ALASTAIR McGAWN LEES
Shepperton, Middlesex, U.K.: Lewis Masonic, 2019; 224 pp., casebound, $43.95.
A more commercially minded publisher would have titled this Final Secret of the Illuminati.
Whether that’s accurate or not, this book gives us a deep look into the European occult revival of the late nineteenth century and some of its key figures—practically all of whom were connected to the Theosophical Society.
The story starts in 1776, when Adam Weishaupt, a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, started a quasi-Masonic secret society called the Illuminati. The society’s goal, among others, was to promote liberal ideals in an age when monarchy and ecclesiastical dominance were crumbling rapidly.
These aims did not suit the Elector of Bavaria, who had the organization shut down only a decade later, in 1786. But he failed to extinguish rumors about the Illuminati, and in the subsequent decades, authors such as the Abbé Barruel and John Robison blamed them for the French Revolution and related social unrest. Twentieth-century conspiracy theorists asserted that the Illuminati were a secret elite bent on world domination. (You can draw your own conclusions about these claims.)
In 1880, a German esotericist named Theodor Reuss tried to revive Weishaupt’s Illuminati. He succeeded for a couple of decades. In 1900, he even managed to interest William Wynn Westcott, an English physician, Mason, and Theosophist (best known as cofounder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), into creating an English branch.
This volume centers on the rituals for the English Illuminati, which Westcott had translated and adapted from Reuss’s rituals. These papers had been buried unknown for decades in the archives of the British Masonic organization Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, but were accidentally discovered by author Alistair Lees. In this volume, Lees publishes the papers, along with a fascinating array of other material about the ins and outs of the Masonic organizations, lodges, and degrees that proliferated at the time.
In the end, nothing came of the English Illuminati project. In a 1902 letter to Reuss, Westcott wrote, “The Illuminati system as a whole may suit your country, but I could not work it here.” Lees explains: “England did not traditionally have such a rich tapestry of haut-grade or high grade orders and rites such as Europe had enjoyed for the previous three hundred years.”
This, at any rate, is a bare-bones account of the panoply of figures, degrees, organizations, charters, and paraphernalia that appear in this book. It is ideally not for beginners but for those who already have some basic idea of these figures and their milieu. Readers interested in Masonic history will find it most valuable.
For others, one of the most useful sections is Reuss’s history of the Illuminati, which he portrays not as “a new creation of this man [Weishaupt] but rather as an institution which we can trace back to the oldest time.” He cites connections ranging from Moses and the ancient Mysteries to the Spanish Alombrados and the Rosicrucians of the early modern era.
Another useful part is a series of short biographies of the leading figures in the book, including Westcott, Reuss, the English Mason John Yarker, and Gérard Encausse (Papus), founder of the Martinist Order in France.
The book has its drawbacks. There are many typos and glitches in editing, and it is often frustrating to have Lees jump back and forth between the story of his own discoveries and the historical narration. But it is richly illustrated and gives the reader an idea of the visual aspect of these lodges—their documents, paraphernalia, and diagrams, many of them elaborate.
Many of the rituals and documents are reproduced, but they do not reveal a great deal of esoteric knowledge to the reader. There are small items here and there. The ceremonial of initiation to the Rose-Croix Grade, for example, tells us that the word INRI has several meanings: its familiar one (an acronym of Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”); a more esoteric, alchemical one (Igne Natura Renovatur Integra: “By fire is nature restored to wholeness”); and a yet more esoteric one, “the climax of all occult sciences according to the poem of Hermes”: Ioithi, Nain, Rasith, and Ioithi, referring respectively to the “active creative principle . . . the passive principle . . . a combination of the two principles, and the constant eternal transformation of all created things,” and “again the creative, godly principle as a symbol of the eternal circle of the world and all things created.” This resembles the exposition of the Tetragrammaton YHWH in Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians.
The book does not answer the chief question it is likely to raise: what were all these men on about? Why did they chase back and forth across Europe, exchanging degrees and initiations (many of which they had invented themselves) like boys swapping Pokémon cards? The interchanges are so intricate that Lees had to create two detailed diagrams just to show the flow of orders in 1901 and 1902.
The answer—that they were simply charlatans—does not hold up. They did not profit from these degrees, and most of them had prominent and successful careers outside the initiatic world.
Nevertheless, I think the answer is partly sociological. No one today can imagine the hold that titles of nobility held over nineteenth-century Europe. I suspect that one motivation for this panoply of quasi-Masonic titles and degrees was to create a kind of alternative aristocracy, because the conventional aristocracy was nearly impossible to enter.
In addition, the Western esoteric traditions, after centuries of repression, were beginning to shake themselves and move into the present. Because Masonry was no doubt the key inspiration for this awakening, many of the newly proliferating forms used Masonic terms and titles.
Today there seems to be a revival of interest in fraternal orders, especially Masonry, among those with serious esoteric interests. This is no doubt to be welcomed. Lees’ book illustrates how those esoteric lodges functioned in the past—as well as mistakes that lodges of the present can avoid.