5. On the Teachings of the Asiatic Brethren
Let’s begin by calling out that anything we are about to hear in this chapter we were never meant to hear. The Asiatic Brethren were founded in 1781; in 1701 the 15 year old maidservant Dorothee Tretschlaff had been the last victim of a German witch-trial and was beheaded in public. Of course 80 years later the executive power of the Catholic Church had further diminished and the struggle for the Age of Enlightenment had captured large parts of society.
Yet, precisely these dynamics were the reason why any members of mystical freemasonry now had to defend themselves towards two critical fronts: On the one hand the Catholic and increasingly Protestant churches still held considerable power. While they couldn’t place people on the pyre anymore, their ability to discredit and damage one’s public reputation amongst noblemen and potentates remained exceptionally strong. However, at the same time people interested in the occult now needed to defend themselves against the social forces of Enlightenment. Academics and philosophers now advocating the critical importance of reason, individualism and the advantages of the scientific method perceived advocates of a mythical path towards knowledge as highly reactionary and a thread to their rapidly emerging cultural movement.
Furthermore, the founders of the order could look back at a history of private kabbalistic, alchemical or magical writings leaking into public - and doing no insignificant damage to their purported authors whenever their anonymity was compromised. Of course this was exactly what happened to themselves, when in 1787 an anonymous booklet was published and revealed entire chapters of their secret order’s documents. Finally, keeping one’s actual teachings secret was the third most important purpose of any secret society, preceded only by coming up with these very teachings in the first place and attracting a sufficiently large amount of members to sustain themselves.
So naturally we have to assume that the Asiatic Brethren took according precautions. The most obvious and secure of which obviously would have been to establish two streams of transmission: one in writing, and a second, more closely guarded of individual oral instructions. By evaluating the accessible sources of the former category we will aim to understand if so and what types of secret teachings the Asiatic Brethren might have held in reserve for the latter.
The most important source on the teachings of the order is a large, anonymous tome published in 1803. Until the advent of the internet and digital book collections it remained so incredibly rare that in fact very few people knew it had ever been printed. Even today small collection of pages of the original book are sold for thousands of dollars. During the research for this article we found but one source that offered 48 pages of the original book in a lose collection for a stunning 1600 USD. While the price seems excessive the rarity of the original print seems to have justified it for decades. The full title of the book is ‘The Brethren St.Johannis the Evangelist from Asia in Europe or the only true and genuine Freemasonry next to an appendix, Fessler’s Critical History of Freemasonry and its voidness, by a High Advanced One’ (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)
Now, a lot has been written about the Asiatic Brethren, their members, history as well as their purported influence on later magical and theosophic orders. However, when we dig a little deeper and see how many of these articles - may they be in print or online - actually researched the content of this book from 1803 we come up surprisingly empty handed. The most thorough research to date we found was done by Gershom Scholem. However, that was back in the early 1960s when the book wasn’t even available as a digital copy. So the absence of any proper evaluation of first-hand source material seems rather staggering when compared with the abundance of references to the order. (Note: a simple web search for the term ‘order of the Asiatic Brethren’ currently comes up with 36,000+ results.)
To begin our evaluation of the order’s teachings we simply decided to take a thorough look at the content of the book. However, upon reading the whole tome it became apparent why this proved to be more challenging than assumed. Here is why: (1) unfortunately the book doesn’t provide a content or index section, (2) within the numeric sequence of chapters errors remained uncorrected, (3) many of the chapter titles are very broad and general, and (4) some of them are simply missing.
With this in mind we set out to consolidate a complete index of the book - except for the appendix as it doesn’t relate to the actual teachings of the order. To our knowledge it is the first time this has even been consolidated or even published in English language.
- 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 - content overview of Part 1, 2, and 3:
Now, as with any good book we learn a lot about it by looking at its index. In the case of this book we quickly realise that the entire first part (pages 1-64) is dedicated to formal matters of organisation. Of course any order that spread as quickly as the AB did needed to ensure its matters and processes remained organised and were built to scale with the growing demand and scope of members. However, for anybody unfamiliar with the internal organisation of masonry lodges, the amount of detail covered here can easily be overwhelming and feel unnecessary detailed.
As we have previously learned establishing most of these foundations of the order was the work of Franz Thomas von Schönfeld. However, Schönfeld didn’t write up all these rules and regulations from scratch. Instead he was able to build upon a large existing body of work that stemmed from two other orders which had been assimilated into the AB upon its foundation: These were the ‘Order of the Knights and Brethren of the Light’ (Orden der Ritter und Brüder des Lichts) as well as the ‘Grünstädter System’ (Bolle, 1979). (Note: More about the interesting background of this order can be found in A.E. Waite’s ‘Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross’.)
5.1 On the Order's Titles and Grades
The grade system that the AB leveraged to organise themselves is of particular interest to us. As admission to the order was only possible (in theory of course) to anyone who had successfully completed the three traditional masonry grades, these were assumed as the basis of their own grade system. Following on they implemented five additional grades from 1st Probationary Grade to the 3rd Chief Grade. Next to this system they also established a hugely complex framework of various titles that came with highly specific ceremonial, teaching or organisational responsibilities. The image to the right provides an impression on the vast array of titles in the order; below you can find the actual order's grade system.
Despite having come across more evidence that most male-dominated magical orders are obsessed with structure, hierarchy and organisation, there is something more meaningful to the AB’s title system. Their seemingly cryptic nature actually stems from the fact that many of them refer to rabbinic honorary titles which were very little known at that time outside of Jewry:
Secondly, there is another meaningful aspect to the AB’s titles. As they were the only order that accepted people of all religious denominations, and Jews in particular, it meant that they had a much higher degree of cultural and religious diversity amongst their members than any other occult organisation. Rather than shying away from this and emphasising the common bonds, the AB actually decided to do the opposite: Upon admission into the order Christians were required to assume a Jewish internal lodge name; Jews on the other hand were asked to assume a Christian-sounding pseudonym.
Jacob Katz pointed out that it is precisely in these types of admission rites that we can find the influence of Franz Thomas von Schönfeld’s (aka Moses Dobrushka’s) Sabbatean and Frankist roots: Where the original heretic currents would have advocated a full conversion to another faith, the AB mimicked this rite on an individual level by assuming a lodge name that had its roots in the adversary believe system of the member’s family background. Along the same lines the AB celebrated both Christian as well as Jewish holidays within their lodges. This went as far as stating in the order’s constitution that even Jewish members would have to eat pork and drink milk during some of their annual ceremonial rites (Katz, p.250f).
5.2 On the Content of their Teachings
Now, let’s return to our source book from 1803 and take another look at its content. Upon closer examination it actually becomes possible to understand quite a bit about the nature of the order purely by looking at keywords for each chapter. In the following you can find an overview we created based on the book's content section shared above. As a second step we applied broad content keywords to categorise each chapter. In particular these were: dogma, organisation, theory and ceremonial instructions. Here are the results:
We know that the content of the First, Second and Third Part of the book correspond to the hierarchical grades within the order. Thus from the analysis above we can tell that the higher one advanced the more practical their training became. (Note: At least this assumption presents itself if we follow their written sources; we want to emphasise again that a strong oral transmission possibly should be assumed running in parallel to their written teaching.) Along the same lines we can tell that the entire first twoProbationary Grades - as laid out in the First Part of the book - contain almost nothing but theory in terms of their training.
With regards to the category ‘Ceremonial Instruction’ we want to call out that these teaching refer to group ceremonies only. We deliberately chose the term ‘ceremony’ here instead of ‘ritual’. In none of the order’s teaching as laid out in these material did we find any reference to what we would call a magical ritual. There are no invocations, incantations, evocations or any other spiritual rituals included in the AB’s official order documents. However, we do find plenty of reference to magic as such - and sometimes even to specific ritual aspects of working with spirits:
It is interesting to note that the book doesn’t provide any further instructions on how to create such magical mirrors, bells or how to work with the spirits it refers to. Instead what we find is chapter upon chapter on the emergence of the cosmos leveraging terminology and ideas of Christianity, the gnostics, magic, alchemy and astrology in order to come up with a cohesive theosophical worldview. Despite the absence of practical advise in the AB’s written material, we want to point out that it's in the same region as the original order’s headquarter that 150 years later Franz Bardon was the first adept to ever publish specific instructions on how to create such magic mirrors through the use of metal condensers. Certainly as of today there is no factual evidence for an oral transmission of magical teachings from the AB’s 18th century order to the much more recent magical teachings of the early 20th century. However, the parallels in the actual practice of the Art have to recognised.
As we have dealt with the content of the First Part (rules & regulations of the order) earlier, we can now concentrate on the other two parts. After reading through all of the material we equally applied some broad content categories against each of these chapters. I.e. in this case a single chapter could be tagged with multiple categories if for example its content included alchemical, magical and ceremonial instructions. Utilising this approach we created the following broad overview on the make up of the order’s teaching in the latter two parts of the book.
5.3 The Asiatic Brethren as a Theosophic Order
Antoine Faivre’s quote exemplifies how many authors summarise the actual teachings of the order. They confine the rich and highly textured web of content within a few critical keywords. Of course these keywords are fully applicable to the teaching of the order; however, outside of the ivory tower of specialised academics few people actually know what is meant with them. If on the other hand, we happen to know what they mean they don’t provide much additional value beyond what we knew already.
Thus let’s begin with the term Theosophy and examine it closer as it relates to the order of the Asiatic Brethren. Carlos Gilly in his wonderful article in the new edition of Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae provides us with a great definition of this often misunderstood term:
Indeed the teachings of the AB were truly theosophical: Long chapters, especially within the Second Part concern themselves with elaborate descriptions of how matter was created, which forces actually hold creation together and how these dynamics and processes can be enlightened by the use of alchemical and Paracelsian terminology, numerical speculations and kabbalistic interpretations. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what modern advocates of Enlightenment criticised in the harshest way about the AB: In their eyes the order was guilty of only pretending to provide rational explanations, logical deductions and applying a scientific method to a spiritual matter. The language chosen by the order only mimicked what the pioneers of Enlightenment truly tried to achieve. Below a shallow surface of pseudo-scientific language their actual teachings remained as reactionary and ‘scientifically unfounded’ as they always had been. It's no exaggeration to say that in the eyes of the proponents of Enlightenment theosophy was nothing but putting lipstick on a pig.
This tension and need for the AB to defend themselves towards both religious potentates as well as modern scientists can be exemplified by the following quotes. Both sections are taken from the very same page of a book published 1805 anonymously by August Siegfried von Goue on the order of the Asiatic Brethren:
Finally the actual challenge the AB were up against reveals itself to us - and so does a significant contribution they made to our Western Mystical tradition: In a time when orthodox religious institutions were fighting to maintain their inherited communal power, while emerging scientists and modern philosophers were fighting to tear down the pillars of traditional society, the Asiatic Brethren stood right at the crossroads. They aimed at nothing less than to engineer ‘the human state of being both in body and soul’ - yet two-thousand years of Christian tradition were at risk of becoming obsolete, its language had lost its numen and power, while at the same time the new human and natural sciences hadn’t emerged sufficiently to fill this void. This was the reason why the terms ‘kabbalah’, ‘alchemy’ and ‘magic’ carried such weight for our theosophic forefathers. At a time when everything was at stake they were willing to immerse themselves into the occult, driven by the hope they would find the key to unlock their own past.
Of course the AB were not alone in this attempt. As we have seen in Carlos Gilly’s quote above, many had gone before them and some were walking with them at that time. And each of them gathered more lost pieces of gnostic wisdom. The teachings of the Asiatic Brethren tried to re-assemble these pieces into one huge, coherent pattern - with the goal of turning what used to be a mystery into a new form of mystical science.
What stands out so glaringly from the AB is the scale on which they attempted to achieve this work. As we have seen in the previous chapter even a future king was rumoured to have joined their order. And despite all contrasting influences of the time, the AB were hugely successful in spreading their teachings and order quickly across Europe. If we follow Antoine Faivre it is not unlikely that a few years after the order’s inception “it counted as many as several thousand members” (Antoine Faivre, in: Haanegraaff, p.108).
In the next and fifth instalment of this series we are taking a closer look at the particular magical and kabbalistic teachings of the order. As we can see from the quote below - both of these disciplines hold essential tools for any Theosophist to realise his dormant occult faculties:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Klaus Davidowicz, Die Kabbala - Eine Einführung in die Welt der jüdischen Mystik und Magie, böhlau 2009
- 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