In the wake of writing about my Top 5 Favorite Novels, as well as my friend and author Jason Louv's 5 Best Books on Magick, I felt inspired to jot down my top five favorite tomes of the esoteric. Basically, if anyone were to come to me and want to know what 5 books they could read to begin their schooling of magic and occult practices specifically of the Western Mystery Tradition, these are the ones I would recommend. It is the ultimate starter pack of Initiation, in ol' Daniel's opinion. I normally count down to the number 1 slot in my "Top 5" lists, but in this case will be going in reverse as this is the order in which I would recommend the reading.
1 - Magic: Its Ritual, Power, and Purpose by W.E.Butler
W.E. Butler is perhaps the only occultist in the history of occultism that can pack a ton of information is so few words (ahem....that means most occultists are usually verbose!). It's a tiny book, but I have referred to it time and time again. Butler's Magic provides the most concise definition of magic and why it is even a necessary endeavor. According to Butler, magic is merely "the art of changing one's consciousness at will." See? It's not about shooting fireballs and wearing pointy hats. This book is a quick, simple read, yet the best foundation for any inspiring initiate to start with. But don't read it too fast! The quality of information in this tome is valuable beyond measure. It's a good foundation for the concepts one will need to fully understand before embarking on the path of initiation.
2 - The Training & Work of an Initiate by Dion Fortune
Perhaps the greatest teacher and practical esotericist of the modern age (IMHO) Dion Fortune was well known for initiating a magical battle to defend Britain against occult forces in WWII. Her prolific body of work encompasses both fiction and nonfiction, all of it dedicated to initiation in the Great Work. She is most known for The Mystical Qabalah, highly regard as one of the better explanations of the Tree of Life. Every serious student should dive into her entire portfolio, but a good start is Training & Work of an Initiate. Another short tome, this book is a detailed guidebook on how to prepare oneself for initiation into the the Mystery Traditions. The meat of this training manual is Fortune's early 20th Century British charm, expecting the initiate to be an individual with a high quality of character. She outlines a code of conduct, recommendations for academic study, and maps out the practical and philosophical framework for an initiate's prime goal: illumination. In a time where students of the occult are often attracted to chaos and liberating themselves from restriction, Fortune brings an old-fashioned approach of reverence to esotericism that I feel is highly needed in this day and age.
3 - Promethea by Alan Moore
After a good foundation of didactics in Butler's Magic and Fortune's Initiate, I would then recommend students to plunge themselves into the entire 5-volume graphic novel set of Promethea, written by Alan Moore and illustrated beautifully by J.H. Williams III. It's good to not only have a strong academic background in the Mystery Traditions, but to also explore the more creatively expressive side of the Art. The story revolves around the title character, who is an embodiment of imagination itself. Imagination is subject often neglected as a prime ingredient in a working magical practice. Moore and Williams deliver a gut-punch download creative insights into magic, the imaginal realms, Qabalah, and the spiritual state of our world. Moore himself is noted as a practicing magician himself, and though much of the philosophy of Promethea has a Crowley-esque bent to it (not one of my favorite occultists) the mastery of this work cannot be ignored. I learned more from reading this comic book than I did from a whole library of magical texts.
4 - A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism by Gareth Knight
Now for some thick reads to go even deeper into the Great Work! In the same school of Dion Fortune, Gareth Knight's A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism is one of the most detailed walk-throughs of the entirety of the Tree of Life, from ritual to philosophy, as well as incorporating the Tarot, astrology, numerology, Christian mysticism, and more. It took me years to fully study this massive text (originally in two volumes) and it remains my go-to source book for all things Qabalah. One has to be careful though, there are some out-dated viewpoints (which Knight later rescinded on) that can cause one to question the author's intentions. Read the Intro and Preface thoroughly in order to gain a full understanding of where he was coming from . . . all minds should be allowed to change their position, which is itself a great lesson of a true initiate. The greatest thing I have learned from Knight is that a true initiate should not be some woo-woo spiritual seeker who yearns to escape from reality, but a disciplined individual who lives a very basic and practical life based upon reality first and foremost. True esotercism is about living in the world, not being separate from it!
5 - The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall
After getting through all of that, I would recommend a student to then spend some time studying this classic work from Manly P. Hall, founder of The Philosophical Research Society. The Secret Teachings of All Ages is an outline of the Mystery Schools and their teachings ranging from Qabalah mystery schools, Hermetic practices, Rosicrucian philosophy, and Masonic symbolism. It has become the definitive historical compendium of the Western Mystery Tradition. Since the burning of the Library of Alexandria, much of the knowledge of the ancients was lost. The Mystery Schools have since tried to regain that knowledge through fragments and remnants of information that have barely survived religious and political persecution, as well as the ravages of time. First published in 1928, Manly himself said of the book, "The greatest knowledge of all time should be available to the twentieth century not only in the one shilling editions of the Bohn Library in small type and shabby binding, but in a book that would be a monument, not merely a coffin." Every student of these arts should know the history of the traditions they are trying to carry forward into the future.
There are so many great works to choose from and narrowing them down to only 5 was a tough job! If one wanted to continue their studies, I would recommend students to explore all of the works from any of the authors above, but also include such greats as Madame Blavatsky, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Elphas Levi, Israel Regardie, Col. C.R.F. Seymour, and of course the works of Plato. Enjoy the path to illumination!