Professor Robert Mathiesen was born in 1942 into a family that, on his mother’s side, has proudly been “otherwise-minded” for many generations
Some of his first immigrant ancestors were among the Separatist (Brownist) heretics who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. One of them, Isaac Allerton, was also an associate and friend of Thomas Morton, the man who set up the very first maypoles in British North America, in 1626 and 1627. Another, Jonathan Brewster, was an alchemist, who practiced his art in the New England wilderness at his trading post on Brewster’s Neck, Connecticut.
Later generations moved slowly westward, ending up in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1880s. There they felt able to pursue more openly all their esoteric interests. Among them were Swedenborg’s arcane teachings; Spiritualist séances and energy work; the sort of “magic with the serial numbers filed off” that was taught (though not called “magic”) by the New-Thought movement; esoteric physical culture according to the Delsarte method, as elaborated by Genevieve Stebbins; popular occultism as found in the novels of authors like Marie Corelli, H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer; and the West-Coast nature religion exemplified by John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, and the California poet, Joaquin Miller.
Robert’s first esoteric teacher, outside of his own family, was Clesson Hopkins Harvey (1925-2012), who was teaching physics in Berkeley High School, but also running an after-school club for students who wanted to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Mr. Harvey came from an old Theosophical family, and had received all of his pre-college education in the excellent schools run by Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical colony at Point Loma (near San Diego). Robert continued to study with him, as time allowed, during his undergraduate years at the University of California in Berkeley.
As an undergraduate, the courses that had the greatest impact on Professor’s intellectual development were in anthropological linguistics and the philological study of various dead languages of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, with a focus on its Byzantino-Slavic sector. After college and graduate school, he obtained a position on the faculty of Brown University (in Providence, Rhode Island) in 1967, where he remained until he retired in 2005. There he taught courses in Slavic Studies, in Linguistics, in Religious Studies, and in Medieval Studies, shifting his focus from one decade to another according to changing student interests.
In the early 1990s, within Brown University’s program of extra-Departmental courses, he began to offer a course on the history of magic (Magic in the Middle Ages), and another on the history of women-led magical religions in the United States from 1770 to 1970 (Women, Magic and Power). Occasionally he also offered a course on the history of magic and esotericism in Russia up to 1900 (Esoteric Russia). During those years he published a number of academic articles (and one small book) on the history of magic, magical religions and esotericism. They may all be read for free on his web-page at Academia (please see the link below.) There, too, one may find the syllabi for his two main courses on magic and magical religion (for the last year in which he offered them), and a complete bibliography of all his publications, updated as new ones appear. He was also one of the three founders of the first permanent academic society devoted specifically to scholarship on the history of magic, the Societas Magica (please see the link below.)
These popular courses of his attracted many students with a personal interest in Paganism and Witchcraft, at Brown, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and at other nearby colleges, some of whom went on to become public figures in Paganism, the Occult milieu, and even clergy in liberal Christian denominations. His courses also caught the eye of some established Pagans and Witches in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England. Eventually Robert was invited by Elizabeth Pepper to contribute articles to The Witches’ Almanac, beginning with issue #22. His articles continue to appear in most of the following numbers of the Almanac. He edited Charles G. Leland’s hand-written book of traditional English Witchcraft, The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York (2011), for the Almanac. With Andrew Theitic, he published a scholarly examination of the claims to a family tradition of Witchcraft that were made by the founder of the New England Covens of Traditionalist Witches (N.E.C.T.W.), The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson, and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (2005).
Another, longer account of Professor’s esoteric family background, academic career and various interests may be found in an interview conducted by Ethan Doyle White in September, 2013, and published by him on his blog.
Features contributed to The Witches' Almanac:
Finding the Aradia Papers, The Witches Almanac 2003-2004, p. 38.
Empedocles the Magician, The Witches Almanac 2004-2005, p. 12 Empedocles Defines the Four Elements, The Witches Almanac 2005, .p 12
An Oracle of the Dead, The Witches Almanac 2006-2007, .p 48
Martines de Pasqually, The Witches Almanac 2007-2008, .p 48
The Night of the Watchers - June 5, The Witches Almanac 2008-2009, .p 24
Watching Creation: Egregore, The Witches Almanac 2008-2009, .online
The Book of Enoch, The Witches Almanac 2008-2009, .p 108
The Book of Enoch, The Witches Almanac 2008-2009, online
The Cross-Quarter Days in Old New England, The Witches Almanac 2009-2010, .p 78
More Keys of Solomon, The Witches Almanac 2011-2012, .p 76
Traces of Paganism in The Maine Farmer's Almanac 1932-1957, The Witches Almanac 2012-2013, .p 17
Diana, the Giants, and the Legendary History of England, The Witches Almanac 2013-2014, .p 17
Devils, Demons and Angels, The Witches Almanac 2014-2015, .p 36
Emma Hardinge Britten — Spiritualist medium, occultist—and witch!, The Witches Almanac 2016-2017, .p 78
The Coefficient of Weirdness (Notes Toward a General Theory of Magic, Part II), The Witches Almanac 2017-2018, .p 86
Frazer’s Two Laws of Magic (Notes Toward a General Theory of Magic, Part II), The Witches Almanac 2018-2019, .p 108
The website of the Societas Magica can be found here
A full bibliography of Professor Mathiesen's work can be found here
Read Ethan Doyle White's Interview Professor Mathiesen here