In this chapter will be shown how some of the esoteric ideas discussed in the first chapter continued and developed from the late Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, to the Age of Reason. In most cases this was through an individual quest for knowledge or enlightenment; in a few cases like-minded individuals sought each other out. 

Some of the reasons for secrecy will be briefly looked at, after the religious and cultural background of late-medieval times has been discussed.

The witch hunt

Cathars were burned, Knights Templar were burned, and the Inquisition was in business. In the late Middle Ages Europe was in turmoil: the Black Death of 1347 to 1350 wiped out up to a third of the population of the entire continent, and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) continued the depredation in France. When there was no 'official' war going on, out-of-work soldiers continued in action anyway, as brigands. Social order fell apart. The Church, in disorder itself and determined to maintain both spiritual and temporal order, came down heavily on anyone suspected of dissent or heresy. Civil authorities, especially local ones, added their support.

It was not a good time for anyone; it was especially not a good time for anyone of independent mind.

Estimates of the number of 'witches' burned throughout' Europe over the centuries vary from several million down to 40,000-50,000. Although historical opinion today favours the lower number, this does not reduce the horror: tens of thousands of almost certainly innocent people, mainly women, were tortured, hanged or burned to death (though some were strangled in an act of mercy before being burned), often on no more 'evidence' than their confessions, or the confessions of others, extracted as often as not under torture. According to the most recent scholarship, however, most 'witches' were simply unpopular people turned in by their unfriendly neighbours.

Europe in the late Middle Ages was a superstitious place, and everyday life for country people was a perpetual struggle;1 an accident or illness, or a stillborn child, or the death of a cow, or the blighting of a crop, was all too often blamed on someone known to harbour a grudge. In some cases, it seems, people confessed to witchcraft because they had wished ill of someone, who then suffered misfortune; a natural (if misplaced) feeling of guilt led to them accepting responsibility.

Most of the early witch-trials were actually for crimes against man rather than against God; but gradually the emphasis changed.

As society grew a little more sophisticated, the basis of morality as taught by the Church moved from the Seven Deadly Sins to the Ten Commandments. 'The effect,' says one historian, 'was to make sins against God - notably idolatry or the worship of false gods - the central offences, whereas the older system had given priority to sins against neighbours and the community.'2 The guardian of morality and orthodoxy was of course the Church, and more specifically the Dominicans; and it was two Dominicans who, around 1486, wrote Malleus Maleficarum, the 'Hammer of the Witches', as a 'do-it-yourself Inquisitors' manual. Today it makes fascinating and horrifying reading. Now it can be seen as effectively a work of fiction, but it rapidly became the standard text on what witches believed and did, and the direct source, via a combination of common folklore and the inquisitors' leading questions during torture, of the lurid detail of witches' confessions.

From the surviving records, it appears that more than three-quarters of those killed as witches throughout Europe as a whole were women. Despite - or perhaps because of - the dissolute behaviour of all too many clerics, the Church disliked and distrusted women. Women enticed men, they led men into temptation and corruption; and yet they held the power and mystery of childbirth, of bringing new life into the world. Even when they had lost their sexual allure they still kept their power; midwives could not be kept under the control of the Church. It is no coincidence that in France, even today, the word for midwife is sage-femme, wise-woman. Whether true or not, it was thought by many that women had a wisdom, a secret knowledge, passed on from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter, from which men were excluded. Men feared women. It was an easy transition in both the Church's and the popular (male) imagination, from the village wise-woman, with her herbal lore, to the witch, with her evil powers.

The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum quite clearly feared women, and so hated them - though historian Robin Briggs insists that this is 'a peculiarly misogynistic text, many of whose assertions are very misleading as a guide to what happened in typical trials.'3 Perhaps so, but all that this shows is that practice did not always follow theory; if common sense sometimes prevailed in trials, it was despite the official rubric of the Church, not because of it.

Jews, Romanies and Muslim travellers existed throughout Europe; but most medieval women and men, including convicted 'witches', were actually Christian, at least nominally; it was the milieu in which they lived, an inseparable part of society, of their very life. They might not have understood much theology, but everyone was Christian; there was really nothing else they could be. It is now considered extremely unlikely that, as historian Margaret Murray claimed in the 1920s and 1930s, country people still maintained the old Pagan beliefs. On the other hand, especially in small villages - and most of Europe was small villages - some small traces of the old beliefs probably lingered on; there was certainly a deep stratum of folk-belief and superstition. The Horned God, whether the Greek Pan or the Romano-Celtic Cernunnos, was almost certainly not believed in as God by anyone, but he was present in one form or another in country folklore as the male personification of nature, the generative force-perhaps, in a way, the popular equivalent of the philosophers' dcemons.

The Devil of the Bible does not have horns and hoofs. The well-known visual image of the Devil is entirely the creation of the medieval Church, taking the ancient folk-belief and turning it into the Christian Devil. By playing on superstition and credulity, the Church created a new weapon against dissidents: Devil-worship. (It will be demonstrated later how this imaginative stroke of the Church is still a powerful weapon today.)

Pan/Cernunnos, in the different mythologies, was a being who exemplified and celebrated the wildness and anarchic joy of life, the fecundity of nature — again, something from which the Church recoiled. In reality there might have been a few Spring dances, and the village youth might have got up to what youth traditionally get up to in the Spring, but the orgiastic sabbats of witches were again almost entirely the imaginative creation of the Church.

By demonizing the petty squabbles of already superstitious country people, the Church ratcheted up the level of persecution.

As Europe changed political, religious, intellectual and social shape over the centuries, so the trials continued, often ending in burning or hanging. So far as the people who were arrested and tortured were concerned, it probably made little difference that the Middle Ages passed into the Renaissance, and that the Renaissance itself then passed on. It made little difference whether the clerics condemning them were Roman Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists; at different times and in different places these were all as vigilant as each other against the wiles of the Devil. The emphasis may have changed from punishing vindictive villagers to rooting out theologically divergent scholars, but the solution was the same.

The Church authorities - whether Dominicans and Jesuits, or Puritan Presbyterians - did not like 'difference'. Maintaining their power over society was difficult enough; toleration of deviant beliefs was not a luxury, it was a threat to stability. They feared the power of the individual. They did everything they could to stamp out personal choice. The burning of uneducated country women and the burning of highly educated heretical priests were two sides of the same coin.

Heresy simply means choice.


At this point, a brief look can be taken at what astrology meant to those who believed in it and practised it for millennia.

Astronomers today dismiss astrology completely, and complain when people carelessly confuse astronomy and astrology. They appear annoyed that astrologers should even dare to trespass on their territory; the stars and planets belong to astronomy, which is a science, not to the hokum which is astrology.

It is necessary to rid ourselves of the present-day association of astrology with newspaper horoscopes, which have nothing to do with the astrology of the ancients, nor with that of the Renaissance philosophers. Like so much else in the esoteric realm, astrology has become meaningless; its content has been forgotten. Of course astrology has always been used for what could be called popular fortune-telling. But rather than foretelling fixed events in the future, serious astrologers would tell rulers the most propitious time for certain actions: a subtle but significant difference.

Astrology is an obvious application of the principle of 'As above, so below': the planets and stars affecting or reflecting our Earthly lives. But this is not a straightforward causal relationship. It is not the case that a planet, as seen from Earth, passing across a particular pattern of stars in the sky, causes anything. It is more the case that in the Cosmos created by God, everything is his handiwork, and everything is therefore linked to everything else.

Without the painstaking work of astrologers over more than two millennia, however, today's astronomers would not have the wealth of information they do have on past eclipses, comets and novas. Until really quite recent times, astronomers were astrologers; the two activities were not separable. As an analogy, a poem is not the same as the words that make it up, but it would not exist without them. The words are units, data to be manipulated; the poet makes patterns out of them, imposes meaning on them, creates metaphor and simile and imagery and symbolism. The astrologer looks at the planets and stars, makes patterns out of them, imposes meaning on them, creates metaphor and simile and imagery and symbolism.

It is not the stars which are important, so much as the pattern put upon them.

Astrology is a mixture of science and art and religion, of mathematics and metaphor and mythology. As anyone who has tried to construct a horoscope knows, the computations are tedious and time-consuming; as anyone who has tried to read a horoscope knows, the interpretation comes not from the lines but from the heart, from an intuitive grasping of the meaning lying within the geometrical figure - mingled, as always, with what the astrologer thinks the client wants to hear.

For the astrologer, it is not the planets or the stars or the constellations, but what they represent that is important. It is the accumulation of centuries of thought and discussion and writing on the gods and heroes - the fundamental archetypes - for which the planets, stars and constellations are simply symbols.

The Church has always had a very uneasy relationship with astrology. If it was used for the greater glory of God, that was acceptable; after all, the Psalmist speaks of 'thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained' (Psalm 8:3); indeed, 'The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork' (Psalm 19:1). In the Middle Ages the Church had many astrologers among its priests and monks; it was by no means unknown for popes to consult them. (The Borgia pope, Alexander VI, had a full zodiac on the ceiling of his apartments in the Vatican.) But if there were any hint of astrology being used for other purposes, the accusation of heresy would not be far behind. Those monks, and others, who studied philosophy and science in order to gain a greater understanding of God and his Creation, often used astrology: they had to tread a very careful path.



Alchemy, 'the Royal Art', has always been a mixture of the scientific and the spiritual. Both the ancient Egyptian alchemists and their Renaissance descendants were actually chemists - and physicists, and astronomers, and mathematicians, physicians, botanists and biologists - all within the terms of their own day. Those who carelessly dismiss them as deluded or fraudulent magicians should remember that they were, in effect, the first scientists. They were the ones to discover that a polished lens of glass could focus the light of the Sun to a hot, burning point, or could magnify what is seen through it. They were the ones who studied physiology, and who worked out, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, how the human body worked, and what the various parts of it were for. They were the ones who studied plants, and learned which were poisonous and which beneficial, and which lethal ones could, in tiny doses, heal.

If they also believed in the influence of the planets, and in the four elements, and in the humours, which cause modern scientists to smile condescendingly, such beliefs did not hold back their quest for scientific knowledge; indeed, there is plenty of evidence to show that they actually stimulated this pursuit of knowledge. If the alchemists used classification systems which today are seen as invalid, at least they were using classification systems - and, within their own terms, these worked.

In short, they studied the world within their current world-view, which is no different from what the great nineteenth-century chemists and physicists did, or what today's scientists do. A difference does exist, however, in that today's rigid professional stratification did not exist in medieval and Renaissance times, except in the craftsmen's guilds. Scientists then were also priests, monks, philosophers, poets, artists.

Two of the greatest teachers of the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Roger Bacon (1214-92) were both monks and scientists. 

Albertus was a Dominican who, despite his magical researches and his lifetime of studying Aristotle, rose to become a bishop. Bacon was a Franciscan, is credited with inventing eye-glasses and the 'scientific method' (i.e. personal observation of phenomena rather than simply accepting the received wisdom of authority), and spent the last fourteen years of his life in a dungeon for his supposed heresies. Depending on the source, both are credited with owning a speaking brazen head; Thomas Aquinas, who studied under Albertus, is said to have smashed the head because it disturbed his studies.

Another important name of the period is that of Ramon Lull (1232-1315), a Spanish philosopher who encountered both the Spanish Cabalists and the mystical Muslims of northern Spain. Lull drew together the teachings of the ninth-century Irish scholar John Scotus Erigena, the concept of the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) and their qualities (dry and cold, cold and moist, hot and dry, and hot and moist), the seven planets and twelve zodiacal signs of astrology, the three spheres (supercelestial, the realm of the angels; celestial, the realm of the stars; and material, the realm of man), the Jewish and Muslim emphasis on the Divine Names (or Attributes) of God, and much more besides, into one complex system known as Lullian Art, the basis of all arts and sciences, of philosophy and religion. He was also a proponent of the Art of Memory, or Theatre of Memory (see pp. 79-80); his Ars Memoria was to be influential in the coming centuries.

Alchemy was regarded with suspicion partly because it involved non-Christian ideas. One of the most influential early alchemists was the Arab mathematician Jabir ibn Hayyan, or Geber (c. 721-c. 815), whose texts were so shrouded in allegorical symbolism that he has bequeathed to us the word 'gibberish'. The symbolism was used to mask the deeper meaning of the texts.

Although the early alchemists were chemists, who laid down many of the foundations of later practical chemistry, alchemy was never just to do with turning base metals into gold; that was always symbolic language for deeper psychological, philosophical and spiritual truths.

In a discussion on the meaning of initiation, the twentieth-century occultist Israel Regardie writes, 'The entire object of all magical and alchemical processes is the purification of the natural man, and by working upon his nature to extract the pure gold of spiritual attainment. This is initiation.'4

It is almost impossible to separate the physical and the spiritual in alchemical texts. Alchemists actually did spend years with their retorts and alembics; on one level the texts were genuine instruction manuals for their chemical experiments. On another, allegorical level, they gave instruction on the purification of the soul. And between these two, the physical and the spiritual, was the psychological level.

Even today's students of alchemy insist that the physical side of the work is important. To take an analogy, scrubbing a floor is a purely physical action; but a novice nun set to scrub a floor may also be learning important lessons of obedience, self-discipline and humility. She might also eventually learn the harder lesson that even scrubbing a floor can be dedicated to God; the physical effort, the repetitive motions, and the increasingly clean floor could even become aids to her contemplation.

Alchemists were searching for the Philosopher's Stone - probably not a stone at all, but a liquid, a tincture - which could turn a base metal into gold. It was the transformation which really mattered, not whatever gold might be created. The Stone was also known as the Elixir of Life, which could cure illnesses, and increase both the quality and the length of life; again, this is intended both physically and spiritually. The important word is transformation.

Descriptions of the alchemical process involve details of temperatures and timings and techniques of sublimation and distillation, with the colours that the chemicals and compounds will turn at each stage: to black, to white, sometimes to yellow, to red. But the instructions were never as clear as 'such an amount of sulphur into a retort and heat slowly to such a temperature.' The processes, and the chemicals, are often described in astrological terms, or in terms of people or animals or birds; the king and queen, and their marriage, the dragon, the androgyne, were all part of the vocabulary of alchemy. Allegorical stories, along the lines of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz, were often beautifully illustrated with woodcuts. There was symbolism within symbolism within symbolism. Winston Churchill's description of the action of Russia at the beginning of the Second World War as 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma', could as easily be applied to an alchemical text.

Alchemy, or the language of alchemy, or the hidden meanings of the language of alchemy, can be found in one way or another in all esoteric systems. Even within Freemasonry, which has never practised alchemy per se, the same sort of language has sometimes been used:

'There are celestial bodies and bodies terrestrial... and as we have borne the image of the earthly we also shall bear the image of the heavenly.' And the celestial body must be built up out of the sublimated properties of the terrestrial one. This is one of the secrets and mysteries of the process of regeneration and self-transmutation, to promote which the Craft was designed. This is the true temple-building that Masonry is concerned with.5


The Hermetic Philosophers

As the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance in the Christian West, the desire for learning, formerly almost entirely the province of monks, spread to the nobility as part of their fifteenth-century ethos of conspicuous display. The Florentine Cosimo de' Medici employed a monk and philosopher, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), to track down interesting manuscripts; one of these was the collection known as the Corpus Hermeticum, which was mentioned in the last chapter. In 1471 it was translated into Latin and published, sparking off a whole new wave of esoteric study.

The Corpus Hermeticum, a fusion of Greek, Egyptian and other Mediterranean thought, was Gnostic and Neo-Platonist in nature; its texts covered religion, philosophy, mysticism, magic, alchemy and astrology.

The so-called Hermetic Philosophers of the next two centuries drew on its teachings and on the Neo-Platonist teachings of Ficino, and expanded on them in different ways. A few of the most significant people, and their influence, will now be looked at briefly.

In 1492, the year that, as we were all taught, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, something of perhaps equal significance in world affairs occurred: Spain and Portugal expelled their Jewish populations. The Jews, with their recently developed mystical teachings, were forced to travel through Europe, settling in Germany and Poland, in Italy and France and (a little) in England. Scholars throughout Europe discovered the Cabala, and found in it an approach to the questions about God and his Creation which attracted them.

One of the foremost of these was the Florentine Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), a pupil and friend of Ficino, who believed that Cabala 'proved' Christianity. He took the techniques of Cabala - the mysticism, the magic, the manipulation of letters, the concentration on the sacred names of God, the power of angels (or daemons) - and created something new: Christian Cabala. Pico and later philosophers were adapting rather than adopting a Jewish system. Pico also wrote of a visionary trance in which the soul, separated from the body, is in communion with God.


Francesco Giorgi (1466-1540) was a Venetian, a Franciscan monk and a Hebrew scholar. Influenced by Pico, he went on to show that the sacred, hidden name of God, the Tetra-grammaton YHWH, could be manipulated into the name Jesus, thus proving that Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah. Giorgi drew together Neo-Platonism, Neo-Pythagorianism, the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, Cabala, angels, planets, harmony and number, and the architectural symbolism of Vitruvius (see p. 83) into a coherent system. His most significant work was De Harmonia Mundi (1525), which was translated into French in 1578, and which was well known to John Dee. If there could be said to be one founder of Hermetic Philosophy, it was Giorgi; yet his name is often forgotten by many of the modern commentaries on the Hermetic Philosophers, eclipsed by names such as Agrippa.

Although Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) wrote a draft of De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres as early as 1510, the work was not published until three years before his death. It was a highly influential encyclopaedia of magic which argued the importance of studying the texts of different religions.

Cornelius Agrippa was frequently condemned for mixing Christianity, Cabalism and Neo-Platonism. It is hardly surprising that he was regarded with suspicion, especially when he once argued - and successfully - that a supposed witch should be spared the fire. He lectured on Hermes Trismegistus, and wrote works on The Nobility of the Female Sex and The Superiority of Women, which again hardly endeared him to the Church, and also On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences, which attacked the worth of current scholarship. His Occult Philosophy argues that magic is a philosophical science, combining physics, mathematics (which included astrology) and theology.

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), was a physician and surgeon. He taught the theory behind homeopathy, pioneered the use of ether as an anaesthetic, and turned medicine into a proper science - again, in terms of his own day. His reforms of medicine were the most important since those of Galen (131-210 CE). A Swiss, he got into trouble for lecturing in German rather than Latin at the University of Basle, and for saying that physicians should throw away outmoded theories - he publicly burned Galen's work - and study 'The Book of Nature', i.e. the reality of God's creation. In his insistence on first-hand experience and experiment he echoed Roger Bacon (see pp. 70, 175).

Paracelsus argued that the effective physician must also be an astrologer, a theologian and a mystic, to understand all the influences on the body and soul. His teaching of harmony with one's true self, and that 'if the spirit suffers, the body suffers also', showed an understanding of what today we call psychosomatic illness. The fact that the medical teachings of Paracelsus were based on alchemical studies does not diminish the genuine effect that he had on medicine, particularly in the use of chemical and mineral cures for illnesses.

John Dee (1527-1608) was a true Renaissance Man: a doctor, astronomer, astrologer, cartographer, mathematician, philosopher, theologian, advisor to Elizabeth I, and probably spy. Enough books have been written on Dee that he needs only brief mention here. His donation of 4,000 of his own books to a new national library was later one of the starting points of the British Museum.

The Dee story is an excellent warning to all who become involved in esoteric studies, not to become obsessed with such a charismatic figure as Edward Kelley, who may well have been a genuine mystic but who was also undoubtedly a genuine charlatan. Under his influence, Dee became sidetracked from his proper studies for several years. Kelley was the medium; he dictated messages to Dee which he claimed to have received from angels, the equivalent of the daemons of Neo-Platonism. In addition to giving him several significant occult texts, in 1583 the angels warned Dee of his impending murder, causing the two of them, with their families, to flee to Prague; Kelley was eventually imprisoned in Prague, where he died while trying to escape in 1595. Dee had returned to England in 1589, but his reputation had been destroyed, and he died in poverty aged 81.

But as historian Dame Frances Yates points out, 'The sensational angel-summoning side of Dee's activities was intimately related to his real success as a mathematician.'6 He was a Christian Cabalist, following in the steps of Cornelius Agrippa and others. As far back as Pythagoras, number had been seen as the basis of all Creation; the Cabalists had borrowed and expanded on Pythagoras's ideas, and now the Hermetic Philosophers were doing the same.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) led a spiritually confusing life. He began as a Dominican monk (he had to flee when it was discovered that he had been hiding certain 'suspect' works by Erasmus in the monastery's privy), he spent some time as a Lutheran and as a Calvinist, and he ended up at odds with any form of orthodox Christianity. It was almost a question of which Church would take its revenge on him first. In fact, Bruno managed to annoy many people: his play II Candelaio was a scathing attack on academic pedantry and hypocrisy.

Bruno's great mistake was that he loved to debate, and saw no bounds on what could be questioned. The Church thought otherwise. He was a daring thinker; he took Copernicus's heliocentric theory - that the Earth orbits the Sun, and not vice versa - and extended it: could it be that all the other stars were suns, each with planets around it? The accepted view was that the Earth was at the centre, circled by the Sun, Moon and planets, which in turn were circled by the stars, and God was beyond the circle of the stars. If the universe was full of faraway suns and planets, where then was God? Bruno argued that God pervaded every part of his creation, and also taught that man could effectively become a God, or at least a demiurge, by his own efforts; this was even more at variance with orthodox belief than was Pelagius's heretical doctrine.

Bruno was perhaps most greatly admired in his lifetime for his skill with the Art of Memory (see p. 79); he was often asked to teach its techniques. In 1591 he was invited to Venice to teach the Art to one Mocenigo - who then turned him over to the authorities with accusations of heresy. Bruno was imprisoned in Venice, then taken to Rome in 1593. After seven years of imprisonment and interrogation by the Inquisition he was burned at the stake in 1600.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was almost certainly neither an alchemist nor an early Rosicrucian nor an ur-Freemason, whatever the confident assertions of some of those of later centuries who wish to claim him for their own. He was a philosopher, and a scientist, and undoubtedly knew other philosopher-scientists of his day, many of whom were deeply engrossed in esoteric studies - but that is all. His significance to later 'historians' of the esoteric lies mainly in an unfinished late work, New Atlantis, an allegorical romance of a mythical Utopian society, published after his death. The society - in the wider sense of a community, not of an organization - is dedicated to the free pursuit of learning and the study of nature.

The book was informed at least as much by Bacon's extensive political experience as by his esoteric learning, but it was taken up as effectively an esoteric 'blueprint' by later secret societies.

A German Freemason, Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, argued in 1782 that the Solomon's House of New Atlantis was the precursor of the Freemasons. Dr Wynn Westcott, a Supreme Magus of the Masonic Order Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, and one of the three founding members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, claimed that Bacon 'became a Rosicrucian Adept', though according to esoteric historian A.E. Waite, 'he has neither evidence nor authority, good or bad, to offer for this statement.'7

Many modern esotericists, whether they know it or not, are strongly influenced by the teachings of the Theosophical Society. According to the leading Theosophist Annie Besant (1847-1933), Bacon was one of the many incarnations of one of the Great White Brotherhood, the 'Brotherhood of Divine Men'; in an earlier life he was Christian Rozenkreuz, and in a later one, the Comte de Saint-Germain. The Church Universal and Triumphant, founded by Elizabeth Clare Prophet in 1974, takes the idea a little further. The Ascended Master Saint-Germain was formerly Francis Bacon, and before that was Christopher Columbus, Roger Bacon, Merlin, the Greek Neo-Platonist Proclus, Saint Alban, Joseph the husband of Mary, the prophet Samuel, and a high priest on Atlantis 13,000 years ago. At the age of twenty, they say, 'Bacon secretly founded the first Rosicrucian Brotherhood, the Rosicrosse Literary Society, and the first Lodge of the Free and Accepted or Speculative Masons.'8

The Los Angeles-based Philosophical Research Society, founded by Manly Palmer Hall (1901-90) and dedicated largely to publishing his 200-plus books, practically claims Bacon as the founder of the USA. It also persistently refers to him as 'Lord Bacon', although more correctly Sir Francis Bacon was Lord Verulam, Viscount of St Albans. A further look will be taken later (p. 96 and p. 194) at the esoteric equivalent of the American Dream.


The Art of Memory

Today we can easily reach for a book to confirm a half-remembered fact; in the past this was not the case. Before the development of the printing press every book had to be hand-copied (which led, incidentally, to many variant texts because of both errors of transcription and scribes' attempts to 'correct' previous errors, real or imagined). In medieval times books were rare and valuable, and even a scholar might be proud of the six or ten he had accumulated during his lifetime. The thousands of books in the sixteenth-century John Dee's library would have been an unattainable dream not so very long before. Thus memory was far more important than it is today, for bards, druids, priests, monks, magicians, scholars - for anyone who had to know and be able to recall instantly a large body of material.

For anyone studying the esoteric arts a good memory was even more important; the slightest slip could spell disaster when preparing alchemical experiments or invoking daemons. Gaining and retaining knowledge, by such means as Ramon Lull's Ars Memoria, was a complex art, almost a form of magic in itself. But like much else in the esoteric world, the term 'magic' is often a synonym for skill, and skill often depended upon mastering certain tricks.

The Art of Memory, Theatre of Memory or Memory Palace was such a means; versions of it are still used today by stage memory-men. One of several variant techniques is to imagine a building, and every room in it: to build a clear and detailed picture of it in the mind. Each room is ascribed a different branch of knowledge, and each part of it - by the door, window, or fireplace, or openly on the table, or hidden in a chest or behind a wall-hanging - is a subset of that branch. When a new piece of knowledge is learned, it is placed as a mnemonic image in the relevant place in the relevant room: a mental filing cabinet. Over time, an entire well-catalogued library is built up, with every individual piece of knowledge filed in its right place, and instantly retrievable.

Visualization is an important part of all esoteric work. It is worth noting that today's Rosicrucians and other schools of occult knowledge such as Builders of the Adytum all claim that through study of their teachings the initiate will improve his or her memory dramatically. The long and complex rituals and lectures in Freemasonry are all performed from memory.