IN 1517 THE POPE DECIDED TO REVIVE the selling of indulgences in order to pay for a new basilica of St Peter in Rome. It was to be the most splendid, lavish building in the world. Martin Luther, a teacher at Wittenberg, nailed his arguments against this selling of indulgences to the door of the local church that acted as a notice board to the community.
When this drew a papal bull excommunicating Luther, he burned this document in front of an admiring crowd. ‘Here I stand,’ he proclaimed. In Northern Europe, Germany in particular, a groundswell of restlessness had been rising, a resenting of the demand for unthinking obedience, a yearning for spiritual freedom. The hero of the hour, Luther escaped burning at the stake, protected by a local lord, and as more German leaders began to join in his protests against the excesses of the Papacy, Protestantism was born.
Some saw Luther as the reincarnation of Elijah whom Malachi and then Joachim had prophesied would come again to herald the new age.
Luther was steeped in mystical thought, the teachings of both Eckhart and Tauler. His closest friend and literary collaborator was the occultist Philip Melanchthon, nephew of the celebrated Cabalist Reuchlin. Melanchthon was an advocate of astrology, who wrote a biography of Faust. Luther himself communicated with the spirit worlds on familiar terms, heard voices guiding him and on one famous occasion hurled an inkpot at a demon who had mocked him.
But was he an initiate of the secret societies? There are intriguing hints. He once referred to himself as a ‘passed master’, a phrase that a Freemasonic initiate of a certain level might use to describe himself. He spoke approvingly of alchemy, praising it for its ‘allegory and secret meaning’ and recognizing, too, that it had a role in the resurrection of humanity.
The interest of some commentators has also been piqued by the fact that Luther adopted the rose as his symbol.
However, Luther’s white five-petalled rose containing a small cross is not the mystic red rose of the Rosicrucians pinned to the great cross of matter in order to transform it. Nor is there any reason to suppose that Luther saw his rose having a layer of meaning concerned with occult physiology.
Although Paracelsus had been an early supporter of Luther, the Swiss magus grew disillusioned when Luther promulgated his doctrine of predestination, which seemed to Paracelsus the old Roman elitism under a new name. Moreover, Paracelsus was a pacifist, and, while Luther was not directly responsible for the massacres of Catholics that took place once he had achieved political power, he could have stopped them. Although Luther had been swept to power on a tide of enthusiasm and mystical fervour, once there he began to fear these things as threats to his authority and all he had achieved. Morbid and paranoid, he seemed unwilling to stop the persecutions carried out in his name.
The Rosicrucians should be seen as the extreme radical left wing of the Reformation, and the way that the Lutheran Church turned on it can be seen in the story of Jacob Boehme.
Boehme’s Mysterium Magnum, a commentary on Genesis, opened up great and dizzying vistas of secret, cabalistic meaning. It lit up the popular imagination in the great age of Protestantism, not least because of its influence on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. His detailed descriptions of the occult physiology of the human body are the clearest evidence for an independent Western tradition of the chakras before the influx of oriental teachings in the eighteenth century. He also gives a near comprehensive account of the correspondences between the heavenly bodies and minerals and plants that had been suggested earlier but in more sketchy form by Agrippa and Paracelsus.
All this is all the more astonishing because Boehme was almost completely uneducated. In some ways he is anticipated by Fludd in his interpretation of the Bible, which sees the story of the creation as a series of alchemical separations, but there is no evidence to suggest he ever read Fludd.
Born in 1575 to illiterate parents, Jacob Boehme was apprenticed to a cobbler. One day a stranger came into the shop, bought a pair of boots, then, as he was leaving, called Jacob by name, asking him to follow him into the street. Jacob was surprised this stranger knew his name, but more surprised when he fixed him with a penetrating stare and said: ‘Jacob, thou art yet but little, but the time will come when thou shalt be great and the world shall be moved at thee. Read the Holy Scriptures where thou wilt find comfort and instruction, for thou must endure much misery and poverty and suffer persecution. But be courageous and persevere, for God loves thee.’ The stranger turned and disappeared, and Boehme never saw him again. But the meeting had made a deep impression upon him.
He became much more serious in a way that some found disconcerting. When his master threw him out, he became a journeyman tradesman, working hard, and eventually he set up his own shop.
One day he was sitting in his kitchen when the sun shining on a pewter plate blinded him. For a while everything grew dim. Then gradually the table, his hands, the walls, everything became transparent. He realized that, although we usually think of the air as being transparent, it is actually quite cloudy. Because now he saw it become truly transparent, like a cloud clearing, and suddenly he saw whole new spirit worlds opening up before him in every direction. He saw that his whole body was transparent and realized that he was looking down on himself, that his centre of consciousness had floated free of his body and was able to move freely into the spirit worlds.
So it was that Jacob Boehme first journeyed through the spiritual hierarchies while still alive, as St Paul, Mohammed and Dante had done before him.
Boehme was generally physically unimpressive, short with a low forehead, but his remarkable blue eyes now began to shine with a special luminosity. People who met him were impressed by his ability to see into their past and their future. He was sometimes able to speak different languages from different parts of the world and different periods.
His second illumination took place while he was walking through fields. He suddenly felt he could experience directly the mystery of creation. Afterwards he wrote: ‘In one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been at university for many years.’ What Boehme had experienced did not contradict his Lutheran, Bible-based beliefs, but it clarified and illumined them, opening up new dimensions of meaning.
What distinguishes Boehme’s writings, though, are his descriptions of these teachings in terms of urgent, personal experiences. He originally wrote his first work, Aurora, as an aide-mémoire to one of his mystical experiences, but when a local nobleman saw it, he had several copies made. One of these fell into the hands of the local pastor of Goelitz. Perhaps jealous of someone who obviously knew so much more than he did of the spirit worlds, the pastor began to persecute the cobbler. He accused him of heresy, threatening prison and finally driving him out of town under threat of being burned alive.
Shortly after his expulsion Boehme called his son, Tobias, to his bedside, asking if he could hear the beautiful music, and asking, too, if he would open the window so they could hear it better.
After a while he said ‘Now I go hence to Paradise’, gave a deep sigh and died.
In response to the question, Where does the spirit go after death?, Boehme had once answered in a way that has something of the Teutonic Zen of Eckhart: ‘It has no need to go anywhere. The spirit has heaven and hell within itself. Heaven and hell are within one another and are to one another as nothing.’
BOEHME AND THE PASTOR OF GOELITZ had looked at each other across the village green with mutual incomprehension. These were two very different forms of consciousness. On the other side of the world the disgust and intolerance that arises when two very different forms of consciousness encounter each other worked itself out on a much greater and more tragic scale.
Less idealistic men had followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus. In 1519 Hernando Cortés had been sailing along the Yucatan Gulf coast when he established a base he called Veracruz. He and his fellow Spaniards had heard rumours of the fabulous wealth of the Aztecs, but they were astonished when an ambassador from their ruler, Moctezuma, approached the base bearing gifts.
The gifts included a gold image of the sun as big as a cartwheel and an even larger silver representation of the moon. There was also a helmet overflowing with grains of gold and a great headdress made of feathers of the ‘quetzal’ bird.
The Aztec ambassador explained that these were the gifts his lord, Moctezuma, was giving to the great god Quetzal Coatl. This god, the ambassador further explained, had a long time previously quitted the earth to make the moon his home.
The Conquistadors then realized that Cortés, bearded, helmeted and fair-skinned, must resemble the prophetic depictions of Quetzal Coatl. By coincidence, as they saw it, they had arrived at precisely the time that the Aztec astrologers prophesied that this god would return.
Some of the wonderfully intricate and delicate Aztec objects would be shipped back to Europe, where Albrecht Dürer saw them. He said that they were so subtle, so ingenious, they made his heart sing. But the followers of Cortés entertained other, less elevated thoughts. When they arrived at the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) they discovered it lay in the middle of a great lake, accessible only by narrow artificial bridges that could easily be defended. But Moctezuma came out to greet them, bowed before the godly Cortés and invited them to enter. Cortés’s plan had been to kidnap Moctezuma and make off with the ransom, but when his men saw all the gold that lay about the palace, they impatiently killed the king. Because of this stupidity they were able to escape only after a long battle. This was the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in history.
The Conquistadors heard rumours of a secret source of all the gold and of a gilded king, El Dorado, who bathed in liquid gold every morning. Walter Raleigh, who would join in the quest for this fabled king’s city was writing of ‘Imperial El Dorado, roofed with gold’.
Cortés’s rival, Francisco Pizarro, sailed to Peru, intending to rob an entire country protected by tens of thousands, and to do it with an army of only two hundred.
Like Cortés he kidnapped the king, after offering to meet him unarmed. As a ransom he demanded that a room be filled to the ceiling with gold. For weeks a procession of natives brought plates, goblets and other finely wrought artefacts, but when the room was nearly full the Spaniards claimed that the deal had been to fill the room with gold ingots. They began melting down the artefacts to create more space to fill.
Eventually, as had happened with Cortés, Pizarro’s men grew impatient and killed the king. Open hostilities broke out. When Pizarro’s small army pushed its way into the capital they found palaces with golden walls, golden furniture, statues of gods and animals and golden armour. There was even an artificial garden in which the trees, flowers and animals were made of gold and a field three hundred by six hundred feet in which every stalk of maize was made of silver and its ears of gold.
It is estimated that some 100,000 Aztecs were killed at the battle for Tenochtitlan, with a loss of only a handful of Conquistadors. It has also been estimated that in the course of the Conquest some two million natives died.
The natives would not always be such easy meat. After a while they learned to adopt the treacherous fighting mentality of the Europeans, and so the Conquistadors began to take heavier casualties.
The Conquistadors never did find El Dorado or mines or any source of the gold that lay around the capitals in such abundance, but the gold from South America was sufficient to fund the Counter-Reformation. With its powerhouse in Spain, and enforced in large measure by the Spanish Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation made attendance at Mass compulsory. There were occult forces and initiatic brotherhoods at work in the service of the Counter-Reformation, too.
The world’s greatest library of occult literature is to be found in the Vatican. The Church has never believed that the occult sciences do not work. It has only sought to keep exclusive control of them. Sociologists have attributed religion’s power over the people to its ability to explain life’s unknown, numinous dimensions and so keep dread at bay. Religion must seem to be able to manage the dark volcanic power of the spirits which sometimes erupts into the material world.
In seventeenth-century Catholicism esoteric teachings rose very near the surface. The visions of Marie des Vallées and Mary Alacoque led to popular Church teachings on the mysteries of the sacred heart. In the twentieth century, in London where I work, the most occult bookshop - by occult, I mean an emphasis on supernatural happenings such as levitations, apparitions, bodily transmogrifications - is not one of the obvious ones which advertise themselves as such but the Padre Pio Bookshop in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral.
In Northern Europe many had made spiritual quests outside Roman Catholicism. Spain was galvanized by a mysticism equally dark and dangerous, but operating within the Church.
Teresa was born at Avila near Madrid in 1515, probably to a family of Jewish converts. She ran away from home to join a nunnery. There, while ill, she drifted out of everyday consciousness and into a mystical state. When the states kept returning she used the manuals of medieval mystics and texts by Ramón Lull as guides to achieving a working knowledge of mystical experience.
Teresa’s mystical ecstasy upon encountering a Seraph was, of course, sculpted by Bernini, the great initiate-artist of the Counter-Reformation. ‘He was not tall but short, marvellously beautiful. In his hands was a long golden spear and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire … that he thrust several times into my heart … he drew out the spear, leaving me all on fire with a wondering love of God … so exciting sweet is this greatest of pains.’ There is an irrepressible suggestion of sexual ecstasy about this that invites comparison with the sex-magical practices of mystical societies of the same period. These practices are among the most closely guarded secrets of esoteric lore, and we will examine them in Chapter 25.
Teresa’s spiritual journals also describe an ascent of the soul that ties in with cabalistic accounts of the ascent of the sephirothic Tree. She describes, too, out-of-body experiences and the soul’s organs of spiritual vision - the chakras, which she calls ‘the eyes of the soul’. But though her writing might be informed by a knowledge of the Cabala, what comes through most strongly is an immediate account of direct personal experience, an understanding of the way the spirit worlds work which is rare outside of India. There is no element of inauthenticity or literary artifice.
Ecstasy of St Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel in Rome.
Other levitating saints include Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Joseph of Cupertino and, in the twentieth century, Padre Pio and Gemma Galgani.
St Teresa’s extreme spiritual states sometimes induced supernatural phenomena, including frequent levitations. These were witnessed by many. Nuns would struggle to hold her down.
It would be a mistake to assume that the experience of bodily levitation is necessarily a blissful one. Teresa talks of being ‘suspended between heaven and earth and receiving no comfort from either’. There is in this some of the sense of loneliness, of spiritual aridity, which had been predicted by Eckhart, and which would be given its finest, defining expression by Teresa’s pupil, St John of the Cross.
Because we live in an age when experiences of the spirit worlds are rare, there is a danger that we read St Teresa or her pupil, St John of the Cross, as mere allegory, an idealized account of finer feelings or even as a description of relatively trivial mood changes described in an aspirational or wishful-thinking way. But St John of the Cross’s account of his dark night of the soul, written after a period in prison in solitary confinement is an account, not of altered moods, but of an altered state of consciousness, an alteration of mental faculties as radical as that achieved by taking hallucinogenic drugs.
The Spanish throw themselves at death. The work of their mystics, writers and artists shows they keep the immanence of death in mind, not in a theoretical way, but a pressing existential way. They see it weaving around them and through them. They are ready to wrestle with it. They risk defeat by it in order to snatch what is most valuable in life from its jaws. This Spanish spirit finds electrifying expression in The Dark Night of the Soul. We have touched on the Mystic Death, the stage in the process of initiation the candidate must pass through. After the first comforting, illumining manifestations of the spirit, the candidate is pitched into a state of profound misery. Not only does he have no doubt that he is about to die, he has no doubt God has abandoned him, that the whole cosmos finds him despicable. He does not now even want anything more than the shady half-existence he is being shown.
Bernini’s famous Obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is derived from Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia - as we have seen, also a key occult influence on Leonardo.
If John is describing this experience in terms which are recognizable to us today, this is partly because he helped formulate the very language we use to describe the beginnings of the spirit’s journey through Purgatory, the sphere of the moon.
In John’s account there is also a prophetic level of meaning. He was anticipating an era of history in which incarnated humanity as a whole would have to go through its own Dark Night of the Soul.
But perhaps the most characteristic form of occultism in what would become known as the Counter-Reformation was the Jesuits.
Ignatius Loyola was a professional soldier. When his right leg was shattered during a siege at Pamplona, he was invalided out of the Spanish army. During a period of convalescence he was reading a book on the lives of the saints when he realized his religious vocation. So in 1534, while studying in Paris, he gathered around him seven fellow students to form a brotherhood. They were to be the highly disciplined soldiers of the Church. In 1540 the Pope recognized this order as the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were to be the Church’s intellectual elite, its military intelligence, servants unto death, searching out heresy and unlawful entry into the spirit worlds. The Jesuits also became the Pope’s educators and missionaries, instituting a rigorous system that would orient the young towards Rome and instil obedience. They also had remarkable successes as missionaries in Central and South America and in India.
Ignatius Loyola devised trials and techniques for achieving altered states that included breathing exercises, sleep deprivation, meditation on skulls, training in lucid dreaming and in active imagination. This latter involved constructing an elaborate, sensual mental image which a disembodied spirit might inhabit, a process known to the Rosicrucians as ‘building a hut by the palace of wisdom’.
However, in Loyola’s exercises there is a subtle but important difference. While the Rosicrucian techniques were designed to help achieve a free-willed, free-thinking exchange with beings from higher hierarchies, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola are intended to still the will and induce a state of unquestioning obedience like a soldier’s. ‘Take, Lord, and receive all my memory, my understanding and my whole will, everything I have.’
In the West esoteric bookshops are dominated by Hindu, Buddhist and other oriental esoteric literature, but the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola remain the most readily available and widely published esoteric techniques from the Western tradition.
El Greco’s stretched figures have eyes that are half-closed as they contemplate some inner mystery. They stand in convulsive landscapes and stormy skyscapes. Not only does El Greco portray people in altered and mystical states, but he conveys a sense of what it is like to be in that state. René Huyghe, the French art critic, analysed the light in El Greco’s panoramic view of Toledo. In reality Toledo is bathed in a fierce, clear Mediterranean light, whilst in El Greco’s vision the ordinary light of day has been swallowed up by a fantastic, supernatural light. As an initiate, El Greco painted what St John of the Cross described when he wrote of ‘the dark night of the fire of love … without a guiding light other than that which was burning in my heart’.
Mary as Isis the Moon goddess by Murillo.
IN 1985 A BOOK WAS PUBLISHED anonymously called Meditations on the Tarot. It created a big stir in esoteric circles because it shows in an extremely erudite fashion that the symbolism in the tarot cards points to a unified set of beliefs underlying Hermeticism, the Cabala, oriental philosophies and Catholic Christianity. This book is a wonderful treasure chest of esoteric lore and wisdom.
It later emerged that the author was Valentine Tomberg, who had been initiated by Rudolf Steiner, but then left Steiner’s Anthroposophy to become a Catholic convert. The underlying purpose of Meditations on the Tarot - to try to draw those interested in esoterica back into the Church - becomes apparent when you know this. Was there any intellectual dishonesty involved? Tomberg, like Loyola before him, was working to ensure that the initiative in esoteric matters should not entirely be taken away from Rome.
WE LOOKED AT THE LIVES OF SOME individuals working in Northern Europe, it seems, more or less in isolation - Eckhart, Paracelsus, Dee, Boehme.
What is the evidence of a network, of anything like the rumoured secret society of Rosicrucians? Is there any documentary evidence to support the rumours about secret brotherhoods?
In 1596 a man called Beaumont was convicted of magical practices by a court at Angoulême in France. As the famous French historian de Thou recorded, Beaumont confessed that he ‘held commerce with Aerial and Heavenly Spirites - that Schools and Professors of this noble Art had been frequent in all Parts of the World, and still were so in Spain at Toledo, Cordova, Grenada and other Places that they had also been formerly celebrated in Germany, but for the most part had failed since Luther had sown the seeds of his Heresy, and began to have so many Followers: that in France and in England it was still secretly preserved, as it were by Tradition, in the families of certain Gentlemen; but that only the initiated were admitted into the Sacred Rites; to the exclusion of profane Persons.’
Then, less than thirty years later, a series of short pamphlets began to appear which purported to give the inside story.
Published anonymously in Kessel in Germany in between 1614 and 1616, the first was called the Fama Fraternitatis (or ‘Rumour of the Brotherhood’) and it called for a spiritual revolution.
The second, the Confessio Fraternitatis, told the story of CRC (Christian Rosenkreuz), the founder of the brotherhood, gave an account of the rules he instituted and also revealed that his tomb had been discovered in 1604.
A door had been uncovered underneath an altar leading down to a crypt. The door carried an inscription: After one hundred and twenty years I shall be opened. Down below was a seven-sided mausoleum, each side being eight feet high with an artificial sun suspended in the middle above a circular table. Underneath this table lay the uncorrupted body of CRC, surrounded by books, including the Bible and a text by Paracelsus, and the body was clutching a rolled scroll, which bore the words: ‘Out of God we are born, We die in Jesus, We will be reborn through the Holy Spirit.’
An observant literary detective might have noticed that the title page of the first folio of this second pamphlet featured the unique and unmistakable shape of Dr Dee’s occult emblem of evolved consciousness, the Monas Hieroglyphica.
The third pamphlet, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz, was an allegorical account of initiation, a sex-magical Chemical Marriage in the tradition of the Hypnerotomachia .
These publications caused a sensation across Europe.
Who were the Rosicrucian brothers and who was the author?
Then it gradually emerged that the author was a young Lutheran pastor called John Valentine Andrae. His spiritual mentor had been a famous mystic, Jean Arndt, the disciple of John Tauler, disciple in his turn of Meister Eckhart.
ANYONE WHO CONSIDERS THE CLAIMS of esoteric history is frustrated by the sparse nature of the evidence. Almost by definition the operations of secret societies leave scant traces. If they are successful, they leave little to go on. Yet the claims are very grand indeed: that these societies are representatives of an ancient and universal philosophy, that this is a coherent, consistent philosophy that explains the universe more adequately than any other, and that many if not most of the great men and women of history are guided by it.
Anyone considering this dichotomy naturally asks, Can these societies really involve a secret coalition of the greatest geniuses - or it is really just the fantasy of a few, isolated and marginal people who are really a bit dim?
This is perhaps a good juncture to confront this question because for the past few pages we have been following two traditions running very closely parallel, the largely exoteric tradition of great mystics, passing from one generation to another and a largely esoteric tradition, an apparently loose association of magicians and occultists, the mystical force behind the Reformation, a chain of initiates that connects Eckhart, Tauler and Arndt with the network of magi that includes Rosencrantz, Paracelsus and Dee.
We have just seen how in 1614 these two traditions finally become inextricably intertwined in the person of Valentine Andrae.
THE HIDDEN HAND OF THE SECRET SOCIETIES does not often show itself, and as we saw in the case of Dr Dee’s Lear-like disgrace, when it does, it puts itself in danger. It changes its very nature, risking losing its power as soon as it emerges into the light of day.
In the years following the publication of the Fama, the Rosicrucians would come out of the shadows to the sound of canons and muskets. They would fight a bloody and hopeless battle against the Jesuits for the spirit of Europe.
In conventional histories, sceptical of the Rosicrucian Manifestoes and suspecting them to be just a fantasy, their publication marked the beginning of the Rosicrucian phenomenon. In this secret history the manifestoes marked the end of true Rosicrucians - or at least the beginning of the end.
The publication of these manifestoes at the beginning of the seventeenth century also marked the founding of another secret society that would dominate world affairs up until the present day.
The institution of the Holy Roman Emperor, founded by Charlemagne in 800, was built on the ideal of a world leader who with the Pope’s blessing held Christendom together and defended the faith. This ideal was shining less brightly by the beginning of the seventeenth century. No Holy Roman Emperor had been crowned between 1530 and Rudolf II’s coronation in 1576, and many of the small kingdoms and princedoms of Germany had become Protestant, which naturally undermined any notion of a Europe united under a Roman Emperor.
Following the death of Rudolf, the tolerant, intellectually curious and occult-minded Emperor whom Dr Dee had failed to impress, a dispute over his succession drew the Rosicrucian brotherhood into a plot. If Frederick V, a Rhineland prince and Rosicrucian fellow traveller, could be placed on the Bohemian throne, then Europe might be seized for Protestantism.
The Rosicrucians had been cultivating James I of England. Michael Maier, whose alchemical prints are among the most explicit ever printed, sent him a Rosicrucian greeting card. In 1617 Robert Fludd dedicated his work of esoteric cosmology Utriusque cosmi historia to James, saluting him with an epithet sacred to Hermes Trismegistus. In 1612 James’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Frederick. The Tempest was given a special performance at court to celebrate the wedding day, with the masque scene newly inserted. We may say with a small degree of literary artifice that Dee was there in spirit.
The plan was that when in 1619 Frederick travelled from Heidelberg to Prague to be crowned, James would move to defend his romantic teenage son-in-law and his young bride from Catholic attack.
In the event James did nothing when Frederick’s forces were decisively defeated at the Battle of White Mountain. Frederick and Elizabeth had to flee Prague, and because they had reigned for such a laughably short time, they were known forever after as the Winter King and Queen.
The Thirty Years War was waged by Ferdinand of the great Catholic dynasty of the Hapsburgs, whose intellectual outriders were the Jesuits. The aim of the Hapsburgs was to re-establish Catholic supremacy in Europe. During this time five out of six German towns and villages were destroyed and the population reduced from some nine million to four million. The Rosicrucian dream was destroyed in a carnival of bigotry, torture and mass slaughter. Central Europe was a desert.
Yet the Church’s victory was a phyrric one. If the Church really saw itself as engaged in warfare with the secret societies, fighting black magic, then perhaps it was making the mistake of believing its own propaganda.
The real enemy was the oldest enemy of all in a new disguise.