The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties: The Magic, Myth, and Music of the Decade That Changed the World

TOBIAS CHURTON
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018. 672 pp., paper, $40.

One can dispute the ultimate value of the ’60s as far as the quality of the decade’s art, music, or social mores go—and many have. What is harder to dispute is the seismic impact that it made on global culture. On any number of levels it was a period that witnessed profound changes convulsing society, and which continue reverberating in our lives up through the present day.

Author of such books as Occult Paris and Aleister Crowley in America, Tobias Churton turns his gaze toward that volatile decade and tackles the complex question of what spiritual lessons may be drawn from it.

As someone who came of age during that time and who closely followed many of its popular trends, I thought I already knew quite a bit about it. So I was pleasantly surprised by Churton’s encyclopedic overview, which ranges from discussions about developments not only in music, cinema, and television, but in religion, civil rights, and feminism, among many others. It’s a sprawling and kaleidoscopic work, and along the way he manages to sprinkle in a host of curious tidbits that will surprise even close students of the era. (Who knew the great pop composer Burt Bacharach had studied with the pioneering classical composer Darius Milhaud?) In the process he attempts to provide a sense of historical context to the decade, involving side trips into such areas as Gnosticism, medieval troubadours, and Hindu philosophy; he also digs down to mine the deeper import of many seemingly secular manifestations of the time, including the movie Easy Rider or the TV series I Love Lucy.

The book is over 600 pages long, so I sometimes feared the essential thread of his argument was in danger of getting lost amidst the avalanche of facts, figures, and personalities he’s somehow able to marshal up with little effort. (Unfortunately, I suspect the book’s hefty length might also keep away some readers, especially younger ones, who are accustomed to consuming information in more sound-bite form.) But he’s an engaging writer and in the end manages to tie those diverse threads together in a way that reveals more ambiguity about the topic than I initially suspected he might bring to it. He doesn’t pretend to present the decade through the rose-colored glasses many now associate with that time, but neither does he give short shrift to its more profound and esoteric implications.

While the book is exhaustively researched, there are some areas I wish had been included that are mentioned only in passing. As an astrologer, I felt his book could have benefited from a discussion of the astrological dynamics at work at the time, since those are so critical to illumining the turbulent and creative manifestations of the decade. But that would have taken his book in a somewhat more arcane direction than he intended, and it would have expanded an already large book even more, so that’s more of a personal quibble than a damning criticism. For readers interested in adding just such a perspective to their understanding of this period, I recommend reading Richard Tarnas’s (equally hefty) volume Cosmos and Psyche alongside Churton’s, specifically its passages on the revolutionary interaction of Uranus and Pluto during the ’60s. Another useful resource complementing Churton’s would be Gary Lachman’s excellent volume Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, which focuses on the more turbulent and troubling elements at work during the decade without ignoring its more positive contributions. 

All in all, Churton has written a fascinating and important book, and it is a must-read for any reader with an interest in the ’60s or contemporary culture generally.

Ray Grasse

Ray Grasse worked on the editorial staffs of Quest Books and Quest magazine from 1989 to 1999. He is author of several books, including Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), which includes an astrological discussion of the ’60s and their relevance to the emerging Aquarian Age. His website is www.raygrasse.com.


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