Alchemy is the mysterious art of transmuting base substances into precious ones. It also means working with metals. It is now understood to mean an impossible attempt by pre-scientific people to transform lead into gold, but transmutation of metals was only one of the aims of classical alchemy.
Changing a material from base to precious in the pre-modern view could not be done without the alchemist being also transmuted, on psychological or spiritual levels, from a state of ignorance to one of enlightenment. Classical alchemy was then simultaneously an outer and inner discipline. Orthodox authorities generally viewed alchemy as dangerous. The production of precious metals would ruin the privileged class and, if alchemists could cause spiritual transformation in themselves, they would not need the priests anymore whose main function was, and is, to mediate between humanity and divinity.
It is now believed that alchemy initiated in ancient Egypt. The earliest known alchemist is Bolos of Mendes, a Hellenic Egyptian, who wrote in around 250 BC. The Greeks too were interested in alchemy, while the Roman Emperor Diocletian condemned it. During the first centuries AD alchemy was associated with the name of a mythical person identified as Hermes Trismegistus, an ancient sage, who was a Master of the three primary occult arts: Astrology, Magic and Alchemy. His writing, The Emerald Tablet, was believed to reveal the secrets of alchemy. The name Hermetic Art used for alchemy is derived from his name. Alchemy is said to progress through three or four stages with which elaborate bodies of symbolism have been associated over the centuries, as well as with the various procedures of heating, crushing, separating, and dissolving employed in the process.
With the rise of Christianity, Alchemy and its pagan associations fell into neglect in Europe. When the Moslems took over part of the Roman Empire in the seventh century, they discovered the remaining of the ancient knowledge including alchemy that they used, and even improved. In the twelfth century contacts between Moslems and Western Europe increased and alchemy came back to Europe. Many people tried -unsuccessfully- to produce gold and other precious metals, but a few succeeded and gathered great wealth and wisdom from mysterious sources. In the fourteenth century French alchemists Nicolas Flamel and his wife Perenelle were thought to have succeeded. The fact is that, although they were born in poor families, they left a huge amount of money when they died. Interest in alchemy went on during the Renaissance and the Reformation, but it reached its full maturity during the seventeenth century. Sciences were becoming popular, and these experimental methods were inspired, in part, by the work of the alchemists. Many great scientists of the time, such as Sir Isaac Newton, were also known as alchemists.
The symbolism of the Cabala and Astrology merged with Alchemy to create a rich symbolic vocabulary, as well as a literature that is still used today. The alchemists of that time concentrated on the inner aspects of it and neglected the laboratory research. As a result, classical alchemy split into the science of chemistry and the occult art of spiritual alchemy.
Later on, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, alchemy again fell into neglect, people felt that it was outmoded and replaced by chemistry. In the present twentieth century interest in alchemy is growing again. The modern alchemists do not believe that metal transmutation is possible, but they believe that they project the symbolic contents of their unconscious mind on their laboratory work. In other words, they are more spiritual alchemists than classical ones. However, there has also been a limited revival of classical alchemy, and some people are still experimenting with transmuting base metals into precious ones. (7)
The origins of alchemy are lost; it is probably as old as the human race.
Traces of it can be found in all civilisations and it is, in fact, a metaphor for the human race. Alchemy is not chemistry. Chemistry can be defined as the technique of destroying compounds that nature has formed, whereas alchemy is the art of working with nature to perfect them. The alchemists consider that metals such as copper and lead are degenerated gold that they will try to restore to their original noble state, gold. True alchemists are not especially interested in gold for its commercial value.
Their first priority is to restore the base metal to their previous higher state, in other words by freeing them from their fall. If religious feelings constitute the raw material of the work, then alchemy, by its spiritual nature, transcends religion and morality. (6)
1.2 The Inquisition
The Holy Office of the Inquisition was responsible for the death of more so-called heretics than any other single institution in Western history. It destroyed the Cathars and Waldensians, initiated the Great Witch-Hunt, and prosecuted innovative thinkers like Galileo (a scientist), Giordano Bruno (a Dominican priest and philosopher burned at the stake for heresy in 1600), and Girolamo Savonarola (a Dominican priest and a preacher put to death in 1498; he was a castigator of profligacy and corruption, and he criticised Pope Alexander VI. He was accused of being heretic, scandalous, schismatic and seditious).
Already in 430 AD the Christian Roman Empire condemned heretics to death, but the law was rarely applied. Later on, violence against heretics was entrusted to the secular authorities. At the end of the twelfth century many unorthodox versions of Christianity became popular in Western Europe, and Pope Lucius III thought that the secular authorities were not doing enough to eliminate them; he created the first Inquisition in 1188. The bishops were charged to find the heretics, and to hand them to the secular authorities for punishment. Torture at that point was not used, but other forms of intimidation were thought to be acceptable.
This early Inquisition was not very efficient. In 1199 Pope Innocent III decided that the properties of the heretics should be confiscated, and the proceed of their sale shared between the Church and the secular authorities.
This confiscation of properties, added to the fact that the accused was presumed to be guilty until proved innocent, made the convictions easy and numerous. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX centralised the control on Inquisition and put the Dominican friars in charge. Finally, in 1257, Pope Innocent IV authorised the Inquisition to use any kind of tortures to extract confessions.
When they arrived in a new town the Inquisitors first would preach a sermon against heresy and ask the heretics to come forward. Those who did were punished, but not killed. Afterwards, informants were asked to denounceanonymously the suspects. After interrogation and, very often torture, the convicted heretics were again handed to the local secular authorities for punishment. The use of torture, or only the threat of it, led to many confessions as well as to the accusations of other suspects. This gave the impression that the Inquisition was efficient whereas they were only cruel.
Pope John XXII allowed the Inquisition to deal with magicians and sorcerers as well as heretics. It was also involved in the Great Witch-Hunt of the fifteen and sixteenth centuries and about 30,000 witches were killed.
Bishops and secular government started their own inquisition, as the practice to seize the properties of the convicted victims brought a lot of wealth. In Spain, Jews were also hunted by the local inquisition. With the Reformation, the Protestants were also victims of the Inquisition but, when they became strong and numerous, they started their own witch-hunt with the same ferocity. The power of the Inquisition declined in the eighteenth century when the scientific worldview rose. There was, however, the exception of the independent Spanish inquisition that operated until 1834.
The Inquisition, as an institution, survives until now in the Roman Catholic Church where it is known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith since 1965. With the Pope at its head, the Congregation acts as a watchdog for the purity of the faith, and many Catholic intellectuals are still obliged to defend their views in front of it and some are still accused of heresy. Trials are conducted privately, the accused are not killed anymore but they can be forbidden to write or to speak in public on matter of faith, and some are excommunicated. (7)
1.3 Nag Hammadi library
A large jar hidden since the fourth century AD, and containing writings belonging to the Gnostics, has been discovered in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Before that discovery the only source of information on the Gnostics came from the documents written by the orthodox Christians, their enemies. An Arab peasant was digging the land for soil when he hit the buried jar. After opening it, he discovered thirteen volumes of leather-bound papyrus, some of which he burned in his kitchen stove. What was left was bought by some merchants who contacted some scientists. These scientists recognised their value and now twelve books are the property of the Coptic Museum in Cairo and one belongs to the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland.
The books include fifty-two texts written in the Coptic language, probably by the monks of the near-by early Christian monastery of Saint Pachomius. In 367, Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria, ordered the destruction of all books in Egypt that contained non-Catholic ideas such as this Gnostic literature. Some monks must have hidden them hoping to recover them later on. The library remained hidden for 1600 years. (7)
1.4 The Golden Mean
The Golden Mean, the lost secret of the builders, is a manifestation of the Invisible derived from a mathematical formula. Philosophy and mathematics, although completely different disciplines, come together in the occult without loosing their identity. Every account of creation presents a mythological picture in which God appears, and every figure can be symbolised by a number. There is therefore a link between statement and number, and to pass from one to the other we only need to know the laws.
The Golden Mean can be expressed in physical terms. Cathedrals, pyramids and Greek temples are built according to the principle of the Golden Mean. These monuments embody the mythological story of the creation of the world, of the coming of a god, or of his death and resurrection. Art orders chaos, but we still have to define the relation between art and religion. It is the initiatory society, the corporations of builders, which is the medium that allows the transmutation of the religious into the artistic.
Numbers are the keys to the universe and proportion is all; but man too is part of the analogy deriving from the order, known as divine proportion, and is considered as expressing the secret of visual harmony according to Pythagoras. In geometrical term, it is a line divided into two parts so that the proportion of the smaller part to the larger is the same as that of the larger to the whole line, that is AP:PB = PB/AB, where AB is the straight line and P the point that divides it (it is the ratio of 1:1.6180339 or about 8:13). The Golden Mean has been extensively used in art and architecture. The formula alone is not enough, as the perception of proportion in hermetic thought is an aspect of being rather than a mathematical formula. However, thanks to the golden mean, the artist can gain direct access to being and any mathematical demonstration is superfluous and irrelevant. (6)
1.5 The Great Architect of the Universe
The Great Architect of the Universe, the demiurge who is said by the builders (the masons) to have made the world, can be seen as a unifying principle. He is more than that in the sense that he is not an organising mechanical principle, but more like the structure underlying a sublime musical work. He is the ultimate abstraction and, at the same time, the crystallisation of the greatest actual riches; it is quite impossible to define exactly its paradoxical reality. He is also known as the Great Conductor of the Universal Orchestra. The reality reveals itself symbolically in the quest for the invisible; Proudhom called God a necessary hypothesis, that is a working fiction acceptable to atheists and believers, with everyone having to believe or not that the concept conceal a reality. Between God and the Great Architect of the Universe, between the religious and the invisible, between mysticism and inner freedom, there is the same difference as between worship and symbolism. Some people believe that religious feeling is the prime matter, or raw material, on which the process of initiation acts. Others think that the transmutation, which occurs in a person gaining access to the invisible, converts his religious feeling into poetry.
The initiate’s answer is to explore and examine the working fiction which crystallises, and expresses, a dream that looks in the future, a dream not yet free from the false and pathetic, but a dream without which people would never found enlightenment. In the light of science, the notion of divine takes a new aspect. Today Perfection, the Absolute or the Principle to which one aspires -whether we call it God, Reason or the Great Architect of the Universe- comes about with our progress toward Knowledge. (6)
To be initiated is said to begin to live. The neophyte enters a new life but, at the same time, he is becoming himself to be able to know the universe and the gods. This is the first paradox of initiation as it is easy to see the need to become oneself and to realise one’s potential, but it is not clear how one is to identify with the universe and the gods. The latter one could be seen as an exaltation of the inner self, but how can we identify ourselves with the universe from which we are part? The occult answer is that the aim is not a full identification, but an analogy between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the universe). Analogy is the first principle of the quest, and the aim of initiation is to create an awareness of analogy.
By initiation, the mystic discovers, or rediscovers, his true hidden existential origins. He discovers himself, is reborn, is renewed, and stripped of the misunderstanding that prevented him to be his own creator or, in alchemist words, the son of his works. The initiate is then on the straight path, that is on the way to discover his uniqueness. Renewal has been confused with ascetic purification, and initiation has been thought to confer extraordinary power, whereas it is only a poetic function. Initiation is also the stage towards inner freedom, the postulant is led to the centre of the earth, into the womb of creation, into a cave or room for reflection; in other words he is led to a space-time where his psyche has yet to discover its identity.
The second paradox is that initiation presents two dimensions, which seems contradictory since it is concerned with the invisible and the visible. The invisible is seen through myth, and the visible is the socio-historic reality of the moment. Initiation in the trade-guilds was real only when the art of building was still in a dynamic stage, enjoying its social function when it still had its useful value as well as its mystical value. The mythical exploration is the most important aspect of the practice of initiation. The descend to the centre of the earth is not only a mere symbol for introspection since, during the journey, the initiate renews his connection with a darkness that may link him with the mysterious, and the initiation ceremony repeats this beginning over and over again. The aim of the descent within oneself is the perception of a complex reality, which the ceremony reveals stage by stage. The final stage of death to the world is a dramatic metaphor of the murder of the creator of the secret society, but it is also an elaborate repetition of the entry into oneself that pulls the attention on the darkness within the mystic. The heart of this reality is reached in the second stage.
There are many rituals of initiation. One of the best known relates the martyrdom of Hiram, the emblematic figure of medieval trade guilds and Freemasonry. In it, the initiate is an actor with a special part to play and in which the spectator symbolically has a main role. The mystic renews his connection with darkness, which is favourable to the invisible. He lives, and experiences, this ceremony as a dreamer experiences a dream, and he is expected to recognise himself in all the figures which are displayed to him.
For instance, he first identifies himself with Hiram’s murderers, who represent inner darkness; following his acceptance of darkness a light, represented by Hiram, shines within him.
Initiation leads to the discovery that the dead is the mystic. This is not a physical death, but the death of the mystic’s inertia, unawareness and alienation. This ritual aims to kill this death to uncover the true life hidden under old habits. By killing Hiram, the mystic kills his alienated self and the process of transmutation can begin. Initiation differs from religious ceremonies in the sense that the mystic is first a spectator, then an actor of a drama that unfold before him, a drama telling of a quest for a death and a resurrection. He sees himself lying on the floor near Hiram with whom he identifies. He goes looking for realties like fire, water, earth and air, which he touches, and then discovers than they are part of him. Fire and water are symbols of the dimensions of an invisible reality. The change that initiation procures in the mystic is symbolised by the fact that the postulant is first a spectator, then a actor
in the ceremony that should bring to him that life is a dream. The mystic’s inner darkness is symbolised by death and, by his own simulated death, he is given a first view of the invisible, the hope of inner freedom. Initiation is always virtual, and the process never ends except with real death.
Initiation is only a symbolic ceremony that can be defined by the object of the quest is the very way of the quest. In other words, the goal of the journey is not the country we are seeking, since it will always remain invisible, but the journey towards it. To become oneself means different things like entering a secret society, becoming a stone of the temple, occupying a place in the cosmos, finding one’s centre, … To be an initiate demands more, like finding one’s roots in this world, and living in the invisible. (6)
1.7 The Invisible
The occult sciences act on an invisible reality which may be an invisible history into which the postulant enters through initiation; or invisible entities and psychic forces that the operator manipulates by magic. In occultism, there is an invisible world in parallel alongside the material world that we all know. This invisible world can only be perceived by the initiates who have the necessary power to make it manifest, rather than virtual. Hermeticism tells us that the souls of the dead rest in the invisible with unsuspected forces and magic power. Hermeticism tells us that religion reveals the invisible in a confused way that is refined, and made understandable, by the occults.
However, occultism is very often failed art because the magician confuses symbol and reality, that it the invisible. The notion of the invisible leads to the notion of atheistic spirituality or religion without God, a pure form of philosophy. Occultists, magi and initiates often say that there is an invisible history that runs in parallel on the real history we all know. This could mean that secret powers and unknown superiors are involved, and that secret societies influence the fate of the world. The invisible history is always linked to a specific event, like the death of a god or a hero, under whose sign a group of believers is created. The specific event has an extra-historical origin that makes it a myth (for instance the death of Osiris). With invisible history, the important is not to know the succession of events or to date them, but to reveal their meaning. Invisible history is a virtual history, and only initiates are sensitive enough to understand it. Invisible history is a repetition of the message of the founding myth, since initiating ceremonies recreate time and time again this history; invisible history manifests itself in an endlessly repeated quest for the original. The signification of Christ’s death for the Christians and the Cathars is a good example of what is meant. For the Christians, Christ’s death is a unique event, whereas for the Cathars the important is the death-of-Christ-in-us, an event that must endlessly be rediscovered by all
“good Christians” within themselves. For the Cathars, that means that Christ was not killed by the Jews, but by all mankind and his death is not a historical unique event, but a mystery. In this way invisible history enhances the value of the original. Invisible history is not historiography, but it is the ceremonial evocation of a legendary past so that it can be relived and, in so doing, to abolish the distance between past and present in a symbolic way. It would be better to speak of invisible reality rather than invisible history. (6) The secret of initiation is a lost speech, and lost speech symbolises the invisible by making it present. However it remains a myth, a fiction, free from the constraint of any syntax. Lost speech is the source of hermetic philosophy. The techniques of esotherism try to rediscover the original state described in the myth: magic through provocation, and initiation through symbolism. Lost speech may have been a form of telepathy, an archaic form of communication, and it is useless to speculate if it was reality or fiction. Lost speech is a sort of total, all-embracing speech, but it is not totalitarian, although it holds the secrets of the world. It is a form of Gnosticism that reveals itself to us when the universe enters into our being. It is dormant within us from our birth, and it is lost because our own inner darkness obscures it. (6)
A myth reveals what was hidden, it enriches the subject’s relationship with the world, it reveals a stage on which the subject will become an actor and it also, sometimes, uncovers an unknown dimension. Myths can deform the personality of a person who now tends to identify him- or herself- with some supernatural forces, and consider him -or herself- a magician. However, mythology is necessary for magic and initiation. Hermetic philosophy has ttempted to assimilate some aspects of mythology, and the same is true of magic and alchemy.
1.9 Occult Geometry
Occult geometry is symbolic and is used in magic. Every gesture in every rite refers to an implicit body scheme, or to a geometry of living. In Magic the most important figure is the circle, that stands for unity, and the number 10. The drawing of a circle by a magician draws upon him the influence of the sun or of the moon. The squaring of the circle is the emblem of the philosopher’s stone, or of spiritual freedom. The cross was an important symbol even before Christianity. The cross symbolises life, with the top of its vertical axe representing transcendence and the bottom the unconscious. Shining a light on its base from above has the effect of opening a person’s being to the universe, and giving him the values of the horizontal axis, which, with the other, makes him complete. It also enables him to find a firm root in his own centre, as the junction of the two axes is an earth-moving coincidence. The pentagram means the coincidence of microcosm and macrocosm. It is the image of man who, standing with arms and legs outstretched, fits it perfectly. In Magic, it is believed to condense magnetic forces. The triangle symbolises the Great Architect in occult tradition.
All initiatory societies have symbols and rituals. These symbols and rituals are specific to each society and, within it, they vary from branch to branch, and from lodge to lodge. The confusion exists when there is a conflict to decide which symbols, or which rituals, are the most regular, and when one lodge tries to identify its ritual with the rite.
Rite is uniquely revealed in and through rituals and, as such, is unchangeable. Rituals open up a mythological reality; for instance, it is accepted that lights reveals deep darkness. In the same way, ritual gives dynamism to symbols. Fire, air, earth and water, from abstract notions or concepts, become, for the time of the dogma, concrete realities with which the candidate believes that he is in contact. Ritual is a play acted by the spectators telling, through archaic details, important events such as the death of Christ that can only be reconstructed through mythology. In the language of the Essenes, ritual is a handbook of discipline, whose task is to unite the community and put it, symbolically, in harmony with one of its founding myth. In the trade guilds, the ritual varied from branch to branch, but also from trade to trade. For instance, the initiation rite was not the same for stonemasons as for printers. The same is true in Freemasonry where there are different rituals, depending on the rite the lodge follows. Freemasonry can be defined as a federation of rites, but each branch has its prominent ritual. The first cultural source of Freemasonry is the philosophy underlying the work and humanism. The second source is Christian esoterism, rejected by the Church, although the Gospel of St John is based on it, and many lodges are named lodges of St John. The third source is the Gnostic tradition, Pythagorism, the Cabala, alchemy, … and this is the most mysterious of all. The United Grand Lodge of England follows the Emulation rite stating that “true Freemasonry” is a cult to sustain and spread belief in the existence of God. In Latin countries, the Grand Orient and the Grand lodge, Freemasonry follows mainly the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and the “French Rite”. Less followed rites are: the “Corrected Scottish Rite” (with its reference to the Templars), the rite of the Elects of Coen, the Egyptian Rite, … Moreover the blue lodges that deal with the basic three degrees have, in parallel, higher grade lodges dispensing up to the 33rd degree, all with their own rituals. However, from the point of view of initiation, these ceremonies are only repetition of those of the first three degrees. Ritual is also a sign of recognition between Freemasons and outsiders, but also between Freemasons of different lodges and levels. The paradox of initiation is that it begins with an act of faith, while claiming to free us from our inner darkness, and to transmute our unconscious religious feelings. This should not be surprising, as it is known that freedom is achieved by overcoming alienation. Ritual re-centres the initiate in the visible real world, only to open him out to the invisible mythological reality. (6)
Esoteric knowledge must be kept secret. The adept transmitting his knowledge to a disciple, or the secret society initiating a candidate, both demand that nothing of what is said be revealed to the profanes. The punishment for talking is now symbolic, but before it was real. There are many reasons to impose this secrecy. It is not, as it is very often said, to avoid giving the knowledge to a person who is not prepared, or initiated to receive it, and who could degrade or denigrate it. Some occultists, specially those adepts of magic, believe that it is dangerous to give this kind of knowledge to those who are not prepared or initiated. Secrecy is an important part of Hermeticism and the occult sciences. Even today when information is generally freely available, secrecy is still imposed and plays its role in hermetic sciences and occultism, keeping it part of initiation, magic and the sacred. Secrecy is a fundamental part of Hermeticism because the initiate is in quest of a mystery. To divulge the associated secrets is equivalent to destroy them. Hermeticism aims to attain what cannot be expressed in words and, for this reason, secrecy is not only an objective secret but it is also an existential one. It is the secret of one’s own intimate self. (6)
As the feminine dimension of divinity, Sophia has occupied a central position in Gnosticism and occultism. The Pistis Sophia document tells us how the Virgin of Light judges the soul of a dead person, and decides whether the soul is to live in the light or return for reincarnation. Sophia was the wife and companion of God, and she was overcome with pity for the fallen souls. Due to this pity she herself suffers but, in the end, she will rise again to heaven, but only after a struggle that will involve all the forces of Creation. The notion of Sophia makes possible the development of an original philosophy that is fundamental to Gnosticism as well as to its heir, Hermeticism. Sophia brings a complementary aspect to the masculine, and abstract, figure of divinity. She is not nominated in the Old Testament, but she appears as Wisdom, and it seems that Solomon’s Temple was originally built for her. The Christian Gnostics made Sophia a kind of Christianised Isis. Gnosticism and Hermeticism referred to the principle of Hermes, that all that is below is like all that is above. For this reason, Gnostics distinguished between the Sophia above, the heavenly mother, and the Sophia below, for instance Sophia Prounicos, or the Wanton with all its negative aspects. In occultism Sophia remains a secondary central figure, known sometime as the soul of the world in magic and alchemy. (6)
Symbols, in occultism, reveal a super-reality. For Hermeticism, a symbol is not a simple convention as in mathematics. Symbolism is not a language but a way of thinking, and it is much more than a collection of signs. A true symbol always designates the being-in-the-world, whereas a sign refers to either the being or the world. The sign appears to be objective, but in fact it is only superficial. The symbol, on the opposite, includes the observer and its truth comes from the awareness born of personal experience.
A symbol reveals an analogy between an element of order A, representing the current state of the observer, and an element of order B, representing the state that this observer can see or must achieve. It indicates the way towards transcendence, which is why it is so significant. The symbols illuminate a shadowy, grey area and show, by analogy, what must be done. The hermetic quest, whether initiatory or magical, philosophical or practical, revolves around symbols, which lead on to the invisible. However, symbols are to be seen like coded messages that engage the individual in a spiritual adventure. The great cosmological symbols are the links between different chapters in a mythological story, and give it its meaning. The same myths and symbols appear in all civilisations over the world. This shows that something of the universe is in all of us. (6)
1.14 The Temple
The temple symbolises the universe in Hermeticism and in many religions. It is well known that religious buildings of the past were designed in a way that gives them an esoteric meaning. It is not clear if the Church wanted to record, in this way, some memories of past mysterious religions, or if the builders used pagan models. There is no doubt that they are some analogies of design between Masonic lodges, certain Amerindian secret societies, and the medieval churches. The temple is an image of the Creation and to walk in it, or better to be admitted in it, is to relate to the universe, that is to enter into relationship with the symbolic whole of life, transcendence included.
The plans for building a temple -be it real as in the case of a church, or fictious, as in the case of a Masonic lodge- follow a mysterious technique, a secret handed from generation to generation. The Golden Mean is found in all the temples: the Temple of Solomon, the Greek or Egyptian temples and in the Christian churches. The Golden Mean inscribes the sacred in stone. These buildings are oriented in a particular way to allow the ambulations to “follow the day”. This is not a form of “sun-worshipping” because the initiate does not pray, but it is a symbolic simulation through which the universe becomes accessible to him, while maintaining its transcendence. The initiate acts as if the cosmos was contained in the temple, and initiation consists to learn and understand it. Invisible reality, the object of hermetic study, rests on the meeting-point of the cosmos and history. The temple of initiation remains always symbolically incomplete, and this distinguishes it from a religious temple. Its ultimate meaning is the result of initiation carried out by the mystic himself. In other words, the temple makes the invisible understandable by the initiate. (6)
1.15 The Trade Guilds
Trade guilds were initiatory associations of builders, which have been influential through history. They provided initiation through work. Until the Renaissance, work was seen as a mystery and also partly holy. Their legends, as a result, give them a mythical (mysterious or holy) origin.
History tells us that from the ancient times professional grouping were common, and not so much as pressure groups. The Greeks had the Hetairies, or associations of builders, and in Rome already in 715 BC King Numa codified the rules of the Collegia, or colleges of craftsmen, such as the “tigmarii” whose members were carpenters and builders.
Every collegium had a house where the agapae (brotherly feasts) were held under the leadership of the magister cenae), and where ceremonies dedicated to God took place. The Collegium was the guardian of the professional secrets that were, in a certain way, its capital. The members made ritual use of gestures, signs and touches with religious meaning, but also to recognise each other. The Roman Collegia had been influenced by its Greek predecessors that had been, in their turn, influenced by the Egyptians, Persians, Syrians and Jews. The Roman legions implanted this custom in all the conquered lands. When the Empire collapsed, these collegium disappeared in Northern Gaul and Britain, but they survived in the eastern parts of the Empire, as well as in South of France and in Italy where they were called scolae. The feudal society led to the disappearance of the scolae that were integrated in the monasteries. From the sixth century monastic associations kept the professional secrets of the builders, and the better-known architects of that time were clerics. From the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the influence of the Gothic art became noticeable, the brotherhoods left the monasteries, and real trade associations were active again. In conclusion, from the antiquity until the Renaissance, craftsmen wanted to stress the sacred nature of their work.
Instead of adoring their God in praying these craftsmen did it through their work. This included ceremonies incorporating myths, the handing down of secrets and the work on the raw material. The secrets of these builders comprised their skill that, in a certain way, was the capital of the organisation. In the building organisation that skill was essentially a technique based on the Golden Mean, which is not a simple formula to produce work of art, but it is a tool to be used by true artists or, as we call them now, by the initiated.
All initiation ceremonies restate a founding myth. The guilds in Christian time saw the world in terms of biblical mythology. The legend of Hiram Abif, the builder and architect of King Solomon’s Temple, is very old but it is still its emblem. However, the origin of the guilds is still a mystery, which is recreated and made visible in certain ceremonies. At the apex of glory, the guild was the organisation where the worker rediscovered his place in the universe. In these conditions, the question of history, as we know it today, does not arise, as in these conditions history is no longer a chronology but becomes an insight in something more important. The secret of the guilds is a skill that comes through practice. When he was working on a stone, the guild member was also working on a fragment of the universe to fit it into God’s design. Art, according to the alchemists, was the way of perfecting nature. In the same way, the task of the workers (a minority of the population at that time) was not to contemplate God, but to make him visible to all. This explains why the trade-guilds were impregnated with mystic knowledge. According to the Gnostics, the demiurge is an artist and the faithful, the workers, have their part to play in the creation of the world.
The Church banned the guilds in 1189 because of their secret language and customs. This interdiction was repeated again in 1326 following an important gathering of guild members in Strasbourg in 1315. This is also the date of the symbolic founding of the modern Freemasonry. The guilds were also performing some social activities. They were, at the same time, trade unions, recruitment agencies and employment exchanges. They were able to organise strike and this put them in conflict with the public authorities in their fight for autonomy. (6)
1.16 The Cabala
Cabala is a form of Gnosticism and its secret is that of Gnosticism. The Cabala is of Jewish origin, but it has in some ways been assimilated into Christianity. It is above all a quest for the secrets of the faith according to its well-known book, the Zohar. It deals with all domains of the creation: from the secrets of the faith to the secrets of the universe, from the knowledge of God to the knowledge of man. It is based on a commentary on sacred texts and the Torah. According to the Zorah, most people see only the clothes that cover the story, and ignore the body that the clothes conceal. The wises, the servants of the Supreme King, consider only the soul that is the essence of the real Torah. There is also a hidden meaning in the sacred texts, and they have to be discovered to understand the mysteries of the creation. The Cabala is interested in the secrets of the divine truth, but their divinity is not the same as the Jewish ones. Cabala is a heresy at the heart of Judaism as Catharism was a heresy for Christianity. Cabala’s God is many-faced and complex and quite different from the Jewish God.
For the Cabala, at the beginning God wanted to see God. By an act of creation he drew back the Absolute All (Ain Sof) and contracted it until a hole appeared allowing the mirror of existence to emerge through an act called Zimzum (contraction). A Cabala saying is the place of God is in the world, but the world is not the place of God. From the Ain Sof Or (the light without end surrounding the void), a ray of light (Kav) shone out at ten different levels known as the Sefirot, that is the receptacle, or the tools of God or, as his ten faces and hands, or still his clothes. The relations between the Sefirot are governed by three principles or hidden Splendours (Zazahot). These are: Will, which keep balance; Mercy, which spread the flux of the emanation; and Severity, which contains it. In this way the Splendours organise the Sefirot according to a model known as the Tree of Life or Cabalistic Tree, and this is the archetype by which creation is ordered. The Sefirot are God’s attributes or, in more human terms, they are the common measure between the Creator and his creation. The first sefira is called Keter Elyon, the crown, and it is expressed as I am, I was, I shall be that is the name of Jehovah (also translated as I am who I am). The second sefira is Hokhma or Wisdom, the Veiled thought, and it is the thought of God. It contains the plan of the construction of the world, which is manifested in the third sefira, Bina or Intelligence. After that we have Hesed or Grace; Gevura or Power; Tiferet or Beauty; Nezah or Permanence; Hod or Reverberation; Yesod or Foundation and, finally, Malkhut or Royal.
The Cabala is a type of Gnosticism, as man seeks to find divinity within himself, but he first discovers nothingness, symbol of the nearness of God, and this is when the mystic empties himself to become a receptacle for transcendence. The Sefirot have been linked to symbols, and the cabalists pursue their quest for symbols by deciphering the Torah. However, the superstitious numerology of the Cabala is not limited to the Torah, since the earth and its inhabitants are ordered according to a divine archetype.
According to the Zorah, man contains all that is in heaven above and on earth below, both heavenly and earthly creatures; in other words, man is the measure of everything.
Cabala means tradition or reception and, in mythology, it begins with the oral tradition given to Moses in Sinai. Some scholars even say that Cabala began with Abraham, with the ssyrians or, even, in prehistory. The Zohar appeared in the 13th century when the Cabala reached its peak and many authors of the 12th and 13th centuries, especially from Provence and Spain, left some traces of their thoughts on the subject. The Cabala is Gnostic, a search for the secrets of Creation and, like all Gnosticism, it proposes a cosmogony in which man is an actor with a major role, even that of God’s collaborator. In this way Cabala answers the problem of Evil since the creation of the world causes a break in divinity. Cabala speculation is rigorous, combinative and mathematical, and it even contains the elementary structure of scientific thought. Cabalistic writings deal with all subjects such as astrology, government of the world, metaphysics of numbers, geological phenomena and life after death.
According to the Zohar the soul is divided in three parts: nefech, the organic breath; rouah, the spirit; and nechama the power of man. The soul is sent down to earth by God to animate a body. It must win its complement of perfection from the material world and, at the same time, it must impregnate matter with a share of spirituality in order to purify it and draw it upward. As a result the body is a combination of saintliness and stain, it is a mediator of cosmic forces. (6)