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In the West, the rich variety of philosophy, religion and mysticism in the ancient world gave way to a much more uniform, monolithic arrangement in the post-Classical world, as a Christian orthodoxy took shape and the Church established itself, first as the religion of the Roman empire, and later as the unifying force of the Dark Ages era. It was in this era that the mysteries, Mithraism and Gnosticism were all suppressed, and that exoteric forms of religion – those played out in the open and publicly accessible to all – largely won out over esoteric forms – those hidden forms available to only a few. But, as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell explained in his magnum opus The Masks of God, published 1959-1968, “the mysteries, like a secret stream, went underground.”
The Western Esoteric Tradition
The result of being driven underground was what scholars of the occult call the Western esoteric tradition. This is the chain of descent of mystical and magical knowledge from the Classical era down to the modern day, a span of around 1,700 years. During much of this period the Western tradition included knowledge that was considered very dangerous, immoral and often illegal, so that those who followed this tradition had to be extremely careful about broadcasting it. Accordingly, much was kept secret or at least hidden (in other words, “occult”). Occasionally, however, aspects of the tradition would break out into public view and become popular and even commonplace, such as in the case of Tarot and playing cards.
Ancient Egypt had a tradition of magic and mysticism stretching back to at least 3000 BCE. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and a new Hellenic culture took root in and around Alexandria, these ancient traditions were overlain by and melded with Greek traditions such as Pythagoreanism and Platonism. The Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth the Thrice-Great (or Trismegistus in Latin), was identified with the Greek god of writing and communication: Hermes Trismegistus. Writings about magic and mysticism were frequently attributed to his authorship, while at the same time he became a legendary, sub-divine figure – a real person who had existed in pre-biblical times and recorded prehistoric wisdom. In early Freemasonry, for instance, Hermes Trismegistus became the legendary founder of architecture and masonry.
In practice, almost all of the works supposedly “by” Hermes Trismegistus were written in Alexandria in the first three or four centuries CE. This body, or corpus, of work became known as the Corpus Hermeticum, and dealt with topics such as magic, spells, Gnostic religion, Pythagorean mathematics, Platonic philosophy and alchemy. Islamic scholars preserved some of these works, and they were rediscovered in the West when an Italian scholar translated a manuscript found in Greece in 1453. Scholars of the period believed they had found a direct line to prehistoric wisdom, and Hermetic philosophy, known as Hermeticism, went on to be enormously influential in the development of secret societies.
As with Christianity, so Judaism also had exoteric and esoteric elements. The latter are known collectively as Kabbalah (or Qabala or, typically when practiced by Christians, Cabala). They feature magical and mystical knowledge, including secret names of God that have supernatural power, and theories about the significance of number. Because Hebrew letters are also used as numbers, words in Hebrew can be read as numbers and collections of numbers. The study of these numbers, their patterns, relationships and significance, is known as gematria.
Important cabalistic texts were written in the Middle Ages and spread to non-Jewish scholars, so that Kabbalah became an important element of the occult tradition in the West, and fed into the philosophical and spiritual basis of secret societies such as the Masons. A well-known element of Kabbalah is the Tree of Life, a diagrammatic representation of the ten aspects of God/creation and the 22 paths that link them.
Magic and Alchemy
As well as metaphysics (philosophical musings on the relationship between mankind and God and the nature of reality), the Western esoteric tradition was concerned with magic – the manipulation of Nature by paranormal or supernatural means. Magic could include telling the future (divination), communing with spirits (including angels, demons and the dead) and casting spells. It was governed by laws, such as the Doctrine of Correspondences, according to which there are secret correspondences between different aspects of the universe – for instance, the Sun corresponds to the element gold. Another law was “as above, so below,” the doctrine that things on Earth are related to things in Heaven – for example, the zodiacal constellations, relate to things and events on Earth. These magical laws were highly influential on the thinking of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, occultists, and others involved in secret societies.
A special example of magic was the practice of alchemy, a sort of magical chemistry. Alchemists sought to achieve spiritual and material transformation through manipulation of the elements. Specifically, by heating, distilling and fermenting chemicals, they hoped to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which could transmute base metals into gold and bestow immortality. Many of those who played a role in setting up secret societies in the 17th century were also alchemists.
Spirituality in the Ancient World
Secret societies are probably almost as old a human culture. Evidence of the development of religion can be traced back at least 50,000 years, with the appearance of carvings and cave paintings, and possibly much further. The oldest vestiges of human ritual burial are from a cave at Qafzeh in Israel, where bones stained with red ochre have been dated to 90,000 years ago. With religion came spirituality, mysticism, knowledge of the world of spirits and otherworldly powers: the kind of knowledge that humans have always, throughout history and around the world, sought to protect and keep secret. As soon as a group of people know something that others do not, and work to maintain that secrecy, a secret society is born. From these primitive roots a long tradition stretches down through time. Where prehistory shades into ancient history it is possible to catch the first recorded glimpses of this tradition, in the form of mystery religions, lost cults and the esoteric knowledge of the ancients.
Lost Cults of the Stone Age
Evidence from tribal peoples who have practiced a Stone Age lifestyle in modern and historic eras, such as the Kung of Kalahari, the Australian Aborigines or the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, suggest that shamanistic beliefs and practices are likely to have been common to most human societies. These included the use of psychedelic techniques and potions, journeys to the spirit world and communication with supernatural beings and the dead.
Although all members of a society might have shared some of this knowledge and taken part in some of these practices, much of the shamanistic lore would have been reserved for the shaman himself. This made sense for a number of reasons. The sheer amount of knowledge the shaman needed to learn, including botany, zoology, geography, magic, myths, legends and other oral traditions, made it a specialized job of which only a few individuals were capable. So shamanistic practices inevitably meant that shamanistic knowledge would be restricted to a select few, who passed on by word of mouth (no other means being available) their traditions, which were not accessible to ordinary people. Whether or not they intended it, these early shamans had formed the first secret societies.
In pre-modern societies the shaman was respected, even feared. Knowledge is power, and human nature being what it is, those with power seek to protect and continue their power. Perhaps it was inevitable that the shamans would therefore want to guard their secrets jealously, giving access only to people they felt they could trust: those which had been specially initiated. Initiation also served other purposes.
Scholars agree that the earliest recorded secret societies, the mystery religions, had ancient roots reaching back into prehistory, reflecting prehistoric cults of fertility, agriculture and the spirits of the dead. These cults are known as chthonic (from the Greek for “under the earth”) to distinguish them from the Olympian religion familiar from Classical Greece (with Zeus and the other gods of Mount Olympus). Characteristics of chthonic cults included arcane rituals, the use of caves as sacred spaces and shamanistic practices such as use of psychedelics and ecstatic dances and community with the otherworld. Most of these became features of later religions, but more specifically they lived on in the mystery religions, and through them were passed down to later secret societies.
The Mystery Religions
Religious worship in the ancient world was usually a public act, but alongside the conventional exoteric (outwardly displayed) forms there were important esoteric (inner or hidden) traditions. The best known are the Greek mysteria or mystery religions. These were religious experiences and teachings available only to those who had been initiated. Indeed, this is the root of our modern word “mystery.” “To initiate” in Greek was “myein,” and an initiate was known as a “mystes.” The mysteries appear to be remnants of prehistoric cult practices, and particularly involved fertility rites, reference to underground deities, ecstatic dances and the use of psychedelics and alcohol.
The Eleusinian mysteries are the best documented and probably the most important, but there were others. The Orphic mysteries concerned hymns and teachings purported to have derived from Orpheus, who travelled to the Underworld and returned, and whose head survived being torn from his body. The Dionysian rites concerned Dionysus, the god of wine, who had been killed and then resurrected. The revelation for secret truths about death, and more importantly life after death, seems to have been at the heart of all the mysteries. According to an ode by the poet Pindar (518 – c. 438 BCE): “Happy is he, who having seen these rites, goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.”
A related cult in ancient Greece was the Apollonian oracle at Delphi (associated with Apollo, the sun god and also the god of prophecy) – the greatest oracle of the ancient world. Like the mysteries, it may also have had roots stretching back to prehistoric shamanic practice, and it too contributed important elements to the heritage of secret societies. At Delphi enquirers approached the temple through a series of symbolic rituals, but the oracular mystery at the heart of the cult – the high priestess Pythia, who was said to achieve an ecstatic trance state, perhaps through inhalation of psychoactive fumes – was concealed within the adytum, or inner sanctum. There are links here to the Templars, among those secrets was said to be an oracular head; the Masons, who focus heavily on the symbolism of sacred architectural spaces, specifically the adytum; and the modern Rosicrucian society, Builders of the Adytum.
Pythagoras was a legendary ancient Greek philosopher. Born c. 570 BCE in Samos, he moved to Magna Graecia (the network of Greek colonies in Southern Italy) where his potent blend of mathematics and mysticism attracted young men from aristocratic backgrounds to form the Pythagorean Brotherhood, a secret society or cult.
According to legend, Pythagoras had acquired his wisdom during his travels in Egypt and the East (similar claims were later made in modern times for Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, but he also borrowed heavily from the ancient mystery religions. He was said to have made important mathematical discoveries (such as the theorem that still bears his name), identified the ratios that govern music, originated the doctrine of “transmigration of the soul” – essentially reincarnation – and stressed the importance of sacred geometry (a concept central to Freemasonry). Pythagoras believed that number was the organizing principle of the universe, and that he could hear the music of the spheres. Because of his belief in reincarnation, Pythagoras preached strict vegetarianism, in which beans were also banned.
Candidates for the Pythagorean Brotherhood had to undergo a strict initiation procedure. After a tough interview, they had to swear an oath on a sacred triangle known as the tetractys, sign over all their worldly possessions to the group and take a five-year vow of silence. During this period they became akousmatikoi, or listeners, allowed to listen to Pythagoras teach only from behind a veil. Eventually they would graduate to become mathematikoi, members of the inner circle. Later these two classes diverged, so that those known as mathematikoi followed the scientific philosophical aspects of Pythagorean teachings, while those called akousmatikoi, followed the mystical oral teachings, or symbola, of Pythagoras.
The Pythagorean Brotherhood became powerful and politically influential, but ended up supporting the losing side in a clash between local political parties that descended into violence. Their headquarters in the city of Crotona was burned to the ground and many of the Brotherhood were killed. Pythagoras himself escaped into exile, but died a few years later c. 495 BCE. His philosophy lived on, however. Plato was an aid admirer, and indeed much of what is attributed to Pythagoras may be Platonic invention. Versions of Pythagorean mysticism became profoundly influential in the Western tradition that led to Hermeticism, alchemy and Rosicrucianism. It has been claimed that the Brotherhood lived on in one form or another to form the roots of many subsequent secret societies, such as the Freemasons.