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
(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.
technical Hermetica - astrology, alchemy, medicine and magic - were
reaching their peak. William
Lilly would publish his massive Christian
in 1647. The Hermetic medical theories of Paracelsus
by the Hermetic and Neoplatonic doctrines of Marsilio
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
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
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
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
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 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:
- The Rite of Strict Observance claimed to be derived
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
- 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 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.
- 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
- 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
- an identification of the work of the organisation
with utopian ideals: transformation of the individual, society or the
The Western Esoteric Traditions, Nicholas
Western Esoterism and Rituals of Initiation, Henrik Bogdan
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