The Secret Teachings Reborn …

following article, which appeared in the May-June 2006 issue of
Dawn magazine (,
is adapted from Mitch Horowitz’s book in progress on the history of the
American occult.

Mysterious Life and

Mission of Manly P. Hall

By Mitch Horowitz

The late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of spiritual teachers and
impresarios dealing in “secret wisdom.” Their ranks included hacks and
frauds — as well as more than a few genuine scholars of esoteric
traditions. Most have vanished from memory, their writings a historical

There exists one
distinct figure, though, whose movement and teachings not only survived
his passing but are even experiencing a revival in our day. His name is
Manly P. Hall. While few academicians will ever know of him, Hall was
among the twentieth century’s – and perhaps any century’s – most
commanding and unusual scholars of esoteric and mythological lore. Yet
the source of his knowledge and the extent of his virtuosity can justly
be called a mystery.

While working as a
clerk at a Wall Street banking firm – the “outstanding event” of which
involved “witnessing a man depressed over investment losses take his
life” – the 27-year-old Hall self-published one of the most complex and
thoroughgoing works ever to catalogue the esoteric wisdom of antiquity,
The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall’s Secret Teachings
is almost impossible to classify. Written and compiled on an Alexandrian
scale, its hundreds of entries shine a rare light on some of the most
fascinating and little-understood aspects of myth, religion, and

Today, more than
seventy-five years after its initial publication, the book’s range of
material astonishes: Pythagorean mathematics; alchemical formulae;
Hermetic doctrine; the workings of Kabala; the geometry of Ancient
Egypt; the Native American myths; the uses of cryptograms; an analysis
of the Tarot; the symbols of Rosicrucianism; the esotericism of the
Shakespearean dramas – these are just a few of Hall’s topics. Yet his
background betrays little clue to his virtuosity.

A Man Unknown

Hall was born in
Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901 to parents who would shortly divorce,
leaving the young Manly in the care of a grandmother who raised him in
Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had little formal schooling. But there was
a spark of some indefinable brilliance in the young man, which his
grandmother tried to nurture in trips to museums in Chicago and New

Tragedy struck early,
when his grandmother died when he was sixteen. Afterward, a self-styled
Rosicrucian community in California took him in. At age 19, suspicious
of the community’s claims to ancient wisdom, Manly moved on his own to
Los Angeles where he began a precocious career in public speaking –
first giving an address on reincarnation in a small room above a bank in
Santa Monica, and soon rising to the rank of minister at a liberal
evangelical congregation called The Church of the People.

Word spread of the
boy wonder’s mastery of arcane and metaphysical subject matter. He
attracted benefactors and eventually began traveling the world in search
of hidden wisdom. Yet Hall’s early letters from Japan, Egypt, China, and
India are, in many respects, fairly ordinary: They contain 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. More often they read like prosaic, if somewhat sensitive,
linear travelogues of their day.

Like a bolt from the
blue, however, one is astounded to discover a short work of immense
power from the young Hall – a book that seems to prefigure that which
would come. In 1922, at the age of 21, Hall wrote a luminescent gem on
the mystery schools of antiquity, Initiates of the Flame. Though
brief, one sees in it the outline of what would become The Secret
Teachings of All Ages
. On its frontispiece, Initiates of the
boldly announces: “He who lives the Life shall know the

The short book goes
on to expound passionately and in detail on Egyptian rites, Arthurian
myths, and the secrets of alchemy, among other subjects. Feeling the
power and ease in its pages, the reader can almost sense the seeds of
greatness that were beginning to take hold in Hall’s grasp of esoteric


Secret Teachings Born

Hall soon returned to
America, where he tried his hand at banking – though he found his true
path in the beaux arts Reading Room of the New York Public Library.
Entering this cavernous space today, it is not difficult to picture the
large-framed, young Manly P. Hall surrounded by books of myth and symbol
at one of the room’s huge oaken tables. Like a monk of the Middle Ages,
Hall copiously, almost superhumanly, pored over hundreds of the great
works of antiquity, distilling their esoteric lore into his volume.

By the age of 27,
having pre-sold subscriptions for nearly 1,000 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.

Indeed, Hall is an
exception to most of his contemporaries as someone whose work is
actually building in influence today. In its day, the Secret
was expensive, hefty, and cumbersome. As a result, the
book spent much of its existence as an underground classic.  In late
2003, however, the Secret Teachings found new life in a reset and
redesigned “reader’s edition,” which has sold a remarkable 40,000 copies
in less than three years. (For further details, see Bringing the
Secret Teachings Into the Twenty-first Century
by Mitch Horowitz at A little-known 1929 companion volume by
Hall, called Lectures on Ancient Philosophy, has also been
recently reissued. 

After publishing his
magnum opus, Hall opened a campus in 1934 in the Griffith Park
neighborhood of Los Angeles called The Philosophical Research Society (PRS),
where he spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and amassing a
remarkable library of esoterica. A self-contained property designed in a
pastiche of Mayan, Egyptian, and art deco styles, PRS remains a popular
destination for LA’s spiritually curious.

Following Hall’s
death in 1990, PRS barely survived simultaneous legal battles – one with
Hall’s widow, who claimed the group owed her money, and another with a
bizarre father-son team of con artists who, in the estimation of a civil
court judge, had befriended an ailing, octogenarian Hall to pilfer his
assets. The Los Angeles Police Department considered Hall’s death
sufficiently suspicious to keep it under investigation for several


Secret Wisdom, Practical Wisdom

For all his literary
output, Hall revealed little about his private life. His most lasting
record is a frequently trite, unrevealing childhood memoir called
Growing Up with Grandmother
(in which he refers to his guardian as
“Mrs. Arthur Whitney Palmer”). As an adult, Hall’s close relations were
few. He did not marry until well into middle age, in a union some
surmise was never consummated.

Hence, when Hall
disclosed something about his background, it was purposeful. He wrote
this in a PRS newsletter in 1959: “As a result of a confused and
insecure childhood, it was necessary for me to formulate a personal
philosophy with which to handle immediate situations.”

Here was someone with
a tremendous interest in the arcane philosophies of the world, in the
occult and metaphysical philosophies, but he wasn’t fixated on
immortality, or a will to power, or on discovering keys that unlock the
universe. Rather, he was focused on harnessing inner truths in a very
practical way. How, he wondered, could such ideas lend clarity to daily

We’ll take a byroad
that steers us in another direction before returning to this point. Our
byroad involves one of the most famous novels in history, Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein. The work has many facets, among them a portrait –
not sympathetic, but not as unsympathetic as one might suppose – of the
European occult in the Enlightenment era. The portrait comes in the
character of a young Victor von Frankenstein, a budding scientist torn
between the occult teachings that drew him to science as a child and the
prevailing rationalism of his teachers. Victor confides his interest in
the great alchemists and occult philosophers, such as the
Renaissance-era magus Cornelius Agrippa, but his professors dismiss him
with complete condescension. 

One day in his room,
Victor ponders the unbridgeable gap between his magical visions and the
scholasticism of his peers:

had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was
very different when the masters of science sought immortality and
power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene
was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to
the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science
was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of
boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.

In a sense, Victor
spoke for generations of occultists when describing his ideal of
boundless grandeur, immortality, power, and visions. (And who wouldn’t
sympathize with the rebellious young Victor – whose dreams and
ambitions, while hopeless, exist on a grand scale – versus the
certainties of his crusty professors?) 

An occult scholar
born at the cusp of the twentieth century, Manly P. Hall signaled a
different kind of ideal. Hall told of “a personal philosophy with
which to handle immediate situations.” After Hall’s death, a reporter in
the Los Angeles Times noted, “Followers say he believed in
reincarnation and in a mixture of the Golden Rule and living in

For Hall, the very
act of writing The Secret Teachings of All Ages was an attempt at
formulating an ethical response to the age he lived in. While the book
is at times speculative and some of its sources are limited by the
constraints of their era, it is the only codex to esoteric ideas that treats
its subject with total seriousness. Contemporaneous works, such as
The Golden Bough
, regarded indigenous religious traditions as
superstition – interesting museum pieces worthy of anthropological study
but of no direct relevance to our current lives. Hall, on the other
hand, felt himself on a mission to reestablish a connection to the
mystery traditions at a time when America, as he saw it, had given
itself over to the Jazz-Age materialism he witnessed at his banking

“After I thought the
matter over,” he wrote a few years before his death, “it seemed
necessary to establish some kind of firm ground upon which personal
idealism could mingle its hopes and aspirations with the wisdom of the

In this sense, the
prodigious scholar achieved more than a cataloging of esoteric truths.
He turned the study of occult ideas into an ethical cause.

(For more on Mitch Horowitz’s work, visit his own Web site.)

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