The Apocalypticism of Joachim of Fiore and the Western Mystery Tradition
by William A. Behun, Ph.D.
1. The manifold meanings of Apocalypse
Apocalypticism is a more than slightly problematic term. Reflecting, as it does, all at once a textual tradition, a theological orientation, and an historical mindset, it behooves us to be clear in regards to which sense we deploy at any moment, and to give due credit to the fact that these senses and perhaps others are always inexorably intertwined. Apocalypticism has always held a certain appeal for students of the Western Mystery Tradition, and we can see in the work of Johannes Dee the importance that Revelation and its description of the heavenly court held for his own magical speculations.
There are, I think, good reasons that esotericists of various stripes should be drawn moth-like to the flame of apocalyptic literature. First, there is the literary form peculiar to apocalyptic literature that appeals to our sense of the mysterious and secret; the often rambling and prophetic discourse that makes up apocalyptic literature’s attempt to express in words the astounding visions that besiege the mind of the visionary parallels our own struggles to articulate our own experiences of the occult world. Second, that these writers make, explicitly or implicitly, the claim to have access to a privileged experience of the spiritual realm may lead us to suspect that they are part of that fraternity of practice to which we ourselves as practitioners aspire. Lastly, these texts can offer a model for esoteric practice within the very structure of the revelation.
The reception and understanding of apocalyptic texts has varied wildly, though three primary forms of interpretation have come to dominate our understanding of the apocalyptic textual tradition. On one hand, there is the "prophetic" or "futurist" form, in which these texts can be interpreted as prophecies of events yet to come, predictions of future events that will unfold on the stage of world history. It is this understanding of apocalypticism that is most common amongst those who have currently been captivated by the richness of the revelatory tapestry. On the other hand, there are historical interpretations that seek to identify the events and symbols within the revelation with particular historical events. In the “preterist” mode, the historical events at stake are those up to the first century, including the destruction of the temple. Interpreted in this way, these texts can be seen as symbolic representations of past events given allegorical life in order either to protect the author from still powerful authorities that would seek to silence her, or to secure the text within a particular tradition or school of thought. On the third hand, as it were, these texts can be interpreted as symbolic narratives which reveal particular practices, liturgical or ecclesiological structures, symbol sets, or theological secrets within their often labyrinthine mythological structures. This last I refer to as the “praxical” mode of interpretation, having as it does an extra-historical focus that can be made an object of actual practice.
Most speculation regarding the apocalyptic tradition has focused on the well-known Apocalypse of John, or Book of Revelation, which is the most extended treatment of the apocalyptic worldview within the Christian canon. While it is certainly not unique as a text, it does stand as a sort of paradigmatic representation of a much broader tradition that has its roots in Jewish textual, political, and ecclesiological practice. It therefore makes sense that this text, among all others, should be singled out for analysis, interpretation, and exploitation.
In this paper, we hope to give an account of one interpreter of this paradigmatic text, specifically Joachim of Fiore (Gioacchino da Fiore), who stands as one of the most important prophetic voices of the Christian tradition in his own right. Our goal is to both introduce Joachim’s work and also suggest ways in which his hermeneutic and historical contributions to apocalyptic literature might be of particular use to practitioners within the Western Mystery Tradition.
The term "Apocalypse" is most normally used today to designate some sort of global cataclysm or crisis. This is, in fact, a decisively modern usage which bears little relationship to apocalypticism understood either as a textual tradition or as a worldview. That these texts often included visions or images of great battles and universe-ending catastrophes clearly accounts for this usage but in its more originary sense, apocalypticism refers to something decidedly different.
The Greek term apocalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις), which is used to designate the biblical Book of Revelation, means simply "uncovering" or "disclosure". The general sense is of bringing something that has been heretofore hidden to light, although the prophetic sense of a revelation of things which cannot be known through ordinary human reason seems to apply decisively to John's text as well. Depending on which exegetical technique we choose to apply to any particular apocalyptic text, the meaning of the revelation that it contains will vary. If we see the text as primarily historical, what is laid bare is the universal structure that underlines the mere progression of world historical events. Conversely, if we see the text as primarily prophetic, it reveals things that are to come which are not normally accessible to us as temporally limited beings. Lastly, if the text is primarily seen as praxical, what it reveals are the secret and deep things by which we will come to have a more profound understanding of the occult world.
One of the great ironies of apocalyptic literature is that often it is couched in terms so confusing and enigmatic that the idea that they should reveal anything at all seems strained at best. In fact, these texts often seem to be calculated more to obfuscate and conceal than to reveal. The richness of the symbolism within Revelation is a case in point; the author draws us a picture that includes lampstands, sealed books, slain lambs, emerald rainbows, bowls of wrath, and robes washed in blood. This is not to mention the beast with seven heads and ten horns, the woman crowned in the sun, or the rider on the white horse with the peculiar tattoo. If the purpose of apocalyptic literature is to reveal, why does the language seems so deliberately confounding?
The most obvious answer is that these revelations seek to put down in words and sentences something which by its very nature evades representation. What is revealed is an interior experience of the world which does not easily lend itself to straightforward representation either pictorially or linguistically. Practitioners of arts such as scrying and traveling in spirit vision know full well the difficulty of communicating experiences which come from the inner planes. At worst, our attempts are clumsy and insufficient; at best, they can rise to the level of the greatest poetry. The apocalyptic literature which has become part of our tradition tends toward the latter, as it was particularly these rich, descriptive, allegorical visions the tradition seeks to preserve and pass on.
If we are true to the Greek usage of the word, "apocalypse" has a meaning not entirely unlike another important Greek term, aletheia (ἀλήθεια). This word for "truth" has an unusual structure, in that it seems to be formed by negation, a negation of covering over, hiding, or forgetting. This is an important idea for the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work is often considered to have a strong mystical dimension. Truth, for Heidegger, is the coming to pass of the unfolding into presence of a thing as what it is, an unfolding that can never be reduced simply to quantitative or calculative analysis of the phenomenon. In this regard, then, we can see a certain overlap between the sense given aletheia by Heidegger and the sense which apocalypse might have for an initiatic mystery tradition.
2. The History and Import of Apocalypse
What is perhaps more important, though, is the esoteric sense that the term can have in initiatory practice, especially if we are looking from, for example, a Gnostic perspective. It very nearly goes without saying that the sense that apocalypse and apocalyptic literature will have for such a worldview is going to be markedly different from that of even an educated layperson outside of the initiatic chain. If we understand Gnosticism primarily not as a particular set of theological views characterized primarily by the belief that matter and the material world are essentially evil (as it is commonly understood) but as an initiatic school characterized by the quest for transcendence and direct knowledge of the divine, apocalypticism is the most obvious form of expression for such insights into the sacred. The understanding of divinity which deserves the term "gnosis" is precisely the kind of knowledge that forms the content of apocalyptic revelations, and both textual traditions are similarly characterized by cryptic and allegorical narratives, and idiosyncratic and often unstable symbol sets.
It should come as no surprise that included in the Nag Hammadi library, discovered near Chenoboskion in 1945, are no fewer than three separate apocalypses: the Apocalypse of Adam, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Apocalypse of Paul. Many of the other texts in the library have the quality of revelation texts even if they lack the specific titles of apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature seems to grow organically out of the sort of mystical speculations that we believe characterized the early Gnostic sects and which also characterized later, especially medieval, Christian mysticism.
Messianic and apocalyptic schools and texts seem to have been relatively common within Judaism. The visions from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all form part of the apocalyptic tradition within Hebrew Scripture. The very figure of the Messiah and predictions regarding his advent seem to lend themselves to a certain apocalyptic bent within Judaism, and it is within this context that Christian, including both mainstream and Gnostic varieties, apocalypticism emerges. Revelations purportedly of, or from, Christ and pointing to his imminent return are common throughout Christian history. Predictions regarding the second coming began immediately after the crucifixion and have continued unabated up until the current day. Harold Camping is merely the most recent in a long line of prophets of return which includes figures as diverse as William Miller, Isaac Newton, and the subject of the second part of this text, Joachim of Fiore.
3. Revelation as a paradigm of apocalyptic literature
Within the canonical New Testament, it is clearly Revelation, purportedly written by St. John while exiled on the Mediterranean island of Patmos, that serves the as the paradigmatic example of apocalyptic literature. It is certainly the most extended piece of revelation literature in the canonical bible, and is the source of most elements of Christian apocalypticism, the other sources being the brief passage in Thessalonians which gives rise to so called "rapture" theology, and the prologue to the Gospel of John. That revelation should have been included in the Christian canon is itself a matter of some wonder. It is markedly different both in tone and in content from the synoptic Gospels, acts, and the epistolary books. In fact, the only document within the canonical New Testament which shares some of its linguistic and symbolic peculiarities is the fourth Gospel, and this itself may be sufficient to account for both texts being attributed to John. As we shall see later, the figure of John assumes a central importance in the apocalypticism of Joachim of Fiore.
Revelation is an excellent example of the various ways in which apocalyptic literature can be read and interpreted. Most often, of course, the text is interpreted prophetically; a description of the events that will come to pass in the so-called "end times". The narrative seems to lend itself to this interpretation quite easily, because so much of the vision is taken up with a description of the final battle between the forces of the beast and the armies led by the rider on the white horse (traditionally, though not exclusively, identified with Christ). This is of course the most captivating dimension of the vision, reading as it does like a first century science fiction novel. That John's visions should include foretellings of things to come seems today almost a commonplace, and these "predictions" have certainly captured the imagination of contemporary filmmakers, authors, and other artists. In fact, that there should be other interpretations seems to be a foreign idea to all but a handful of biblical scholars and esotericists.
However, for a significant period of its reception, Revelation was understood primarily to be an allegorical account of historical events, particularly those involving Roman persecutions. This is what is known generally as the preterist interpretation. To a certain extent, these interpretations reflected a certain kind of wish fulfillment fantasy, in which those who had persecuted early Christians would be punished and the righteous vindicated. While this interpretation seems to have been largely absent in early understandings of the text, it comes to be an important element of later readings of Revelation, and even appears to have become a dominant form in the 17th century, thanks to post-reformation theologians like Luis del Alcázar. The destruction of the Temple and the persecutions of both Jew and Christian which follow in the immediately subsequent time period seem to mirror in many regards the tribulations faced by the blessed in the apocalyptic text. This raises a number of questions for biblical scholarship, especially pertaining to the dating of the text. If it refers, more or less directly, though allegorically, to events which occurred at a particular time, its writing must have been later. To some extent, in, for example, the work of Peter Olivi, the preterist interpretation is intended to justify the identification of Jesus with the Jewish messiah; if the rider on the white horse is a figure of the messiah and these events took place at the outset of the common era, then Jesus is a good candidate for the rider, and therefore, the messiah.
The praxical or esoteric interpretation, in its most radical form, seeks to divorce the text from historical allegory, and instead connects the symbolism of John’s vision to more obscure and occult referents. Often, these focus on the earlier parts of the text in which we are given a vision of the heavenly court, and the conclusion in which we see the heavenly Jerusalem descend, marking the end of time. James M. Pryse’s The Apocalypse Unsealed, for example, seeks to understand Revelation primarily as an astrological and alchemical text that charts a course for personal transformative practice. Johannes Dee’s use of the text as a basis for an angelic hierarchy that could be actively invoked clearly relies on a praxical interpretation that puts the imagery of the biblical text into the service of practical magic.
Into this hermeneutic witches’ brew we must now cast the Abbot of Fiore, whose own interpretation draws on all three modes, and can provide us with useful tools for understanding both Revelation and apocalyptic texts more generally.
4. Joachim of Fiore and Apocalypse
Joachim of Fiore is one of the key figures in understanding both apocalypticism in particular and the philosophy of history rooted in biblical exegesis. Even within his lifetime in the last two thirds of the 12th century, he was renowned both for his scriptural analyses and for the prophetic visions to which he was subject. While he does not consider himself a prophet in the sense of giving a new testimony, like those figures with which he was primarily concerned, (Ezekiel, Daniel, and John) certainly he was taken up in this way by his later followers. Like many earlier prophets, there is a sense of impending doom in Joachim’s prophecies. The idea that the culmination of history was at hand is continually present in all of his writings. To this day he remains a controversial figure; he was condemned in 1215 by the fourth Council of the Lateran, although this is primarily for his criticism of Peter Lombard's conception of the Trinity. It should also be noted that even within the context of the condemnation his faithfulness to the Roman Church was acknowledged. So, although he is considered heretical for some of his teachings, and certainly the excesses of his followers were subsequently condemned, he nonetheless remains solidly within the orbit of the Catholic tradition. Under no circumstances should his work be interpreted as trying to set up a new revelation or new church; he has, however, offered us a radical interpretation of the apocalyptic tradition.
Joachim is best known for his Trinitarian structure in understanding history. This interpretation casts the Old Testament as representative of the age of the Father, the New as representative of the age of the Son, and looks forward to a new understanding of both Testaments, the true Evangelium Æternum ("Eternal Gospel", Joachim's term for the true Gospel which could not be given in written form) in the forthcoming age of the Spirit. These three tempora, or periods, form an incredibly complex interlocking structure that has correspondences to everything from biblical/historical figures to priestly and monastic states and the structure of the temporal church. In particular, the first age is characterized by the state of marriage and the Jewish law, the second by the priestly state and the Christian revelation, and the third by the monastic state in which both old and new Testaments will be understood from a more comprehensive perspective, what he calls the "spiritual" or "intellectual vision." This new spiritual vision will not result in a third Testament, but rather a new and more complete understanding of Scripture and its unfolding in history. One of the key concepts in this understanding of the scriptural tradition is the idea of concords; correspondences between the Old and New Testaments in which the New is presaged in the Old.
These concords are part of an exigetical structure that assigns meaning to historical events in order to allow us to both understand the past and also turn our gaze forward to the future. This operates by interpreting the text on a number of different levels simultaneously. Scripture is interpreted literally and historically but also morally, tropologically, and anagogically. It is these latter hermeneutic forms that give rise to the truly radical understandings of history and apocalypsis that we find in Joachim’s work.
It is, perhaps, in his pictures and diagrams that we see the full flowering of his radical textual exegesis. It is also here that we see extraordinary depictions of the Dragon from the book of Revelation. While this is the only one of the figurae drawn directly from Revelation, Joachim devotes a whole extended treatise, Expositio in Apocalypsim, to the understanding of the text within a new framework. Revelation is no longer merely interpreted as historical or prophetic, but is instead seen as the clearest representation of the historical unfoldment of the divine plan in both the past and the future. As such, it clearly combines both the preterist and futurist modes, but also adds to it a distinctly praxical moment indicated by the spiritual, monastic character of the third age of the Holy Spirit. Johannine literature is often the focus of Joachim's work, and as Marjorie Reeves writes, "St. John is always, for Joachim, the apostle of the third age."
In so far as his interpretation takes the historical events of the first century as clearly indicated in John's text, it is no different from any other preterist understanding of the historical referents of the obscure symbols. However, his interpretation places those events within the context of a much greater historical drama that extends both forwards and backwards from the time of the text's composition. Backwards, it looks to Jewish law and history and the Hebrew prophets. Forward, it looks to Benedict and the emergence of a truly spiritual monasticism which will replace the institutional priesthood of the medieval church.
Joachim’s theology of history is immensely different from previous forms, such as that of St. Augustine of Hippo. While it makes use of the symbolism and concords drawn from the historical interpretation of both the Old and the New Testaments, and seeks to understand the unfolding of history through the correspondence between the two, its orientation is absolutely futural. The focus is always upon the coming third age of the Spirit which is already nascent in Joachim's time, and which will supposedly begin in earnest in 1260. Revelation becomes the key by which the character of the coming age might be understood.
In the wake of specific predictions made either by Joachim or on his behalf by others, there arose in the 13th century a devout following of Joachimists who sought actively to fulfill the promise of the third spiritual age. When no particular transformation took place in 1260, many considered Joachim to be thoroughly discredited as a failed prophet. However, others saw in Joachim's work the possibility of understanding scripture and world history together in such a way that they might provide a guide for our own spiritual pursuits.
It is in this sense that Joachim's interpretation is deeply praxical. The goal of both his exegetical practice and his own monasticism is to prepare both the individual and the world for the coming third age. While it seems clear that there is no obvious picture of what this age will contain, and the Abbott is appropriately cryptic, certain aspects can be understood by comparison to the previous ages which it will transcend. By understanding more fully the character of that age, that it will be typified by a monastic, spiritual hierarchy and the fulfillments of the promises of both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, we are able to prepare ourselves to actively participate in that coming age. In that sense, his interpretation reveals a deep theological meliorism, that is, the idea that the salvation of the world and the ultimate victory of God over the forces of darkness happens only in and through human virtue and activity. We become an essential part of the playing out of the cosmic drama that is depicted in the conclusion of Revelation. It is not enough for us to simply allow, as it were, history to take its course; we must actively pursue the aims and goals which will further the coming of the spiritual age. For this reason, Joachim's work with Revelation is never merely historical speculation or theological apologetics. Instead, it has a deep and abiding practical value for the initiate, the one who can understand the symbolic and anagogical system Revelation offers, to which the Figurae and texts like Expositio in Apocalypsim provide a hermeneutic key. Revelation is as much a guide for our own initiation, the battle with the forces of our lower self and the material forces which constantly seek to obscure our view of the divine, as it is a symbolic recounting of both historical and futural cosmic events. Each stage in the Revelation narrative offers us a more complete view of the task which is laid out before us as eternal candidates, students of the great work.
5. Joachim's Apocalypticism and the Western Mystery Tradition
In fact, one can understand the successive revelation of God in history in Joachim's work within the context of a successive and graded initiatory system like those that we see in Rosicrucianism and other forms of practice within the Western Mystery Tradition. Because truth and disclosure (aletheia and apocalypsis) are both processual, the whole of Godhead is not revealed all at once but instead in stages, either through history, or within the consciousness of the individual candidate. Each stage builds upon the next through an elaborate system of correspondences which allow the candidate to make sense of what has gone before and also to look forward to the promise of the completed work. In a very real sense, the post-historical Jerusalem that we see at the end of Revelation is a figure of the great work completed, and Joachim's structural unfolding of the Trinitarian God through history most directly allies his understanding with the initiatic tradition. Initiation functions through drawing back the veils which blind the candidate to the truth one at a time until finally the whole is disclosed.
Our task, then, is to understand our own history, whether that be individual or world historical, so that we might fully participate in the age that is to come, and bring it about in our own particular practice. I would not suggest that this means that we must all embrace a monastic lifestyle, certainly not as understood by the Benedictine or Franciscan tradition within Catholicism with which Joachim was closely associated, but rather that we understand the interconnection between our personal paths and the development of world history as the gradual unfolding of the divine and human life. I would submit that this represents an increasing integration of the sacred into everyday life, and an increasing withdrawal from the material and institutional poles and movement toward the spiritual and contemplative. Just as the three successive ages are typified by marriage, priesthood, and monasticism; our own development along the initiatory path should be that of increasing devotion to the sacred. Just as marriage requires a sacrifice of the freedom to pursue our whims, and the priestly and monastic orders require increasing commitment to manifesting the divine within our lives, our own journey and the journey of the world demand that we increasingly commit to that manifestation even as material concerns and political tribulations increasingly try to captivate and obsess us. What we see, then, is the initiatory ordeal which culminates in the rebirth of the candidate to a new life in each successive grade.
This interpretation is, of course, tinged with Gnosticism. I do not believe, however, that this is necessarily alien to Joachim's orientation despite his own self-confessed orthodoxy and submission to the Catholic Church. Those who cast their vision to the spiritual realm, prophets and mystics, often have a deep abiding sense of the material pole of our existence as an obstacle or impediment to spiritual development. While this need not necessarily play out in terms of a "world hating" Gnosticism, as that term is commonly (mis-)understood within orthodox circles, it does presume a certain value relationship concerning the actual and the virtual. This is very much in keeping with the occult and mystical dimension that seems to typify apocalyptic literature more generally.
6. The Use of Apocalypse
How then, might we use Joachim's work within the context of the Western Mystery Tradition? As a general principle, it calls on us to understand the intertwining of the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material, the trans-historical and the political. This is, I think, important to keep in mind as we travel along our particular pilgrim's path. It also calls upon us to constantly reevaluate the meaning of history in light of each new revelation, whatever its source. It is an ever present reminder to keep our focus on the image of the completed work.
On a much more practical level the Figurae, especially the famous "circles diagram", are representations of the whole divine work, the fully revealed mind of God. As such, they can serve as talismanic loci in much the same way as Dee's Sigilum Dei Aemeth or the Golden Dawn's image of the Garden before the fall. These are pictorial philosopher's stones, the Great Work of the Adept brought to its completion.
If we cast Joachim's understanding of Revelation as a systematic account of the initiatory journey, it could provide a real structure for ceremonial initiation; it would thus open up profound opportunities for the adept willing to invest herself and her time in the often difficult, obscure, and hard to locate texts. Each particular symbol, character, image, trope, and story has an allegorical referent to which we might appeal in light of a spiritual and anagogical hermeneutic. The numerical as well as symbolic structure of Revelation makes it uniquely appropriate (if often maddening) for this purpose. The individual symbols take on much more profound import when they are understood as already part of an initiatic system informed by Joachim's own mystical visions and his unique form of spiritual interpretation of the written word. He has already done so much of the work for us, it seems a shame not to pick up his work where it was left off. The too-literal interpretations of the pre-1260 Joachimists are a warning not to overread the specificity of Joachim's interpretations, but there is yet much that can guide and serve us if we are willing to read with the "spiritual vision".
Apocalypticism generally, and Revelation and the work of Joachim of Fiore in particular, can provide a vast set of resources for the practitioner and student of the Western Mysteries, and the cryptic and beautiful imagery and allegory can be put to use in order to further the initiatory development of the Adept. Ultimately it is our task to withdraw those veils which lie between our world and the truth, and this is the most profound and the most vital meaning of Apocalypse.