Every man has two lines of ancestry. The first is through his parents and has to do with his mental and physical nature. The second line of descent belongs to the inner man, the psychical line. It is hidden and more fundamental than the physical ancestry. To discover this line, we have to free our minds of our mental habits.

The hidden side of life is applicable to all things. Take for example a tree. We know it as a ‘tree’ because we named it a tree ourselves. Through the means of a cross section of its trunk we can discover its inner constitution. With a microscope, we can discover the ends of the roots, or the cells that compose the stem and leaves. Yet about the essence of the life of the tree itself, which expands from a tiny seed and surrounds itself with bark, we discover nothing. The study of the esoteric philosophic tradition is a discovery of our hidden history. To find truth we will have to look for it in the whole circle of the compass, and not only one quarter. 

Actually esoteric knowledge can be found in virtually all cultures and religious traditions of the world. It is as old as humanity. This is the first in a series of articles on the development of Western esotericism. I will go as far back as possible in time. From ancient Egypt, Central America and Atlantis, Greece and through into modern-day Western thinking. In this article I will discuss the ancient Western traditions that have come down to us from the distant past. In further articles I will work our way into the present time.

The importance of the esoteric knowledge is demonstrated by the growing interest in it and its re-entry into human affairs. Currently, there are three dedicated university chairs on the subject in Europe. In Amsterdam in the Netherlands; in Paris, France; and in Exeter, England.

I did a formal term in the University of Amsterdam during the autumn of 2011. It is called, ‘Hermetica I: an introduction to Western Esotericism’. This course is very educational and dealing with the historical development of the European humanities. I will discuss this history too and add some esoteric principles. Our goal is to discover some of the secrets of life.

Present-day history that we are taught in schools goes quite far back in time. Yet there is a higher and infinitely older history of the distant past, largely forgotten to the memory of man. Proof of this are the various legends, such as the flood legend common to the epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient Sumerian culture, the Old Testament of Jewish tradition, and in the Middle Eastern civilizations. The winds of change erode the original structures and we are left with are ruins, myths and legends. There was also a deliberate destruction of ancient libraries, such as the great Alexandrian library in Egypt, by religious fanatics and other rather short-sighted people.

Geological epochs follow one another in time. Continents rise in different parts of the globe above the waters of the sea. They are inhabited for long periods of time by various racial groups that have immigrated from elsewhere. In their turn these continents sink beneath the waters of the oceans. As a result the history of these periods is lost to us, we are left only with the myths and legends known to man.

There still exists to this very day a great brotherhood who work for the long term betterment and spiritual evolution of mankind, they are called the Mahatmas of Compassion. We are told in theosophical books that they trace an unbroken and uninterrupted ancestry back at least 12 million of years, back to the original focus of light! The Esoteric Doctrine has always existed in its totality. It is in the keeping of the Mahatmas and the Adepts of the Secret Sciences. It is a complete system of thought which does not evolve or change, although our understanding of it deepens throughout the ages. It is ever-enduring sometimes openly expressed when the times are kind, sometimes hidden for long periods of time.

The western esoteric tradition as we know it today, has its roots in the religious traditions of Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism of the Greek and Roman civilizations before the Christian era. Working back into history we find that the early Greek civilization was educated and influenced by the Egyptians. Just like the Jews. In the Bible we find that Moses was taught by Egyptian priests. Moses did not originate a new religion for Israel. He simply adapted the mysteries of Egypt to the needs of Israel.

Who were the ancient Egyptians? Where did such a high science and culture come from in the first place? Besides myths and legends to unravel this mystery, we also have languages as a guide to the origin of the wonderful ancient Egyptian civilization. Languages have not yet received the due attention that they deserve. Greek was the dominant language of the Mediterranean world before Christ. Some authorities say that ancient Greek derives from the Mayan language of Central America. This can be easily checked by consulting the dictionaries of both languages. It is feasible that ancient Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs have the same origin. This brings us to the legend of Atlantis. According to Plato and the ancient Egyptians, Atlantis was a continent that was situated in what is now the Atlantic ocean. According to theosophy and other authorities such as the famous American psychic, Edgar Cayce, this sunken continent was originally the home of the Mayans and Egyptians.

The esoteric tradition states that the racial group of humanity that lived on Atlantis was called the Atlanteans. They lived and evolved for millions of years on that continent. They were seafaring people and travelled the globe, settling in various regions. China, Central America, Europe, Egypt and Babylon to name a few. Egypt is prominent as a migratory land largely during and after the flooding of major islands that composed Atlantis. Theosophy tells us that the Atlantean civilization was very materialistic.

Skeptics of the existence of Atlantis say that only fools and charlatans believe in Atlantis. But were the towering intellects of Greece such as Solon and Plato fools or charlatans?  The indigenous Americans also have an oral tradition of Aztlan, a sunken civilization, paralleled with that of Plato. Was it not for the writings of some of the Greek philosophers, who went to study in Egypt under the tuition of learned instructors, nothing would be known about Atlantis today.

The Egyptians did not entrust their mysteries to everyone. These were reserved for those who excelled in virtue and wisdom. Moses, Pythagoras, Solon and Plato to name a few.

Esoteric schools have been in existence for centuries. In India, Egypt, China, Greece, Scandinavia, Mexico and other countries to the north and south of the equator. Historical records exist of their functioning, flowering and dying out. Their students had to undergo training in discipline. They were taught the truths that were hidden to the majority. They were pledged to secrecy, because knowledge is power. Power can be misused consciously or unconsciously.

In Western Europe one of these esoteric cultures of knowledge was that known to us as the Druids. The Druids were the holy men of the Celts of ancient Gaul and the British Isles. Theosophy tells us that their priests were descendants of the last Atlanteans. They believed in the rebirth of man through a series of reincarnations in this world. Women had a high status in Celtic civilization, for example, women that were proven worthy were admitted into their sacred order and were initiated into the mysteries of their religion and science. Their sacred rules had to be committed to memory for writing it down was not permitted. They did not have images or statues of their deities. Although the Celts did have these images.

Julius Caesar wrote of the Druids; “They renounce war and do not pay war taxes. They are excused from military service.” Their knowledge of Karma is reflected in their way of life. Druidic physicians were skilled in the treatment of illnesses. Their recipe for good health was cheerfulness, temperance and physical exercise. Very little of their life and customs have come down to us.

The Greek word drus, meaning oak, is very similar to the Celtic word Druid. The Druids were called ‘oak-men’, symbolizing wisdom and strength. The Celts made the oak tree an emblem of hospitality. Due to its strong trunk, knotty branches and thick foliage, it was the equivalent of a temple. Truth is found behind the veil of matter. Symbolism played a major part in the ancient world. Symbolism is a divine language that is enduring and helps us find truth. The ancients left us great symbolic monuments. The Druids left us the various stone ‘Menhiers’, or ‘standing stones’, all over  Europe. Stonehenge in England and those at Carnac in France are evidence their capabilities.

Our prehistoric teachers left us a profound symbol in the form of a column, pillar or obelisk. This pillar symbol is the link between the heavenly or invisible world of consciousness and the earthly world of matter. As the ancient Hermeticists would say: “As above, so below”. Two pillars symbolize a gateway from one world to another. Remains of ancient pillars and obelisks can be found, among others, in Egypt. The laws were carved or cut into these pillars in hieroglyphs and symbols.

In the esoteric society of Freemasonry, whose roots lie in ancient Egypt and Atlantis, we find the symbol of the apron.  This suggests servitude in work. To do our duty to humanity in its quest for unification with the divine world of consciousness.

These ancient traditions had their various deities to whom they paid reverence. One of the most mysterious and least understood was Thoth the Egyptian god of wisdom. He had authority over all the other Gods. Symbolized with his Ibis-head, pen and tablet, he is the recorder and judge. He records, thoughts, words and deeds of men. Here we see the evident ancient symbol for Karma, which is inevitable: cause and effect.

The ancient Greeks took over this deity and renamed it Hermes Trismegistus. He was the god of learning, patron of physical sciences and the very soul of esoteric knowledge. Hermes is an active worker and teacher of humanity. He shows us our divine roots, and justice in divinity. As I said earlier, ‘Hermetica’ is coming back into human affairs, shown by the dedicated universities chairs of Europe. I will discuss Hermes a little more when we get to the Middle Ages.

The great Brotherhood of Compassion, the Mahatmas are but one link in a cosmic chain of beings. This immense chain of cosmic beings was called, the golden chain of Hermes, by the ancient Greeks. The Mahatmas of Compassion who helped to form the Theosophical Society, are workers and guides in this natural cosmic structure. They relay this everlasting philosophy to humanity by carrying the torch of knowledge and wisdom throughout the ages.

The ancients had other symbols and rituals. The Hawk and Globe were symbols of the Sun in Egypt. It was important for the ancients to pay reverence to the Sun at the sacred seasons of the equinoxes and solstices.

Mithras, was an ancient deity that made his way into Europe from Iran and India. Mithras was the god of light who was similar to Thoth and Hermes, bringing abundance of growth and health. As a religion, Mithraism, spread like wildfire into the Roman empire of Europe even as far north as Britain. It had similarities of beliefs with that of the so-called ‘pagan’ beliefs of the ancient Europeans. For example its reverence to the Sun was central in its belief.

The ancients were closer to natural phenomenon than we are. Their priests saw beyond the veil of matter. The Sun has its higher form invisible to us. This form is pure consciousness. Its returning to the northern hemisphere in the spring was celebrated at the equinox, the first day of the spring. New growth and abundance was returning to the people.

During the Roman Empire, there was a determined scramble for dominance of human thinking. Mithraism and Christianity ran a neck on neck race. Mithraism lost the contest to the new Christian belief. Early Christianity had a relation to the ancient beliefs. Its rituals and holy days were derived from the ancients. Christmas and Easter are good examples that were taken over by Christianity from the ancient Roman festival of ‘Saturnalia’ in December, and the spring festival of the German goddess ‘Estera’. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great, even the Emperor himself became a Christian. Christianity then gave features of becoming autocratic and dogmatic in relation to the ancient religions of Europe which they derisively labelled as ‘pagan’. The ancient belief systems of Mithraism, Hermeticism, Platonism and  Gnosticism gradually faded. The esoteric traditions became hidden or went underground under the sway of the autocratic rule of the Christian Church protected by the secular authorities

The ancient belief of reincarnation was removed from the scriptures. The new doctrine became, – ‘you only live once’. As a result we lost a lot of knowledge. The deeper understanding of our Souls and what happens to these, when we die, was lost. The ancients had a trustworthy understanding of the Soul. For example, the Egyptian God Thoth was not only a recorder and judge. He was also a pyschopomp, a Greek word meaning; ‘Conductor of Souls’, or ‘Good Shepherd’. The Egyptians firmly believed in the truth of the soul having a living existence after death. This is symbolized in the ceremony of Thoth weighing the heart of the disembodied soul against the ‘feather’ of Truth.    

With the triumph of Christianity over Mithraism, the latter became classified as a mystery religion. Many other ancient philosophies later evolved into mystery organizations. I will discuss them in another article in this series.

Another symbol known to us is the slaying of the Bull. Bull fighting became a tradition in lands around the Mediterranean. The original belief of slaying the bull, goes back to the high priests of Atlantis. The bull symbolises our material desires. The slaying of the bull became a symbol of triumph over earthly materiality.

Is it strange to want to know where we come from and what happens to us after death? We are made up out of both physical matter and spirit. Why do we invest so much time in matter and so little in the spirit?

In general, it may be said that people who are selfish and live with their minds turned inwards, will never pay attention to higher intelligences that speak to them. They are centred on themselves, their physical wellbeing. They have a fear that external forces are going to injure them. This fear might be because it stops their concentration on themselves, which is their only idea of happiness. Things of matter are worshipped rather than things of spirit. They are, so to speak, in the wood and only see the trees surrounding their own field of thought. They have no general view of the whole.

There is a systematic formulation of spiritual and natural laws that still exists in the world. Proof of this lies within man himself. Only he can judge and perceive the truth by using his powers of understanding, discrimination and judgement. To discern truth we have to cultivate the power of looking outwards in order to observe the facts of nature. As well as cultivate a power of understanding, discrimination and judgement by looking inwards. It works both ways.

Truth brings to the wise man exactly what the wise man brings to truth.  Everyone finds truth according to his own knowledge and understanding. Egocentric people dream of becoming enlightened. They are always trying to find truth within themselves and to bind it there. They have not yet advanced into the mystery of finding themselves within Truth. Man is part of all the laws and principles of life.

I will end with a short story about the Law;


            “An eastern sage once told his disciple that if he could become still enough, gentle enough and wise enough, he could hear the chanting of the Law everywhere. The disciple did not understand, so the master held up his hand and in a few seconds a little bird flew out of the forest and on his finger. As it sat and sang, the master asked: ‘Do you hear the song?’


            The disciple answered: ‘Yes, I am aware of an exquisite melody.’


            ‘Be more silent and listen more intently,’ commented the master.


            The disciple became still and sought to unite his consciousness with the consciousness of the bird. After a while the master asked: ‘What do you hear now?’


            The disciple replied: ‘I hear a little fluttering noise.’


            The master nodded approval. ‘You have reached that degree of silence in which you are hearing the beating of the little bird’s heart. Now listen even more closely.’


            The disciple remained silent again until the master asked: ‘What do you hear now?’


            The disciple turned a radiant face to his teacher. ‘Master, I have heard a miracle.’


            The master replied: ‘Explain it to me.’


            ‘I cannot explain it,’ answered the disciple. ‘All I know is that as my realization became one with the heart of the bird the sound of the beats changed into a song so subtle, so gentle that even the ears of realization could scarcely hear it. But as I listened with my heart and soul, the sound became more and more clear, until at last the words were distinct.’


            ‘What were the words?’ asked the master.


            The disciple replied,


‘The heart of the little bird was singing. I take refuge in the Law.’ ”   


Source references:

·        A book of quotations                                                              W. Q. Judge

  • Chaldean Magic                                                                       F. Lenormant

·        Dictionary of symbols                                                              Chevalier and Gheerbrant

  • Echoes from the Gnosis                                                           G.R.S. Mead

·        Encyclopaedia of Eastern philosophy and religion              Schuhmacher and Woerner

·        Encyclopaedia of Mythology                                                   R. Graves.

·        ENCYCLOPEDIC THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY                          G. de Purucker

·        Forbidden history                                                                       Douglas  Kenyon

·        Lectures in ancient philosophy                                                 M.P. Hall

·        Sacred mysteries among the Mayas and the Quiches         A. le Plongeon

·        Secret Teachings of all ages                                                     M. P. Hall

·        Self-unfoldment by disciplines of realization                         M. P. Hall

·        The Crest jewel of wisdom                                                        Shankara-acharya

·        The esoteric tradition                                                                G. de Purucker

·        The origin of the Egyptians                                                      A. le Plongeon

·        The temple in man                                                                     Schwaller de Lubicz

·        Theosophical Glossary                                                               H. P. Blavatsky

·        Theosophy, Imagination and tradition                                   A. Faivre

·        Theosophical Encyclopaedia                                                     P. S Harris

·        The western esoteric traditions                                                N. Goodrick-Clarke

·        To light a thousand lamps                                                          G. F. Knoche

·        Westerse esoterie en oosterse wijsheid                                  J. Slavenburg en J v Schaik


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