What Is the Western Mystery Tradition?

by Kate Warwick-Smith

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The phrase “Western Mystery Tradition” was created by MacGregor Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, in response to the popularity of the Theosophical Society and the teachings of Helene Blavatsky who brought her knowledge of Eastern metaphysics, magical systems, and meditation practices to the West. In coining the term, “Western Mystery Tradition,” Mathers sought to establish and make clear that the West had its own valid magical and mystical tradition. Following Mathers’ lead others have sought to define the Western Mysteries.

Defining the Mysteries

Christine Hartley, seer and student of Dion Fortune continued Mathers’ campaign reiterating in her book The Western Mysteries that esoteric seekers from the West need not go to the Eastern traditions to fulfill their spiritual needs. She argued that the ancient traditions of the British Isles possessed a rich deposit for mining spiritual sustenance. Another student of Dion Fortune, W.E. Butler founder of the Servants of the Light described the Western Tradition as emerging from the “cradles” of Sumeria, Chaldea, Egypt and Greece but also including the Old Religion of Europe.

More recently John and Caitlin Matthews in Walkers Between the Worlds (formerly The Western Way) expanded upon Butler’s definition conceptualizing the Western Mystery Tradition as having two paths one that is based on European native traditions and is shamanic, intuitive, earth conscious, and goddess-oriented. The other path they describe as Hermetic coming from Egypt and Mesopotamia. This path embraces the pursuit of knowledge, oneness with godhead, and philosophical super consciousness.

Stephan Hoeller, a modern Gnostic describes the Western Mysteries more loosely as “the alternative spiritual tradition.” Others have explained the Western Mysteries as the esoteric reflection of the mainstream exoteric tradition, namely Christianity.

Academic, Antoine Faivre (Access to Western Esotericism), takes a different approach. After considering the many streams that make up the Western Mysteries, he arrives at four characteristics that identify a stream as a “Western esotericism,” or in the terms we are using a tradition. (His categories are especially interesting when considering the tarot. But, that topic is for another article!)

A Historical Perspective

From a historical perspective we can say that the path of the Western Mysteries has followed the spread of Western culture. This elusive creature encompasses a continuous stream of philosophy, myth, ritual, and magical and mystical practices that are described in the writing, art, and architecture of cultures spanning a time period of 7,000 years or more, and a geographical area that can be loosely described as stretching from Mesopotamia to Ireland and more recently to the western shores of the United States. It has been influenced by the ancient cultures of Babylonia, Chaldea, Canaan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Europe and North America. And, one cannot ignore Eastern influences from, for example, Arabic alchemy and Hindu philosophy.

One of the qualities of the Western Mysteries is its ability to take in, integrate and adapt to a changing world and the demands of a particular era. For this reason it is indeed a challenging and complex topic. Here are three maps that give you a bird’s eye view of the making of the Western Tradition. Given the breadth of cultures and span of time, the following discussion serves only as an outline but should be sufficient for any of you who wish to take a closer look in a particular area.

The Western Mysteries Map 1: Major Influences up to c. 1400 CE

Below is a map that shows the place of origin of the predominant streams that have contributed to the Western Mysteries before 1400 CE. The number at the source point of the arrow indicates the place of origin of the tradition. Numbers not tied to an arrow indicate a major center for a tradition. The movement towards the central vessel indicates the movement towards syncretism. Syncretism is a word used to describe a process where different religions and/or philosophies attempt to merge. The spread of the Roman empire encouraged this process as did the later policies of the Catholic church in the assimilation of the pagan population.

The vessel in the center of the map represents the spirit of the Western Mystery Tradition as a whole. The vessel can be likened to Cerridwen’s cauldron, the magician’s chalice, and the Holy Grail of the Arthurian mysteries. It represents a cyclical regenerative process that takes in and gives forth anew.

Western Mysteries Map 1

To view Map 1 in full size click here.

The Western Mysteries Map 2: Influences after c.1400 CE

Map 2 looks at influences after 1400 CE. Most of these are social developments that have affected the modern character of the Western Mysteries.

To view Map 2 in full size click here.

The Western Mysteries Map 3: Emerging Streams after c. 1400 CE

This map shows streams of the Western Mystery Tradition that have emerged since 1400 CE. These can be seen as a result of the previous 1400 years or so of development. Perhaps the last time the Western Mysteries experienced the pouring forth of new traditions was during the very fertile Alexandrian period (c. 323 BCE - c. 31 BCE). The image on this map is the chalice of the Western Mysteries ushering forth rather than taking in as in the previous two maps.

The Western Mystery Tradition has a long and varied history. But, it was during the Middle Ages and Renaissance that it seems to have synthesized into a recognizable body of knowledge drawing on common source materials that included alchemical, hermetic, kabbalistic and classical texts all of which shared a grounding in Neoplatonism. It was also during this time that the first tarot decks were also produced.Following the Renaissance, we see the emergence of new streams such as Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Hermetic Kabbalah and eventually later traditions such as Wicca and depth psychology.

Western Mysteries Map 3

To view Map 3 in full size click here.

Many Paths But One Tradition

But what exactly is the essence of the Western Mystery Tradition? Perhaps an analogy might help. The Western Mystery Tradition might be likened to a labyrinth. The pathway is the Tradition; what is experienced by the seeker upon the path and at the center are the Mysteries. Over time there have been many variations of this labyrinth, many traditions expressing the Tradition. Each stream whether it be Rosicrucian, Christian or Hermetic has its own particular approach and each has its own validity and authenticity but flows from a common fount.

In the Hermetic Rose Correspondence Course the tarot is the tradition through which we experience the Mysteries.

I invite you to share comments on or ask questions about this article.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Peregrin October 17, 2010 at 6:41 pm


thank you for this very good introduction to the WMT. The maps are very useful too. This is a page I will now definitely refer people.

I am curious on a few points. In the diagram ‘Major Influences after 1400’ you show ‘Shamanism’ circa 1700 coming presumably from the Americas. While I agree Neo-Shamanism and the myth of Shamanism has had some influence on the WMT, I would place this only in the last 40 years. [Thanks, Peregrin for pointing out this inconsistency. I have changed the map accordingly. kws]

With regards the ‘Emerging Streams’ diagram, I am pretty sure neither general historians nor specialists in the histories of esotericism or psychology would agree depth psychology emerged from the WMT. There may be some evidence for some modalities, like Jungian analysis and psychosynthesis, but little for any other modalities. I would LOVE to see an article from you showing this :) [Yes, that would be a good article indeed. I’ll put it in the hopper. I’m going to stand by my contention that ‘depth’ psychology (as opposed to other forms of psychotherapy) has tendrils reaching into WMT. kws]

Thanks again for the article :)


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