Secret Tradition
Since the medieval period, students of occultism (that which
is hidden) have professed a belief that the ancient wisdom and
secret tenets of the various psychic sciences have been preserved
to modern times by a series of adepts, who have handed
these secrets down from generation to generation in their entirety.
Leaders have gained authority by claiming to be in contact
with such secret adepts, for proficiency in any one of the
occult sciences requires instruction from a master of that
It is possible that in neolithic times, societies existed among
our ancestors similar in character to the Midiwiwin of the
North American Indians, the snake-dancers of the Hopi of New
Mexico, or the numerous secret societies of aboriginal Australians.
This is inferred from the probability that totemism existed
amongst neolithic peoples. Hierophantic castes would hand
down secret traditions from one generation to another.
The early mysteries of Egypt, Eleusis, Samothrace, and Cabiri
were probably the elaboration of such primitive mysteries.
There would appear to be what might be called a fusion of occult
beliefs throughout the ages. It has been said that when the
ancient mysteries are spoken about, it should be understood
that the same sacred ceremonies, initiatory processes, and revelations
are intended, and that what is true of one applies with
equal certainty to all the others.
Thus the Greek geographer Strabo recorded that the
strange orgies in honor of the mystic birth of Jupiter resembled
Secret Tradition Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
those of Bacchus, Ceres, and Cybele, and the Orphic poems
identified the orgies of Bacchus with those of Ceres, Rhea,
Venus, and Isis. Euripides also mentioned that the rites of Cybele
were celebrated in Asia Minor in a manner identical with
the Grecian mysteries of Dionysius and the Cretan rites of the
The Rev. Geo. Oliver, in his book The History of Initiation
(1829), asserted that the rites of Freemasonry were exercised
in the antediluvian world, were received by Noah after the
Flood, and were practiced by people at the building of Babel.
These rites spread and were molded into a form, the great outlines
of which can be traced in the mysteries of every heathen
nation. These mysteries are the shattered remains of the one
true system, from which they were derived.
Although there may have been likenesses between the rites
of certain societies, the idea that all sprang from one common
source has never been proved. One thing, however, is fairly certain.
Anthropology permits us to believe that human concepts,
religious and mystical, are practically identical whereever people
exist, and there is every possibility that this brought about
a strong resemblance between the mystical systems of the older
The principles of magic are universal, and these were probably
handed on throughout the centuries by hereditary castes of
priests, shamans, medicine-men, magicians, sorcerers, and
witches. But the same evidence does not exist with regard to the
higher magic. Was this handed on by means of secret societies,
occult schools or universities, or from adept to adept
This magic is that spiritual magic that, taken in its best
sense, shades into mysticism. The schools of Salamanca and
the mystic colleges of Alexandria could not impart the great
truths of this science to their disciples. Its nature is such that
communication by lecture would be worse than useless. It is
necessary to suppose then that it was imparted by one adept to
another. But it is not likely that this magic arose at a very early
period in human history, probably not before some three or
four thousand years B.C.E. The undisturbed nature of Egyptian
and Babylonian civilization leads to the belief that these countries
brought forth a long series of adepts in the higher magic.
We know that Alexandria was heir to the works of these
adepts, but it is unlikely that their teachings were publicly disseminated
in her public schools. Individuals of high magical
standing would, however, be in possession of the occult knowledge
of ancient Egypt, and it seems likely that they imparted
this to the Greeks of Alexandria. Later Hellenic and Byzantine
magical theory is distinctly Egyptian in character, and we know
that its esoteric forms were disseminated in Europe at a comparatively
early date, placing all other systems in the background.
Regarding alchemy, the evidence is much more sure, and
the same may be said regarding astrology. These are occult
studies in which it is peculiarly necessary to obtain the assistance
of an adept if any excellence is to be gained in their practice,
and it is known that the first originated in Egypt, and the
second in ancient Babylon.
The names of those early adepts who carried the sciences
forward until the days of Alexandria are not known, but subsequent
to that period the identity of practically every alchemical
and astrological practitioner of any note is known. In the history
of no other occult study is the sequence of its professors so
clear as is the case in alchemy, and the same might almost be
said of astrology.
In the case of mystical brotherhoods, a long line of these
have probably existed from early times, sharing the traditions.
Many persons would be members of several and would import
the conceptions of one society into another, as we know Rosicrucian
ideas were imported into Masonry.
In the mystic societies of the Middle Ages there seem to be
reflections of the older Egyptian and classical mysteries, and
some support the theory that the spirit and, in some instances,
even the letter of these may have descended to medieval and
perhaps to present times.
Such organizations die much harder than any credit is given
them for doing. We know, for example, that Freemasonry was
transformed at one part of its career, about the middle of the
seventeenth century, by an influx of alchemists and astrologers
who crowded out the operative members and strengthened the
mystical position of the brotherhood.
It is therefore possible to suppose that on the fall or disuse
of the ancient mysteries, their disciples, looking eagerly for
some method of saving their cults from entire extinction, would
join the ranks of some similar society, or would keep the flame
alive in secret.
The occult idea has been preserved through the ages, the
same in essence among the believers in all religions. To a great
extent, the occult’s trend was in one direction, so that the fusion
of the older mystical societies and their rebirth as a new brotherhood
is a plausible hypothesis.
The entry on the Templars, for example, suggests the possibility
of that brotherhood having received its tenets from the
East. It seems very likely that its rites were oriental in origin,
and certainly the occult systems of Europe owed much to the
Templars, who, probably, after the fall of their own order, secretly
formed others or joined existing societies.
Masons have a hypothesis that they inherited traditions
from the Dionysian artificers, the artisans of Byzantium, and
the building brotherhoods of Western Europe. This is not a
proven theory; however, it is much more feasible than the romantic
legend concerning the rise of Freemasonry at the time
of the building of the Temple of Solomon.
One of the chief reasons that we know so little concerning
these brotherhoods in medieval times is that the charge of dabbling
in the occult arts was a serious one in the eyes of the law
and the church; therefore, occultists found it necessary to carry
on their practices in secret.
But after the Reformation, a modern spirit took possession
of Europe, and protagonists of the occult sciences came out of
their secrecy and practiced in the open light of day. In England,
for example, numerous persons avowed themselves alchemists;
in Germany the ‘‘Rosicrucians’’ sent out a manifesto;
in Scotland, Alexander Seton, a great master of the hermetic
art, flourished.
But it was nearly a century later when further secret societies
were formed, such as the Academy of the Ancients and of the
Mysteries in 1767; the Knights of the True Light, founded in
Austria about 1780; the Knights and Brethren of Asia, which
appeared in Germany in the same year; the Order of Jerusalem,
which originated in America in 1791; and the Society of
the Universal Aurora, established in Paris in 1783.
Besides being masonic, these societies practiced animal
magnetism, astrology, Kabala, and even ceremonial magic.
Others were political, such as the Illuminati. But the individual
tradition was kept up by an illustrious line of adepts, who were
more instrumental in keeping the flame of mysticism alive than
even such societies as those mentioned.
Anton Mesmer, Emanuel Swedenborg Louis Claude de
Saint-Martin and Martines de Pasqually all labored to that
end. We may regard all these as belonging to the school of
Christian magicians, distinct from those who practiced the rites
of the grimoires or Jewish Kabalism. The line may be carried
back through Lavater, Karl von Eckartshausen, and so on to
the seventeenth century. These men were mystics besides being
practitioners of theurgic magic, and they combined in themselves
the knowledge of practically all the occult sciences.
With Anton Mesmer began the revival of a science that cannot
be altogether regarded as occult when consideration is
given to its modern developments, but that powerfully influenced
the mystic life of his time and even later. The Mesmerists
of the first era were in a direct line from the Martinists and the
mystical magicians of France in the late eighteenth century. Indeed,
for some English mystics, such as Valentine Greatrakes,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Secret Tradition
mysticism and ‘‘magnetism’’ are one and the same thing. But
when hypnotism, to give it its modern name, became numbered
with the more practical sciences, persons of a mystical
cast of mind appear to have deserted it.
Hypnotism does not bear the same relation to mesmerism
and animal magnetism that modern chemistry does to alchemy,
but those who practice it are as dissimilar to the older professors
of mesmirism as the modern practitioner of chemistry
is to the medieval alchemist. It is symptomatic of the occult
studies that its students despise knowledge that is ‘‘exact’’ in the
common sense of the term, that is to say, pertaining to materialistic
science. Students of the occult do not delight laboring
upon a science whose basic laws are already known.
The occultists of the twentieth century, however, draw upon
an ancient inspiration. They recognize that their forerunners
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were influenced by
older traditions and may have had access to records and traditions
that are now obscure. The recovery of these is, perhaps,
the great question of modern occultism. But apart from this,
modern occultism strains towards mysticism. It ignores ceremony
and exalts the spiritual. (See also Gnosticism; Neoplatonism)
Hall, Manly P. An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic,
Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Los Angeles
Philosophical Research Society, 1928.
Hartmann, Franz. Magic White and Black; or, The Science of Finite
and Infinite Life. London George Redway, 1886. Reprint,
New York University Books, 1970.
Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Great Secret. London Methuen,
1922. Reprint, New York University Books, 1969.
Shirley, Ralph. Occultists & Mystics of All Ages. London William
Rider, 1920; Reprint, New York University Books, 1972.
Waite, Arthur E. The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. London
William Rider, 1924; Reprint, New York University Books,
———. The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin The Unknown
Philosopher. London Philip Wellby, 1901. Reprinted as The Unknown
Philosopher The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. Blauvelt,
N.Y. Rudolf Steiner, 1970.
———. The Secret Tradition in Alchemy. Kegan Paul, London,
Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. Reprint, New York S. Weiser, 1969.
———. The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry. London, Rider,
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Yarker, John. The Arcane Schools A Review of Their Origin and
Antiquity; With a General History of Freemasonry. Belfast William
Tait, 1909.
Secret Words
According to Christian folklore, Christ communicated certain
words relating to the Eucharist to Joseph of Arimathea,
who was described as a secret disciple in John 1938, and these
words were committed orally from keeper to keeper of the
Holy Grail. In Robert de Borron’s (ca. 1170–1212) metrical romance,
Joseph of Arimathea, material power is added to the spiritual
efficacy of these words, and whoever could acquire and retain
them had a mysterious power over all around him, could
not suffer by evil judgments, could not be deprivated of his
rights, and need not fear the result of battle, provided his cause
was good.
The words were the secret of the Grail and were either incommunicable
in writing or were written only in the Book of
the Grail, which, de Borron implied, was itself written by Joseph
of Arimathea. These words are the chief mystery of the
Lesser Holy Grail, as the prose version of de Borron’s poem is
called. They were most probably a form of eucharistic consecration,
and there is evidence that the Celtic church, following the
example of the Eastern Church, used them in addition to the
usual consecration as practiced in the Latin Church, which is
merely a repetition of the New Testament account of the Lord’s
Supper. The separate clause they are supposed to have formed
was called Epiclesis and consisted of an invocation of the Holy
De Borron’s account also ties the Grail to Glastonbury, a
borough in England that had also been identified with King Arthur
by the reported discovery of his body and that of his
queen, Guenevere. According to de Borron, the Grail was to be
conveyed to the Far West, to the veils of ‘‘Avaron’’ (i.e., ‘‘Avalon,’’
i.e., Somerset).
Furnivall, F. J., ed. The History of the Holy Grail . . . from the
French prose of Sires R. de Borron. London Early English Text
Society, 1874.
Lacy, Norris J. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York Farland,
Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail From Celtic Myth to Christian
Symbol. Cardiff University of Wales, 1963.
Waite, Arthur E. The Holy Grail; The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian
Literature. London Rider, 1933. Reprint, New York
University Books, 1961.
Weston, Jessie L. The Quest of the Holy Grail. London G. Bell,
1913. Reprint, London Frank Cass, 1964.