Secret Traditions



It has long been an article of faith with students of occultism that the secret tenets of the various sciences embraced within it have been preserved to modern times by a series of adepts, who have handed them down from generation to generation in their entirety. There is no reason to doubt this belief, but that the adepts in question existed in one unbroken line, and that they all professed similar principles is somewhat improbable. But one thing is fairly certain, and that is, that proficiency in any one of the occult sciences requires tuition from a master of that branch. All serious writers on the subject are at one as regards this. It is likely that in Neolithic times societies existed among our barbarian 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 certainty that totemism existed amongst Neolithic peoples. Hierophantic castes would naturally hand down the tradition of the secret things of the Society from one generation to another.

The early mysteries of Egypt, Eleusis, Samothrace, Cabiri, and so forth were merely the elaboration of such savage mysteries. There would appear to have been throughout the ages, what might be called, a fusion of occult beliefs: that when the hierophants of one system found themselves in juxtaposition, or even in conflict, with the professors of another, the systems in question appear to have received much from one another. It has been said that when the ancient mysteries are spoken about, it should be understood thatone and the same series of sacred ceremonies is intended, one and the same initiatory processes and revelations, and that what is true of one applies with equal certainty to all the others. 

Thus Strabo records 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 mentions that the rites of Cybele are celebrated in Asia Minor in an identical manner with the Grecians mysteries of Dionysius and the Cretan rites of the Cabiri. The Rev. Geo. Oliver in his History of Initiation affirms that the rites of the science which is now received under the appellation of Freemasonry were exercised in the antediluvian world, received by Noah after the Flood, practiced by man at the building of Babel, conveniences for which were undoubtedly contained in that edifice, and at the dispersion spread with every settlement already deteriorated by the gradual innovations of the Cabiric priests, and molded into a form, the great outlines of which are distinctly to be traced in the mysteries of every heathen nation, and exhibit shattered remains of the one true system, whence they were derived. This theory is of course totally mischievous, and although there may have been likenesses between the rites of certain societies, the idea that all sprang from one common source is absurd. 

One thing, however, is fairly certain: anthropology permits us to believe that the concepts of man, religious and mystical, are practically identical in whatever part of the world he may exist, and there is every possibility that the similarity between early mysteries results in this manner, and that it brought about a strong resemblance between the mystical systems of the older world. We have satisfactory evidence that the ancient mysteries were receptacles of a great deal of occult wisdom, symbolism, magical or semi-magical rite, and mystical practice in general; and we are pretty well assured that when these fell into desuetude among the more intellectual classes of the various countries in which they obtained, they were taken up and practiced in secret by the lesser ranks of society, even the lowest ranks, who are in all ages the most conservative, and who clung faithfully to the ancient systems, refusing to partake in the rites of the religions which had ousted them. The same can be posited of magical practice.

The principles of magic are universal, and there can be no reason to doubt that these were handed on throughout the long 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, concerning which much more difficult questions arise. Was this handed on by means of secret societies, occult schools or universities, or from adept to adept? We speak not of the sorceries of empirics and savages, but of that spiritual magic which, taken in its best sense, shades into mysticism. The schools of Salamanca, 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 it arose at a very early period in the history of man. In his early psychological state he would not require it; and we see no reason for belief that its professors came into existence at an earlier period than some three or four thousand years B.C. The undisturbed nature of Egyptian and Babylonian civilization leads to the belief that these countries brought forth a long series of adepts of the higher magic. We know that Alexandria fell heir to the works of these men, 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 that they imparted this to the Greeks of Alexandria is certain. 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, and that they placed all other native systems in the background, where they were pursued in the shadow by the aboriginal witch and sorcerer. We have thus outlined the genealogy of the higher magic from early Egyptian times to the European mediaeval period. Regarding alchemy, the evidence from analogy is much more sure, and the same may be said as regards astrology. These are sciences in which it is peculiarly necessary to obtain the assistance of an adept if day excellence is to be gained in their practice; and we know-that-the-first' originated in Egypt, and the second in ancient Babylon. We are not aware of the names of those early adepts who carried the sciences forward until the days of Alexandria, but subsequent to that period the identity of practically every alchemical and astrological practitioner of any note is fully known. In the history of no science is the sequence of its professors so clear as is the case in alchemy, and the same might almost be said as regards astrology, whose protagonists, if they have not been so famous, have at least been equally conscientious. We must pass over in our consideration of the manner in which occult science survived, the absurd legends which presume to state how such societies as the Freemasons existed from antediluvian times; and will content ourselves with stating that the probabilities are that in the case of mystical brotherhoods a long line of these existed from early times, the traditions of which were practically similar. Many persons would be members of several of these, and would import the conceptions of one society into the heart of another, as we know Rosicrucian ideas were imported into Masonry. (See Freemasonry.)

We seem to see in the mystic societies of the middle ages reflections of the older Egyptian and classical mysteries, and there is nothing absurd in the theory that the spirit and in some instances even the letter of these descended to mediaeval 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 revolutionized 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 who strengthened the mystical position of the brotherhood, and it is surely reasonable to suppose that on the fall or desuetude 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 alive the flame in secret; but the fact remains that the occult idea was undoubtedly preserved through the ages, that it was the same in essence amongst the believers in all religions and all mysteries, and that to a great extent its trend was in the one direction, so that the fusion of the older mystical societies and their re-birth as a new brotherhood is by no means an unlikely hypothesis. 

In the article on the "Templars" for example, we have tried to show the possibility of that brotherhood having received its tenets from the East, where it sojourned for such a protracted period. It seems very likely from what we learn of its rites that^they were oriental in origin, and we know that 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 through older origins they inherited from the Dionysian artificers, the artizans of Byzantium, and the building brotherhoods of Western Europe. To state this dogmatically as a fact would not be to gain so much credence for their theory as is due to that concerning the dissemination of occult lore by the Templars; but it is much more feasible in every way than the absurd legend concerning the rise of Freemasonry at the time of the building of the Temple.

Secret societies of any description possess a strong attraction for a certain class of mind, or else a merely operative handicraft society, such as was mediaeval Masonry, would riot have been utilized so largely by the mystics of that time. One of the chief reasons that we know so little concerning these brotherhoods in mediaeval times is that the charge of dabbling in the occult arts was serious one in the eyes of the law and the church, therefore they found it necessary to carry on their practices in secret. But after the Reformation, a modern spirit took possession of Europe, and the protagonists of the occult sciences came forth from their caverns 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, Seton, a great master of the hermetic art, arose: never had occultism possessed such a heyday. But it was nearly a century later until 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; the Society of the Universal Aurora established at Paris in 1783. Besides being masonic, these societies practiced animal magnetism, astrology, Kabalism and even ceremonial magic. Others were political, such as the Illuminati, which came to such an inglorious end. But the individual tradition was kept up by an illustrious line of adepts, who were much more instrumental in keeping alive the flame of mysticism than even such societies as those we have mentioned. Mesmer, Swedenborg, St. Martin, Pas-qually, Willermoz, all laboured to that end. We may regard all these as belonging to the school of Christian magicians, as apart from those who practised the rites of the grimoires or Jewish Kabalism. The line may be carried back through Lavater, 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 Mesmer began the revival of a science which cannot be altogether regarded as occult, when consideration is-given to its modern developments, but which powerfully influenced the mystic life of his and many later days. The mesmerists of the first era are in direct line with the Martinists and the mystical magicians of the France of the late eighteenth century. Indeed in the persons of some English mystics, such as Greatrakes, mysticism and magnetism are one and the same thing. But upon " Hypnotism," to give it its modern name, becoming numbered with the more practical sciences, persons of a mystical cast of mind appear to have, to a great extent, deserted it. Hypnotism does not bear the same relation to mesmerism and magnetism as modern chemistry does to alchemy; but the persons who practice it nowadays are as dissimilar to the older professors of the science as is the modern practitioner of chemistry to the mediaeval alchemist. This is symptomatic of the occult sciences, that they despise that knowledge which is "exact" in the common sense of the term. Their practitioners do not delight in laboring upon a science, the laws of which are already known, cut and dried. The student of occultism, as a rule, possesses all the attributes of an explorer. The occult sciences have from time to time deeply enriched the exact sciences, but these enrichments have been acts of intellectual generosity. It is in effect as if the occultist made a present of them to the scientist, but did not desire to be troubled with their future development in any way. Occultism of the higher sort therefore does not to-day possess any great interest in hypnotism, and modern mystics of standing scarcely recognize it as a part of the hidden mysteries. But there is no question that the early mesmerists formed a link between the adepts of eighteenth-century France and those of the present day.

The occultists of today, however, are harking farther back: they recognize that their forerunners of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries drew their inspiration from older origins, and they feel that these may have had cognizance of records and traditions that we are not of. The recovery of these is perhaps for the moment the great question of modem magic. But apart from this, modern magic of the highest type strains towards mysticism, and partakes more than ever of its character. It disdains and ignores ceremonial, and exalts psychic experience.

That is not to say that numerous bodies do not exist throughout the world for the celebration of magical rite ; but such fraternities have existed from time immemorial, and thieir protagonists cannot be placed on a higher footing than the hallucinated sorcerers of mediaeval times.


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