On the Asiatic Brethren, Part 5 - The Teachings of the Order (2)
The Asiatic Brethren's Magical Teachings
As a final step on this journey we will examine the kabbalistic tendencies of the Asiatic Brethren - one of the most well known aspects of the order that led us to the excursus into Sabbatianism and Frankism during early chapters. Before that, however, let’s aim to better understand their particular magical teachings first. In the order’s documents we find precise confirmation of the definition of magic as highlighted above: To the AB magic first and foremost represented a higher kind of natural science. They stated specifically that they understood it as the particular way through which insights into the higher order and eternal chain of cause and effect was possible (anonymous 1803, p.95).
What they did not state explicitly was what kind of techniques or practices they would assemble within this term. However, from their further explanations we can deduct that they held a strongly Neoplatonic worldview. Accordingly through the use of magic they aimed to better understand
- the transmission of cause and effect from one link in the chain to the next as well as
- the interconnectedness of the various celestial chains and how they influenced each other.
Well, at this point maybe let’s recall the legendary founding myth of the AB? Remember the story of Justus, the Franciscan monk living in Jerusalem in the early 18th century - as well as the occult adept Azariah from whom he was alleged to have received most of the foundations of the order’s teaching?
Now allow me to bring up the memory of another secret society. One that is hardly known still today and which operated around 700 years before the AB. However, even though little known its literary work turned out to become a cornerstone of our Western Magical tradition. We are talking about the secret society of the ‘Brethren of Purity’ which existed in Basra (Iraq) towards the end of the 10th century. Until today incredibly little research has been done on the details of their order or who belonged to it; however, their most important work the ‘Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity’ (Rasa'il Ikhwan al-safa’) became a hugely influential book on theology, philosophy, science as well as magic in later centuries.
As Hellmut Ritter and Heinrich Plessner pointed out in their liminal 1962 introduction to the first German edition of the Picatrix it was precisely this secret society’s syncretistic approach to Greek, Christian and Muslim philosophy as well as their deep, Neoplatonic understanding of cosmology and astrology that laid the foundations for the type of planetary magic we encounter in the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm or ‘Goal of the Wise’. Thus through a direct line of transmission we can see the work of the Brethren of Purity influence the Muslim world in Spain during the Middle Ages, as well as the flourishing Jewish diaspora. From there we know that the Picatrix went on to become one of the most influential compendiums on magic ever written.
Now, what if we assumed the legendary founding father ‘Azariah’ in fact wasn’t an adept of Kabbalah only, but maybe also had come in touch with the occult teachings of the Arab world? In fact, as we saw in the third chapter we have to assume that ‘Azariah’ might not have been a person at all, but rather an literary vessel for all of the esoteric currents Justus came in touch with while living in the Orient. Given the writings of the Brethren of Purity had reached Spain within less than a century, we have to assume that their work was equally read and absorbed by occult authors much closer to their homeland, i.e. in Palestine. This assumption is supported further by the fact that religious groups such as the Isma’ilis accepted the ‘Rasa’ as belonging to their religion and regarded it as an esoteric cornerstone of their own teachings. (Hossein, p.27)
Certainly such a potential line of occult transmission requires further study and evidence. Could it be substantiated, however, it would a provide fascinating explanation for the roots of many of the teachings of the AB. Let’s glance at two examples right here: As we discovered earlier the AB’s teachings are distinctly marked by the seeming paradox of both accepting a deeply mystical worldview as well as advocating the faculty of the rational mind. Strangely, we encounter exactly the same pattern in the teaching of the Brethren of Purity - coupled with the same openness to a syncretism that strives to unify teachings from all ages and cultures (Hossein, p.28f).
A second example can be found by directly comparing aspects of the actual teachings of the two orders. The following side-by-side comparison of two quotes on the Neoplatonic chains of beings might provide further evidence of a historical link between these two schools of thought:
So what we should take form both of these order’s view on magic is this: Magic in their teachings was not thought of as one end of a dimension on which opposite end we would find science or the rational mind. While magic even for them might have been closely linked to the imaginative faculty of the mind, this faculty did not exclude or stand opposed to the logic or reason. Instead either of them represented ways in which the nature of the Neoplatonic chains could be explored.
Let’s emphasise this point again - as it seems so easily misunderstood in much of what is said about magic these days: The Asiatic Brethren just like the Brethren of Purity believed that each link in the cosmic chains - that stretched from the first cause to the smallest grain of sand - was both open to understanding of human reason as well as governed by a conscious, living spirit.
Thus the practitioner was supposed to explore several pathways at once in order to achieve a state of gnosis and develop insights into the occult side of nature:
- Firstly, leveraging arithmetic the AB taught sophisticated numerological speculations. As they believed in the rational order of nature, numerology combined with arithmetic was one way of uncovering the hidden site of creation.
- Secondly, both practical as well as spiritual alchemy was another way of discovering how the chains of creation were interlinked and could be influenced.
- Thirdly, the AB equipped their higher members with the magical names, seals and ruling hours of the planetary spirits. In a curious turn on the grimoire tradition, they even provided the names and seals of the Olympic Spirits of the Arbatel and called them the ‘adversary spirits’ of the planetary angels.
The challenges they expected each of their practitioners to face was not to settle for one of these pathways towards gnosis - but to explore each of them in parallel, enriching one discipline through the practice and insights of the others.
Having said that, obviously the magical way towards nature is the least openly explored in the order’s writings that have come upon us. While alchemy, numerology and even kabbalistic speculations take large part of the material, references to magical practices are few and most of them indirect. Certainly nobody could have practiced ritual magic only based upon the few hints and glyphs provided in their documents. But let’s remind ourselves that precisely this aspect of magical books is what defines tan entire genre of it, called magical Grimoires. None of them were meant to be ‘how-to’ books on performing ritual magic. Instead they were ciphered notebooks covering the most essential facts only that could not easily be included in an oral tradition. Or to put it differently: anything except for names, seals and hours was not supposed to be written down - as it formed part of an oral transmission that proved much more reliable as well as secure for these orders.
So in the Asiatic Brethren's system Magic was but one of three essential pathways towards the occult. True gnostic insights only revealed themselves to whomever was able and skilled in walking all three paths at once: alchemy, numerology and kabbalah as well as magic. These were the disciplines that the order strived to combine - and thus bring to live the occult science of Theosophy (Antoine Faivre, in: Haanegraaff, p.266).
Despite the public scorn of the pioneers of Enlightenment, with this particular approach to magic the AB continued the tradition they had inherited from previous generations of mystics and mages - may these have lived as long ago as the Brethren of Purity or as close to their own time, such as Heinrich Khunrath. In his famous self-portrait in his Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1595 and 1609), we see Khunrath representing exactly this notion of magical practice as part of a broader theosophic approach towards nature (click here for a hand-coloured high-res version): The theosophic laboratory is comprised of an alchemical laboratory to the right, a table full of instruments of the natural sciences as well as the praying (or invoking?) adept to the left. Not one path but three led the theosophist towards the true state of divine gnosis.
In his highly recommendable article on Christian Theosophy Antoine Faivre summarises three key features of Theosophy, each of them we find deeply embedded into the AB’s system:
The Asiatic Brethren's Kabbalistic Teachings
Since the 15th century, initiated through the groundbreaking works of Picco della Mirandola and Johann Reuchlin, Christian Kabbalah had emerged as a new and exciting field of study amongst European scholars. All the way until the 18th century ‘cabala’ remained closely connected to the idea of magic. Therefore both terms required sufficient re-definition and -interpretation in order to avoid the ever present suspicion of heresy. Of course for Christian thinkers of the time this re-definition was exactly the opposite: In their eyes it was an exposing and uncovering of the true purpose, ancient roots and genuine tradition of Christian cabalistic teachings and methods.
The essential assumption that made this re-interpretation seem so natural and effortless was the idea that even before the times of Christ other religious and philosophical traditions had discovered the importance of the advent of the Christian messiah and thus hinted at it in their scriptures. Thus all previous traditions that held true divine wisdom came to fulfilment with the advent of Christ. Cabala now was understood as a divine and yet highly scientific method that allowed scholars to precisely uncover these hidden hints amongst other ancient traditions about the truly divine and unique status of Christian faith. What made the whole endeavour even more exciting was that this scientific method leveraged the power of the spoken and written word - an idea at the heart of both Jewish and Christian theology.
According to Schmidt-Biggemann's essential 3-volume study on Christian Kabbala the most important tenets of it were:
- a ‘Pythagorean Christology’, i.e. being able to prove that all ancient religions already hinted at the advent of the Christian messiah and thus indirectly acknowledged the superiority of the Christian faith
- the ten Sephiroth as characteristic descriptions of the divine being and properties of G’d
- the initial emergence of divinity into creation in form of a trinity as reflected both in the kabbalistic teachings of the first three Sephiroth as well the Christian trinity
- a direct connectedness of the divine tetragrammaton IHVH with the ‘cabalized’ notation of the name of Jesus IHSVH
This context is necessary to understand how the term ‘cabala’ was still being used during the days of the Asiatic Brethren towards the end of the 18th century. As an example of how broadly it often was defined we may take a look at Johann Arndt’s theosophic commentary on Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae:
A book that proved to be highly influential on the AB as well as many other occultists of the 18th and 19th century was Georg Welling’s ‘Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum et Theosophicum’ (1709/1719/1760). As a matter of fact the AB adopted entire sections of the book into their own material with very little adjustments if at all; a striking example are the explanations on the ‘Sun of the Dawn’ (lucifer) and his fall. Equally much of the alchemical musings and cosmological speculations of the AB can be found in Welling’s work. Now, the term ‘cabala’ features prominently in the book’s title. Yet, it is exactly the above type of mystical, speculative Christian Kabbala that we encounter in Welling’s influential book. In fact, the chapter that specifically deals with cabala is titled ‘On the true religion and mago-cabbala’. Yet, what we encounter in it is 95% of mystical and even alchemical speculations on the nature of the true Christian religion and maybe 5% of faint kabbalistic echoes as in the brief examination of Hebrew names of divinity.
So how does this understanding of Christian Kabbala relate to the teachings of the AB? The answer is not a simple either or. Instead what we find especially in the lower Probationary Grades of the AB clearly relates to the above usage and description of cabala. One of the most striking examples probably are the speculations on the Hebrew term ‘schamajim’ (heaven) as used in Genesis 1:1 as an alchemical-cabalistic reference to the essential role of Fire (aesch) and Water (majim) during the creation of the cosmos (anonymous 1803, p.viii and p.204f).
As Scholem also points out in his wonderful analysis none of these essential source texts are ever referenced in the AB’s materials. While other authors of the time - even Welling himself - openly pointed to their spiritual ancestors such as Paracelsus or Jakob Böhme from whom they adopted many theories, we find none of it in the AB’s order documents. It is precisely this practice - still common today amongst many occult orders - of referring to a legendary founder and then cutting out all intermediary steps of transmission to the present day, that makes it so hard to trace the origins and currents of our Western Mystery tradition. Ideas and concepts that once emerged from a highly specific historic or spiritual context thus often are leveraged completely out of context - and are misperceived as fluid raw material simply to underpin one author's personal notions on a particular subject.
When Ephraim Hirschfeld joined the order of the Asiatic Brethren much of this lower-grade material was already in existence. Later on in his life he gave very open testament about how he felt about many of the syncretic Rosicrucian teachings that were so prominent during the 18th century. Here is a direct quote of his that says it best:
These “self-created monstrous private-systems” (Hirschfeld) must have seemed a very far cry from his own background from a genuine Kabbalistic and more specifically Sabbatean family tradition. However, at the same time he must have realised the striking resemblance between some of the existing Theosophic teachings e.g. about the emergence of the cosmos or the fall of the 'Sun of Dawn' with original kabbalistic ideas such as the Lurianic concept of Zimzum, the breaking of the vessels and the creation of the qlippoth. Thus according to Scholem it is likely that Hirschfeld revised much of the lower grade’s material and infused it en passant with specific kabbalistic ideas that, however, were not called out as such but remained tightly integrated and aligned to Theosophic concepts (Scholem 1962, p.267/270).
The Asiatic Brethren’s approach to Kabbala changes as we reach the end of the Second Probationary grade and then enter into the higher Chief Grades. Here we begin to hear about a book of ten leaves that is sealed with seven seals and directly linked to Kabbalah:
The idea of the book of ten leaves stems from a theory we encounter in Saint-Martin’s writings; it specifically relates to the importance of the Pythagorean decade in numerological speculations. However, it is only in the documents of the Chief Grades that Scholem was able to peel back the theosophic language entirely and discovered some arcane and authentic kabbalistic teachings that Hirschfeld had introduced for the highest grades of the order. A wonderful example is Hirschfeld’s explanation of the ten sephiroth (anonymous 1803, p.265); here in a language that was fully accessible to his predominantly Christian readers he introduces the ten divine configurations as ‘lights’, explains their order and function during creation - even touching on deeply kabbalistic concepts such as the Parzufim without ever referencing their Jewish terminology.
But Scholem’s analysis even goes further. He actually finds evidence for the strong Sabbatean ties that influenced the higher grade’s teaching. Specifically Hirschfeld introduced the main idea on which Sabbatean Kabbalah rests since the days of Nathan of Gaza’s interpretation of the Sepher Bahir. Here we have to relate back to what we said about the ‘Treatise of the Dragon’ and the emergence of the qlippoth in the first chapter of this series. In a fascinating turn Hirschfeld initially introduces the pure and essential teachings of Sabbatean Kabbalah on the emergence of evil without ever referencing their actual terminology. However, he then goes on to create a unique and unprecedented “synopsis and syncretism of Jewish and Christian Theosophy” (Scholem 1962, p.271) that merges into one the authentic kabbalistic teachings on the qlippoth with the Christian-theosophic myth of the ‘Fall of the Sun of Dawn’.
After these detailed explorations of the historic roots, the founding fathers and the teachings of the Asiatic Brethren, let’s pause and reflect. In addition to the insights we came across in each chapter - which definite conclusions can we draw about the order? While we'd encourage everyone to come up with their own conclusions, here is a short list of the six most important features that stand out to us:
1. We can call out with confidence that one of the elements that sets the Asiatic Brethren apart from other Rosicrucian traditions of the same time is that they were much less influenced by and orientated towards orthodox Christianity. From their legendary founding myth amongst the occultists in Palestine all the way to the fact that they were the first order to allow Jews amongst their members, it is clear that the order was set up from the beginning to provide a platform for occult learning, teaching and practical research hidden from the realm of influence and control of orthodox Christianity - or Jewry for that matter.
2. We see the order deeply embedded in the Theosophic current of its time and as shaped by its predecessors of the 17th and 16th century. A current that is which over the course of the 19th century should merge with the broader river of Romanticism as a counter-movement to the strong forces of Enlightenment. As a classical Theosophic order the AB advocated and embraced a multitude of paths towards divine gnosis: May it be through the use of the rational mind, numerology or natural sciences, through practical or spiritual alchemy or even through kabbalah or magic. This particular approach was deeply Neoplatonic in essence, yet allowed the brethren to look at and relate to nature in both a scientific as well as pantheistic way. However, different to orthodox Christian theology it was the individual practitioner’s life’s purpose to walk this path on their own and continuously strive towards a direct experience of the divine.
3. We identified the order’s teachings to be of a deeply syncretic nature. While this is a shared feature with many other Theosophic orders of the time, the extend to which the AB were open to integrate and amalgamate other culture’s and time’s occult heritage clearly set new standards. So much so that it became one of the most influential factors shaping most if not all magical orders to be founded in the 19th and early 20th century. Amongst the order’s heads it were Franz Thomas von Schönfeld as well as Ephraim Hirschfeld who allowed for this new and unprecedented influx of specifically Kabbalistic, Sabbatean and partly Frankist bodies of thought.
4. Over the course of our exploration into the history and teachings of the order we were able to identify a few clear lines of transmission that came together and were united within their teaching. Especially important to identifying these lineages were the works of Gershom Scholem, Karl R.H. Frick and Jakob Katz. The below synopsis represents a highly simplified overview on the most important influences on the documented teachings of the Asiatic Brethren. Of course, many interconnections exist between these lineages, such as the influence of the Sepher Jetzirah on the original work of Martinez de Pasqually (Scholem 1962, p.257f). As we discovered in this chapter, in particular the influence of the Brethren of Purity’s groundbreaking syncretic occult teachings in their ‘Rasa’ require further study.
5. What of course had to remain unexamined by this work is the content of a possible oral tradition within the order. As we have seen during our analysis of their magical teachings the existence of such a parallel stream of transmission is highly likely and should be assumed. Not only is this underpinned by the inclusion of material from actual magical Grimoires in their order’s documents. But it is also likely in that the AB as we have seen were strongly influenced by Saint-Martin and his teacher, Martinez de Pasqually. The latter, founder of the order of the Élus Coëns that preceded the AB, had created and evolved a ‘general index’ (Generalverzeichnis) of spirits, their names and characters very similar to what we found in the AB’s highest grade material. However, different to the AB we have prove for the fact that within Pasqually’s order, especially during its early phase, actual spirit evocations and magical operations were officially taught and conducted as part of the order’s teachings (Frick, p.523).
6. Finally, it has to be called out that even for the late 18th century, and the ideas on intellectual property people held at that time, the writings of the AB are marked by a particular disinterest or neglect of identifying its actual sources. From our research we know that their authors held very specific knowledge about the provenance of the various elements of occult tradition that they merged together. Still none of them are ever referenced anywhere in the body of work they created. By means of this the AB created the deliberate, yet misleading impression for the learners they were tapping into an ancient and unbroken stream of wisdom that had been secretly guarded by the elders of their order. This characteristic of the order’s teachings sheds a dubious light on its founding fathers; in particular so if we acknowledge that biographic prove exists for each of them to having bend the truth for their own good more than once.
When we set out on our adventure into the history of the Asiatic Brethren we shared the following thought on why such journey might be worthwhile:
Looking back at the distance that we travelled together - through the insights into the people and times that shaped the order, into the soil of currents and traditions it emerged from and over the fields of facts that created the order’s rich tapestry of teachings - we hope to have lived up to this initial promise? Of course such a glance behind the mirror can always be disenchanting - and begin to replace captivating myths with seemingly dry encounters of people no different from you and I. What it certainly does is to force us to acknowledge that during the times of Ecker and Schönfeld and Hirschfeld and even Justus and Azariah the magical torch shone no brighter than it does today. The practices, the spirits, the land - it all remains the same today. It might just be us who we make ourselves believe to see the light shine brighter in the past than in our own present days?
What remains to be mentioned is that the scope of this study so far was focussed on the Asiatic Brethren as a phenomenon of the past in our Western Mystery tradition. Beyond the traces of their influence we discovered as a by product to the analysis of the order itself, the goal of the previous chapters was not to determine if or how the AB influenced later occult organisations. As we can see from the quote below, Antoine Faivre holds a clear opinion on the significant and wide-spread influence of the order’s teachings. However, he fails to provide any evidence or sources for such claims. It seems therefore this last chapter of the order’s history remains to be written.
- Georg von Welling, Opus mago-cabbalisticum et theosophicum darinnen der Ursprung, Natur, Eigenschaften und Gebrauch des Saltzes, Schwefels und Mercurii in dreyen Theilen beschrieben, Frankfurt und Leipzig 1760
- anonymous, Die Brüder St.Johannis des Evangelisten aus Asien in Europa oder die einzige wahre und ächte Freimaurerei nebst einem Anhange, die Fesslersche Kritische Geschichte der Freimaurerbrüderschaft und ihre Nichtigkeit betreffend, von einem hohen Obern, Berlin 1803
- anonymous, Authentische Nachricht von den Ritter- und Brüder-Eingeweihten aus Asien, 1787
- August Siegfried von Goue, ’Asiatische Brüder’, p.410-434, in: Das Ganze aller geheimen Ordens-Verbindungen, Leipzig 1805
- Fritz Bolle, Der Signatstern - Heute?, in: anonymous, Der Signatstern oder die enthüllten sämtmlichen sieben Grade und Geheimnisse der mystischen Freimaurerei nebst dem Orden der Magus oder Ritter des Lichts, Band 1 und 2, Edition Ambra 1979 (Stuttgart 1866)
- Gershom Scholem, Ein verschollener jüdischer Mystiker der Aufklärungszeit: E. J. Hirschfeld, in: Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 1962
- Ordensverbindungen, Leipzig 1805
- Karl R.H. Frick, Die Erleuchteten - Gnostisch theosophische und alchemistisch rosenkreuzerische Geheimgesellschaften bis zum Ende des 18.Jahrhunderts, Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt 1973
- Jacob Katz, Der Orden der Asiatischen Brüder, in: Freimaurer und Geheimbünde im 18.Jahrhundert in Mitteleuropa, Suhrkamp 1983
- Hans Heinrich Freiherr von Ecker und Eckhofen, Der Rosenkreuzer in seiner Blösse: zum Nutzen der Staaten hingestellt durch Zweifel wider die wahre Weisheit der so genannten ächten Freymäurer oder goldnen Rosenkreutzer des alten Systems, Amsterdam 1781
- Hans Heinrich Freiherr von Ecker und Eckhofen, Abfertigung an den ungenannten Verfasser der verbreiteten sogenannten Authentischen Nachricht von den Ritter- und Ländereingeweihten in Asien, Hamburg 1788
- Wouter Haanegraaff, Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, Brill Academic Publishing 2006
- Carlos Gilly, Khunrath und das Entstehen der frühneuzeitlichen Theosophie, in: Heinrich Khunrath, Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae – Schauplatz der ewigen allein wahren Weisheit, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2014
- Seyyed Hossein, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, 1993
- Heinrich Khunrath, Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae - Schauplatz der ewigen allein wahren Weisheit, Stuttgart 2014