Twisting the Threads: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Tradition

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue 5 (Winter 2008)

Once upon a time, every religion was Janus-faced. It had its exoteric or outward side, serving or exploiting the majority of believers, and its esoteric or inward side, reserved for a few. Christianity had its esoteric side in theosophy, the science of the knowledge of God; Judaism in Kabbalah; Islam in Sufism; Hinduism in the various yogas; Paganism in its Mysteries. These esoterisms were for those with sufficient interest, motivation, and capacity to benefit from them. Entry was through initiation, whereupon, under expert guidance, the elect might embark on the lifelong and demanding quest for reality. That, at least, was the principle, however imperfect it may have been in practice. 

It is different today. There is a widespread thirst for a deeper dimension to life than the consumer society can provide, and for a better explanation of its enigmas than exoteric religion or materialistic science has to offer. This thirst accounts for the popular success of books and films that feature Gnostic and occult themes, and of conspiracy theories that claim that things are ordered quite differently – for good or ill – than the public is led to believe. If anyone wants to learn more, the secrets once imparted only to initiates are there on the bookshelves, or the Internet. The doors of the sanctuary are agape, but where are the hierophants, adepts, and sages whom one hoped to find there? Most of us seem to be thrown back on our own resources, lonely travellers among the ruined monuments of ancient mysteries.

The Golden Thread is one such traveller’s offering, and this article is a sampling of it. The book stems from a series of fourteen articles in the New York-based magazine, Lapis: The Inner Meaning of Contemporary Life. Its editor, Ralph White, suggested treating the Western mystery traditions in such a way as to make them not merely historical curiosities, but relevant to his readers. These were typically people with a secure footing in contemporary life, but feeling the call of that “inner meaning” that money and status cannot buy. So I had a dual task: to give them a quick and easy course in the main episodes of Western esoterism, and to show what these have to teach us today. 

From the start, I wanted to shake the readers up a bit. In the first article, on The Chaldaean Oracles of Zoroaster, I seized on a hint that the Oracles contained an idea of bodily transmutation as a means towards immortality. Yea, yea, says the modern reader, a typically superstitious belief. But wait: what if there were something to it? 

As testified in the Bible, Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus left no physical body behind after their deaths. The same was believed of the Virgin Mary from the fifth century onward, and in 1950 the Catholic Church proclaimed it dogma. Although always skeptical when told what I must believe, I have no difficulty in principle with this concept. It seems quite feasible that a person’s physical body might be so transformed during life that it becomes indistinguishable from the subtle “radiant body.” The soul then takes the body with it, wherever it goes after leaving earth.

There is reliable evidence that this has happened in modern times in the case of Tibetan adepts. Eyewitness accounts support the tradition that adepts may achieve the “diamond body” during life. Then, within days after death, their physical body just disappears, leaving behind only the “vegetable” elements of hair and nails. A lesser phenomenon, well attested in Christendom, is that of saints’ bodies that remain uncorrupted, sometimes for centuries. Evidently there is a whole science here, studied in ancient Egypt and Tibet but temporarily in abeyance because of the limits of the Western imagination. Theoretical physics, with its concepts of matter, energy, and mind, might someday provide a framework within which such phenomena can be intelligently discussed.

The Nature of Metaphysics

In thirty years of writing, I have consistently tried to bridge the gulf between the academic and what, for want of a better word, I’ll call the metaphysical. It was only in the past century that the academic world virtually banned psychical research, and decreed that a materialistic philosophy was the only permissible base assumption. You can’t entirely blame them. Nowadays there’s such a fear of religion – the exoteric kind – infecting research and throwing its weight around in society as a whole, that the metaphysical baby has been thrown out with the religious bathwater. Yet the higher reaches of physics are already metaphysical. There, the rigid separation of mind from matter is a thing of the past, and things no less strange than the “diamond body” of Tibetan tradition are everyday currency. 

Here’s another instance in which science is invited to loosen up the boundaries of the possible. It comes in a discussion of alchemy, one of the corner-stones of Western esoterism, which is sometimes interpreted as proto-chemistry, sometimes as proto-psychoanalysis, and sometimes as theosophical allegory. Each interpreter tends to take only one point of view, but I think this a mistake. 

The proponents of the different kinds of alchemy are different psychological types, and as such are unlikely to favour each other’s methods. Those who work with physical substances do so because it suits them, but it is just as well that the process of human transmutation can go forward without the expense of a well-equipped laboratory. Otherwise poor Jacob Boehme would not have got far. However, if we can believe what we read, is it not extraordinary that, when interpreted one way, chemical recipes deriving from Alexandrian Egypt work in the laboratory, and in another way, provide reliable guidance on the theosophic path? How could these two such different fields be connected?

Yes, it is extraordinary to the modern mind, so brilliant in physics and chemistry, so ignorant of the inner and the imaginal world. It is almost touching, this childlike faith that the world of matter is the only real one, and all the rest epiphenomena of it. But what if we were to turn the tables and suggest that the inner world is prior to the outer? That the imagination precedes rather than follows the event? That the only reason we see the stars is that we share, for that moment, in their perpetual creation? Then it would be mental and imaginal states that are primary, and the chemical procedures that are secondary to them. As normal, undeveloped people, we are only able to live in a normal, undeveloped world, which is the world known to science. But once supernormal conscious states had been mastered, then one might live in a supernormal world with laws different from those of classical physics. This, incidentally, would explain the miracles of healing attributed to Christ and others, and even the turning of lead into gold.

Obviously I am not speaking from experience of such “supernormal conscious states,” but only from a position that does not deny their possibility. Likewise, I have no personal knowledge of the Tibetan practices that make the physical body vanish three days after death, but confidence in the veracity of reports. I won’t say that I “believe” in these things, but I won’t disbelieve in them either. That is as far as I claim to have gone beyond the common mind, which snaps shut as soon as it encounters notions of this kind. 

It is similar with the mentalist doctrine to which the above quotation alludes. I don’t experience the world around me as created by my mind, any more than I perceive the earth beneath my feet as spinning round on its axis, but I am as certain of the former as I am of the latter. In their respective fields, they seem to be the working hypotheses that best “save the phenomena.” However, all human explanations are no more than that. As that immortal American philosopher, Charles Fort, wrote: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” This can lead to pessimistic conclusions, but not necessarily depressing ones:

Efforts to fit the universe into rational systems and schemata are doomed to provinciality, none agreeing with any other. At the present stage of human intelligence, we have no more chance of success than an ant with a theory about human society. 

The great benefit of a sense of history is that it puts things into perspective, especially science and philosophy. Ideas and theories change with the centuries, and yesterday’s certainties are today’s quaint, archaic notions. One thing is a sure bet: that some of today’s scientific and moral certainties are going to be tomorrow’s quaint, archaic notions. The “touching, childlike faith” in the materialist explanation, mentioned above, is likely to be one of them.

The certainties encountered in those “supernormal conscious states” are different in kind, and do not change with time and progress. At the peak of gnosis or philosophical mysticism, there seems to be agreement between the sages of all times and races. This is the “Ageless Wisdom” of my subtitle: the gnosis that is always and everywhere the same because it is the birthright of humanity, whether realised or not. However, it is of limited effectiveness in daily life, and communicating it is well-nigh impossible. The preceding quotation continues:

When the rational mind is bypassed by gnosis, the result is “ineffable” (inexpressible in words), and paradoxically most certain; but that has nothing to do with categories of thought, molded as those are by genetics, language, and the senses.

The mystery traditions were designed to bring people closer to the gnostic state, but even there, its formulations are contradictory. For example, the mysteries of Orpheus, Mithras, and the Egyptian teachings preserved in Hermetism emphasise preparations for the life after death, picturing the initiate as then deified or at least enjoying the company of the god(s). On the other hand alchemy, Kabbalistic meditation, Rosicrucianism, and occult Freemasonry all focus on transmutation in the here and now. The Greek tradition of philosophical mysticism – Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neoplatonists – combines both, teaching contemplative methods of detachment from earthly concerns that are a preparation for the inevitable detachment of death. 

As for the religions, they cannot agree about such basic issues as whether there is one god, or many, because they are incapable of the shifting standpoints familiar to the philosophic mind. Given those, the matter is not difficult to resolve.

The subtle intelligence of Indian, Egyptian, and Greek philosophers easily grasped the truth of monotheism: that there can be only one ultimate source of all things. But the ordinary worshipper, in every religion, takes comfort not from metaphysics but from faith, and draws spiritual sustenance from a personal relationship with a god or goddess. A polytheistic culture like ancient Rome or modern India recognises that there are many worthy objects for such devotion, and allows everyone his or her divinity of choice. Its philosophers keep their understanding to themselves, and do not interfere in people’s religious customs by saying: “You should throw down the idols of Jupiter (Shiva, Isis, etc.) and worship the ineffable One!” Not so the monotheists. The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam insist that there is only one God, and in a sense they are right. But what they call God is no longer the One of the philosophers. He is a masculine entity with attributes of a far lower order, such as tribal chauvinism, the desire for love, response to prayers and bribery, and intervention in human affairs. He is no better than the gods of Olympus, yet he is supposed to be the source of all. And as he acts, with bitter enmity to the worshippers of other gods, so do his followers – as if the One could care!

Some current books on the Western esoteric tradition are factual, scholarly accounts that add to one’s bank of learning. Others are inspirational, written out of enthusiasm for one or another stream, such as Christian theosophy or the divine feminine. The Golden Thread has something of both intentions, but even more, it encourages the reader to face some difficult questions. There is no lack of people eager to supply answers to them, but I see a greater virtue in leaving the questions open and admitting that one simply doesn’t know. This is the Socratic principle of facing one’s own ignorance, which Socrates and Plato taught as a superior philosophical stage to that of most of humanity, who live in a miasma of opinions and beliefs that they mistake for knowledge.

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The Philosopher’s Dilemma

The following questions arise in the context of what I call “The Philosopher’s Dilemma” (meaning by “philosopher” the person drawn to esoteric studies). 

The philosopher’s dilemma is the choice between these two fields of action, the political and the personal. It may be phrased thus: Can the state of humanity as a whole be remedied, or is it in such a parlous case that remedy is only possible on the individual level?

One does not have to be excessively wise to be troubled by this question, but to answer it requires a sounding of one’s deepest convictions about human nature and the place of man on earth. For example, does one believe that life on earth is merely a prelude to a much more important life that begins after death? If so, the social conditions of this vale of tears are a secondary matter, even a distraction. Does one believe, with most Christians, that everyone has an individual and immortal soul, or, with some pagans, that personal immortality is won only by titanic efforts? Is there a clear distinction between material and spiritual existence, or are body and soul both part of a continuum that is split by our misperception? Should I concern myself with humanity as a whole, or with my own salvation, leaving the rest to Divine Providence or the goddess Fortuna? Am I a separate unit with my own spiritual history, a stranger or even exile on this earth (the Gnostic point of view), or do I belong to a tribe, race, or species with a macrohistory of past and future evolution? 

In studying esoteric and mystery traditions, one cannot avoid coming up against the occult. The term “occultism” is a coinage of the nineteenth century, when it served as a counter-balance to growing materialism, but there have always been “occult sciences” that deal with that which is hidden from the senses. These include astrology, alchemy, the many forms of divination including palmistry, geomancy, cartomancy, and the interpretation of omens, natural magic or the manipulation of the hidden forces of nature, sexual magic, ceremonial magic including demonic and angelic invocations, the science of correspondences, and the study of the beings intermediate in the hierarchy between the gods (or God) and man.

I see no reason to exclude these from esoteric studies, because the two have so often gone hand in hand. They are part of the practical side, without which book-learning is incomplete; yet the person who dabbles in the occult sciences without a philosophical grounding is worse off still. In The Golden Thread, I acknowledge the reality of the occult domain, and try to bring some sense to it. One concept in particular seems to me worth consideration: that of the “egregore,” explained in the chapter on the mysteries of the Roman empire.

There is an occult concept of the “egregore,” a term derived from the Greek word for “watcher.” It is used for an immaterial entity that “watches” or presides over some earthly affair or collectivity. The important point is that an egregore is augmented by human belief, ritual, and especially by sacrifice. If it is sufficiently nourished by such energies, the egregore can take on a life of its own and appear to be an independent, personal divinity, with a limited power on behalf of its devotees and an unlimited appetite for their further devotion. It is then believed to be an immortal god or goddess, an angel, or a daimon. 

One may deoccultise the theory of the egregore by imagining these entities to be mere energy-patterns reinforced by use, analogous to the way in which patterns of neurons in the brain are reinforced and strengthened by use and mental effort. The formation of language is one example of how such a pattern may come to form the dominant matrix for our entire human experience. On the collective level, then, I suggest that the old Roman gods and goddesses did have a certain limited reality, and that they were kept alive by the beliefs of the people, the rituals of the priests and priestesses, and psychic energy released and directed in a myriad of animal sacrifices. So long as this compact continued, the egregores watched over the city, which flourished under their protection. 

The alert reader cannot avoid wondering what manner of egregores are being formed and might be active today. 

Just as my philosophical attitude has been influenced by Charles Fort as well as by Plato, so I cannot fail to notice some modern equivalents to ancient occult ideas. One of these, which may have a connection to the egregore concept, is the “science fiction scenario” of Gnosticism, in which a malevolent god, the Demiurge, manipulates humanity. There is a good reason not to dismiss it lightly.

There are scientists today who believe and even hope that the human race will eventually take over other planets and exploit their environments, with any life forms that may be found there, for human advantage. Give us a million more years and we might become an evil Demiurge ourselves, enslaving the inhabitants of some hapless planetary system, perhaps even without their knowledge. In an era of genetic manipulations, it is no longer frivolous to wonder whether our own earth, and our bodies, might have suffered some such intervention by beings cleverer than ourselves. In view of the continuing inability of materialistic science to explain the origins of humanity, it seems worth collecting material bearing on this hypothesis. There are several separate hypotheses to be considered: 1. That the mutation which brought homo sapiens into being was deliberately introduced by an entity or entities unknown. 2. That early man was educated by superior beings from elsewhere, later commemorated as “gods.” 3. That the motivation of such beings may not have been in mankind’s best interests. 4. That they are still engaged with us, perhaps as the “unknown superiors” of occult groups, perhaps as the aliens who perform abductions.

The popular literature abounds in claims for all four hypotheses, boldly presented as fact and exemplifying the anti-Socratic method of pretending to knowledge that one doesn’t possess. I tabulate and offer them here in a Fortean spirit, hoping that the reader will agree with me that the cosmos is a strange and complex place, and that there is much we do not know about it.

In this article I have emphasised the questioning and unsettling nature of The Golden Thread at the expense of its other functions. One of these is to give readers a short but solid outline of the main currents within Western esotericism. Another is to provide, in the notes, a guide to further readings ranging from scholarly studies in several languages to popular works. A third purpose is a personal one. Ever since I chanced, nearly half a century ago, upon Carl Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies and William Q. Judge’s The Ocean of Theosophy, these matters have fascinated me, and it seems time to draw up a temporary balance-sheet and see where I stand in relation to them. If I am none the wiser, I am certainly the richer for the experience, and readers may sense something of the joy and excitement of it.

The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions by Joscelyn Godwin, Foreword by Richard Smoley, published by Quest Books, is available from Dominion Press including a collector’s edition clothbound in red and gold with the author’s calligraphic cover design. To order, go to dominionpress.net/titles/the-golden-thread/
This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue 5.
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About the Author

JOSCELYN GODWIN, Professor of Music Emeritus at Colgate University, New York State, has been publishing, editing, and translating esoteric materials since the 1970s. These include works on speculative music (Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, Music, Mysticism and Magic, Harmony of the Spheres, Cosmic Music, The Mystery of the Seven Vowels, Music and the Occult), Renaissance and early modern studies (Robert Fludd, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, The Real Rule of Four, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World, translations of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz), and histories of esoteric movements and themes (The Theosophical Enlightenment, Arktos, The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, Atlantis and the Cycles of Time, Upstate Cauldron).

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