Western esotericism

Western esotericism (also Western mysticism, Western occult tradition, and Western mystery tradition) is a broad spectrum of spiritual traditions found in Western society, or refers to the collection of the mystical, esoteric knowledge of the Western world. This includes, but is not limited to, alchemy, theosophy, herbalism, occult tarot, astrology, Rosicrucianism and Western forms of ritual magic. The tradition has no one source or unifying text, nor does it hold any specific dogma, instead placing emphasis on "inner knowledge" or Gnosis. It had a profound influence on Europe and North America, including the development of industrial and scientific knowledge. Various groups including Hermetic organizations, neopagans and Thelema persist in practicing modern variants of traditional Western esoteric philosophies.


While there is no evidence to show a direct ancient lineage of the Western mystery tradition, its followers have placed its roots in the religions of Ancient Egypt, Armenia, Chaldea, Classical Greece, and Israel. The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up its origins thus:

:Its beginnings have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past. ("The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism")

To make an accurate assumption of the tradition's origin and (therefore age) it would be necessary to study the origin of the various systems which have come to make up the tradition. Of these systems the Egyptian and Hellenic Mystery religion, the Armenian (known as: Intentional Architecture), the Hebrew Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Hermeticism are generally considered the oldest, though at no stage prior to the 1880s were these doctrines ever synthesized into one whole. Due to their relative geographic restrictions they were regarded very much as separate disciplines. It appears that for the most part the specific teachings were preserved via oral tradition (though not in all cases, the Nag Hammadi Library for example) passed from teacher to initiate. However, even in the ancient climates in which they flourished, the Esoteric Philosophies were still highly elusive. Manly P Hall writes:

:In all cities of the ancient world were temples for public worship and offering. In every community also were philosophers and mystics, deeply versed in Nature's lore. These individuals were usually banded together, forming seclusive philosophic and religious schools. The more important of these groups were known as the Mysteries. Many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into these secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel. Alexander Wilder defines the Mysteries as "Sacred dramas performed at stated periods. The most celebrated were those of Isis, Sabazius, Cybele, and Eleusis." After being admitted, the initiates were instructed in the secret wisdom which had been preserved for ages. Plato, an initiate of one of these sacred orders, was severely criticized because in his writings he revealed to the public many of the secret philosophic principles of the Mysteries. Every pagan nation had (and has) not only its state religion, but another into which the philosophic elect alone have gained entrance. ("The Secret Teachings of all ages, p. 21")

After the fall of Rome, alchemy and philosophy and other aspects of the tradition were largely preserved in the Arab and Near Eastern world and introduced into Western Europe by Jews and by the cultural contact between Christians and Muslims that occurred due to the Crusades and the Reconquista. The 12th century saw the development of the Kabbalah in medieval Spain. The medieval period also saw the publication of grimoires which offered often elaborate formulas for theurgy and thaumaturgy. Many of the grimoires seem to have kabbalistic influence. Figures in alchemy from this period seem to also have authored or used grimoires.

The Renaissance saw a revival of classical learning, and not surprisingly a revival of ancient and medieval occult practices. The Kabbalah exploded in popularity and influence among Jews. Many Christians began to study the Kabbalah and Christian Cabala ensued. There was also renewed interest in magic (theurgy and thaumaturgy), alchemy, and Hermeticism. The period saw the first emergence of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood. It also saw the mass persecution of suspected witches.

The Enlightenment saw another occult revival, perhaps spurred by growing rejection of mainstream religion and increased democracy and freedom of conscience. The period saw the rise of occult fraternities, most notably Speculative Freemasonry and a revived Rosicrucian Brotherhood. Academic interest in ancient mystery cults such as those of Mithras and Dionysus began to develop. Emanuel Swedenborg pulled Christianity in a more mystical or occult direction, and Franz Mesmer provided a quasi-scientific method of thaumaturgy. While both these men had profound contributions to the western mystery tradition, it appears neither was versed in it. The Count of St Germain also taught during this period, whose life and legends influenced Theosophy. Martinism also arose as an esoteric doctrine. So as well with various Rosicrucian orders.

The late 19th century saw a radical split in the western mystery tradition. HP Blavatsky was the main instrument of this, by reinventing the tradition in a system called Theosophy. Theosophy largely ignored the medieval traditions, such as alchemy, thaumaturgy and kabbalah, instead focusing on more ancient mystery teachings and incorporating eastern systems of yoga. The extant tradition prospered alongside Theosophy, especially under the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and such teachers as Eliphas Levi, Papus, Macgregor Mathers, and Aleister Crowley. This tradition began to see itself as a complete alternative to Christianity, and, not surprisingly, began to emphasize theurgy. This occult revival lasted through World War II. Aspects of it were further revived in the 1960s. Theosophy is still available through the Theosophical Society, and western theurgy strongly influenced the development of neo-paganism.

The Second World War

Emergent occultic and esoteric systems found increasing popularity in the early 20th century, especially in Western Europe. Occult lodges and secret societies flowered among European intellectuals of this era who had largely abandoned traditional forms of Christianity. The spreading of secret teachings and magic practices found enthusiastic adherents in the chaos of Germany during the interwar years.

Many influential and wealthy Germans were drawn to secret societies such as the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Thule Society. Leading figures of these groups included Dietrich Eckart, Karl Haushofer, Karl Maria Wiligut and his protege Heinrich Himmler, all of whom figured prominently in the nascent Nazi Party. In Himmler's case, his personal occult fascination became a national civil religion when he promoted his racial occultism and symbology using the full authority of the Nazi state, even if Hitler was more than a little suspicious of devotion to anything beyond the Nazi Regime. Eventually, Hitler's paranoia and fear of competing institutions, coupled with Himmler's opportunism led to the Gestapo suppressing Himmler's fellow occultists who were not directly sanctioned by the state. During the Second World War, occult luminaries in Britain, most notably Aleister Crowley and the Duke of Hamilton functioned as informal intermediaries between the warring governments of Britain and Hitler's Germany. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess eventually made his famous escape to Scotland in 1941, hoping to strike a peace bargain with Britain using the help of the Duke of Hamilton, an old occult lodge associate.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Little information is known about the status of the Western mystery tradition in the officially Atheist Soviet Union and its "satellites" during the ruling of the Communist Party. It is believed by some that the Soviets had a scientific interest in subjects traditionally studied by the Western mystery tradition, such as telepathy and astrology.

A number of people associated with mysticism chose to leave the countries where Communism was installed. For example, G.I. Gurdjieff, an influential individual from Armenia, fled to France after the Bolsheviks overtook the ruling of Russia. The Universal White Brotherhood of Bulgaria, founded by Peter Deunov and extended by Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, also chose to continue its activities in France and other Western countries after the Second world war and the introduction of Communism into Bulgaria. These two examples, although not directly associated with the core of the Western mystery tradition, demonstrate a pattern which supports the claim that the Soviet-controlled states were negative not only to mainstream religion but also to mysticism and occultism.

It is known that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, several mystical societies, such as the Rosicrucians, gained profound revival in Eastern Europe and Russia which resulted in the foundation of many new jurisdictions and lodges.


Today, the Tradition is experiencing a revival in North America and Europe, while many Western mystical organizations have presence throughout the world. The tradition is undergoing an import of Eastern ideas, coming mainly from Taoism, Tantra, Buddhism, Hinduism and Yoga, which began mainly by the Theosophical Society in the 19th century, and now is also continued by many people with syncretic or eclectic backgrounds.


Today, the Western mystery tradition is a mixture of ancient philosophy, paganistic and Christian thought, medieval ideas, and imports from Asia and modern science. The tradition focuses on individual spiritual progress through initiation, either personal or into a brotherhood, on personal or group rituals, study of philosophy and "cosmic" laws and their practical application, and encompasses alchemy, meditation, divination, and ritual magic.


The concept of Initiation plays a very important role in the Western mystical tradition, and most people who are related with this tradition are initiated in one or more mystical organisations.

Initiatoric societies existed in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. They were working as schools or colleges for the spreading of their secret teachings to worthly individuals. The teachings were not accessible to the general public, a tendency symbolised by the Greek phrase "Ουδείς αγεωμέτρητος εισείτω" (which may be translated as "no person without knowledge of Geometry should get in") found in Plato's Academy.

The tradition of initiation and secrecy is well-preserved today, although it is criticised by many people, mainly those related to the New Age phenomenon, where many participants have adopted the view that access to knowledge should be as open as possible. However, many New Age schools and doctrines still require a process of initiation and the private tutelage of a guru (as with many forms of yoga) or other enlightened master (e.g., Zen Buddhism) in order for the passing of wisdom or knowledge to occur.


Beginning in the early to mid-Nineteenth century, and with the incorporation of Eastern mystical concepts into the existing traditions, the Western Mystery Tradition experienced a major divergence between the esoteric Hermetic rites of the Masonic and Rosicrucian traditions, and the Theosophical schools (with the major divergence occurring during the life of Madame Blavatsky). Some people considered Theosophy to be grouped under the general rubric of New Age Spirituality although others don’t agree, since they consider the New Age as an over-simplification of several theosophical concepts and having self-centered aims. The New Age schools preached an openness not seen in the esoteric Hermetic fraternal organizations, which continue to rely heavily on initiatory rites for the dissemination of spiritual information. However, although New Age spirituality is more open in its presentation, it continues to rely more or less on a syncretic and esoteric methodology in the formulation of its methods and in the transmission of its wisdom/enlightenment.

Ethics and Morality

With the enormous variation of beliefs and methods among the proliferating spiritual and esoteric groups have come concerns from some regarding the moral quality or ethical content of certain doctrines. As a consequence, there has been an effort by some to attempt a supposed objective dichotomy between the ethical philosophies of spiritual or religious groups by categorizing them under the Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path modality. In particular, the distinction that is drawn is between one set of groups (those on the "Right-Hand Path") who are said to focus on the elevation of the spiritual over the carnal, faith-based worship of something greater than themselves, and the observance of strict moral codes, all of which are supposed by their adherents to bring humans closer to the Divine or a moral good, as opposed to the other set of groups (those on the "Left-Hand Path") who focus on the advancement and preservation of the self, glorification of the earthly, and the development of personal power. This usage of terms, however, is invoked almost exclusively by proponents of groups who consider themselves "on the Left-Hand Path"; opponents of this terminology (groups that are almost always described by those who subscribe to this distinction as being on the "Right-Hand Path") argue either that this distinction is invalid because it results from a mislabeled or false dichotomy, or that much of what is called "left-handed" is simply not "legitimate."

ee also

* List of Western esoteric topics


*"The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI"
*"The Secret Teachings Of All Ages" by Manly P. Hall ISBN 1-58542-250-9
*"The Occult Philosophy In The Elizabethen Age" by Frances Yates ISBN 0-415-25409-4
*"The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West" by Jay Kinney ISBN 1-58542-339-4
*"Three Books of Occult Philosophy: A Complete Edition" by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa ISBN 0-87542-832-0

External links

* [http://www.amsterdamhermetica.com University of Amsterdam Center for Study of Western Esotericism] Research & BA/MA programs in Western esotericism.
* [http://www.huss.ex.ac.uk/research/exeseso/ University of Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO)]
** [http://www.huss.ex.ac.uk/research/exeseso/staff.htm Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO): Staff]
** [http://www.huss.ex.ac.uk/postgrad/ma/esotericism.htm MA in Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter]
* [http://www.esswe.org ESSWE] European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, with many links to associated organizations, libraries, scholars etc.
* [http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/index.htm An Esoteric Archive]
* [http://www.jwmt.org/ Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition]
* [http://www.jwmt.org/v1n0/history.html A History of the Western Mystery Tradition] by J. S. Kupperman
* [http://www.eupsychia.com/myst/articles/wmt.html The Western Mystery Traditions] by Jacquelyn Small
* [http://www.westernesoterictradition.com/ The Western Esoteric Tradition Research Site]
* [http://www.americangnosticassociation.org/ American Gnostic Association] Understanding the Western Mystery Tradition through its origin in Universal Esotericism
* [http://www.ancientwisdomcentral.us Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century] Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century

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