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Secret Tradition

Secret Tradition

Since the medieval period, students of occultism (that which is hidden) have professed a belief that the ancient wisdom and secret tenets of the various psychic sciences have been preserved to modern times by a series of adepts, who have handed these secrets down from generation to generation in their entirety. Leaders have gained authority by claiming to be in contact with such secret adepts, for proficiency in any one of the occult sciences requires instruction from a master of that branch.

It is possible that in neolithic times, societies existed among our ancestors similar in character to the Midiwiwin of the North American Indians, the snake-dancers of the Hopi of New Mexico, or the numerous secret societies of aboriginal Australians. This is inferred from the probability that totemism existed amongst neolithic peoples. Hierophantic castes would hand down secret traditions from one generation to another.

The early mysteries of Egypt, Eleusis, Samothrace, and Cabiri were probably the elaboration of such primitive mysteries. There would appear to be what might be called a fusion of occult beliefs throughout the ages. It has been said that when the ancient mysteries are spoken about, it should be understood that the same sacred ceremonies, initiatory processes, and revelations are intended, and that what is true of one applies with equal certainty to all the others.

Thus the Greek geographer Strabo recorded that the strange orgies in honor of the mystic birth of Jupiter resembled those of Bacchus, Ceres, and Cybele, and the Orphic poems identified the orgies of Bacchus with those of Ceres, Rhea, Venus, and Isis. Euripides also mentioned that the rites of Cybele were celebrated in Asia Minor in a manner identical with the Grecian mysteries of Dionysius and the Cretan rites of the Cabiri.

The Rev. Geo. Oliver, in his book The History of Initiation (1829), asserted that the rites of Freemasonry were exercised in the antediluvian world, were received by Noah after the Flood, and were practiced by people at the building of Babel. These rites spread and were molded into a form, the great outlines of which can be traced in the mysteries of every heathen nation. These mysteries are the shattered remains of the one true system, from which they were derived.

Although there may have been likenesses between the rites of certain societies, the idea that all sprang from one common source has never been proved. One thing, however, is fairly certain. Anthropology permits us to believe that human concepts, religious and mystical, are practically identical whereever people exist, and there is every possibility that this brought about a strong resemblance between the mystical systems of the older world.

The principles of magic are universal, and these were probably handed on throughout the centuries by hereditary castes of priests, shamans, medicine-men, magicians, sorcerers, and witches. But the same evidence does not exist with regard to the higher magic. Was this handed on by means of secret societies, occult schools or universities, or from adept to adept?

This magic is that spiritual magic that, taken in its best sense, shades into mysticism. The schools of Salamanca and the mystic colleges of Alexandria could not impart the great truths of this science to their disciples. Its nature is such that communication by lecture would be worse than useless. It is necessary to suppose then that it was imparted by one adept to another. But it is not likely that this magic arose at a very early period in human history, probably not before some three or four thousand years B.C.E. The undisturbed nature of Egyptian and Babylonian civilization leads to the belief that these countries brought forth a long series of adepts in the higher magic.

We know that Alexandria was heir to the works of these adepts, but it is unlikely that their teachings were publicly disseminated in her public schools. Individuals of high magical standing would, however, be in possession of the occult knowledge of ancient Egypt, and it seems likely that they imparted this to the Greeks of Alexandria. Later Hellenic and Byzantine magical theory is distinctly Egyptian in character, and we know that its esoteric forms were disseminated in Europe at a comparatively early date, placing all other systems in the background.

Regarding alchemy, the evidence is much more sure, and the same may be said regarding astrology. These are occult studies in which it is peculiarly necessary to obtain the assistance of an adept if any excellence is to be gained in their practice, and it is known that the first originated in Egypt, and the second in ancient Babylon.

The names of those early adepts who carried the sciences forward until the days of Alexandria are not known, but subsequent to that period the identity of practically every alchemical and astrological practitioner of any note is known. In the history of no other occult study is the sequence of its professors so clear as is the case in alchemy, and the same might almost be said of astrology.

In the case of mystical brotherhoods, a long line of these have probably existed from early times, sharing the traditions. Many persons would be members of several and would import the conceptions of one society into another, as we know Rosicrucian ideas were imported into Masonry.

In the mystic societies of the Middle Ages there seem to be reflections of the older Egyptian and classical mysteries, and some support the theory that the spirit and, in some instances, even the letter of these may have descended to medieval and perhaps to present times.

Such organizations die much harder than any credit is given them for doing. We know, for example, that Freemasonry was transformed at one part of its career, about the middle of the seventeenth century, by an influx of alchemists and astrologers who crowded out the operative members and strengthened the mystical position of the brotherhood.

It is therefore possible to suppose that on the fall or disuse of the ancient mysteries, their disciples, looking eagerly for some method of saving their cults from entire extinction, would join the ranks of some similar society, or would keep the flame alive in secret.

The occult idea has been preserved through the ages, the same in essence among the believers in all religions. To a great extent, the occult's trend was in one direction, so that the fusion of the older mystical societies and their rebirth as a new brotherhood is a plausible hypothesis.

The entry on the Templars, for example, suggests the possibility of that brotherhood having received its tenets from the East. It seems very likely that its rites were oriental in origin, and certainly the occult systems of Europe owed much to the Templars, who, probably, after the fall of their own order, secretly formed others or joined existing societies.

Masons have a hypothesis that they inherited traditions from the Dionysian artificers, the artisans of Byzantium, and the building brotherhoods of Western Europe. This is not a proven theory; however, it is much more feasible than the romantic legend concerning the rise of Freemasonry at the time of the building of the Temple of Solomon.

One of the chief reasons that we know so little concerning these brotherhoods in medieval times is that the charge of dabbling in the occult arts was a serious one in the eyes of the law and the church; therefore, occultists found it necessary to carry on their practices in secret.

But after the Reformation, a modern spirit took possession of Europe, and protagonists of the occult sciences came out of their secrecy and practiced in the open light of day. In England, for example, numerous persons avowed themselves alchemists; in Germany the "Rosicrucians" sent out a manifesto; in Scotland, Alexander Seton, a great master of the hermetic art, flourished.

But it was nearly a century later when further secret societies were formed, such as the Academy of the Ancients and of the Mysteries in 1767; the Knights of the True Light, founded in Austria about 1780; the Knights and Brethren of Asia, which appeared in Germany in the same year; the Order of Jerusalem, which originated in America in 1791; and the Society of the Universal Aurora, established in Paris in 1783.

Besides being masonic, these societies practiced animal magnetism, astrology, Kabala, and even ceremonial magic. Others were political, such as the Illuminati. But the individual tradition was kept up by an illustrious line of adepts, who were more instrumental in keeping the flame of mysticism alive than even such societies as those mentioned.

Anton Mesmer, Emanuel Swedenborg Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and Martines de Pasqually all labored to that end. We may regard all these as belonging to the school of Christian magicians, distinct from those who practiced the rites of the grimoires or Jewish Kabalism. The line may be carried back through Lavater, Karl von Eckartshausen, and so on to the seventeenth century. These men were mystics besides being practitioners of theurgic magic, and they combined in themselves the knowledge of practically all the occult sciences.

With Anton Mesmer began the revival of a science that cannot be altogether regarded as occult when consideration is given to its modern developments, but that powerfully influenced the mystic life of his time and even later. The Mesmerists of the first era were in a direct line from the Martinists and the mystical magicians of France in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, for some English mystics, such as Valentine Greatrakes, mysticism and "magnetism" are one and the same thing. But when hypnotism, to give it its modern name, became numbered with the more practical sciences, persons of a mystical cast of mind appear to have deserted it.

Hypnotism does not bear the same relation to mesmerism and animal magnetism that modern chemistry does to alchemy, but those who practice it are as dissimilar to the older professors of mesmirism as the modern practitioner of chemistry is to the medieval alchemist. It is symptomatic of the occult studies that its students despise knowledge that is "exact" in the common sense of the term, that is to say, pertaining to materialistic science. Students of the occult do not delight laboring upon a science whose basic laws are already known.

The occultists of the twentieth century, however, draw upon an ancient inspiration. They recognize that their forerunners of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were influenced by older traditions and may have had access to records and traditions that are now obscure. The recovery of these is, perhaps, the great question of modern occultism. But apart from this, modern occultism strains towards mysticism. It ignores ceremony and exalts the spiritual.

(See also Gnosticism ; Neoplatonism )


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Hartmann, Franz. Magic White and Black; or, The Science of Finite and Infinite Life. London: George Redway, 1886. Reprint, New York: University Books, 1970.

Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Great Secret. London: Methuen, 1922. Reprint, New York: University Books, 1969. Shirley, Ralph. Occultists & Mystics of All Ages. London: William Rider, 1920; Reprint, New York: University Books, 1972.

Waite, Arthur E. The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. London: William Rider, 1924; Reprint, New York: University Books, 1961.

. The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin: The Unknown Philosopher. London: Philip Wellby, 1901. Reprinted as The Unknown Philosopher: The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner, 1970.

. The Secret Tradition in Alchemy. Kegan Paul, London, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. Reprint, New York: S. Weiser, 1969.

. The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry. London, Rider, 1937. Reprint, New York: S. Weiser, 1969.

Yarker, John. The Arcane Schools: A Review of Their Origin and Antiquity; With a General History of Freemasonry. Belfast: William Tait, 1909.

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