The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order

The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order

By Christopher Mcintosh
3d ed. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1997. Hardback; paperback,  xxiv + 162 pages.

Writing about the history of a secret, shadowy society such as the Rosicrucians is a perilous business at best. Even when people who claim to be members do speak out and secrets are seemingly unveiled, it is difficult to know who or what to believe. The paranoiac historian may begin to wonder whether anything is the way it appears. When one adds to the movement's hiddenness the extraordinarily opaque nature of some of the texts involved and the rivalries, claims, and counter-claims of present-day Rosicrucian groups, the task becomes daunting indeed. Nevertheless, Christopher Mclntosh, also the author of several other books on the history of the occult in the West, has produced a clear, readable, and quite plausible account of the Rosicrucians from the seventeenth century until the present day.

The author begins by tracing back the roots of the movement to ancient times. In so doing, he, like many other scholars, tends to lump together Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Although there is some justification for this in the early Hermetic texts themselves, by the time Hermeticism emerges in the Middle Ages, it is very different from Gnosticism. While Gnosticism sees the world as a trap from which the human soul must seek to escape, Hermeticism finds in that material world the clues for spiritual transformation. Hence, alchemy is taken up, not just to turn lead into gold, but to find in chemical processes the key to spiritual enlightenment. Although the route of transmission is not entirely dear, this sort of spirituality bears much closer resemblance to the internal alchemy of Taoists such as Chang Po-Tuan and the Complete Reality School than to ancient Gnostics.

It might also be noted that more attention could have been paid to late Medieval religious (and sometimes secret) societies and guilds as a fountainhead for Renaissance occultism. Certainly alchemical thought had been in Europe since the introduction of Geber's writings in the thirteenth century and had been developed in certain mining and metallurgical guilds. It is less plausible that the Rhineland mystics like Eckhardt, Suso, and Tauler had much to do with the development of the occult, for theirs was an entirely different sort of mysticism.

Despite Ron Heisler's arguments, Mclntosh's view that Rosicrucianism began in Germany with Jacob Andreae and the Tubingen circle seems plausible enough. His analysis, however, could have been strengthened by a fuller description of the "founding" documents--the Fama, Confessio, and The Chymical Wedding. Although it is clear that the last is too complicated for a full exposition in a book of this sort, this reader would have liked a more complete discussion of the earlier and shorter works.

After exploring the German roots of the Rosy Cross, Mclntosh examines its various incarnations in Germany, France, Austria, England, and finally in America. Whether all the various groups that claim the name "Rosicrucian" have any direct link to the original movement is an open question. One may suspect that often the link is confined to the name only. Nevertheless, it is fruitful to see how this name has played out in the history of the West, spawning one occult organization after another. It is also fascinating to sec the influence of the Rosicrucians upon such literary figures as Goethe, Bulwer-Lytton, and Yeats. Now that The Chymical Wedding is available in modern translation, one may guess that the literary influence of the movement will continue.

For anyone interested in the history of Rosicrucianism, this is an excellent book. Do not look to find any spiritual secrets in it. It is a reasonable, unbiased historical account, not a source of deep wisdom about ultimate reality. The full bibliography, however, provides a wonderful means for exploring further into the realms of the esoteric and occult.


May/June 2000