On the Godfather of Occult-Social Revolution

Looking back at the life of Dr. Franz Sättler is not dissimilar to staring into a wild thicket. We see twigs and strong branches of deep scholarly expertise, genuine first-hand experience of almost forgotten heretic Islamic sects as well as personal dreams of a broad Western social reform. Yet all of these sprouts intertwine with molding twigs of institutional financial fraud, infantile sexual desires and naive romantic dreams of restoring an ancient polytheistic past. So staring into the thicket of Sättler’s life we have to make a choice: we can get our machete out and cut through all of it, or we can carefully pull apart the living from the decaying branches in these underbrushes - and hope to learn something new of the botany of our occult past. Let me invite you for a hike through these thickets, if you are interested in the latter.

What we don’t know and most likely never will know is where exactly Dr.Sättler traveled during his early years and - more importantly even - which authentic experiences he made along these trips. While he left us with several books, both novels and personal travel histories that echo the adventures of his journeys, we also know he was a huge fan of the famous author Karl May - and like the latter would never allow for facts to get into the way of a great story. Furthermore, Sättler was a recognised scholar of Orientalism at his time - and thus had access to and knowledge of a vast amount of scholarly records on the history of Islamic sects and its related tradition of heresy. We have to assume he looked at these sources both as an inspiration for his own travels into the Near East as well as color and background to his own occult writings.

Now, we do know though that both Sättler as well as the infamous Paschcal Beverley Randolph traveled the Near East in the years before the First World War - and both returned with similar secret teachings that revolved around sex-magical techniques which previously had been unknown to occult circles in the West. Due to the parallels in their travels - both in time and location - it is unlikely that they copied from one another, but that actually both of their teachings represent genuine occult transmissions. From which authentic sources they derived these teachings - which left such a striking impression on Western occultism ever since - is impossible for us to evaluate objectively. We can, however, follow Sättler’s own description with regards to the purported lineage of Adonism and its occult foundations. And that's what we will do here...

Sättler calls out the surviving Islamic sects of the Yezidi and Nusayris as guardians of the some of the occult mysteries of Adonism. More importantly, however, he points us to the historic name and records of an infamous magician, social revolutionary and martyr who aimed to restore the true form of Adonism roughly 1500 years ago. Compared to more recent occult celebrities who showed similar aspirations - Edward Kelly, Aleister Crowley or Gregor A. Gregorius to name a few - this man can fairly be considered the original godfather of occult social revolution, playing in his own Western league only with the likes of e.g. Shabbatai Zevi or Jakob Frank.

On the heretic priest Mazdak

To understand his bold endeavour, we have to know a little bit about the time he lived in: In recourse to its ancient Iranian history the Sassanid Empire (224 - 651 CE) had resurrected Zoroastrianism as its state religion. At that time the original teachings of Zoroaster were already more than 2000 years old and thus of significant antiquity. Oral tradition and tribal customs had continued to shape the original teachings of Zoroaster; and thus by the time it was advocated by the Sassanids as their state religion, it had evolved into a strongly monotheistic religion, praising the one god Ahura Mazda and offering support and protection from his evil eternal opponent Ahriman (Schidinger, p.44). 

While the Sassanids persecuted followers of other beliefs whenever they rose to too much strength (e.g. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Nazarene, Christians or Manichaeans) they did allow for a tolerant coexistence within their empire for as long as no one questioned the status of the Zoroastrian state-religion. (Note: this was very different to the complete suppression and persecution of any non-christian believers in the East-Roman Empire of the same time.) During this time, in the shadow of king Kavadh I. rose to power the man who later generations would call ‘the wolfish one’ (König, p.270). 

In 488 CE the Sassanid king Kavadh I. had come to the throne. Unsurprisingly maintaining governmental power at that time was no easier than it is today. If you know little about it, just use any random episode of ‘House of Cards’ as a primer. Assaults on authority were as multiform as economic interests in the prosperous kingdom. 

From early on in his regency king Kavadh I. managed to play the two most famous noble houses against each other, leaving him more freedom to rule than many of his predecessors had experienced. Yet, the threat of the powerful noble families remained urgent and Kavadh I. remained on the lookout for new manoeuvres of political gamesmanship to secure his powerbase for good. That was until he encountered a heretic priest who called himself Mazdak.  

Much of the origins of Mazdak, son of the Bamdadh, are unknown today. We don’t know when he was born and his homeland is loosely referenced to as somewhere on todays territories of Iran or Iraq (Nöldeke, p.458). Nothing of his upbringing has come upon us and the first time we hear about him is as part of the social revolution he led under king Kavadh I. As so often with heretic movements, we know most about their purported teachings and aims through the records of their opponenents rather through their own lost writings. This in return questions the validity of these records - and makes it almost impossible to distinguish former ‘House of Cards’ propaganda from historic reality or fiction from facts. The main theories why found almost no original accounts of Mazdak range from

  1. his opponents burning them,
  2. the subsequent kings re-writing the official records to purge their past from heretic blemish,
  3. the Christian historians simply not having access to them or
  4. Mazdak actually being a fictitious figure invented by Kavadh I. himself in order to create a scapegoat for the socially unsettling, revolutionary ideas he proclaimed during his first reign in 488-496 CE.  

In line with modern historic records, Sättler presents us Mazdak as a Zoroastrian priest who attempted to restore - or maybe adjust to his own taste? - the original teachings, practices as well as social laws of Zoroastrianism. According to the only historic record that provides us with insights into the actual teachings of Mazdakism - rather than the social upheaval and chaos it created - we learn that it presents a unique hybrid of Mazdean Zoroastrian beliefs as well as genuinely new ideas (ref. al-Shahristani’s Kitāb al–Milal wa al-Nihal):

  • Mazdakism follows its Iranian predecessor religions in being deeply dualistic in nature: it maintains that Light acts on purpose and voluntarily and Darkness at random and chance; the former has insight and perspective, the latter is ignorant and blind. 
  • The highest God of Light is Ohrmazd and in his essence he is ‘material light’ (getig rosnih). His powerful opponent Ahriman and in his essence he is ‘material darkness’ (getig tarikih). 
  • The elements of creation according to Mazdakism are three, not four: Water, Earth and Fire. Air was not considered to be a genuine element, but to come into existence through a combination of Water and Ether. These three elements bear both a light as well as a dark form. From the combination of its light or pure aspects emerges the ‘Director of Good’, from the combination of its dark or impure aspects the ‘Director of Evil’.
  • Each of these Directors holds four essential powers at their disposal that together from a tetrad: Discrimination (al-tamiz), Understanding (al-fahm), Preservation (al-hifz) and Joy (al-surur) for the Director of Good; Ignorance, Sleepiness, Stupidity and Grief for the Director of Evil. These tetrads of powers are being immanent in the nature of each Director and thus not prone to admixture in creation. 
  • The Directors of Good and Evil rule the fate of the world and direct it through the mediation of the Seven (planets) and the Twelve (the fixed star constellations). Thus Mazdakism establishes a numerically ascending ladder of involution: from the two antagonistic principles of creation to the three elements, to the four powers of each Director, to the seven planets and finally the twelve signs of the zodiac.
  • The idea of two antagonistic Directors as agents of creation and  personifications of the Good and Evil Spirits follows the tradition of the Mazdean teachings that the essence of Ohrmazd and Ahriman are robes donned by the two Spirits:
“One is the robe of priesthood the directing of pure good … this robe is the very essence of Ohrmazd (Spenag Menog).” “One is the robe of tyranny, the directing of pure evil … this robe is called the very essence of Ahriman (Gannag menog).” 

Reading through this list of characteristics of Mazdakism, it’s very easy to miss what is the most remarkable and distinct aspect of this heretic movement. It is in fact the fourth power under the guidance of the Director of Good: Joy.

The other three powers align to the Aristotelian faculties of intelligence (logos), understanding (nous) and memory (anamnesis). Classical Mazdean sources also give a fourth principle in addition to these three, describing it as sensation or perception (boy). Replacing this fourth aspect of God with the power of Joy at such high order is a truly unique feature of Mazdakism. And it is also what lead to its ultimate downfall. 

Overcoming the barriers to a joyful life for everyone was at the heart of the Mazdakite agenda. What we encounter here is not a plead for a completely hedonistic society, but an early precursor of the 21st century insight (of modern psychology and brain research predominantly) that someone who is trapped in a state of suffering - may it be through social circumstances or through e.g. a state of depression - is only likely to create more suffering for themselves or/and others over time. Thus it is the state of suffering or grief that creates the vicious circle of producing more suffering or grief - unless it is broken free from.

Now, the Mazdakite strategy to break through this vicious circle, to end the eternal struggle between Ohrmazd and Ahriman as well as their Good and Evil Directors was not engage harder in this ever avenging fight. Instead Mazdak elevated the state of joy to a divine principle, and equally declared any kind of war or hatred as a divine sin. But a philosophical shift in paradigm alone would have never gained the small group of heretics the attention they manage to achieve quickly in the late 5th century CE. It was Mazdak’s radical translation of these ideas into practice that spurred events which are still remembered today in many Arabic countries:

Mazdak identified two essential blocks to progress for any society towards a life that is centred on joy rather than on hedging and maintaining power. The first was one was the imbalanced distribution of resources and wealth. In the world of the 6th century Sassanid empire this concept was closely linked with the idea of nobility and blood lineages. The majority of society’s wealth as well as the related economic and social powers were confined to a very small number of noble families who passed on their riches from father to son in an seemingly endless lineage - unless overthrown by invading armies or political intrigue. The second block to a life centred around the notion of joy might have been even more essential than questioning a century old social order: It was the idea of monogamy. To be more precise: through the eyes of a 5th century man most of the wars or blood feuds were either fought about riches or women. And often over a combination of both. Now, Mazdak realised that the idea of ‘ownership’ was equally detrimental to a life centred on Joy when applied to the notion of physical goods or to a woman (Nöldeke, p.458). 

If Ahriman genuinely was to be overthrown, one first needed to break through the vicious circle society had created for itself to remain locked within a continuous fight over distribution of scarce resources such as wealth or women. Both needed to be free. In a radical turn, thus Mazdak and his followers abolished not only the idea and practice of privately owned goods but also that of marriage. Everybody should be allowed to make love to everyone; and no man or women should be privately 'owned' by anyone. Well, and to round things off they also prohibited any sort of blood-shedding as well as the consumption of meat. 

As one would expect, while the Mzdakites rose to power under king Kavadh I. they created significant turmoil and upheaval in the Sassanid empire: a vegetarian, peace-loving, women- and wealth-sharing Zoroastrian cult that practiced star-magic and aimed to restore a body of ‘material light’ within all of its followers. How much daring could any social endeavour really get? How insignificant does the agenda of our 1968 hippies seem compared to Mazdak’s agenda 1500 years earlier?

The subsequent chaos and downfall of nobility’s power is what gained Mazdak the insulting nickname ‘the wolfish one’ by his opponents - as they compared his teachings to the behaviour of wolves, especially the idea of free love amongst all members of a pack and determining a bloodline through the mother alone (König, p.270).

“The seeming irresistible logic of his humanitarian doctrine, whose only flaw it was that it thoroughly misjudged the nature of man, must have been hugely appealing to the lower classes, given how little protection even the best of laws gave to the common man of his time.” (Nöldeke, p.460)

Several decades later when the successor to king Kavadh I., his youngest son Khosrau I. aimed to eliminate the mark the Mazdakite cult had left on his empire, one of the first steps he had to take was to release laws that protected the many torn marriages the cult had left behind - as well as the countless children of unknown descent (Nöldeke, p.458).

Of course it has to be acknowledged that Mazdak’s rise to power wasn't part of a romantic social revolution; these didn't happen 1500 years ago and don't happen today either. Instead his rise was part of a political intrigue that at arguably at some point spun out of control: Originally king Kavadh I. used the heretic cult as an opportune chance to attack and significantly weaken his inner enemies - the nobility as well as the closely connected lineages of orthodox priests. Had the religious and social agenda of Mazdak not been in favour of the political interests of the king, the brief chapter of Mazdakism as we know it today would have never been written. That is also why it shouldn't come as a surprise that the same king Kavadh I. during his second regency turned into a fierce opponent of the Mazdakites, heavily persecuted them and aimed to restore the old order in his empire. It seems several years of imprisonment in the 'Castle of Silence' where his own family together with the nobility had sent him off to had been enough to convince him.

The intrigue that led to the disempowerment of the Mazdakite has come upon us in two different versions; one stating that their downfall happened under king Kavadah I., the other making his son Khosrau I. repsonsible for the plot, but his father agreeing and being quite proud of his son's wit. One of the two versions of the story goes like this:

The Mazdakite and the traditional Mages of Zoroastrianism had been entangled in fierce power struggles to secure influence over the royal house for many years. Finally towards the end of the year 528 CE Khosrau I. agreeed to be converted to the faith of Mazdak. However, due to the significance of the event he asked for five months to prepare the ceremony and the related public affairs. On the great day the royal family, nobility, the Mazdakite and a large crowd assembled. Yet, rather than allowing the Mazdakite to convert their future king, the latter ordered his soldiers to slaughter the more than three-thousand assembled followers of the heretic priest and to have them buried on the public square with their heads in the earth and their feet in the air - as a symbol of their folley to try to overthrow the natural oder of things. Mazdak was made to watch the cruel spectacle and finally hung on the gallow himself (Nöldeke, p.463).

A rare depiction of the infamous execution of Mazdak and his followers.

Remember, in the previous post on Adonism we ended wondering why Sättler advised his cult members to stay in secrecy? Explicitly he asked them to play along nicely with everything they knew was wrong with their society: He encouraged them to participate in the industrial consumer culture of their time (just as he did with the many fraud companies he founded and lost over his life-time). He recommended to remain members of the official churches of their home countries - and to practice their heretic beliefs only undercover and as part of their secret gatherings. He advised that while the vision of Adonism relates to the entire society, nothing can be done to accelerate its coming into flesh - until the flesh is prepared from within...

Finally we understand that the dream and downfall of Mazdakism provided both the inspiration for Sättler's 20th century cult of Adonism as well as the cautioning tale of how orthodoxy would fight back to maintain the status quo. Worse than that: the same potentates who would help to overthrow orthodoxy would kill the future revoliutionaries once they had safeguarded their seats of power again. 

And the morale of the story? Well, I guess it's something that goes back to the quintessential saying in Western Magic: To Want, to Know, to Dare and to remain Silent. An antidote against the many poisons of society is worth nothing, if we don't deal with the poisons within ourselves first. Because man is a demon to man.

Selected Literature

  • Mansour Shaki, The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak, Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Acta Ironic 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 527–43
  • Patricia Crone, Kavas’s Heresy and Mazdak’s Revolt, Journal of Persian Studies, British Institute of Persian Studies 29, p.21–40.
  • Götz König, Geschlechtsmoral und Gleichgeschlechtlichkeit im Zoroastrismus, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2010
  • Thomas Schmidinger, Der Mazdakismus im Iran
  • Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur Zeit der Sasaniden, p.455 ff