Into the Mystery: an Essay by Joscelyn Godwin Revisiting the deepest moments of 25 years of the Quest
Today I opened an old notebook, and there was a fuzzy photograph of seven people around a bar table in a remote corner of the Czech Republic: Deborah Forman, myself, John Michell, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Adam McLean, Clare Goodrick-Clarke, and Christopher McIntosh. It sent me back to 1995 and to that first Esoteric Quest, “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited.” On the next pages—if you’ll excuse the name-dropping—I find Christopher Bamford, Robert Bly, Noel Cobb, Frank Donnola, Hans Thomas Hakl, Warren Kenton, Robert Sardello, and Kevin Towneley, plus our Czech hosts Vlastimil Marek, Martin Horyna, and Robert Vurm. To bring us all to Český Krumlov was a marvel of Ralph White’s networking, but more than that: he planted a seed whose growth over the next quarter century no one would have dared to predict.
While we were in that delightful town, a film crew was shooting a version of Pinocchio, and extras were strolling around in eighteenth-century costumes. It was we who looked out of place, like visitors from a less innocent future. But we were having the time of our lives. The alchemist Michael Maier, one of the spiritual patrons of the event, called two of his books “A Serious Game” (Lusus serius) and “A Severe Joke” (Jocus severus), and that rather sums up the atmosphere. The sheer fun and conviviality were in no way discordant with the serious matters that we had spent our adult lives studying. We could come out as esotericists, or whatever we were, without fear of ridicule. For some of us there was a special satisfaction in paying tribute to Frances Yates, an imaginative scholar supposedly “discredited” by positivist trends in the academic world.
Quest—Tourism—Pilgrimage? It was a bit of each. Quests are for a mystery, which will always be a surprise when one finds it. Some have met their life’s partners on these quests; others, trials and tribulations that are a traditional risk in the game. Most will have found some degree of wisdom, illumination, or inspiration because of what is heard and said, and not only by the presenters. The mystery of this first quest to Český Krumlov was what happened around 1600, when alchemy and the occult sciences, millennial hopes, Christian theosophy, and the “wisdom of the ancients” came together in the Rosicrucian impulse. While it failed in its ambition to reform the world, it escaped the fate of every spiritual movement, once bent to political ends. The Rose-Cross lived on in the Imaginal World, accessible to the individual: for the quest, even if it starts from the Round Table, is a personal, not a collective enterprise. For believers in some form of reincarnation, such an encounter with a historical mystery may arouse prenatal memories. Whether true or fantastic is not for me to judge, but it was tempting to imagine that we had all been there before.
Quests are as old as humanity, but tourism is of the modern age. It started in the same epoch, when well-bred youths would complete their education with a circuit of European capitals. Robert Fludd, the defender of the Rosicrucians, was one of the first to do so. Some of these quests have been to tourist centers, and I, for one, was grateful for the chance to visit or revisit them in a new light. To see and feel Prague as an alchemical city, or Florence as a Neoplatonic one, was no common tourism. Other quests have been either on the touristic sidelines (like Plovdiv) or ahead of the game (as in Český Krumlov, now overrun), while the pre- and post-conference trips have gone down some much less traveled roads such as Sufi Marrakech and the remote West Fjords of Iceland.
Before tourism there was pilgrimage, to receive a particular blessing that only certain places are believed to bestow. Pilgrimage is an exoteric version of the quest, because it is enough just to have done it, like the folk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the millions who make the Hajj to Mecca or attend the Kumbh Mela. Like any religious tradition, pilgrimage may have an esoteric meaning, but those attuned to it can hardly enjoy the crowds or submit to collective emotionality. Intuition and serendipity may reveal sacred places of another kind, as they have throughout the history of these quests: places like Alexandria, Egypt and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where the genius loci is strong and one can sense the aura, the barakha, the qi. After the first quest I made my own bitter-sweet pilgrimage to the Star Castle, a symbolically planned retreat decorated with pagan themes, near Prague and on the edge of White Mountain where the Habsburg forces crushed the Bohemian rebels. Instead of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Central Europe had the Thirty Years’ War.
Sensitives assure us, first, that certain spots on the earth’s surface carry a charge of energy, and second, that strong emotions can leave a lasting mark on the landscape. Some say that the two relate in a sort of feedback cycle, and that significant activities tend to happen where there is some natural energy source, which they then reinforce. Ancient sanctuaries, in this scheme of things, were founded on such spots of natural power, and later Christian churches were built there, like Chartres Cathedral on the site of a Druid well. John Michell suggested in his theory of ley lines that there are natural currents of telluric energy, “dragon paths” that can be manipulated to an extent and even amplified, as by the placing of a megalith or stone circle and by associated rituals. It was easy to believe that Krumlov was thus situated, on its high hill with the Vltava river making a triple oxbow around it.
Each quest has its ritual aspect, both epoptic (=beheld) and participatory. At Krumlov Robert Bly gave a poetry reading in his incantatory style, in one of the caverns that honeycomb the region. At the castle of the Rožmberks the librarian unrolled alchemical parchments which Adam McLean could explain to us, and we heard some of Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens music performed. We toured the remote Schloss Rosenberg, decorated with paintings of the Seven Planets, the Seven Stages of Life, and the Nine Muses on Parnassus playing their instruments. Here the Rožmberks’ initiate friends might have discerned the Hermetic correspondence of macrocosm with microcosm and the Pythagorean correspondence of cosmic with earthly harmony. Participation in our quests was less formal, but at every meal the division between presenters and audience dissolved and, like a Renaissance dance, everyone eventually came face to face with everyone else. It is rare to spend a week in a company whose every member is on some conscious path of their own, yet not in a group with a common doctrine, master, or practice, which either wants to exclude you or convert you.
So much for the first Esoteric Quest. Of the fourteen that followed, I participated in Prague, Florence, Upstate New York, and Siracusa, Sicily before the last (but surely not the final) one in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The theme this time was the Orphic mysteries, which arose in that region. Orpheus’s mythology is rich and contradictory, and gave us plenty to talk and think about. Of course we could have done that at a conference in the USA, but without everything else that Ralph and the gods put on for our benefit. For instance, that week Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice was being performed in Plovdiv’s restored Roman theater, as though specially for us. We heard traditional Bulgarian singing and watched traditional dancing, putting us in mind of Orpheus’s power to charm through the power of song, and of how closely dance, in the Islamic world (of which Bulgaria was once a part) comes to trance.
I will mention only two other things that could have been found nowhere else. The Valchitran Treasure of circa 1300 B.C. was on temporary display in the Archaeological Museum adjacent to our meeting hall. The massive gold pieces showed a refined sense of design that must already have been centuries in the making. One of them, a three-part leaf-shaped vessel, has the archaeologists baffled. They call it a “ritual object,” but what kind of rituals were going on in Thrace, before King Solomon and long before Troy? What high culture surrounded the miners and panners, goldsmiths, designers, and owners of these vessels? There is nothing primitive about them, and they suggest that Orpheus, son of a Thracian king, emerged not from a mythological void but from a well-established order.
Right outside that museum is the Monument to Bulgarian Unification, a sculpture of 1985 by Velichko Minekov. That too emanates a powerful aura from its dark gray metal and its gigantic size, like a deflated blimp. Minekov can hardly be blamed: he was working in a debased modernist idiom for the Communists, hanging on near the end of their empire. Passing the monument several times a day certainly set me brooding on the Bulgarian past. Will they one day tear it down, as Americans are demolishing Confederate monuments? Or is it wiser to leave such relics in place as an admonition?
After the quest was over, I felt the spirit of place most strongly in the central square of Sofia, where the great statue of Sveta Sofia (Holy Wisdom) surveys the excavated Roman city twenty feet beneath the roadway. After dark the square was illuminated and the cafes were busy. There was a collective sense of relief and hope for the future that I have sensed in other small post-Communist countries. Times may still be rough, but to be out of the great game for world domination and focused on bettering one’s own garden—to be, in a word, unimportant—can seem attractive to a citizen of two overbearing empires. The love and goodwill I felt that evening were the emotional core of my quest.
Next year’s quest is to another small country with a rich history. Antoine Faivre, the Sorbonne professor who led the entry of esoteric studies into academic respectability, once said that the most esoterically aware country in Europe was Portugal. His friend Lima de Freitas was one proof of this. An artist, book illustrator, ceramicist, and writer, de Freitas rose to head the State Secretariat for Culture, to be President of the Academy of Music and Fine Arts, to direct the National Theater and the Institute of Visual Arts and Design. In what other country could this possibly happen? Not only for one person to head all these different bodies, but one whose work was esoteric through and through? Where else would you find in the main railroad station a series of ceramic murals depicting the mystical history of the nation? Although de Freitas is no longer with us, we will certainly honor him, and will have other guides as living proofs of Faivre’s contention.
My own approach to Portugal was more profane. It came through the writings of William Beckford, the wealthy Englishman who made three long stays there between 1787 and 1795. In his journal he evokes the atmosphere of piety and decadence that characterized the Portuguese upper crust before the Napoleonic Wars. Later he published Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, which is one of the most entertaining travelogues of the nineteenth century. Alcobaça, built in pure French Gothic style, commemorates Portugal’s liberation from Muslim rule. Two centuries on, Batalha is a rich concoction of frills and pinnacles, commemorating freedom from Spain. (It inspired Beckford’s masterpiece, Fonthill Abbey.) Both monasteries are near the Templar stronghold of Tomar, the promised location of our next quest, and they offer a triple key to the mystical history of the country.
When Beckford arrived in Lisbon, the earthquake and fire of 1755 were in living memory, and much of the devastation still visible. The earthquake was not only the central trauma of modern Portuguese history, but a watershed in European religious thought. Why ever should God have chosen to unleash His wrath on a Catholic city full of churches and monasteries, with the Inquisition still doing its job? Worse yet, it happened on All Saints’ Day, when the churches were packed. There was much breast-beating and searching for secret sins of which the Lisbonians may have been guilty. Voltaire leaped in with a poem that defined the moment, and the age. God had nothing to do with it, he said. It was a natural disaster, and these things happen to good and bad alike. The optimist philosophy that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” was untenable, and the explanation of the disaster lay not in theology but in natural science.
Two and a half centuries on, the debate between religious belief and scientism is far from over. To think that Portugal, or anywhere else, may have a “mystical history” may seem suspicious to both parties. But the esoteric tradition belongs to neither side. Antoine Faivre defined it as a “third stream” of Western culture, and that, to my mind, is where these quests belong. Moreover, in participating in them we are not merely studying this stream, which we can do at home, but helping it on its way.
Joscelyn Godwin, Ph.D., was born in England and educated at Cambridge and Cornell Universities. From 1971 to 2016 he taught Music History at Colgate University. One of the most knowledgeable speakers we have on esoteric and musical subjects, his books include Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, The Theosophical Enlightenment, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Upstate Cauldron and The Greater and Lesser Worlds of Robert Fludd.