This post doesn’t represent a completed project, but is rather the beginning of one. While leading a discussion group on the Sefer Yetzirah recently, I was struck by many of the astrological details in that ancient text. This led me to start seeking information on the use of astrology in traditional Kabbalah. This has been a frustrating search with many dead ends, but I have found some good clues and interesting places to start digging.

The Western Mystery Tradition, Western esotericism, occultism — what are all of these things, and why are so many people talking about them? It can be tough to wrap your head around how much of our culture is steeped in ideas we call occult. Everything from religion to pop culture to (gasp!) science are heavily influenced by esoteric, occult traditions that have waxed and waned in dominance in the West.

When we talk about somebody completely new to Western esotericism, we could be talking about starting from absolutely zero, or starting from a place where you might know a little bit and are seeking a specific practice. I’ll address a few different levels of newness, but if nothing on this list hits what you’re looking for, then post a question in the comments and I’ll help you find the right resources.

Starting from Absolute Zero

If you’re here because your weird uncle keeps talking about magic like it’s real, or you’re wondering why the Reagans used an astrologer, or why Tarot cards show up in every single supernatural horror film, you are in the right place. The occult, especially Western esotericism, is a really central, pervasive element in most of Western culture. In popular media, it’s frequently misrepresented and unfortunately often maligned.

To learn more about the major traditions in the occult, it’s hard to do better than Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney. This book covers a number of ancient and modern traditions and will hopefully give you a good clue how they all tie together. Here are some of the topics you’ll learn about:

  • Gnosticism, or the mystical and “occult” side of Christianity
  • Kabbalah, or esoteric Judaism
  • Magic
  • Witchcraft
  • Alchemy

This book gives you a great foundation so you can figure out what you want to dig into next. I would recommend next checking out either The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels or Occult America by Mitch Horowitz. Pagels will teach you about the early suppression of unpopular ideas by religious authorities, while Horowitz will teach you that esoteric and occult ideas are more prevalent than you ever suspected.

That’s Cool, but I Want to be a Witch/Wizard/Tarot Reader/Psychic/Jedi Master!

One step at a time! You have to learn to walk before you can run. Once you start learning about the occult and all of the interesting people who have made it a part of their lives, you might want to actually start practicing. In most occult communities, we refer to those who read about the occult without actually using any of the techniques as armchair magicians. When you decide it’s time to get out of the armchair and see this stuff for yourself, the first step is to learn how to meditate.

Witches and devils riding broomsMeditation is the central technique of Western esotericism. Occult practices usually involve various trance states or receptive mental modes that can only be entered once you know how to meditate. There are a ton of introductory meditation books, so I asked some of my most trusted fellow practitioners what they’d recommend, and here are some of their answers.

“Geeze, that’s a tough one!” says Matt Anthony, my co-host on My Alchemical Bromance. He recommends these two books, saying, “No woo in those. They are very approachable.”

“Hard to answer!” says Chuck Dunning, the author of Contemplative Masonry. He warns that many introductory books on the subject will be based in specific religions or traditions. His recommendation is The Meditative Mind by Daniel Goleman.

Given the difficulty of finding a good introductory book on meditation, consider finding a local meditation class. Check with a new age shop or local religious groups for help. There are also many local meditation groups listed on

But I Already Know How to Meditate

Good, you know how to meditate. At this point, you’ve got the most basic skill you’ll need to learn any esoteric or occult techniques. This doesn’t mean that anything is going to get easier after this, but it will get weirder and far more interesting.

A woodcut with prayerThe next step is to learn visualization. Many introductory texts will discuss this, but learning how to use the power of the imagination is key to success in any occult practice, from divination to sorcery to the art of memory. Chuck Dunning strongly recommends Seeing With The Mind’s Eye: The History, Techniques and Uses of Visualization by Michael Samuels. Imagery is such a key element to every tradition in Western esotericism that this step cannot be skipped.

Once you have done some introductory reading, learned some meditation skills, and practiced visualization, you are ready for more specialized techniques. By this point, you probably have some ideas about what you want to try next, but in case you’re having trouble deciding, here are some of my favorites.

If you are interested in ceremonial magic, check out Modern Magick: Twelve Lessons in the High Magickal Arts by Donald Michael Kraig. Ignore the tacky cover. This book takes you step by step through ceremonial magic the way it’s been practiced since the late 19th century. It’s a great introduction to occult practice.

Perhaps you’re interested in Kabbalah, a very complex and old form of Jewish mysticism. This topic is huge, but you can get started with Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic by Perle Besserman.

If chaos magic interests you, check out the classic Liber Null & Psychonaut: An Introduction to Chaos Magic by Peter J. Carroll. You might also check out Condensed Chaos by Phil Hine, another highly-recommended classic.

Perhaps you’re interested in Wicca. This path isn’t part of my practice anymore, but when I was young I picked up an earlier edition of Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. I still see it recommended on lists of beginning Wicca books. If you’d like more recommendations, check this list of Wicca beginner books at The Pagan Life.

As with meditation, at this stage it can be a huge help to find like-minded people to practice with. If you can’t find a local group, you might be able to find an online discussion or study group. I was very fortunate early in my exploration to come across an excellent online group that worked through Kraig’s Modern Magick together.

Good luck with your journey. I hope that this list of books and resources is helpful to you, and if you have questions or more suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

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There are so many Tarot decks out there. There must be thousands, right? Tens of thousands? It’s not uncommon for collectors to have 80 or more decks. Once John Michael Greer showed me a huge crate full of dozens and dozens of decks that he and his wife had collected, and you’ll frequently find collectors with too many decks working to get rid of them on Facebook Tarot groups.

I really like Tarot. I have a few decks, but not as many as a collector. A deck catches my attention when it has an interesting approach to classic early 20th century esoteric Tarot themes, so when Taylor Bell showed me his new Sigil Arcanum Tarot, I was intrigued. This is not a typical Tarot deck – there aren’t even any people in it. Instead, it has a plain black background with vibrantly colored, abstract line art. You can tell right away that that the designs are inspired by the Tarot. They are mesmerizing.

Check out my interview with Taylor Bell on My Alchemical Bromance!

The Pips

The Minor Arcana of the Sigil Arcanum are presented as pips, but they are pips with secrets. In addition, instead of the traditional suits of Coins, Cups, Swords, and Staves, the pips are categorized into elements. The astrological symbols that are associated with each card are stylized and intertwined to create vivid sigils for each combination. The effects range from electrifying to hypnotic.

The Sigil Arcanum Tarot: Pips

In the 3 of Water, for example, Mercury and Cancer are intertwined in an intimate dance. Sometimes, the cards suggest movement or energy emblematic of the meanings behind the card. This is evident in the 2 of Fire, where Aries and Mars are superimposed into one sigil, while the two sigils seem to be straining to escape each other, symbolizing the hunger for growth.

The Court Cards

The Sigil Arcanum Tarot: Court CardsEach suit has four court cards — King, Queen, Jack, and Page — indicated by a single initial. Their design is more subdued and simple than the pips, but in their simplicity they still carry interesting meaning. Each suit is represented by a geometric symbol that corresponds to both suit and element. Atop this is a smaller symbol to indicate the card itself. Right away, this makes it easy to spot that the Queen of Fire symbolizes water in fire, for instance.

The Major Arcana

The Minor Arcana is filled with interesting design choices that definitely show that Taylor knows his way around a Tarot deck, but the Major Arcana is where the Sigil Arcanum really shines. These cards will make you think. Each Major Arcana is numbered with no title visible, and Justice is 8 while Strength is 11.

The Sigil Arcanum Tarot: Major ArcanaIn some, the meaning is pretty easy to see, though even with the stark designs, there are secrets to be revealed. In the Magician, you can see the symbol of Mercury and the four elements. The main figure is also giving the traditional “As above, so below” sign. However, when you look closely, there is more going on in this image — for instance, the sign of Saturn is held below.

Other Major Arcana are more complex and require some thought to really wrap your head around. One of my favorites is Temperance, represented in reds, purples, and blues in a geometric pattern. At first, this card left me puzzled, but it wasn’t long before I started to see meaning that had been embedded in the symbolism of this card.

Perfect for Tarot Students

I really like this deck. It’s not a deck that I will understand immediately, and that is great. There will be more insights coming out of it as I spend more time with it. It’s obvious that Taylor Bell didn’t create this deck for beginners. The symbolism is deep, profound, and sometimes just hinted at by the simplicity of the line work. It’s also a powerful tool for getting a better grip on the astrological symbolism behind Tarot.

The cards are well-constructed on sturdy stock. The printing is crisp and clear, and the black backgrounds are nice and rich. These cards are so black that the white edges of the cards can be a bit distracting. I think this could be fixed by edging the deck with black ink, and I’m going to try that with mine!

If you would like to get a copy of this deck, check it out on Kickstarter and lend your support!

Featured Card: The Lovers

The Lovers is the 7th card in the Major Arcana, so it’s number VI, because we start counting at zero with The Fool. As I frequently point out during tarot readings, every six is about love in the Tarot. Sometimes it’s not so obvious, such as with the Six of Swords, and sometimes it’s too obvious, such as when the name of the card is “The Lovers.” For this breakdown, let’s take a look at the Rider-Waite-Smith version of the card.

Tarot card: The Lovers

Symbolism in The Lovers

There is a lot going on in this card. Up top, we have the Sun, shining like crazy over the head of a serene flame-haired angel with outspread arms, purple robes, and red wings. Below, in the foreground, we see a naked woman and a naked man. They stand in front of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – complete with serpent – and the Tree of Life, respectively. There is space between them, and while the woman stares up at the heavens, the man stares at the woman. It appears that they reach for each other.

Uniting Opposites

The Lovers represent opposites within ourselves: two sides that we must reconcile before progressing to the next stage. Previously we have been addressing individual aspects while treating our Self as one unified thing, but by this card we start to see that this is not the case. We are not just one thing, but many fragments seeking wholeness.

Remeber the Hermetic axiom: “As above, so below.” As Creation is fragmented without, so too is our soul fragmented within. The Lovers is a reminder that part of our Great Work is to identify, join, and unify those fragments, assimilating them and fitting them together like puzzle pieces.

The Lovers can be seen as the union of The Emperor and The Empress, both symbols of authority that rule over different portions of our lives while also providing guidance in different areas. They mark a spot in the Tarot where we stop dealing with oscillating between opposites, and instead have the opposite parts of our nature working in unison.

This is also significant in the number six. Six is the first perfect number, a positive integer equal to the sum of its divisors. In this case, 1 × 2 × 3 = 6, just like 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Robert Place suggests that this should be seen as the union of the first male and first female principals into a whole.1

The Fallen World

The Lovers from the Gummy Bear TarotIf we look at The Lovers through the lens of Kabbalah, we are looking at the World before the Fall. The two figures are reminiscent of Adam and Eve, but they have not yet consumed the forbidden fruit and so they remain in their natural state, uncovered and unaware of their nudity. When they do eat, the world will enter its fallen state. However, the angel looming over has its eyes closed and stands at orens, appearing to give its blessing. The world needs to fall in order to be united. For the individual to practice the free will needed for the healing to happen, the self must fall further from the Divine.

From a Hermetic point of view, we are looking at the Divine Man and Divine Nature before their union, as described in Hermes’ gnostic vision in the Poimandres.2 In both cases, the unified being – through mystical marriage merged into one – is responsible for descending into a Cosmos in need of repair. The divine influence from the angel shows that this is Divine work – the Fall is divinely inspired. Indeed, both Man and Nature are agents of the Divine, and their work in the Cosmos is essential to the completion of the ongoing process of creation. This mystical marriage of opposites, both within and without, is central to the pursuit of the Great Work.

Forming the Divine Hermaphrodite

The alchemical Rebis, or Divine Hermaphrodite
The Lovers can also be approached from an alchemical point of view, and can be associated with the creation of the Rebis, or divine hermaphrodite. This is sometimes said to be the final stage of the Great Work.3 However, I find this interpretation to be troublesome, because The Lovers is so early in the cycle of the Major Arcana. If this card is about the creation of the Rebis, then why is so much turmoil and change ahead?

This step in the Fool’s Journey does represent an important milepost. As you can see in The Chariot, which follows this card, after the fragmented opposites are united, a whole new stage in the journey is next. The Lovers represents the assembly of the final tools needed by The Fool in order to become The Magician and face future challenges.

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  1. Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, and Robert Michael Place. The Alchemical Tarot. Thorsons, 1995. 83-4. 
  2. Copenhaver, Brian P. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995. 3-4. 
  3. Beyer, Catherine. “Rebis: the Result of the Great Work in Alchemy.” ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2019). 

I am now booking live online Tarot readings! You can click here to book a reading.

These readings will be done via Skype using my spiffy new video camera, and I’ll be using a variety of decks. They will typically be five or seven cards, depending on the topic and how deep we need to go.

Book a Tarot Reading Today!

Reverend Erik and the Picatrix

Reverend Erik and a new book, using his new webcam

Working with Unusual Decks

Today a Tarot deck is a fairly specific deck of cards. It has around 22 Greater Arcana, from The Fool through to the World, and then 56 Minor Arcana including the pips and 16 Court Cards. However, Tarot cards aren’t the only cards out there being used for divination, insight, or other non-game purposes. Let’s look at a few such decks that I use and enjoy.

In this episode of My Alchemical Bromance, Erik explores various interpretations and explanations of the soul in the wake of the death of his 19 year-old cat, Kublai Khan. This episode is personal, but hopefully it provides food for thought.