The best books on discovering magic through the arts

Why am I passionate about this?

My fascination with magic and the occult emerged from growing up in Scotland, which has a long, rich history of witchcraft, fairies, and the 19th century Celtic Revival, which saw a relation between art and magic. For me, the occult is primarily about liberating the imagination and this is what surrealism does. I became enchanted by surrealist art as a teenager which then led me to study History of Art at university. After graduating in 1989, I wrote my book at a time when there was so little available on the relationship between surrealism and occultism, determined to share my passion with other readers. 

I wrote...

Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement

By Nadia Choucha,

Book cover of Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement

What is my book about?

Surrealism and the Occult is an accessible survey of the occult, magical, and esoteric ideas that influenced artists and writers of the surrealist movement, which began in Paris between the two world wars. The book takes the reader on a journey revealing how and why the occult, an obscure and heretical undercurrent of European culture, became such a strong source of inspiration in the art and poetry of important figures such as Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington, to reveal how these ideas created some of the most intriguing and revolutionary works of art of the twentieth century. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Goose of Hermogenes

Nadia Choucha Why did I love this book?

Ithell Colquhoun was a surrealist artist, writer, and an initiate of several magical orders. Her unique novel (first published in 1961) has a haunting and visionary quality in the way it blends surrealist imagery and occult symbolism. The hermetic plot symbolizes alchemical processes and transformations and reading it feels like being guided through an oneiric landscape, evoking myths tangled with bodily sensations and fragments of memories.

Not a novel in the usual sense of the word, but a philosophical and poetic meditation on dreams, desires, and the journey through life. This is a lovely edition, illustrated with a selection of Colquhoun’s watercolours which beautifully complement the text.

By Ithell Colquhoun,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Goose of Hermogenes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ithell Colquhoun was a leading British surrealist artist and writer whose love of the esoteric and the occult had a profound influence on her work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the weird and wonderful alchemical novel Goose of Hermogenes. An unnamed woman must escape her uncle's island when his sinister attentions fall upon an heirloom—a priceless jewel in her possession—that may help in his tireless efforts to conquer death. Gothic, erotic and dreamlike, Goose of Hermogenes is a dizzying work of surrealist imagination. This new edition features five of Colquhoun's watercolor paintings originally painted to illustrate the novel.…

Book cover of The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology

Nadia Choucha Why did I love this book?

This book traces the astonishing history and thinking behind the secret society called Acéphale created by Georges Bataille, known as the ‘dissident surrealist.' Secret societies were a feature of occultism throughout history (the word occult itself means 'hidden’). Acéphale was represented as a headless figure holding a burning heart, a dagger, and with a skull in the groin.

The members of the society would meet in silence to perform rituals beneath a lightning-struck oak tree in a forest outside Paris, evoking the ancient Druid rites described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, blended with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Death of God. The book is an outstanding work of scholarship and I would highly recommend this as part of any serious library on surrealism and occultism.

By Alastair Brotchie (editor), Marina Galletti (editor), André Masson (illustrator) , John Harman (translator) , Natasha Lehrer (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sacred Conspiracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Georges Bataille's secret society, long the stuff of legend, is now revealed in its texts, meditations, rules and prohibitions

This book recounts what must be one of the most unusual intellectual journeys of modern times, in which the influential philosopher, cultural theorist and occasional pornographer Georges Bataille (1897–1962), having spent the early 1930s in far-left groups opposing the rise of fascism, abandoned that approach in order to transfer the struggle onto "the mythological plane."

In 1937, Bataille founded two groups in order to explore the combinations of power and the "sacred" at work in society. The first group, the College…

Book cover of L’Art Magique

Nadia Choucha Why did I love this book?

André Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement, wrote L’Art Magique in his later years, making explicit what was before then only hinted at, namely, the magical origins of art. This is a lavishly illustrated historical survey of art across different cultures and centuries and although the book has a French text and hasn’t been translated, its wonderful selection of images really conveys the surrealist perspective on what makes art magic. The book was first published in 1957 and a second edition in 1991, but was out of print for many years until this new and affordable edition which I would highly recommend.

By André Breton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked L’Art Magique as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Publi en 1957 tirage limit (rserv un cercle de bibliophiles), L'Art magique reprsentait aux yeux d'Andr Breton la somme de toute une vie : rien de moins qu'une histoire universelle de l'art, des origines prhistoriques jusqu' nos jours - mais une histoire de l'art revisite de fond en comble par le regard et la pense surralistes. Projet grandiose que cette chevauche travers les paysages de la Beaut, servi par la passion ttue d'un homme qui lui consacra, tout au long de son existence, ses recherches et le meilleur de ses intuitions. Projet exaltant surtout : car l'un des premiers crivains…

Book cover of The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies

Nadia Choucha Why did I love this book?

This well-researched and in-depth account has been translated from French and discusses the various occult movements which inspired the art and ideas of the surrealists. It covers a diverse range of topics including divination, astrology, myth, voodoo, Gnosticism, freemasonry, alchemy, secret societies, and Celticism and shows how various artists and writers took inspiration from these systems. The book contains a selection of images, copious notes, a substantial bibliography, and a good index making this an indispensable research tool for aspiring scholars of surrealism and the occult.  

By Patrick Lepetit,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A profound understanding of the surrealists’ connections with alchemists and secret societies and the hermetic aspirations revealed in their works

• Explains how surrealist paintings and poems employed mythology, gnostic principles, tarot, voodoo, alchemy, and other hermetic sciences to seek out unexplored regions of the mind and recover lost “psychic” and magical powers

• Provides many examples of esoteric influence in surrealism, such as how Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon was originally titled The Bath of the Philosophers

Not merely an artistic or literary movement as many believe, the surrealists rejected the labels of artist and author bestowed upon them by outsiders,…

Book cover of Totem and Taboo

Nadia Choucha Why did I love this book?

Sigmund Freud was a profound influence on the surrealist movement and his book, Totem and Taboo, which blends together psychoanalysis and anthropology, is particularly important for understanding how the surrealists saw art as an expression of magic. The essay in this book titled "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts" describes a technique of animism used in ancient and primitive societies. This system of magical thinking was described by Freud as the "omnipotence of thought" and this is what the surrealists attempted to achieve through their art. For surrealist artists, myth and magic were seen as archetypal expressions of the collective cultural imagination, just as dreams were seen as an expression of the individual personal imagination. 

By Sigmund Freud,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Totem and Taboo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1918, this landmark collection of essays by the father of psychoanalysis represents one of Freud's most penetrating attempts to decipher the mysteries of human behavior. Its focus is the conflict between primitive feelings and the demands of civilization, i.e., the struggle to reconcile unconscious desires with socially acceptable behavior.
Totemism involves the belief in a sacred relationship between an object (totem) and a human kinship group. Men and women bearing the same totem are prohibited from marrying each other, this being a form of incest taboo. Freud identifies a strong unconscious inclination as the basis of taboo,…

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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…

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