EXPLORING THE OUTER EDGES OF SOCIETY AND MIND

Seeds Sprout in Darkness – Mail Order Magick, Death Row and the Initiation of Damien Echols

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on November 20, 2018

“The shattering of expectation that accompanies trauma doesn’t just cause transference, it opens a door.”

– Whitley Strieber, Solving the Communion Enigma – What is to Come (Tarcher/Penguin, 2011)

 

MYSTERIES AD (1)Always eager for a good mail-order magic anecdote it was great to read in a recent Rolling Stone article from Ilana Kaplan that Damien Echols’ first experience with magic(k) was of the tabloid advertisement variety:

“Damien Echols’ interest in magick can be traced back to when he was seven years old. While reading one of his grandmother’s tabloids in his family’s Mississippi trailer, he saw an ad for a book: ‘Wanna learn magick? Send $5.95 to this address, and we’ll send you this book,’ he remembers. This ad didn’t focus on the idea of magic, as in entertainers performing illusions like David Blaine or Criss Angel, but rather ‘magick,’ a path of evolution or transformation stemming from its own set of practices. Echols thought nothing else would matter if he could practice magick, but growing up in poverty, he couldn’t afford the book. But magick would become an integral part of his life.”(1)

Echols is an extreme example of just how powerful these mediated encounters can be – crediting his personal practice of magick, whose seed was laid by a tabloid ad, with focusing him during an experience on death row that few could fathom enduring:

“It wasn’t until he was put on death row that he began practicing high magick. ‘When I was in prison, I had nothing but time, so that’s when I dedicated every single minute of every single day to learning everything I could from classic sources,’ “

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Although Echols is careful to state that he is drawing on ‘classic sources’ for the practices he outlines in his new book, High Magic – A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row (Sounds True, 2018), he needn’t be a purist to find everything he would need for occult realization. If he’d had that $5.95 as a kid he might have gotten material that brought him every bit as close to true practice as the classic sources he references. His summation of the goal of the Art can even be found in L.W. De Laurence’s notorious mail-order magic manual, The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism, which begins with a preface that states:

” Wishing thee every success imaginable in thy studies and experiments, hoping that thou wilt use the benefits that thou mayest receive to the honor of thy Creator and my Brother Adepts both in Spirit and Earth Life who have so ably assisted me in placing this knowledge before thee my friend and for the benefit of thy neighbor, in which exercise thou shalt ever experience the satisfaction of doing thy duty…”

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The Book of Sacred Magic of Abra Melin the Mage – de Laurence Company, 1948.

Beyond common metaphysical goals and altruistic advice, Echols book also includes the kind of psycho-physiological development material that is a mainstay of mail-order magic manuals and popular practical occultism. As Kaplan points out in the article, “the practice, which Echols focuses on in his book, refers to energetic practices, spiritual growth, ceremonies and rituals.” Why is it then that so many would see a tabloid ad and pass it up – while some see it and seek deeper initiations into their innate potential? Potential, that in Echols case, allowed him to carry a light through hell during his imprisonment.

When we look at mass market material or mail-order magic manuals it can be easy to dismiss them off hand, but the importance is in their application in a person’s life – and when a person pursues the application of the basic steps that many of them outline they find an entrance into a very deep world of experience that goes beyond expectations.

In this instance the basic step started by a mail-order magic ad was simply the question of magic itself which primed Echols to develop his practice more fully during his excruciating time on Death Row:

“This is something that I put to use in the darkest, hardest, most brutal times, more so than most people in modern-day America will go through. So, if it works during that, then surely it will help other people who may be dealing with other situations that are difficult to get through.”

9780143109501Like so many seekers, Echols found that the seeds of his potential awakening lay in darkness. This is something that religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Razor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, has been exploring in his work on exceptional human experiences. By looking at the very personal and traumatic experiences of novelist Whitley Strieber, among other experiencers, Kripal has developed a contemporary framework through which to study traumatic initiation patterns.

This framework sheds light on one of the key reasons why Echols may have found success where others find merely idle occult speculation. Speaking of Whitley Strieber’s experiences in their collaborative book, The Super Natural, Kripal says:

“Out of existential necessity and the transcendent traumas of his own immediate experience, he was implicitly and intuitively practicing the comparative study of religion.”(3)

De Laurence continues to be apt for comparison here in that his outwardly absurd mail-order catalog played a strong role in developing counter-traditions within the Americas and in west Africa at a time of existential crisis, when nationalist interests were working feverishly to destroy indigenous, folk and popular traditions and solidify mainline belief systems that integrated safely with the governing culture. In these situations the hyped up rhetoric of mail-order mysticism becomes a powerful alternative for self development and an aid in keeping transmissions intact from more developed lines of practice. It also helped that De Laurence was selling some of the same source materials based on the Golden Dawn system that Echols would draw on during his time in prison.*

Encountering the advertisement in his grandmother’s tabloid magazine, in an environment of poverty and need paralleling those who found occult truths in the De Laurence Catalog, the desire for more helped to sink the anchor deep in Echols mind and, regardless of any lack of legitimacy in the ad, that desire was enough to form the core of his practice when the need for that hope was more dire.

Republishing the work of some of the best popular occultists from his time period, the material that the De Laurence Catalog provided formed a correspondence course focusing on the kind of applied comparative religion that Kripal discusses – including the esoteric domains of physical practices and energy work – encouraging experimentation with his ad-hoc inclusion of folk magic, spiritualism, Theosophy, ceremonial magic, yoga, mesmerism, hypnotism, self-help and everything in-between and on the side.

With its wide distribution and integration into pre-existing magico-religious and cultural traditions his catalog had a hand in fomenting the development of folk magic in the southern United States, urban folk magic across the U.S., popular Theosophy, New Age metaphysics, Pan-African mysticism, Black Nationalism, Afro-Caribbean traditions and changing the way traditional practices were performed in Nigeria and Ghana.(2) In the same way, Echols personal study framed as it was by false accusations from religious fundamentalists was open ended and allowed him to access whatever worked as opposed to what was dogmatically correct.

This is similar to what we see with the growth of Santa Muerte’s popular devotional tradition in the Americas, where those who have found faith in the Beautiful Girl are often at odds with mainstream religious organizations and have sought solace in alternative spiritual focal points. When their search for spiritual empowerment intermixes with a crisis moment they often begin a new life as an ardent devotee.(4)

For those who would scoff at contemporary mass market occultism, Damien Echols offers another reminder that these ideas can lay seeds that have a widespread and often unnoticed effect on our contemporary culture and individual lives. Encountered in the most mundane, everyday situations – when their potentials are realized in the right set and setting – when one walks through the gate of trauma – the outcomes can go well beyond cultural curiosity.

They can even become the blossoming root of High Magick.

(1) https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/damein-echols-west-memphis-three-high-magick-758311/
(2) https://www.dailygrail.com/2012/12/the-mysterious-influence-of-one-human-mind/
(3) http://cosmologicsmagazine.com/jeffrey-j-kripal-the-super-natural/
(4) https://skeletonsaint.com

*Special thanks to Michael M. Hughes for pointing out that Echols work was larger based within the Golden Dawn system! 

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