Cult Classics

Edifying or entertaining sacred texts you’ve never read

Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles Godfrey Leland (1899).

Leland was researching Tuscan folklore when a woman named Maddelena gave him a handwritten copy of the supposed gospel of an ancient pagan religion reportedly still surviving underground in Christian Italy. The gospel tells the myths of the goddess Diana and her daughter Aradia (Herodias), and describes a whole spirit world of fairies and goblins, even offering practical advice about holding a witches’ sabbat. Whatever its origins, it is a major source of later claims that witchcraft represents a genuinely ancient religious faith, making Aradia the great-grandmother of modern neo-paganism. Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be delighted to discover yet another religion in which a woman named Magdalene plays a critical apostolic role.

The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling (1907).

Dowling, an Ohio-born doctor and pastor, claimed to access the whole truth of Jesus of Nazareth’s mission through a kind of channeling. The Aquarian Gospel records Jesus’ extensive pilgrimages, through western India and Persia, Greece and Egypt, during which he taught the universal truth of human divinity, realized gradually through a process of repeated rebirth. Dowling’s work helped establish the popular New Age notion of Jesus as a displaced guru, who must have at least visited Tibet.

The Urantia Book (1955).

If The Aquarian Gospel still bears some vague resemblance to the New Testament, The Urantia Book reads like a mix of William Blake’s visions, Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth, and an astronomy textbook. This 2,000-page behemoth was channeled over a period of several years in the 1920s and 1930s, and compiled under the guidance of a Chicago doctor named William S. Sadler. It chronicles the past few hundred million years of geologic and evolutionary change on the planet Urantia, also known as Earth, culminating in the reincarnation of a spiritual leader we call Jesus. Bizarre, obsessive, and occasionally stunning.

The Necronomicon (date uncertain).

The 1920s horror writer H. P. Lovecraft made no pretense about the sources for the ancient lore with which he peppered his stories: he got most of it from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet so convincingly did he depict the entirely invented occult texts in his books that many later writers have tried to find them and, when that failed, to reverse-engineer them. The greatest Lovecraftian pseudo-text was the sinister Necronomicon (“the law of the dead”), reportedly put into its known form by Abdul Alhazred in the eighth century A.D. Among its most cited lines: “That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die.” Since the 1970s, several quite separate editions have been published, drawing variously on ancient Babylonian mythology and on Renaissance occultism; commentaries also exist. None, obviously, is authentic—although, as postmodern scholars of religion like to remind us, the concept of “authenticity” can be rather shaky when applied to anyone’s scriptures.