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The Golden Bough of Initiation Part I

The Golden Bough

A Study on the Italic Roots of the Western Inner Tradition with a Renaissance Treatise on “The Practice of Philosophical Ecstasy”

David Pantano

In Roman mythology, the Golden Bough is a votive branch with gilded leaves from a tree of the sacred grove that enabled the Trojan hero Aeneas to journey through the underworld safely. The Bough was sacred to Persephone, the queen of the underworld, and associated with the Goddess Diana. The legend of Aeneas and the Golden Bough found in the Aeneid is a seminal myth of the Western World as told by the Roman poet Virgil. Ancient legends tell of lands to the West known as Hesperia that follow the trajectory of the evening star Venus. Venus, the Goddess of love, mother of Aeneas and benefactor of the Trojans and their descendants, helps her son whenever the Gods venture to harm him, causing conflict among the Gods. According to these legends, the spirit of Anchises, Aeneas’ dead father, appears and tells Aeneas to visit the underworld, where he will learn what the future holds in store for his people. First, however, Aeneas must find the oracle known as the Sibyl of Cumae, who will lead him to the land of the dead. Aeneas locates the oracle, who informs him that he cannot pass through the underworld safely without the Golden Bough. When Aeneas enters the forest to look for the sacred branch, two doves lead him to an oak tree that shelters the bough leading to a portal that descends into the underworld, the domicile of Gods, heroes, and demons of Hesperia.

The Golden Bough myth recounted by Virgil outlines the key parameters of a branch of Initiation, particular to a people, who later were to form the nucleus of the Roman tradition. This form of initiation, when stripped of its external vestiges and reduced to its essence narrates a journey to reclaim an identity of self, tradition, and transcendence. A journey to re-integrate with the roots of Self-hood through the establishment of a spiritual connection with ancestors. The selfsame themes of this tradition repeat throughout the wheel of time. They tell of a fallen golden age, an uprooted tree of life, of long wars, invasions, a twilight civilization, people in decline, spiritually vacant, a collective amnesia, in summa of an alienation from the tradition that Giordano Bruno refers to as a portentous tree that spouts blood and an abandoned stump sterile for millennia.

In today’s terms, what meaning could the “Golden Bough” bestow upon men? What sense can we derive from a quest that promises safe passage through the underworld for those worthy to undertake it? What relationship does today’s man have with the transcendent, the divine and with their spiritual ancestry? From where the future men who will turn the tables, precipitate a polar shift and restore a new order to revive the Tree of Life?

In the Orphic tradition, the initiated were taught a technique to drink from the Mnemosyne, the river of memory, to find their roots, return to the land of origins and thus terminate the endless transmigration of souls. A tradition imparted to the Aeneades, descendants of Aeneas (sons of Venus), who with the Boreal wind at their backs, follow a path towards the western star (Venus) to revive the lands of Hesperia. The journey in search of a lost realm and a dormant spirituality begins internally with an excavation of the roots of the Self. The process of journeying into the underworld requires a special knowledge of recalling Self-identifiers latent in the soul (anamnesis), of an initiation that cultivates the faculty of memory and imagination to open a channel of consciousness that transcends spatial and temporal thresholds and lay bare an inner oracle. An initiation that purifies desires through the fire of platonic love and potentiates the imagination, with the cardinal virtues of memory, visualization, invention, and ingenuity, to enable the direct experience of the fruits of spiritual realization.

The techniques exercised by the initiate, correspond to atavistic forms of initiation particular to heroic natures from deep-rooted lineages and traditions. Seen through this lens, the hero is qualitatively lord of the inner and outer realms, self-determined and autonomous with an adamantine nucleus of being (numen). Articulated in Homeric and Hesiodic terms, the hero represents manifest virtue, duty, and simplicity. Exemplified by the Roman patrician, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519–430 BC), who despite his old age, worked on his small farm until an invasion from the neighboring tribe the Aequi, prompted his fellow citizens to call for his leadership. He came from his plough to assume leadership over the state and lead a band of militants to achieve a swift victory over the Aequi but was also quick to relinquish his power and return to his farm. His success and immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with the end of this crisis (traditionally dated to 458 BC) has often been cited as an example of heroics; self-sacrifice, service to the greater good, civic virtue, subordinated personal ambition, and modesty.

Etymologically, the term Hero is closely tied with Eros. Both derive from the same root, love or Amor, which links to the hidden name of Rome (Roma, Amor, Maro, Orma). In metaphysical terms, as the synthesis of sidereal (veneral) and telluric (martial) forces, Rome is associated more often with the chivalric nature of its outer form, Mars (Maro). Whereas, in spiritual terms, Rome is internally connected with Venus (Amor). Moreover, this initiatory practice is best realized by the initiate during the hours of cosmic transitions when Venus is visible in the sky, in the early morning prior to the appearance of Dawn and late afternoon at the onset of dusk during the hour of Vespers (Greek ἑσπέρα for Hesperia). Amor is the “root principle” and “force in action” underlying the hero whether acting in the inner or outer worlds. The integrity of this principle sets the hero apart from the race of titans, the race of selfists and usurpers of the Tradition. The Hero grounded in a lineage linking ancestors with descendants, transcends the “principium individuationis” by rooting the self in Tradition.

This form of atavistic initiation was jealously guarded among ancient Italian aristocratic lineages dating back from the early Roman era to recent times. Adepts are to be found among the longest standing families and clans (gens): Iulii, Claudii, Flavii, Symmachii, Colonna, Savelli and Caetani, to name a few. The metaphor of trees is frequently referenced throughout Roman history. Their comparatively human lifespan provides a fitting metaphor for the beginning and ending of dynasties and for the vitality and triumphs associated with select lineages. For example, the trees planted by Augustus’ wife, Livia, lasted for the duration of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Romulus’ fig tree, mentioned by Tacitus, perversely declined and withered to extinction at the onset of Nero’s reign. This association correlates in a consistent manner the rise and fall of dynasties and political systems with the flourishing or withering of trees. The ancient Romans maintained long-standing family “trees” that metaphorically reference the genealogical “branches” (rami), “stock” (stirpes) and sap (royal/heroic blood, sanguis) among old stock patrician families. Many of the attributes associated with leading Roman families are drawn from the planting, adoption, and uprooting of trees and their vitality is often described in human metaphors. Historians like Columella and Pliny use metaphors of abandonment, uprootedness, and adultery of agriculture and horticulture to characterize the estrangement of dynasties from ancient traditions.

The Golden Bough myth references a consistent language of signifiers and markers that manifest throughout the history of the Roman and Italian eras. The appearance of auspicious origins, Renaissances, Rebirths, Risorgimentos, Renovatios bear witness to the cyclical renewal of this form of atavistic resurgence. The symbolic meanings grafted onto the principle parameters employed by Virgil in his role as Vates (seer) to articulate the inner language of the Golden Bough initiation are decoded in the following terms.

  •  Golden Bough – Ritualized tool to activate atavistic channels with ancestors (manes) and tutelary spirits, Rex (archetype)
  • Sacred Grove – TribeStirpes, Dardanian race, Aeneades
  • Underworld – Athanor, astral world, inner realm, Invisible Empire, Hesperia
  • Two Doves – Dual nature, solar and lunar aspects of self-purification required to navigate successfully in this practice
  • Oracle, Sibyl – Vates, seer, poet, philosophers, custodian of tradition, guide that leads hero back to his roots, Virgil, Dante, Bruno, Evola
  • Aeneas – Self, solar hero, seeker, practitioner (Orpheus, Pythagoras, Hermes)
  • Anchises – Rex, archetype, ancestor, spiritual root of the Dardanian bloodlines
  • Venus – Amor, divine or platonic love, universal energetic field, sidereal force, underlying spirituality, fire element
  • Persephone – Terrestrial love (eros), guardian of the threshold to the underworld, earth element
  • Diana – Maternal love, divine matrix of resurgence & renewal

In the initiatory practice, the Golden Bough functions as a votive branch that establishes an effective link that ties the initiate with ancestors to receive spiritual influences (presence, inspiration, guidance, virtues, divination) from the radix (roots) of his lineage. In symbolic terms, the Golden Bough represents a votive tool coded with a set of signifiers sacred to the tribe. Not limited to materialistic pursuits but immediately felt as symbolic manifestations of invisible forces. The initiation establishes a bridge through which the ancestral spirit and consciousness of the soul flow from the archetypal roots of the tribe, primordial Rex or tutelary Hero, to the initiate. The Rex in his dual role of Warrior and Sacerdote is the solar initiator, the lord of the rite, the fire, and Artifex of the ascetic sacrifice by which men are “transfigured and transformed”. Forged by initiatory practice, men are transformed into Vir (ancient Roman term for a Nobleman possessing innate virtue), cognate with the Vedic term Virya (hero), and with ancient Runic sigil for fire VR, which corresponds to the element Fire, located at the spiritual centre of the heart and reigning over will. By connecting the dotted lines of the constituent pieces that make up this Arcana, we are led to acknowledge a fundamental metaphysical truth that underlies and equates the Roman Vir (hero) with the synthesis of Veneral (amor) and Martial (will) forces. The Roman Vir is characterized by personifying solar, heroic, principled, and integral attributes. Acutely summarized in “The Magical World of Heroes” by the Renaissance Hermeticist, Cesare Della Riviera. The heroic act is the sum of initiation, where alchemical knowledge under the aegis of the contemplative act is the one and true process of “dissolving” the elements and ascending to higher ontological states of being. Della Riviera writes, “The Highest and most Liberal Factor” that created “the machinery of the Universe”, divided into three realms, the intelligible world, the ethereal world, and the dregs of the elementary world, so that it could be learned by humans through an act of contemplation and lead to the “raising of the self” to the Creator. As a fundamental guide to this work of initiation, the divine offered to human-kind the “lignum vitae” (wood of life). The term “lignum vitae” refers to a process of active contemplation that potentializes the act of visualizing spiritual experiences, associated with the Art of Memory of Ramon Lull. The image of the tree (Golden Bough) acts as a catalyst to set off the ascension of the mind through the celestial branches towards the divine in a process of “Angelization” of the (worthy) initiate. That is, a mind that journeys through the various stages and branches of the meditative act to reach angelic realms.

The intention of this article is to survey a broad spectrum of Western inner traditions and bring to light, the heroes, orders, schools, and teachings that have laid the grounds of initiation in Italy, from pre-roman to recent times, but also in a deeper and wider sense, of an Occidental tradition. The underlying themes that inform this initiation include: Spiritual Kingship, Invisible Western Empire (Hesperia), Atavistic Resurgence, Ars Heroica, Ars Magia, Ars Amatoria, Art of Memory, Art of Imagination, Art of Dreaming. Initiation in this context, from the Latin initiātus, refers to the self’s inner journey to identify and integrate with its Principle (Self, Soul, Numen). In this sense, initiation, like Aeneas’ quest to divine the future by finding the roots of his past (principle) refers to a process of self-discovery by means of exercising the deep-level operation of the mind – the constant interaction between the fantasia (imagination) and the memoria(memory) to create a living identity through the arts of intuition, invention and expression. The practice of re-integrating with the principle of the Self occurs as a result of reversing the polarity of the initiate’s centre of being from external and exogenous influences to a centre that is nourished internally from spiritual roots (numen). The initiate is ontologically transformed into an Adept (hero), a manifestation of the solar principle or what the ancients refer to as Homo Faber, that is he who is real is he who creates.

This article makes no claims to speak as the final word on the topic, rather in the words of a contemporary practitioner of Initiation, Giammaria, it is intended to leave a trace for a future memory to return and elaborate further on this great chain of being.

The criteria for determining who to include and what to summarize in the following pages are as follows:

  • Poets, philosophers, politicians, leaders and initiatory orders, academies, schools based in Italy or in the Roman Empire
  • Topics related to the Western, Classical and Italic inner traditions
  • Written material and testimonies on initiation, wisdom, esoterica
  • Impact on future generations. Ex. foundational, multi-references, new insights 


In the long history of the diverse peoples occupying the peninsula that branches out from the southern trunk of Europe and known as Italy (previously: Hesperia, Ausonia, Enotria, and Vitalia) the presence of sodalities and schools dedicated to the spiritual elevation of consciousness dates back to the dawn of classical civilization. Tradition refers to the wheel of time as a continuous cycle of regressive eras, or what in the Vedic tradition is referred to as Yugas. Archaic mythologies reference the existence of a Golden Age in Italy, under the reign of Saturn (Sat – being, Urn – period) followed by a silver age led by the rule of Jupiter and the Olympians, then a bronze age that was interrupted before the advent of the Iron era by the restoration of a new order led by heroes with royal lineages linked to divine ancestors and who upheld the values of the Olympians. Though short-lived, the heroic age bequeathed future generations with an archetype, radix, tradition, and way of life. The end of the heroic era corresponded with the end of the archaic era and precipitated the flourishing of mystery cults associated with the telluric cycles of birth, death, and renewal as found in the cults of Dionysus, Demeter, and Ceres.

Res Publica

 The founding of the Italic School in Croton by Pythagoras (c.530 B.C) marked an important milestone in the establishment and diffusion of Western-based initiatic practices within the Occident. The Pythagorean school was organized into sodalities (fraternal orders) that were laboratories of experimentation, fundamental to the development of spiritual sciences, associated with the purification, recollection, and transmigration of the soul. Later in the 5thcentury BC, the Eleatic school of Parmenides expounded teachings based on the principle of truth as aletheia, that is reality at its essence reduced to an unchanging, un-generated and indestructible Being.

From the 5th century BC onward, Academies were established in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) representing the various schools of Greek philosophy and flourished throughout the passage from the Roman Republic to the Empire. In the early years of the Empire, the Roman senator Nigidius Figulus (98 – 45 BC) founded a sodality that revived neo-Pythagorean and magical practices that included theurgical rituals practiced by members. The sodality consisted of 28 practitioners that met in an underground basilica, located near the Porta Maggiore on the Via Praenestina. The circle was influential in reviving esoteric teachings that acted as a counterbalance to the more exoteric doctrines expounded by the prevailing philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism in the Roman empire.

The two poets that had the greatest influence on Latin literature were, Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) (70-19 BC), and Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) (43-118 AD). Their body of work impacted the literature of inner traditions by disseminating fundamental Western-based themes (topoi) on initiation and self-transformation. Virgil was initiated in the Epicurean school of Siro at Naples. He foretold the emergence of a golden age known as Arcadia in connection with the birth of a child in the “Messianic Eclogue” (Eclogues 4). Virgil in Book 6, the Katabasis, in the epic poem the Aeneid, articulated the spiritual descent and purification of the hero Aeneas into the underworld. Whereas Ovid wrote extensively about self-transformation (Metamorphoses), and on the Art of Love (Ars Amatoria & Amores). Ovid advised inexperienced lovers to approach love with the same vigour, audacity, and cunningness as a soldier engages in war.


In the early years of the Roman Empire, Apuleius of Madauros (124-174 AD) was recognized as an erudite author who wrote extensively on the topics of magic, myth, divination, and self-transformation. Best known for writing the “Metamorphoses”, otherwise known as “The Golden Ass”, Apuleius articulated a potent spiritual practice “Contemplation of the Midnight Sun”, that sustains the initiate’s consciousness and self-will when transiting between altered states of consciousness. During the height of the Empire, Pythagorean and other (often) Eastern-based teachings of self-purification, asceticism, and transcendence were taught with discretion among specialized academies and sodalities throughout the peninsula. The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-161 AD) articulated a stoic philosophy based on spiritual practices designed to elevate the self through the ascesis of focussing attention away from what is lower to what is higher and from is external to what is internal. During the late Empire, Plotinus (204– 270) and his disciple Porphyry (234 –305) continued the transmission of neo-Pythagorean and Platonic teachings through academies, sodalities, and followers. After which, the torch of tradition was passed over to the Syrian school led by Iamblichus who practiced theurgical rites with the aim of ascending the soul up to the divine. Late into the Western Empire, Emperor Julian made worthy but unfruitful attempts through his philosophical works and political actions to reconstitute the old traditions of the Olympian tradition. The philosopher Sallust (Saturninius Secundus Salutius) (367 AD) was part of a faction that promulgated the ancestral traditions of Rome by writing the influential apology On the Gods and the Universe”. This treatise synthesizes Platonic and Pythagorean doctrines with the philosophical worldview of Emperor Julian. Sallust presents a vision of the world and of the sacred that falls within the context of the theurgical doctrines outlined by Iamblichus. He was a trusted advisor to Julian and accompanied the Emperor during the failed Persian campaign where Julian was killed. Sallust was offered the purple upon Emperor Julian’s death however he refused the investiture. Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345 – 402 AD) belonged to one of the few remaining families that practiced the religious rites of the old traditions.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus was a Roman statesman, orator, and man of letters. Symmachus sought to preserve Rome’s ancient religious traditions. In 384 he wrote to the new emperor Valentinian II requesting the restoration of the “Altar to the Victory”. The Altar of Victory was located in the Curia of the Roman Senate and bore a gold statue of the deity Victory to commemorate the victory of Augustus over Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. One of the last sages to write on mystery traditions was Macrobius (430 AD), author of the Saturnalia and the classic work on ancestral dream initiation “Cicero’s Dream of Scipio”. By the late 4th century, the Flavianus, Praetextatus, and Symacchus families were the last bastions to uphold the ancient traditions, spiritual lineages, and bloodlines that made up the Olympian Age of Heroes.  


After the turbulence that marked the centuries following the Fall of the Roman Empire of Rome with invasions and wars by foreign powers. The Italian Middle Ages were characterized by a constant struggle for dominance between warring factions that were either pro-Empire (Ghibelline) or pro-Papacy (Guelphs). The soil was also fertile with spiritual ferments. The most fecund ferment was a circle of Poets of Love known as the Fedeli d’Amore. Dante was the most eminent member of the circle and his epic poem the Divine Comedy is ripe with initiatic allegory. The Fedeli d’Amore practiced a mystical form of initiation where the force of love was heightened and distilled through a contemplative practice that utilized the auxiliary of the feminine to raise consciousness upwards towards the divine. A love that is stripped of banal sentimentalities and engaged as a naked force to act as a magical vehicle for transformation and transcendence, and move the stars and suns. In Dante’s ultra-mundane journey depicted in the Commedia the complex relationship between words and facts, between poetry and experience, pervades both the objective sphere of the narrative and the subjective dimension of the narration. On one hand, the poet states the truthfulness of his voyage while claiming on the other the insufficiency of human language to articulate his extraordinary experience. In this perspective, memory, imagination and the ingenuity of expression acquire a fundamental role. The Divine Comedy can be read as a template for the alchemical opus: Inferno (nigredo, black), Purgatorio (alba, white), Paradiso (rubedo, red). Seen from a traditional lens, the Fedeli d’amore were the Faithful of Love, Amor, Venus, who in this Dantean context represent the Ghibellines and led by the Federicus, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The trobar clus of the Divine Comedy is the identification and re-integration of Dante and the Fedeli d`Amore as Aeneades, descendants of Aeneas.

In the mid-1450s, the Greek philosopher and mystic Giorgio Gemisto Plethon exercised a pivotal role in reviving Platonic philosophy in the final years of the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople. Plethon was invited to participate in an ecumenical council of Florence that was influential in establishing the Florentine Platonic Academy, under the patronage of the De Medici family. Plethon had a profound effect on the Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino (1433–99). When Cosimo De Medici decided to refound Plato’s Academy at Florence he chose Ficino as its head. In 1462, Cosimo supplied Ficino with Greek manuscripts of Plato’s works, whereupon Ficino translated the entire corpus into Latin. Ficino also translated a collection of Hellenistic Greek documents called the Hermetica, and the writings of Neoplatonists, including Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Plotinus.  Marsilio Ficino’s 1463 Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, which includes the Asclepias, the Stobei Hermetica, and the Testimonia, was influential in reviving a wealth of scholarly and popular interest in the Hermetic arts. Published in 1489, Ficino wrote the influential De amore (1484) and De Triplici Vita (Three Books on Life), that provide a medical and astrological advice for maintaining health and vigor, as well as espousing the Neoplatonist view of the world’s ensoulment and its integration with the human soul. Ficino writes “There will be some men or other, superstitious and blind, who see life plain in even the lowest animals and the meanest plants, but do not see life in the heavens or the world …” In the Book of Life, Ficino details the inter-connections between behavior and consequence. He refers to a list of influences that hold sway over a man’s destiny. His medical works exerted considerable influence on Renaissance physicians such as Paracelsus, with whom he shared the view of the unity between the micro and macrocosmos, and their interactions, through somatic and psychological manifestations, led to an investigation of their signatures to cure diseases.

Ficino introduced the concept of “platonic love” in the West. It first appeared in a letter to Alamanno Donati in 1476 but was later fully developed in his famous work, De amore. Marsilio Ficino’s philosophy of love can be summed up, as essentially made up of two primary themes, light and love. Light is the splendor of the divine beauty. It penetrates the whole creation, and all created things, therefore, partake of it. Whenever a man casts his eyes in the beauty of the universe and considers it, he sees and loves everywhere a beam of the supreme light, and is turned upward to the intuition of its pure essence. Love is the vital principle of universal existence, because love is in all things and for all things, indissolubly embracing them all: “Since they are the work of a single artificer, all the components of the world, as parts of the same machine, similar to one another in essence and life, are bound together by a certain reciprocal affection. Hence rightly love may be called the everlasting knot and bond of the world, the immovable support of its parts and the firm foundation of the whole machine. Reality is seen through the eyes as form and is felt through love to be love. In all things there is a soul; and this soul is nothing but secret power, a principle of life and harmony, a kind of beauty. The material body is insignificant compared to the immortal soul.” Ficino sums this up by asserting that “only by divine inspiration can men understand true beauty.” Understanding true beauty is necessary for the ascent of the soul to the Angelic Mind, and thence to God. The Angelic Mind tries to reach God through beauty, which is determined by desire. Ficino defined desire as partaking through the influence of the Two Venus’ and two Cupids – divine and vulgar (earthly). The platonic source for this notion of ascent is referred to as the “ladder of love”.

The essence of reality, then, lies inwardly. The truth of all things is to be sought beyond the outward veil that envelops them. Man can grasp the secret of the world. His inner eyes can pierce the dim surface of reality and see everywhere the shining impress of God’s beauty. The effort to rise, above all appearances, to truth marks the steps of man’s ascent towards God: an ascent by degrees, which is a return and a re-conquest.  In Ficino’s “Commentary on the Symposium”, or De Amore, he argues that love and beauty provide the means to ascend to the divine.

Ficino was ordained a priest in 1473 and practiced medicine, astrology, astral magic, and vegetarianism. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s philosophy that influenced the direction and tenor of the Italian Renaissance and the development of European philosophy. The influence of these practices continued throughout the Renaissance where Marsilio Ficino elaborated on love and astral magic that heavily borrowed from doctrines contained within the Picatrix. Ficino’s translation in Latin of the Corpus Hermeticumtriggered a revival of Hermeticism inspiring the philosophies of Giordano Bruno, Pico Della Mirandola, and Tomasso Campanella, among others. Marsilio Ficino was perhaps, the keys figure responsible for restoring the western inner teachings. No amount of praise and consideration is sufficient to pay for the pivotal role Ficino played in restoring the hermetic arts and initiatory practices.

Following Ficino, Pico Della Mirandola (1463–94) elaborated on a Christian based form of Cabbala, and his nephew Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1470–1533) continued the family tradition by elaborating on an alchemical treatise called “De Auro”. There existed tight ties linking Giorgio Gemisto Plethon with Sigismondo Malatesta, Condottiere (lord) of Rimini, who is best known for defeating the Ottoman armies (in 1464), and for building the famous “Malatesta Temple” praised by Ezra Pound in the Malatesta Cantos. As a patron of scholars, Malatesta was in contact with the “Academia Romana” (Roman Academy) founded by Pomponio Leto (1428–1498). In 1457, Pomponio Leto set about to revive classicism and establish a tradition of Ancient Roman gentility. Nominated as Pontifex Maximus, and taking on the Latin name, Julius Pomponius Laetus. Laetus founded the Roman Academy, which members adopted Greek and Latin names (Callimachus), and met at the Laetus’ Villa on the  Quirinal. The Academy met to discuss all aspects of the classical life, and ritually celebrated the birthday of Romulus. Their constitution resembled that of an ancient priestly college, with Laetus as the Pontifex Maximus. The Academy promulgated ancient Roman and humanist works such as the publishing of the De Architectura of Vitruvius and organized the first production of a Senecan tragedy mounted since Antiquity. The Academy received a dispensation from Emperor Frederick III to invest the best poets of the day with the laurel wreath. Under the suspicion of restoring pagan religion, the Roman Academy was shut down by the Inquisition. In 1498, the same year of Laetus’ death, the Hermetic Orders of the “Fratres Lucis” and the “Fratres Tenebris”, were founded in Florence. The Orders were of neo-Pythagorean inspiration and immediately condemned as heresy by the tribunal of the Inquisition. Following the example of Dante and the Fedeli d’Amore, the Orders were secretly referred to by members with the symbolic name of “Sister”.

In 1515, Giovanni Aurelio Augurelli (1454-1537) wrote an influential treatise on the Golden Art called Chrysopoeia which was reprinted numerous times and translated into several vernacular languages.  As was common in the Renaissance the treatise allegorizes the struggles and labors of mythologized heroes to represent the solve et coagula (putrefaction and refinement) of existential energies leading to a greater purification and potentiation of selfhood. Continuing the exegesis of mythologies as the source material to represent the various stages and transformations undertaken by the hermetic hero, Giovanni Bracesco (1482-1555) who claimed to have discovered the elixir of long life, in 1542 wrote to two important texts “Exposition of the Philosopher Geber” and “The Wood of Life (La esposizione di Geber. Il legno della vita). Bracesco’s treatises greatly influenced Julius Evola’s articulation of the Royal Art as evidenced by the number of citations to Bracesco’s works in his The Hermetic Tradition (La Tradizione Ermetica).

Perhaps the most elaborate expression of mystical love in the Renaissance was articulated in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilia (The Dream of Poliphilia) by Francesco Colonna (1433– 1527) scion of one of Rome’s oldest aristocratic families, privileging descent from Classical Roman times. The Dream of Poliphilus is a work first published in 1499 in Venice. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents a mysterious allegory in which the main protagonist, Poliphilo pursues his love, Polia, through dreamlike landscapes replete with Mnemonic techniques representing the specific architectural place and furniture signifiers (loci). Poliphili’s journey is terminated with reconciliation with Polia by the “Fountain of Venus”, culminating in the vision of Venus Genitrix. Claiming descent from the Julian gens (Venus, Aeneades stirpes) Prince Francesco Colonna closely followed the activities of Leto’s Roman Academy to revive classical culture. As well, the Hermetic philosopher Giulio Camilo (1480-1584), contemporary of Colonna, promulgated mnemonic practices (art of memory) by designing a theatre of the universal mind in his work “L’Idea del Teatro” (Theatre of Ideas).

Ludovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500) was a follower of the itinerant preacher and hermeticist. Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio, and was an important tributary that contributed to the diffusion of Hermeticism in the Renaissance. Lazzarelli translated the Corpus Hermeticum, a translation which follows and enlarges the hermetic texts previously translated and collected by Marsilio Ficino. Ludovico Lazzarelli was an Italian poet, philosopher, alchemist and practicing magician and diviner of the early Renaissance. Upon arriving in Bologna da Giovanni Mercurio Correggio is arrested and charged with heresy but is later released.  In Rome he begins to proclaim himself to be the “Younger Hermes” (implying that he is either the son of Hermes Trismegistus or Hermes Trismegistus reincarnated, hence the adoption of “Mercurio” to his name).

It is known that Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a renowned German alchemist, had access to Lazzarelli’s Hermetic writings, as he quotes a portion of Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetiis in his The Three Books of Occult Philosophy.

Carnivals and processions sponsored by Prince’s and Condottiere’s were popular in Renaissance Italy. They provided a popular form of street theatre. Carnivals were accompanied by triumphal processions that included men in costumes, emblems, wedding celebrations and emblems that portrayed heroic, dynastic, allegorical and cosmological themes. This form of street processions had their roots in earlier Roman parades celebrating military, political and religious triumphs. These Renaissance processions may have been the original inspiration behind the appearance of the oldest Tarot Triumph cards, Visconti-Sforza, by artisans depicting in pictorial cards the themes, figures and triumphs celebrated at the processions.

Giordano Bruno of Nola (1548–1600)  wrote widely on hermetic magic, elaborating in great detail the sympathetic laws and mechanics of exercising love magic (ars amatoria) through the agencies of phantasms that bond or enchain (viniculum) the inner sense of the imagination to achieve desired outcomes. Giordano Bruno’s third work on the Art of Memory or memory palace consists of a set of seals, which represent data structures for arranging and developing memory images and for processing mental representations and propositions. In this work, the Nolan fully combines both the retrospective Art of Memory and the prospective art of logic and judgment originally developed by Ramon Llull. Appended to this is the Seal of Seals, a discussion of psychological dynamics from a Neoplatonic viewpoint. To memorize anything, distribute vivid, emotionally stirring imagined images around a piece of familiar architecture. This is the method of loci, or memory palace method, first developed in classical antiquity. Giordano Bruno perfected the art in the late 16th Century. He published a series of books on the subject, beginning with De Umbris Idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas).

The Dominican monk Tommasso Campanella (1568–1639) known for his treatise on a new era that directly influenced the Rosicrucians, “The City of Sun” wrote an important treatise “On the Sense of Things and Magic”. Campanella is also attributed with authoring a lucid and potent spiritual exercise on ecstatic meditative practices entitled “The Practice of Philosophical Ecstasy”.

The Magical World of the Heroes” (Il mondo magico de gli heroi), was written by Cesare della Riviera, and first published in 1605. This work elaborates in highly cryptic and enigmatic terms a process for inner transformation leading to the conquest of a Second Tree of Life. Later, in the early 1930s, Julius Evola republished the book, translating the arcane language of the original work into a modern vernacular. Evola asserted that this hermetic treatise articulated the most open and clear statement of the principles of spiritual alchemy and hermetic art. Rene Guenon notes in his review, however, that the work of Della Riviera is far from being as transparent as asserted in Evola’s commentary. And indeed, “The Magical World of the Heroes” is enigmatic to the limit – first, by its literary form, and second, because the concepts with which the author deals are something extremely mysterious in themselves, not clear, and having no equivalent in concrete reality. The difficulties in understanding the given theme may arise because the very notion of the “heroic principle”, the figure of the Hero, is far from what is comprehensible to modern man? Perhaps this difficult text is crystal clear for the true heroes and does not require any further decoding? It is a very mysterious treatise on alchemy that supposedly teaches how to attain the Tree of Life and make a man into a god. In the treatise, Della Riviera gives cryptic instructions on magical techniques and sexual alchemy. Della Riviera posits contemplation as the final stage of a process of alchemic purification and distillation. According to Della Riviera, the real and the visible can only offer “metaphorical” knowledge to the extent that they intrinsically reflect and depend upon human rhetoric. If the first tree of life embodied a perfect identification between things and words, the second tree of life signifies the retrieval of a pristine, natural wisdom. Della Riviera posits the existence of a second tree of life, as a divine gift awarded to the worthy human progenitor of this earthly paradise. If this second tree was to truly exist, as a real reflection of the first tree, then would the seeker have to deduce that the second tree is both a mental and memorial construct? It is precisely through a mystical operation that the mind can experience the second image as a trace of the first tree. Della Riviera, references Renaissance alchemical practices to articulate a process where the initiate, through the auxiliary of concentrated focus on the self, contemplates the elements within, to effect a self-purification, as it “burns” the elements (memories, inner images) and allows the initiate rise to a purified vision of the divine. Like Ficino, Della Riviera bases his exegesis of the alchemical practice on the knowledge of applying the two Venus (divine and earthy). Della Riviera’s treatise presents itself as a conclusive summa of Renaissance Neoplatonism, Hermetic and alchemic thought, and Christian mysticism.

*** Footnotes omitted***

The Practice of Philosophical Ecstasy

[text attributed to Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), taken from the first volume of Tommaso Campanella’s Works published edited by Alessandro D’Ancona, Torino 1854, translation by David Pantano]

Find a location where you won’t be disturbed by any means, either by darkness or by the glimmer of light, penetrating the eyes whether opened or closed. Select a time when you can be quiet and released from the passions of body and soul. You should not feel hot or cold, or unease in any way, the head shall be free from congestion, moods or smoke from a pyre; the body shall not feel satiated with food, and freed from the appetites for eating, drinking, relieving oneself, or of want. Sit firmly poised in a still position, such as by leaning your head on the left hand or in a more comfortable manner …1

Clear the mind of passions and thoughts, whether they are of mercy or sorrow, of cheerfulness of fear or hope, or on thoughts of love, family, personal matters or of other things, neither retain memories of the past or thoughts of the present; but, having accommodated the body as mentioned above, place yourself in a state where the mind is freed from thoughts that attempt to take hold of your mind, and when one arrives, immediately rid your mind of it, and when another one comes, right away release it to the point where they no longer come anymore, and you do not engage in thought at all.2

In a state of full detachment, internally as well as externally, motionless as if you were a plant or stone; with the soul not engaged in activity, whether vegetative or animal. Retreating into yourself, through mental means, purged of all sense-bound objects, not understanding things by discursive speech, as before, and without recourse to consequences: you are made into an angel, intuitively seeing the essence of things in their simple nature, seeing the pure truth, forthright, unobtrusive, and receiving answers to queries that are proposed:3

As you mature in this practice, you must be clear with what it is you wish to inquire or investigate, and understand, when the soul is truly purified, pose the query and then, there will appear an inner light,4 by which truth is revealed, and with a feeling so sweet and so gratified that there is no pleasure in this world that can be compared to it; not even the enjoyment of what is most beloved and desirable, for they too fall short.5

After such an episode, the soul will return to the body to avail itself in the vile operations of the senses, if not, it would become greatly disturbed and would never want to return if it had no doubt that for the long dwelling in such an ecstasy there would be divulged future revelations of a great magnitude. Therefore, the subtle spirits which dwell inside you will rise and elevate to the head, triggering very sweet tingling sensations, where the mind’s instruments are located: and little by little they will fade away, which if they were all to extinguish at once, would result in sure death.6

And yet, those with a relaxed and undisturbed mind are more suited to this ecstasy, the spirits will more freely project outwards from the apertures. Otherwise, those overwhelmed with thoughts in their head will block the subtle body and vital energies, rendering the exercise futile. This, I believe, is the true nature of the Platonic ecstasy, which Porphyry mentions, Plotinus was abducted seven times, and he once; since it is rare that so many realizations can be achieved in one man: it can happen perhaps three or four times in two or three years; and the revealed events revealed must be written down immediately and with great detail, otherwise you will lose them, and when you refer back to them they will not be understood.7


  1. The basis for a regular meditation practice requires finding the appropriate external conditions by finding a suitable location where the practitioner is at ease and is free from distractions. Internally, one should be sound of mind, self-possessed and in perfect equilibrium of body, mind and soul.
  2. The process whereby the hermetic vase of the practitioner is sealed by stilling the internal energies and allowing for a convergence of vital and spiritual energies. The state of peace needs to be extended to the self; physically, emotionally and mentally.
  3. The author refers to a meditative state, known as Dharana in the Yoga Sutras, or single pointed mindfulness (concentration) that involves clearing the mind of mental content, where discursive and aberrant thoughts are eradicated. By focussing awareness on a single point (Drshti) and engaging in pranayama techniques to slow and regulate the flow of breath the practitioner will gain ascendancy over the constant flow of random.
  4. Dhiyana or deep-level meditation, process where surface consciousness rarefies and passes through an intermediary state of turbulence to enter a deeper state of quietude characterized by the emergence of inner visions projected on a simulacrum.
  5. Made into an Angel, process where vital energies are transformed into consciousness and a syzygy or conjunction occurs whereby a spiritual nucleus of energy coagulates into an automatous spiritual entity able to resist dissolution
  6. Amritra, ambrosia, a special sweetness is experienced by the practitioner whisked away into ecstasy. Similar to the yogic exercise of Kechari Mudra, mentioned in Gheranda SamhitaHatha Yoga Pradeepika and other yogic and tantric texts, where the practitioner stills the mind and raises conscious energy (Drshti) to the crown of the head.  By focussing his gaze on the crown centre (Bindu), energy is intensified like a pot of water ready to boil. At the appropriate juncture, the practitioner rolls back his tongue into his throat cavity until the tip of the tongue is placed on the bridge of the upper mouth plate creating a surge of energy that releases a sweet sensation known as Amritri, or nectar of the gods.
  7. Alludes to the final release of the soul from the physical body
  8. It is highly recommended that the practitioner be prepared to quickly record the experience once he returns from the ecstasy. If not risk losing valuable insight from fleeting messages that resist recollection and are susceptible to perishing in the River Lethe.