Our writer Patrick speaks to and profiles the renegade historian Mark Mirabello as he reflects on his relationship with the University of Glasgow.
In 1979, with his master’s degree at the University of Virginia coming to an end, Dr. Mark Mirabello was considering where to go next. He grew up in Ohio, and showed himself to be a star historian at the local University of Toledo. By the time of his MA, his work had attracted international acclaim, and he had received offers for further study at prestigious institutions: the University of Oxford, Trinity College Dublin, and McGill University. However, he was particularly attracted to Scotland, and was fascinated to learn more about the country’s “colourful history”. He was finally won over to the University of Glasgow when the late Professor Archibald Duncan, then Chair of Scottish History and Literature, travelled to Charlottesville to persuade him. His PhD in Glasgow was funded by a generous scholarship: not only did it take care of his tuition fees and housing, but he graduated with a surplus of $20,000.
He spent the next three and a half years in Glasgow, an experience he describes as “academic bliss”. He rubbed shoulders with fantastic scholars such as Duncan and Ian B. Cowan, who influenced his thinking and “made me what I am”. When not busy with his studies, he revelled in the city’s bookshops, and enjoyed the local food. “There is an old joke that in hell the cooks are English,” he says, “but I know that in heaven the cooks are Glaswegians making fish and chips.” Alas, the city’s accessibility and affordability has waned since his time. He was able to buy an apartment in Garrioch Road for only £7,000: “try that today!”
His final thesis was titled: Dissent and the Church of Scotland, 1660-1690. It remains a valuable source in the field of Scottish religious history, and is still often referenced today. Most historians would be proud to write such an important work, but he distances himself from it. He describes it as a “bland academic work, completely different from my later books and my lectures.” Today, he tries to move away from traditional academic history, and works under an important rule: “the historian must make the dead come alive, and not put the living to sleep.”
“The historian must make the dead come alive, and not put the living to sleep.”
A more important moment for his career came when he was browsing a bookshop on the way to Leith. He was looking through a book by the poet and occultist A. E. Waite when he was approached by a mysterious man dressed in tweed. He learned that the man was a member of the Odin Brotherhood, an esoteric religion which scholars had found impenetrable. Fascinated to learn more about the Brotherhood, he began corresponding with them by mail. They sent him on two trips to London, which proved fruitless, but on his third trip, they trusted him with their real address.
By making contact with them, he became the first academic with a deep understanding of the group. Founded in 1421, they see themselves as the last upholders of the Viking religion of Odinism, which they see as the “primordial religion." Their belief system focuses on multiple, mortal gods, and a strong faith in the afterlife. In 1992, he published his findings: The Odin Brotherhood: A Nonfiction Account of Contact with a Pagan Secret Society. It was the first book to bring the mysterious religion to the public light. He once believed that the society specifically chose him to tell the world their message, but he now believes, quoting the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, that he was “picked at random”.
After finishing his PhD, he returned to Ohio, and became interested in a newly established institute, Shawnee State University. One of the first generation of professors to be hired there, he became an invaluable part of the university. He designed the history degree, introduced an Honors Programme, and built a library collection. He also founded the Otherworld Society, an educational group focusing on the history and philosophy of the afterlife. Today, he is one of the most popular lecturers at the university, and his former students keep updates on him through a Facebook fan group.
Dr. Mirabello has been fascinated by the idea of buried treasure since he was a child, and he has taken this passion with him to Shawnee. Within the concrete of the University library, he planted a capsule containing coded messages guiding towards riches. One of these hidden findings is an interest-bearing bond for the University of Glasgow, protected by nitrogen gas. To give thanks to the university which showed him so much generosity in his youth, he hopes Glasgow will benefit from it being found centuries from now.
"Within the concrete of the University library, he planted a capsule containing coded messages guiding towards riches..."
Shawnee State University brought him to new and exciting horizons, including the opportunity to bring his teaching abroad. In 1994, he spent a year as a visiting professor at Nizhny Novgorod University in Russia. He loved the experience and the people he met, but he came at a very difficult time in the country’s history, as the economy collapsed and organised crime surged. He was once forced to pay $2,000 to a group of gangsters. As a Russian friend explained: “Professor, you are an American, so they will only break your legs, but they will kill us.” He was invited to speak with Boris Nemtsov, then the governor of the state, but declined. Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, and is today often viewed as a hero of liberal democracy, but Dr. Mirabello saw him as nothing more than a corrupt oligarch.
Teaching at a small, young university has many advantages. He happily tells me: “I have been able to function completely outside the ‘Black Iron Prison’ of academic orthodoxy.” He is particularly glad to be able to “ignore the peer-review gauntlet”, an aspect of academic life which, he feels, forces historians to come to the same conclusions. Instead, he specialises in “outlaw history”, exploring events and ideas which most mainstream historians ignore. His work has been studied in various university courses, but he has no great sadness in admitting: “most professors probably ignore my books.”
Dr. Mirabello is a kindly, polite character. He describes himself as a “non-drinking Puritan”, and always has time to help his students. Many are therefore shocked to see what he has produced outside his academic work. In 2005, he published The Cannibal Within, a dark horror novel telling the story of an alien abduction. He compares this maverick work to the noble Strathmore family, the clan of Queen Elizabeth II’s mother. Legend states that monstrous creatures are occasionally born into this family, and kept in a secret room in Angus’ Glamis Castle. Similarly, he says, The Cannibal Within is “my monster”. This monster proved a great success, having been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and translated into Italian by Stefania Marchini.
The University of Glasgow has clearly touched Dr. Mirabello’s heart, and changed how he views the world. But sadly, he describes himself as “the world’s worst tourist”, and has never had the opportunity to return to Scotland since graduating. However, he is quick to add, “if Scotland votes for independence, I will return on my coin to celebrate.”Dr. Mirabello is currently working on a book on secret societies, titled Secret Societies: A Skeleton Key. To learn more about his work, or get in touch with him, visit markmirabello.com.
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