5 Historical Figures More Into the Paranormal Than a Modern Bushwick Witch
Especially if you live in a “bohemian” (read: heavily gentrified) neighborhood like my own of Bushwick, Brooklyn, chances are that you’ve noticed a remarkable swell of modern occultists. There’s probably more Wiccans on my local dating apps than there are Catholics, and while other local businesses fail, a nearby “witch shop” is booming. The study of the spooky is back in full force these days.
To be honest, who can blame someone for trying to add a little more mystery into their life? When the answers to everything require only a bend of the elbow, 21st century life is definitely lacking a little bit in the wonder and awe department. Do I think crystals can bring you riches and love? Absolutely not. But it’s a whole lot more exciting to imagine your bank account in the grip of some moon goddess than the Fed and the undulations of the S&P 500. They’re also in good company; that’s because some historical figures you might know better for other accomplishments were doing a little hoodoo on the side as well.
Here are five in particular who had a magical side hustle…
Sir Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton’s probably known best as a mathematician and physicist, two jobs that would suggest someone with high disdain for magic, rather than an active practitioner. It’s like someone agreeing that the world revolves around the sun, but that the sun is also a mystical fire god. For someone that occasionally, depending on opinion, is crowned the father of modern science, it feels almost unbecoming. Which is partly why his relatives hid away his extensive occult writings for centuries after his death, wanting him to be known more as the gravity guy than an aspiring sorcerer.
Newton was, though, fascinated with the occult, particularly the halfway mixture between science and magic known as alchemy. In the dark ages. This wasn’t a passing curiosity, either. Of all Newton’s surviving work, only about 30 percent is scientific or mathematical. He wrote twice that amount about religion and alchemy (the remainder is about his work at the Royal Mint). He even, by his own admission, thought that religion and alchemy were his “greater” studies. Debatable, but there’s also evidence that his open-mindedness led to some of his most significant scientific discoveries, maybe a good argument for modern STEM majors not to be such massive wet blankets.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor as well as an author, and his most enduring hero, Sherlock Holmes, is one of literature’s great skeptics and logicians. If you assumed his creator turned up his nose similarly at any extraordinary explanations of the unexpected, though, you’d be dead wrong. Doyle was a spiritualist, which meant something different back then than today, when it mostly just refers to earth-shatteringly horny men wearing seven to eight rings.
Spiritualists of the time believed that the human spirit survived death, which must have been comforting for Doyle in case of any fuck-ups at his doctor day job. What separated them from your classic soul, afterlife, heaven-and-hell folks was that they were also very into attempting seances to say “what’s up” to said spirits. Doyle even received an invitation to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was basically the Bilderberg group for people trying to summon demons. He turned it down, which is surprising, because however strongly you believe in that stuff, seems like an enemy you don’t want on your list.
William Butler Yeats
While we’re on the Hermetic Order, Doyle had a contemporary who threw himself in head first. The famous poet William Butler Yeats was a bona-fide obsessive when it came to the supernatural, writing, “The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” Chill out, dude. Even the devil thinks you’re coming off a little desperate.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn wasn’t even his first occult membership. He was kicked out of another, the Theosophical Society, for trying to create ghosts. He had a notable feud with infamous boogeyman Aleister Crowley, too. The basis of this feud? Literally the age-old battle between good and evil. Yeats was concerned that if Crowley was able to learn sorcery’s deepest secrets, he would unleash a horrific fate upon humankind. These two dudes truly thought they were living a real life D&D campaign.
Okay, so this one is less than surprising. If you’ve ever seen any of H.R. Giger’s art, you likely didn’t come away thinking, “This guy seems well-adjusted.” When you make your living bringing literal nightmares to life, you’re already walking parallel to the left-hand path. The dude straight up lived the life of a haunted man from a horror story. Once, when he was told that his visions were “just his mind,” he deadface responded, “That is what I am afraid of.” Go off, you deeply disturbed king.
Giger reportedly never personally practiced the occult, but was a stalwart student of it. He was introduced to occultism and its well-known figures like H.P. Lovecraft through his friend Sergius Golowin, who, based on his name, was probably a shapeshifting demon. Giger’s reticence to get into the unpleasant nooks and crannies comes partly from the fact that, according to his second wife, he was a huge scaredy-cat who was freaked out by real corpses and, um, meat. Meanwhile, he was publishing books literally titled Necronomicon.
Pointy titty pop icon Madonna is a contemporary celebrity who got herself way into some decidedly unorthodox teachings. Specifically, she developed a fascination with Kabbalah, a school of Jewish mysticism that’s less well known than traditions like keeping kosher or eating shitty flat bread for a week. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s not especially surprising: You can understand that us Jews might want to keep any magic we’re doing under wraps given that (most) people just stopped thinking we eat babies. Madonna thrust it briefly back into the spotlight after discussing it in some interviews, and we have it to thank for a somewhat insane and deeply spectacular Super Bowl halftime show that was definitely not what Bridgestone Tires signed up for.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.