Excerpt from The Book of Maps
Medieval philosophers and mystics on the quest to memorialize a single, universal theology searched beyond the borderlines of their own traditions. While their doctrines were based largely in Christian and Jewish mysticism, metastasized by the integration of Platonic philosophy and Sufism, the quest for that universal theology led these thinkers to consider Hinduism, Buddhism, and even a return to unearth the deeper heritage of their own pagan roots.
Cultural integration is conceptual alchemy that blends what had been separate artistic, intuitive paths of wisdom into one unified system of evolved thought.
Integration of diverse doctrines is necessary for the advancement of metaphysics and science. That which closes itself off from integration will not evolve, and if you don’t evolve, then you can’t transcend.
The advanced civilizations of history were products of cultural integration. At the age of twenty, a Macedonian king—and a student of Aristotle—succeeded his father to the throne and with his newfound reign, expanded his father’s empire across Africa and Asia.
Alexander the Great launched the Hellenistic Period (323 BC to 31 BC), when Greek culture, religion, mythos, and esotericism spread throughout Europe and later to the New World out West, changing the ideologies of the societies that Greek thought integrated into.
Consequentially, the Hellenistic culture was indelibly changed by the people that Alexander’s armies conquered. Alexander himself personally adopted many of the customary practices of the Egyptians and Persians. Thus, Egyptian and Persian culture wove their way into the global fabric in ways that now cannot be untangled.
Greco-Buddhism, a religious syncretism between Hellenistic and Buddhist philosophies, produced mutual, tempered change in both the East and West. Alexander’s reign changed the spiritual landscape of Central Asia, leaving notable Greek influences over the Buddhist art of antiquity.
For instance, 4th century Mahayana Buddhist depictions of the Vajrapani—a Buddha in some sects and a bodhisattva in others—is associated with the golden thunderbolt. The mythologies of Vajrapani as a heroic character and great protector of the Gautama Buddha were influenced by the Greek mythologies of Hercules/Heracles. The Hercules-inspired Vajrapani bodhisattva depictions then in turn inspired the Niō, divine guardians in Japanese Buddhism.
Reciprocating, Buddhism made its way into Christianity. The Greek orthodox Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat that was popular in the Middle Ages is just one example of that syncretism.
The story of Barlaam and Josaphat is based loosely around the life story of the Gautama Buddha, which historians believe was the result of Manichaean doctrines syncretizing Christianity and Buddhism.
In this Manichaean version, a king’s astrologer predicted that the crown prince would become a Christian. To thwart destiny, the king kept his son Josaphat isolated in the castle. However, Josaphat managed to escape the castle grounds, where he met the hermit Barlaam, and subsequently converted to Christianity.
The story, which was popularized in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is a Christian retelling of the Buddha’s origins story. At the end of this book, there’s a chapter, “Introduction to Manichaeism,” that explores the Gnostic doctrines of Mani in a little more detail.
As permeating as Greek thought was across the ancient world, ancient Greek mystery traditions themselves were a syncretic blend of Mesopotamian and Persian thought, with Zeus being a Hellenized version of the Egyptian god Amun.
During the Roman Empire, the polytheistic Roman traditions evolved to fold in Celtic and Germanic mythologies, in addition to the intimate syncretism between Greek and Roman mythology.
Gnosticism in the first and second centuries was a blending of Jewish and Christian mysticism and even religious thought from the East, such as Zoroastrianism, Aramaic and Mesopotamian thought, with modern scholars speculating syncretism with Mahayana Buddhism as well, given the undeniably strong parallels between Gnosticism and Buddhism.
The Byzantine Renaissance (867 to 1056 AD) was another period when cultural integration (and thus the arts and sciences) flourished. Greek and Roman aesthetics intersected with Latin, Persian, and Egyptian culture, all blending in to Orthodox Christianity, giving rise to Byzantine art, which later shaped the Italian Renaissance.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Genghis Khan’s reign over a broad and diverse empire brought about another wave of cultural integration. Though he was a Tengrist (a form of Central Asian paganism that consists of shamanism and animism), he nonetheless invited a diverse range of thought leaders into his court.
Genghis Khan is credited by historians as crystallizing the irrefutable economic relevance of the Silk Road, a trade network connecting the East and West, and the source of profound syncretism between Eastern and Western cultural thought so that the invention of playing cards could travel from China, through the Mamluk empire, and into Renaissance Italy to become the tarot.
However, the Silk Road precedes Genghis Khan by almost 1,500 years, its namesake coming from the precious silk trade during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) and enduring for dynasties thereafter.
In antiquity, spices, such as Ceylon cinnamon (which was also imported from Egypt into Europe), cassia cinnamon, and frankincense moved from East to West, becoming so prized in the West that the Abrahamic religious traditions considered them holy. The ingredients of the Biblical holy oil in the Book of Exodus, and even the ingredients listed in the later version memorialized in the Book of Abramelin, are all spices native to Asia brought to Europe through the Silk Road.
Still other cultures showcase fascinating instances of cultural integration. The Kingdom of Aksum, situated in what is now modern-day Ethiopia, was a formidable global power, in significant part because it was a critical connecting point between the Mediterranean and the Orient.
It was also a kingdom open to integrating Judaism, Christianity, and Hellenism. Even the civilizations of antiquity were culturally integrated, such as ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, was of Greek ancestry, and her society was one that integrated Libyans, Berbers, Nubians, and Parthians.
During the Renaissance, the theory of prisca theologia evolved from the merger of Hellenistic corpora (the collection of written texts on Greek mystery traditions and cults) and Kabbalistic literature, both of which were filtered through a Christian perspective. And yet the origins of the prisca theologia concept, i.e., a first theology, or philosophia perennis, an eternal philosophy, has its roots in Islamic thought.
Sohrevardi (1154 – 1191), full name Shahāb ad-Dīn Yahya ibn Habash ibn Amirak as-Suhrawardī, was the founder of Illuminationism, or Wisdom of the Rising Light, a philosophical and esoteric mystery school from the Islamic Golden Age that espoused the first principles of Light (a concept likened to what Eliphas Levi would later refer to as the Astral Light), how it manifests as intellectualism, as angels, as divine genius, and as Reason.
He blended Islamic thought with occult Emanationism, Zoroastrian angelology, Hermeticism (Sohrevardi referred to Hermes as the Father of Philosophers), and Neoplatonism. His school of thought also centered on intuitive mystical experiences for achieving Gnosis. Eventually Sohrevardi was charged with crimes of heresy and executed.
It wasn’t until the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance that pursuit of the prisca theologia took popular hold in Western Europe, with one significant milestone occurring around 1463 when Cosimo de’ Medici took a keen interest in the Corpus Hermeticum and commissioned a translation by Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499), a Neoplatonist, scholar, physician, astrologer, and Catholic priest.
This early manifestation of the prisca theologia sought to reveal a common denominator among Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and Christian thought.
Interest in exploring the prisca theologia was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries to be integrated into the esoteric schools or mystery traditions of the time. Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and later Thelema integrated the principle of a primordial religion, one that the mystery traditions of that time believed could be learned through the ancient Egyptian religions, Zoroastrianism and the Persian magi, Hinduism, the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, and Jewish mysticism.
During the Industrial Revolution, occultists of the time sought intersecting points that would connect Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist principles with Western esotericism.
The epiphenomenon (a secondary or incidental event) to pursuing the prisca theologia is a scholarly reexamination of folk wisdom, deciding not to dismiss superstitions, oral history, or old wives’ tales, and to not treat them as inferior to modern metaphysical inquiries.
I’ve openly shared the animistic premise of the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot—I decided to take seriously and as truth the primitive supposition that all things, from people, animals, and plants to rocks, land formations, and even what is created by our handiwork, such as a deck of tarot cards, all hold a sentient spirit essence with the potential for agency. That sincere openness to animist beliefs is an example of an epiphenomenon arising from pursuit of the prisca theologia. The other is cultural integration.
Tarot itself is the product of cultural integration. It arose in popularity during the Italian Renaissance (between 1300 and 1600 AD), evolved from the Mamluk playing cards of Persia, which came from the invention of playing cards in China, with the earliest records dated to 800 AD.
The Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD) on the Korean peninsula popularized a divinatory practice of silk strips etched with insignia organized into eight suits corresponding with the eight trigrams, numbered one through nine. I dare speculate that such a practice is part of the tarot’s ancestry.
Medieval Chinese playing cards were often illustrated with scenes or characters from popular novels. A common one during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) was Water Margin (水滸傳), a 14th century classic about 108 outlaws—36 heavenly spirits and 72 earthly demons. The protagonist journeys to a Taoist monastery seeking a cure for the plague that’s ravaging the capital city. While there, he frees 108 outlaw spirits and the rest of the novel documents their adventures.
Records of playing cards in Mamluk Egypt appeared around the 12th and 13th centuries. The Mamluk Sultanate was a caliphate that ruled from Cairo between 1261 and 1517. They were predominantly Muslim, though Sufism (Islamic mysticism) was also widespread during this time.
During this period, Mongols from the Yuan Dynasty in China, the Crusaders arriving from Western Europe, and the Mamluks encountered each other in their battles over the Holy Lands. On the trade front, Mamluk and Islamic art made its way to Venice, which historically served as a liaison between Europe and Asia. By the 15th century, Venetian artists were borrowing heavily from Islamic Near East influences, brought by way of the Mamluks and Ottomans.
It would not be a far stretch of speculation to presuppose that merchants and soldiers from the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties brought Chinese playing cards with them westward, inspiring Mamluk playing cards. The Mamluks designed their playing cards with Islamic art styles. Crusaders from Western Europe along with Venetian merchants then carried the Mamluk playing cards with them back home.
The Franks then changed the designs to reflect Christian sensibilities. A version of Italian playing cards, Tarocchi, surfaced in the 15th century, and like the Chinese adding references to their beloved narrative Water Margin to their cards, the Italians added references to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) to illustrate the Tarocchi.
The interest in tarot took a notable turn during the Age of Enlightenment (1685–1815), when the occultists of the time saw patterns of Egyptian magic, Jewish mysticism, Greek mystery traditions, and Hermeticism in the symbols on the tarot cards, paving the groundwork for the Victorian and Edwardian eras when the tarot became culturally integrated into Western ceremonial magic. Thus, although the tarot is not necessarily occult, study of Western occultism is tethered to the study of tarot symbology.
Aleister Crowley’s work was influenced heavily by Eastern esotericism, from Hinduism to Taoist ceremonial magic. Crowley himself believed that he was the reincarnation of Ge Xuan, a 2nd century Chinese alchemist and occultist.
During his travels through China, his magical work focused heavily on invocations of his Holy Guardian Angel, namely through recitations of the Bornless Ritual (adapted from a Preliminary Invocation, which Crowley and Macgregor Mathers linked to the Goetia, or the Lesser Key of Solomon).
Carl Jung, who seemed likely to have subscribed to a pantheistic form of spirituality, was convinced as a psychologist that the fundamental purpose of human life was spiritual transcendence, and to evolve beyond our physical bodies into a form of psychic or spiritual union with a Divine.
His conclusions came from dedicated study of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, which he integrated with his studies of Christianity and Gnosticism.
Another renowned figure in occultism, Gerald Gardner traveled to East Asia in his 40s, making his way through Vietnam, China, Singapore, and the Philippines, where his primary interest was cultural anthropology. It’s hard not to notice the remarkable similarities between Taoist esotericism and Asian folk magic with Wiccan thought.
Emboldening cultural integration is not to dismiss cultural appropriation, however. The balancing plank between the two is a socially dangerous one to tread, with an unreliable fulcrum.
To seize upon the ideas of a culture and not genuinely honor its people is to lack the compassion and empathy necessary for transcendence, and so that attempt at integration fails.
To construct theology beholden to normalized dogma will chain the spirit to the body, binding it against transcendence, and so that attempt at integration also fails.
The seeker of the divine mysteries must dare to push boundaries and comfort zones, but also must accept the risks of treading so close to the tiger’s tail. When the tiger snaps around and bites, you cannot then say in retrospect that you had no idea you would be bitten.
If social inhibitions disempower you from daring to tread upon the balancing beam of cultural integration, then it is still a distant day before you can come to know the prisca theologia for yourself.
Will you find yourself accused of doing the heretical rather than the divine? Probably. If history is any indication, every philosophizing mystic who has adopted cultural integration in pursuit of Truth have all found themselves charged with heresy. Today in the 21st century, charges of heresy take on a different patina, but make no mistake—that’s what it is.
Cultural appropriation is a reality. It’s brought to reality by lived experiences of being compelled to erase your own culture for the sake of assimilating into a dominant culture. Meanwhile the dominant culture takes a fancy for sporting your culture as a trend. Where you’re condemned for being yourself, they’re celebrated for wearing that same identity they condemned in you.
And yet progressive cultural integration must coexist with conservative orthodoxy—therein lies a great paradox. An enlightened civil society will celebrate free, unfettered, and unencumbered discourse between pillars of progressive thought and pillars of dogmatic establishment.
There must always be a light-bearer of unclouded tradition and a dynamic challenger to that tradition. We need both the magisterial gatekeeper and the rogue who outwits the gatekeeper.
I wonder if that great paradox is the riddle the mystic needs to solve to arrive at Gnosis. Your spiritual liberation requires an encounter with dogma and establishment, and a battle of that dichotomy must take place. Alchemical integration is achieved after a jousting of the opposites.
The notion of a one true religion is not objective, but subjective, though subjectivity in no way takes away from its veracity.
It’s in that way that these practices draw the analogy to quantum physics—not that quantum mechanics is subjective, but rather that there are a host of individualized case by case factors at play.
A formula must be versatile enough to account for all probable events, and because the whole of the cosmos is too vast and nebulous of an abstraction with far too many probable events for one human to express absolutely, we must look to the quanta, the individualized parts and specific incidences of variables that fluctuate from case to case—that is the only chance any of us have at ever comprehending the whole of the cosmos.
Even in an atomic microcosm, observed facts can be subjective. Observers, by each one’s individuality, will influence reality. There is no singular immutable reality, because reality forms around the position of the observer.
The one true religion is not a simple culturally integrated patchwork of religious doctrines built from as many traditions as you can assemble.
Rather, I’ve come to view the philosophia perennis—the perennial wisdom of all ages—as an alchemical process, not a defined doctrine.
While its 1540 origins with Agostino Steucho, a Renaissance humanist and Biblical scholar, were to validate Christianity by presenting classical philosophies from different civilizations as essentially Christian, I use the term to describe the process of validating your own personal gnosis through realization of its congruence to classical philosophies from different civilizations.
Aldous Huxley contended that the foundation of studying the philosophia perennis for yourself is spiritual practice and morality, while its zenith is contemplation of metaphysical truths. The tarot can guide at both strata. And in that spirit, I’ve presented the myths, philosophies, and mysteries of many peoples to facilitate your process of realizing congruence, because where you find congruence is where you’ll validate your personal gnosis.
8 thoughts on “Cultural Integration and the Prisca Theologia”
It is a fine line between cultural integration and cultural appropriation. I feel that understanding the various cultural beliefs brings one (my own opinion) to realize that all paths lead back to the One. With gentle weaving and seeing, it’s good to be true to ourselves and respect what others may be going through. My own journey has been expansive and contractive, repeatedly. So much so that I thought I was a spiritual flake! With the repetitive “Why can’t I commit to one spiritual path?” spiraling in my head.
Have you ever heard of Leigh McCloskey? He created a 22 Trump deck called Tarot Re-Visioned. The images of the Trumps are fascinating and beautiful. The book is a masterpiece and reminds me a lot of your work Benebell. His is more from a Western Esoteric view, while yours if from an Eastern Esoteric one. But you both integrate what you’ve learned and still are learning into fascinating views of the world. Thank you for all that you do (and it’s a lot!).
I get very confused between cultural integration and appropriation. Mostly because I’m a first generation Australian, with a Scandinavian father and Asian mother. I don’t look like either of them, but I don’t look like the people around me either. And to foreigners I sound Australian, but there are some syllables I pronounce a bit differently that I don’t sound like a “real Aussie”. And the location of this nation along with its history make it awkward or difficult to pin down what it means to be “australian”, there is such a disparity in national identity. So everyone just picks crap they like from other nations because that’s what we do… what do you do when you don’t have a cultural identity to belong to?
I feel I have digressed from the intention of your blog post though..? I want to say “I get it”. It’s actually… every thing I’ve been looking for. I’ve been independently doing my own research into following the symbols and historical traces of “the gods” through various cultures and countries… But I kept getting side tracked, or whatever. I didn’t know what I was looking for so I would just look into whatever. Haha. But then you came out with this. And I’m like “of course!” So… thank you a butt ton (a metric ton of butts). It’s such a relief to see it on the screen, but I have no idea how to print my own damned copy here in Australia because everything sucks lol. So I’m just waiting for you to start distributing.
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