The Western Esoteric Tradition (sometimes referred to as the Western Mystery Tradition) involves beliefs and practices in alchemy, astrology, and magic from the ancient period up to the modern day.
Alchemy includes writings and practices about an early form of chemistry (in particular the attempt to turn lead into gold), but also about spiritual concepts of personal transmutation. Many alchemical texts can be very difficult, even impossible, to comprehend and often have an air of mystique about their true meaning. However, many are also lavishly illustrated with beautiful and inspiring symbols and emblems. It is evident that not all alchemists understood their art in the same way. However, there are many and varied later interpretations of their work. In particular, C.G. Jung developed a psychological understanding of alchemy based on his own experiences and ideas from analytical psychology.
Astrology is the study of the stars and planets and their influences on people and events on Earth. There is the well-known tradition of horoscopes that involves using birth charts to predict an individual’s personality or future. However, astrological principles can also be used in medicine or magical practices. Though modern science has now largely discredited these ideas, astrology can be understood as an early form of astronomy.
The practice of magic (or more accurately Magick) was defined by Aleister Crowley as 'the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will' and redefined by Dion Fortune as 'the art of causing changes to take place in consciousness in accordance with will'. This difference in definition may reflect the psychologisation of magic but also the difference in approach and opinion of these two pillars of the Modern Occult Revival. Needless to say, we are not talking about stage magic or conjuring tricks but rather the manipulation of real occult forces , or intelligences, within nature and the human psyche. Such beliefs and practices date from prehistoric or ancient times and are still practised today in all parts of the world.
Western Esotericism is more accurately described as a collection of different traditions influenced by Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, theosophy, and the mystical elements within the major religious traditions, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism. During the modern occult revival at the turn of the 18th/19th century Western Esotericism was also strongly influenced by ideas and practices from Eastern religions, psychology, and the development of the sciences.
Paganism is not usually considered to be part of the Western Esoteric Tradition but, in its modern form, has been greatly influenced by the modern occult revival. The Western Mysteries have also been a strong influence on New Age beliefs and practices, or the Mind/Body/Spirit movement.
There are still many practicing mystery schools in the West today, despite the widespread assumption that such beliefs are superstitious and would be eclipsed by a more scientific worldview. Indeed, there is an ongoing and controversial debate between scientific materialism (sometimes referred to as ‘Scientism’) and more holistic worldviews that call for an expanded understanding of science. In my opinion, the field of Transpersonal Psychology can be understood as an evolution of the Western Esoteric Tradition. The infamous, yet learned, occultist Aleister Crowley considered his own work to be that of: ‘The method of science, the aim of religion.’
One scholar, Antoine Faivre, has defined six characteristics of Western Esotericism. These are briefly described below with some extracts from esoteric texts to illustrate each characteristic.
This is the idea that everything is connected via a hidden web of influences. The ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ is believed to identify what is connected to what by observing their similarities. This principle is a key to the use of ‘sympathetic magic’, that is things that are in sympathy with each other are connected in some occult, or hidden, way and can therefore influence each other.
‘It is necessary, then, to remember that Aries is in charge of the head and the face; Taurus the neck; Gemini the arms and shoulders; Cancer the chest, the lungs, the stomach, and the arms; Leo the heart and stomach, the liver and the back, and the posterior ribs; Virgo the intestines and the lower stomach; Libra the kidneys, thighs, and rump; Scorpio the genitals, vagina, and womb; Sagittarius the thighs and groin area; Capricorn the knees; Aquarius the legs and shins; and Pisces the feet.’
This is the concept that the natural world, or entire universe, is in some way ensouled. It includes ideas about nature spirits, or elementals, as well as the concept of a feminine Soul of the World, or anima mundi, and can be compared to the idea of a Mother Goddess or Gaia. Another parallel may be the Jewish mystical concept of the Shekinah. It is similar, but not identical to, to the idea of panpsychism, which suggests that consciousness is present within all of nature to a greater or lesser degree.
‘Therefore philosophers do not think the Soul of the Earth to be as it were the soul of some contemptible body, but to be rational and also intelligent, yea and to be a deity.’
Imagination & Intermediaries
This characteristic of Western Esotericism relates to the use of the imagination as a means by which to traverse realms between the sublunary, celestial, and supercelestial worlds and to interact with the beings that dwell there. It can be understood as intimately connected with altered states of consciousness (ASCs) and include many mystical or visionary experiences as well as those of mediumship or channelling. Techniques such as Jungian active imagination or Shamanistic journeying may also be related to this aspect.
‘…the Indians claim that a spirit may appear to the magician as a person which communicates with him and teaches him whatever it likes. It may endear him to kings and sultans or solve or complicate things for him. Spirits were portrayed by the ancient generations as pictures of different things on their temples, which they believed would fulfil any request or wish.’
Experience of Transmutation
This characteristic emphasises the psycho-spiritual potential for growth, evolution, or transformation, which is inherent in many spiritual practices. It refers to the alchemical process of transmuting mundane or base materials into metaphorical gold. In modern transpersonal psychology these are sometimes referred to as spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) or non-ordinary transcendent experiences (NOTEs). Spiritual experiences are not just seen as interesting anecdotes or evidence of a greater reality, but are a means to experiential knowledge of the correspondence between the microcosm (the individual) and the macrocosm (the world or universe). This is summed up by the ancient Greek injunction to ‘Know Thyself’.
‘…but by how much the more everyone shall know himself, by so much he obtaineth the greater power of attracting it, and by so much operateth greater and more wonderful things, and will ascend to so great a perfection, that he is made the son of God, and is transformed into that image which is God, and is united with him, which is not granted to angels, the world, or any creature, but to man only, viz. to have power to be made the son of God, and to be united to him.’
Concordance refers to the idea that all spiritual traditions contain part of the one true, primordial wisdom tradition. Aldous Huxley coined the phrase ‘perennial philosophy’ and so this idea is known as perennialism. A related idea is that all mystical experiences have a common core and that the differences between them are due to differences in local languages, history, and culture. Another form of concordance is the correspondence between the esoteric interpretation of sacred or texts and events in world history.
At a certain point on the path of return to God all ways meet and then the procedure is uniform for all subsequent stages of approach. The steps in meditation are identical. This will be apparent to anyone who studies the works of Meister Eckhart and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Esoteric traditions or Western Mystery schools usually have some method of passing down their teachings or secrets. This is often accomplished by some form of grading and initiation system and a relationship between student and teacher or chela and guru, etc. However, this does not necessarily require face-to-face meetings but can also be accomplished on the astral plane, via coded texts, or through synchronicities in day-to-day life. This idea is sometimes summed up as ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’
His entrance on his Path places him in the position of a disciple of chela, on Probation, and some one Master takes him under His care, recognizing him as a man who has stepped out of the highway of evolution, and seeks the Teacher who shall guide his steps olong the steep and narrow path which leads to liberation. That Teacher is waiting him at the very entrance of the Path, and even though the neophyte knows not his teacher, his Teacher knows him, sees his efforts, directs his steps, leads him into the conditions that best subserve his progress, watching over him with the tender solicitude of a mother, and with the wisdom born of perfect insight. The road may seem lonely and dark, and the younf disciple may fancy himself deserted but a 'friend who sticketh closer than a brother' is ever at hand, and the help withheld from the sense is given to the soul.