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Wicca and Freemasonry

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February 2008
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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.



  1. sarsen56 says:

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  2. Kain says:

    I have to agree with some of the remarks on Garderian specifically. I’ve been around this stuff for around 13 years now. The Gardnerian path is prone to abuse of power due to structure when covens are started by younger people from what I’ve heard and seen and seems to attract the more dubious of males.

    Even with honest intentions, with small groups nature prefers a hierarchy, which will cause conflict later. You also have small group dynamics and group growth stages to take into account. The older generations with more life experience seem to be more sensitive to those dynamics of power early on and I have heard some good success stories from those.

    As for the scourge. It’s not supposed to be used harshly, is symbolic, and other traditions/covens that borrow from Gardner seem to observe that if they use one at all.

    Also, skyclad(being naked… wearing the sky), is commonly done in private for most witches (witch not necessarily equaling Wicca) I’ve talked with. There are many who support it in certain contexts. In some tight knit, and well established, covens it’s sometimes seen akin to a rite of passage.

    In my opine I feel a more lodge like voting structure should be adopted across the board in most traditions to curb any possible abuse of power. One could allow most of the original structures and customs to be preserved while having protections from tyrany in the voting process. 7(5 in a bind) coveners would be around the base amount for a balanced setup assuming they had a good template to start with for a basic constitution. They could learn as they voted on small details, then that could carry over to voting on rituals and such for the coven.

  3. alferian says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kain. Wicca is a very young religion and it chose not to follow druidry in the use of the “order” model. My order, OBOD, is extremely loose in its administration so that each grove is independent and does not need to report to headquarters in any way. In this way, there is very little supervision from the elders of the order — the druid grade members in particular. They oversee the teaching work, which is kept independent from the working grove.

    In other words, training is given through guided study and a tutor’s help, and if a member of the order is able to join a grove to meet other members of the order and work with them, that is an individual choice. It has to be, because there aren’t very many groves. Potentially, OBOD could have the same sort of problem as Wicca — youngsters taking on the leadership role in a grove. But there is a slight governor that makes this less likely. To lead a fully-fledged grove, one has to have attained the druid grade in the order. Seed-groups can be formed by anyone and no organizational structure is stipulated. Few, I think, become hierarchical but remain a circle of friends.

    In my own grove, it is interesting to note, none of us knew each other before meeting in the grove. That makes a big difference. For the most part, I believe, the members of my grove are willing to learn from me and I make no pretense of being a know-it-all or weilding any “power” over them. My role, as chief druid, is not to act like a priest, much less a bishop or high priest. My roles is simply to lead the grove in whatever business it decides to do, whatever kind of work it does, and to offer whatever help I can to the members who are working in the bardic, ovate, or druid grade. I am simply one who has walked the path before them and I make myself available as a mentor.

    A Masonic lodge has, of course, much more formality in its rituals and offices. There is often good fellowship, but good mentoring is rare. This is because the officers are so focused on memorizing and working the initiation rituals and there is no one (past masters, for example) who are asked to mentor the new Masons. The sitting Master of a lodge of Masons is the last person to have time to mentor the new brothers raised during his year in the Oriental chair.

    A chief druid of a grove is chosen by the grove and serves for as long as it may be mutually agreeable. There is very little scope for abusing authority because the grove members are free to leave. A Mason, if he wants to leave his lodge, effectively is not practicing Masonic work. It is not work that is designed to be carried on as a solitary. I think it should be designed that way, and am writing a book that attempts to lay out a kind of “solitary” Masonic work. Being a solitary runs against the grain of the Craft, because it is so much about fellowship and shared experiences. However, if a Mason truly wishes to take the work to the next level, it becomes his individual quest.

    I don’t really know what covens of witches gather to do, apart from celebrating the seasonal festivals. Druid groves mainly focus on these celebrations which internalize the cycles of life and death. Other soul work or magical work or healing — these may be quite individual callings. Working group rituals for healing or peace are fairly common, but druidry today is not about the practice of magic in the spellcasting sense. The mastery of magic begins, not with ritual tools and spells, but with cultivation of that sensitivity to nature and the land which is the foundation of all other work.

    All of this works at a very loose level of organization. Most druids or witches are in some way rebelling against “organized religions” so there is little incentive to get more organized. I am reminded of Jesus’s complaints against the organized religions of his own time, and how his followers over the next several centuries worked in loose local structures — churches that were very much like our current druid groves. If druidry continues to grow and more groves are created, then connections will start emerging among them. That is probably already started because of the easy communications afforded by the internet.

    As groves grow larger and members more active, the grove will become a part of their lives just as church became a part of the lives of the early Christians. The grove will provide spiritual nourishment.

    My experience in my grove has been that members come and go. I am almost always sorry to see them go because I can’t help feeling that the grove was not providing them with the nourishment they needed. But I wonder if early Christian congregations were not the same way. People would join to check it out and then drift away. A big difference in OBOD is that the order requires members to study lessons. This means that if a grove member does not stick to the lessons, he or she will not “get it” and can easily fall away if he or she ceases to work at it. One is not simply baptised and converted to OBOD druidry; one must work at it for years and then arrive at a place where one can carry on continuous learning and growing for the rest of one’s life.

    That ought to be true in Masonry, and I suspect is the ideal goal in covens too.

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