There will always be more to learn about the long history of human civilisation than what we may find in the collected records bequeathed to us by the victors of battles past. In fact one only has to scrape away the loose topsoil of any period of accepted history to expose rich seams of lesser-known information that often serve to shed fresh light on the age-old questions surrounding who we are and how our cultures have evolved.
‘Western’ culture, just as we find with its counterpart in the east, is inextricably bound to a set of religious and spiritual doctrines that have exerted a profound and far-reaching influence over society. Sometimes this influence is overt and all too easy to spot; for instance, no one could deny the overweening influence of the Roman church on the last two thousand years of western civilisation. Yet at other times, certain other religio-spiritual influences may have been just as strong, even though their origins have appeared far less obvious – perhaps even from being deliberately hidden from plain view.
From the shamanic, animistic proto-religions of the early European hunter-gatherers to the highly developed spiritual systems of the druids and the ancient Egyptians, not to mention the two thousand years of social domination by the church of Rome, it cannot be denied that religion has exerted a profound influence over the way literally millions of people have thought and acted over millennia. It’s an influence that continues to this day, even if the front-and-centre position of the main western spiritual hegemony appears to be largely on the wane.
Despite the obvious links between western culture and its native branch of spirituality, the notion that there may be an ancient and living western esoteric tradition every bit as deep and essential as that found in the east has, until relatively recently, been largely the preserve of the crank or the religious maverick. In the last few years however the so-called ‘western mysteries’ have begun to gain more ground within academic circles as a legitimate area of study. Various universities in Europe such as Exeter and Amsterdam now run respected courses in Western Esoterics and slowly but surely the hidden spiritual traditions of the west are gaining the respect so long afforded to their eastern cousins.
Hidden Wisdom is a noble attempt to set out the story of what is usually referred to as the ‘Western Mystery Tradition’; an umbrella term encompassing all manner of spiritual, religious and mystical systems that fall outside the purview of the accepted dogma sanctioned by the church, from ancient Greek philosophy and early Gnosticism through to alchemy, occultism, freemasonry, alchemy and magic. Here we find the tale of the other spiritual tradition of the west; a tempestuous tale of direct contact with the divine, of beauty, suppression, torture and courage. For it is undoubtedly true that many spiritual traditions of the west have remained obscure – at least in part – due to their often violent and bloody suppression on the part of the competition.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the faithful, the book argues, there has been remarkably little to be found in the way of compassion exhibited by those professing to embody that divine gift through the practising of the Christian faith. In point of fact (we are reminded constantly) more death and destruction has been meted out in the name of the ‘gentle Jesus’ than by any other religion. A jealous God, it would appear, begets a jealous faith and in its quest to remain the sole religious authority in the western world, the church has historically stopped at nothing to ensure the silencing of any voices which may offer an alternative to their own particular brand of salvation.
In this book the author Tim Wallace-Murphy presents an alternative viewpoint on the long and fascinating history of the western world by focusing on its mystery traditions and leading the reader on a tour through hidden history – one that wasn’t written by the victors. In a way, this is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The reader is left in no doubt whatsoever of Wallace-Murphy’s standpoint, whose near shrillness in his frequent condemnation of the church eventually serves to weaken his case – even to those readers who may agree wholeheartedly with his viewpoint.
While on the whole the book is pretty well-written and researched, the grinding of Wallace-Murphy’s personal axe is a just a little too overbearing a little too often. The reader is left at times with little or no room to draw their own conclusions since one is already being presented so strongly; ie: that the hidden traditions of the west are more beautiful, profound and ultimately legitimate than anything that can be offered by the villainous and morally corrupt church. While this may or may not be true, Wallace-Murphy frequently spends more time engaged in invective against the persecutor than actually explaining why he holds the opinion that he does about those who have endured so much persecution for their beliefs.
There is also the issue of misappropriated terminology. For instance, in an early chapter the reader is introduced to the concept of ‘gnosis’ in a discussion of ancient druidism – a tradition which used no such term as far as is known, yet when the author begins to discuss the early Christian Gnostics, no explanation of what the term ‘Gnostic’ actually means is offered. We are left then, wondering exactly who this book is aimed at since specialised terms are used but never satisfactorily elaborated on, while little or no new information is being offered that could not be found elsewhere in books that frankly render this volume largely redundant. Had The Elixir and the Stone by Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, or Jonathan Black’s Secret History of the World not already been written, there might be a real place for Hidden Wisdom, but in the opinion of the present reviewer, these two other books treat the same subject in a much more balanced and dare I say it, scholarly fashion.
That is not to say that Hidden Wisdom is not without its merits. It offers an easy to read and in places fascinating look at one of the most neglected subjects in western culture and any additions to the body of work exploring western esoterica are to be applauded. If however you want a primer on the subject, it has to be said that better books already exist. If on the other hand, matters hermetic are your thing, Hidden Wisdom may well prove worth a look. But if you’re searching for – as the book’s strapline boldly announces – the Secrets of the Western Esoteric Tradition, you may find yourself rather disappointed at what you find within its pages.