At the risk of spoilers for the series of novels I am writing, I’ll share my latest obsessive-compulsive project. I mentioned in an earlier post the Emily Glass novels I am working on. They are set at a druid college called Celyddon College which is somewhere in an alternative future Yorkshire. Attached to it is a preparatory school called Four Hallows.
Recently, I have been doodling the curriculum for the school and college, only these are not called “curricula” but instead adambula (singular: adambulum). The reason is that they are not approached as a race (which is the original meaning of the Latin curriculum); instead, they are approached as a stroll (adambulum). We get our English word ambulatory from that root, as well as its relative perambulate, which means to walk around in circles.
The new idea I had came from my studying the 33 degrees of Freemasonry in the Scottish Rite. In studying these degrees further (after having “taken” them as we say), I began to look at the old Golden Dawn degrees again, something I have not studied in many years. The idea came to me that some of the symbolism and structure of the mystery schools and magical lodges might be adapted to druidry — the sort of druidry that I am depicting in my fictional books, but which also corresponds, naturally, to my own practices and my own dream of creating a school.
So, this is an attempt to combine the idea of “passing through” degrees of initiation in which the candidate learns something new at each step, with coursework instruction. This is also inspired in part by signing up for the College of the Consistory which is run out of Guthrie, Oklahoma. It is a college for further study and research and paper-writing on the Masonic degrees.
I have been doodling around thinking, “Well, what would 33 degrees of druidry look like?” The creators of the Golden Dawn degrees did something similar when they took Freemasonry’s structure and adapted it to the study of Western esotericism. Freemasonry already does this, but leaves the study in depth to each individual, because it deliberately does not promote any particular religious faith or practice. Freemasonry is based on the Bible and a few other traditions, but the basic mythos of Masonry centers on the legendary Temple of Solomon (I do not mean to imply that it is definitely not historical, only that we do not know much about it historically or archaeologically).
Lon Milo DuQuette who is a mage and a mason wrote an interesting book in which he claims that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that the Temple of Solomon ever existed. Outside the Biblical texts (the Torah), the biblical “facts” do not tally with archaeology on many points. I have not verified DuQuette’s opinion on this but he’s usually well-informed and it would not surprise me. There are endless “documentaries” on the National Geographic channel and such venues which purport to show archaeological evidence of stories recorded in the Bible, but I find them pretty spurious. I haven’t delved into serious biblical archaeology, but it seems like it is archaeology with an agenda, and that can never be objective. It is bound to simply unearth things to support its preconceived beliefs in the accuracy of the biblical stories as some sort of historical record.
Well, I digress. The point that I took up was that if we set aside the metaphor of the temple that was built by masons and then later destroyed and rebuilt, and did something similar instead using Irish and Welsh legends and the tools of magic rather than the tools of the stonemason, we might get an interesting system of initiatic learning in which the student was progressively raised through levels of accomplishment. This idea of “degrees” may seem silly to someone more used to the use of the term “degree” in modern academia. To get a bachelor of arts degree, for example takes four years of study and perhaps dozens of courses. To get a masonic degree is not at all the same thing. First, it does not necessarily take more than an evening of mostly passive watching of the degree drama to be awarded the title of the degree. Second, the titles all sound grandiose — Knight of this, Prince of that, and so forth. But, third, Masonry is not academia and the word “degree” in a lodge tradition means something rather different. The presentation of degrees in the Scottish Rite is not intended to instill a body of knowledge in a student, but rather to plant the seeds of images and ideas wrapped in ceremony and legend in order that those seeds might grow in the candidate, if he chooses to act upon them.
Those Scottish Rite masons who do not pursue further study of the materials presented to them will, obviously, progress only so far in the Craft. You could go attend seminars in how to build a stone house too, but without following the presentation with the practice, you would not be very likely to actually build the house. Same sort of thing, only on a spiritual, metaphorical plane. Building the Temple means building one’s soul. Re-building the temple that was destroyed by the forces of darkness and destruction, is a rebirth mythos, the root of all mystery traditions.
Is there a way to marry this kind of degree system with the academic sort of structure that requires students to study certain subjects and pass examinations to move from one grade to the next? In the Golden Dawn the “degrees” are in fact called grades and are treated more academically. That is, they are still initiatic but the candidate is required to do a great deal more active learning, not just pass through a ceremony with lectures. The candidate, and then the adept, move upwards along the stairway of grades as they demonstrate their achievement.
Typically, advancing up the grades also gives the individual more responsibility within the lodge too, but the grades are not a hierarchy of power. The officers in each grade and each lodge and each order represent some sort of organization of power. In a masonic lodge (as I am learning) the Master of the Lodge is elected each year and there is a line of officers that is supposed to move up, year after year, to occupy the “line” of stations and places and duties of the officers in the lodge. They have parts to play in the degree ceremonies and they have jobs to do to make the lodge meetings run smoothly and the brothers work together to get things done.
But very little of the work of a masonic lodge actually requires one to learn anything. People need to learn the parts and lectures of the ritual, and these all have to be memorized, so it is a lot of work. But that is all essentially acting work; that is, it is theater. The inner work of the Mason is something else. Memorizing ritual parts and performing them undoubtedly does bring about self-transformation. However, if one does not deeply understand the symbolism being used and there is no meditation, magic or inner work connected to the work of the lodge brothers, then I am not sure the system is working to its full potential.
That might not be bad, though. Masonry works very well to spread and cultivate brotherly love and charity and other virtues. If it does not go farther to actively teach the techniques of the mind and soul that can further aid this search for virtue — the alchemical Great Work — it is still doing a very great deal more than traditional educational systems.
My goal is to integrate these two systems — the system of learning and the system of initiatory ritual — into a cohesive whole built around druid ideas and Celtic myths and legends (or any myths and legends that are polytheistic rather than Biblical). I believe the Biblical mythos has its place and teaches many worthy lessons, but it is also very confusing and very poorly interpreted, IMHO, because those charged officially to interpret it are bound hand and foot by the notion that the texts are not legends (poetry) but records of historical facts.
I really do not know how anyone can believe that, but clearly a lot of people do. We usually believe what we are told to believe by our parents. But it is also true that a lot of teenagers do rebel against this notion that the Bible is history and then have nothing with which to replace it because there are dashed few churches and temples that will permit someone to take up those stories as legends and metaphors. If your choice is that you have to believe the stories of the life of Rabbai Jeshua ben Joseph are all accurate historical accounts from eye-witnesses, or else leave the church, then the rational person is very likely to just leave the church. The problem is that it hurts the soul to have no source of nourishment from myths and legends.
Thankfully, there are very few druids who have this problem of literalism. We like our stories as bards, because they are good stories, not because we think they are literal history. That doesn’t mean literature cannot provide clues to the historian or archaeologist, but that is not really what literature is for. Stories work as stories, as bits of fantasy and imagination, to permit us to believe in things that are not scientifically demonstrable.
In Terry Pratchett’s novel The Hogfather, he as the character of Death say that humans need lies and fantasies (like Santa Claus, for instance) because otherwise there is no wonder in their world and they cannot believe in the big abstract “lies” like Justice, Truth, Charity. All those many virtues that Masons espouse (and that most people espouse to some degree) are not realities in the universe except if we believe that they are. As Death says (and I’m paraphrasing): You can grind down the universe to the finest dust and sift every particle of matter and you will never find one particle of Justice. Justice is something we humans make up. We need to make it up in order to be human. Mercy too.
It is hard to grasp that truth, and I love Pratchett for conveying such wonderful truths in such fun and entertaining forms. He understands what literature is for. He understands stories and he does it well.
So, what would an educational system look like that actually taught people how to think for themselves? It would not inculcate them with the myths of a single religion as facts. Nor would in inculcate them with the “facts” of empirical science as “facts.” Instead it would teach them to see the world as a weave of stories, symbols, and imagination. People so often, in our culture, are distraught if you tell them that they cannot find the answers, cannot ever get to the origins of things. Sometimes we can trace the history of an idea or a symbol. We can trace how it is used and how it is interpreted by people in the past. But for almost anything you care to mention, we cannot get at the origins of it.
Scientific thinkers continue to imagine that we must, logically, be able to get to the origins of things if only we keep trying, keep amassing evidence, keep digging. But over the past two hundred years and more, this has been going on and for all the knowledge we have amassed, we still only have origin myths. We do not know how language originated. We do not know how human beings originated, much less human consciousness. We are so far from knowing how the soul originated that scientists have discarded the concept in despair. We do not know where our civilizations originated or why, and though we have stories from physicists and cosmologists that tell us how the universe originated, these stories are constantly changing. Scientists do not realize they are storytellers. They think they are going to find the One True Story and then they will be done.
My idea of a school would not fall into this trap. In my take on Freemasonry, the Craft does not fall into that trap either. It is just that many individual masons do fall into the trap one way or another. It is waiting for them at church or synagoge. It is waiting for them in college and at work and on the television. Everywhere in our culture is the trap of literalism. People who sincerely are passing off stories (the product of human imagination) as if they were unalterable facts.
I think this trap is partly caused by the way we study arithmetic and geometry. We are taught very early on that there are correct answers to mathematical problems. Yet the circle is an imaginary thing. There are no actual circles in nature. No equilateral triangles either. They are products of the human imagination. Mathematics and geometry are a very particular kind of imaginal construct that takes the ideas of quantity and runs with it. It is very alluring. It is wonderful to discover that one plus one always equals two. But, you see, it does that because that’s the way we created mathematics to work. And we have to learn to do it the right way.
A similar thing happened to the English language in the 18th century when Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary. Subsequent generations of children were taught that there were correct answers in spelling and grammar too. You had to play by the system. However, in the case of spelling and grammar, it is a little easier to see through the creative apparatus and realize that these rules are conventions invented by human beings. It is hard going though. Once you have, for example, Latin grammar written down, and you have no historical evidence to find the actual origins of that system of grammar, then it is very hard to understand that it was in fact imagined by someone, by lots of people, over a very long time.
Linguists sometimes like to take refuge in the idea that language is “hard-wired” somehow. There is a lot of that “hard-wired” metaphor being used these days by scientists. I suppose it all started with Descartes and LaMettrie’s book “Man A Machine.” Since the 18th century this idea that everything is merely a mechanism that can be taken apart and put back together and understood mechanically has been extremely seductive. Forget the goddess Sophia, our current culture is under the spell of the goddess Mechanica. We love our machines and have faith in them. We believe, as a culture, that they will save us from all our errors and mistakes. Philomechany has replaced philosophy.
So, in my weird way, I am tackling this nagging problem with education and seeking to imagine something else. I don’t really suppose it will catch on. But who knows. We plant seeds. Generations later something grows. That is the way of humans.