Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 19, Vol. 2. Autumnal Equinox 2010

Myth, History and Mytho-History: An Essay

by J. S. Kupperman

The Western Mysteries, as they are now termed, have a long history of developing creative, and frequently inaccurate, histories. Whether it is regarding Hermes Trismegistus as a contemporary of Moses, the innocents killed in 500 years of witchcraft trials as secret pagans, the druids as monotheistic precursors of Christianity, or the Knights Templar as the source of . . . well, everything, stories about "where we come from" abound among occultists of all stripes. These stories and histories have been, and continue to be, utilized for a variety of means. Here we will explore the interrelationships between pseudo-history, constructed history, legitimizing strategies and mythopoesis.

If the reader has been involved in the Western Mysteries for more than a few hours you have invariably come across someone spouting a history, usually theirs, that in no way corresponds to anything that happened in the real world. Examples of this are almost innumerable, and I will only mention a few.

The Renaissance placement of the mythological figure of Hermes Trismegistus into Biblical times is one common example. The mistake seems to have occurred innocently enough. With the translation of the 2nd or 3rd century Corpus Hermeticum under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici in the 15th century it was widely believed that what the text said was true. That is to say that there was an ancient figure called Hermes Trismegistus in the ancient world. Due to the Corpus's use of Jewish, Christian and pagan sources, and its placement in ancient Egypt, Hermes was given an equally antique time frame. Even after Meric Casaubon, in the 17th century, showed that the Corpus must have been composed after the advent of Christianity, hermeticists continued to trace their lineage to time more ancient than true.

In the 18th century the druidic equivalent to the Masonic Grand Lodge of England was formed. Though several kinds of druidry or druidism already existed one kind was essentially a kind of pagan-form Freemasonry. Even though such groups will eventually lead to more fully Pagan druidic organizations, the members of these were largely Christian. The problem lay in finding a reason for Christian men to call themselves druids. A reinterpretation of history, demonstrating how druidic theology predicted both monotheism and the trinity was the answer.

Rosicrucianism provides a final example. The Rosicrucian Manifesto known as the Fama Fraternitatis, ostensibly written by Johann Andreae in the 17th century, has been used as an historical document by more recent groups claiming a Rosicrucian lineage. That the Fama, and its follow up the Confessio, appear to be as much political and anti-Papal propaganda as much as anything else is perhaps irrelevant. What became important was the idea of a "real" Rosicrucian group dating back to at least the 14th century.

There are others examples, of course. The use of Margaret Murray's thesis by Gerald Gardner, groups claiming, but never demonstrating to be direct continuations of MacGregor Mathers' Golden Dawn or Alpha et Omega, and thanks to Theosophy and its child the New Age, the rise of the Ascended Masters. The list goes on.

What are we to make of all this? Are occultists simply deluded or liars? I'm sure some would simply answer this "yes" and be done with it. Such a facile answer is misleading. Occultists are hardly the only people to invent their histories. Religions certainly have done their fair share of this, but so have governments, political parties, corporations, and even clubs and unions. One thing that is seen here, then, is known as a legitimizing strategy.

Groups, in general, wish to be taken seriously, as being "legitimate," both by its members and those who are not. "Legitimation," may be defined as "a process in which new situations in society are sought, or current ones sustained, through reference to widely shared values and/or qualities."[1] For many, there is a direct connection between "legitimate" and "successful," as well.[2] Though there are numerous strategies in which groups may attempt to legitimize themselves, combining tradition with scholarship, or the appearance thereof, has frequently taken the form of the creation of histories, pseudo-histories and mytho-histories. The appeal to tradition frequently involves a reinterpretation of tradition to legitimize innovation. The rational appeal looks to "common sense" or the authority of science or the Academy.[3]

This method relies on the time-honored belief that "old" = "good." If my religion is older than your religion then my religion is legitimate, the argument might go. If my magical practice can be traced to the ancient magi, then it is legitimate. Though this example can be found readily in modern Pagan religions, in many ways those religions inherited this tradition from ceremonial magic, which in turn inherited it from older forms of esotericism. I imagine this then legitimizes the practice.

Creating, reinterpreting or misrepresenting history is all very well and good, but for added effect the use of research, science or other scholarship can also be employed. This has long been used in Western esotericism. In fact, some of the more important figures in the Western Mysteries have been philosophers, scholars and scientists. Presenting, as Mathers did, some work as translations from Latin or Greek when they are not, using one's academic standing in presenting one's hobbies as research, as in the cases of Margaret Murray and Robert Graves, or even the forgery of academic credentials, ala Doctor Gerald Garder, can all be found here.

Again, one may wonder what the purpose of this pretense is. In some cases, such as the Sprengel forgeries, deception for the sake of legitimation appears to be the primary if not only use of such invention. But appearances are not always what they seem. Forged, or perhaps imagined, histories are part of the accepted history of modern magical practices, religious or otherwise, especially in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. When Gerald Gardner created his back story for Wicca, augmented with Margaret Murray's creative thesis, he came out of multiple traditions that had already done something similar.

But now we are in the 21st century. Making up histories, lying about lineage and radically anachronistic interpretations of the past are harder to cover up. Where they are believed it seems to have more to do with the desire of the deceived, or the influence of radical Postmodernism, than the ability of the creative historian to be convincing. However, once again it is deceptive, or at least disingenuous, to leave the discussion here. Regardless of the intent of the creators of such histories, there is something greater going on: mythopoesis.

These stories, histories and pseudo-histories go beyond legitimizing strategies. As a kind of myth making they are, in fact, beyond any individual. As myths, these origination stories do not need to have components of historical accuracy, though they may engage in both appeals to tradition and reason. But they are more than these things.

Myths of origin can functional as a kind of group "personal myth," an idea developed by Stephen Larson, David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner.[4] Such myths "explain the world, guide personal development, provide social direction, and address spiritual longings."[5] This means that these mytho-histories provide meaning for those who engaged with them. As all myths, they allow the practitioner to both understand the world around them as well as their own place in that mythologized world. In this, they are very similar to traditional religions.

In the world of modern Western esotericism and occultism mytho-histories do not only serve to help the practitioner understand the past but also imagine the future. In organizations such as the Golden Dawn, the initiatory path draws from such myths to define the path of the magician as well as exemplarize the attainment of that path. So in this we see the myth of Christian Rosenkreutz, made clear in the Roseae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis' Adeptus Minor initiation. Here is what you should strive for, we are being told. Some variations of the RR et AC meld this into the story of Christ, his death, descent into hell and his resurrection. The adept is to become a type of Christian Rosenkreutz while Rosenkreutz is himself portrayed as being in imitation of Christ.

Such mytho-histories need not go so far, nor do they need to find their outlet in Christianity; Rosenkreutz could as well be Osiris Onophris,. The point, however, is poignant. These stories, whether we engage in them as such or in ritual or a thousand other ways, function to bring about emotional conviction and, perhaps more importantly, the mental, emotional and spiritual participation of their audience by delineating between the ordinary and extraordinary and invoking the preternatural.[6] Through this method, these stories are capable of propelling their audience from what they are to what they believe they may become.

The work is not an easy one. It is entirely possible for such histories to not achieve mythic status. They can instead continue to mire their participants in pseudo-histories, politicking and a general and purposeful obfuscation of the truth. This requires both internal and external examination on the part of the practitioners, to understand both what the purpose of their stories might have been in their creation and how they may continue to be useful in the future.  Moreover, none of these categories are mutually exclusive and a single story can, and typically does, encompass multiple purposes on multiple levels. Ultimately, however, a story is just a story. Without the participation of its audience it can do nothing at all.

1. James Adams and Thomas Mikelson, "Legitimation," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (NY: Macmillan, 1988), 499.

2. C.f. Rodney Stark, "How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model," in The Future of New Religious Movements, ed. David G. Bromley and Philip E. Hammond (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), 12.

3. James R. Lewis, Legitimating New Religions (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 13-14.

4. Kenneth Rees, "The Tangled Skein: The Role of Myth in Paganism," in Paganism Today, ed. by Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman, (London: Thorsons, 1996), 17.

5. David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner, Personal Mythology: The Psychology of Your Evolving Self, (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1988), 24. C.f. Jeffrey S. Kupperman, "Where the Goddess and God Walk" (PhD diss., University of Liverpool, 2007), 186.

6. Kupperman, Ibid., 102.