If you try reading this article without having read the Folklore of Magic #13, it probably won’t make much sense.
Cornelius Agrippa and the majority of other major Hermeticists were devout Christians, yet some philosophers took the more extreme view that the heliocentric (sun-centred) religion described in the Corpus Hermetica was, in fact, superior to that of the Jews and Christians, and that the later religions had simply misunderstood Hermes’ wise teachings. One of these philosophers was the Italian monk Giordano Bruno, who travelled Europe in the second half of the 1500s, trying to convince both Protestants and Catholics to turn to Hermes’ apparent Egyptian religion of universal love and brotherhood. It was Bruno’s belief that the world would soon be united under a single priest-king of this religion, a belief which his not, after all, that different from the Christian millenarian ideas we looked at in the Folklore of Magic #11. While Bruno was in Germany in the 1580s, it seems that a secret religious organization grew up around him, and it is likely that Bruno’s philosophy came to influence a supposed later secret society known as the Rosicrucians, the Brothers of the Rosy Cross. When the Protestant Henri IV became king of France in 1589 and converted to Catholicism, many Europeans hoped that he would put an end to the religious wars, and Bruno, who – despite his wishes that the Catholic Church would institute his Hermetic reforms – was disliked by the Vatican, returned to Italy. In the end, the wishes placed on Henri IV having come to nothing, Bruno was burned at the stake by the Papal Inquisition in 1600.
A younger contemporary of Giordano Bruno was Tommaso Campanella, another Italian monk who had studied the Corpus Hermetica. In 1600, he planned a revolution in the Kingdom of Naples, hoping to turn the city into the City of the Sun, a state ruled by magic and based on the principles of Hermes Trismegistus. This revolution failed, and Campanella was imprisoned until 1626, escaping Bruno’s harsh fate by feigning insanity. During his time in prison, he wrote prolifically and was in contact with those behind the Rosicrucian movement mentioned earlier. In 1634, Campanella was given his freedom, and he eventually went to France, finding a welcoming monarchy there. Shortly before he died, he prophesized that the newly-born son of Louis XIII would unite the world under one religion and state, and would take on the role of the priest-king in the City of the Sun. When we realize that it is in this way that Louis XIV became known as the Sun King and that a great many people expected him to usher-in the universal reformation and return to paradise, Louis XIV’s fabled self-obsession is much easier to comprehend.
Those of you who have read The Da Vinci Code and haven’t done any further research on the subject or – worse – have done research by reading the wrong books, might be interested in knowing that the Priory of Sion had never been documented prior to 1956 and was probably invented by Pierre Plantard, an intriguing personality who claimed to be heir to the French throne. Dan Brown’s Priory of Sion does, however, have much in common with the alleged Rosicrucian brotherhood in Germany. Interestingly, it is equally unlikely the Rosicrucians actually existed at the time when their existence was first heralded in the 1610s, but the 17th Century hoax concerning this all-knowing Christian fellowship was intended to inspire “a third Reformation” (following the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation) along Hermetic lines.
The most important influence on these Rosicrucians and very real Christian-Hermetic movements which descended from them seems to have been John Dee, the greatest scientist of Elizabethan England, who – like most contemporary scientists – was heavily interested in the occult. Dee’s own take on the occult was most definitely Hermetic, and like Agrippa, Dee has suffered much posthumous indignity. In 1659, a half a century after his death, Dee’s personal records of his summoning of and communication with angels (helped out by his medium friend, Edward Kelley) were published by an unsympathetic source. This resulted in a strong reaction against Dee’s already suspect philosophy, not because it proved that Dee was delusional but because it was evidence that he had been in touch with evil spirits, and was some kind of witch along the lines of Agrippa. It was only much later, when scientists stopped concerning themselves with angels, that Dee came to be mocked as a lunatic. Such was the fate of the most prominent and scientifically-successful mathematician of the 1500s.
I have mentioned that the Rosicrucian movement resulted in actual Hermetic secrets societies. Although few of these early Hermetic societies are well-documented (a result, as Yeats cleverly notes, of their being secret societies), the earliest known Masonic organizations, popping up in mid-17th Century England, are clearly linked to prominent Hermeticists, some of the same Hermeticists who were to found the Royal Society. Today, the Free Masons have retained the Rosicrucian ideal (based on Bruno, Campanella, Dee, and others) of philanthropy, the Hermetic/Cabalist geometric philosophy, the Hermetic Egyptian symbolism, and the non-denominational creed of those enlightened Renaissance men who envisioned a unified world. The various strands of Neopaganism that exist today are so new that they cannot be traced directly to Rosicrucianism, but these religions still owe much more to Hermetic mysticism than they do to any actual ancient religion or society of witches. That relatively few members of these different movements – whether Masonic, Wiccan, or related to the late-19th Century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – are aware of their movement’s history hardly justifies calling the objectively-documented history into question.
It is essential to understand in all this how closely magic, religion, and science were bound together. The Corpus Hermetica is as much astrological/astronomical as it is philosophical, so much so that when Copernicus first reveals his heliocentric theory of the universe, he introduces it with a quote from Hermes Trismegistus. The great scientists of the 16th and 17th Centuries hoped that their work in physics and chemistry would help prepare the world for the long-awaited universal reformation and were very much at the centre of the debate on whether magic was good or bad.
Some of you are probably getting a bit antsy now, wondering when Magic: The Gathering will come into the conversation. Well, be antsy no longer! Think about Rosicrucianism and its aim of establishing a universal magico-religious rule, free from division, ordained from the heavens, focused on the symbol of the illumination of the sun. This, my friends, is the color White. There are exceptions, sure. Historical Hermeticists – as opposed to the White Clerics – were almost always non-sectarian, hateful of the religious wars. But otherwise? A pretty close fit, if I may say so myself.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at a possible folkloric representation of Black.