Dear Straight Dope:
I read an article the other day about "ancient Rosicrucian priests" who evidently use the cathedral of Notre Dame for some obscure reason. This got me thinking: What exactly are Rosicrucians? Their website is extremely vague, saying only that they aren't a religious organization. Well, if they have priests, wouldn't this make them a religious organization? I am curious what kind of cult the Rosicrucians are.
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
Researching the occult is always tricky since you tend to find at least three times as much (oh, let’s be dainty, shall we?) bull excrement as you might expect from one bull. Wiccans claim descent from old world matriarchal religions, while some Masonic writers claim direct descent from God. The history of Rosicrucianism is interesting but is often obscured by adherents who claim a much earlier origin than the record supports.
The documented history of Rosicrucianism reaches back no further than the early 1600s, and modern Rosicrucian organizations don’t date back anywhere near that far. In 1614 a curious pamphlet entitled the Fama Fraternitatis was published in Cassel, Germany. This wasn’t the first appearance of the Fama; reportedly it circulated in manuscript as early as 1610. There is some evidence that the work and some associated pieces were published in order to promote the anti-Jesuit agenda of the publisher, Wilhelm Wessel, but that probably wasn’t the intent of the original work.
The Fama tells the story of one Christian Rosencreutz who, as a young man, wandered through the Near East learning the mystical wisdom of the Arabs and Egyptians and finding much enlightenment there. Upon returning to Germany he attempted to share this knowledge but was laughed at and shunned. He and a few like-minded people formed a society called the Fraternity of the Rose Cross, building a temple called the Spiritus Sanctus. There were only eight members at the beginning; all men, all bachelors and all virgins. The agreement among them was simple:
- They should profess only to be healers and act in that capacity whenever requested for no payment
- They would have no uniform or habit but would adopt the customs of the country where they lived
- They would meet once a year at the Spiritus Sanctus, or send a note excusing their absence
- Each person should find someone to be his successor
- The letters “C.R” would be their seal and mark, and
- The fraternity would remain secret for 100 years.
Presumably the Fama was published after the 100 years had elapsed as it goes on to report the discovery of the Spiritus Sanctus and describe the fraternity to the outside world. It doesn’t explicitly ask people to join, but says the group’s members will be watching for those in tune with their thinking. The last few lines are a bit ominous:
And although at this time we make no mention either of names or meetings, yet nevertheless everyone’s opinion shall assuredly come to our hands, in what language so ever it be; nor anybody shall fail, who so gives his name, but to speak with some of us, either by word of mouth, or else, if there be some let, in writing. And this we say for a truth, that whosoever shall earnestly, and from his heart, bear affection unto us, it shall be beneficial to him in goods, body, and soul; but he that is false-hearted, or only greedy of riches, the same first of all shall not be able in any manner of wise to hurt us, but bring himself to utter ruin and destruction.
This was followed in 1615 by another purported Rosicrucian publication, the Confessio Fraternitatis, in the same vein as the first but much more apocalyptic. It told not only of a society that had obtained the secrets of enlightenment, but of a forthcoming reformation of the age, returning it a state of grace:
We ought therefore here to observe well, and make it known unto everyone, that God hath certainly and most assuredly concluded to send and grant to the world before her end, which presently thereupon shall ensue, such a truth, light, life and glory, as the first man Adam had, which he lost in Paradise, after which his successors were put and driven, with him, to misery wherefore there shall cease all servitude, falsehood, lies, and darkness, which by little and little, with the great world’s revolution, was crept into all arts, works, and governments of men, and have darkened the most part of them.
A third document appeared in 1616 entitled The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. This is a highly symbolic treatise following Rosencreutz through a mystical “wedding” that is actually an alchemical allegory. Alchemy is presented not as the physical transformation of base metals into gold, but rather as a a spiritual process in which the “base” person is enlightened, turning into spiritual “gold.” Most scholars believe the author of this tract to be Johann Valentine Andrade, a Lutheran minister from Wurttemburg. We know from Andrade’s autobiography that he wrote a piece called The Chemical Wedding around 1602-3, but since the Wedding cites both the Fama and the Confessio, which didn’t appear until later, it’s thought the work was updated once the new Rosicrucian documents appeared. Even so Andrade considered it “a fiction, a jest, of little worth.”
The authors of the Fama and the Confessio never revealed themselves, and we have no independent evidence that a Fraternity of the Rose Cross ever existed. The simplest explanation is that the whole business was Andrade’s invention. Nevertheless the notion of a secret society with occult knowledge found a receptive audience. A few other authors, while denying membership in the society, were sympathetic to its ideals. For example, Robert Fludd, another Lutheran minister, published two books, the Compendious Apology for the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross (1616) and The Apologetic Tractatus for the Society of the Rosy Cross (1617), plus many other works with a Rosicrucian bent.
But that’s about as far as it went. Interest in the rosy cross flared briefly and then dwindled away. There have been attempts to show that the “Invisible College” of Rosicrucianism eventually became the Royal Society of London, but the evidence is tenuous at best. Likewise, attempts to show that Rosicrucianism survived as a society past the early 1600s lack any historical basis.
That hasn’t stopped some modern organizations from claiming membership in or leadership of the organization, though. Probably the best known group is the Ancient Mystical Order Rosea Crucis, otherwise known as AMORC, which operates a mail-order mystical school out of San Jose, California. It was founded by H. Spencer Lewis, an acquaintance if not an actual associate of the English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and an ex-member of his Ordo Templi Orientalis. The AMORC claims a history that stretches back to Pharaoh Thutmose III in 1477 BC and apparently includes anyone who used more than 3% of their brain, including Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Pascal, Spinoza, and that great philosopher, Edith Piaf. (What, they couldn’t get Zasu Pitts?)
AMORC touts its authenticity by proclaiming it’s the only Rosicrucian organization that uses the word “order” in its name and claiming authorization from FUDOSI (the Fédération Universelle Des Ordres Et Sociétés Initiatiques), a sort of clearinghouse of mystical societies. To my mind that’s like Clarabelle the Clown being validated by Howdy Doody, but we’ll let that pass and trudge on.
Many other organizations also call themselves Rosicrucian. In 1858, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis was founded by Paschal Beverly Randolph after supposedly having been initiated into a German Rosicrucian fraternity. It’s still extant today and like AMORC provides mail-order spiritual illumination. The Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia was founded by Robert Wentworth Little and popularized by William Wynn Wescott, both connected with the Golden Dawn ritual magic group. It requires its members to be both Masons and Christians. Smaller but still recognizable is the Rosicrucian Fellowship founded by Max Heindel in 1907. A largely Christian organization, it has closer ties with theosophy and astrology than with any original Rosicrucian thought.
That’s a lot of popularity and advertising for a group which claimed at the end of the Confessio:
Even in such manner, although we might enrich the whole world, and endue them with learning, and might release it from innumerable miseries, yet shall we never be manifested and made known unto any man, without the especial pleasure of God; yea, it shall be so far from him whosoever thinks to get the benefit and be partaker of our riches and knowledge, without and against the will of God, that he shall sooner lose his life in seeking and searching for us, than to find us, and attain to come to the wished happiness of the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross.”
For a more in-depth examination of the political and historical background of the original Rosicrucian texts, I highly recommend The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Frances A. Yates, one of the few books that deals with the subject from a purely historical standpoint. Texts of the Fama, the Confessio and the Chemical Wedding can be found at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/ros/index.htm
Link to AMORC’s history page, just so you can see that I wasn’t making up the Edith Piaf thing : http://www.rosicrucian.org/about/mastery/mastery08history.html
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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