It really is a jumbled mess. The occult traditions of the Western world got their start when a subculture of ancient Greeks got hold of assorted half-understood chunks of the traditional magical lore of Egypt and Babylon, and tried to make sense of it using the tools of Greek philosophy. From there it ramified and rambled, borrowing freely from every other source within reach. There have been plenty of losses—when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, and fell over and died promptly thereafter, a great deal of classical occultism vanished forever; when Europe and the countries of the European diaspora embraced scientific materialism, with results that may not turn out that much better, a great deal of Renaissance occultism vanished forever—but all the while there’s been no shortage of new material emerging, not to mention imports from around the globe and throughout time.
Over the last century and a half, furthermore, occultism has ended up sharing space out on the fringes of social respectability with a great many things that don’t actually have anything to do with the old occult traditions at all. Atlantis, for example, wasn’t an issue for occultists until Madame Blavatsky made it one. Her two massive books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, were playing a subtle game—rather more subtle, in fact, than either her critics or her more uncritical admirers seem to have realized. Her deliberate embrace of a range of memes from the alternative culture of her time, Atlantis among them, was part of the underlying strategy of that game, which probably deserves a post here one of these days. Thereafter, though, speculations about Atlantis, varying from the intriguing to the goofy, have been a running theme in quite a bit of occult literature.
Similarly, if the American pharmaceutical and medical industries weren’t so frantic about trying to squeeze every possible source of competition out of existence, the biochemic cell salts I discussed in an earlier post here would never have found their way into correspondence courses issued by half a dozen major twentieth century American occult orders. Because they were exiled into the dim and fabulous regions where occultists lurk, though, occultists and biochemic healers struck up a variety of conversations, and cell salts became something a lot of occultists used.
Now of course plenty of bits of rejected knowledge that found their way out to those same dim and fabulous regions were neither as lurid as the Atlantis myth nor as useful as cell salts. There was a while when perpetual motion machines and free-energy motors, for example, had a certain cachet among American occultists. Similarly, there was an entire subculture of American occultists, of whom Meade Layne was probably the most famous, who went whole hog into the UFO business—oddly enough, beginning several years before the famous “flying saucer” sightings that kickstarted the whole business in 1947. The occult scene dropped UFOs like a hot rock in the 1960s; I sometimes wonder if they had noticed just how consistently “UFOs” resembled whatever aerospace technology the Air Force wanted to keep most secret at the time, from the silvery dots of the era of secret high-altitude balloon tests to the black triangles of the era of the first-generation stealth prototypes.
Not everything that’s gotten mixed up with occultism over the years, in other words, is occult in any but the original, literal sense of the world: occultus, “hidden.” The irony is that it’s entirely possible to go hunting for something that’s part of occultism in the full, classic sense of the word, and end up instead with something that probably doesn’t belong in the category of rejected knowledge for any but historical reasons. That’s been on my mind of late, because the research that resulted in my latest book went down exactly such a rabbit hole, and came back with a rather unusual rabbit.
I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason. Down through the years, there’s been a vast amount of chatter about the secrets of Freemasonry, but there’s a detail that—though it can be learned readily from any number of sources—generally gets left out: the Freemasons don’t have the original secrets any more. Brethren of the Craft will recall that when they were raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason, they were given substitute secrets, in place of the real secrets which are lost. To this day every Master Mason is, at least in theory, pledged to the quest for the Lost Word.
Now of course there’s no shortage of claims about what the real secrets must have been. Devil worship, political subversion, kinky sex, the legacies of a prehistoric civilization on Mars, you name it, no matter how lurid, how pedantic, or how absurd, it’s probably been identified as the real meaning of the Lost Word. After I became a Master Mason in 2001, I was curious enough to do some fairly systematic reading into the various supposed meanings of the Lost Word. Later on, when I went in for the various high degrees of Masonry—the degrees that follow Master Mason, each of which has its own teachings, secret handshakes, et al.—I ended up being taught three more words, each of which purports to be the original Lost Word. This didn’t exactly clarify things any.
So I started from first principles. The Master Mason rituals used in regular Masonic jurisdictions today come from an original that appeared around 1720—three years after the founding of the first Grand Lodge in London. Nobody knows who introduced it or where it came from, but it tells a story about the building of the Temple of Solomon, and that story includes—indeed, centers on—the business about the Lost Word and the substitute secrets, which are to be kept until the real secrets were recovered.
So around 1720, at least, three linked ideas were sufficiently important to leading Freemasons that they put them into the Craft’s most important ritual. The first was that Masons of some earlier period had known some important secret; the second was that the Masons of 1720 no longer knew what the secret was, but thought they had some hope of recovering it; and the third is that it had something to do with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which is described in quite some detail in the Old Testament, and in far greater detail in the Talmud.
That sent me to a variety of books on the Temple of Solomon, of which Raphael Patai’s Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual was the most useful. That’s when things started getting distinctly weird, because Patai noted blandly that there are references all over the relevant parts of the Talmud to the idea that while the Temple of Jerusalem stood, there was a significant improvement in agricultural fertility in the land surrounding it. That stopped, again according to the Talmud, when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and it started up again when the Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity—there are references to that in the Book of Haggai, one of the very minor prophets at the tag-end of the Old Testament.
That was odd, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I decided to pursue a second tack. According to a persistent body of traditions within the Craft, Freemasonry can trace at least part of its heritage back to the Knights Templar of the Middle Ages. The Templars—the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, to give them their original name—were founded in 1118 by nine French knights who had gone to Jerusalem with the First Crusade, and dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1311 amid a flurry of charges of heresy and sorcery.
The Templars got their name because the original nine knights were housed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, atop the ruins of Solomon’s Temple; by the time of their abolition, they had landholdings in most of the countries of Europe, including a very large presence in Scotland. The Masonic tradition has it that those Templars who were in Scotland at the time of the order’s dissolution offered their services to King Robert the Bruce, who was busy fighting a war with the English just then and needed every competent soldier he could get; they fought for him at Bannockburn and elsewhere, and in return, he let them go quietly to ground.
The tradition proceeds to claim that since the Templars had their own master builders and stonemasons—they had to, since they themselves built the castles, churches, and other structures on their landholdings—some of these Scottish Templars ended up supporting themselves as master masons in the original sense of that term, and from that source, certain Templar legacies found their way into Freemasonry. It’s a matter of historical record, finally, that Freemasonry as we now know it was in existence in Scotland most of a century before it appeared anywhere else.
All of this was familiar ground, and didn’t seem to point anywhere, until I reviewed the charges leveled against the Templars at the time the order was dissolved. Much of it was the same sort of canned libels that would be used not quite a century later in the first major round of witch trials; some of it had intriguing parallels to the actual practice of heretical Christian sects in ancient and medieval times, which deserve more attention than they’ve gotten in the historical literature to date; but then there was the claim that they worshipped a mysterious idol named Baphomet, which made the crops grow. There was the issue of agricultural fertility again.
A third expression of that same theme came almost instantly to mind. The first surviving version of the story of the Holy Grail was written down around 1190 by Chretien de Troyes, who claimed he’d gotten the story from Count Philip of Flanders, a notable Crusader who had close connections with the Knights Templar and the royal house of Jerusalem. Between 1190 and 1250—that is, during the golden age of the Templars—the Grail got a huge amount of play in the popular literature of the time; most of the Grail legends note explicitly that there are secrets associated with the Grail; and of course the reason King Arthur’s knights went out in search of the Grail, according to the legends, is that it alone could restore the barren Waste Land to fertility.
I’ll spare you a blow by blow account of my researches from that point on, as they involved a great many dead ends. What I found, to summarize, is that certain religious structures—not all of them, just those designed, built, and used according to certain common principles—were traditionally associated with crop fertility. Broadly speaking, there are two apparently separate traditions involved. One of them uses structures shaped more or less like a stair-step pyramid: large ones, like the ziggurats of Babylon or the pyramids of the Mayas, or small ones, like the earth-deity altars that used to be found near every village in China before the 1949 revolution. The other uses rectangular structures oriented toward specific compass directions. This latter tradition, which is the one the Temple of Solomon followed, is also found in the divine temples (but not the funerary temples) of ancient Egypt; in the classic temples, or naoi, of ancient Greece and the classical world generally; in the temples of India; in the Shinto shrines of Japan, and finally, and surprisingly, in Christian churches in western and central Europe between the late Dark Ages and the Reformation.
That latter tradition was the one I focused on, since it was the one that was relevant to my search. There are, of course, immense differences between the religions involved. Shinto has curious similarities with ancient Egyptian religion, to the extent that a worshipper of one who was suddenly transported to a temple of the other would be able to figure out pretty much everything that was going on; Hinduism and ancient Greek religion, for that matter, have certain similarities; and then there’s medieval western European Christianity, which is sitting pretty much out there by itself.
Yet if you look at the religious architecture of each of these traditions, you’ll find rectangular buildings oriented very precisely toward specific compass directions, often though not always on an east-west axis, and laid out according to specific geometries in which that same axis plays a crucial role. You may well find the axis extended for quite a distance across the landscape, always in a straight line, unitl it ends at a body of water or a sacred site. You’ll find the worship space itself divided into an outer area for ordinary worshippers (which may be outdoors if the climate’s suitable), an inner area for clergy, and a sanctuary that’s reserved to the presiding divinity except on special occasions, and these again are normally along the same axis. You’ll find the building surrounded by a green belt—that’s spelled “churchyard” in Christian Europe—with some kind of barrier, usually a low wall, surrounding the periphery. All of these features, by the way, were found in the Temple of Solomon.
Follow the worshippers as they enter the sacred space and you’ll see them purifying themselves with water before they go in. You’ll find the space itself full of aromatic plant resins—from incense in most cases, but in Shinto shrines, it’s from the fragrant hinoki wood of which traditional Shinto shrines are made—and when certain traditional services are being performed, you’ll hear chanting in which prolonged vowel tones play an important role. Wildly different theologies, similar practices—and in each case a little bit of research turned up the specific historical linkages by which a body of lore could have been transmitted from Egypt, which seems to have been the original source of the tradition, to each of the others.
And of course there’s that link to agricultural fertility—explicit in all but one case, and implied, as a hope waiting to be fulfilled, in the medieval Christian legends of the Holy Grail.
The final piece of the puzzle was how a building, however precisely sited and structured, however exactly its interior was arranged as a resonance chamber, however curious the activities performed in it, might influence agricultural fertility. That was actually the easy part, as I’d stumbled across two possible causative mechanisms early on in my hunt. The first was terrestrial electricity and magnetism. There are currents of electricity and lines of magnetic force, closely associated with one another, moving through the body of the Earth, and several researchers noticed quite a while ago that these can have remarkable effects on plant growth. What’s more, back before chemical fertilizers became standard, experimenters with what was then called “electroculture” found that crops grown in soil that had a slight electrical charge in it yielded significantly better than average. A building properly sited atop an electrical discontinuity in the earth, by the way, can build up a substantial charge of telluric electricity, which then streams outward through conductive areas in the soil.
The second possible mechanism involves certain frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum. Entomologists have found that many flying insects perceive electromagnetic radiation in wavelengths on the border between infrared light and microwaves; they have little wax-covered spines called sensilla on their antennae that resonate to those wavelengths. Most plants have tiny spines on their leaves, called trichomes, that are also the right size to pick up the same wavelengths, and many of the pheromones emitted by insects and the aromatic compounds released by plants will radiate in those wavelengths if stimulated by movement, light, or sound.
To a moth, in other words, a meadow is a tapestry of colors and sensations that you and I will never know. Shimmering veils of pheromones aromatic compounds glow in a vast spectrum of unearthly colors, which communicate to the insects who perceive it through their sensillae, and also to the plants who sense it through their trichomes. This hue tells male moths that a female of their species is near; that hue tells plants that a common parasite is in the neighborhood, and stimulates the production of defensove compounds. It’s all part of the normal flow of information through any healthy ecosystem.
Now imagine a structure designed to contain highly concentrated aromatic compounds, which radiate certain wavelengths when stimulated by movement and sound. Imagine that the same structure also builds up a strong charge of terrestrial electricity, and sends it streaming out again through conductive areas in the soil. What effect would such a thing have on the surrounding fields? Nobody knows, as the tradition that guided the building of the old temples has apparently been lost, and the relevant research that would allow scientists to determine the effects has never been done.
What I think I’ve found, in other words, is an archaic folk technology linked to specific traditions of temple building and worship, which used natural forces to improve agricultural productivity in fields near the temple structure. That tradition likely emerged over thousands of years of trial, error, and lucky accident; it was in existence early in the first millennium BCE, when the Temple of Solomon was built; as a secret lore traditionally linked to religious mysteries, it was lost in various corners of the world when religious traditions changed; bits of it may still survive in traditional lore in India and Japan, despite the tumultuous modern histories of both nations; it came to Europe in fragmentary form in the Dark Ages, and later, in much more complete form, as part of the secret lore of the Knights Templar; it passed out of use in Europe during the Reformation, but lingered among the old operative stonemasons for some centuries thereafter; it was lost irrevocably by the Craft in the ghastly civil wars of seventeenth-century England and Scotland—and it might just possibly still be recovered.
That’s my hypothesis. Have I proved it? Not a chance. The Secret of the Temple, the book of mine mentioned earlier in this post, is a first speculative reconnaissance of a vast and poorly understood landscape. It’s entirely possible that my working hypothesis is wrong, and that the secret hidden behind the legend of the Lost Word is something else entirely—but I think it’s also possible that I’m correct, and that further research might just turn up the Word that made the fields flourish.
Beyond whatever practical use or entertainment value that might have, there’s also a point of much broader applicability here. The knowledge of the past that’s been rejected by the present contains a vast array of things, and not all of them fit comfortably into the categories to which modern thought likes to assign them. It took Joseph Needham, the great researcher into Chinese scientific traditions, to notice that a certain potion made by Chinese alchemists was an impure but effective extract of human sex hormones, which was being used medicinally for hormonal insufficiency many centuries before Western doctors figured out the same trick. There are likely to be plenty of similar things mixed up in the vast and crowded attic of occult tradition, and I’d encourage those of my readers who like such things to go looking. If their experience is anything like mine, they’ll be in for an adventure.