Secret Societies

Secret Societies Timeline

Howbeit we know after a time there will now be a general reformation, both of divine and human beings, according to our desire, and the expectation of others. For it is fitting, that before the rising of the sun, there should appear and break forth Aurora, or some clearness, or divine light in the sky. And so in the mean time some few, who shall give their names, may join together, thereby to increase the number and respect of our Fraternity, and make a happy and wished for beginning of our Philosophical Canons, prescribed to us by our brother R.C., and the partakers with us of our treasures (which can never fail or be wasted), in all humility and love to be a eased of this world's labour, and not walk so blindly in the knowledge of the wonderful works of God. - Fama Fraternitatis

When the great Hebrew scholar Christian David Ginsberg wrote The Kabbalah: It's Doctrines, Development and Literature in 1863 he observed that apart from Basnage's History of the Jews published in 1708, there were only two, what he referred to as "defective", descriptions of Kabbalah available in English. Graetz, author of the monumental History of the Jews (published 1853-1870) tipped vials of scorn over the entire subject and rubbished Kabbalah wherever it intersected his history. For many Jews in many communities Kabbalah had ceased to be a subject of serious interest. It was not until the publication of Scholem's landmark Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism in 1941 that a sympathetic, discerning and scholarly treatment appeared. During that period a number of popular works on Kabbalah were published, but none were connected with Jewish tradition.

Publications that stand out include Wescott's 1887 edition of the Sepher Yetzirah, Mather's edition of the Sepher De-tzeniuta, Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta (1887), Waite's The Holy Kabbalah (1929), Waite's translations of Eliphas Levi's romantic fantasies, Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah (1935) and Regardie's Tree of Life (1932), Garden of Pomegranates (1932), and The Middle Pillar (1938). One should also mention the huge popularity of Tarot card decks derived from the same loose association of people that contain, hidden within the symbolism, links to Kabbalah. A large number of books that rehash the same basic material have since been published. To understand this outburst of publishing at a time when the English-speaking world had very little literature on Kabbalah, it is necessary to dip into the exotic world of strange, quasi-secret societies and go back three centuries to the beginning of the 16th. century.

Europe in the 15th. century had been dominated by Martin Luther's "95 Theses" and the Protestant Reformation. Far from reaching a point of stability, the patchwork quilt of feudal states and principalities that covered much of central Europe had reached a point of maximal instability and was about to be blighted for an entire generation by the barbarities of the Thirty Years War. Rising levels of literacy and economic growth had produced a new, energetic and often intensely quarrelsome and schismatic class that was to influence events for two centuries: skilled tradesmen, yeoman farmers, and middle-class merchants. It was exactly at the beginning of the 17th century that a community of separatists was created that would go on to form the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. They would be followed by many more non-conformist Protestant groups from all over Europe. Oliver Cromwell, born in 1599, was an educated gentleman farmer who went on to lead an army, to condemn his king to death, and become virtual dictator of the British Isles. Throughout Europe religious debate was pursued at the point of a pike, and often ended at the stake or the gallows.

The technical Hermetica - astrology, alchemy, medicine and magic - were reaching their peak. William Lilly would publish his massive Christian Astrology in 1647. The Hermetic medical theories of Paracelsus (much influenced by the Hermetic and Neoplatonic doctrines of Marsilio Ficino) had become prevalent. Alchemy had become a risky occupation. Many credible stories of transmutations of base metal into gold were in circulation, and  alchemists played a dangerous game with  princely patrons, milking them for resources on one hand, and running the risk of torture for their secrets if they demonstrated any real ability. The extraordinary stories of the Scottish alchemist Alexander Seton, who performed public transmutations across Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, and his rescuer Michael Sendivogius can be found in Mackay's  Memoirs of Extraordinary Public Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

A paradigmatic personality from this period was the German shoemaker Jakob Böehme. After some visionary mystical experiences he produced a vast and intricate corpus describing dynamical processes within the divine. These descriptions have many similarities and linkages to Kabbalah. His writings were to prove influential during the following century.

It was at this point of religious and political ferment that documents known as the Rosicrucian Manifestos were circulated. They appeared in print in Germany c. 1614, but copies appear to have been in circulation some years prior to this. They had a huge impact all over Europe. In brief, according to the manifestos the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, Christian Rosencreuz, had travelled through the East for many years and had acquired a secret knowledge with the power to transform humanity. This esoteric knowledge appeared to be Hermetic, and was based on alchemy, Hermetic medicine akin to that of Paracelsus, and Kabbalah - "Magia, Alchymia and Cabala". Finding that conditions were not receptive to his message, Rosencreuz created a secret order to preserve this knowledge. After his death he was interred in an exotic tomb which had only recently (according to the manifestos) been rediscovered. Applicants were invited to join the order.

These manifestos were taken seriously by all ranks of society, and this included many leading intellectuals. It was like announcing that a secret laboratory using illegal genetics research from a vaguely identified pariah state had discovered a cure for cancer ... and one could apply for treatment. In the light of the 'natural philosophy' of the period these claims, especially with respect to medicine and healing and alchemy, were not incredible. In retrospect the fictional Rosicrucian Order appears like a Protestant attempt to trump the Jesuits (formed only 60 years previously, and very effective in fighting the Reformation) at their own game - an even more secretive, even more virtuous, even more Christian organisation, and with much better technology. A similar furore would be created three centuries later when Madame Blavatsky challenged the ascendancy of 19th. century science with claims of a similar nature (an order of adepts with supernatural powers in Kashmir and Tibet, ancient occult sciences, secret chains of transmission etc).

Within a few decades of the publication of the Rosicrucian Manifestos one finds the first documented evidence of speculative Freemasonry. The origins of speculative Freemasonry are shrouded in obscurity, and the early founders were determined to complicate the picture by producing the most elaborate historical backstories imaginable. The best evidence suggests they were an evolution of medieval trade organisations into a gentlemans' fraternity that preserved some of the traditions, ritual and symbolism of the original operative masons.  Elias Ashmole, a central figure linking occult traditions (especially the angel magic and alchemical theorising of John Dee), Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and early scientific investigation ("natural philosophy") records in his diary that he was admitted as a Freemason in 1646.

As a genuine historical phenomenon Freemasonry did not achieve cultural importance until the early eighteenth century, with the English Grand Lodge being formed in 1717 and the Scottish Grand Lodge in 1736. Pope Clement XII issued the first Papal prohibition on Freemasonry in 1738. Freemasonry, and illuminist, political, and progressive fraternities of every kind became a kind of mania in the eighteenth century. In its basic form Freemasonry has three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. A large number of additional Masonic grades - higher-grade Freemasonry - were developed during the eighteenth century and were important in continental Europe. In general they claimed a much earlier provenance but there is no reputable historical verification of these claims. Four eighteenth century systems are of particular interest.
  • The Rite of Strict Observance claimed to be derived from Knights Templar who had fled to Scotland after the dissolution of the order. It became very popular in Germany, and for a brief period it attracted the monied and powerful throughout Europe. It introduced the idea of "Unknown Superiors" who would communicate secret teachings preserved by the priestly arm of the Templars. The lack of secret teachings caused the organisation to disintegrate.
  • Martinez de Pasqually founded the l'Ordre de Chevaliers Maçons Élus Coëns de l'Univers, otherwise known as the Elect Cohens. This was an esoteric Christian order that used theurgic ritual to communicate with spiritual beings both for personal reintegration with the divine, and for the restoration of a fallen creation.
  • The Egyptian Rite was popularised by the adventurer Cagliostro. He introduced many of the traditions of ceremonial magic and practical occultism into his rite, and gave demonstrations of his supposed occult powers.
  • The Orden des Gold und Rosenkreuzes was a quasi-Rosicrucian order claiming to communicate the secrets of alchemy through nine degrees. The degree structure was reused by the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), and reused again when members of the SRIA formed the The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The combined effect of Rosicrucianism and the various Masonic innovations of the eighteenth century was the creation of a template for the preservation and communication of esoteric traditions. This template had the following characteristics:
  • a quasi-secret organisation whose members were requred to undergo complex admission or ordination rituals and swear remarkably lurid oaths of secrecy.
  • a foundation myth in which the secrets of the organisation were believed to have been handed down from antiquity.
  • an hierarchical social structure based on an internal structure of grades, sometimes rooted in the persons of "Unknown Superiors".
  • the transmission of knowledge through elaborate symbols and rituals.
  • a notion that spiritual progression would be congruent with (or perhaps symbolised by) the ascending structure of grades.
  • an identification of the work of the organisation with utopian ideals: transformation of the individual, society or the spiritual cosmos.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was born from a mélange of ideas that had been fermenting for two centuries. The core ideas that its masonic founders injected into it - its DNA - can be seen to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The format of its initiatory rituals contain much that is recognisably masonic, but internal documents such as the knowledge lectures, the so-called "flying rolls" and various internal guides on the symbolism of its rituals make clear that the Golden Dawn had transitioned from purely social ceremonial into practical occultism. It was members of the Golden Dawn and its several offshoots that were responsible for many popular books on Kabbalah published during the first half of the 20th. century, and many of the errors, idiosyncracies, and creative innovations that have found their way into the modern literature (for example, the large number of treatments of Tarot, Kabbalah and the Tree of Life) can be traced back to this source.

See also:

The Western Esoteric Traditions, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
Western Esoterism and Rituals of Initiation, Henrik Bogdan

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