Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

IV. The Essenes

122. Connection of Judaism and Gnosticism.—At the dispersion of the Jews in the heart of Asia, attempts were made to discover analogies between the Chinese doctrines of Lau-Tze (80) and those of the Hebrews, extending even to the name Jehovah; and it is undeniable that whilst the Jews on the one hand assimilated their dogmas with those of Zoroaster, on the other they diffused Gnostic and Cabbalistic ideas throughout the world. And Lau-Tze has by some been considered as a forerunner of Gnosticism. A fragment of this religious teacher runs thus: "Before the chaos that preceded the birth of the universe, there existed one sole being, boundless and silent, immutable and yet ever active, that may be called the Mother of the universe. I know not its name, but may call it Intelligence. Man has his model on the earth, the earth in heaven, the heaven in Intelligence, and Intelligence in itself."

123. Essenes and Therapeutae.—On their return to Judaea the Jews were split into various sects, such as the Pharisees, whose name is supposed to be derived from Parsees, and Sadducees, Chasidim, and Zadikim. With regard to the Mosaic law the Pharisees were Chasidim (Pietists), whilst the Samaritans, Essenes, and Sadducees were Zadikim. The former afterwards split into Talmudists, Rabbinists, and Cabbalists (no, Sect of the "New Saints"). But those in which the Eastern element predominated most were the Essenes and the Therapeutae. These two sects have often been confounded, it being assumed that the latter formed the highest degree of the order. But they were quite distinct, having nothing in common except their moral precepts. Their practices were not exclusively Oriental, but by means of the Alexandrian school were connected with Western traditions, and especially with the teachings of Pythagoras. The Essenes, approaching more to the principles of Zoroaster, who held that the soul was to be freed as much as possible from corporeal influences, submitted to fastings and maceration; the Therapeutae, living in Egypt, endeavoured to reconcile the doctrines of the East with the ancient traditions of Greece, wherefore the picture Philo, who strongly sympathised with them, has left us of their society, abounds with Eastern and Pythagorean ideas.

It is, however, doubtful whether the work was really written by Philo; by many it is supposed to be the work of a Christian monk, as a panegyric on ascetic monachism. Some writers have attempted to derive the Essenians from the Ephesian priesthood, and tracing some resemblance between the Orphics of Thrace, the Curete of Crete, and the Ephesian priests, the existence of an ancient common doctrine, submerged like a philosophical Atlantis, was suspected, the Grecians being looked upon as a powerful offshoot; but it seems certain that the Essenes had very little of Greece in their rituals, whilst the Therapeutae had a great deal. The Essenes may, with great probability, be derived from the Assideans (i Mac. ii. 42), who, in consequence of the perfidy of Alcimus (i Mac. vii. 13-16), severed their connection with the Temple. In our English Apocrypha, the Assideans are called (i Mac. ii 42) "mighty men of Israel," but the meaning of the original is, "adherents of the old faith." They were not warriors, as has been supposed; they were the first to seek peace (i Mac. vi. 13), for they formed a religious and not a military community.

124. Their Tenets and Customs.—The Essenes were renowned for their moral and virtuous lives. They dwelt in villages, far from towns, tilling the land, owning no slaves, and having all their goods in common. They made no vows of celibacy, but most abstained from marriage, dreading the infidelity and fickleness of woman. They cultivated the physical sciences, and especially medicine. No one was admitted into their community, except after having passed through graduated probations lasting several years. And why they are reckoned among secret societies is, because they may be considered as the opponents of the Jewish priesthood at a time when that priesthood was all-powerful, and any opposition to it was attended with the utmost danger.

Now the doctrines of the Essenes were necessarily opposed to the Hebrew faith, and to escape the persecution which they otherwise might have incurred, they in the first instance adopted a name calculated to disarm suspicion, viz., that of Essenes, from the Essen or breastplate worn by the Jewish high-priest, and further took every possible precaution in the admission of members into their secret order, which was divided into four degrees, and the process of initiation was so arranged that a candidate, even after having entered the third, did not know the grand secret, and if not found trustworthy to be admitted into the innermost sanctuary, remained totally unconscious of its real nature, and only saw in it the governing ranks, highest in rank, but not otherwise distinguished in point of doctrine. (A perfect parallel of this system is found in Freemasonry; the members of the first three degrees are not initiated into the grand so-called secret of Masonry; only in the Royal Arch they are informed of it). The four degrees above referred to were respectively called the "Faithful," the "Illuminate," the "Initiated," and the "Perfect." The Faithful received at their initiation a new or baptismal name, and this was engraved with a secret mark upon a white stone (probably alluded to in Rev. ii. 17, which, as we shall hereafter see, was not Christian in its origin), which he retained as a voucher of his membership. The usual sign was the cross, though other signs also were employed.

125. Distinction between the two Sects.—The Therapeutae were more addicted to contemplation and less to labour; they might be called speculative Essenes. They were less opposed to the admission of women, and at some of their festivals they performed dances, in which the fair sex were allowed to join. But whilst not denying themselves the society of women, they banished wine from all their meals; they were afraid, it seems, of the conjunction of Bacchus and Venus. They alone had, or professed to have, the key to the right interpretation of the writings of Moses, a true knowledge of the Cabbala, and according to tradition, Christ was born of parents belonging to the society, who brought up and trained the child in the part he was to play.

The Essenes and Therapeutas resided chiefly in the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea and in Egypt, and their existence was prolonged into the fourth century of our era.