What's Up with the Rosicrucians?
What do you get when you mix alchemy, The Da Vinci Code, Nazis, Christianity, mysticism, the Knights Templar, Shakespeare, The Secret, and ancient Egypt? No, not a bad movie about Ben Stiller working late at a museum; you get the Rosicrucians. Who are they, what are they up to, what do they believe, and what the heck's the deal with all the historical imagery?
In San Jose, California, stands an Egyptian obelisk, covered in heiroglyphics. Nearby is a statue of Caesar Augustus, outside a planetarium in classical Islamic architecture. In the midst of this historical montage, surrounded by living papyrus plants, is the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, actually quite a good museum filled with authentic Egyptian artifacts. The rest of this city block is taken up by the world headquarters of AMORC, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis. The name Rosicrucian comes from Rosy Cross, an ancient symbol that's been adopted by many religious and pagan groups throughout history. To the modern Rosicrucian organization, the cross with an unfolding white rose in the center represents the human body and its consciousness opening up, carefully steering away from its more common traditional connections with Christianity. The Rosicrucians downplay any religious associations with their symbology, claiming not to be a church, and welcoming members of any religion or no religion. (Here's a hint: When you're taking peoples' money, don't turn anyone away at the door.)
According to tradition, the founder of Rosicrucianism was the none-too-improbably named Christian Rosenkreuz, born in 1378, the last surviving member of an assassinated German noble family, secreted away to a monastery where he grew to found the order that bore his name. Rosenkreuz traveled throughout the Christian, Muslim, Dharmic, and pagan lands, amassing his knowledge and acquiring a small but tight group of followers. Of his death, all that is known to Rosicrucian tradition is that his body lies somewhere in a geometrically proportioned cave, incorrupt, and bathed in white light from an unseen source.
Rosenkreuz's story is told in the Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis, an anonymous manifesto published in Germany in 1614. The following year, another manifesto appeared, the Confessio Fraternitatis, which declared the existence of a secret society of alchemists and sages following pious Christian principles and planning an intellectual enlightenment of Europe. Then in 1616, the third and last of the Rosicrucians' three major manifestos was published, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, an allegorical tale of Rosenkreutz using alchemy to assist in the wedding of a king and queen in a strange and magical castle. The three manifestos made quite a splash in certain circles. Leaders of the occult and science tried to make contact with the secret society described, including Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, and the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. In fact, by some accounts, Francis Bacon was not only actually one of the secret society members, he may have written the first two manifestos; and some Rosicrucians claim he wrote Shakespeare's works as well. Another hint is that Bacon was also a member of a Templar society, and the Knights Templar bore the same rose-colored cross as the Crusaders. Some believe the third manifesto was written by the Lutheran alchemist Johannes Valentinus Andreae, whose name was also claimed in a 1960's hoax as one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion, which figured so prominently in The Da Vinci Code.
So suffice it to say that there is enough pop-culture quasi-history to adorn Rosicrucianism with as much illustrious intrigue as you wish. Our task is to see if we can connect the dots, and find out what links there are, if any, between all those legendary characters and the people who sit in offices in San Jose today, depositing checks and doing the books. Exactly what are they up to? What do they do, and what do Rosicrucian members do? Here's the answer.
If I were to summarize the modern Rosicrucian organization, I'd compare it to a low-pressure, less expensive version of Scientology, based on New Age beliefs instead of L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction. You send them a few hundred dollars a year for your membership, and they send you printed lessons for self study that teach you all about their mystical belief system, the "keys to universal wisdom", as they put it. Like Scientology and Freemasonry, Rosicrucians reach various levels, or degrees, based on how much of the self-study material you've purchased and read. You can even perform your own initiation ceremonies into each new degree at home. In your first five years as a Rosicrucian, you'll cover the three "neophyte" degrees from First Atrium through Third Atrium, and then the "temple" section from First Temple Degree through Ninth Temple Degree. By this time your teaching will include topics such as:
One of the benefits available to modern Rosicrucians is magical assistance to those in need of actual assistance, which they provide to successful petitioners via their "Council of Solace". Their website describes how this works:
So at this point you're probably yawning at this yet-another "spin the wheel and invent a New Age philosophy". So it's a good time to introduce William Walker Atkinson, an author who wrote about 100 books in the early 20th century under many pseudonyms. He is credited with being one of the principal architects of the New Thought movement, which evolved into today's New Age movement. His book The Law of Attraction in the Thought World is one of the primary influences of Rhonda Byrne's book and movie The Secret, and in fact the word "Rosicrucian" appears subtly on screen throughout the movie's title transitions. Many of the principal writings of the Dharmic movement of the 1960's, so popular with the Beatles and attributed to various swamis and yogis, were in fact written by Atkinson. But one of Atkinson's books broke the pattern and was written not to promote the New Thought mysticism, but rather to expose it. Published under the name Magus Incognito, its title was The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians. In it, Atkinson claims that the true Rosicrucian order does not accept fees, has no formal organization, and is in fact secret. He then gives away all the contents of the Rosicrucian degrees. Why would he write this book?
AMORC, the modern formal Rosicrucian group, was launched in New York in 1915. The original founder, Harvey Spencer Lewis, and its first leader (or "Imperator" as they call it), is said to have borrowed quite heavily from the works of Yogi Ramacharaka in developing the Atrium and Temple Degree series. Who was the real author behind the name Yogi Ramacharaka? You guessed it, William Walker Atkinson. Apparently annoyed that his work had been so broadly and obviously "borrowed from" (to put it politely) without attribution, Atkinson quickly produced The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians by retitling some of his own earlier works that contained the material used in the Rosicrucian lessons, and adding a few jabs like "real Rosicrucians would never take your money the way AMORC does".
Atkinson also reminded us that the term Rosicrucian and the rosy cross symbol have both been in the public domain for centuries, so nobody has any exclusive right to use them; and in fact that there are many competing Rosicrucian groups out there. Although AMORC has clearly won in the marketplace with its expansive San Jose headquarters, you might also choose to join the Ancient Order of the Rosicrucians, the Fraternitas Rosicruciana Antiqua, the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, or any of a dozen others, all based on essentially the same occult New Age mystical traditions.
Ever since the original manifestos were published by the first in this long line of clever authors, it seems everyone's been trying to get in on the Rosicrucian action; either directly by name or by rebranding it the way Rhonda Byrne, and in fact William Atkinson himself, have done. It's even been borrowed by whole nations in search of a defining philosophy. In his book The Occult Roots of Nazism, author Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke found that Nazi symbology was inspired by an 18th century German Rosicrucian order called Gold und Rosenkreuzer.
And thus we have a ten-cent tour of the history of Rosicrucian mysticism. It was invented in the early 1600's by European intellectuals who wrote allegorical tales blending alchemy with Protestant Christianity. It was revived in the early 1900's by the New Thought movement seeking ancient forms of mysticism that appealed to the notions of a population just beginning to learn that such a thing as a cosmic universe existed, and searching for meaning within it. And a century later, Rosicrucianism remains just one more flavor of for-profit New Age products, leveraging claims to ancient wisdom into bank deposits. It professes that the "keys to the universe" were known to a handful of Europeans 400 years ago, they just never managed to do much with them, since recurring credit card billing hadn't been invented yet.
I will close with the phrase that Rosicrucians like to put at the bottom of all their written communications. It means "So it shall be" and is often used to mean "Amen" or "In the name of God":
So Mote It Be!
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