Lefkowitz, Mary: The Myth of the Egyptian Mystery System

[From her book: Not Out of Africa: how afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, Basic Books]

IN MODERN EUROPE and the European diaspora, lodges are the designated meeting-places of Freemasons and groups inspired by them. Ιn reality, the Freemasonic movement in its present form is relatively modern, and has its origins in the seventeenth century A.D.(48) But it is an article of faith in the Freemasons’ οwn histories of their movement that there were Freemasons in earliest antiquity.(49) Their rites and mythology preserve the essence of “Egyptian” mysteries and “philosophy” prevalent in late antiquity, but in a new and even more characteristically European form than anything we have seen so far.

A striking quality of Freemasonry is its “imaginative attachment to the religion and symbolism of the Egyptians.”(5o) The Egypt to which the Masons refer is of course an imaginary one, but this was the Egypt that was rediscovered in the Renaissance: for convenience, Ι shall call it Mystical Egypt (to distinguish it from the historical Egypt that was first explored scientifically and understood only in the nineteenth century). European writers learned about Mystical Egypt from the writings of the church fathers. They knew the Hermetic treatise known as Asclepius because it had survived in a Latin version, and they supposed that it was one of the books of Hernιes to which Clement of Alexandria referred in his description of the procession of Egyptian priests. So around 1460, when a Greek manuscript containing most of the Hermetic treatises was brought to Florence, Cosimo de’Medici thought that it was more important to translate them than the works of Plato, because “Egypt was before Greece; Hermes was earlier than Plato.”(51) As a result of this “huge historical error,” the Hermetic corpus was given serious attention, and its fictions were widely accepted as truth.(52) Although the theology of the Hermetica had been criticized by the church fathers for its “idolatry,” the writings found a sympathetic new home in the greater religious tolerance of fifteenth-century Europe. Their first translator, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), thought that Hermes Trismegistus had foretold the coming of Christ and the birth of Christianity.(53)

Hermeticism, in this updated form, became in itself a new religion. The key figure in the new movement, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), was burned at the stake for his heretical beliefs. Bruno had joined the church as a Dominican monk but had been expelled for his unorthodoxy. He then became in effect the high priest of Mystical Egyptian Hermeticism. He taught that Christianity was a corruption of Hermeticism. He advocated the knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and Mystical Egyptian magic, and he taught the art of memory, the technique of which was based οn building, and hence of particular interest to masons: a speaker, when memorizing a speech, would imagine himself walking through a particular structure. Ιn that way, he would be reminded of the topica of his speech as he recalled specific features of the building. Since Hermes was also the patron of Masons, the Freemasons became interested in the learning and magic arts associated with his name.(54)

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