public Radio about Melungeons, and went into considerable detail about both autosomal and sex-linked DNA tests and what they reveal about Melungeon heritage. In terms of the spiritual ancestry of the Church of Light, “Hermetic” has the specificity and clarity of a Y or mitochondrial haplogroup, while “occult,” “metaphysical,” or “Theosophical” have the same fuzziness and confusion of autosomal test results. That is, the collection of inherited traits that are used to define occultism, or metaphysics, or Theosophy, tend to overlap and combine in random ways. Whereas the memes that define Hermeticism are more traceable in a specific line to a particular time and place. There will be more to say on this in future posts, but I will close this one with a passage from Sarah Stanley Grimke’s 1886 First Lessons in Reality that seems eerily suggestive of the double helix of DNA:

The fact that Ariadna’s twist of thread symbolizes this inner, intuitive Ray, is evident from the derivation of the word twist, as well as from the formation itself of a twist. Thus the Greek work skiza is a twist, a torch, a flame. Our word scissors is also derived from this same word.

Again, in its formation, a twist expresses the mystery of this Law, thus the twist is composed of two strands (each strand double), which are first twisted in opposite directions, then by being doubled back upon each other, the two strands fly magically into one manifestion.