8 Schools of Freemasonry – Esoteric P7

The Esoteric School of Freemasonry relates to the premise by adherents that there are occult (meaning ‘hidden’) or ‘inner mysteries’ to Masonry.

This ideology was particularly prevalent in European Masonic circles during the 18th and 19th centuries during the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

Free thinkers and philosophers were inevitably drawn to the allegory and symbolism abundant in Freemasonry and it gave rise to all manner of interpretations, of which the esoteric was particularly appealing to many.

Renaissance magic and alchemy had been a major influence on ‘enlightened’ men (and women), and what is known as Western Esoterism or Western Mystery Tradition first began to emerge in the late 17th century.

In this we can find an overlap between the Esoteric and ‘Romantic’ Schools of Freemasonry, both of which yearn for some deeper meaning or tradition within the Craft.

Many of the most influential ‘movers and shakers’ within Continental Freemasonry were heavily influenced by the notion that there were links to arcane secrets hidden within Masonry that only a chosen few could understand.

Ancient Egypt was one of the main sources for inspiration, and various ‘Egyptian rituals’ sprang up within the fledgling Freemasonry of the mid-to late 18th century, most notably that of Count Alessandro Cagliostro.

His ‘Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry’ promised spiritual rejuvenation and immortality via an elaborate system, which he declared had been passed on to him by an Egyptian initiate.

Regardless of the fact that early travellers and writers had no idea what the ancient hieroglyphs meant, the rituals were based purely on a hybrid blend of Hermetic, alchemical, and Hebrew biblical symbolism, combined with a hefty dose of ‘intuition’.

The ancient Egyptians ‘secrets’ ostensibly died with their civilisation, and even though variations and supposed versions of their rituals and mysteries were believed to have been passed down to the Greeks and Romans, there is no real evidence to prove that these Greco-Roman  and  Mystery Schools were a true representation of the Egyptian religion; they may well have been interpretations of what the ancient Greeks and Romans superficially observed but a comparison of the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian temples with earlier ones, shows that there is an element of ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ in the symbolism and it rarely has the same ‘flavour’ of the pure Egyptian dynasties.

The teachings of the mythical Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus also played a large part in the proliferation of ‘Hermetic’ and ‘alchemical’ Freemasonry.

The Hellenistic Hermes Trismegistus was syncretic blend of Djehuti/Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, magic, writing and mathematics, and the Greek messenger god Hermes.

The Corpus Hermeticum, a body of ‘technical’ (astrology/alchemy/medicine/magic) and religio-philosophical works have since been dated most likely to around the 2nd/3rd century AD, pointing to the fact that they were not of ancient Egyptian origin and most likely a collection of hybridised teachings that had filtered into the public domain of the Hellenistic centre of learning in the city of Alexandria founded in c.331 BC by Alexander the Great.

By the 1st century AD, the city was a melting pot of Egyptians, Jews, Christians, and scholars, scientists and philosophers from across the Mediterranean world.



The Rosetta Stone © Hans Hillewaert
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Hybridisation of all this wisdom makes for a difficult unravelling of Egyptian religious purity and when we add to this the fact that decipherment of the hieroglyphs was only achieved by Francois Champollion in the 1820s, we can almost certainly debunk any notion that the Renaissance or early Enlightenment scholars understood them.

We know all this now, but at the time the promise of ‘ancient secrets’ was a potent lure for seekers of enlightenment and immortality – and the ‘Egyptian’ Rites of Freemasonry promised just that!

The Esoteric School of Freemasonry continued to flourish throughout the 19th- and early 20th century, with the emergence of ‘occultism’ such as Theosophy, and Spiritualism via proponents such as Éliphas Lévi, Gérard Encausse (Papus), Helena Blavatsky, and later quasi-Masonic Orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and in the early 20th century the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia.  

Arthur Edward Waite – proponent of the Esoteric School of Freemasonry 

Few individuals exerted more influence in “esoteric Masonry” than did A.E. Waite. His hunger for the “hidden wisdom” of Masonry, as well as life, drove him to his studies of all matters esoteric.

Respected as a scholar, magician and Mason of quality, his words drew praise from many, yet were controversial enough to draw a fair amount of criticism … likely to Waite’s delight.

– Joseph Fort Newton (from the Foreword to Waite’s ‘Words from a Masonic Mystic’)



A.E. Waite
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Arthur Edward Waite (1857 – 1942) was a British poet and scholarly mystic who wrote extensively on occult and esoteric matters, and was the co-creator of the Rider–Waite tarot deck.  

R. A. Gilbert, an expert on esoterism, and Waite’s biographer wrote:

“Waite’s name has survived because he was the first to attempt a systematic study of the history of western occultism—viewed as a spiritual tradition rather than as aspects of proto-science or as the pathology of religion.”

Waite was born in Brooklyn, New York, United States. On the death of his father, the family returned to Waite’s mother’s home country of England, where he was then raised.

Waite was well-educated, but when his sister Frederika died in 1874 he became drawn to psychical research.

At the age of 21, he began to read regularly in the Library of the British Museum, studying many branches of esotericism.

In 1881 Waite discovered the writings of Eliphas Levi. He spent most of his life in or near London, connected to various publishing houses and editing a magazine, The Unknown World.

Waite soon entered in to a disjointed career in various esoteric groups, joining the Outer Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in January 1891, from which he soon withdrew in 1893, only to re-join in 1896.

He entered the Second Order in 1899. Waite became a Freemason in 1901, and entered the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia in 1902.

He then founded the Independent and Rectified Order R. R. et A. C. in 1903, however, this was disbanded in 1914.

The Golden Dawn was torn by internal feuding until Waite’s departure in 1914; in July 1915 he formed the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.

By that time there existed some half-dozen offshoots from the original Golden Dawn, and as a whole it never recovered.

Waite was interested in the higher grades of Freemasonry and saw initiation into Craft Masonry as a way to gain access to these rites.

After joining the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and the Knights Templar, Waite traveled to Switzerland in 1903 to receive the Regime Ecossais et Rectifie or the Rectified Scottish Rite and its grade of Chevalier Bienfaisant de la Cite Sainte (C.B.C.S.).

Waite believed that the Rectified Scottish Rite, more than any other Masonic Rite, represented the “Secret Tradition” of mystical spiritual illumination.

Waite was an author and many of his works were well received in the esoteric circles of his time, but his lack of academic training is visible in his limitations as a historian and in his belittling of other authors.

He wrote numerous texts on esoteric and Masonic subjects; he also translated and reissued several mystical works. However, it is his Rider–Waite tarot deck, first published in 1910, with illustrations by fellow Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith that is probably his greatest legacy, having  had a large influence on contemporary occult tarot.

Waite authored the deck’s companion volume, the Key to the Tarot, republished in 1911 as the Pictorial Key to the Tarot


Source –  Wikipedia



RWS Tarot 02 High Priestess
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

So, is Freemasonry esoteric, or not? – 

8 Schools of Freemasonry – Historic P6. The Historic, or Authentic School of Freemasonry . A dedication to fact-based historical writings as opposed to the ‘traditional’ or ‘romantic’ history, led a group of prominent Freemasons to form what would become known as the ‘Authentic School’ of Freemasonry. [ The Square Magazine ]

Arturos de Hoyas, the esteemed historian and Masonic scholar, wrote a superb essay on the subject citing just that question – his conclusion: 

The short answer is “Yes, no, maybe.”

Esotericism is any topic “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.” This certainly applies to Masonry.

But on a deeper level, and in a Masonic context, the word esoteric is usually taken to mean that our ceremonies and rituals allude to realities and/or truths not generally understood, or which may have a spiritual component to them.

The term is tainted to some people, and acceptable to others; hence, it may not be easy to wholly accept or discard the term “esoteric Masonry.”

Like an onion, each esoteric layer successively builds upon the other. We can all agree that Masonry is intended to be understood by few, and that it’s a kind of specialized knowledge.

But the questions are, “What kind of specialized knowledge?” and “Are they real secrets?”

Depending upon one’s inclinations, the Master Masons Degree has been interpreted in a variety of different ways by different persons.

For some, it’s a story of fidelity; for others, it teaches hope in the immortality of the soul; for still others, it’s a lesson in alchemy; and yet for still others, it alludes to the discovery of entheogens. Some see it as multi-faceted, or a combination of various things.

But, as I have written elsewhere, we should avoid trying to enshrine our preferred interpretations as the “true” one.

If esotericism interests you, that’s fine; if not, that’s also fine.

My personal library is well-stocked with enough material on both sides to make anyone think in favor of, or against, virtually any position.

The important thing is to be well-educated, and understand what we know first. Before you reach for the stars, make sure your feet are firmly planted on the ground.

Make yourself into someone who can be taken seriously. Learn the facts about our origins based upon what we know.

I sometimes speak about “historical records” versus “hysterical documents.” Before you buy into such fantasies as “Freemasonry descended from the ancient Egyptians,” get a quick education. 

Further reading:

Arturo de Hoyas, 33°, Grand Cross | Grand Archivist & Grand Historian. ‘Is Freemasonry Esoteric?’  https://scottishrite.org/scottish-rite-myths-and-facts/is-freemasonry-esoteric/

Original article published in Scottish Rite Journal March/April 2017 

Article by: Philippa Lee. Editor

Philippa Lee (writes as Philippa Faulks) is the author of eight books, an editor and researcher.

Philippa was initiated into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) in 2014.

Her specialism is ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, comparative religions and social history. She has several books in progress on the subject of ancient and modern Egypt.  Selection of Books Online at Amazon

A.E. Waite: A bibliography 

By: R. A Gilbert  (Author)

Includes books and pamphlets, privately printed rituals and related ephemera, contributions to periodicals and books and periodicals containing biographical or critical studies of Waite.


Books by A. E. Waite


The Original Rider-Waite Tarot Set

By: A. E. Waite

This edition, distinguished by its subtle, muted color tones, is an indispensable addition to any tarot collection.

The bright, primary colors seen in the familiar 1909 version of Rider-Waite(R) Tarot deck published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. have been returned to their original palette exemplified in the Arts and Crafts style of the early 20th century.

For example, the pale blue backgrounds seen in The Star and the Wheel of Fortune cards are presented here as minty green.

Tarot aficionados will be pleased to see that the card backs have been restored to their original design of Tudor roses and lilies in pale blue.

The Original Rider-Waite(R) Tarot Pack includes a Celtic Cross card-spread guide and an updated version of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, written by Arthur Edward Waite.

This new edition includes a thoughtful foreword by Liz Greene, who not only places tarot in a historical context, but also situates it in a broader context.

She describes tarot as “a series of pictorial portrayals of the archetypal human life-journey.”


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