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Der Orchideengarten

Hidden Jewels in ‘The Garden of Orchids’: The Esoteric Content of an Early Fantasy Magazine

The subject of firsts is always difficult, especially when looking across multiple countries. When it comes to the history of magazines then it becomes even trickier due to the volatile lives of magazines, and how many can fade into obscurity before they become noticed by anyone outside a small readership. Publications meant for immediate consumption weren’t always kept to be archived. 

For a long time Weird Tales (probably best known for short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert. E. Howard, and later Ray Bradbury) was seen as the first fantastical magazine, publishing science fiction, weird fiction and horror. That history has been revised over the past few years. Der Orchideengarten (in English, The Garden of Orchids) was a Munich-based magazine first published in 1919, predating the better known American magazine by several years, and is now acknowledged as the first fantasy magazine (archived digitally here).

Only published until 1921 Der Orchideengarten is somewhat overshadowed by its better known, and more mainstream, Munich-based contemporaries, Jugend and Simplissicimus, yet the breadth of stories and unsettling art is worth looking at.

The fiction published was a mixture of original German stories, and translations from English and French, and over its fifty-one issues Der Orchideengarten included stories by such well known names as H.G. Wells.

It’s been noted elsewhere that the art style of Der Orchideengarten is very different from its American cousins. Munich was the home of German expressionism and this influence comes across very clearly in the unsettling covers which draw influence from artists like Paul Klee, mutating them into weird unsettling explorations of the natural world that wouldn’t look out of place illustrating a Jeff Vandermeer story (see some examples of the cover art at Open Culture and 50 Watts).

Der Orchideengarten cover

This connection with Expressionism is even more explicit inside the magazine. While the editors used historical artwork by masters such as Albrecht Durer and Gustav Dore, one of the regular illustrators was the Munich-based artist Alfred Kubin. Kubin’s scratchy otherworldly and downright disturbing artwork is used to full effect in Der Orchideengarten, yet he was also one of the original members of the Munich-based art group Der Blaue Reiter, founded by Franz Marc, Marianne von Werefkin, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Gabriele Münter and several others.

At first glance Kubin’s work depicting people being cut in two, dragged down through the earth, or haunted by demons might not seem natural bedfellows to the multicoloured paintings of Marc and Kandinsky. Yet, it’s clear from correspondence at the time that they were keen to have his work included in the Blaue Reiter exhibitions. I think this is because Kubin’s drawings shared something with the better-known artists; that searching for a deeper spiritual meaning behind the realism of much of German late 19th/ early 20th century art, just that Kubin’s spiritual meaning was darker and grounded in the grotesque.

However, I want to turn attention away from the content to the incidental. As with most magazines, even now, Der Orchideengarten relied on advertising for at least part of its income. Because of the tone of its subject matter Der Orchideengarten attracted a different type of advertiser than Simplissicimus. Lurking between invitations to visit the Hellebrun Zoo, or try the latest cigars, are adverts which will be of interest to readers of the Daily Grail, and allow us to get a feel for the occult interests active in Germany at the time.

The first occurrence of a more esoteric advert in Der Orchideengarten is for Das Reich published by Alexander von Bernus, a member of the Theosophical Society who also had an interest in Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. 

By the fifth issue of Der Orchideengarten there are two very clear adverts, the first a simple text classified, “Kostenfrei. Prospekte über – Seele Kultur/Psychische Forschung / Geheimwissenschaften /Mystik/Theosophie. Verlagsbuchhandlung Max Altmann Leipzig” (Free. Brochures about – Soul Culture / Psychic Research / Secret Sciences / Mysticism / Theosophy. Publishing bookshop), with the second displaying a bold Fraktur typeset headline, declaring “Okkultismus” offering “Aberglaube, Alchimie, Astrologie, Chiromatic, Somambulismus, Magie, Mystik, Spiritismus, Theosophie. Bücher, besonders alte. Über diese Gebiete zu kaufen gesucht. Br. unter „Mystik” an die Expedition ds. Bl.” (“Superstition, alchemy, astrology, chiromatic, somambulism, magic, mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy. Books, especially old ones. Above this Wanted to buy territories. Br. Under “mysticism” to the expedition ds. Bl.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise as Dreiländerverlag, the publishers of Der Orchideengarten, did not shy away from more esoteric topics. From the eighth issue of 1919 they ran adverts for their own book Die Erde — nicht die Sonne Ein geozentrisches Weltbild (The Earth not The Sun – A Geocentric Worldview).

Throughout 1919 esoteric adverts continue to appear, adding to those already discussed, including “Aberglaube! alte Bücher über den Aberglauben aller Länder und Völker, über Hexenwesen und Femgerichte, Seeräuberchroniken und alte Kajütbücher, Okkultes und Galantes. Erbitte genaue Angebote u Preis unter „Aberglaube“ a. d. Exp. d.Orchideeng,” (“Superstition! old books about the superstitions of all countries and peoples, about witches and females, pirate chronicles and old cabin books, occult and gallant. Please ask for exact offers and prices under „Superstition””) but for the moment they are mostly focussed on publications.

At the beginning of 1920 we see a change. An advert for Reinhold Kohlhardt in Berlin offers services for the first time, in this case physiognomically and graphology, whereas in issue eight of that year we seem to get an announcement for the New Christ. Throughout 1920 the esoteric seems largely absent from the classifieds, until issue 11, when we see “Wissenschaftliches INSTITUT und okkulte Heilweise Behandlung von Nervenleiden jeglicher Art, auch chron. Lähmungserscheinungen, Sprachfehler, wie Stottern, Gedächtnisschw., Fallsucht (Epilepsie), Neurasthenie, auch alle ander. Leiden behandelt mit bestem Erfolg. Durch meine Sehergabe, die ich schon fast von meiner Geburt an besitze, bin ich imstande, aus der Photographie eine haarscharfe Diagnose zu stellen. FRIEDRICH BLUM Psychometer und Magnetopath Biberach (Riß), Württemb. Prospekte gegen Einsendung von Mark 1.— in Marken.” (“Scientific Institute and occult healing Treatment of nerve disorders of any kind, Chronic. Paralysis symptoms, speech errors, such as Stuttering, memory black, epilepsy, neurasthenia, also all other. suffering treated with the best of success. Through mine Seer, I already did almost from my birth. I am able to make a crystal-clear diagnosis out from a photograph. FRIEDRICH BLUM. Psychometer and magnetopath. Biberach (Riss), Württemb. Brochures against submission from Mark 1.- to Marken.”), and an advert for the Astrology Institute in Charlottenburg, Berlin. In the 14th issue of 1920 there are four adverts specifically referencing the occult, with a change more towards institutes than publishers offering esoteric books.

In the last issue of 1920 there is a marked increase in occult related adverts, a trend that continues throughout 1921 until the magazine’s demise. This also coincides with an increase in the number of pages devoted to classifieds, so maybe this reflects a need to bring in more income via advertisers due to a fall of in readers. 

This change gives us more of an insight into the type of esoteric interests of the time. For example, Hans Wolf’s Basics of Astrology, “The first scientific work in this field.” Illustrated with a monochrome pentagram, or Uranus-Bücher from professional writer A.M.Grimm, costing 8 Marks, and bringing “significant essays on astrology, esotericism, magic, occultism, and mediums.”

Another has the very insistent headline “Die Sterne lügen nicht!” (“The stars do not lie!”), while an even smaller advert in the same edition offers “Charakter/Schicksal/Zukunft. Belangen Sie sofort nähere Auskunft” (“Character/fate/future. Obtain immediate information.”)

As well as astrology we can see that other methods of fortune-telling were being practiced in Munich at the time. In the second issue of 1921 a small text-only classified declares, “Antwort Aus die Rätsel des Daseins! Der Tarot. Methode der Zukunfts-erforschung als Schlüssel Okkultismus v. Daïtyanus. Gustav Meyrink schreibt ‘Ein sehr gewissenschaft zusammgestelltes Werk, das Je- der Okkultist gelesen haben muß!’” (“Answer to the riddles of existence! The Tarot. Method of future research as a key occultism. v. Daïtyanus. Gustav Meyrink writes ‘A very conscientiously compiled work that every occultist must have read.’”)

While another one is offering insights for more than just the individual. “Deutschlands Zukunft im Lichte spiritistischer, astrologischer u. okkulter Weissagungen 1920 – 35” (“Germany’s Future. In the light spiritist, astrological and. occult Prophecies 1920 – 35”).  Although as this classified is from 1921, it is unclear whether they are claiming a past success rate, or the number of prophecies made in the previous year.

By the time of the penultimate issue of Der Orchideengarten, there are nine adverts explicitly promoting the esoteric and the occult.

As with any historical document, there are a number of filters operating that we need to take into account; those businesses who could afford to buy advertising space, those who were chosen by the magazine, and those who believed the magazine would increase their business. Because of these limitations, we cannot talk about absolutes. 

What does becomes clear from reading Der Orchideengarten is by moving beyond the main substance of the magazine we can glimpse the social history of occult practice in 1920s Germany. This takes our focus away from the main characters and movements of the day, instead turning our attention to the services offered to the wider population who were engaging with occult practitioners as part of their daily life.

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