Friday, 12 September 2014

Esoteric Traditions

This is a copy & paste of an article I wrote some years ago when I still maintained my own web site. Following our discussion of Wicca and other "mystery" religions, I thought it might be of interest to share the article with you all.

Feel free to comment.

A Personal Perspective

Whenever I listen to a priest, either at some religious ceremony (of which I attend mercifully few) or on television, I look at the person and wonder how he or she can keep trotting out such utter rubbish. I look carefully at the face for signs of a wry smile that gives away the intelligent mind inside; a smile that says “I don’t really believe most of this crap but it’s what I’m paid to say”. Now anyone who has read through Part One of this website and noted my dislike of hard-line scepticism might think that there is more than a trace of hypocritical irony in those seemingly harsh comments. Hopefully I can now show that there is some consistency in my reasoning. The common factor, the target of my ire in both cases can be summed up in one word: dogma. The academic/scientific orthodoxy and the three major religions in the west all exclude any possibility that their view might be wrong. An example from science is this quote from Lewis Wolpert, a biologist:
“An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out.”  Wolpert
The difference, as I see it, between scientific and religious dogmatists is that religious people believe that they have been given the word of God first-hand and therefore any attempt to present evidence contrary to their beliefs can be ignored as mere human fallibility. Scientists, on the other hand, insist that they will only believe the evidence. Of course, they themselves reserve the right to set the parameters for acceptance of evidence. The further away from the materialist core assumptions, the tougher it becomes for evidence to be accepted – a fact acknowledged and justified by the late, popular scientist, Carl Sagan:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Sagan
So, if you believe that you have communicated by telepathy, or have lived before, you will be branded at best as deluded and at worst as a liar, a cheat or a lunatic regardless of the certainty of your experience. I would recommend the book, Best Evidence by Michael Schmicker for a well written treatment of this subject.
If, on the other hand, you were to take those same claims to your religious leaders, you might – these days – be told that you have been possessed by demons or accused of treating with Satan. These and other subjects generally related to the paranormal are often deemed by the church to be aspects of the occult: the work of the devil. In days gone by you would probably have been tied to a stake and burned alive for admitting to such abominations.
My problem is not so much with religion but with religious organisations: churches, orthodoxy and – especially – fundamentalists. I have no problem with personal faith and the spiritual needs of the lay community. I have no problem with those who seek, only with those who preach: the rule makers, the organisers, the spin doctors, those who would control and direct us like sheep into the pens of restricted thinking. Those who would tell the faithful that, not only is it a blessed act to die for their particular brand of dogma, but that it is also heroic to kill for the same. And, philosophically speaking, my problem with organised religion is with their concept of God. The anthropomorphic portrayal of God as a paternalistic ruler of heaven and earth; a God with human characteristics such as pride, vengeance, jealousy and anger. A God very much like the Michelangelo depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I will describe my concept of God – a word I’m actually reluctant to use because of the above connotations – later, in my personal section.
So in this section I would like to delve deeper into the roots of western religious traditions. I have tried to understand why I was brought up to believe – without question – in certain myths that, even as a boy of twelve (I was always a slow starter), I could see were patent nonsense. When the boy that I was came to challenge my religious teachers about some of the glaring contradictions presented as the holy truth, the answers were so unsatisfactory that I quickly lost all faith and – for a time at least – switched to the other side: atheism. I was then willing to embrace the cold, hard doctrine of the cosmic accident until, of course, those answers too became deeply unsatisfactory. Where that led me to will be the subject of Part Three of this website where I will attempt to explain my personal philosophy.
The comments here are directed towards the so-called western religions: all the different factions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I know far too little about eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism to be able to comment although I suspect I might find a certain affinity with the Buddhist philosophy if I were to look a little closer. This is not to say that I’m any kind of expert on the subject of any religion: western or otherwise. However I was brought up as a church-going Christian and have had enough exposure to western religious customs to form opinions. And that is all I am expressing here: personal opinions.

One for All

Despite outward appearances of violently opposing basic philosophies, all three major western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have common roots. When I say “western” that is because the general spread of these three has been mainly to the west, north and south of the original, middle-eastern source although Islam, of course, has spread eastwards to cover most of south-central Asia and Indonesia. The generic term “eastern religion” points to the geographical locations of India and the orient and would include the likes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism and Shinto.
So, the common roots of the three so-called western religions go all the way back (at least) to the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam), said to be the first to teach monotheism: the worship of a single God. Indeed, these three are sometimes referred to as the “Abrahamic religions“. The story of Abraham and his children also marks the dividing of the ways for the faiths of Islam and Judaism. According to the old testament book of Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham which – in return for observance of certain rules and rituals including circumcision – God promised:
“You shall be the father of a multitude of nations … and kings shall come
forth from you … an everlasting covenant throughout the ages … I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding.” Genesis: 17
“Your offspring” is the bit that is the problem here. Which offspring? Which line of descendants? You see, Abraham – according to the texts – produced children from more than one woman. His “number one wife”, as it were, would have been Sarai (later called Sarah) but she couldn’t have children so she arranged a surrogate in the person of her handmaid, Hagar (Hajar). Hagar duly gave birth to Abraham’s firstborn son called Ishmael who, according to the Muslims, is the rightful heir to the promised land. Later, by way of a miracle from God, Sarah (by this time in her nineties!) was to deliver Abraham (at the sprightly age of 100) a son of her own. This son bore the name of Isaac and, say the Jews, he and his line are the rightful heirs to the promised land (Ishmael, they say, doesn’t count because he was illegitimate).
Each son, Ishmael and Isaac, would produce descendants who would form twelve tribes: Ishmael’s twelve tribesof wandering Arabs and Isaac – through his son Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) - the twelve tribes of Israel. Obviously, I can’t do justice to the whole story here but we can already see the deep roots of the conflict between Jew and Muslim (even though Islam, as an “official” religion of the Arabs, did not appear for over 2,000 years after the Abraham story). Indeed, it has been very difficult for me to find and provide links to unbiased web sites on this subject. Still, the most important aspect of the Abraham story is that he was the founder of the first monotheistic religion – the worship of a single God. This God became known to the Jews as YHWH, Yahweh, Yehovah or Jehovah and to the Arabs as Allah.
But wait … let’s look a little more carefully at the biblical claim for Abraham being the first monotheist. First, there is some doubt as to whether Abraham actually existed as there seems to be little archaeo-historical evidence that he did. Nevertheless, assuming that the bible is describing a real person, Abraham would have been the leader of a nomadic tribe, moving his goats and cattle from place to place. His father was a dealer in religious idols that needed to be carried about with the tribe wherever they went. Many gods means many idols. This was a cumbersome, if not risky, chore. Much simpler to have a single God requiring no idol. Perhaps Abraham was a pragmatist rather than a prophet? Perhaps his story has been enhanced with a little spin by the scribes of the Old Testament? As Robert Feather points out in his book “The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran”:
“To understand why later scribes found such inspiration from Abraham’s story, it seems reasonable to conclude that there was some truth in the main elements, as handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and described in the Old Testament.
“However, Abraham does not come across as a ‘messianic’ leader who publically preached a new creed. It even seems unlikely that monotheism was Abraham’s original idea.”
Feather goes on:
“In the Old testament, Abraham does not exhibit the characteristics of someone who preaches to a wide, or even select audience. You cannot found a religion unless you go out and preach the new gospel.”
The title of the chapter containing those quotes puts it in a nutshell: “Abraham – Father of Three Religions, Founder of None”.
The book of Genesis (Chapter 12) tells us that Abraham journeyed with his tribe from the region of Ur which, according to modern research, could be one of several historical places in the region of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. He went to the land then called Canaan where he was to receive the promise – mentioned above – that this land would become the great nation to be given to his descendants. This promise was to be repeated later when Abraham returned to Canaan after famine had forced him to spend a while in Egypt. Here, importantly, we have the first mention of possible Egyptian influence on biblical events and the development of a religious philosophy. Today there is much speculation about the extent of that influence and the attempts of later Old Testament scribes to expunge it from the records. Correspondences abound between the texts of ancient Egyptians and the Old Testament stories, so much so that the boundaries between the two begin to blur considerably.
If we now skip several generations and take a look at Genesis: 37 and the story of Joseph (he of the colourful coat), we find him in Egypt too – as a result of being banished there by his jealous brothers (well, what did he expect when he told them about his dream that they would all – one day – bow down to him?). According to the scriptures, Joseph – after a spell in prison because of some tabloid scandal involving his master’s wife – gradually worked his way into the favour of his Egyptian rulers (using his talents as a dream interpreter) until, eventually, he became the second most powerful man in the land.
Now, a little historical discussion here might help put these bible stories into perspective. Some historians have suggested that (if we are to accept that such an individual actually existed) Joseph might have come to Egypt during the time of the Hyksos rulers (sometime between 1700 and 1500 BCE). The Hyksos were not native Egyptians but Asiatic (Semitic) tribes who had first settled in Lower Egypt and then advanced their influence to become rulers for a period of more than 100 years. If Joseph arrived during this time – being, of course, of Semitic stock himself – this might explain how he became accepted and promoted through the ranks to a position of great power.
Another – perhaps more controversial – theory is that Joseph was actually a character from a later period (18th Dynasty, around 1400 BCE): a high ranking minister named Yuya. Ahmed Osman, an Egyptian historian and author has promoted this hypothesis in several books on the subject. Yuya had a daughter, Tiye, who became the wife of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Now, here’s where it gets interesting if you follow Osman’s line of reasoning: Amenhotep III and Tiye were the parents of the future Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV otherwise known as Akhenaten. So, according to Osman, if Yuya (and therefore Tiye) were of Semitic (Hebrew) descent they probably (if privately) followed the monotheistic faith of Abraham. Tiye was said to be very influential with her son, Akhenaten, who is today famous for introducing the monotheistic Atenist religion during his reign.
Others – including the majority of orthodox Egyptologists – disagree (to put it mildly) with Osman’s speculations. Still, the question is still relevant: did the early Hebrews influence the Egyptians towards monotheism, or was it the other way around?
The question gains more significance when we move on to the next A-List celebrity in the biblical cast: Moses. It seems that even the experts disagree on who he was and when he lived. The main problem is that there appears to be little or no evidence – from Egyptian records at least – for the existence of Moses or indeed for the hugely significant (in biblical terms) event of the Exodus – when Moses is said to have led thousands of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea and set off on a 40 year hike through the desert. Here are links describing a few of the many speculations:
Jan Assmann: Moses was an Egyptian.
Ahmed Osman: Moses was Akhenaten.
David Rohl believes that Moses did exist and that the Exodus did happen. The reason, he says, that archaeologists have found so little evidence is that they were looking at the wrong time period. He places these people and events a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional dating.
Sigmund Freud was a keen student of this period of history. In his book “Moses and Monotheism” he too places Moses in the reign of Akhenaten but stops short of Osman’s claim that they were one and the same person.
If some, like Osman, believe the “Moses = Akhenaten” theory then others, such as Velikovsky, add to the speculation with “Akhenaten = Oedipus” (a figure out of Greek mythology).
Graham Phillips proposes that the biblical character of Moses is a composite of two historical Egyptians, both named Tuthmosis, who lived at different times. The first converted the Israelites to monotheism, the second led them out of exile about a century later.
Some scholars argue that the whole story was invented by Jewish scribes during the period of the exile in Babylon.
Whatever the truth of the matter of Moses might be, once again the important factor for me is the influence of Egyptian religion and philosophy upon the formative stages of Judaism. “Moses the Law Giver”, according to the bible, received the 10 commandments directly from God. Odd then, isn’t it, that they bear a remarkable similarity to Chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (see the Papyrus of Ani, Chapter 125: The Negative Confession)?

But we are not restricted to the Ancient Egyptians when it comes to “external” influences on the nascent Hebrew religion. What about the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and Persians? The more I look, the more apparent it appears to me that the many merge into the one the farther back in time you go. While, on the surface, it seems that the various religions of the region coalesced over time into the major three we know today, at a deeper level the opposite direction seems to be true: the various religions (including the big three of our times) appear to trace their ancestry back to a very ancient philosophy indeed. How ancient is not clear right now. Some have argued that it goes back way beyond the Old Kingdom of Egypt (about 5,000 years ago) – perhaps to the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. Others contend that extraterrestrials – the ancient astronauts – had a hand in our ancient development.

Subterranean Streams

The institution of the Mysteries is the most interesting phenomenon in the study of religion. The idea of antiquity was that there was something to be known in religion, secrets or mysteries into which it was possible to be initiated; that there was a gradual process of unfolding in things religious; in fine, that there was a science of the soul, a knowledge of things unseen.
G.R.S. Mead (from “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten”)
Orthodox science, like orthodox religion, faces challenges from alternative theories usually arising out of the ranks of dedicated amateurs. Some of these challengers are cranks, while others are highly qualified in their own fields and have applied their knowledge and experience to their amateur passion. It requires an open mind and a lot of cross-referencing to separate the cranky ideas from the meritorious. The trouble is that, all too often, the orthodoxy tends to dismiss all alternative theories as crackpot ideas. It is an understandable human reaction: why should someone who has spent his/her life working hard, studying, researching; someone who has followed the correct academic and professional path, face a challenge from unqualified upstarts with few or no credentials in the field? And the truth of the matter is that the majority of the would-be challenges probably do turn out to be poorly researched speculation that can be dismissed with a few well chosen references (usually accompanied by some equally well chosen and barbed put-down). Nevertheless it seems to me – the casual observer – that the orthodoxy has been somewhat guilty of smug self-satisfaction in ignoring or dismissing some of these new theories. New tributaries are forming which are now merging into an alternative stream. Whether that stream ever becomes the mainstream remains to be seen. If it does, then the universities will have new or amended courses and doctorates and the alternative will become the orthodox. It was ever thus.
So what are these theories and how do they impact on the archaeological/historical orthodoxy and traditional religions? Well, the theories are alternative because they disagree with the conventional explanations for so many ancient mysteries, for example: the Ancient Egyptians and the Pyramids, biblical events such as the great flood, the stone circles of Europe, the Grail myths, the meaning and influence of ancient texts and the origins of mystery schools and secret societies. The impact? From the scientific/academic side: scathing dismissals and furious debunking (visit the Hall of Maat website for a taste of this). From the religious: support when the theory appears to support their religious texts, rejection when it doesn’t. The debunk-fest from the sceptics is all very reminiscent – in tone and ferocity – of the treatment reserved for parapsychologists or Darwin-doubters by the good folks over at CSICOP/CSI. No surprise then that two of the most vociferous critics of what they term “pseudo-archaeology”, Ed Krupp and Ken Feder, are listed as Fellows of CSICOP (now called CSI).
But what I am interested in when sifting through all this speculation is to discover whether that stream of new theories reflects and confirms an actual underground stream of arcane knowledge: a common concept of spirituality – indeed, a common concept of reality itself. It has been called the “Perennial Wisdom” or the “Perennial Philosophy” and it can be found underlying many – if not all – major religions, both Western and Eastern. It is at the very core of Egyptian Hermeticism, the Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism and Esoteric Christianity including  Gnosticism. Ever since my interest in these matters was piqued many years ago, I have suspected that – whatever the faith – there is one religion for the masses and another for the adepts. Throughout the ages, religion has been a tool used by the powerful to control the masses. Some would have it that this is all that religion has ever been but I wouldn’t go that far. Any tool can be used for good or bad, to build or destroy, and religion has been no different. Some great works have been done in the name of God while at the same time awful atrocities have been committed in the very same cause. This is the dual aspect of orthodox religion: a faith which espouses virtuousness and altruistic values contrasted with the cynical machinations of a priestly hierarchy, bent on mass domination. Evidence of the former can be seen in a million-and-one everyday saintly deeds performed by clergy and congregation alike. Evidence of the latter is, sadly, all too abundant in our history books and on our TV screens to this very day. What is the definition of oxymoron? Answer: the term “holy war”.
Underlying the surface infrastructure of the mass religion, however, there appears to be this quiet but potent subculture. Just how potent remains to be seen. Some would have it that – in the form of one or several secret societies – the members of this subculture are the real rulers of the world. Others believe they are the leaders in waiting – hatching plots and grand designs to bring about the New World Order. Others yet would have it that these are the enlightened few: those whose time has not yet come but who work in preparation for a general or mass shift towards that enlightenment which is our collective birthright. I suspect that there are varying degrees of truth in each of those positions. I think that there is an ancient knowledge, kept alive throughout the millennia by various (though not necessarily coherent) groups of adherents, often at the risk of discovery and a certain death penalty. This knowledge, like the superficial mass religion if often underlies, can be used for means either virtuous or nefarious.
I’d like now, if I can, to trace the source of this subterranean stream of knowledge through the ages and events – historical, religious and scientific – to the present day. This is inevitably, of course, mostly speculation on my part and, indeed, on the part of other more qualified authors whom I have read before coming to my own conclusions. But I do think there is strong evidence out there and that it does form a pattern or a fabric when woven together.

The Esoteric Tradition

“The Sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”
Genesis 6:2
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.”
Genesis 6:4 (King James Version)
The “Sons of God” – or “sons of the gods” as interpreted elsewhere – were also referred to as the Nephilim: sons of the Grigori. The Grigori, in turn, are also known as the “Watchers“, believed to be angels. Thus, the Nephilim – as a consequence of their lust for human women – were known as “fallen angels“. Now I am a firm believer that mythical stories almost always have some basis in truth though that truth is often cloaked in layer upon layer of symbolism and allegory. So to try to uncover the truth behind this particularly fascinating myth, many commentators have speculated about the nature of these “angels”. The Watchers are often depicted as having wings or are said to have descended from heaven and there has been a natural inclination among some to suggest that they were an alien race. Others maintain that they were the remnants of an advanced antediluvian civilisation who “seeded” our own. Both are interesting positions though I tend to favour the idea that we are not the first human civilisation to have come to prominence on this earth, nor will we be the last. Thus, in some way, we must have inherited something – even if it is only in the form of myths and legends – from our predecessors.
So let’s speculate a little further: what if the stories of the Watchers (or Grigori or Nephilim or Annunaki – whichever you prefer) do represent that kernel of truth present is all myths? Let’s say that these beings were highly advanced in some ways: perhaps in astronomy, perhaps also in engineering and construction. Perhaps they had discovered a technology that we, for all our advanced physics, have yet to find. Maybe they used – for example – some properties of sound to move and manoeuvre big, heavy objects. Possibly, and most importantly, they were highly advanced spiritually. What if these ancestors were a shy, retiring race? Maybe they saw the coming of their own demise and tried to pass on some of their accrued wisdom for the benefit of the new kids on the block – you and me. But, in doing so, in trying to select worthy candidates to carry forth this important message, they – wittingly or otherwise – created a priestly elite amongst the tribal society of the time.
A parable is what is used to convey a message to the masses when it is known that the masses would not be able to comprehend the pure, unadulterated text. The bible is full of them. So are all the other religious scriptures. Today, TV producers and scriptwriters use the very same device for getting across their point, whether that be philosophical, moral or merely commercial. The masses are not now, nor ever have been, particularly sophisticated. In the past, without the benefit of education, reading or exposure to intellectual debate, the sophistication gap between the learned elite and the humble farmer must have been a yawning chasm. Gods and angels they understood; cosmology and advanced physics might have been a tad beyond their ken. So it seems to me entirely plausible that there could have been an ancient and dying civilisation, overlapping the genesis of our own, and that any interaction between the two has come down to us in two forms: one being the common myths and legends (arising out of the parables used in the early times), the other being an arcane metaphysical codex, guarded and kept alive by trained initiates. Some (most?) of these initiates might not have understood the true nature of the work they dedicated their lives to preserving, but preserve it they must because the time will come when the masses are ready to understand and accept.
Romantic nonsense? Maybe, but it might just go some way to explaining some of the anomalies besetting the study of ancient history in Egypt and other, equally mysterious, parts of the world. These are now well known due to a number of alternative history bestsellers, TV documentaries, novels and films. Generally speaking the sequence goes thus: a book with alternative theories on aspects of ancient history catches the public imagination (think: Fingerprints of the Gods or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and, more recently, the novel The Da Vinci Code ) and the copies fly off the shelves. Nothing will miff an academic more than an outsider cashing in on his or her field of study so the debunkers marshal their forces, sharpen their pens and acerbic wit and sally forth to do battle with the usurpers. The strategy is deceptively simple: pick out the weakest point of the new theory and systematically demolish it, then assert that every other claim made in the book hangs upon this now discredited hook so the whole thing is a shambles. Both of the non-fiction examples mentioned above (the third title being a fictional rehash of much of the speculation contained in the Holy Blood, Holy Grail) do have obvious weaknesses: a point that has been readily admitted by the authors. However they do raise some important questions and it is the clamour for answers that the debunkers have so effectively and cynically stifled. “Nothing to answer” would be the stock response; “We were right all along”; “You want answers? Ask a real expert”. The trouble is that they seem to be bogged down in the minutiae – shards of pottery or carbon dating a piece of wood found in a tomb. So who’s asking the big questions? Questions such as WHY?
Why – in the case of the pyramids – build such huge structures to house the earthly remains of a king? Vanity? I don’t see that. Egyptian pharaohs believed in the afterlife – the tomb was a way-station or a departure hall for the trip to the stars. Perhaps many of the lesser pyramids (and there are many) were tombs and perhaps that’s why most experts assume that all pyramids are tombs. But there does seem to be a different quality about the Giza pyramids – especially the Great Pyramid. As Dr. Robert Schoch says:
“In many ways, tracing the history and meaning of the Great Pyramid is key to understanding our origins as civilized beings. The Great Pyramid is not just a stagnant pile of ancient rock, but a structure that embodies the human spirit and it has lessons to teach us today”. Schoch: Exploring the Great Pyramid.
Whether or not any lost civilisation had a hand in the design or building of some of the ancient wonders of the world, it might be that they did leave behind something equally (or more) important. By this I mean the wisdom which, by way of myth and legend, became the source material for the great western religions we know today. The message will surely have been grossly distorted along the way but, in the mystery schools operating just beneath the surface of those religions, we might yet rediscover that kernel of truth that the readers (myself included) of the above mentioned popular books so desperately seek.

So to recap: we have established – in the story of Abraham – a common biblical source for the three dominant western religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Historically there are ancient traces back to the Egyptians and perhaps beyond. Perhaps to a common source which would include the Hindus and Buddhists. We can even speculate about a yet to be discovered pre-existing civilisation which somehow passed on its wisdom to our own fledgling civilisation in the form of creation myths.
In highly symbolic code and language, this ancient wisdom has occasionally surfaced into the mainstream but has generally been hidden (hence the term: occult) from both the masses and the orthodox hierarchy. It is the stuff of the Mystery Schools of Egypt, Greece and Rome; the guarded secret of the Jews from Solomon to the Essenes and beyond. It harks back to times long before the materialism so prevalent today; times when the intellectual elite would consider that there could be no higher human enterprise than to study and attain enlightenment. Not the scientific enlightenment that began in 17th century Europe but another kind of knowledge altogether: one that could not be found by the empirical practice of looking outwards towards the world of physical things. This was knowledge that was more than knowledge, it was knowing, or “Gnosis”. It was attained by looking inward, thus it was “Esoteric”. The etymology of these two words makes it clear (according to Merriam-Webster Online):
Greek gnosis, literally, knowledge, from gignoskein
Late Latin esotericus, from Greek esoterikos, from esotero, comparative of eiso, eso within, from eis into; akin to Greek en in
This inward-looking meditation, aided by techniques (or drugs) intended to foster altered states of consciousness, could produce a clarity of insight not normally available to the day-to-day, exoteric world-view. The result, for the initiate, was to see that God, the universe, everything and everyone including himself are an undivided whole. Thus, the goal of esoteric schools, cults or fraternities was to lead the initiate to reunification with the One. To escape from the base physicality of earthly existence and to experience spiritual oneness while still living a life on this earthly plane.
So we can already see from this that the esoteric movement was both idealist and dualist. In other words, they believed in the mind-before-matter paradigm of idealist philosophy but also believed that the material world had somehow been separated (or fallen) from the spiritual dimension. Which, of course, takes us back to the Genesis account of the Creation and “The Fall”. When these biblical accounts are viewed through the eyes of the Gnostic, we see that they are clearly not to be taken literally at all. Again, we see the multi-level story-telling technique of the old scribes: one simple tale for the masses concealing another for the adepts (and perhaps yet another for the advanced masters?). The symbolism is rife and must have kept Dr. Jung busy for many a dark, winter’s evening.
Gnosis does not necessarily define what a Gnostic is, however. Gnosis is an enlightened state of mind. Gnostics have built a particular philosophy around the idea of Gnosis. For the most part, we think of the Gnostics as a break-away Christian sect but gnostic ideas have surfaced in other religions and philosophies – most notably in the pre-Christian philosophy of Plato and his followers. Within the Christian faith the Gnostic thinkers were – to say the least – unwelcome at first and were later branded as heretics. I have mentioned, for example, the Gnostic interpretation of the bible and Genesis in particular. While the orthodox might read the creation story as the literal truth, the Gnostics saw the whole story as a symbolic representation. If my understanding of Gnostic ideology is correct, then the pure and innocent state of being – represented by Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden – is spiritual. The Fall is the descent of humanity from the (spiritual) State of Grace to the material world that we now inhabit. Generally, this world is thought of as one of darkness – even evil – while the spiritual realm is one of light. This is the dualism I spoke of earlier and it includes the belief in a war in heaven between the forces of light and darkness.
In the orthodox religions it is all very simple: there is one God and that God created everything and rules his creation with the help of his angels. The devil is a “fallen” angel and he represents the dark side; the evil one who tempts us away from the path of obedience to the one true God. This God being the Old Testament Yahweh or Jehovah.
The Gnostic view is somewhat different and certainly more complex. For a start, the creator of the earth may well be known as Yahweh but Yahweh is not the One True God. There is a One True God, often referred to simply as “The One”. The One is unknowable: uncreated and omnipresent: the source of all. Out of the source came “emanations”, also known as aeons, some of which might be thought of as lesser gods. And it was one of these lesser gods that (who?) was the creator of our world: the Demiurge. The term Demiurge originates with Plato but his concept differed quite markedly from the later Christian Gnostics. While Plato also saw the Demiurge as a lesser god, he envisioned a benign, well meaning creator. The Gnostics, on the other hand, had no such sympathetic view of the originator of the material world. To them, the Demiurge was either incompetent or decidedly evil. Once again there is that dualism: the light of The One and the dark of the Demiurge. Good vs Evil. It really is as old as time itself and it forms, in one way or another, the basis of the Western Religious tradition, if not all religions.

Esoteric and Exoteric

So, we may safely say that the ancient esoteric beliefs never became fully-fledged mass religions in their own right. At least, not in the West. Political expediency demanded that the keys to heaven remained in the hands of the priesthood, not the individual. At best, these groups were tolerated, grudgingly, as minority sects under the control of mainstream orthodoxies. At worst – and often due to some arbitrary decision of the current hierarchy – they were persecuted almost out of existence.
What is important to understand about the esoteric message is that, at its core, it is all about personal spirituality. It describes the relationship between the individual and the divine: the cosmic oneness.  This relationship cannot be arbitrated by some priestly intermediary, passing judgement on behalf of an inexorable deity. It is the role of the priesthood that defines the political power of the mass religion.
It should be noted at this point that Muslim scholars might protest that there is no clerical hierarchy in Islam and that prayer is conducted directly between the individual and Allah without the need for an intermediary. Nevertheless, there are Ulema (scholars) and the Mullahs – roughly equivalent to a clerical title. Roles and responsibilities differ between the Shi’a or Sunni denominations but it would be naive to understate the level of influence – both religious and political – of these “interpreters of the law”.
Similarly, the Jewish Rabbi is also seen and an interpreter of the law. But who’s law? Well, God’s law, of course. So, once again, the Rabbi is the earthly intermediary who will pass judgement in the name of God. When it comes down to it, whether you are a Mullah or a Rabbi and you call yourself a scholar, what you are doing is intervening between an individual and God. And in a theocracy, that puts you in a position of power. But when it comes to hegemony, nobody does it like the Christians. From the time of the first bishops of Rome, world domination has been at the top of the To-Do list.
But was it always so? Was this the future envisaged by the members of this odd Jewish sect two thousand years ago? My personal opinion is that there was no such agenda. If someone were to offer me one trip – and only one – in a time machine, then the early days of New Testament Jerusalem is where and when I would choose to go. I’d love to interview a few of the locals. I imagine getting answers such as these:
“Christians? Never heard of them. But there was a group who talked about that kind of stuff. I think they were with the Essenes but not exactly – more like an offshoot, you know? Nazarites I think they called themselves. The Baptist was one of them – maybe their leader, if they had such a thing.”
“Jesus? Nope, sorry. Oh, you mean Yeshua? Yes, I think he was the chosen one – you know, he was the one they chose to fulfil the old prophecies of Isaiah and others. I think he even said that he was Isaiah reborn. Anyway, he was supposed to ride into Jerusalem on an ass – we all came out to see him – but the Romans got hold of him and nailed him to a tree. Some say that Yeshua wanted to be crucified. They say that was important to his mission.”
“Miracles? Well we heard of some strange stuff but that was not Yeshua, that was Simon Magus. Some people said he was the son of God. Some even thought he was God himself, in human form.”
“Yes, I followed a teacher for a while – brother of Yeshua as a matter of fact. Some called him the Teacher of Righteousness but there have been others who have used that title in the old days. Then this other one called Saul – or is it Paul now? – he came and stirred things up a lot. Split the group in two; some went with James, others followed this Paul. He says he wants to allow Gentiles into the temple, or something. Says Yeshua came back from the dead and showed him the light.”
OK, maybe just a silly fantasy but – as well as questioning a few of the myths about early Christianity – I’m trying to make the point that a new religion can be instigated out of the need to bring the old one back into focus … and that focus is not about controlling the masses. It is not about sin and judgement. It is not about ceremonies or circumcision or commandments. To repeat myself: the real message at the core of all religions is the nature of the relationship between the individual and the source. And that relationship is founded upon love, not fear.
Unfortunately, that message usually gets buried and forgotten under the weight of orthodoxy and dogma. Here’s how it might play out:
  • We start with a small group and a powerful message.
  • The message captures the imagination of a small but significant section of the public.
  • The incumbent orthodoxy detects a growing threat and begins a campaign of suppression.
  • The new movement attracts the disaffected, the zealous and the ambitious. A counter campaign of resistance and martyrdom ensues. The original message is already lost.
  • If enough converts can be won over, the new religion begins to challenge the old. The ambitious rise to the top along with influential and powerful converts from the old religion.
  • Political expediency and bureaucracy dictates the dogma. A new orthodoxy is born looking remarkably similar to the one it has replaced.
Now I would not go so far as Dawkins or Hitchens in claiming that religion has always been, without exception, the source of unspeakable evil throughout our history. Because of its detachment from its original message, religion is no different to any other mechanism when used to further political ends and control the masses. Indeed, there might be a case for saying that, in some instances and because of its inherent moral code, religion has actually mitigated against even more bloody genocide. But neither can it be argued that organised religion has never played a major part in many of the most bloodthirsty and shameful episodes of human history. And never has religion been more ruthless than when it turns its blood lust inwards: upon other religions or even upon its own flock. Think of the Inquisition and the Crusades. Read about what happened in the Albigensian Crusade in southern France in the 13th century. This was the mass slaughter of Christians by Christians by order of the Pope.
However, while some of these abominable acts have been committed in the name of God and in the fervour of religious zealotry, I cannot accept that a belief in the original Christian message (which is, in essence, the same message at the heart of all religions) could motivate someone to perpetrate torture and murder. The evil of which we speak is down to the usual suspects: greed, ambition, power and fear – especially fear.
There is a lot more I would have liked to say with regard to religious history and its esoteric roots. I would have liked to have gone even further back into the history and influence of shamanic practices and revelatory experiences through the use of consciousness altering drugs and trance rituals. Perhaps another day? In the meantime, I can recommend Graham Hancock’s book on the subject: Supernatural.

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