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Read an excerpt from 'Occult America'

Learn more about mysticism and its roots in U.S. history from this book by Mitch Horowitz.

Chapter seven
"The Return of the Secret Teachings" 


In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate, and the wonderful facts which he relates, soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind; and, bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery.. —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Reference librarians had gotten accustomed to the hulking young man with the penetrating eyes and unstylishly long hair. Each day he entered the cavernous reading room of the New York Public Library and requested books that few others did: old works of esoteric lore, Hebrew Kabala, Hellenic mythology, Pythagorean mathematics, papyrus transcriptions, and the like. Day by day he sat silently, combing through curious volumes with clockwork precision.

It was the mid-1920s, the era of big money, bootlegged gin, and the Charleston—pleasures for which the precocious twenty-five-year-old cared little. Rather, the amateur scholar and sometime banking clerk was on a mission: to save the ancient wisdom teachings from obscurity in a world that he believed was going ethically illiterate.

He bore the stately name of Manly P. Hall. And though to many the young man laboring over ancient tomes might have seemed just one more eccentric who passed daily through the library’s great doors, the book he was preparing would become one of the most unusual and accomplished studies of esoteric lore and literature in modern history.

The Real “Know- How”
In the years following World War I, when Theosophy and New Thought had directed fresh attention to occult philosophy and “secrets of the ages,” a bevy of self-styled mystics and turbaned “scholars” produced thick works purporting to unlock hidden doctrines. Many were patchwork affairs, pieced together from Renaissance-era occult works, academic tracts on myth and symbol, and guides to folklore. The Chicago occult dealer L. W. de Laurence produced one of the most popular in 1919 with his Great Book of Magical Art, Hindoo Magic & Indian Occultism, an amalgam of pirated prose, clipped-and-pasted images, and muddled if sometimes earnest attempts at distilling Eastern religious practice and myth. Mail-order ads tantalized readers with The Real "Know-How" of OCCULT, SPIRITUAL & MYSTIC FORMULAE, as went a typical notice for the hoodoo-house author Lewis de Claremont.

Amid these forgotten offerings stands one study that eluded the empty promises of the day—a virtuoso guide to ancient and occult philosophies whose range and depth surpassed the holdings of many respected libraries. It was called by a breathless title: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC OUTLINE OF MASONIC, HERMETIC, QABBALISTIC AND ROSICRUCIAN SYMBOLICAL PHILSOPHY—Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of the Ages. Or, as it became more simply known: The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Had it come from a retired classics professor or aged English antiquarian, the book might have been less surprising though still impressive. But it came from no such source. The Secret Teachings of All Ages was privately published in 1928 by the self-taught spiritual scholar Manly P. Hall, when he was twenty-seven years old.

From the start, The Secret Teachings was almost impossible to classify. Written and compiled on an Alexandrian scale, its hundreds of entries shone a rare light on some of the most fascinating and little-understood aspects of myth, religion, cosmology, and philosophy. Its breadth of subjects could astound: ancient mathematics; alchemical formulas; Hermetic doctrine; pagan rites; Hebrew number mysticism; the geometry of ancient Egypt; Native American myths; the uses of cryptograms; an analysis of the Tarot; the symbols of Masonry and Rosicrucianism; the esotericism of the Shakespearean dramas—these were just a few of Hall’s topics. Initially bound in tabletop-sized dimensions, The Secret Teachings featured myriad illustrations, charts, tables, and diagrams, with varying rows of text and inset type, making the volume as jarring to the eye as a page of Babylonian Talmud. For students and enthusiasts of the arcane, the book was like an answered prayer. It sold tens of thousands of copies, often for more than $100, all out of sight of mainstream critics and booksellers, making it one of the most popular “underground” works in American history.

Hall’s volume seemed the product of a whole lifetime—and a rare one at that—yet his twenty- seven years provided few clues to his virtuosity. He attended no university; his roots in rural Canada and the American West offered him little obvious exposure to higher learning; his youthful letters betrayed no special fluency with the complexities of the ancient world; his family tried to steer him into the more practical career of selling fire insurance; and one of his first forays into professional life was as a banking clerk—the “outstanding event of which,” he recalled, “was witnessing a man depressed over investment losses take his life.”

Even a generation later, the question reasserts itself on nearly every page of The Secret Teachings: How did this large-framed young man with little traditional education produce the last century’s most original and masterly book on the esoteric wisdom of antiquity?

A Philosopher’s Progress
During his life, Hall refused to discuss more than the most cursory aspects of his background. Although he wrote many thousands of articles, lectures, and pamphlets and dozens of books, his sole published biographical record is a thin volume called Growing Up with Grandmother, a tribute to the woman he called “Mrs. Arthur Whitney Palmer.” (Her name was Florence Palmer.) Often written in hagiographic singsong anecdotes, the pamphlet-sized work is notable for what it reveals about Hall’s reticence to broach virtually any intimacy of his childhood. Born at the close of the Victorian Era, he was a man marked by a period in which the details of private life were closely held.

Hall was born in the rural city of Peterborough, Ontario, on March 18, 1901, to a father who was a dentist and a mother who was a chiropractor. Hall’s parents had separated while his mother was still pregnant, and the infant soon came into the care of his maternal grandmother. When the boy was two years old, Florence Palmer brought him to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where they lived for several years. It could only have been a lonely existence: A sickly child, Hall saw little formal schooling and spent long hours reading voraciously on his own. His contact with other children was limited. But there was a spark of some indefinable brilliance in the youth, which his grandmother nurtured on trips to museums in Chicago and New York.

For a time, the boy and his grandmother lived in a high-end Chicago hotel, Palmer House, which was owned by relatives. There, Hall was mostly in the company of grown-ups, including a traditionally garbed Hindu maître d’hôtel, who taught him adult etiquette. Later on, the bookish adolescent was enrolled— briefy, to his almost certain relief—in a military school.

Tragedy struck early: His grandmother died when he was sixteen. He traveled to California to be with his mother and came under the influence of a self-styled Rosicrucian community in Oceanside, California. He lived at the Rosicrucian Fellowship, where he formed close relationships but also grew suspicious of the order’s claims to ancient wisdom. Soon he moved on his own to Los Angeles, where he fell in with metaphysical seekers and discussion groups. In 1920, Hall began a precocious career in public speaking, giving an address on reincarnation in a small room above a Santa Monica bank. Word spread of the boy wonder’s mastery of arcane and metaphysical subject matter. He began addressing a liberal evangelical congregation called the Church of the People, and quickly rose to the rank of minister.

In 1923, the Los Angeles Times seemed positively smitten with the twenty-two-year-old, covering his lectures and sermons in several articles. “He is tall,” the Times reported on May 28, “with unusually broad shoulders—football shoulders—but he wears his curly, dark brown hair bobbed like a girl’s, and even his face and eyes convey an almost feminine impression.” In a practice that he would maintain for the rest of his life, the youth lectured from a wooden mission-style chair, enrapturing his listeners without physical movement or gesticulation. He promoted classical ethics as a balm for the torpor of contemporary life. “Let us remember, also,” the young idealist told congregants,

that our main problem with the criminal is to seek to adjust his motives and mode of thinking so that the same force and persistence which he uses to accomplish evil deeds will be turned to the accomplishment of worthy purposes.... Our hard pavements and stool lunch counters have a tendency, by playing havoc with the nervous constitution of man, to produce thieves, libertines, and murderers.

Hall had already begun attracting benefactors and traveling abroad in search of lost knowledge. Yet his early letters from Japan, Egypt, China, and India were, in many respects, ordinary. They contained little of the eye-opening detail or wonder of discovery that one finds in the writings of other early-twentieth-century seekers encountering the East for the first time, such as legendary British soldier and writer T. E. Lawrence.

Like a bolt from the blue, however, a short work of immense power emerged from the young Hall—a book that seemed to prefigure the greater work that would come. In 1922, Hall produced a brief, luminescent gem on the mystery schools of antiquity, Initiates of the Flame. With ease and gracefulness, Hall wrote across a spectrum of subjects, describing Egyptian rites, Arthurian myths, and the practices of alchemy, revealing the psychological underpinnings of arcane methods. “Man has been an alchemist from the time when first he raised himself,” Hall wrote. “. . . Experiences are the chemicals of life with which the philosopher experiments.”

The book inaugurated Hall’s collaboration with illustrator J. Augustus Knapp, whose watercolor plates would later run throughout The Secret Teachings. For the rest of Hall’s career, his friend Knapp’s work elicited cheers and groans among readers. Knapp’s paintings were fanciful, Disneyesque, minutely detailed imaginings of ancient events, both playful yet surprisingly subtle, like the work of an occult Norman Rockwell.

A Fitful Idealist

Like many young artists, Hall felt himself a stranger to his times. He fretted over the Jazz Age giddiness and the hunger for money that he saw firsthand in his brief career at a New York brokerage firm before the Great Depression. In addition to witnessing a distraught investor’s suicide, he recalled an elderly bookkeeper who was discovered dead at his desk after nearly a half century on the job. During a dangerous flu epidemic, Hall remembered, people trudged into work as though “devotion to the business was the symbol of true character.”

The numbing influence Hall detected in high commerce was not all that disturbed him. He bemoaned the phony “Mahatmas” who had begun hanging out shingles in large American cities—turbaned figures like Chicago’s de Laurence who extolled Tibetan wisdom and “Hindoo” magic, often without having ventured beyond American shores. Hall later wrote:

Self-appointed teachers arose without adequate backgrounds, knowledge or credentials, and swept through the nation.... Glamorous ladies in thousand-dollar evening gowns, waving ostrich-plumed fans, taught “prosperity” to the hungry poor at twenty-five dollars a course.... Mysterious swamis, yogis, and the like entranced audiences of from two to four thousand at a meeting...

Nor did he find succor in mainline religious scholarship, which, in his eyes, treated esoteric and primeval religions as museum pieces, not living philosophies with relevance for contemporary people. “With very few exceptions,” Hall wrote, “modern authorities downgraded all systems of idealistic philosophy and the deeper aspects of comparative religion. Translations of classical authors could differ greatly, but in most cases the noblest thoughts were eliminated or denigrated ...and scholarship was based largely upon the acceptance of a sterile materialism.” Indeed, one of the period’s most influential academic studies of myth and arcana, The Golden Bough, disparaged the meaning of its own subject matter: “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

Barren religious scholarship, fake gurus, worship of mammon—wherever Hall looked, he was dismayed. The Secret Teachings of All Ages took shape in his mind as a way to reestablish a vital, living connection to the search for meaning that he believed characterized the academies of the ancient world. To signal how his approach differed from materialist scholarship, Hall quoted his philosophic hero, Francis Bacon, early in the massive work: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

The “Great Book” Appears
Hall’s world travels in the early 1920s gave him some degree of proximity to the monuments and philosophies of antiquity. But the materials that finally made it possible for him to complete his book of wisdom were those he discovered in the great Western libraries just opening to widespread public use. Through the influence of benefactors—including General Sir Francis Younghusband, who led Britain’s invasion of Tibet at the turn of the century—the budding scholar gained access to some of the rarest manuscripts at the British Museum. While living in New York in the mid-1920s, Hall found a resource to rival Britain’s own: the vast beaux arts reading room of the New York Public Library.

Sitting at one of the huge oak tables that line the cathedral-size space, Hall toiled over books of myth and symbol just steps away from the Times Square razzmatazz that represented everything he chafed against. He amassed a bibliography of nearly one thousand entries. The books he requested were always available—at once a reminder and by-product of the general lack of interest in the topics he loved.

By mid-1928, having presold subscriptions for almost a thousand copies (and printing 1,200 more), Hall published what would become known as the “Great Book”—and it has never gone out of print since. While self-published and self-financed, and invisible to mainstream scholars, the book soared on the wings of enthusiastic reports from readers. Hall received a letter from the Crown Prince of Sweden praising the work. Freemasonic lodges everywhere bought copies, and to this day the book remains a standard in Masonic libraries. Its admirers ranged from General John J. Pershing, the ramrod-straight commander of American forces in World War I, to, a generation later, Elvis Presley, who possessed his own signed copy.

To enthusiasts of the esoteric, The Secret Teachings solidified Hall’s reputation as a scholar of mythic proportions. And it gave the young writer new clout in attracting benefactors. Hall collected enough money from his growing list of acolytes—including the wife of an L.A. oil tycoon and highly placed Freemasons (Hall joined Masonry himself in 1954)—to open an art-deco faux-Mayan campus in 1934 in the Griffith Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Calling it the Philosophical Research Society, or PRS, Hall fancifully spoke of modeling his organization after the ancient mystery school of Pythagoras. More practically, PRS provided a cloistered setting where Hall spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and assembling a remarkable collection of antique texts and devotional objects. His small campus eventually grew to include a fifty-thousand-volume library with catwalks and floor-to-ceiling shelves; a three-hundred-seat auditorium with a thronelike chair for the master teacher; a bookstore; a warehouse for the many titles he wrote and sold; a wood-paneled office (complete with a walk-in vault for antiquities); and a sunny stucco courtyard. Designed in an unusual pastiche of Mayan, Egyptian, and art-deco motifs, PRS became one of the most popular destinations for L.A.’s spiritually curious, and remains so.

After Hall’s death on August 29, 1990, the idyllically  self-contained campus barely survived simultaneous legal battles— one with Hall’s widow, who claimed it owed her money, and another with an eccentric con artist who, in the estimation of a civil-court judge, had befriended an ailing octogenarian Hall to pilfer his antiques and assets. Hall signed over his estate to this shadowy “trustee” just six days before his passing. As will shortly be seen, the timing and other circumstances rendered Hall’s death sufficiently suspicious for Los Angeles police to label the case as “open” for several years after.

The financial damage from these stormy years was irreversible. Following a protracted court battle in which a superior-court judge nullified Hall’s will and turned over control of PRS from his dubious beneficiary to a group of longtime supporters, the nonprofit organization faced a crushing $2 million legal debt. To survive, it was forced to sell off some of its most cherished items—including 234 alchemical, Hermetic, and Rosicrucian manuscripts to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Other valuables, including 214 rare manuscripts that Hall had spent a lifetime amassing, were delivered as part of a settlement to his widow, who reportedly earmarked them for sale to a European collector.

Its holdings permanently diminished, PRS regained fiscal health beginning in 1993 under a new president, Obadiah Harris, the man who had once been a protégé to Science of Mind founder Ernest Holmes. Harris was now a religious scholar and respected university administrator. He took the job for no salary. Under Harris, PRS established a state-accredited “distance learning” university, which granted graduate degrees. The school fulfilled a goal that Hall had spoken of toward the end of his life. Through both good times and bad, PRS kept in print the sumptuous, oversize editions of Hall’s “Great Book.”

Beginning in 2001, PRS partnered with a trade publisher to create a newly designed “Reader’s Edition” of The Secret Teachings of All Ages, a compact, textually unabridged version of Hall’s original.* Within a few years, the Reader’s Edition had entered more than sixteen printings, probably reaching more readers than The Secret Teachings had throughout its previous lifetime. More than a decade after his death, Hall had not only eluded the obscurity that time held in store for most of his contemporaries but had became one of the few esoteric figures from the twentieth century whose work grew in reach in the next.

A Private World
Hall wrote scores of other books over the course of his life and composed literally thousands of pamphlets and articles. He is estimated to have delivered about eight thousand lectures— typically given without notes, recited with crystalline precision. Yet for all his output, Hall remained a riddle to those around him. Following his Sunday-morning lectures at PRS, he would promptly exit the auditorium from a side door, enter a car, and be driven back to his nearby house.

*This edition was published by the present author

A first marriage in 1930 ended with his wife’s suicide a little more than a decade later. He was into middle age in 1950 when he remarried, to a petite German–American divorcée, Marie Bauer. His second bride harbored a deep interest in the occult and an all-consuming belief that a buried vault in Williamsburg, Virginia, contained the secret mystical manuscripts of her and Hall’s hero, the philosopher Francis Bacon. (Marie and her husband also considered Bacon the hidden genius behind the Shakespearean plays—a theory that Hall took considerable efforts to defend in his “Great Book.”) Possessed of a mercurial temper and fierce determination, Marie Bauer was, in the eyes of some, a formidable equal to her imposing husband. To others, she raised the question of Hall’s choice of companions. Marie was known for sharp mood swings and a dictatorial manner toward friends and guests who would venture near her husband. Two years after Hall’s death, two acolytes of Marie’s ideas were convicted of trespassing in Virginia’s Bruton Parish churchyard, where they conducted an illegal dig for the mythical Bacon vault.

Unlike his histrionic wife and the many spiritual teachers who flocked to Hollywood, Hall showed relatively little interest in attracting publicity or hobnobbing with movie stars. Later in Hall’s life, his  best-known friend was the folksinger and balladeer Burl Ives, famous for his rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.” Ives was also a fellow Freemason. Hall rarely involved himself in the movie business, though in 1938 he did contribute the story to a forgettable murder yarn with an astrological theme: When Were You Born? In a segment at the fllm’s opening, a young Hall looks into the camera and explains to the audience the meaning of the zodiac signs.

In those instances when Hall did succumb to Hollywood glitz, the results were more humorous than glamorous. In 1940, an entertainment columnist reported that Hall—“famous Los Angeles student of occult sciences”—hypnotized actor Bela Lugosi for a death scene in a low-budget Lugosi–Boris Karloff vehicle called Black Friday. Universal Pictures trumpeted Lugosi’s portrayal of a man suffocating to death in a closet as “the flrst scene ever fllmed of a player under the influence of hypnotism.” The movie trailer briefly showed an angular, mustached Hall sitting over Lugosi and waving his hands across the actor’s face in the style of Mesmeric “passes” found in the books of Andrew Jackson Davis. Entertainment pages reported that Lugosi, hypnotically convinced he was in mortal danger, wrecked the movie set in a desperate fight to escape. The affair gave rise to an urban legend that Hall had hypnotized Lugosi before his legendary performance as Dracula.

Off the movie set, the Hungarian actor and Californian occultist became close friends. The two men bonded over their shared love for classical music, which they listened to together on phonograph records. In 1955, the seventy-three-year-old Lugosi wed his fifth bride at Hall’s Hollywood home. Newspaper photos showed an ashen- faced Lugosi—the very image of Martin Landau’s portrayal years later in the movie Ed Wood—clinking champagne glasses with his thirty-nine-year-old bride, a  cutting-room clerk who met the actor while he was being treated for drug addiction. When it came to friendship, celebrity glamour was no requisite for entering Hall’s world.

The Mystic in Decline

As an old man, Hall continued to sound much like he did as a young one. A year before his death, he fretted to a reporter that colleges produce “financially and academically successful students, but not good persons. They don’t teach honor and integrity.” At times he could disappoint New  Age– era acolytes with chestnuts like: “Old-fashioned common sense is one of the most uncommon things we have.” After Hall’s death, the

Los Angeles Times

offered an austere tribute: “Followers say he believed in reincarnation and in a mixture of the Golden Rule and living in moderation.” In this sense, the prodigious scholar had fashioned the study of occult ideas into a search for ethical living.

If the point of all higher knowledge, as Hall saw it, was to refine and improve a person’s life, his own existence would have to be judged a failure as often as a success. In his later years, Hall often slipped into a routine of doing that which he simply knew how to do: delivering another lecture, writing another book, and issuing another pamphlet. In an address at PRS in the closing years of his life, Hall sought to put forth a major statement on the social, political, and environmental threats facing America and the world. The physical frame and confident phrasing were still that of Hall, speaking extemporaneously for a long stretch, rarely shifting in his thronelike chair, and never losing a beat. Yet the content was tedium itself, filled with political bromides such as the need for environmental stewardship and the caretaking of democracy—points with which no sensible person could argue or fail to anticipate.

In the late 1980s, Hall appeared to lose his personal judgment and his ethical compass. He turned over all of his household and business affairs, and even his and PRS’s financial assets, to a  self-professed shamanic healer and reincarnate of Atlantis named Daniel Fritz. More prosaically, Fritz was known as a computer marketer,  health-products entrepreneur, and, in the eyes of Hall’s friends and colleagues, a grifter. Colleagues say Hall disregarded—and in one case even fired—longtime employees and associates who questioned the relationship. Even a seasoned superior-court judge found Fritz worthy of disdain. “Did Mr. Fritz effectively steal from Mr. Hall?” said Judge Harvey A. Schneider upon invalidating Hall’s belatedly amended will. “I think the answer is clearly yes. The evidence is so overwhelming that Mr. Fritz exerted undue influence over Mr. Hall...the whole thing just doesn’t pass any reasonable person’s sniff test.”

Ill and dangerously overweight in his final years, Hall had apparently bought in to Fritz’s claims as a mystical healer and his Barnum-like promises to spread the aged scholar’s work across the world. One friend observed that Fritz did help Hall drop his weight from three hundred to two hundred pounds through diet and exercise, and relieved his painful constipation with the help of colonics. But in a troubling move, the eighty-nine-year-old Hall signed his estate over to Fritz less than a week before he died. It is tempting to speculate that the aged Hall suffered from senility, yet he delivered a typically  well- attended lecture just days before his death. It was a death that Hall’s widow, Marie, stoked intense concerns over, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1994: “I firmly believe it was murder.”

She wasn’t the only one. Investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department found the circumstances suspicious: Hall was alone with Fritz and Fritz’s son when he died; hours passed before the death was reported; the body appeared to have been moved from the outdoors to inside; and there was the strange timing of the new will. Charges were never pursued, and, after Fritz’s death from a rare form of cancer in 2001 and his son’s death two years later from an autoimmune disorder linked to AIDS, the file was closed on Hall’s death. The cause was listed as heart failure.

Aged, obese, and suffering from a strained heart, Manly P. Hall was probably not the victim of foul play, as friends feared, but his final days were still puzzling. One longtime friend of Hall’s wondered how someone like Fritz could so suddenly grow “unduly influential over a man noted for his independence of thought and action.” Hall’s intimate companions—the shifty Fritz, the erratic Marie, the sometimes sycophantic staffers—all seemed to point to a man who proved a poor judge of where to place trust. The wisdom that Hall had cultivated his whole life appeared to abandon him when its fortification was most needed. As though prophesying his own decline, Hall wrote in the PRS Journal in 1986: “Noble thoughts out of context lost most of their protective meanings.”

For all his emphasis on the practicality of ancient wisdom, Hall’s life, in some respects, was a case in point of a truth not found in his writings: A person can accumulate the “wisdom of the ages”—gleaning knowledge from the greatest books, lectures, and research—with none of it penetrating one’s self. That perplexity of human nature, a puzzle at the heart of all ethical philosophies, seems never to have occurred to him.

The Enduring Value of The Secret Teachings

“Every writer,” literary critic Irving Howe once noted, “...must be read and remembered for his best work.” So it is with Manly P. Hall. The depth of Hall’s early achievement remains undiminished—and throws an observer back to the question: How did a modest young man complete what can be considered a one-of-a-kind codex to the ancient occult and esoteric traditions of the world, all by age twenty-seven, with little traditional education? To read Hall’s “Great Book” is to experience a readerly joy rarely associated with ordinary compendiums of intellectual or religious history—its depth, breadth, and detail are, simply put, not ordinary and not easily understood.

In an obscure astrology magazine of the 1940s, an Indian journalist wrote a personal profile of Hall, which held an interesting, if somewhat fanciful, passage:

The question is constantly asked on all sides as to how Mr. Hall can know and remember so much on so many different and difficult subjects.... Perhaps a direct answer to this constant question may be discovered in the following episode in the life of Mr. Hall himself: The first question Mr. Claude Bragdon, American mystic,* asked Mr. Hall after their first meeting in New York in 1937 was:

“Mr. Hall, how do you know so much more about the mathematics of Pythagoras than even the authorities on the subject?” Standing beside both these dear American friends of mine, I was wondering with trepidation in my heart what reply Mr. Hall would make.

“Mr. Bragdon,” answered Mr. Hall quickly, unhesitatingly, and with a simultaneous flash of smile in his eyes and on his lips, “you are an occult philosopher. You know that it is easier to know things than to know how one knows those things.”

*Bragdon was not a mystic but rather an accomplished architect and publisher, who served as a prod and muse to many twentieth-century metaphysical writers

To the question of how Hall achieved what he did, his most fervent admirers suggest that he was born with knowledge from other lifetimes; others believe he had a photographic memory. In the end, perhaps one can only conclude such a question with still more questions. But the accomplishment of The Secret Teachings is finally this: It was the only serious, comprehensive codex of its era that took the world of myth and symbol on its own terms. Hall peered into sources that many historians refused to consider—from Masonic and Rosicrucian tracts to alchemical and astrological works—and recent scholarship has justified some of his historical conclusions. Up through the late twentieth century, most classical scholars would have considered Hall’s descriptions of oracular rites at Delphi as near fairy tale, with their portraits of soldiers and statesmen visiting an intoxicated trance medium seated on a tripodlike throne above a smoky crevice in a cave. Yet Hall’s portrayal, based on esoteric source literature, has since been validated by early-twenty-first century geological and archaeological finds at Delphi.

Hall was not a writer who sifted through and repeated accounts that others had written. His chapters on Pythagorean mathematics displayed graceful ease over vast complexities, capturing the essence and splendor the ancient sage had discovered in the geometry of the natural world. Likewise, Hall cataloged and analyzed the complex symbols and ideas of alchemy, the arcane practice that formed the basis for modern chemistry.

While The Secret Teachings of All Ages has always been ignored within academia, it influenced some who chose more-traditional scholarly paths than Hall’s. The University of Chicago historian of ancient religion Mircea Eliade, whose work brought new respect to the study of Gnostic and esoteric belief systems in the twentieth century, confided to friends that as a young man it was Hall’s book that awoke in him the love of myth and symbol.

Hall was able to reach hungry young minds because he never lost his own sense of youthful idealism and wonder over the esoteric cultures he observed. He clarified ancient ideas that could otherwise seem beyond reach, writing not as a distant judge but as a lover of the rites and mysteries embodied in the old ways.