I am on a journey and I invite all seekers of truth to join me as I investigate the historical realities and influence of occult practices and belief in American history. I must warn you, it is not only my understanding of history that has been altered by my research, but increasingly my understanding of reality itself.
March 4, 2013
The period I am interested here, the late 17th and early 18th century, while widely regarded as the very threshold of Modernity, is in fact a vast repository of antiquity. The mental furniture as it were of the people of this era was in fact hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.
The pioneering work of social historians, historians of ideas and historical anthropologists in the last few decades has acted like an X-ray of a familiar painting, revealing layer after layer of unseen and forgotten images beneath the surface we think we know. (As you will see, I will provide suggestions for further reading if you are interested in this topic.)
Beneath a familiar surface image of warring Christian faiths and a nascent Enlightenment rationalism and the rise of Science, lies a much more complicated world of atavistic belief and practice; a great subterranean river of ideas and images that were neither Christian nor Rational, but almost entirely magical. A vast substrata of belief whose roots stretch back through the Middle Ages both to the indigenous Pagan religions of Europe, as well as the Classical paganism of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Hermetic and Gnostic beliefs of the ancient Near East.
This most significant moment in history
Pre-Colonial America was literally filled with Magic. A world that lacked our modern word and concept of accident, where instead every occurrence, especially every bad occurrence, was the signature of invisible hands, whether divine or demonic, beneficent or malefic. Everyone in this world, from the Settlers to the Indians, from the sailors to the Dutch peddlers, from the servant in her quarters to the President of Harvard in his mansion traffics with magic in everything from medicine to farming, from attracting a lover to seeking a fortune.
Only here in the craggy coastal ports and dark wood shrouded farms of early America it was not only the ancient beliefs of Europe and Antiquity which permeated everyone’s consciousness, but also the beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples, as well as the South American and African slaves forciblyimported into the country. In a way unprecedented in human history, the coasts and forests of Early America were the violent meeting place of every kind of magical belief and practice. My research of the last 25 years confirms to me that these beliefs are not merely of antiquarian interest but may well hold the keys to the lost and secret history of the nation, if not clues to the hidden nature of reality itself.
February 24, 2013
Over the next months, with support of a Fulbright Grant to travel to London, Oxford and Cambridge, I shall undertake an archeology of knowledge, an entirely new examination of the thoughts and deeds of these early American savants to uncover what they actually believed and did, and the ways in which their own minds and understandings became a kind of crossroads for all the currents of thought and belief and practice of the time — how the alchemy of their thought and experience created an entirely new culture, mixing elements from every period and place of history, with the newly encountered realities (human, natural — and supernatural) of hitherto unknown peoples.
By focusing in particular on the vastly misunderstood figure of Cotton Mather, and tracing his proto-scientific investigations, I hope to present an entirely new image of the man who perhaps more than any other may be called the First American Thinker. The man who most of us remember if at all as The Last Puritan or The Last Witch hunter — was really the first Scientist, the first Psychologist, first Linguist, Anthropologist, even Microbiologist of our world.
And rather than being seen largely in a circle of the elder Puritans from whom he emerged (like the
My next stop will be in the archives of the Royal Society in London, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where I hope to examine the Mather papers that repose there — many unread, even unopened, in the last 300 years.
February 3, 2013
This journey is just the beginning, and it is my hope that by the time we reach the end our entire vision of American history, and of the men and women who built this country will be irreversibly altered and in the process our understanding of our past, our present, our future, even of ourselves and reality itself will be equally altered. I welcome all open-minded seekers of truth to follow me on this journey and to add whatever comments or discoveries they may be inspired to make along the way.
But before we can even embark on this strange journey through the archives and archeological sites that hold the secrets of our national history, let’s begin with a simple thought experiment:
Wherever you are, look around at the furniture and objects which surround you.
I type these words on January 5, 2013. Within my own view, rather little that surrounds me is actually from the year in which I write. The furniture, books, objects d’art, even the technology on my desk ranges from hundreds of years old, to a few years old. Only various pieces of paper and other ephemera actually date from the year in which I write. What we call ‘the present’ is constructed of course entirely of the past. We live literally surrounded by the
What is true for the furniture of our rooms is doubly so for the furniture of our minds. Our ideas, beliefs and opinions, though they may appear to be the products of the moment in which we live and breathe, are really for the most part holdovers from the past — in some cases, even the ancient past.
So whatever period we choose to examine we must be aware that the mental world, the sum total of beliefs and practices that make up the consensus reality in which people live and act is in fact a product of earlier periods. The present, even the present of non-material beliefs, is, like the geological present, actually a sedimentary layer cake of past beliefs and practices.
January 2, 2013
In this and future posts I begin an investigation into the historical realities and influence of occult practices and belief in American history.
My long researches into the mental world of Early Americans has already led me to some startling conclusions. But I must warn you, it is not only my understanding of history that has been altered by my research, but increasingly my understanding of reality itself.
So much of what I have uncovered as the Magical worldview of our ancestors has come to seem oddly prescient, if not prophetic, of the scientific and psychological discoveries of the centuries that followed.
Simply put, my whole understanding of the battle between Magic and Science, between Superstition and Reason, has been irrevocably altered. It is increasingly clear to me that almost everything we mean by the word ‘Magic’ was in fact an earlier human approach, not to what we now call ‘Religion,’ but to what we now call ‘Science’ and ‘Technology’ – i.e. a method of thinking and acting in the world that uses an advanced understanding of the invisible nature of reality to actually do things in reality.
The vast majority of techniques and beliefs
December 30, 2012
My name is Hans Hoffenkamp and I’m a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts.
My New Year’s resolution, if you will, is to make progress on researching my third book, on witchcraft and magic in pre-Colonial America.
My first two books–”All That Glitters: Alchemy, Coining and Treasure Seeking in Early America (Arkham, 1997) and “The Jaguar and The Lion in Eden: South American and African Slaves in The New World” (Oxford, 2005) — didn’t deal with witchcraft directly, but the world of the occult never seemed far away in the course of my studies and travels.
But more on that later.
Prof. Hans Hoffenkamp