I recently finished reading Alison Butler’s excellent work Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition, which is largely about the Golden Dawn and the historical and cultural context of the order and its predecessors. While the book stands as a valuable work of scholarship in its field, it was its particular focus on “invented tradition” that most stood out to me.
I’ve been interested for many years in how different religions and esoteric traditions construct the idea of legitimacy. All paths subscribe to some underlying theory of legitimacy, which must be shone forth by new entrants to the field in order to be accepted as a part of the established tradition. For the Golden Dawn, this legitimacy came in the form of the temple warrant for Isis-Urania, as well as the communication the Chiefs of the order supposedly had with Secret Chiefs or inner plane contacts. Of course, we now know that the temple warrant and the surrounding communications with Fräulein Sprengel were at best received astrally via automatic writing, and at worst forgeries invented from whole cloth. But before this revelation, the Golden Dawn had the time to establish itself and prove its worth–and to situate itself firmly within the traditions of Hermeticism and western esotericism. In order to buy itself that time, the origins of the order were enshrouded in an invented mythic history. This may seem fraudulent to some, but according to Alison Butler this is in fact how legitimacy within western esotericism inherently functions.
As Butler explains the concept, “Invented tradition refers to a set of practices of a ritual or symbolic nature governed by rules that seeks to establish certain values and standards of behavior through repetition of these practices. This repetition also serves to solidify continuity with a suitable historical past.”1 She observes that “the process of inventing tradition frequently involves drawing on a social storehouse of historical ritual, symbolism, religion and folklore.”2 Contrary to certain academic views which hold that occultism is a modern phenomenon, Butler argues that it arises out of a longstanding tradition, even as it invents and innovates to extend and transform that tradition.
To unpack this idea of invented tradition a bit more, we must appreciate the fact that it fundamentally revolves around the idea of synthesis. The evolution of occultism relies not on divergence from tradition, but rather upon the incorporation of new material into the existing body of work. Butler refers to this “reliance on the method of synthesis” as “the most striking characteristic of Western magic” and traces it back through the Hermetic revival of the Renaissance in her study.3
Even the merest glance backward at the history of Western occultism bears out Butler’s thesis. The great synthesizers of the Renaissance contributed droves to the newly rediscovered Hermeticism of antiquity, but remained anchored to the texts and traditions out of which these arose. And while, as Butler observes, “the various strands that formed this synthesis, such as Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, cabala, demonic magic and natural magic, predate the Renaissance, it was during this particular era that they were brought together to form an influential system of magic, the effect of which has continued to influence Western magic to the present day.”4 This was the same process by which Éliphas Lévi introduced the magical tarot into the landscape of occultism, and through which the Golden Dawn introduced the structures of Freemasonry and various other innovations.
These innovations, however, always take place within the context of what has come before. The Latin traditio means that which is handed over or handed down, and this inherited body of work must remain not merely intact but enhanced by the synthetic process. We can see in this view a striking similarity with the genre theory lens to which I was introduced by Grier Conley, and which we have discussed previously. Just as in genre theory one must confront the “horizon of expectations” set forth by the existing corpus of the genre, it is impossible to speak of inherited tradition without addressing the tradition inherent in the term.
To some extent, the amenability of an idea to synthesis therefore becomes inherent to that idea’s potential legitimacy within the sphere of Western occultism. This is the measure of the idea’s “fit” within the genre. The other component of legitimacy in this schema is the invented portion of the tradition, in finding roots for the invention which dovetail with the tradition itself. Lévi’s tarot blended almost seamlessly with the existing body of esotericism, but also purported to be an ancient hieroglyphic key of wisdom passed down from the sages of antiquity. The Golden Dawn claimed to inherit the spirit of the Eleusinian Mysteries and of Rosicrucianism in its own fictional history. The invented tradition must not only invent that which is to be incorporated into the existing genre: it must invent its own plausible origin story in order to be accepted.
And this is perhaps the stickiest point regarding occultism, and the one that most gives me pause. As Alison Butler observes with respect to the Victorian incorporations of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Egyptian magic into occultism, all three “have both a solid historical origin as well as nineteenth-century adaptations which were made in the spirit of the century, a spirit of invented traditions and appropriated histories.”5 It is scarcely possible to speak of occult history without talking about appropriation. Whether we’re speaking of the Christian appropriation of Jewish Kabbalah during the Renaissance, English appropriation of Hinduism in Theosophy, or Greek appropriation of the Egyptian gods in the time of Alexander the Great, our traditions have always been invented and spread through cultural appropriation and imperialism.
Today, we live in a time where both our historical records and our access to those resources are much better than in generations past. And to some extent, the invention of tradition has historically depended upon gaps in the historic record and in access to historical resources, because it’s the attempt to connect those dots and fill in the blanks that results in the invention of new traditions–or at least makes the invention of new traditions feasible.
What will the next tectonic change in occultism look like, now that we take a very different view of cultural appropriation in today’s society, and have a much more rigorously set view of history? The ways in which tradition has been invented are no longer available to us in the same way. Only time will tell, of course–but these are the questions that keep me up at night.
- Butler, Alison. Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. pp. 173-174.
- Op. cit., p. 17.
- Op. cit., pp. 17-18.
- Op. cit., p. 62.