If and when you need to talk about something related to the essential (and eternal) questions of humanity in terms of esotericism, a large bag with “symbols” in it is the main toolkit for you. You cannot simply argue about the curious subjects of the universe and existence using the “ordinary” words and statements of daily life if you are a part of an esoteric order. Instead, you tend to carefully speak using the mysterious terms that we call symbols. This is directly related to a millennia-old way of communication between the members of “fraternities” (or “sororities”) whose traditions can be traced back to the earliest cultures of human civilization. No clear expressions, no simple and ordinary arguments or terms, but “words of wisdom” almost always employ dozens of symbols.

So, what is esotericism then? Is it something like, “Me, my best friend and his cousin have a secret, and we keep it only to ourselves” thing? It’s definitely not that simple. If it could be defined this way, most of us could consider ourselves to have been “esoteric” at least once in our lives. The “secret” concept in esotericism refers to something universal that is too important to share with others who are not ready or worthy to receive such a powerful “truth” in their minds.

The term “esoterica” gets its roots from Plato, who used the expression “ta eso” in Greek in his dialogue named Alcibiades, referring to things that belong or related to an “inner circle.” The opposite to this was “ta exo,” which he used to describe things that seemed to be “of outer circles,” or simply “outside.” Plato’s meaning for this term was a bunch of men who gathered for a cause or idea, sharing some common concerns and exchanging thoughts about essential things regarding the question of existence. Or at least it was interpreted this way by the followers of the famous philosopher. That was around the 4th century BCE, so can we say that esotericism as a term and concept was born approximately 2,400 years ago? The answer is, no. It belongs to a much much older era, possibly to the times when human civilization emerged on this planet.

What kind of “secret” is it?

A “secret” is a fact (or a series of facts) that directly becomes the core of the “universal truth” that explains and defines the way the system we live in operates. So our little secrets about a friend cheating on his wife or stealing from his father’s wallet are not considered “esoterical,” even if we kept it to a limited group of friends and didn’t share it with others. An esoterical secret is something that affects your mind so deeply and powerfully that you cannot go on living the way you did before you learned it. You join the “inner circle” if you are approved and accepted; you get your share of the secret that was made partly accessible to you, and you try to “train and educate” yourself with help from your fellow “insiders.”

As I stated above, the secret of esotericism lies in the core of the universal truth that describes the essential principles of the universe—or some believe so at least. This knowledge of “truth” is so important and valuable that it needs to be protected from the “profane” and should only be passed to those who show promise as new candidates for the “inner circle.” When someone is considered worthy enough to be accepted inside, a special ritual called “the initiation” takes place, and the candidate is introduced to the “first-degree secrets” of the order as he or she steps in.

Degrees and symbols

“Degrees” are the levels or “stages” for the hierarchical structure of an esoteric order. The initiation allows someone to become a member of the inner circle, and the stage after this ritual is generally considered the “first degree.” The introduction to the secrets about “the truth” includes only a few special symbols, such as maybe a secret “word” or phrase and some essential advice about “the path” the candidate has begun walking on. The knowledge or wisdom is passed to the lower degrees by the experienced, higher-degree fellow members in a master–disciple system. Almost everything that is to be taught in the inner circle is expressed using “symbols” rather than ordinary statements, so the main “training” in the order appears as the perception of these symbols with their multiple special meanings.

Esotericism is a tradition to protect the “essential knowledge” and restrict it to those who are worthy enough to be accepted to the inner circle. The initiation ritual is a mimic of the “death and resurrection” process. The candidate symbolically “dies” during the ceremony and is subjected to a “resurrection” experience with the help of his or her fellows of the higher degrees. Usually, the initiation ritual is designed to shock, if not frighten, the newbies, which adds to the effect of the order and its secrets during this very first step. The former “life” of the candidate is finished with the death during the initiation, and a new life is given to him or her with the symbolic resurrection ceremony. This means the candidate is now a completely new, different person from that moment on.

Symbols, signs and words are kept strictly “secret”; the candidate takes the oath during initiation to never reveal them to the “outsiders,” which means “the exoters.” To belong to the inner circle means to be a part of the esoteric tradition, and everybody except those in the order are “outsiders” with whom “the truth” or the symbols that express it may never be shared. This is a very strict rule among all esoteric traditions.

A short history

When did it all begin? Western terminology developed the concepts about esotericism by borrowing words and teachings mostly from Greco-Roman culture, but the roots of the system go further back to the 4th millennium BCE or even to much older times. Without an exception, all Egyptian temple traditions had their own esoteric systems. Likewise, the Mesopotamian priesthood, as well as Near Eastern cults, had an identical system for preserving the wisdom and security of the inner circles. The ancient traditions were passed through the Greek cults (like the Eleusys Mysteries and the Dionysos order) to the Roman counterparts, among which we can name the cult of Magna Mater, the Lodges of Mithra or the Bacchus Communities.

Beginning in the 4th century CE, the Christian culture crushed most of the esoteric cults, and only a small fraction of the surviving members escaped the persecutions, taking the cults underground with great secrecy. After the Renaissance and especially the Enlightenment era, the old traditions of esotericism appeared to revive throughout Europe and later travelled to the New World. Most of them centered around an eccentricism that deeply involved occultist enthusiasm, but there were also some widespread esoteric systems that looked mostly secular, such as those of the Freemasons around the world.

We said above that esotericism was about preserving the wisdom of the truth from the profane, and we mentioned that the system used intensely a great number of symbols, which were the links of the “secret” to be kept safe. This special wisdom was something found only among the “templar cults” of the esoteric orders, so if someone wanted to access those secrets, the only thing they could do was become initiated into one of those orders. This continued to be effective until the end of the 20th century. Many books claimed to “reveal the secrets” of those orders, but very few of them (if any) contained accurate information about them. The technological revolution that came with the invention of mass-media systems like radio and television only slightly changed the situation, because most of the esoteric cults or orders tended to remain distant from these effective tools of communication.

What about the “Internet Age”?

Then, everything began to look different with the beginning of the 21st century: The “Internet revolution” brought new standards and norms to the world of communication, and information quickly became something  to be “shared” instead of preserved and kept. Most esoteric orders at first seemed skeptical about this new “culture of online sharing,” but it was not easy to resist the facilities it brought to the “daily routine” of the work needing to be regularly done. So they began building their own websites, operating e-mail groups, and publishing online documents. At one point, it became so obvious that, in fact, the oaths about “keeping and preserving the secrets” were quickly becoming obsolete with the widespread effects of the Internet culture.

As we approach the middle of the second decade of the new century, I can safely say that there is no “esoteric secret” under the sun—nor a “secret word,” sign, or unknown symbol—that cannot be accessed. Can we talk about a traditional esoteric system that could survive under the circumstances of the Internet age using their “ancient” methods? Could there be a “secret knowledge”—even a tiny symbol or a short “secret word”—that cannot be shared, posted or “tweeted” at anytime? I personally do not think so.

Maybe some of you know the 3D virtual world “Second Life” operated by the IT company Linden Lab. I spent some years using my leisure time to relax by wandering around its “sims” and even contributed to that world by building places and creating content. It was a hobby for me, and discovering new places that other people built was real fun. One day, I came across a “sim” that was called “Grand Lodge of Freemasons in Second Life” or something like that. I directed my “avatar” to the temple in the middle of the sim, walking through a beautifully built garden. In front of the gates, a “Junior Warden” saluted me, and we began to chat.

“Can I enter the temple and look around?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not,” he replied, “unless you are already an initiate and know the secret word for the 3rd degree.”

I smiled and told him the “secret word” of the 3rd degree by private message, which signified I “was” a Master Mason. He then let me enter and added, “One more little detail, bro. For membership to this virtual lodge, you need to buy the Freemasons Kit and everything’s fine.”

The cost was 500 “Linden dollars,” which was slightly more than a buck, so I paid and purchased the kit, which included an “apron,” a square-and-compass badge, and a booklet prepared for the “fellowcrafts.”

After the interaction, I was free to join the meetings and rituals. Was I a Master Mason? No. Anyone who could use Google’s search engine wisely could access a “monitor book” that explained the initiation ceremonies and “secret words” of almost all degrees, and that was exactly what I did. I suppose this is a good example of “esotericism in the Internet Age.”