Three silhouetted women standing in the snow. Via Flickr.

Cora L.V. Scott, nineteenth-century Spiritualist medium and teenage proto-celebrity, wore her hair in tight ringlets and never arrived at one of her in-demand public lectures without a white rose or large Gothic cross on her person. So we learn from Lucile Scott (who, though not a blood relation of Cora’s, is perhaps a spiritual one) in her book An American Covenant, which peers into the lives of five women and queer mystics from American history. During the 1850s and ’60s, on tour across the country, Cora Scott spoke with candor for the dead—or, rather, the dead spoke through her—about the moral, cultural, and political issues of the day. Evening after evening, crowds gathered to hear “truth, profound and articulate…pouring forth” from Cora, whose combination of traits—“feminine” mien, “masculine” command and priestliness—made her a “sort of divine androgyne antecedent to David Bowie.”

“Mysticism” encompasses many divergent religious traditions in which practitioners can personally access the divine or otherworldly. These traditions center presence and physicality, and—because they usually employ no formalized hierarchy or gatekeeping intermediaries—tend to emphasize an equality of physical bodies. All of us have the potential to tap into the divine.

Fittingly, women and queer people have been at the helm of these movements more frequently than in many more-dominant religious traditions. The five mystics featured in An American Covenant challenged the hard boundaries between assumed categories—masculine/feminine, science/religion, truth/myth, living/deceased—and pushed the perimeters of their assigned spheres of influence. Their work was also deeply entwined with progressive thinking and the social movements of their times, from abolition to suffragism to lesbian separatism. Spiritualists like Cora Scott spoke of the vote for women from the podiums of their widely-attended “trance lectures.” Helena Blavatsky, the self-described “Divine Hermaphrodite” and founder of Theosophy, preached about the “deadening materialism” of the Gilded Age to rooms full of New York’s literary elite. Marie Laveau, mother of New Orleans Voodoo, assembled throngs of Black Louisianans on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain during Reconstruction and early Jim Crow; her practice aimed to imbue the Black community with a sense of self-actualized power in a time and a place that was working, systematically, to strip them of it. Women and queer mystics, in short, have long been influencing some of our most pressing conversations about national character, in every corner of society.

And yet, many of us haven’t heard of Cora Scott, or Blavatsky. Laveau might be more familiar, thanks to a smattering of pop cultural appearances (Angela Bassett played her on American Horror Story) and regular mentions on kitschy French Quarter ghost tours. Still, those mentions are fantastical; it’s rare to encounter the few real details of Laveau’s life that are available to us. With An American Covenant, Lucile Scott has unearthed and cohered tales of a particular feminine and queer counterculture across centuries, deftly navigating historical storytelling in which many details have moldered with the years. “The small girl with the big eyes and brown skin watched the flag bearing fifteen stripes and fifteen stars as it lurched like the head of an inebriated chicken up the pole anchoring the Place d’Armes,” Scott writes, describing Laveau on the day in 1803 that Louisiana officially became part of America. “Or maybe,” Scott continues, with a rhetorical shrug, “she didn’t watch at all.”

Scott herself is an active mystic; she practices with Third Space, a Brooklyn-based collective of artists, activists, and witches “working to bring about a New America.” She dug into these stories partly to investigate her personal relationship to mystical history, which she does throughout the book in poetic and vulnerable interludes. She also wanted to reckon with what has largely been swept under the historical rug, or—as with Marianne Williamson, the most contemporary of her subjects—derided out of serious contention. “They were tamped down,” Scott explained to me, ”when we could no longer burn or hang them.”

I spoke with Scott about the challenges of reporting the forgotten, our contemporary appetite for belief, and what mystical history can teach us about America.

— Amanda Feinman for Guernica

Guernica: Let’s start by talking about this contemporary moment of mystical popularity: astrology and meditation and mindfulness are very much in the mainstream, very commodified, very commercialized. Can you help us understand how this moment fits into a larger story of American mysticism?

Scott: Mysticism becoming more mainstream is part of several different stories. Some of it is really valuable, and some of it is just trying to get people to spend money, as you mentioned. I saw a real burst in popularity of witches and mysticism and astrology beginning in 2016, with the election of Trump and, of course, the defeat of Hillary Clinton—this woman who was perhaps the most qualified candidate in history, who had played by a man’s rules, and couldn’t win. People were feeling very disempowered, seeking other forms of empowerment. Magic has always served that function, throughout history: meditation and ritual, the values that mystic and magic practices tend toward, serve to break down barriers in the mind and empower the person practicing. Magic and mysticism also exist outside of bounds and help to break down a lot of those rules—rules which I would call patriarchy, but you can call them whatever you would like.

COVID-19, too, has made evident to many people that there is something no longer functioning in America. I think everybody is looking to investigate new ways of structuring things, and that requires renovating the roots, the foundations of culture: spiritual practices/religion, and the ideals and values that we hold most sacred.

Guernica: You’re hinting at a recurring story you tell throughout the book, that of mystical popularity flaring up in moments of conservative repression or backlash. Can you speak a little more to the idea of mysticism as progressive resistance?

Scott: The mystic traditions that I’m talking about—I don’t want to generalize too broadly—are based on the idea that everything alive is sacred, and therefore, we all have equal rights here on earth, whereas Christianity and other religions are more focused on the hereafter. These traditions tap into an energy that helps people be less willing to accept disempowerment on an individual level…and that energy can be brought forth into the world, to fight for change.

The people who practice these traditions are generally very involved in social issues, and have historically fought for everything from abolition to civil rights to racial justice, suffrage, women’s liberation, labor rights, environmentalism, and on and on.

Guernica: How do you describe your personal mystical practice? Is there a particular tradition you ascribe to?

Scott: Most, though definitely not all, Gen-Z and Millennial witches I’ve encountered don’t subscribe to any formal tradition, but employ a medley of what they read, encounter on social media, and intuit. I would consider myself in that camp, though I’ve certainly read up on more formal traditions and have taken witch workshops explicitly rooted in Pagan folk magic. But really, lack of codification is one thing that distinguishes the feminist mystic from the dominant, generally patriarchal religions of our world. I would say that’s how everyone in Third Space approaches the craft.

Guernica: In crafting the book, I’m interested in your process of building a “covenant” centered on five mystics, who you describe as having called out to you personally. How did you go about selecting and connecting the group of them?

Scott: Each subject helped to shape culture and push us toward progressive change. We also haven’t fully recognized their roles and, in fact, have often reflexively mocked their contributions for various reasons—including that their work empowers women and people who the Powers That Be would like to control. I was also specifically interested in moments when these movements of mysticism were really big, including during waves of feminism.

Cora L.V. Scott, for example, was someone I had never heard of. When we think of Spiritualism, maybe we think of Victoria Woodhull or Emma Hardinge Britten. But Scott was, in fact, one of the most famous Spiritualist mediums of her time. The Spiritualist movement allowed women to speak publicly when they were otherwise not really supposed to play a public role. By channeling a male Spirit, they could go in front of mixed-sex crowds and talk about all these pressing social, spiritual, and political issues. The movement was popular—it had that entertainment appeal—so they played a role in disseminating political messages and making them popular, part and parcel with the emergence of the suffrage movement. I see the Spiritualist mediums as proto-rock stars, getting up there and moving people while also imparting an ideology or an energy of cultural change.

Guernica: Reporting a book like this, centered on figures who have been largely dismissed or intentionally forgotten, must have brought practical challenges.

Scott: Cora L.V. Scott has an authorized biography, though it has not been fact-checked. There is much about Helena Blavatsky, but a lot of it is from her own hand and quite fantastical. She’s even said that she didn’t want anyone to know exactly how she spent her life before the age of 40, so some of the stories she’s told were created to put up a veil. There was the least information about Marie Laveau: she was never taught to read or write, so she could not record her history for herself. As a woman of color, a lot of her life was not as carefully recorded as it might have otherwise been. There’s just not as much historical record to go on, but I think that is sort of interesting. What she has become is a myth.

During Reconstruction, Marie Laveau held festivals out on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, outside of New Orleans, and people would ride the train out there. At a time when the Civil War had reduced the city and economy to rubble, when Jim Crow laws were coming down, Laveau served as a symbol of empowerment. She was able to fight back against forces of repression via her spiritual practices, which empowered her and the other people doing them with her.

So I was trying to tell the story of her life as accurately as possible, but then also to investigate the myth, and how it has taken two distinct roads. One, controlled by white people, which painted Marie and practitioners of Voodoo as powerful, Satanic, serving to undermine all that is holy and good. The other was carried through oral tradition in Black enclaves of New Orleans: Marie Laveau as this symbol of power in the face of a culture that was trying to control and stamp people out. Investigating myths, I think, is a really interesting commentary on this entire tradition.

Guernica: That was something that I was thinking about the whole time I was reading. There are, of course, practical questions—where is the line between truth and myth, and how do we parse that? But maybe the more interesting question is: at what point does it stop mattering, because the myth itself can tell us something true?

Scott: Absolutely. The myth itself is a huge part of the story. A really critical part of achieving change in America is reshaping our narratives, which goes back to one of my first points: there is a root that culture grows out of, and a lot of that is myth, the narratives we tell, and the things we choose to celebrate.

Guernica: I want to circle back to the topic of feminism and mysticism. All throughout the book, you engage with a feminist mystic history, full of people actively asserting feminism into all aspects of their lives. But there is also a sense that the mystic is feminist, maybe just naturally. How do you see that? Is there something inherently feminist about mystical practice?

Scott: I think mystical practice empowers women, and because it empowers women, it attracts women seeking to be empowered. Mysticism is about the inherent divinity of all life and accessing divinity through your body. Women were leaders in all of these movements, as is often the case where there’s not a formal hierarchy. You rise through the ranks just by your connection to the mystic, not by getting a diploma, or anything that women often didn’t have access to.

Especially when it comes to Western women raised in a Christian tradition, taught that the woman’s body is sin and weakness incarnate, mysticism offers a culture in which your body is just as good as anyone else’s, and that fosters your right to have power. I think it’s similar to why it has long appealed to queer communities as well.

Guernica: There’s such an inherent queerness throughout the book—an emphasis on blurring lines and finding the liminal spaces between categories. Truth/myth, old/new, masculine/feminine.

Scott: Definitely. That liminality is, I think, very important to the stories—the energy of the mystic is serving to blur, or queer, all these boundaries. A liminal space is a powerful space.

Guernica: Zsuzsanna Budapest is a practitioner of Dianic Wicca who founded a feminist-separatist tradition in America, one that excluded trans women. Given the liminality and queerness that many of your mystics emphasize and embody, why examine her story?

Scott: As a queer woman, I really wanted a lesbian witch in the book. And I find the history of feminist, but specifically lesbian, separatism interesting. Budapest’s movement arose early in the days of the Second Wave of feminism, and I think the work she was doing in the 1970s was really valuable: she created this separate world where practitioners could feel empowered and could make the contributions they always wanted to make, but had not been welcome to in a world dominated by men. But by not including trans women in her all-women movement, she was reinforcing forces aligned with patriarchy, which is really unfortunate. Not only is it harmful to people, but it’s against the entire idea, for me, of the mystic, who serves to break down false walls and barriers and binaries. But I also think it’s history worth investigating.

Guernica: I get the sense that the feminine is very important to your practice. How do you think about an emphasis on the feminine in your book and in your spiritual life? Is there a valid place in contemporary mysticism for discussions of masculine and feminine difference?

Scott: I wanted to tell the story of people who, though they had great cultural impact, have to varying degrees been demonized, mocked, then swept under the carpet of history. Historically, women mystics are much more likely to have met this narrative fate than men. This is, in part, because we’ve been taught to mock, denigrate, and repress the attributes—and people—we associate with “the feminine,” though these attributes can be found in all of us, regardless of gender identity. This produces the destructive shadow known as misogyny. Mystically speaking, celebrating “the feminine” via symbols, rituals, and stories serves as a kind of societal psychoanalysis, freeing the feminine from those shadows. Pegging the feminine to biology and/or gender identity is one thing a person can steer clear of if they don’t want to slip down a path that buys into, instead of flouts, patriarchal divides. Trans exclusion is definitely harmful. For me, this aspect of Budapest’s story serves as a reminder that, even if you were once a force of light and liberation, you can quickly join the forces aligned against them, if you refuse to evolve.

Guernica: We started our conversation talking about mysticism’s renewed significance since 2016, but something else that strikes me is the appetite for belief right now—sometimes belief in direct contrast with truth. I wonder what you make of a moment when we’re particularly inclined toward taking in information and metabolizing it into belief? When is belief helpful versus harmful?

Scott: Right now, so many of the structures that once held us up seem to be disintegrating. People desperately want to find something to reorder their world. And they will believe whatever they must, including conspiracy theories. Really, conspiracy theories are myth’s cousin—and employ the same language of symbols, rituals, etc. That’s why they’re so powerful, and able to so effectively and destructively paper over truths people don’t want to see.

The feminist mystic isn’t really about belief or disbelief. For many, like me, it’s beyond that earth-bound binary. It’s instead about tapping the deeper source, the divine flow, which imbues a sense of the equal divinity of all living things. Plus, feminist mystic traditions generally do not have gurus—or, say, demagogues—to whom you cede personal autonomy via blind faith. That’s when things tend to swerve into the harmful lane.

Guernica: All of this feels particularly American, as does the book, of course. What did reporting these mystics’ stories help you to understand about America?

Scott: In America, the old gods, if you will, are less entrenched. Especially in the time periods described in the first three-fifths of the book, there was a hunger for things that felt new and were shifting us away from deference to the old. Certainly not for everyone—that tension is a constant in American history—but I think that desire for newness provided a way for these things to really flourish and become as mainstream, and formative, as they were. Though, again, we try to untell that story.

These mystic ideals are all about equality and finding true personal liberty by finding empowerment in yourself. That really dovetails with our founding words in a way that we, as a country, could embrace, if we truly want to live up to our aspirational ideals.

Guernica: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about those American ideals right alongside this resistance tradition. Of course, resistance is very much a part of the story of America. But it’s interesting to think about American foundational ideals and mystical resistance living side-by-side. That’s another blurred duality.

Scott: Definitely. Often, resistance in America is resistance to what is holding us in one particular moment. It is energy pushing us forward, causing change, helping us reach those ideals. So, we call it resistance, but maybe it should be reframed as forward momentum.

Amanda Feinman

Amanda Feinman is an associate nonfiction editor for Guernica and writes about gender and culture. She has an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from NYU Journalism and a BA in English from Vassar College. She and her dog live in Brooklyn, NY.

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