Esoteric Societies

Renaissance Europe marks the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity  (15th and 16th) centuries saw increasing interest in many of these older ideas spurring a resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic.

Various intellectuals combined “pagan” philosophies with the Kabbalah and Christian philosophy, resulting in the emergence of esoteric movements.

– 1700

The seventeenth century saw the development of initiatory societies professing esoteric knowledge such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry

Rosicrucianism

A spiritual and cultural movement that arose in Europe in the early 17th century based on an amalgamation of Christian mysticism with the occult tradition. Rosicrucianism (meaning “Rose Cross”) refers to a family of secret societies formed in late medieval Germany, which taught esoteric practices that were concealed from the average person.

Freemasonry

Freemasonry or Masonry refers to fraternal organizations evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages. Freemasonry adopted the rites and trappings of ancient religious orders and of chivalric brotherhoods. 

1800 / 1900

Age of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century led to the development of new forms of esoteric thought. And The nineteenth century saw the emergence of new trends of esoteric thought now known as occultism. Prominent groups in this century included the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. 

The Golden Dawn

The Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order was a secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. It influenced much Western occultism of the 20th century.  It was co-founded in the late 19th century by three UK Freemasons, William Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Mathers, but unlike the Freemasons, the Golden Dawn allowed active female members. The Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order studied the Kabbalah, astrology, tarot, as well as so-called magical fields such as scrying, astral projection and alchemy. They used occult symbols and practised ceremonial ritual to deepen an individual’s spiritual connections and increase their knowledge and power.

Marsilio Ficino and the Corpus Hermeticum

Hermeticism was rediscovered in the fifteenth century largely due to the efforts of Prince Cosimo de Medici of Florence, Italy, and that was allowed to happen only after the Church’s millennium-old stranglehold on scholarship began to loosen. At this point an important figure enters the picture: Marsilio Ficino, head of the Florentine Academy. Ficino was commissioned by de Medici to translate a set of seventeen ancient manuscripts that had been found in the Middle East. 

Ficino’s translation, subsequently called the Corpus Hermeticum and published in 1471, thrilled scholars who were in the process of rediscovering the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish traditions, all of which were thought to predate the Church. 

Ficino was one of the first to popularize the idea that there was an ancient secret wisdom at the core of all the world’s religions. This philosophia perennis would be the fundamental, first-principles truth around which the whole universe revolved. This idea was so appealing that it never faded away. The search for this particular holy grail can be found in today’s physics in the form of the many proposed Theories of Everything. Trying to develop a fundamental theory that explains everything remains the obsession of thousands of scientists who, like the esoteric scholars of the Middle Ages, hold the conviction that there must be one “secret truth,” or key principle, underlying all of reality. 

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the Hermetic-Kabbalistic synthesis

One of Ficino’s students, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463– 1494), later added portions of the Jewish Kabbalah to Hermeticism. The Kabbalah was an ancient cosmology even in Pico della Mirandola’s time, based on sephiroth or spheres of “cosmic vibration” that connect the transcendent divine with the everyday world. The Hebrew word kabbalah means “to receive,” as in “received wisdom.” It refers to the Jewish mystical tradition discussed in texts such as the Zohar, a commentary on the Hebrew Bible. 

Pico della Mirandola’s analysis of the Kabbalah proposed not only that Christianity was contained within pagan beliefs but also that it was part of the secret tradition of Kabbalah that (tradition tells us) Moses received on his second expedition up Mount Sinai.33 Like Ficino before him, Pico della Mirandola was motivated by a search for the prisca theologia. He claimed that his Hermetic-Kabbalistic synthesis, consisting of twenty-six “magical conclusions,” did the trick. 

Incidentally, the Kabbalistic text known as the Sepher Yezirah (Book of the Creation) describes a cosmology that some scholars claim is identical to the Emerald Tablet, another key source of the Hermetic tradition.34 The Corpus Hermeticum is said by some to expand on principles written (in extremely compact form) on the Emerald Tablet.35 

Like other esotericists in the Middle Ages, Pico della Mirandola was nervous about attracting unwanted attention from the Church, so he described his magical synthesis as “the practical part of natural science.”36 This strategy was an attempt to separate magic from religious concepts and place it firmly within the bounds of the natural world. Pico della Mirandola’s synthesis was part of a long line of syncretic efforts, meaning a fusion of different religious ideas. Examples of popular syncretic rituals include Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Easter, and Christmas. All of these holidays are hybrids based on a blending of pagan and Christian rituals. 

Ficino and Pico della Mirandola’s work sparked a flood of new combinations and syntheses of the esoteric traditions, many of which were instrumental in the development of the early sciences. 

Renaissance Europe marks the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity  (15th and 16th) centuries saw increasing interest in many of these older ideas spurring a resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic.

Various intellectuals combined “pagan” philosophies with the Kabbalah and Christian philosophy, resulting in the emergence of esoteric movements.

– 1700

The seventeenth century saw the development of initiatory societies professing esoteric knowledge such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry

Rosicrucianism

A spiritual and cultural movement that arose in Europe in the early 17th century based on an amalgamation of Christian mysticism with the occult tradition. Rosicrucianism (meaning “Rose Cross”) refers to a family of secret societies formed in late medieval Germany, which taught esoteric practices that were concealed from the average person.

Freemasonry

Freemasonry or Masonry refers to fraternal organizations evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages.Freemasonry adopted the rites and trappings of ancient religious orders and of chivalric brotherhoods. 

1800 / 1900

Age of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century led to the development of new forms of esoteric thought. And The nineteenth century saw the emergence of new trends of esoteric thought now known as occultism. Prominent groups in this century included the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. 

The Golden Dawn

The Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order was a secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. It influenced much Western occultism of the 20th century.  It was co-founded in the late 19th century by three UK Freemasons, William Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Mathers, but unlike the Freemasons, the Golden Dawn allowed active female members. The Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order studied the Kabbalah, astrology, tarot, as well as so-called magical fields such as scrying, astral projection and alchemy. They used occult symbols and practised ceremonial ritual to deepen an individual’s spiritual connections and increase their knowledge and power.

Marsilio Ficino and the Corpus Hermeticum

Hermeticism was rediscovered in the fifteenth century largely due to the efforts of Prince Cosimo de Medici of Florence, Italy, and that was allowed to happen only after the Church’s millennium-old stranglehold on scholarship began to loosen. At this point an important figure enters the picture: Marsilio Ficino, head of the Florentine Academy. Ficino was commissioned by de Medici to translate a set of seventeen ancient manuscripts that had been found in the Middle East. Ficino’s translation, subsequently called the Corpus Hermeticum and published in 1471, thrilled scholars who were in the process of rediscovering the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish traditions, all of which were thought to predate the Church. 

Ficino was one of the first to popularize the idea that there was an ancient secret wisdom at the core of all the world’s religions. This philosophia perennis would be the fundamental, first-principles truth around which the whole universe revolved. This idea was so appealing that it never faded away. The search for this particular holy grail can be found in today’s physics in the form of the many proposed Theories of Everything. Trying to develop a fundamental theory that explains everything remains the obsession of thousands of scientists who, like the esoteric scholars of the Middle Ages, hold the conviction that there must be one “secret truth,” or key principle, underlying all of reality. 

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the Hermetic-Kabbalistic synthesis

One of Ficino’s students, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463– 1494), later added portions of the Jewish Kabbalah to Hermeticism. The Kabbalah was an ancient cosmology even in Pico della Mirandola’s time, based on sephiroth or spheres of “cosmic vibration” that connect the transcendent divine with the everyday world. The Hebrew word kabbalah means “to receive,” as in “received wisdom.” It refers to the Jewish mystical tradition discussed in texts such as the Zohar, a commentary on the Hebrew Bible. 

Pico della Mirandola’s analysis of the Kabbalah proposed not only that Christianity was contained within pagan beliefs but also that it was part of the secret tradition of Kabbalah that (tradition tells us) Moses received on his second expedition up Mount Sinai.33 Like Ficino before him, Pico della Mirandola was motivated by a search for the prisca theologia. He claimed that his Hermetic-Kabbalistic synthesis, consisting of twenty-six “magical conclusions,” did the trick. 

Incidentally, the Kabbalistic text known as the Sepher Yezirah (Book of the Creation) describes a cosmology that some scholars claim is identical to the Emerald Tablet, another key source of the Hermetic tradition.34 The Corpus Hermeticum is said by some to expand on principles written (in extremely compact form) on the Emerald Tablet.35 

Like other esotericists in the Middle Ages, Pico della Mirandola was nervous about attracting unwanted attention from the Church, so he described his magical synthesis as “the practical part of natural science.”36 This strategy was an attempt to separate magic from religious concepts and place it firmly within the bounds of the natural world. Pico della Mirandola’s synthesis was part of a long line of syncretic efforts, meaning a fusion of different religious ideas. Examples of popular syncretic rituals include Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Easter, and Christmas. All of these holidays are hybrids based on a blending of pagan and Christian rituals. 

Ficino and Pico della Mirandola’s work sparked a flood of new combinations and syntheses of the esoteric traditions, many of which were instrumental in the development of the early sciences. 

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