Witchcraft: Remembering Michael Bertiaux
It was back in the summer of 1977 on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Chicago that I got to meet the notorious Michael Bertiaux. I had traveled with my teacher and High Priest, Christopher Syn (Bill Schnoebelen) and selected members of our group from Milwaukee (the infamous “coven from hell”) to attend one of Michael’s lectures. Michael was giving a lecture to a quasi theosophical group consisting mostly of elderly women (who seemed to adore him), and it was so philosophically banal and boring that I can’t remember today what it was about.
I do remember buying a copy of Kenneth Grant’s newest book “Nightside of Eden” from him, which had Michael Bertiaux’s signature and date on the front inside cover, and certain colored pencil tables and other writings in the back inside cover. Those tables and writings were from the supposed “Choronzon Club” lore, and represented the methodology of path working for the back side of the Tree of Life. (It took me nearly seven years later to figure out what it meant and how it worked.) This book was part of a collection of books, recorded cassette tapes and other paraphernalia that Bertiuax was selling to those who had attended his lecture. I talked briefly to Michael after purchasing the book, showing him the colored pencil notes in the back, and seeing that Michael really regretted parting with this book and offered to buy it back, which I smugly declined. Yet it was after we had left the lecture hall and went out to dinner that I got to hear more of the kind of strange and bazar occultism that was Bertiaux’s hallmark perspective, which he applied to nearly everything!
(As a side note, one of Bertiaux’s cassette tapes that Christopher had bought contained an impromptu lecture on the Chaldean Oracles, which is probably one of the more important writings from antiquity. I borrowed it from Christopher, and popped it my cassette player, expecting to hear a lot of amazing revelations. I was truly astonished at how superficial it was. I learned nothing from it, and it would seem that when Michael recorded it, he was also quite ill, and had to stop the tape whenever a coughing fit overcame him. That was an important lesson - not everything that Bertiaux did was worthy or valuable.)
I found Michael to be highly creative, intellectually facile, extremely imaginative, charming, in an old world sort of way, and full of outlandish occult tales of power, horror and secret lefthand path societies. From his perspective, the world had a definitive Lovecraftian taint, mixed with the musty scent of long dead corpses and the exciting thrill of true evil. But who was Michael Bertiaux and what was he really like? I can answer these questions, although what I learned about him happened so many years ago. Yet it made such an impression on me that I have not forgotten any of it. Meeting and interacting with Michael Bertiaux was certainly not something that anyone would ever forget. (I do believe that people change and no one stays the same, but after my experiences with him, I never had any desire to see if Michael himself had actually changed.)
Why am I writing about this weird occultist and what happened between us over thirty years ago? Why indeed!
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about a supposed classic work written by Bertiaux, entitled “The Gnostic Voudoun Workbook,” a creepy favorite tome for collectors and afficionados of the ultra-obscure. This book is as famous now as its notorious author, a white Midwestern American who blended the traditions of Haitian Voudoun and various systems of Western occultism long before others in the U.S. had ever thought of doing it. Yet Michael Bertiaux crawled out of complete obscurity into the black light of occult notoriety not by his own skill or enterprise, but by the efforts and gratuitous attentions to the dark side of occultism propagated by Kenneth Grant in his numerous books.
Kenneth Grant made Michael Bertiaux famous within a small community of ceremonial magicians and occultists. If it wasn’t for Kenneth Grant, I doubt that Michael Bertiaux would have been known outside of his Chicago community, and even within that locale, Michael was very, very obscure. His fame was wholly spread by the books written by Kenneth Grant, and since then, some have believed the hype and stories spread about him. Michael himself has helped to spread a lot of rumors and tall tales about himself, and delighted in the effect that it had on others. Scandal and controversy were always a part of what Michael did and said, so I suppose his greatest curse would have been to be ignored or dismissed.
While it is true that I have a copy of his book in my occult library, and I have attempted to read it through a few times (only to give up), having known Michael Bertiux in the late 70's (which would have been considered his “hay days”), I can truly say that I don’t take him, his book or his methodologies very seriously. I would also advise others not to seek any nuggets of wisdom from Bertiaux’s writings, because honestly, I truly believe that there aren’t any. I also believe that there are a lot of better sources for all of the topics that his book attempts to cover. Michael’s writings are tainted by his disguised brutal sense of humor and by his own astonishing imagination, which he tended to liberally use to fill in the blanks or make something far more interesting or sinister than it might have been. Michael is, therefore, something akin to a pulp fiction writer and a tabloid publisher. It’s probably an impossible task to distill his writings to determine the actual traditions and practices from which they are derived, so I have given up attempting to do so.
Additionally, to have a serious conversation about the book “The Gnostic Voudoun Workbook” is to give far greater credence to Bertiaux than what he really deserves. I will maintain that he was a capable occultist and could work fairly malefic magick if he so desired, but he never represented any kind of traditional teaching or initiation. Bertiaux was a creative huckster who had very little respect for any tradition. He used magickal and occult lore to paper his world much like a child would use the beautiful photographs in a slurry of magazines to create amusing collages.
Therefore, when I read about occultists giving Michael Bertiaux’s writings a serious critique, I found it quite ridiculous. I am almost certain that Michael would find such discussions to be very amusing, too. Like Aleister Crowley, Michael believed that any PR was good PR, and after all, it only helps to sell more books. I have even heard through the grapevine that Michael is planning on publishing more books (“Cosmic Meditation” and “Vudu Cartography”), and why not? His first book is a classic that has sold for hundreds of dollars on the internet, but most would find it to be a confused mishmash of hoodoo, Haitian voudoun, Thelema, Shintoism (?) and every other obscure religious or occult system pasted together in a curious but delirious manner. To me, this book is a sinister joke, but you would have had to know Michael Bertiaux to appreciate the punch line.
I knew Michael Bertiuax from around the summer of 1977 through the summer of 1979. I have recounted in a previous article the story about the last time I visited him in his Chicago lair, where he demonstrated to me the art of Megapolisomancy. You can find that article here, just in case you missed it. I also visited Michael with my teacher, Bill Schnoebelen, and was off-handedly initiated into the cult of Baron Samedi as a fully vested priest or houngan, you can find an article describing that event here. Do I feel different because of this event? Does this mean that I have a valid Haitian initiatory lineage included with everything else that I am working and doing with my occultism? The answer to these questions is a very solid “no.” This initiation was done as a way of attempting to gain access to me, and since I never let Michael in, either physically or magickally, I would have to say that nothing significant happened to me, luckily. I was forced to quickly drink a large goblet of Jack Daniels Wild Turkey, but for some odd reason I remained stone cold sober, probably because I didn’t trust Michael and was very much on my guard.
This sounds like a juicy tale and a bit of gossip, so I will satisfy the curiosity of my readers and briefly relate it. As an object lesson, it says everything that anyone needs to know about Michael Bertiaux. I found him to be cruel, manipulative, ruthless, and completely without any human compassion whatsoever. This is not the kind of person that you could trust, believe in, nor would you place yourself into his hands for any reason. I would rather offer my head to the gaping jaws of a crocodile than give myself into the hands of this man. Anyway, I am digressing here, so let us get back to the story.
Back in the summer of 1977, I was quite taken with Michael Bertiaux. Having read and reread the book “Cults of the Shadow” written by Kenneth Grant, I was eager to meet him. Michael was a big deal for our coven, so we all began to study and engage with various African Traditional Regions, particularly with the Haitian diaspora variations. We weren’t really interested in the outer court religious beliefs and practices of the common man, and we had little respect or understanding for the Haitian culture. We were, in a word, occult pirates who were trawling for new thrills and supposedly forgotten dark practices, and Michael served us up a bounty of these beliefs and practices, being a pirate himself. We sought out the practices of the bokor or black magician, and the various obscure occult orders where such individuals met and congregated. It’s likely that these traditions and occult systems were mostly invented by Bertiaux, or based on some facts mixed with rumors and legends, and he also filled them out with his own concoctions. It’s hard to say what was authentic and real, and since we were steeped in our fantasy associated with those beliefs and practices, we really didn’t care. Besides, who had the time and money to travel to Haiti and actually perform the proper kind of research to verify what Michael was telling us?
At first, only two members of our extended coven periodically went down to Chicago to work with Michael. Those two members were Christopher and a senior member named John, yet after the first trip, only Christopher went down to see Bertiaux. It seemed that John’s first experience was too traumatic to be repeated. I thought this strange, but John regaled us with his frightful experiences with Bertiuax. It would seem that Michael used a form of sexual terrorism to get his students into the right frame of mind for his various occult and magickal operations. He would select an approach that was guaranteed to frighten and unbalance his subject, acting as either a homosexual or a heterosexual lover, as it suited him. His unwanted advances would be rationalized as being the only manner that such occult knowledge and initiatory mysteries could be communicated. It was an excuse to sexually abuse and exploit individuals who came seeking knowledge and special teachings, and Bertiaux had no problem obliging those foolish enough to accede to his desires.
Michael was around middle height, portly, with a dark Mediterranean complexion and features. He was bald, bearded and hirsute, having hairy knuckles and even hairy toes. His back and shoulders had a pelt of coarse hair, so he had a kind of beast-like quality when naked, except for the top of his head. He wore glasses, except when working magick and not needing to read. How do I know such intimate details about this man? I am sure you can guess - I saw him nude on more than one occasion during my short two adventures working magick with him.
Michael often performed his Voudoun ceremonies completely nude, or sometimes he would wear a mask. This was quite a departure from Michael the wandering bishop, who would wear beautiful handmade silk and satin vestments and perform private masses using the Greek Orthodox rite (of St. Basil). In his mundane habits, Michael would wear rather drab and even ill fitting clothes - he looked a bit like a slob. He was much more comfortable wearing exotic outfits than fitting in with the urban masses. Since he worked for the State of Illinois in the capacity of a bureaucrat in the government aid services, he probably wore a nice suit and easily fit in with the grey masses of fellow bureau workers. I never saw him wear a suit, since the few times I visited were during weekends.
My initiation consisted of first being completely naked, presented to the various spirits and lwa of the dead, then being forced to drink a third of a bottle of Wild Turkey, and finally, being sexually accosted by this man. I remember distinctly lying naked on the floor of his temple, with this rather flabby fury man laying on top of me, pinning me down while attempting to french kiss me (as I gritted my teeth) and thereby arouse me. Yet all it did was bring out in me a sense of complete revulsion and a stubborn willpower to keep myself from being violated in any manner. I succeeded in that, but then probably didn’t receive the full blessing of being magickally affected or transformed by Michael’s operation. I was given a title and an accolade later, but I actually felt little changed, and I was just relieved that I had avoided any spiritual contamination. My teacher just accepted all of this without a single complaint, and didn’t intercede for me when it was obvious that I was resisting Bertiaux with all my efforts. I was also restrained out of courtesy and some degree of openness to Michael, since otherwise, I would have become violent towards him.
I now know why Christopher didn’t interfere with Michael when he was assaulting me, and that is, he had hopes to receive the many blessings of Bertiaux’s initiations. Indeed, he underwent many initiations, got his bishop’s consecration and other titles, and much of this is actually documented in his books. Christopher, or Bill Schnoebelen, which was his real name, completely cooperated with Michael Bertiaux for a couple of years. He probably had to endure quite a bit of sexual abuse at his hands. I have heard that others who have sought out initiations from Michael Bertiaux received far more than they bargained for, having to forbear him with the favor of anal sex as a certification of the transmission of legitimate occult initiations. Although I had been offered such enticements myself, after just one episode, I tactfully demurred any further accolades. I found Michael’s admission price for initiation into his dubious mysteries much too high to pay, and I knew that I could get the same lore and initiations (if I really wanted them) from other less exploitative sources.
Michael’s history, or how he came to acquire all of this knowledge, was not really a secret. Michael freely told the story about how in the early sixties (1963), he was sent to Haiti as a Christian missionary (in the Anglican church), and I believe that he was, at the time, not a Catholic, but with Catholic sympathies. However, after spending a short time in Haiti, and meeting the man who would become his teacher and mentor (Dr. Jean-Maine), Michael supposedly aborted his missionary job and stayed in Haiti for a number of years. It was there that Michael became an old Catholic bishop (although there is some question about his actual lineage) and acquired a lot of his Voudoun initiations, including learning to be a bokor and gaining access to some of the more obscure and secret occult organizations.
Keep in mind that this was during the time when Duvalier Sr. was running the country. It’s even rumored that his teacher had to leave Haiti in the last years of his life during Baby Doc’s reign. How much of this was factual is subject to debate. I did see pictures of Michael’s teacher, from older black and white photos to more recent color pictures. Michael also appeared to know a lot of people, including French and European occultists, and others from South America as well as the Carribean. He talked on the phone to some of these individuals during my visits, sometimes in French, and he also talked with his mother at least twice, which made Michael seem more human. I can say that he loved his mother fiercely, and acted as the dutiful son when talking to her on the phone. (I found this to be quite comical, because while talking to his mother, he was sitting in an apartment full of things that she would probably find abhorrent.)
While I stayed with Michael for that one full weekend (and there was another brief weekend some months later), I had to fend him off constantly - he saw it his duty to keep me on the defensive the entire time. However, I also had time to look over Michael’s voluminous papers, notebooks and other materials. Some of what was published in Michael’s book consisted of loose type-written papers back then. I even got to play around with a device that Michael had crafted which he used to travel back and forth in time. It was an old metal lamp cover for a reading light tree which had wires attached to it, connecting it to a flat piece of wood, brightly painted with silver and gold paint on a black background. It was voudoun magickal micro-circuitry (according to Michael), and the lamp shade part, which was shaped like a cone, fit over the head. I never got to try it out to see if it actually worked.
Other devices that Bertiaux had was a black box with a black light in it, which he used for a kind of Voudoun seance, and various African fetishes, some of them authentic. He also had an electrostatic massage wand, which he threatened to use on my privates. Michael’s furniture was ornately painted and decorated with bright colors depicting snakes, scorpions, centipedes, spiders, vevers, sigils and anything else that was spooky or ooky. His walls were covered with hundreds of paintings, depicting either Voudoun or even Lovecraftian horror themes (some of these are shown in Kenneth Grant’s books). At night, these variously primitive horrific paintings and garish furniture seemed to come alive and move and quiver of their own volition, since they were often painted in Acrylics using pure electric or complimentary colors. In a sense, Michael’s home was like sorcerer’s toy box, full of papers, notebooks, magickal implements of various kinds, strange books, paintings, luxurious Persian carpets, Greek Orthodox icons and the images and regalia of black magick - it was a highly cluttered large apartment full of beauty, strange wonder and horror. This is what attracted poor souls to Michael, all of them somehow hoping to gain some of this knowledge. He took from them whatever he could get, mostly in the way of sexual favors, psychic access and various forms of vicious manipulation.
During my two visits to see this man, Michael Bertiaux had moved his residence from one location to another on the east side of Chicago. He had at first lived in a large basement flat that had little light to illuminate it during the day. It was a gloomy and tenebrous place, with walls painted a dingy green pastel that seemed to fit Michael quite well. Some months later, he moved to a lofty penthouse apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. This apartment was well lit and actually bright and luminous during the day, with bright white walls and many colorful carpets, yet at night it became the same shadowy place full of nameless things skulking around that his old apartment had been. Spending the night in Michael’s home, although considered an honor, was neither peaceful nor pleasant, at least for me.
Michael was a heavy drinker when I knew him, although alcohol never seemed to have much of an effect on him. He told us that the alcohol served to feed the spirits who drained it from his body, thus freeing him of its influences. I believe that I had experienced the same thing while working with him. He was a gracious host, always serving various exotic mixed drinks to his guests, but I always supposed that he did it to get his guests inebriated so as to make them more amendable to his manipulations. Michael once joked that he wanted to take the various bottles of liquor in his liquor cabinet and remove their labels, replacing them with planetary, Qabbalistic and zodiacal symbols. Then he could mix together various liquors to create what he called Qabbalistic cocktails. To this day I wonder if he actually did that - it seemed like a very creative and amusing idea. While sharing drinks with his guests, Michael would engage in his most favorite pastime; he would gossip about other famous occultists that he knew. Michael also expected his guests to supply him with gossip and dirt on the occultists that they knew. I often wondered if Michael was in the business of blackmailing other occultists, or at the very least, helping to spread rumors and reveal the improprieties of others.
I found all of Michael’s fetishes, magickal toys and volumes of occult lore to be fascinating and highly alluring - but the price was too high, so I passed on obtaining any of it. I knew that I could be nearly as creative as Bertiaux. I would prefer to know the various sources that I had gathered information from as well as freely admitting to others that I had created or invented something. Michael never admitted to creating or inventing anything. It was all from his various teachers and contacts, and even spirits or lwa, and all of it, according to him, was from traditional sources; but those sources were never cited nor indicated anywhere. After my last harrowing visit, I decided that I would cease having any further contact with him.
Since those times I have met other occultists, Thelemic magicians of various stripes (like Allen Greenfield) who have fully engaged Michael Bertiaux to gain his knowledge, acquire some of his voluminous papers and receive initiations. I also know that they paid a very high price for that knowledge or those initiations. Being made a bishop by Bertiaux was something of an inside joke for me and others who had personally known him, since we knew that the recipient of such an honor had to give himself or herself to Michael in a very intimate way. Yet I never had any regrets about disconnecting myself from Bertiuax, and never sought to reconnect with him.
As an object lesson, I believe in sharing my occult knowledge with others and in engaging with groups in a completely egalitarian manner. I would never exploit a student or take advantage of them. In short, my brief adventure with Michael Bertiaux and Bill Schnoebelen taught me to respect and honor anyone who came to me for knowledge or experience. I learned a priceless lesson from these two men about how not to teach and engage with other people.