What is esotericism? Let us forego encyclopedic denotations and delve into more accessible material to answer the question. John Cowper Powys states in his book The Philosophy of Solitude:
“We have only to try the experiment of assuming for a moment that the astronomical world is all there is, to be aware of a rooted conviction in our deeper mind that there are levels of life totally beyond all this. Even as we grasp this world with our senses, or with our reason quickened by science, we feel ourselves to be in touch with something inward as opposed to all this outward, something that transcends, and is quite different from this space-and-time world.
This inner, secret knowledge belongs to our ego, our inner self; and we are thus led to the conclusion that, though so fatally involved, it is this very consciousness that endows the astronomical world with intelligible unity, just because it— the mind or some portion of the mind— remains outside, and independent of the whole spectacle.”
Of this “outside” it can know no more than that it exists, because all the powers of contemplation which the self possesses are drawn from the senses and depend upon the senses. Nevertheless some level of existence outside this material world it is forced to assume; not as a mere theory among other theories, but as a constant assumption, made by necessity, and supplying all our experience with an inalienable background.”
This “inner, secret knowledge” is in essence the whole idea of esotericism. And while Powys does not suggest in the foregoing any capability of knowing the beyond except as a necessary inference – limited by the biological range of our bodily sensations and perceptions – the wider context of the excerpts say otherwise. Starting from a couple pages before, we find this:
“Our inmost self is indeed so involved with the body that its chief activity seems to be the unifying and focussing of the senses; and yet there come moments when this central power within us seems to withdraw into some mysterious and remote levels of its own being and we feel as if we approached the verge of strange and startling possibilities.
…This nucleus, as we grow aware of it, seems connected with the body but at the same time seems to be something different from the body. Linked inseparably with the senses and using the senses, we yet experience an obscure but definite feeling that our consciousness is in touch with levels of reality beyond the visible world.”
This possibility of approaching “the verge of strange and startling possibilities” is asserted by the Russian journalist and esotericist P.D. Ouspensky in his wonderful book A New Model of the Universe. In the first essay, Esotericism and Modern Thought, he has this to say:
“THE idea of a knowledge which surpasses all ordinary human knowledge, and is inaccessible to ordinary people, but which exists somewhere and belongs to somebody, permeates the whole history of the thought of mankind from the most remote periods. And according to certain memorials of the past, a knowledge quite different from ours formed the essence and content of human thought at those times when, according to other opinions, man differed very little, or did not differ at all, from animals.
” Hidden knowledge ” is therefore sometimes called “ancient knowledge”. But of course this does not explain anything. It must, however, be noted that all religions, all myths, all beliefs, all popular heroic legends of all peoples and all countries are based on the recognition of the existence sometime and somewhere of a knowledge far superior to the knowledge which we possess or can possess. And to a considerable degree the content of all religions and myths consists of symbolic forms which represent attempts to transmit the idea of this hidden knowledge.
Many tales and myths, those of the Golden Fleece, the Fire-Bird of Russian folklore, Aladdin’s lamp, and those about secret riches and treasures guarded by dragons or other monsters, serve to express the relation of man to hidden knowledge. The “philosopher’s stone” of alchemists also symbolized hidden knowledge. The idea of hidden knowledge and the possibility of finding it after a long and arduous search is the content of the legend of the Holy Grail.
All views on life are divided into two categories on this point. There are conceptions of the world which are entirely based on the idea that we live in a house in which there is some secret, some buried treasure, some hidden store of precious things, which somebody at some time may find and which occasionally has in fact been found. And then from this point of view, the whole aim and the whole meaning of life consists in the search for this treasure, because without it all the rest has no value. And there are other theories and systems in which there is no idea of a “treasure-trove”, for which all alike is visible and clear, or all alike invisible and obscure.
If in our time theories of the latter kind, that is, those which deny the possibility of hidden knowledge, have become predominant, we must not forget that they have become so only very recently and only among a small, although a very noisy, part of humanity. The very great majority of people still believe in “fairy-tales” and believe that there are moments when fairy-tales become reality.”
In this passage we find a common characteristic of esotericism: The notion of fabulous legends, fairy-tales, and myths serving as a means of communicating esoteric content. Later on, Ouspensky points out:
“Such a summary of the aspirations of humanity to penetrate into the realm of the incomprehensible and the mysterious is especially interesting at the present time, when the psychological study of man has recognised the reality of states of consciousness which were long considered pathological, and has admitted their cognitive value, that is to say, the fact that in these states of consciousness man is able to know what he cannot know in ordinary states. But this study has come to a standstill and has gone no further.
An examination of what is known of mysticism and mystical states of consciousness is of great interest in connection with the idea of hidden knowledge…In relation to the idea of hidden knowledge mysticism can be regarded as a breaking through of hidden knowledge into our consciousness.”
Taking this in light of what Powys has intimated, we have a working idea of what this knowledge pertains to, and is like. But these ideas, while certainly a preoccupation of esotericists and occultists – Ouspensky, Atwood, Levi, and Evola being notable examples – are also given expression in popular parlance. George RR Martin, well-known author of A Song of Ice and Fire and its cinematic adaption A Game of Thrones, has this to say in his essay On Fantasy:
“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.”
Here we see a connection between fantasy and dreams, even the idea that there is something “old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us…”. At this point, we can easily appreciate, by way of our own experience, the profound depths of vision and power momentarily illustrated through dreaming; we have all had dreams that stirred our innermost desires and fears, and left us with traces of their force. The often irrational character of dreams lends credence to the idea of myth having some connection; first in that they are fantastical, but also in some sense inexplicable and apparently illogical. Indeed, the esotericist Evola makes this point in his The Mystery of the Grail, by quoting the Roman emperor Julian:
“When myths on sacred subjects are incongruous in thought, by that very fact they cry aloud, as it were, and summon us not to believe them literally, but to study and track down their hidden meaning.”
Evola even connects this to an alchemical passage, which literature is known to contain an abundance of mythological references:
“Where I have spoken more clearly and openly about our science, there I have spoken obscurely and mysteriously.”
At this point, we ought to come to terms with a very popular form of this line of thinking: Carl Jung and his school of psychology. To be sure, his influence is considerable. However, it would be a mistake to assume he represents the only esoteric approach on the matter of the significance of dream and myth. For Evola, the practical aspect of all of this does point to an alteration in consciousness, but not in the sense of a merely biological unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is the common obstacle, and for Evola points to a merely biological mechanism. He sees super-consciousness as the emphasis, and a transcendent reality as the reference point.
That being said, a more careful study of the terms and application in the psychological, Jungian sense may reveal a more nuanced view, and even reconcile some points of disagreement. Still, Evola is not the only one who sees something different than Jung; Kenneth Rexroth shows as much in his essay on Thomas Vaughan, for example. Moreover, there are apparent or actual differences – minute to major – among the notable esotericists – such as Julius Evola, PD Ouspensky, Aleister Crowley, or Mary Anne Atwood. The attempt to consolidate the minutiae of such a diverse range of material into a one-size-fits-all theme invites an appropriate criticism. And yet, that there is a fundamental idea at base is the very point of this essay.
Now, the idea and belief of there being moments when fairy-tales become reality is wonderful, but is there any veracity to the claim? One possible example is found in a quite literal fairy story of Irish lore involving the legendary king Cormac and his voyage into the Land of Promise, or Promised Land.
Dating as far back as the fourteenth century in terms of recorded history (the story itself may have earlier unwritten origins), there are apparent variations in the way the story unfolds. What follows is an abbreviated form mostly derived from the The Free Digital Humanities Resource for Irish History, Literature and Politics:
King Cormac was alone at dawn atop the wall of the royal hill of Tara in Ireland when he saw a mysterious, grey-haired warrior approaching, carrying with him a silver branch with nine golden apples. This fairy branch, when shaken, would produce a wondrous enchanting music as was never heard before, and could dispel distress, pain, and even lull the listener into sleep.
When Cormac asked where the stranger was from, the stranger replied:
‘From a land, where there is nothing but truth, and there is neither age nor decay nor gloom nor sadness nor envy nor jealousy nor hatred nor haughtiness.’
Cormac and the warrior made an alliance, and the fairy branch was given in exchange for three favors, to which Cormac agreed without knowing what the mysterious warrior would ask for. The warrior then disappeared, but to where Cormac could not tell.
Eventually, the mysterious stranger returned, and said he wanted to take Cormac’s daughter. To the distress of his court, Cormac granted his guest’s wish. The women of the court bewailed and cried, but Cormac shook the fairy branch to assuage those mourning from her removal.
A month later, the stranger returned, but this time he wanted Cormac’s son. Again, Cormac granted his guest’s favor, and again the people of Tara lamented. But Cormac shook the branch at them, and they parted from their sorrow.
Finally, the warrior appeared and asked for Cormac’s wife. Although Cormac acquiesced, he decided to follow them. As he went, his retinue tried to attend him, but a great mist was brought between them, and Cormac somehow found himself alone on a great plain.
He then saw a large fortress, with a wall of bronze around it, and in the fortress was a house half-thatched with white feathers. A fairy-host mounted on horse with white feathers attended the thatching, but the wind would again and again blow their work away.
Then he found another fortress, vast and royal, with another wall of bronze around it. Inside the fort there was a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it, and the hosts in turn drinking of its water. The sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men sing, and nine hazels grew over the well, dropping nuts into the fountain, with five salmon in the fountain severing and sending their husks floating down the streams.
Cormac then went into the palace of this fortress. Therein he met a couple awaiting him – a handsome warrior and an unblemished, golden haired woman – who attended him as a guest. At noon, the chef walked in with an axe, a log, and a pig. He prepared the pig for lunch, cleaved the log into six for the cauldron, and puts the pig in the cauldron to cook. But in order to cook the pig, the chef said, a true story must be told for each quarter of the pig.
The first story was told by the chef, on how he got the pig, the axe, and the log for finding and returning a man’s cattle. Incredibly, there is always enough wood to heat the cauldron, always enough pork to feed the palace, and the pig is alive the morning after.
The second story was told by the warrior, who said that one day when it was time to sow wheat, they desired to plow the soil but found it already plowed, harrowed, and sown; when they desired to reap they found it already stacked in the field; when they desired to collect it was already in the garth; and they have been eating it ever since without it increasing or diminishing.
The third story is by the golden-haired woman, who says she has seven cows and seven sheep. The milk from the cows is enough for the entire people of the Land of Promise, and the wool is enough to provide for everyone’s attire.
The fourth story is told by Cormac, who tells how his wife, son and daughter had been taken from him, and how he had inexplicably found himself in this place and at this palace in pursuit of them.
At last the pig was fully cooked. The chef carved and served it, but Cormac would not eat it, saying he does not eat without fifty of his kinsmen in his company. The warrior then sang a refrain, and Cormac fell asleep. When he awoke, fifty kinsmen, as well as his son, daughter, and wife were all attending. With joy and feasting, the warrior gave Cormac a golden cup, wonderful in form and strange in its workmanship. The warrior told three lies in its midst. The cup shattered, but the warrior continued:
“…Let three true declarations be under it, and it will be again as it was before. I make my declaration, O Cormac, that until today neither your wife nor your daughter has seen the face of a man since they were taken from thee out of Tara, and that your son has not seen a woman’s face.’
The cup thereby became whole. Finally, the warrior spoke:
‘Take your family then, and take the Cup that you may have it for discerning between truth and falsehood. And you shall have the Branch for music and delight. And on the day that you die they all will be taken away. I am Manannan son of Ler, king of the Land of Promise; and to see the Land of Promise was the reason I brought you here. The host of horsemen you beheld thatching the house are the men of art in Ireland, collecting cattle and wealth which passes away into nothing. The fountain which you saw, with the five streams out of it, is the Fountain of Knowledge, and the streams are the five senses through the which knowledge is obtained. And no one will have knowledge who does not drink a draught out of the fountain itself and out of the streams. The folk of many arts are those who drink of them both.’
Here we see an explanation in the story of some of the wonders described in it. The first is moral and instructive in nature, but the last conveys a knowledge which derives not only from the “five senses”, but also by drinking from the fountain itself. What this indicates is a question of the senses and their source in connection to knowledge. If we take the senses as being a registration of the properties of an object, in that an object may smell, feel, taste, look, and sound a certain way, we yet have the object as it is independent of these; after all, there are ranges beyond human sensation which may be perceived by an organism of differing physiology. Just as an object which can be seen is unavailable to the blind, a reality beyond the senses is possible even to those with all of their senses intact.
Alternatively, the relation of the streams with their source may be taken in a microcosmic sense; that is, as an expression not of objects from without, but of the object of the body and the relation of it to the mind; after all, an idiot may not understand what is merely sensed, though their senses are in no way impaired. But what is it to drink of both the fountain and the streams? Is it simply to understand as well as perceive gross physical objects? Or does it point to a kind of knowledge that precedes the streams of the senses, and the mortal world to which we are ordinarily acquainted? The myth of Cormac into the Promises Land involves an immortal, fabulous world mysteriously related to the physical world. Does this itself substantiate the interpretation of a peculiar subtle knowledge independent of, yet in some way related to gross physical perception?
The philosopher Schopenhauer makes a case for this inner kind of knowledge in his World as Will and Representation:
…a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken by attack from without. Precisely as such the thing-in-itself can come into consciousness only quite directly, namely by it itself being conscious of itself; to try to know it objectively is to desire something contradictory. Everything objective is representation, consequently appearance, in fact mere phenomenon of the brain.
This inner-reality and its relation to appearance is, as we have seen, the very heart of esotericism. It is the substance and quality of its content, and characterizes the kind of knowledge sought for. This inner-reality is taken into consideration microcosmically and macrocosmically; that is, every object has an inner and an outer, including ourselves. The idea is that there is some identity between the two, and that the knowledge of the inner reality of the things without is somehow wound up with the inner reality within, and it is the finding of that mystery in our own inner life that unfolds its reality in the things surrounding us.
Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan.
Pictures of John Cowper Powys
Divine Gloom, Oleg Korolev
Parzifal by Martin Weigand
Picture of Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky
Picture of George RR Martin
Depiction of the Silver Bough, artist unknown
King Cormac with the Silver Bough, James Alexander
Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan (again)
Philosophy of Solitude, JC Powys
A New Model of the Universe, PD Ouspensky
On Fantasy, George RR Martin
The Mystery of the Grail, Julius Evola
King Cormac into the Land of Promise, The Free Digital Humanities Resource for Irish history, literature and politics
The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer