I just acquired a DVD ROM of the Internet Sacred Texts Archive and for the first time am reading the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. This is, as I understand it, reliably reproduced from Gardner’s own rituals. What is immediately striking to anyone who has been initiated as a Freemason are the obvious borrowings from Masonic initiations. Gardner was a Mason of some sort, I believe. I recently read that Aleister Crowley was a Mason too, although initiated in a German lodge not recognized by the Grand Lodge of England.
It is no wonder that the Wiccan rituals have so much power and the appearance of antiquity, given that they derive some parts directly from Freemasonry, and of course it should come as no surprise that none of Gardner’s female followers would recognize the borrowings because of how Masonic rituals are kept secret.
But here are some of the obvious similarities which anyone can discover who reads the Masonic initiation work in its various published forms such as Lester’s Look to the East.
- use of the expression “cable tow” for the cord wrapped around the candidate as a sign of his obligation
- the verbal form of the obligations to never reveal the secrets of “the Craft”
- use of the term “the Craft”
- the expression “sublime degree”
- the giving of “working tools” by the master to the candidate
Now, although these borrowings make a Masonic inspiration obvious (unless we are to postulate that the freemasons borrowed from the Witches and elaborated in their own way), the differences are also very telling.
For example, there is an unstated assumption in the rites that I gather not from the text at hand but from other sources, that the participants are all naked. Obviously that is far from the practice of freemasons who are as often as not in a suit and tie or evening clothes. The candidates are presented in a peculiar form of dress which aims to simulate a state of being poor, blind, and desitute, and in a liminal space (neither naked for clad). Gardner seems to embrace the nakedness rather than the symbolism of the liminal. He takes “naked” literally. It is also, I presume, symbolic, but the risk of combining literalism and symbolism is that there will be too much emphasis on the former. This is, to my mind, the mistake some Christian sects have made too (as well as probably sects of nearly all religions.) For example, taking martyrdom literally.
The aspect of Gardnerian ritual that stands out most obviously is all the kissing. The “magus” who officiates is presumably male — presumably Gardner himself in the beginning. This gives us a picture of a (probably older) male magus tying up a naked woman, kissing her up and down her body, and scourging her. Even if the scourging were to be done in a symbolic way, so as not to inflict actual pain, this would be kinky enough. However, from a ritual standpoint, if the issue of the ritual is that pain is part of life and learning, then to refrain from inflicting any pain in the scourging would be counterproductive. The sado-masochistic and erotic qualities of the ritual are obvious. The magus is himself tied up by the candidate and scourged 120 lashes at one point.
I’m a hopeless fuddy-duddy, I am sure. And it would violate my oaths of religious tolerance to make fun of such a religion. However, it does seem to me to have an almost inherent potential for emotional (if not indeed physical) abuse. Unlike masonic ritual, which is founded on brotherly love and trust, the “perfect love and perfect trust” of the Wiccan ritual hardly seems justified. Where there is a symbolic drama in masonic initiations, in the Gardnerian text the initiations have relatively little content. There are none of the lovely moral lectures or symbolic insights. It’s a clever adaptation to a non-Christian and even perhaps anti-Christian ethos (certainly designed to go counter to the conventional behavior of people outside the privacy of their bedrooms at any rate).
It ritualizes sado-masochistic eroticism instead of fidelity, wisdom, beauty, truth, and brotherly love, as freemasonry does. Is that a bad thing? I do not think I am prepared to say so in any categorical way, but I certainly would not wish to undergo such an initiation myself. To be sure, a coven founded in such rituals would be very tightly bound to each other because any members public reputation would be ruined if such behavior was revealed. So, the vows are taken seriously, I suspect, in ways different from those of the Masonic Craft.
In Freemasonry, there is nothing really shocking to be revealed. The only reason for keeping the content of the rituals a secret is to preserve the element of surprise for the candidate and to retain some institutional control on the content. Clandestine masonry is enough of a problem as it is, but the brotherly vows of secrecy are intended to mitigate against such things and keep the Craft united and lodges speaking to each other and permitting mutual visitation. That was rather the whole point of the operative masonic lodges — to keep the secrets of stonemasonry and sacred geometry within the fraternity or guild and to make sure that members of the guild could be recognized by secret signs.
I do not wish to cause offence to any witches for I have a great interest in witchcraft and believe there is a variety of it that is linked closely to the land and the good spirits of the cosmos. But I cannot personally see much of that in the Gardnerian initiation rituals. They seem utterly sensationalized, as if they were written by a fan of nudism and free love. Those beliefs are all well and good, for those who derive happiness in life from them and do not harm others in the process, but I cannot see using them as the basis for a religion. But then religions seem always to me to be sources of confusion. People take religious pronouncements too literally. They adopt a religion because they long for someone to reveal to them hidden truths that will make sense of the world.
I can certainly see that in a sexually repressed society and one essentially patriarchal that puts down women at every turn, the religion of Wicca might appeal very strongly to women as an alternative to patriarchal control, vilification, and repression. It is sort of like saying — “Well you call me a witch because I express my opinions, rival the intelligence and skill of men, and am open in my sexuality and sensuality. Fine! Then I shall call myself a Witch and make the most of it.”
I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s delightful novels about witches in his fantasy setting of Discworld. I just finished Lords and Ladies (loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and am now reading Wyrd Sisters (loosely based on Macbeth). In these books the old witches practice the sort of magic that I consider genuine and wholesome witchcraft and the author lampoons the younger witches who are so concerned about doing everything in a properly witchy way. Old Granny Weatherwax, the most powerful witch of them all, has no tolerance for young witch wannabees who go off dancing naked around the standing stones. Pratchett has a keen eye for irony and posturing and lampoons it while still allowing us to see that there is a grain of truth it it all. The old witch Nanny Ogg is far more sexual free than any of the very serious and Gothic young witches.
Well, for my part, I do not see “religion” only spiritual practices that seem right to me. I am not very interested in being part of an organized religion. Engaging in group ceremonies and feasts with my druid grove and my masonic lodge is quite enough for me. But I do not think I will ever be “converted” to any “faith” because I simply do not believe anyone has a monopoly on truth. I feel that wisdom lies in judging for yourself the quality of truth or falsehood in any spiritual practice or belief. Cultivate good judgment and wide knowledge and use your head. Too much religion calls upon the heart to “believe” and thereby receive some kind of reward — salvation, freedom, etc.
The heart is important, but can be very easily misled by those who wish to manipulate and control others. Likewise the head too. Only the balanced combination of the two leads to freedom and wisdom.