Authored by Dr. Jeremy Guida – This is the second in a series of three blog posts about women in the Underground Press. See post #1 in the series for an introduction to the topic.
Elfrida Rivers –
“Elfrida Rivers” was a pen-name for well-known science-fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley. Rivers authored an occult-themed column in the East Village Other titled “Emanations.” It ran for nearly a year between 1968 and 1969. Rivers’ column functioned like a Q and A on occult topics. Readers asked questions about astrology, numerology, LSD, witchcraft, psychic phenomena, and also about religious traditions and practices like yoga, Buddhism, and casting the I-Ching. Identifying with the “Western Esoteric Tradition” as she calls it, Rivers gives practical advice to readers looking for information.
In the February 7, 1969 edition of the East Village Other, Rivers answered in her characteristically pragmatic, slightly brusque, and often entertaining manner, the question of a reader concerned that her friend’s younger brother had begun practicing witchcraft and was about to summon the devil. Rivers replies,
“First of all, someone has been reading too many Dennis Wheatley novels. Satan simply does not come at the call of any amateur. If your friend’s brother knows enough about magic to sour milk, he wouldn’t waste his strength and talents in attacking someone simply because they were a “good element.” And if he doesn’t know any better than that, he could attempt all the Black Curses of IcolmKill with no more effect than he’d get from a snappy declamation of a couple of verses of Omar Khayyam!”
“In the second place, no magician who attempts to summon Satan – if, as I say, he knows enough about the subject to sour milk – is going to go around bragging loudly about just who he will attack and when. Magic is like sex; the ones who can do it, don’t go around talking about it all over the place.” (p. 16)
Rivers concludes by recommending the text that she most often recommends to her readers, Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense.
In another column, a reader asks about a book that she or he had just read comparing the works of “Sri Ramakrishna, Ouspensky, Madame Blavatsky, the Maharishi [and] Aleister Crowley” (16). After clarifying that she doesn’t practice “yoga” or “any of the Eastern philosophies,” Rivers replies with what she considers one of the fundamentals of occultism. She writes,
“[T]here is a common core of truth – it might be called the occult truth – to all these philosophies, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to Timothy Leary’s PSYCHEDELIC PRAYERS…This world we live in is only the top layer of an enormously complex spiritual, astral and physical entity, which could be loosely described as something analogous to electrical force. The world we appear to live in, with time, space and subway time-tables, is strictly an illusion; to get down to the nitty-gritty, as it were; the spirit of all, which the Hindus call Brahma and the Western religions, God. (Agnostics and scientists call it Nature, or Force, and who is to say they are wrong?)”
“This is the world as all occultists see it, all the way from Aquarian Agers to Zen Buddhists. The goal of occult search is to break through the illusions and see the Truth. “(p. 16, p. 23)
Rivers’ column was part of an important development in the changes that occurred in the world of American occultism in the late 1960s. Because of countercultural interest, occult information became increasingly culturally pervasive and accessible to those outside of occult groups. Rivers’ column is an example of that information beginning to make its way into the public sphere. Underground papers were an important means for this transformation. In many ways the internet has extended the accessibility of this information.
Rivers’ column was also important because in the 1960s and 1970s, this kind of spirituality was one of the means through which women expressed feminist ideas. The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) regularly demonstrated on behalf of women by publicly hexing organizations and leaders that they deemed oppressive. Another underground paper, WomanSpirit expresses feminist ideas in tandem with this type of spirituality. Printed quarterly at each solstice and equinox, WomanSpirit’s inaugural issue begins,
“This is a crucial time for women. We have begun to understand and work through much of our oppression…When we realize the political implications of all our struggles, we know that patriarchy cannot withstand our changes; something is going to happen. We are feeling stirrings inside us that tell us that what we are making is nothing less than a new culture.”
“What women are doing by exploring the spiritual sides of their lives is essential for the building of a new women’s culture…As we continue to tear down the institutions and relationships that oppress us, we are also building, making, creating. Because this process of taking and leaving, making a new culture, is so deep, profound, and all-inclusive we are calling it spiritual. The sharing and comparing in that process is the reason for this magazine.” (1)
Bradley herself has also made contributions to the work of feminism as a science-fiction author. Her most well-known work, The Mists of Avalon (1983) re-interprets Arthurian legends from the perspective of female characters who struggle to preserve a matriarchal pagan society from the threat of an encroaching patriarchal Christian society. Bradley, writing as Elfrida Rivers, spread occult information, and made more accessible a type of spirituality through which some second-wave feminists expressed themselves.
Works by Elfrida Rivers can be found in the Independent Voices archive.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Random House Pub. Group, 2001.
McMillian, John Campbell. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Morgan, Robin, “Goodbye to All That,” Rat, February 7, 1970.
Peck, Abe. Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.
Elfrida Rivers, “Emanations,” East Village Other, February 7, 1969.
— March 19, 1969.