This spring marked four hundred years since the publication of the first Rosicrucian manifesto, and as I have noted earlier, this has been an opportunity for scholars to publish new editions of primary sources and new reports on scholarship into the Rosicrucian heritage. But even the briefest review of how scholarly and cultural institutions are marking the anniversary year would be incomplete without mention of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam – which still houses one of the largest and most significant collections of Rosicrucian and related material in the world. What makes BPH special is that it’s not only a repository of material, an archive, but also an institution that seeks to embody the Rosicrucian heritage today and spread its philosophical, religious, visual and material culture. This dual agenda of the scholarly, curatorial and the evangelizing, missionary, has its roots in the vision of the collection’s founder, Joost Ritman, who was taken by these traditions at a young age and has been dedicated to promoting them ever since.
Rosicrucian Quadricentennial: 400 years of secret brotherhoods, universal reformation, and conspiracy theories
This year marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most influential mythemes in the history of Western esotericism: that of the Order of the Rosicrucians. More precisely, it is now 400 years since a mysterious pamphlet entitled Fama Fraternitatis was published in Kassel. Purporting to be a communication from an unknown society founded by a medieval German monk, Christian Rosenkreutz (after travels in the Orient, of course), the Fama sparked a great furor across Europe about a powerful brotherhood working in secret to push a universal reformation of religion, science and philosophy that would usher in a new age. While the text made clear that no true Rosicrucian would ever admit to being one, the publisher immediately started receiving letters asking about where to sign up. True to their word, however, the real Rosicrucians failed to step up. But by the end of the century, people started forming their own Rosicrucian Orders, and the story of the secret society was stepping out of the realm of fiction and into the realm of fact. By now such societies are counted by the dozens. (At least – I haven’t actually counted them, but be my guest!)
It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.
A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).
Ever wondered what those enigmatic emblems in Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1617) are all about? Well, you could do much worse than watching Peter Forshaw speak about it in the latest BPH webinar. Peter places Maier in the context of 16th and 17th century alchemy, emblematics, the Rosicrucian furore, early printing culture, and the broader political contexts of both continental Europe and England at the time. He also takes the time to go through a few of the 50 emblems in the book.
For the book itself, there is a transcription of an English translation of the original Latin available at the Levity website.
In the spirit of its new policy of openness (“Hermetically open”), the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has posted a video on its YouTube channel that contains a 53-minute tour of the library’s collection, given by the founder Joost Ritman himself. This gives an excellent opportunity for non-Amsterdammers to have a peak at what the BPH looks like, and what the collection contains. But more than that, it gives an interesting insight into the mind of Ritman himself. As he guides online viewers through parts of his collection, we get to know quite a bit about how Ritman conceives of his collection, what it means to him, and what he has been trying to achieve with the library from the beginning. Worth checking out if you are curious about this legendary library and its founder.
Who was Fräulein Sprengel? New evidence on the origin of the Golden Dawn, or: “Vale Soror! Ave Frater!”
In the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the supremely most influential esoteric and magical orders in modern occultism, the question of origins has been a matter of much dispute. This is, of course, a common story for esoteric orders, or even for religious movements more broadly. If there is one thing you can count on, it’s that their founders and their followers will tend to invent mythologies, lineages, and exotic provenances to bolster their group’s sense of importance.
In the case of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1887 by a group of London based high degree Freemasons and occultists, the emic historiography has centred upon a claim to Rosicrucian lineage. The direct link was a mysterious Fräulein Sprengel of Stuttgart, also known under her magical motto Sapiens Dominabitur Astris (“the wise will rule the stars”). The evidence for this lineage was a letter communication between Sprengel and the G.D. co-founder, coroner William Wynn Westcott, which ostensibly ensued after Westcott found her address on a sheet of paper tucked together with the mysterious “cipher manuscript” on which the G.D. rituals would later be based (for the uninitiated: there’s a brief overview of the controversy around them on Wikipedia). The notorious “Sprengel letters” that ensued, and the possible background of the order have been discussed for decades by scholars such as Elic Howe and Robert A. Gilbert – the general consensus being that the letters were forged and Sprengel a fiction. In the latest issue of Aries, Christopher McIntosh publishes brand new evidence in this mystery, evidence which has been there all along but curiously overlooked by all previous investigators.
The discovery is surprising, and makes an already confusing story even more so.
Heresy Corner has a good post on the Templar theme in Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto. It particularly discusses the author’s ambiguous claim that the whole thing is to be read as “fictional” (scare-quotes in the original). Opening the post with a quote from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum sets the right tone from the start:
“The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH, or Ritman Library) in Amsterdam has been a very important institution for research into hermetic philosophy and related currents, particularly early modern Rosicrucianism and alchemy, for decades. In a dramatic and very unsettling turn of events, the library’s existence as we know it is now being threatened. It is all very unclear what will happen, but there is no doubt that spreading the word and creating attention around the developments is the least we can do to try and influence things in the best possible direction – to save the library, the staff, and its national heritage collection of manuscripts and printed books. Please sign this petition, and feel free to spread the word to anyone you think should know about this. For more information, read the note below.