Part II: Elements of the Western Magickal Tradition
In this second article on Wicca's roots, I will examine several
religiousand magical practices (Hermeticism, the Qabala, and
the Tarot) included within the Western Magickal Tradition, also
called the Western Mystery,
Occult Tradition, or the Western Way.
All these practices were introduced in
Western Europe during
the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Secret fraternal
organizations like the Masons and Rosicrucians helped
preserve these practices and their occult knowledge through the
centuries. Many of the spells, charms, and elements (calling the
quarters, for example) commonly used by Wiccans originated in
the Western Magickal Tradition.
Francis King, author of Ritual Magic in England, states that this magical
tradition is based on 1) a belief in a system of correspondences operating
in the universe and in the individual human being; 2) a belief that the
properly trained human will is quite literally capable of anything and the
motivating power in all magical operations is the will of the trained
magician; and 3) a belief that other planes of existence (the Astral Light,
for example) and other intelligences outside physical incarnations can be
contacted by the trained magician.
The 13th to the early 17th centuries were a time of political and cultural
upheaval in Western Europe as the Catholic Church slowly lost its almost
complete domination over society's intellectual and cultural life. Old
ideas, long suppressed as heresies punishable by death, began to openly
appear again including those belonging to the Western Magickal Tradition.
The Western Magickal Tradition began to coalesce after the Crusades, as
Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back Gnostic ideas about
how to achieve personal salvation through obtaining knowledge or gnosis,
rather than through belief in "revealed" scriptures. The Knights Templar
were the largest and richest of the secret Christian societies founded by
returning Crusaders, but they were declared heretics and brutally suppressed
by the Roman Catholic Church in the early 14th century. The Western Magickal
Tradition survived, however, because it was eventually tolerated by the
Catholic Church. In one example, the mystical Jewish Qabala was
"Christianized" and confused to a certain extent with the Old Testament.
In the following sections, I will describe how Hermeticism, Tarot, and the
Qabala have contributed to modern Wicca.
Hermeticism - Salvation Through Eternal Wisdom
Hermeticism, based on ancient Greek gnosticism, provided the over all
rationale for practicing Western magic. In Hermetic gnosticism no Saviour
figure such as Jesus is necessary, because each individual must achieve
his/her own salvation by successfully obtaining gnosis.
Hermetic magical philosophy is most clearly seen in alchemy, which can be
viewed as allegory for the turning of incomplete humans (the base metals)
into more divine creatures (the gold) through their acquisition of gnosis.
Hermeticism is also based on the belief that contrary to assertions by the
Church, occult powers are not uniformly malevolent. Instead they may aid the
soul's return back to the godhead by providing knowledge of the protective
spells, words of power, and passwords required for the soul's successful
journey after death.
The major Hermetic ideas are found in the Corpus Hermeticum (originally
forty-two books in length), which was written in Alexandria, Egypt in the
2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. These books were originally attributed to Hermes
Trismegistus, a legendary figure possessing the positive attributes of both
Hermes and Thoth.
In 1460, Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence, obtained a Greek fragment
of the Corpus Hermeticum. His clerical scribe, Marsilio Ficino, translated
this text into Latin, a language understood by the educated elite. This
Latin version and other translations of the surviving texts were of
extraordinary importance, because they included tracts on astrology,
astrological medicine, alchemy, magic and the system of occult sympathies or
correspondences that form the basis of the Western Magical Tradition.
The Emerald Tablet is a separate one-page document summarizing all Hermetic
knowledge. It circulated in the West in the Middle Ages and begins with the
often-repeated statement "That which is above is like that which is below
and that which is below is like that which is above." Many of the rituals
and esoteric symbolism found in neo-Pagan witchcraft today are based upon
Hermetic practices. For example, it was the Hermeticists, not the ancient
Celts, who called the four directional quarters that corresponded with the
Classical elements of air, fire, water, and earth.
The Qabala - Jewish Influence in the Western Tradition
It is not difficult to find a Qabalistic witch, although most Qabalists are
not witches. In A Witches Bible Compleat, Janet and Stewart Farrar describe
the use of a Tarot card layout in the form of Qabalistic Tree of Life and
provide a Qabalistic interpretation. Will Parfitt states that the word
Qabala means "to reveal" in Hebrew. The word Qabala is also spelled as
Cabala, Kabala, and Kabbalah. Most occultists prefer the spelling "Qabala,"
which I will use.
The Qabala's history consists of a `mystical' and a `mundane' history
according to Parfitt. According to its mystical history, Moses received the
Qabala's esoteric teachings along with the Ten Commandments. After Moses
died, a group of learned men secretly preserved the Qabala's teachings down
through the generations.
The Qabala's historical record begins with Jews living in Spain in the 13th
Century. At this time Qabalistic studies, based on Jewish materials dating
from the early centuries in the Common Era, underwent a popular revival. The
Qabala became available to Christian mystics who quickly adopted it; from
the 15th century onwards its use was viewed as an accepted Christian
practice. Two Hebrew Qabalistic books from this period, the Sephir Yetzirah
(Book of Formation) and the Zohar (Book of Splendor) formed the basis of all
subsequent Qabalistic teachings.
Both of these books emphasize that the over-riding purpose of the Qabala is
to reunite the displaced Goddess Shekina with her husband (JHVH) so as to
restore the wholeness of God. Barbara Walker more strongly states that the
Qabala's basic premise is that all the world's ills stem from God's loss of
contact with the Shekina. Human sexual union represents the reunion God and
his Goddess and thus is a "sacramental act" bringing about universal
harmony. The Qabala also emphasizes a balance between thoughts and feelings.
Qabalistic philosophy is schematically represented by a complex diagram
called the "Tree of Life." This diagram is a symbolic representation of a
tree comprised of eleven spheres (although one is usually invisible) or
sephiroh (the singular for sphere is sephirah). Twenty two paths
interconnect the sephiroh. Each sephirah represents the attainment of a type
of divine knowledge. The sephirah Hod, for example, represents thoughts and
is opposite to Netzach, representing feelings.
Eclectic Wiccans who work with traditions outside those originating in
Northwestern Europe can find in the Qabala a highly developed system for
personal spiritual development, honed by hundreds of years of practice.
The Tarot - Cosmic Wisdom from Fortune-telling Cards
For some Witches, the Tarot cards are the most commonly used method of
divination and the one most deeply associated with the Western occult tradition.
Nobody knows, where, how, or why the Tarot cards appeared in Europe in the
late 14th century. Barbara Walker states that "unbound books of picture
cards were long used in the Orient to teach mystical doctrines to people who
couldn't read." The oldest surviving Tarot cards are the Cards of Baldini
attributed by tradition to Andrea Mantegna. The date of the original deck is
about 1470. Tarot cards were banned in various localities between 1378 and
1441 by church authorities, who correctly suspected that they represented a
"heretical" spiritual path. The Tarot cards are also the probable ancestor
of our modern playing cards.
Gypsies probably originated in India and around the 10th century they headed
west; starting in the 15th century they began spreading the Tarot in the
course of their travels through Europe. The Gypsies, who didn't disagree
with falsely being labeled as Egyptians, helped perpetuate a popular theory
that the Tarot was of Egyptian origin. In 1784, Antoine Count de Gebelin, a
French archaeologist, published a book that claimed the Tarot symbols were
derived from ancient Egypt and were a degenerated version of the Book of
In the mid-19th century, the French occultist Eliphas Levi associated the
twenty-two trumps of the Major Arcana with the twenty-two paths on the
Qabalistic Tree of Life. Will Parfitt believes it is highly significant that
there are twenty-two trumps in the Tarot deck which can be related to the
twenty-two connecting paths on the Tree of Life of the Qabala. In contrast,
Francis King suggests that it is nothing but a coincidence.
Personally, I believe that the Tarot is the most popular divination tool
among Wiccans and others. In recent decades, dozens of different Tarot decks
and many different interpretations have become available to suit readers of
many traditions, such as Qabalistic, Christian, Gypsy, Hermetic, and now
Wiccan, to name a few. Every time the cards are spread out, the reader can
choose the most appropriate interpretation among several possibilities.
The Death card, for example, can represent a letting go of the past, new
beginnings, and the birth of new ideas in addition to forecasting a
The Freemasons and Rosicrucians - Secret Occult Societies
The role of secret societies in perpetuating occult knowledge can not be
overestimated. Gnosticism, including Hermeticism, assumes that only a small
elite of advanced individuals are ready to receive the eternal wisdom. This
knowledge must be kept hidden from the ignorant masses, who would either
not understand it, or, worse yet, would use it only for crude, mundane purposes,
such as obtaining personal wealth or to place curses on enemies. Many
occultists also believe that their spells or rituals will lose their power
if revealed to unworthy persons. Therefore, secret fraternal organizations
were formed to guard and perpetuate occult knowledge.
Freemasonry, as Masonry is properly called, began in the 15th century as a
craft guild of practicing stone masons. Over the centuries, Freemasonry has
evolved into a secret fraternal society independent of the craft of stone masonry.
Both Gerald Gardner and his High Priestess Dafo were members of the
Co-Masons, an offshoot of Freemasonry that admitted women, a sharp ontrast
with the much larger English United Grand Lodge of Masons, which strictly
forbids female members. It was probably Gardner who introduced Masonic
elements into Wicca.
These borrowed Masonic elements include the words "craft" and "cowan", and
the phrase "So mote it be." The Farrars believe that the binding of the
postulant (dedicant) at the wrists with a cord during the First Degree
Initiation comes from the corresponding the Masonic initiation, as does the
presentation of a point to the postulant's breast during this ceremony. One
early version of Gardner's Third Degree initiation ritual includes the
phrase "Holy Twin Pillars B & J" apparently referring to the Masonic names
of Boaz and Jachin as applied to twin pillars in Solomon's Temple. The
letters B & J mark the pillars on the High Priestess card of the Rider-Waite
deck, which first appeared in 1910.
Hiramic Legend, the core Masonic legend, tells the story of Hiram who was
King of Tyre, a kingdom neighboring ancient Israel. His master builder was
CHiram Abiff, the Grand Master of the Dionysious Architects, and the most
cunning and skillful workman that ever lived. With Hiram's permission,
CHiram supervised the building of Solomon's temple. CHiram was murdered by
three jealous assistants called Entered Apprentices. His body was eventually
found and and later resurrected by a Master Mason with the "strong grip of a
Lion's Paw." Manly Hall, a Rosicrucian writing in the 1920s, believed that
this Masonic legend is modeled on the Egyptian legend of the death and
resurrection of Osiris.
The Masonic Mysteries intend to teach the initiate how to prepare within his
own soul a miraculous power that can transmute human ignorance, perversion
and discord into an ingot of spiritual and philosophical gold. This
statement of purpose clearly comes from Hermetic alchemy.
Hall believed, despite statements to the contrary, that Masonry is a
religion seeking to unite God and man by elevating its initiates to a higher
level of consciousness, where they can behold the workings of the Great
Architect of the Universe. If Hall is correct, the Masons are a surviving
The Rosicrucian Brotherhood
The Rosicrucians have always been more mystical and esoteric than the
Masons. The historical Rosicrucian Brotherhood first announced its existence
in a series of pamphlets between 1614 and 1616. One work called the General
Reformation of the World contained a tract, the Fama Fraternitatis, that
described a German nobleman Christian Rosenkreuz (translated from German as
Rosy Cross or Rosycross) who founded the Rosicrucians in the 1390s.
According to it, Rosenkreuz had traveled in Arabia and studied in Egypt when
he was a young man. After returning to Germany he formulated the wisdom he
had acquired during his travels into a system to save mankind. In A History
of Secret Societies, Daraul Arkon has concluded that no independent
documentation shows that the Rosicrucian Order is of 14th century antiquity.
The Rosicrucians claimed that they felt neither hunger or thirst, could
attract precious stones and jewels to their persons, command spirits, and
make themselves invisible.
A connection between Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry was made as early as
1638, King writes. In the mid 18th century, an allegedly Rosicrucian Masonic
rite was practiced by Scottish Jacobite exiles. This rite is the probable
ancestor of the contemporary Masonic degree known as the Rose-Croix of Heredom.
Rosicrucian Manly Hall believed in the probable existence of two distinct
Rosicrucian bodies: an inner organization (Rosenkreuz's original society)
and an outer, more public body operating under the supervision of the inner
group. He theorized that the Rosicrucians may have created the Masons and
then disappeared into them, or possibly may still exist as an independent
In the late 19th century, three of the four founding members of the
influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were also members of the
Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. It was at the First Rosicrucian Theatre in
Christ Church, England, which opened in 1938, where Gerald Gardner first
contacted members of the New Forest coven. The traditional Gardnerian coven
is patterned after the Masons and Rosicrucians in such matters as revealing
group secrets only to initiates.
One benefit of being aware that Wiccan practices are part of the Western
Magickal Tradition is that you can delve more deeply into these practices to
develop an authentic personal magical practice based on a tradition hundreds
of years old.
The development of Wicca during the last fifty years represents another step
in the evolution of the Western Magickal Tradition. Wicca is a fusion of
Gardner's ideas about pre-Christian European Witchcraft with Masonic and
other ritual elements borrowed from the Western tradition.