Coming Out to your Parents as HeterosexuaL

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Obituary: Irene Smith

by BAR staff

Wednesday Apr 28, 2021 (

Irene Smith

Irene Smith  

January 23, 1945 — April 4, 2021

San Francisco lost one of its greathearted citizens when the beloved Irene Smith, the first person to offer massage to people with AIDS, left her body from complications of esophageal cancer. As she transitioned, the woman whose touch was the last loving contact that so many received prior to their deaths was surrounded 24/7 by equally selfless caregivers who ensured she could die in her longtime Cole Valley garret.

Irene may have been born in Seattle, but it was the fierce independent spirit of a staunchly idiosyncratic Texan and niece of country singer Hank Williams that lived within her. Voted the prettiest girl in her high school, she migrated to San Francisco where a life of drugs, alcohol, and sex work was transformed through workshops with the foremost expert on death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Inspired by her mentor, Irene began offering massage through Hospice of San Francisco. When AIDS hit, she began going room-to-room on Ward 5B, the AIDS Ward of San Francisco General Hospital. Years later, Irene was the first person inducted into the National AIDS Memorial Grove for AIDS service.

After establishing massage programs for people living with AIDS worldwide through her organization, Service Through Touch, Irene founded Everflowing and taught mindful touch as an integral component to end-of-life care. Untold numbers of people worldwide have died feeling loved thanks to her book, “Massage in Hospice Care, An Everflowing Approach,” videos, workshops, and personal example.

An online memorial for Irene Smith will be held Thursday, May 27, at 3 p.m. To register, click here.

For more on her life, see the recent letter to the editor below:

Remembering a compassionate healer
San Francisco has lost one of its great citizens. When outer Haight resident Irene Smith left her body after a long illness on April 5, she did so knowing that her compassionate touch was, in many cases, the last act of love that graced many people’s lives.

After Irene’s life was transformed in 1980 through a workshop with her teacher, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross, she became the first person in the Bay Area to offer massage to Hospice of San Francisco’s terminally ill clients. A year later, she began offering weekly massages to people with AIDS on Ward 5A/5B at San Francisco General Hospital.

On September 13, 1984, the Bay Area Reporter published a remarkable letter from Smith about her experience with people with AIDS. In retrospect, it seems enormously brave. At a time when the mass perception of AIDS was of a horrible and merciless death sentence, Smith reached beyond the surface to the true nature of the healing that AIDS had initiated. There was so much wisdom in her letter that I immediately resolved to contact her and put her letter in my book, “Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity and AIDS.” Thus began a friendship that lasted for almost 37 years.

While it is impossible to do justice to Smith’s letter through excerpts, it began, “What I believe we are dealing with here is a condition of fear, negativity, guilt and anger that has come to a head. We are being forced to see it manifested in the physical body, that we might begin to learn to grow, to sort out and confront the conditions that we have set up ourselves at this time. … The fear, sadness, and horror of this dis-ease must be overcome if we are to overcome the disease itself.”

Smith understood that the people with AIDS whom she met, many of whom had been rejected by their parents, were “the healers of our time. They are forcing us to grow. What greater memorial than to look at the lessons we are learning, the love we are sharing, and to continue to grow with it. We are being forced to reach the truth of our very existence. Love. Love in its purest form. … People are actually dying for love. We need to take a good look at what is going on here.”

In the decades that followed, Smith moved from working primarily with people with AIDS to teaching compassionate touch in workshops throughout the United States and abroad. Her everflowing voice, videos, writings and deeds inspired countless others who continue to selflessly channel love and caring to the dying. Throughout the world, people die graced with love because of Smith’s work.

After Smith was diagnosed with a mass in her esophagus and expressed a wish to die at home — an act made possible by her late landlord, who ensured that she could remain in her Carl Street apartment regardless of her ability to pay her rent on time — a huge international community of teachers, healers, and practitioners came to her aid. With enough money raised to enable 24/7 hospice care, Smith found her constant pain eased by countless individuals who showed up out of the blue and asked what they could do. Daily she received ear acupuncture gratis from a practitioner who said, “This is from the people of Germany, in thanks for all you have done.”

There are so many tales of love and compassion surrounding Smith’s work and death that I cannot possibly know from a distance. But what everyone who knew Smith understood is this: If anyone on this planet deserved all the love, care and nurturing that a community can offer, it was Smith. And it was Smith who understood that everyone else on the planet deserved as much love as she received in her last months in the body.

Bless you, Irene, for all you gave the gay community and the larger human community. Thank you for helping us know ourselves. The angels are dancing now that you are again among them.

Jason Victor Serinus
Port Townsend, Washington

It’s time to honor this landmark of lesbian history

by Christina Morris

Friday Apr 23, 2021 (

The home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin sits on a hilly street in Noe Valley. Photo: Rick GerharterThe home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin sits on a hilly street in Noe Valley. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

On a hilly residential street in Noe Valley, the small house at 651 Duncan Street gives no hint of its outsized role in influencing over 50 years of LGBTQIA+ civil rights. From the moment they purchased the property together in 1955, partners, advocates, and authors Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin energized the San Francisco LGBTQIA+ community, offering their home as a safe space for women to champion women’s rights. Over many decades they successfully fought to validate and decriminalize lesbian identity, shape anti-violence and anti-discrimination policies, and promote marriage equality and elder rights.

At a time when lesbianism was characterized as immoral or illegal, there were almost no public places lesbians could safely meet in 1955. This is why the Lyon-Martin House had to serve as the de facto headquarters for the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization and one of the most influential and enduring LGBTQIA+ organizations in the United States. Over the next four decades, Lyon and Martin would be instrumental in founding or supporting numerous organizations, councils, and commissions that advocated for gender equality and LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

Their lifetime of work touched the lives of countless women and men struggling with their identity and sexuality, who were seeking to achieve self-acceptance while also combatting discrimination, harassment, and violence. In her public comment letter to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission in February, Mary Means, the groundbreaking founder of the nationwide Main Street program, shared just how much the writings of Lyon and Martin meant to her — and many girls like her — growing up in the 1950s.

“Had it not been for courageous Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, their pioneering visibility and their magazine The Ladder (which came in a brown paper wrapper), many more of us would have buried our silent pain with alcohol and drugs, or even ended our lives,” Means wrote.

Remarkably, Lyon and Martin continued to shatter barriers well into their 80s, achieving international recognition in 2004 as the first same-sex couple married in San Francisco by then-mayor Gavin Newsom. Lyon acknowledged the broad-reaching implications of their 2004 wedding saying, “We got it started for everybody else. We didn’t get married just for us. We knew it was important to a lot of other people.”

The couple married a second time in 2008 immediately following the California Supreme Court decision In re Marriage Cases — in which Lyon and Martin were plaintiffs — establishing that it is unconstitutional for the state to ban same-sex couples from obtaining a civil marriage. Upon the passing of Martin in 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) credited them with paving the way for so many other same sex couples, saying, “We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis.”

While the many achievements of Lyon and Martin have earned accolades, from the American Civil Liberties Union to NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists to the White House, the home where they lived together for 65 years and conducted much of their work is largely unknown and unprotected. In the documentary entitled “No Secret Anymore: The Life and Times of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin,” Lyon observed that she and Martin never would have been able to achieve the level of political activism and organizing they did in San Francisco if not for their purchase of the Duncan Street property years earlier.

It is a problem that is all too common. Sites of women’s history and LGBTQIA+ history are woefully underrepresented in official designations, such as the National Register of Historic Places and city local landmark programs. Even in a city like San Francisco with such a rich LGBTQIA+ history, only four of the city’s hundreds of local landmarks are listed for their representation of LGBTQIA+ achievements. And none of them recognize the importance of lesbian activism.

It is this kind of systemic disparity that inspired the National Trust for Historic Preservation to launch a new national campaign for Where Women Made History to identify, honor, and elevate places across the country where women have changed their communities and changed the world. By galvanizing support for the preservation of sites like the Lyon-Martin House, we help create a more truthful and inclusive collective history where people can see themselves reflected in the places around them.

Thanks to the leadership of gay San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the Friends of Lyon-Martin House, and many others, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission took a critical step in February by approving designation of the Lyon-Martin House as San Francisco’s first local landmark of lesbian activism. Now, the responsibility falls to the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee to approve this designation at its April 26 meeting.

With its vote the Board of Supervisors panel can honor the pioneering roles that Lyon and Martin played in shaping policies that benefited not only the LGBTQIA+ communities in San Francisco, but across the nation. (The full board will then vote on the matter.) And a vote for landmark designation also will provide critical protection for this modest home so that the accomplishments of Lyon and Martin will be remembered and serve as a source of inspiration for years to come.

With the support of the property’s new owner and Mandelman, a coalition — including the Friends of Lyon-Martin House, the GLBT Historical SocietySan Francisco Heritage, CyArk, and the National Trust — has formed to conduct extensive documentation of the Lyon-Martin House and make its history widely accessible to new audiences, while also identifying contemporary uses for the property that will encourage a new generation of activists to build on Lyon and Martin’s legacy.

The Board of Supervisors should embrace this opportunity to correct decades of oversight and inequity by approving the Lyon-Martin House as a San Francisco landmark of women’s history and LGBTQIA+ civil rights activism.

Christina Morris is senior field director of the Los Angeles Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and manager of the National Trust’s campaign for Where Women Made History.

[Editor’s Note: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were long time members of The Prosperos.]

Giordano Bruno: Forgotten Genius & Hermetic Martyr


From New Dawn 130 (Jan-Feb 2012) (

In our last New Dawn article we listed the great pioneering discoveries of science that – unacknowledged by science historians – were directly inspired by the ancient Egyptian ideas as set out in the Hermetic texts which were ascribed to the demi-god Hermes Trismesgistus. These landmark breakthroughs were either drawn directly from the cosmology of the Hermetica – the most important being Copernicus’ heliocentric theory – or indirectly by applying their principles to different areas (as did Isaac Newton, to crack the code of gravity).

But most of the discoveries on our list involved a figure who, although not an experimental scientist himself, should be remembered as being equally important as Copernicus and Newton, but who until recently was virtually erased from history. This towering genius and truly extraordinary man was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), the foremost Hermetic philosopher of his age whose influence over the scientific revolution has been scandalously downplayed. There’s even more to him than his intellectual and philosophical genius: he also applied the Hermetic principles to social, political and religious questions. And he presented such a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Church that for a time he even threatened to undermine it. But it also, with a sickening inevitability, lead to a date with a flaming pyre in Rome…

In recent years Bruno has begun to be rediscovered and appreciated, although still the truth is often distorted in order to crowbar him into the accepted history of science. Because of his remarkably advanced ideas he tends to be regarded as a martyr for scientific rationalism, victim of even greater Church persecution than Galileo (on whom he was hugely influential). Bruno has become a hero for freethinkers and, particularly ironically, atheists, who gather annually at the site of his execution in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori – marked by a statue erected in the late nineteenth century – to honour his memory and sacrifice. But this is missing the point in a big way. Far from being an arch materialist-rationalist, in fact everything Bruno did was inspired by his passionate belief in magic and the esoteric. 

He is also being introduced to a wider audience through the historical thrillers of S.J. Parris (the pseudonym of British writer Stephanie Merritt), Heresy (2010) and Prophecy (2011). Although mainly concerned with Bruno as a kind of late Renaissance Hercule Poirot, she paints an authentic picture of Bruno as a dedicated and campaigning Hermeticist.

Privy Secrets

Ironically, Bruno began as a Dominican monk, a member of the same Order that gave rise to his nemesis, the Inquisition. He was born in 1548 in the small town of Nola – hence his nickname of ‘the Nolan’ – in the then huge Kingdom of Naples in Italy, which was under Spanish rule. Although he was christened Filippo, he took the name Giordano – from the River Jordan – on entering the Dominican monastery in Naples at the age of sixteen. In those days becoming a monk was the only way for a bright lad – and Bruno had already exhibited a prodigious intellect – from a humble background to get a good education.

 The only known portrait of Bruno, published in 1715 in Germany, more than a century after his death.

The young monk soon distinguished himself with his extraordinary mastery of memory-training – even being summoned to Rome to demonstrate the ability to the Pope. The classical art of memory, based on the manipulation of mental images, had a magical counterpart which employed talismanic principles to induce, rather than simply recall, information. Clearly this possessed a heady allure to someone so hungry for knowledge as Bruno. 

As he grew in ability, exploring the powers of the mind through magic and psychology, Bruno became a powerfully confident man. Although never lacking in self-belief, he always respected those who deserved respect. On the other hand, he was disinclined to suffer fools gladly – indeed, at all. And he always, without fail, believed in his own mission… 

A side of this self-belief that was hardly welcome in a monk was his refusal to allow others to dictate what he could read or even think. Not only were monks’ studies tightly circumscribed by their very nature, but at that time the Catholic Church was desperately trying to combat the rise of Protestantism, so departing even marginally from the conventional line attracted great suspicion. Even listening to the arguments of those deemed heretics, or reading their works, was a crime for a monk – even if you disagreed with them. 

On the other hand, as the Dominicans were tasked with fighting heresy, they had easy access to banned books – much to the ever-curious Bruno’s delight. When his superiors discovered he had been secretly reading them in the monastery toilet he fled from Naples.

For five years he wandered round the intellectual centres of northern Italy, southern France and Switzerland – Padua, Milan, Geneva and Toulouse among other places, with frequent gaps in his biography. By the time he reappears fully, in Paris in 1581, he had become a hardcore believer in the Renaissance occult philosophy with Hermeticism at its heart. Quite how he developed this interest is unknown, but it fundamentally underpinned everything he did for the rest of his life.

Like everyone inspired by the Hermetic books since their rediscovery in Europe just over a century before (see our last article in New Dawn 129), Bruno was fired up with their vision of humans as glorious, miraculous beings of limitless potential – the polar opposite of what all Catholics were taught. To them, humans were little better than worms, only achieving a tiny bit of God’s grace through the intercession of the Church, and even that often depended on how much you were prepared to pay the priesthood to be let off a few years in purgatory. 

The more he studied, the more Bruno considered everything – every level of life and understanding of our place within the cosmos – could be illuminated by the principles of Hermeticism.

In Paris he gained the patronage of the French king, Henri III – a Catholic, but who still had a deep interest in the esoteric and was tolerant towards the French Protestants, the Huguenots. After two years Bruno moved to London, accompanying Henri’s new ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Clearly he had Henri’s backing for whatever his mission might have been – probably establishing contact with English magi centred around John Dee. During his two-year stay in London he made friends with such luminaries as Sir Philip Sidney, and wrote some of his most important books. As we will see, Bruno left a rich intellectual legacy that influenced some of the great minds of the late-flowering English Renaissance. Many consider that the character of Berowne in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost was based on Bruno.

It was while in London that Bruno produced his major works on cosmology that were to inspire enormous scientific advances.

The Hermetic Key

To Bruno the Hermetic philosophy and cosmology was the great key to unlocking the secrets of nature and the cosmos. Having already seen the Hermetica inspire Copernicus to develop his heliocentric theory, he applied himself to scientific questions using the Hermetic principles. And very fruitful it proved, too…

A passage in Treatise X of the Corpus Hermeticum states that “the spirit, passing through the veins and arteries, moves the living thing.”1 Bruno realised the image suggests that the blood also moves, a concept that also reflected Hermetic ideas of man as a microcosm of the greater cosmos.2 Bruno’s interpretation was picked up by fellow Hermeticist Robert Fludd, who – writing in the late 1610s – inspired Charles I’s physician William Harvey with the idea of testing it. Harvey became the first person to demonstrate the circulation of the blood experimentally, “one of the greatest achievements of the Scientific Revolution.”3

Woodcut illustrations from Giordano Bruno, Prague 1588. Upper left cut contains a version of the “Flower of Life” pattern.

Bruno’s Hermetic influence also extended to Elizabeth I’s physician William Gilbert’s 1600 masterwork, On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies and the Great Magnet of the Earth, in which he proposed that magnets work because the Earth itself generates magnetic force – another landmark discovery. Without Bruno’s work, Gilbert would never have got there.4

In our bullet-point list of Hermetic-inspired discoveries in our last article we included “the basic principles of computer science and information theory.” At first glance this may seem rather unlikely but this, too, can be traced back to Bruno’s application of Hermetic principles. This time the seed he planted flowered in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the German genius whose life and career paralleled those of Isaac Newton. A great polymath, Leibniz is chiefly known today for inventing infinitesimal calculus, at about the same time as Newton – although Leibniz’s system was the one that caught on – and for the basic principles of information theory, including the binary system.

Yet even Leibniz was no hard-line materialist-rationalist. Like Newton, he was deeply versed in esotericism – almost certainly a Rosicrucian and certainly a scholar of the Cabala and, predictably, the Hermetica. Equally predictably, he owed an enormous debt to the works of Giordano Bruno.

Woodcut illustration of one of Giordano Bruno’s less complex mnemonic (memory) devices. He planted this drawing – which acts as a portal – in his mind to recall massive amounts of information from memory.

Information theory was really just a by-product of a much more ambitious scheme. Leibniz believed it should be possible to devise a set of symbols – which he called characteristica universalis – to represent all the fundamentals of knowledge, and by manipulating them to make new discoveries (a process he described as ‘innocent magia’). He developed this idea from Bruno’s works, especially those on the magical art of memory and the manipulation of the imagination to produce desired results.

Although Leibniz was never to achieve the full dream of the characteristica universalis, his work developed into the idea of mathematical modelling, at first using pen-and-paper equations (which is where calculus came in) and later computer modelling. His pioneering computer work also saw him designing some of the first calculating machines.

But although Bruno can never be described as a scientist in his own right (he seems never to have undertaken a single experiment) basing his reasoning on the Hermetic principles led him to make some truly remarkable insights. (And given that he practised magical techniques to acquire information directly, we can be forgiven for wondering just how successful they were.)

In London in 1584 Bruno wrote and published On the Infinite Universe and Worlds in which he put forward some extraordinarily advanced – and for the time deeply shocking – propositions.

Shock and Awe

Bruno was a leading champion of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory which, although published five years before he was born, was still regarded as new and unproven, scholarly opinion being split over whether he was right, wrong or somewhere in between. Copernicus had merely proposed that the sun was at the centre of creation; he still stuck with the traditional model that the entire cosmos consists solely of the sun, moon and planets which move within an outer ‘shell’, the sphere of the fixed stars. In other words, the stars are simply fixed points of light of varying intensity, all stuck on the same crystalline sphere and therefore equidistant from Earth. 

But, as the title of his book implies, Bruno went further, arguing that the stars are really suns like our own, but immensely far away, and at varying distances. He rejected the concept of the sphere of the fixed stars entirely, proposing that the universe was in fact infinite. 

Bruno also took the next logical step: if stars are really suns, then at least some must have their own system of planets. And some of those planets must be like our own.

He wrote in On the Infinite Universe and Worlds:

There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable and infinite globes like this on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception or nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own… Beyond the imaginary convex circumference of the universe is Time.5

And making the final logical leap, Bruno concluded it was impossible to imagine that “these innumerable worlds, manifest as like to our own or even more magnificent, should be destitute of similar or even superior inhabitants.”6

Of course, time and telescopes have proven Bruno right about the scale of the universe and the existence of other solar systems – and, even if it has yet to be proven, few scientists also doubt that extraterrestrial life is a reality.

These were deeply shocking conclusions to the Church – and indeed they were high on the list of indictable offences for which Bruno was condemned to death 16 years later. Whereas Copernicus had shifted the physical centre to the sun, the focus of creation was still the Earth and human beings, which fitted the basic biblical model where God made the world as a unique place, and humans ‘in his own image’. Bruno was proposing that there was no centre, and that humans were no more or less important than other beings on other planets – and indeed, that some of the extraterrestrial races are superior to human beings. 

This was to mark the beginning of the Vatican’s antipathy towards heliocentricity that was to climax in its persecution of Galileo.

Where did Bruno get this radical notion? His immediate inspiration seems to have been the English mathematician Thomas Digges, a protégé and ward of John Dee, and England’s major champion of Copernican theory. Digges had argued that space is infinite in his defence of heliocentricity published in 1576, seven years before Bruno arrived in London. As they shared both interests and friends it is unlikely that Bruno and Digges never met during the former’s London years. But in any case Digges derived his idea from a section of the Hermetic treatise known as Asclepius.7

Bruno may have reached the same conclusion independently from his own study of Asclepius, but he added the concept of other inhabited worlds, which came from his contemplation of another key Hermetic principle: that the cosmos is imbued with life.

Bruno also showed remarkable insights into other areas of science. He understood that the body is perpetually being renewed, bit by bit, so it effectively becomes totally new over time. The current understanding is that our bodies are completely ‘replaced’, cell by cell, every seven to ten years.

In other writings he put forward basic ideas about relativity, and some academic writers regard some of his notions about the structure of matter as effectively laying the foundations for later atomic theory.8

So in the face of this astonishing catalogue of achievements and insights, it seems nothing short of an outright scandal that Giordano Bruno is so little known today. 

Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno by Ettore Ferrari, Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.

No Insignificant Ambition

Bruno’s hugely influential ideas about the workings of the universe were only part of the picture. It was his view of the religious significance of the Hermetic tradition that inspired his most radical message – and led to his downfall.

Another of the major works Bruno produced in London was Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (1584). Modelled on a key Hermetic text, Kore Kosmou (Virgin of the World), and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, the book describes a gathering of the Egyptian and Greek deities – the goddesses Isis and Sophia taking the lead – in order to organise a great reform in the heavens. On the principle invoked in the celebrated Hermetic adage ‘as above, so below/as below, so above’, this would cause equally great changes on Earth.

Clearly it is the earthly transformation that interested Bruno most pressingly – and for which he called so passionately. How would that manifest? In Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Bruno reproduces in its entirety a key section from Asclepius – a celebrated passage known as the Lament – in which Hermes Trismegistus mourns the decline of the Egyptian religion, which has been eclipsed by foreign gods, Egypt’s own having abandoned the land. But it also predicts that they will return and the religion will be restored. 

Bruno believed this prophecy referred to his own time, and saw the religious turmoil then engulfing Europe as a sign that at least in its present form Christianity had run its course. The return of the magical religion of Egypt was imminent. 

Since the rediscovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 1460s it had been universally accepted – by Hermeticism’s enthusiasts and opponents alike – that the texts contained the wisdom of the high point of ancient Egyptian, then considered the oldest civilisation. (As we showed previously, in fact there is good evidence to support the Hermetica’s ancient Egyptian origins.) Many – Bruno among them – believed therefore that they preserved the original religious revelation to mankind.

But characteristically Bruno went further. He believed that the magical religion of ancient Egypt had been corrupted, first by the Jews and then by the Christians. (Bruno thought that Jesus had been sent to restore the Jewish religion to its true, Egyptian roots. From our own research into the origins of Christianity, detailed in our 2008 book The Masks of Christ, we would broadly agree. Without the benefit of recent historical discoveries, how did Bruno know this?)

Bruno wanted nothing less than a root-and-branch reform of the whole of society based on the Hermetic principles, or rather, as he saw it, the religion of ancient Egypt. His ultimate aim was the creation of a spiritually unified Europe in which the religious tension between and within nations – which if unchecked would inevitably lead to a Europe-wide cataclysmic war – would be swept away.

Bruno manifestly saw the authoritarian and dogmatically inflexible Catholic Church, rather than the Protestants, as the big stumbling block to his great reform. Indeed, although he explained the ‘triumphant beast’ of his title as a metaphor for human vices, many (including the Inquisition) took it as a not-very-thinly-veiled allusion to the Pope. This was not a good turn of events.

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The Predictable Unhappy Ending

The worry for the Inquisition was that Giordano Bruno was not just an easily-dismissed eccentric, but an energetic and charismatic campaigner with a sharp mind who, as we have seen, enjoyed considerable influence over the likes of Henri III of France, Elizabeth I and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Put simply, he was an Inquisition magnet and his death by fire was only a matter of time.

Towards the end of 1585 Bruno returned to France, but found it descending into civil war as staunchly Catholic nobles challenged Henri III (who was soon to be assassinated). He then left France and for the next five years travelled the university towns of Protestant Germany preaching an increasingly hard-line message of the danger posed by the Catholic Church.

In 1591 he made a somewhat unwise return to Italian soil, accepting an invitation from a wealthy admirer to visit the Republic of Venice. There, in May 1592, he was denounced to the Inquisition, arrested and sent to Rome. After languishing in prison for eight years he was sent to the stake on 17 February 1600 – with his tongue tied so he couldn’t address the crowds.

Regarded as a diabolically-inspired magician who sought the destruction of God’s own Holy Church, it isn’t surprising that Bruno’s memory faded in the Catholic lands. What is less forgivable is that his great intellectual legacy was also allowed to fall by the wayside by the science historians. They seek to downplay – if not completely erase – the influence of the Hermetic tradition on science’s origins, and, whereas with the likes of Newton it was possible to pretend that their ‘occult’ interests were of no great consequence, it was utterly impossible to ignore the role of Hermeticism in Bruno’s work. Far easier just to forget him.

Bruno’s story was by no means over. During his last travels, fearing a Catholic onslaught that would bring Europe back under its domination, he had made plans for the underground continuation of his Hermetic reform movement. He formed a secret society, or more accurately a network of secret societies, based in the universities of Germany and in the Republic of Venice, which would outlive him. Known as the Giordanisti, after his death this clandestine group would have its own key part to play in the development of the Western esotericism…This article was published in New Dawn 130.If you appreciate this article, please consider a contribution to help maintain this website.


1. Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 33.

2. Walter Pagel, ‘Giordano Bruno: The Philosophy of Circles and the Circular Movement of the Blood’, Journal of the History of Medicine, vol. VI, 1951.

3. Allen G. Debus, ‘Robert Fludd and the Circulation of the Blood’, Journal of the History of Medicine, vol. XVI, no. 4, 374.

4. Hilary Gatti, Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science (Cornell University Press, 1999), 80-5.

5. Translated by Dorothea Waley Singer in Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought (Henry Shuman, 1950), 363.

6. Singer, 323.

7. Robert S. Westman and J.E. McGuire, Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution (William Andrews Clark Library, 1977),24.

8. See Ksenija Atanasijevic’s introduction to her The Metaphysical and Geometrical Doctrine of Bruno (Warren H. Green, 1972).

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Prophecy: Does it Work?


From New Dawn 100 (Jan-Feb 2007) (

Elie Wiesel, in his sombre memoir Night, describes a poignant incident from his time in a Nazi concentration camp. Amidst unimaginable suffering and despair, an inmate named Akiba Drumer “had discovered a verse from the Bible, which, translated into numbers, made it possible for him to predict Redemption in the weeks to come.”

There have been countless Akiba Drumers over the last 2,000 years. Confronting dismal memories of the past and the bleak actualities of the present, they have turned to the future for hope and solace.

The trend is not necessarily as old as humanity itself. While traditional mythologies ranging from those of the Hindus to those of the ancient Germans spoke of the rising and passing of ages in cycles, the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have tended to see history as aimed toward a final destination point, an end of time in which the ledger books of justice will be balanced and all of humanity will be marched off to either salvation or perdition. This is sometimes called the Apocalypse, and literature devoted to it is called apocalyptic.

What exactly is prophecy? Can we trust it?

The esoteric tradition – the body of knowledge that underlies all the great spiritual traditions of humanity – teaches that the future is, at least in principle, knowable. There are several theories to account for such events (and they are not mutually exclusive). One of these holds that there exists a realm of images and forms, which has many names in many traditions. The Kabbalists call it the world of Yetzirah, or “formation”; quite possibly it is what Australian aborigines call the Dreaming and what some Western occultists refer to as the astral realm. This realm of images does not exist in any physical sense, but all the same it has a reality of its own. If you think of a light bulb, say, that image in your mind has some reality, even some substance, although not physically.

Esotericism also teaches that this world of images is prior to the physical world: events and things manifest in this realm before they appear in palpable reality. Consequently, someone with reasonably clear access to this dimension – deliberately, through divination or prophetic contemplation, or spontaneously, through dreams or hunches or intuitions – should be able to see the future.

Some readers may wonder what this theory may have to do with synchronicity, a concept that is often invoked when people attempt to understand such forms of divination as the Tarot or the I ChingSynchronicity in this sense is a coinage of the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, who defines it as an “acausal connecting principle.” Jung gives a case in point: “The wife of one of my patients, a man in his fifties, once told me in conversation that, at the deaths of her mother and her grandmother, a number of birds gathered outside the windows of the death-chamber.” Such incidents are common: I can tell similar stories from my own family. For Jung, the connection between these events – the deaths and the appearance of the birds – is not causal; that is, the impending death didn’t cause the birds to come or vice versa. But they are related by what he calls a “meaningful cross-connection.”

Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung defined synchronicity as an “acausal connecting principle.”

Jung’s attempt to characterise synchronicity as “acausal” appears misguided. He seems to be veering toward a connection that is not acausal in the strict sense; rather it implies a hidden factor lying outside the physical dimension that, so to speak, “caused” both the death and the appearances of the birds. Jung locates this hidden cause in the realm of the archetypes, the psychic forces that underlie the human mind and possibly reality itself. For Jung, “meaningful coincidences… seem to have an archetypal foundation.”

Granting this much, we are left with a theory very close to the esoteric doctrine sketched out above. Jung’s archetypal world is more or less identical to the realm of Yetzirah, of forms and images. As such it can give rise to two phenomena that have no obvious causal relation (such as a death and the sudden appearance of a flock of birds) and yet seem to be meaningfully connected. Jung made much of being scientific, and to a great degree he was – but his conclusions in many respects resemble those of the old occultists.

Another esoteric theory about seeing the future is based on the highly relative nature of time. Time, as Immanuel Kant argued, is one of the basic structural components of our experience, but it is a construct that our minds have imposed on reality. As hard as it may be to imagine, time has no absolute reality in itself (a conclusion to which contemporary physics may also point). If so, it may be possible to step past the portals of our own experiential framework and take some measure of events in the future.

Many spiritual traditions speak of a higher Self, a part of our being that stands over and above our selves as we customarily experience them. The names for this Self are countless. The ancient Greeks called it the daimon; the ancient Romans, the genius; to esoteric Christians, it is the kingdom of heaven or the Christ within. This Self stands outside the personality, the conscious self, and outside the categories of conscious experience, including time. It perceives our lives, not as a sequence of events and experiences that span several decades, but as a whole. It can see a lifetime as we can see a snapshot.

A famous instance of the workings of this Self appears in the Crito of Plato. Socrates, under sentence of execution, is urged to escape by his rich friend Crito, who assures him that he has bribed the guards and can furnish the necessary getaway. Socrates refuses, saying he has had a dream in which a beautiful woman dressed in white appeared to him and recited a line from the Iliad: “On the third day to the fertile land of Phthia thou shalt come.” Socrates takes this as a message from his daimon, the guiding spirit that has directed him all throughout his life, that he will be executed in three days, and that he should not try to escape. One way of understanding such episodes is that the daimon, the Self, can see the whole of one’s life from start to finish, apart from the linearity of time, and can give appropriate guidance. 

Note, however, that, as in Socrates’ case, these glimpses usually have to do with one’s deeper destiny. It’s not a question of picking next week’s lottery number or finding hot stocks. While these are in principle no more unknowable than anything else, one soon discovers that the higher Self is not terribly interested in them – and anyway, how helpful would the knowledge really be? I know directly of only one case where someone got this kind of information. A friend of my father’s once told me he had been awakened in the middle of the night by the image of some numbers that flashed in his mind. It struck him that they might be lottery numbers and that he should buy a ticket using them, but he never got around to it. Of course they were the winning numbers that week.

If these visions of the future are ultimately personal in nature – that is, they are meant to give guidance or inspiration to an individual at crucial junctures in his or her life – what then of prophecy in a grander sense, the prophecy that purports to open a window onto the fates of nations and peoples, and of humanity itself?

As a whole, the record of prophecy in predicting the future on a large scale is not good. We can see this as far back as the start of the apocalyptic genre in Palestine in the second century B.C.E. At the time the Jewish nation was living under the rule of the Hellenistic Seleucid monarchs, who were heirs to a portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. In 167 B.C.E., one of these rulers, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, embarked on a program of forced Hellenisation of the Jews. He set up an altar, and perhaps an image, of Olympian Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jews’ outrage is reflected in the Book of Daniel, one of the earliest apocalyptic writings and the only one to make its way into the Hebrew Bible. Written during the ensuing revolt against the Seleucids, this book sets up Daniel, a legendary sage of the sixth century B.C.E., as the mouthpiece of a prophecy that would “foretell” events 400 years after his time. (The technical term for this practice is vaticinium ex eventu, “prediction after the event.”) Daniel refers to “a vile person” – Antiochus – who will “pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and… shall place the abomination that maketh desolate” (Dan. 11:21, 31) – that is, the idol in the Temple (cf. 1 Macc. 1:54). The archangel Michael will come to Israel’s rescue; the dead will be raised, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Antiochus “shall come to his end, and none shall help him” (Dan. 11:45, 12:1-2).

What happened in fact was that the Jews rose up under the priestly clan of the Maccabees and won back their religious liberties as well as a measure of political autonomy, but this obviously did not begin the end of time. Antiochus did not perish as a result of any obvious divine wrath: he died of natural causes.

Despite its failure as a prophecy, the Book of Daniel established the basic structure of the apocalyptic genre. Arising during some crisis, such texts predict that this event is the harbinger of the imminent Day of Judgment, when justice will be done and evildoers will receive their due. The Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament follows this pattern. Most scholars agree that it is a response to the Roman persecution of Christians in the first century C.E. Here, too, the prophecy, taken as literal truth, is not accurate. The book seems to foretell the end of the Roman Empire and the coming of a millennial kingdom, but this did not happen. The Roman Empire did come to an end (close to 400 years after Revelation was written), but it did not usher in the reign of God on Earth. Rather it initiated a period of collapse and chaos that came to be known as the Dark Ages.

Even the prophecies of Jesus as related in the Gospels do not seem trustworthy. If we are to read what scholars call his Apocalyptic Discourse literally (three versions of it appear in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), we would conclude that he was predicting the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, to be followed by the return of the Son of God. This did not happen either. The Romans did sack the Temple, in 70 C.E., about a generation after Jesus’s lifetime, but Jesus did not return and did not establish a millennial kingdom. Things went on much as they had (except for the Jews, who were expelled from Palestine).

Michel de Nostra-dame (1503-1556), better known as Nostradamus.

I’m using instances from the Bible as it is by far the best-known work of prophecy, but if we were to look at prophecies from other sources, they would not look much better. The American trance medium Edgar Cayce foretold that much of California would be under water by 1972. Nostradamus predicted some kind of great manifestation in the sky for the seventh month of 1999, but the year 1999 had very little that was remarkable, much less cataclysmic, either in the seventh or in any other month. (For more on Nostradamus’s prophecies, see my new book The Essential Nostradamus.)

How, then, can we reconcile the abysmal performance of prophecy as a whole with the esoteric theory that I’ve sketched out above? If we can know the future, why don’t we?

The astral realm is a sea of images. We can think of it as containing every image and idea that every human being has ever thought and possibly will ever think. No sooner do we say this than we realise that this dimension must contain an enormous amount of psychic rubbish – the fears, dreads, and anxieties of humanity, most of which have nothing to do with reality past or present. This dimension is described most clearly in the spiritual text known as A Course in Miracles:

The circle of fear lies just below the level the body sees, and seems to be the whole foundation on which the world is based. Here are all the illusions, all the twisted thoughts, all the insane attacks, the fury, the vengeance and betrayal that were made to keep the guilt in place, so that the world could rise from it and keep it hidden. Its shadow rises to the surface, enough to hold its most external manifestations in darkness, and to bring despair and loneliness to it and keep it joyless.

Without going into the elaborate psychological system of the Course, I will simply point to the notion of the “circle of fear” – a zone of fears, hatreds, and anxieties that lie just below the surface of consciousness. This circle of fear is universal: each of us participates in its creation. Probably only the most enlightened human beings are entirely free from its effects. For the rest of us, it sits underneath our experience of reality like a water table. We all tap into it in our own ways.

This fear is not “about” anything particular; it is not necessarily connected to anything real or substantial; it is simply a nameless, objectless anxiety that can attach itself to anything. It holds tremendous power over each of us precisely because we are usually unconscious of it. We imagine that our fears and anxieties are about something real and justified, but there is something suspect about this belief: no sooner does one anxiety disappear than another pops up to take its place. For many people, this anxiety can manifest in fears about their personal future or about society or humanity or the Earth; for others, it is displaced onto a fear of an imminent end of the world.

Some say fear is a healthy and normal emotion, that without it we could not function in the world. So it may be under certain circumstances. If a man finds himself facing a wild animal, his fear will make him run away. But the kind of fear I am talking about is not healthy. It does not increase our chances for survival; instead it is weakening and debilitating. Much of mental dysfunction no doubt stems from too close a contact with this kind of fear.

Saying this much explains the horrific imagery of so many prophecies, but what about the nice part? What about the beautiful dreams of a utopian future that is always just around the horizon? The explanation is the same. The Yetziratic or astral realm is known to esotericists as the zone of illusion. We can think of it as literally a bandwidth of fantasies and illusions that surround us on a psychic level. While many of these fantasies are negative, there are also many that are positive; they are the flip side of the circle of fear. The power of wishful thinking – which is very strong – can easily lead someone to put all these images together into a picture of the future that involves both terrible calamities (usually visited on one’s enemies) and ultimate salvation (for oneself and one’s own sect). Akiba Drumer’s prophecy in the concentration camp most likely falls into this category.

Our age imagines itself to be more sophisticated than its predecessors, and yet the contemporary mind falls prey to many of the temptations of the past. Cataclysmic and millennialistic thinking is as much with us as ever. The religious-minded cast it in biblical images. The secular mindset translates it into visions of nuclear or environmental disaster. The problems posed by both nuclear power and environmental contamination are very great and should not be dismissed out of hand, but it is also well to separate them from unconscious apocalyptic expectations, which can erupt from the minds of supposedly rational scientists just as easily as they can from men wearing sandwich boards on streetcorners.

Having said this much, we might want to compare prophecy with prediction of a more conventional kind, which has evolved into an academic discipline (or pseudodiscipline) known as futurology. Futurology makes no supernatural assumptions. It is based entirely on what is currently known. It takes current statistics – about population, economic growth, political trends, resource capacity – and extrapolates them into the future. That is its strength but also its weakness. Futurology can only make predictions on the basis of current trends, but one thing we know is that current trends never continue. There are shocks, dislocations, cataclysms. Conventional forecasters cannot predict these; their unpredictability is at the root of their nature.

The apocalyptic prophet faces no such restrictions. He has no incentive to predict more of the same; who would pay attention to him then? So he is entirely happy to foretell all kinds of upheavals, natural and supernatural: the submerging of continents; the manifestation of extraterrestrials; the shifting of the Earth’s pole; the return of Jesus Christ. In a sense, he is right. Cataclysms do occur. But somehow they never occur in the way they were predicted.

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In the end, I personally would not base my plans for the future on any prophetic claims from any source. I can’t say that none of these prophecies will be fulfilled – that would be making a prophecy of my own – but to my mind they haven’t been proved reliable enough in the past to merit any serious attention now. Conventional futurology may offer some insights, but frequently it, too, better represents the analyst’s preconceptions than any reality that is likely to come.

All this still leaves us with the possibility of a knowable future, whose seeds are present in the astral realm amidst all the fears and fantasies. How can we have contact with it? Trying to glimpse the future on a collective level is extremely tricky, often because it is something into which we as individuals are not supposed to stick our noses. Recently a friend of mine used the divinatory technique of horary astrology to ask a question about a national issue. Horary astrology, though not practiced or understood even by most astrologers, can produce quite striking insights for one who knows how to use it. In my friend’s case, the answer was quite sharp: “None of your business.”

When we come to the personal future, the situation is different. I myself have often found that when I needed to be told of something that was going to happen to me, I was informed of it, usually through some form of inner perception, bidden or unbidden. I have not found divination methods like the Tarot or the I Ching to be particularly useful. Astrology, on the other hand, can have remarkable predictive value – provided one knows the system well enough to understand what the stars are saying.

These are my conclusions from my own experience. Others may have different results; these matters are more individual than popular books like to let on. In the end, for me nothing has proved to be of as much value as a clear-sighted determination to see what was going on both inside and outside myself, to look upon my own hopes and fears and wishes, and to bring them face to face to what Freud called “the reality principle.” A.R. Orage, a pupil of the great spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, defined conscience in a rather unusual way as “the simultaneous experience of all one’s emotions.” If one can do this with a naked and even remorseless honesty (and it is considerably harder than it may first seem), one is far more likely to have an accurate basis for future action than if one follows the advice of any number of psychics or prophets.This article was published in New Dawn 100.If you appreciate this article, please consider a contribution to help maintain this website.

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About the Author

RICHARD SMOLEY is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History; The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness; How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). A frequent contributor to New Dawn, he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Visit his blog at

How the N-Word Became Unsayable


Fascinating essay! Written by a linguist whose work I’ve seen over the years, and in this essay reveals that he is Black!

There is also a companion piece by two NYT editors on how and why the Times decided to print…the  various words that are generally not printed in the Times, which are the subject the author is talking about.

–Michael Kelly, H.W.

April 30, 2021 (


By John McWhorter

Dr. McWhorter is a linguist who has written extensively about both race and language. He is the author, most recently, of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter,” from which this guest essay is adapted.

This article contains obscenities and racial slurs, fully spelled out. Ezekiel Kweku, the Opinion politics editor, and Kathleen Kingsbury, the Opinion editor, wrote about how and why we came to the decision to publish these words in Friday’s edition of the Opinion Today newsletter.

In 1934, Allen Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, laid out the history of the word that, then, had “the deepest stigma of any in the language.” In the entire article, in line with the strength of the taboo he was referring to, he never actually wrote the word itself. The obscenity to which he referred, “fuck,” though not used in polite company (or, typically, in this newspaper), is no longer verboten. These days, there are two other words that an American writer would treat as Mr. Read did. One is “cunt,” and the other is “nigger.” The latter, though, has become more than a slur. It has become taboo.

Just writing the word here, I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not.

“Nigger” began as a neutral descriptor, although it was quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people. Its evolution from slur to unspeakable obscenity was part of a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups. It is also part of a larger cultural shift: Time was that it was body parts and what they do that Americans were taught not to mention by name — do you actually do much resting in a restroom?

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That kind of concern has been transferred from the sexual and scatological to the sociological, and changes in the use of the word “nigger” tell part of that story. What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people. (I should also note that I am concerned here with “nigger” as a slur rather than its adoption, as “nigga,” as a term of affection by Black people, like “buddy.”)

For all of its potency, in terms of etymology, “nigger” is actually on the dull side, like “damn” and “hell.” It just goes back to Latin’s word for “black,” “niger,” which not surprisingly could refer to Africans, although Latin actually preferred other words like “aethiops” — a singular, not plural, word — which was borrowed from Greek, in which it meant (surprise again) “burn face.”

English got the word more directly from Spaniards’ rendition of “niger,” “negro,” which they applied to Africans amid their “explorations.” “Nigger” seems more like Latin’s “niger” than Spanish’s “negro,” but that’s an accident; few English sailors and tradesmen were spending much time reading their Cicero. “Nigger” is how an Englishman less concerned than we often are today with making a stab at foreign words would say “negro.”

For Mandarin’s “feng shui,” we today say “fung shway,” as the Chinese do, but if the term had caught on in the 1500s or even the early 1900s, we would be saying something more like “funk shoe-y,” just as we call something “chop suey” that is actually pronounced in Cantonese “tsopp suh-ew.” In the same way, “negro” to “nigger” is as “fellow” is to “feller” or “Old Yellow” is to “Old Yeller”; “nigger” feels more natural in an Anglophone mouth than “negro.”

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“Nigger” first appeared in English writings in the 1500s. As it happens, the first reference involved “aethiops,” as it had come to refer to Ethiopia, or at least that term as applied sloppily to Africa. We heard of “The Nigers of Aethiop” in 1577, and that spelling was but one of many from then on. With spelling as yet unconventionalized, there were “neger,” “nigur,” “niger,” “nigor” and “nigre” — take your pick.

It was, as late as the 1700s, sometimes presented as a novelty item. The Scottish poet Robert Burns dutifully taught, referring to “niger,” that it rhymes with “vigour, rigour, tiger.” Note, we might, that last word. If “tiger” rhymes with “vigor” and “rigor,” that means that “tiger” could once be pronounced “tigger,” which then sheds light on the rhyme:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tigger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe.

“Tigger,” then, was a polite substitute for the original “nigger.” After all, do we really imagine a tiger hollering in protest? So, for one, we gain insight into why the Winnie-the-Pooh character is called “Tigger” and the books are so vague on why it’s pronounced that way. That was an available alternate pronunciation to A.A. Milne. But more to the point, the original version of the “Eeny, meeny” doggerel is a window into how brutally casual the usage of “nigger” once was, happily trilled even by children at play. For eons, it was ordinary white people’s equivalent of today’s “African-American.”

Someone wrote in passing in 1656 that woolly hair is “very short as Nigers have,” with the term meant as a bland clinical reference. “Jethro, his Niger, was then taken,” someone breezily wrote in a diary 20 years later. And this sort of thing went on through the 1700s and 1800s. Just as “cunt” was a casual anatomical term in medieval textbooks, “nigger,” however spelled, was simply the way one said “Black person,” with the pitiless dismissiveness of the kind we moderns use in discussing hamsters, unquestioned by anyone. After a while, the current spelling settled in, which makes the contrast with today especially stark.Related in OpinionMore on racism in America.Opinion | Dorothy A. BrownYour Home’s Value Is Based on RacismMarch 20, 2021Opinion | Damon YoungRacism Makes Me Question Everything. I Got the Vaccine Anyway.April 9, 2021Opinion | Caroline Randall WilliamsYou Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate MonumentJune 26, 2020

Its use straddling the 19th and 20th centuries is especially interesting: While America was becoming recognizable as its modern self, its denizens said “nigger” as casually as today we do “boomer” or “soccer mom.” Frank Norris’s anthropological realism is an example. In his “Vandover and the Brute,” set at the end of the 1800s, the white protagonist in San Francisco squires a gal about town who has been doing some teaching and tells him

about the funny little nigger girl, and about the games and songs and how they played birds and hopped around and cried, “Twit, twit,” and the game of the butterflies visiting the flowers.

Annals of popular dancing shortly after this era gaily chronicled dances such as the bunny hug, turkey trot and grizzly bear but discreetly left out that a girl like the one in “Vandover” was equally fond of one called the nigger wiggle, named as if Black people were just one more kind of amusing animal. (This dance entailed, for the record, a couple putting their hips together and holding each other’s rear ends.)

Of course, the word was also used in pure contempt. Not long after “Vandover,” William Jennings Bryan, the iconic populist orator, as secretary of state, remarked about Haitians, “Dear me, think of it, niggers speaking French.” Meanwhile, the Marine in charge of Haiti on the behalf of our great nation at the time, L.W.T. Waller, made sure all knew that whatever their linguistic aptitudes, the Haitians were “real nigs beneath the surface.”

There was a transitional period between the breeziness of “real nigs beneath the surface” and the word becoming unsayable. In the 20th century, with Black figures of authority insisting that Black Americans be treated with dignity, especially after serving in World War I, “nigger” began a move from neutral to impolite. Most Black thinkers favored “colored” or “Negro.” But “nigger” was not yet profane.

Film is, as always, illuminating. We have been told that early talkies were splendidly vulgar because, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck’s character openly sleeps her way to the top in “Baby Face.” But linguistically, these films are post-Victorian. That character never says “fuck,” “ass” or “shit” as the real-life version would, and in films of this genre, that reticence includes “nigger.” It is, despite the heartless racism of the era, almost absent from American cinema until the 1960s. Rather, we today can glean it in the shadows: There it reigned with an appalling vigor.

So in the film “Gone With the Wind” no one utters it, but in the book it was based on, which almost everyone had read, Scarlett O’Hara hauls off with, “You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you.” And she then thinks, “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” As in, there was now a veil coming down, such that one was supposed to be polite — approximately in the book, conclusively in the movie. But still, it was always just under the same surface that our Marine saw “nig”-ness through.

Same period, 1937: a Looney Tunes cartoon (“Porky’s Railroad”) has Porky Pig as the engineer in a race between trains. Porky’s rival zooms past a pile of logs and blows them away to reveal a Black man sitting, perplexed. Today we wonder why this person was sitting under a pile of logs. The reason is that this was a joke referring to the expression “nigger in the woodpile,” an old equivalent of “the elephant in the room.” No Looney Tunes characters ever utter “nigger,” but this joke reveals that their creators were quite familiar with the word being used with joy.

Even into the 1970s, the word’s usage in the media was different from today’s. “The Jeffersons,” a television sitcom portraying a Black family that moves from working-class Queens to affluence in a Manhattan apartment tower, was considered a brash, modern and even thoughtful statement at the time. Here was the era when television shows took a jump into a realism unknown before, except in flashes: The contrast between the goofy vaudeville of “Here’s Lucy” and the salty shout-fests on “The Jeffersons” is stark. So it was almost a defining element of a show like “The Jeffersons” that loudmouthed, streety George Jefferson would use “nigger” to refer to Black people with (and without) affection.

George freely hurled it while playing the Dozens in an early episode. (“Take this elite nigga, wolfin’ at my door / With your yellow behind, I’m gonna mop up the entire floor!”) On the show the character began in, “All in the Family,” while bigoted Archie Bunker does not use the word, as his real-life counterpart would, George uses it, such as when he rages about the possibility of having (white) Edith Bunker help out at his dry-cleaning location. (“The niggers will think she owns the store, and the honkies will think we bleached the help!”)

Nor are only Black people shown using it; the writers air the “real” “nigger as well. White men use it a few times on an episode in which George meets modern Klansmen. But white people aren’t limited to it only in very special episode cases like this. George calls his white neighbor Tom Willis “honky,” and Tom petulantly fires back, “How would you like it if I called you ‘nigger’?” Then, that read as perfectly OK (I saw it and remember); he was just talking about it, not using it. But today, for Tom to even mention the word at all would be considered beyond the pale — so to speak.

The outright taboo status of “nigger began only at the end of the 20th century; 2002 was about the last year that a mainstream publisher would allow a book to be titled “Nigger,” as Randall Kennedy’s was. As I write this, nearly 20 years later, the notion of a book like it with that title sounds like science fiction. In fact, only a year after that, when a medical school employee of the University of Virginia reportedly said, “I can’t believe in this day and age that there’s a sports team in our nation’s capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to Blacks,” the head of the N.A.A.C.P., Julian Bond, suggested this person get mandatory sensitivity training, saying that his gut instinct was that the person deserved to simply be fired. The idea, by then, was that the word was unutterable, regardless of context. Today’s equivalent of that employee would not use the word that way.

Rather, the modern American uses “the N-word.” This tradition settled in after the O.J. Simpson trial, in which it was famously revealed that Detective Mark Fuhrman had frequently used “nigger” in the past. Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor, refused to utter the actual word, and with the high profile of the case and in his seeming to deliberately salute Mr. Read’s take, by designating “nigger” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Mr. Darden in his way heralded a new era.

That was in 1995, and in the fall of that year I did a radio interview on the word, in which the guests and I were free to use it when referring to it, with nary a bleep. That had been normal until then but would not be for much longer, such that the interview is now a period piece.

It’s safe to say that the transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective or something a prosecutor said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.

This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “nigger” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language”and, most recently, “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever,” from which this guest essay is adapted.

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The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus The Christ

Chapter 84: Verse 22: But Jesus said, The greatest power in heaven and earth is thought.

23. God made the universe by thought; he paints the lily and the rose with thought.

24. Why think it strange that I should send a healing thought and change the ethers of disease and death to those of health and life?

25. Lo, you shall see far greater things than this, for by the power of holy thought, my body will be changed from carnal flesh to spirit form; and so will yours.

26. When Jesus had thus said he disappeared, and no one saw him go.

27. His own disciples did not comprehend the change; they knew not where their master went, and they went on their way.

28. But as they walked and talked about the strange event, lo, Jesus came and walked with them to Nazareth of Galilee.