The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.
(Image credit: Zarathustra~commonswiki)
Ancient occult societies, alchemy, and magical chanting—how much do you really know about your nice neighbors in San Jose?
Tucked away in an area of San Jose best known for its green lawns and high-end homes are ancient mummies of everything from cats to catfish, including a few mummified people. These mummies rest in San Jose’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum with more than 4,000 other artifacts (originals and replicas), the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on exhibit in the western United States.
The museum building, designed to resemble the ancient Amon temple that once stood in Karnak, Egypt, is part of a beautiful, but somewhat baffling, complex built by the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). The what? They’re a group devoted to self-improvement and the study of mysticism. Rosicrucian Park takes up an entire city block in San Jose and features a planetarium, a research library, a temple, a shrine, and a peace garden replete with Egyptian plants, a pond, and fountains. All the buildings —except the Moorish-style planetarium— have exteriors inspired by Egyptian structures.
How this blend of ancient Egypt and New Age mysticism came to be located in a San Jose suburb is a strange story. For some, it begins in 1915 when Harvey Spencer Lewis, a former advertising illustrator from New Jersey, founded the AMORC to “study the elusive mysteries of life and the universe.” For others, though, the story really begins in 1500 BC, when some of those mummies in the museum were still alive.
EGYPT, BY WAY OF GERMANY?
The AMORC is an offshoot of the Rosicrucian Society, which has puzzled, intrigued, and sometimes angered people for years. Like the Freemasons and the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucian Society has been linked to secret symbols, famous people, and conspiracy theories. The first Rosicrucians appeared in 16th-century Germany, supposedly founded by Christian Rosenkreutz. According to legend, he was both an enlightened mystic and a successful alchemist (he could turn lead into gold, though we have no idea how), so he had a lot of clout in the worlds of religion and mysticism.
But many historians now believe that Rosencreuz was a mythical figure, rather than a real person. Three pamphlets appeared in the 17th century—one about Rosencreuz, a second about his secret society, and a third about alchemy and spiritual enlightenment. No one knows exactly who wrote the pamphlets, but the authors may have been German Protestants who started the society themselves. Regardless, those pamphlets spawned elaborate legends about the Rosicrucians, elite Christian mystics who clandestinely practiced magic and alchemy while trying to bring about spiritual enlightenment. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists accused the Rosicrucians of trying to dominate the world.
By the 20th century, new groups had formed whose beliefs strayed from those of the original Rosicrucians. As leader of the AMORC, Lewis taught that Rosicrucian knowledge actually originated much, much earlier…in ancient Egypt, around 1500 BC. He was fascinated by that culture and believed he’d been an ancient Egyptian in a past life. Lewis claimed that pharaohs like Thutmose III and Akhenaten were the first masters of the secret mysteries that became the Rosicrucian doctrine.
DOES HE KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE?
Lewis decided to make the Rosicrucians’ secrets available to regular people, so in 1915 in New York City, he founded the AMORC as an educational and philosophical organization. It was New Age before “New Age” was even a term, teaching everything from out of-body travel to meditation. All members had to do was pay a monthly fee, and they’d get their lessons through the mail. Lewis’s intentions have been criticized over the years. Some considered him to be an important mystical teacher, but others just called him a marketing genius. Either way, Lewis headed a growing organization that became the most popular Rosicrucian sect in the United States and attracted prestigious members— Walt Disney and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry both belonged for a time. As the AMORC grew, Lewis had to decide where to establish the group’s home. Buried “treasure” led him to consider California.
According to the AMORC, the first Rosicrucians to come to America arrived in Carmel, California, in 1602 on the ships of the Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaíno. They then carefully buried sacred texts in the area for a future Rosicrucian master to find so that he could spread their knowledge. Lewis claimed to be the master who found the texts. He decided to base the AMORC in nearby San Jose, which was more accessible than Carmel, but not too far away from the special site.
MUMMIES THE WORD
Lewis brought his belief in ancient Egypt’s effect on the Rosicrucians with him to San Jose. He built Rosicrucian Park in the ancient Egyptian style, and also began an Egyptian artifact collection. His first piece: a small Sekhmet (lion goddess) statue. Eventually, the collection grew large enough to warrant a museum.
In 1971 the museum acquired a sarcophagus listed in a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog as a gift for “people who have everything.” The museum bought the supposedly empty coffin, but when a Neiman-Marcus worker was preparing it for shipment, he found that it contained a male mummy. He shipped it anyway, and the museum had its first famous piece… made even more famous after specialists found an iron pin in the mummy’s knee that had been inserted surgically nearly 2,600 years earlier.
(Image credit: Keith Schengili-Roberts)
The other mummy that made a name for the museum was only a child when she died. Using CT scans, researchers were able to figure out that she died whens she was four years old and was born about 2,000 years ago. She didn’t suffer from chronic illnesses, but died suddenly, probably from an infection like dysentery. Her gold leaf mask indicated that she’d been born to a wealthy family.
(Image credit: Captmondo)
Today, those mummies and the other Egyptian exhibits bring many visitors to Rosicrucian Park, though the AMORC also still holds meetings and meditations there. Tourists might be interested to know that there are more remains at the park than just the ones wrapped up in linens in the museum. At the park’s Akhenaten Shrine are the ashes of Harvey Spencer Lewis himself, who—despite all his respect for ancient Egypt’s mysteries—opted out of being mummified.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California. This volume brings you stories of the Golden State you've never heard before. You’ll meet child prodigies, spies, traitors, celebrities (and sidekicks), gossips, hermits, humanitarians, and zealots.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!