In May I am giving a presentation at Lake Harriet Lodge in Minneapolis about the relationship between Freemasonry and traditional British druid orders. This is a talk that is easier to give to Masons than to druids because while Masonry requires one to be circumspect about details of ritual, druidry does not. Nevertheless, it is a challenge either way because one has to expect that one’s audience will be familiar with one or the other ritual form and not the other.
So, here are some preliminary observations. It may be necessary first of all to give the reader some idea of the form of each system, but first let me say a word about the historical connections.
The modern druid revival has been going on for the past three centuries. It began when the antiquarians in Britain began to explore such ancient stone monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury, recognizing them to be pre-Roman artifacts. This was in the 17th century, the period of history when we mark the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment. That is, European culture had been undergoing a rediscovery of ancient hermetic and alchemical writings, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, and artistically was breaking away from the narrow focus upon Biblical themes and moving toward a more humanist approach. The Humanists were not neo-pagans in our current sense, but they might be considered to be somewhat pro-pagan in their recognition that, however valuable the Christian revelation of salvation and love might be, the pagan philosophers had a lot of good ideas too.
The Enlightenment period is that time following the Reformation of the Catholic Church and the resultant wars between Christian sects — the Roman Catholic faction versus various Protestant factions. The Enlightenment, as a philosophical movement, was a response to the public realization that priests were not the unassailable and infallible creatures they had once been taught to believe. The educated intellectuals of France, Scotland, and England began to see empirical science as a better way to approach cosmology and physics than theology. Freemasonry was a part of that shift in thought. Under the protection of the lodge, men of good will and high morals could come together “on the level” and act “by the square” to set aside doctrinal differences and share their common love of God and Man.
There can hardly be any question that Freemasonry was and remains most influenced by Christian and Judaic theology and mythology. Biblical stories and sentiments were used throughout Masonic rituals and this should hardly be surprising in an age when it was still impossible for most people to question the literal truth of the Bible as a book of history. It was not until the 19th century that Biblical higher criticism emerged and the Bible began to be explored using the same interpretative tools as those applied to every other ancient book.
But in the 17th to the 19th centuries we find a growing interest in the streams of culture and thought other than those officially presented by the theologians of the great universities. Even within the bastions of education, such as at Cambridge in England, alchemists and free-thinkers such as Isaac Newton hid their more unorthodox beliefs in order to keep their jobs. In the Masonic lodge men like Newton and Elias Ashmole and William Stukeley could find a safe space in which to talk to like-minded men in a spirit of religious tolerance that did not exist outside the lodge.
Druids of this early modern period could hardly be expected to gather in groves as we do now. That would have been too pagan. Only a few radicals and rakes apparently managed to hold private gatherings. The famous Hell-Fire club comes to mind. Then as now, paganism got very quickly entangled with the idea of free-love. Nonconformist religious ideas emphasized freedom of conscience, and poets such as William Blake freely employed what we would now call “pagan” themes and images in his work. Classicism was so fashionable during the Enlightenment that painters could easily employ Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in their work without causing much religious stir. But this Classicism also is a part of the history of modern paganism as it exists today. It shows a gradual loosening of the negative stereotypes of ancient non-Christian cultures as “idol-worshippers” and so forth.
At the earliest stages Bardism and Druidism emerged as a cultural movement within Wales and Scotland and it walked hand in hand with Romanticism. The Ossian poems of James MacPherson (presented as translations of genuine Gaelic poetry) and the Barddas of Iolo Morganwg emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as highly attractive faiths. Such writers and artists were presenting alternative mythologies to the Biblical stories. Artists were looking for a different way of explaining the world and were becoming increasingly aware that the stories of the Bible — especially the account of creation — could not be taken literally but were in fact poetry, legends.
Unfortunately, for the literalist mentality that dominated European society, this meant that such stories must be lies and therefore ought to be thrown out completely. It is the bardic tradition, I believe, which emerges at this time, precisely because it is so needed to readjust the understanding of the West, to help people to shake off the mind-forged manacles of literalism and use their imaginations without shame. I believe it is a very Celtic trait. It seems to me that it is the Romans who had trouble accepting imagination and magic. The Celtic undercurrents of European culture, however conquered by the dominant Roman society, kept alive imagination’s fire.
Historically, then, Freemasonry and modern Druidry are part of the same cultural movement toward a freer expression of spiritual belief and a more creative and imaginative use of ritual and mystery play. Both understood the value of initiatory rituals. The 19th century writers, such as Albert Pike, quite clearly thought the druids represented one of the great ancient mystery traditions, quite comparable to the Greek schools of Dionysus and Demeter. This meant that they saw nature as the Book of God, as the Holy Bible (for “bible” is simply the Latin word for “book”). Nature could be “read” and the secrets of the cosmos and the Creator understood from it.
Embracing the idea of the Book of Nature did not necessarily require one to abandon other books of sacred writ. But it did suggest that the old scriptures were not unique. Contact with ancient Egyptian thought, after the Rosetta stone was discovered and deciphered, was another epiphany for Western intellectuals and spiritual leaders. The Theosophical society turned its attention to the Hindu and Vedic arts and scriptures for inspiration as yet another ancient civilization with wisdom to offer. Tibet emerged into the European consciousness as another such repository of vast numbers of religious texts.
Theosophists and Druids very often started out as Freemasons. Druid fraternal orders emerged within the family of Masonic concordant bodies and others were founded as organizations for men and women. The history of the Ancient Order of Druids in America is instructive in that it shows us the split that occurred in one druid order between those who wished to require that all druids be masons and those who did not.
The antecedents of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, which is now the largest and most vibrant of the modern druid orders, were in the Masonic tradition of lodge and ritual and also in the new movements of vegetarianism, naturism, and alternative health. Druidry has also often touched upon socialism and other progressive economic theories as the orders pursued their liberal goals of free-thought and also their interest in learning about ancient British culture, which was tribal and communal compared to modern urban life.
The principal philosophic or spiritual distinction between Masonry and Druidry might be pinpointed in the attitude to the land. Masonry is informed by the legend and symbolism of the stonecutter, architect, workman’s lodge, and the temple. The Temple is a metaphor for Creation as a whole. The lodge is a metaphor of the workplace of each individual human being — our bodies, minds, and spirits — which we seek to perfect through ritual and contemplation of the symbols of Masonry and through its mysteries.
It is important to understand, as the great Masonic writer W. L. Wilmshurst has said, that the term “mysteries” of Masonry does not mean “secrets.” The word is not used in the 20th century sense of “mystery novels” but in the medieval sense of “mystery plays.” These dramas were the enactment of Biblical stories performed for audiences, but were also rooted in the ancient mystery schools in a time when drama was religious ritual. To take on a role in a play was a religious experience that took one outside of one’s ordinary self and into other parts of one’s being. It allows one to explore those other parts in a structured safe way. Anyone who has been an actor, especially on the stage, can affirm the psychological power of drama. Indeed, anyone who has attended life theater has an inkling of it for it works its magic on the audience as well.
The early Masonic rituals and early druid rituals are a body of work that deserves more research. I am not familiar enough with the early material to discuss it. However, I am familiar with the rituals we have today which descended from those earlier forms and one can make a guess at their parallel evolution. Let me proceed then to compare and contrast the lodge and the grove.
First of all, the metaphor of the grove is deliberately divergent from that of the Temple. Ancient temples, whether pagan or Jewish were elaborate formal structures, usually of stone in which rites were performed and often statues of deities or some other representation of them (like the Ark of the Covenant) served as the focal point for religious attention and awe. We know little about the groves of the ancient druids but their main feature was that they were spaces in nature. They were sacred groves presumably chosen according to some wisdom connected with the spirits of the land. I imagine they were places of special beauty where the druids could commune with the Divine. But they were not man-made.
This fact alone separates druidry from masonry rather starkly. The metaphor of men as stonecutters building the Temple is gone. So is the lodge, that working place next to the Temple where the masons gathered to plan their work and enjoy refreshment and rest. The grove is not man-made and it is therefore a very different symbol for the Creation, the cosmos. It is not historical, for a grove is to human minds something that has always been there and always will be there, ever renewing itself. If one seeks a Biblical analogy, the sacred grove most resembles the Garden of Eden.
This may be one simple reason why early antiquarians looked to ancient druidry as a place where the antediluvian religion of Adam may have survived. It was thought that Noah’s descendants spread through the world and some ended up in Britain and Ireland and so the druids represented the descendants of the primal religious knowledge, before so much was lost in the Great Flood and subsequent history. The Bible told the story of how the Jews were first made captive in Egypt and then escaped and then after a few centuries of flourishing monarchy were taken off to captivity in Babylon and then escaped from that bondage, and so forth. The whole history of the Bible is one that suggest knowledge lost. It also suggests the accretion of many extraneous new ideas to whatever the old religion of Abraham and Noah and Adam was.
Taking the Bible as history, it was obvious to anyone that Adam would have had the true religion and whatever followed afterwards was bound to be corrupted, or at least watered-down. So, there developed this Romantic hope that in ancient Bardic and Druid stories and the curious poetry that survived, a more pure and perfect link to that early religion. It is interesting that almost exactly the same romantic impulse has motivated some modern neopagans who, taking up the linguistic theories of an ancient Indo-European culture underlying all of the Aryan peoples, looks for that earliest and most pure set of beliefs as if they must necessarily be better than what men and women have thought during the intervening millennia.
In whatever form, Druidry and Masonry do share a love of ancient wisdom and the romance of searching for lost knowledge. Where Masons focussed on studying the literature of the Middle East, and Theosophists upon the literature of the Far East, the modern druids focused on the ancient literature of Wales and other Celtic lands. If anything the romance of Celticism is even stronger at the beginning of the 21st century than at the beginning of the 19th. While some of this appeal derives from music, whiskey, and beer, these aspects cannot really be dismissed as trivial since all were an integral part of the ancient bardic way of life. Spiritous liquors can give inspiration and vision as well as drunkenness. They can be used in healing too. And music is at the center of most druidic and bardic rituals, enjoyed as part of community as much as for its inspiration and sheer joy.
Another difference between lodge and grove is in its geometry. I wonder in fact whether Masons were inspired to explore their druidic ancestors in part because of the study of geometry. The ancient neolithic stone circles and alignments, the passage tombs, and other relics of ancient Britain still hold our fascination and remain mysterious (in the sense of being not entirely explicable). Modern engineers still attempt to figure out how Stonehenge was built and puzzle over the passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. But we also know that these stone age peoples were not Celts. That is, we cannot attribute to them the same Celtic language group that we can attribute to the peoples of the Bronze Age and Iron Age encountered by the Romans. In fact, we have no idea who they were or what language they spoke, or what they thought. That lack of knowledge is perhaps one reason why public sentiment continues to give Stonehenge and like monuments to the druids. At least we have a name for them. I mean, who wants to form a movement called “the beaker people”?
The geometry of the lodge is rectilinear. Squareness and moral rectitude are metaphorically linked. To say that a man is upright is to say he his worthy of trust and admiration. The plumb. level, and square all refer to this metaphor of rectitude and rectilinear perfection, so beloved by the classical architect. There is an unquestionable beauty and grandeur in these temple geometries. The lodge imitates the architecture of Solomon’s temple as it is described in the Book of Kings. There are two columns prominent at the entrance to the lodge and the brethren are seated also in two “columns” along the north and south “sidelines” of the lodge in seats.
The lodge has three principal officers and five other officers arranged around the room. The three principals – the master and two wardens — sit in the east, south, and west respectively. This arrangement was not always true, but came to be the accepted custom over time. W. L. Wilmshurst, in The Meaning of Masonry, points out the symbolic meaning in many features of the lodge and its symbolic furniture. Among the most interesting is is suggestion that the two pillars or columns symbolize the legs of a human being, upon which it is founded. Between the pillars are the organs of generation through which every man (and woman of course too) enters the world of forms.
The ritual of initiation, like virtually all such ceremonies, imitates a symbolic rebirth, death, and resurrection. This is equally true in modern druidic rituals, and also in the initiations of Wicca. The influence of Masonic initiation comes to these 20th century pagan forms partly from founders who were Masons or familiar enough with the Masonic initiations to imitate them. It comes partly more indirectly through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which latter organization is clearly inspired by Freemasonry and was unquestionably founded by Masons in order to further explore the hermetic and Rosicrucian wisdom. The Golden Dawns officers, grades, and initiation rituals all influenced subsequent pagan and druid groups. Some would later organize their rituals in rebellion against the Masonic system, for various reasons, but all were a response to it.
In modern Druidry (as also in Wicca) we find three grades or degrees, just as in Masonry. We find, generally, that passing through all three grades is a requirement for leadership in a grove or coven, just as it is for a lodge. Furthermore, we find an attitude that a member of any grade is considered a brother or sister of equal merit within the group. This is not always the case, of course, but the attempt at equality is made as it is within the Masonic lodge where apprentice, fellowcraft or master are all equally brothers.
The geometry of the druid grove is markedly different from that of the lodge and yet clearly may be considered in the light of that other great masonic symbol, the compasses. For the grove is circular. In Masonry, the compasses teach us to keep ourselves in due bounds, which is to say, keep our tempers and conform to certain moral limitations. They are the usual things: a Mason is not to lie, cheat, steal, defraud, murder, or break promise with his brothers, and with all mankind. The compasses teach us to subdue our passions. Here again, the word may need clarification for “passion” has come to be used largely today to mean sexual arousal or jealousy caused by that emotion. The original meaning of “passion” in Latin is “suffering” and it is used thus figuratively to indicate all those emotions that cause us pain or anguish such as unrequited love, anger, betrayal, jealousy, envy, avarice, and even gluttony. All these “passions” are emotional extremes, accompanied by actions that lead to an attempt to control the world or other people or to hurt them.
For the brothers of the 18th century and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, to subdue one’s passions was akin to subduing the animal nature that in humans all too often will override reason and all finer virtues. This is not to say that one’s animal nature is all bad or should be rejected. It simply needs to be domesticated, controlled, and kept in bounds. This idea of subduing the passions is also not to be confused with repression of desires. The compasses inscribe a circle, a boundary beyond which we will not step. That circle is the boundary of honor, the limits of good behavior, laid down, not by some arbitrary external authority so much as by each one of us, guided by faith in wiser souls.
Druidry has no Ten Commandments. The ancient druids upheld the tribal laws of their peoples and some of these laws have come down to us in the Irish brehon laws. But there is little doubt that the druids of old represented the lawgivers who held the moral compasses of the people and drew the circle limiting their behavior. They also recognized that humans will fail and step over the line and so consequences for bad unlawfulness were also carefully stipulated in the brehon laws. It is notable that these laws often stipulated the appropriate payment to compensate the offended party rather than such draconian punishments as death or torture. The idea of Christian penance must have seemed familiar to the druids of the Iron Age when they encountered the teachings of Jesus. At the same time the radical idea of forgiving ones’ enemies may have appealed to them as a remarkably good idea for subduing the passions of the warrior class. After all, if you cannot stop humans from offending each other in their passions, at least you might teach them to forgive each other out of a deeper emotion of love and brotherhood.
Whatever the ancient druids taught morally, modern druid orders tend to teach a morality based upon universal respect. Now, there are some exceptions. Some who call themselves druids today have founded their whole system as a protest against the dominant Judeo-Christian-Islamic People of the Book. Modern Wicca was created in large measure as a rebellion against Christianity out of shame for the past atrocities of Christians and out of sheer disagreement with the mentality of conversion and conquest that has driven Christendom for so many centuries from the time of the crusades to the present day.
Those who adopt druidry as their religion often do so because they reject the literal-mindedness and hypocrisy they have experienced in Christian circles. This sometimes takes the form of seeking a plurality of gods and goddesses and has been motivated particularly by the patriarchalism and misogyny inherent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The image of the witch in particular appeals to women and men as a figure of rebellion and defiance against a cruel and oppressive spiritual orthodoxy that denigrated women and insisted they were subordinate to men.
While Wicca has become a spiritual system seeking balance between the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine, Druidry is much more polymorphous. Druids today tend to welcome and embrace gods and goddesses from many pantheons and cultures. Some focus upon the ancient Irish or Welsh deities, but the Gaels and Britons had so many local spirits of land, sea, mountain, and spring that there is not any single neat pantheon such as those developed by the urban temple cultures of the Greeks and Romans. There is not much evidence that the druids themselves worked to create an official pantheon or homogeneous cult observance across the diverse Celtic tribes. Indeed we see the same lack of unity in their political attitudes. Empire and union were not seen as something to be sought until after the Celts had been thoroughly Romanized.
We in our culture now are so thoroughly Romanized ourselves that we seldom question which is superior — tribal cultures or empires governed by a unified central authority be it king or congress. The Celtic mind seems to have been much more focused on the local group and living on the local land, immediate and tangible. Theirs was not a mind prone to mapping the world and seeking to conquer abstract far-flung places, nor so far as we can tell did any Celtic king have illusions of global domination. For the Celts, and so for the modern druids, men and women were considered socially equal, each accorded rights of property, each accorded the right to make or dissolve a marriage, and there were several degrees of marriage to chose from depending on what one wanted out of the union. The tribe and the village took care of the children and made sure they were raised and it was the tribe, not individual family lines, that accumulated wealth and prosperity. Which is not to say that they were socialists. Celtic society had its class structure and some were more wealthy than others according to their station. There were kings and there were also slaves in ancient Celtic culture just as in Roman and Greece.
We have been taught to abhor slavery today to such an extent that I wonder if it does not distort our understanding of the reasons that we find it in ancient cultures. In the United States and the colonial slave trade with Africa, we see a modern system in which slavery is a matter of commerce. In earlier times it may have been easier to see that the people being sold as slaves were the people who had lost everything. Either by being captured in wars or for other reasons, this class of people had been deprived of their family connections and often separated from their tribes with the result that they were completely dependant upon others. They had to sell their labor to survive, and because of their destitute condition even this exchange of labor for shelter and food and clothes was mediated by another person, the slave dealer.
We can shudder at such a social system, but yet our modern urban world has produced a class of homeless and destitute people with no one helping them to exchange their labor for shelter, food and clothes. Moreover, we have a class of criminals who make their livelihood from breaking the law and preying on their brothers and sisters. Is this a more noble system than slavery? I defend neither system, but it is part of modern druid philosophy to consider such questions and recognize that we have not achieved anything like an ideal social system. Many druids today look back upon the more local politics and economics of village and tribe not as “primitive” and inferior to urbanization and industrialization, but perhaps as something better and indeed desirable, if suitably updated to modern needs and technology.
There are quite a few druids too who enjoy the idea of returning to nature, whether wearing robes and tunics or running about naked in the woods. Camping and drumming around a fire, holding sweat lodges, and other activities that hearken to a tribal culture of earlier ages is widespread among druids today. None of these things form a part of the formal rituals of druid orders but might be considered among their “landmarks.” Even druids who do not like to camp out in tents or yurts can appreciate the value of wilderness experience and getting out for a tramp in the woods or the fields. These are not just a matter of physical health, but of spiritual health. Direct contact with the land and the elements is central to the practice of druidry.
All of these strands of thought and values inform the druid circle. I will not attempt to draw further comparisons with Wiccan circles because I have no first-hand experience of them. Nor would I wish to over-generalize about druid groves, since each is left largely to itself in matters of ritual form as well as belief. Druid orders are, on the whole, far less rigid in their ideas of ritual form, much less verbal content, than is Masonry. While ritual liturgies have been written, orders such as the OBOD encourage members to be creative and make changes to suit themselves. Unlike Masonic rituals, druid rituals may be performed solo and in private and many druids must do so because there are so few druids and they are scattered so thinly. Others choose to be solitary practitioners simply out of temperament.
My own grove has existed for only a few years, so there is nothing like the stability one feels in an established Masonic lodge. Most groves lack the kind of written official charter from a central authority, though some druid orders do have a Grand Grove that is equivalent to the Masonic Grand Lodge, empowered to issue charters to groves. OBOD operates less formally as a matter of principle, partly because its chosen chief has served for decades in the position and believes in letting the order evolve of itself from its members, not from the top down. This means that druid groves have greater autonomy that Masonic lodges, but the idea of the autonomy of the smallest unit of the society is the same. The principal difference is that druid groves may organize themselves however they wish and conduct rituals however they choose. It is only to be expected, however, that members of an order, having learned a particular form of ritual will probably stick with it for the most part.
Perhaps it would be more correct to say that which Masonic lodges and Druid groves have the same kind of autonomy, groves often have more flexibility and that because druid rituals are so much newer, they are regarded with less awe and respect in terms of getting them verbally correct and perfectly memorized.
This brings me to another difference between Masonry and Druidry and this is secrecy. Druid rituals are written down. Ironically, the ancient druids were notorious in the time of Caesar for refusing to write down their teachings, much less their rituals. The more Masonic fraternal druid orders have maintained their privacy, and their rituals are in fact at present unknown to me. However, Ross Nichols, the founder of the OBOD, felt it was important to write down and disseminate the teachings and rituals of druidry and Philip Carr-Gomm, his successor and current chief of the order has continued this practice. Only members of the order have copies of the lessons and teaching materials of the order and thus far they have been kept within the order and no one has broken their promise by publishing them, as happened with the rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Druids are not bound by vows as masons and witches are to never reveal their practices and rituals. Nor are their secret forms of recognition among druids. If one claims to be a druid, then one is accepted as such based upon one’s behavior and character. There are certainly good druids and worse ones, but that has been true from the beginning. Just read the Irish myths. The word druid might be best translated by the English word wizard. He is a student of wisdom, a philosopher, and also a student of the magical arts, spiritual dimensions of being, of healing, of divination, and of natural history.
Without a system of petitioning for membership and examination by a committee, there is even less assurance within druid orders of every member being a good man or a good woman than in the Masonic lodge. In organizing my own grove, I instituted a petition process similar to that used in the lodge for precisely this reason. A close-knit group of people working on their own spiritual development and enlightenment need to agree as a group to accept new members. They need to discuss and they need to have ways of reprimanding, suspending , or expelling members. But at this date, such procedures are largely left up to each individual grove and this perhaps accounts in some measure for the relatively short lifespan of groves.
The geometry of the circle in druidry bears less reference to the moral limits of behavior than it does to the circle of the horizon, the year, the seasons, and our lives. The perambulation of the circle sunwise (clockwise) imitates the movement of the sun. The honoring of the four directions, as in Masonry, is symbolic, but the meanings are perhaps slightly different. Let me compare and contrast the two systems.
In Masonry East is the place of the Master of the Lodge. It is also the direction one symbolically travels to seek enlightenment (“Light”). This accords with the central legend of Solomon’s Temple which, for the European, is “in the East.” Theosophical Masons have taken this quest even further to look to the East even farther away, to Tibet, India, China, and Japan. The West, by contrast is the place of darkness, which is not to say, evil, but a place of relative ignorance, the place from which one begins one’s journey. One can see a hint of the Crusader’s quest in this directional idea. The West is also the place of the setting sun, and so associated with the loss of light, the lost logos, and so with ordinary human Reason, as Wilmshurst suggests.
Wilmshurst equates the senior warden in the west with the Moon, whose light is reflected from that of the Spiritual Light of the Master. He does not say that the Master is the Sun, but a Light beyond the physical light of our cosmos. The Sun he associates with the junior warden who stands in the south. In his ritual description of his duties, the junior warden says, “As the Sun in the South at its meridian height is the glory and beauty of the day, so stands the junior warden in the south.” So, Wilmshurst interprets the three principal officers as representing three states consciousness — the ordinary reason and sense of the West, the Spritual intuition or vision of the East and their synthesis in the Mason’s mind in the South. North, which has no officer in it, is a place of darkness representing the material body and its merely material senses as yet uninformed by Reason and Mind.
In Druid ritual — and I speak really only of that of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids — associates East with the rising Sun, with Spring, and with the alchemical element of Air. When entering a druid circle each person salutes the east before taking their places. For the East is the direction of the increasing light, the dawning of understanding, and the place of birth and rebirth.
West is, of course, the direction of the setting Sun, but in druidry it is not associated with reason so much as with mature emotion and feeling. It is linked to evening, Autumn, and the waning part of life in which each man and woman has passed his or her noon and reached a greater maturity, beyond the years of adulthood and child-raising focused on family. West is the quarter of the sage or the crone, the wise old man and woman who has learned much from life.
South, for druids is the direction of noon, which signifies young adulthood, strength, beauty, sensuality and sexual reproduction, the raising of children, the building of one’s life in the tribe as an active member serving one’s kin and community. It is the direction of Summer, literally and metaphorically and the highest triumph of light. Similarly, as you would expect, North is associated with the season of Winter and the final time of old age and death for our life cycle. But Winter, and the Winter Solstice that marks its middle, is a turning point that also marks rebirth. For the four directions of the druid circle form a cycle, not a boundary. It is a circle that is moving, or along which the Sun and every person’s soul moves through life and towards rebirth.
This reflects the doctrine of the ancient druids whom the Greeks compared to Pythagoras in this respect. Like Pythagoras, the druids taught immortality of the soul and rebirth. We do not know if their ideas of rebirth were a matter of reincarnation in this world or reincarnation in another world or both. The latter would seem likely as this world and the Otherworlds of the gods and fairy folk had for the druids very permeable boundaries. One could be abducted by the Good People and taken into their world. Or one might get there by dying, it seems, and encounter others who had also died or vanished. For modern druids the belief in reincarnation can take almost any form, including a scientific and material one which sees us reborn as our atoms are recycled by the Earth.
Druids do not necessarily share a belief in the same gods and goddesses or even the same belief in spirit. What they share is a reverence for the cycle of life and death and rebirth exemplified in the seasons and the vegetative cycle. They see in the agricultural year a metaphor of human life – planting, growth, fruition, harvest, dormancy, and re-emergence from the seemingly dead Earth element. The North is associated with the element of Earth as East is with Air, South with Fire, and West with Water. Each is understood as symbolic of an aspect of our being.
Druid circles are sometimes cast in a circle of trees in a clearing. Sometimes they are cast in a circle of stones. Often they are cast indoors when cold or inclement weather makes outdoor ritual inconvenient or downright dangerous. The important thing is that the directions are observed. In the center is sometimes a bon fire, sometimes an altar bearing a candle or many candles. Eight principal festivals are celebrated in the druid year. Four are solar festivals marking the solstices and the equinoxes. Four are agricultural festivals, marking respectively the time of the first lambs born in February (in more temperate climes), the first planting in May, the first harvest in August, and the final harvest in November. These eight festivals are roughly six weeks apart and can be represented by a wheel with eight spokes. The solar festivals correspond with the four cardinal directions and so the other four are sometimes called “cross-quarter” festivals, but also fire festivals because the use of fire features in all of them.
Each of these eight festivals has its own rite. Each seasonal rite is also surrounded, as it were, by the opening and closing rituals, just as in a Masonic lodge. As in the lodge, the opening and closing offer a symbolic explanation of the four directions and work sunwise around the altar to create sacred space, set off from the outside world for spiritual work. One distinct difference in my own grove is that any business meeting we wish to have is carried on after the ritual circle or at another time. It does not involve opening and closing the grove circle, nor is such business conducted within sacred space. Meetings involving the voting on new members would, of course, be conducted in private, but there is none of the ceremony and formality of the Tyler or Inner Guard in druidic workings.
I find this latter difference interesting because it suggests that modern druidry has not felt particularly threatened by cowans and eavesdroppers, probably because in the past century it existed either as an open protest movement for freedom of religion, or else within cultures that legally protected religious freedom, personal privacy, and the right to assemble for peaceful purposes. Wicca has undergone a great deal of sensationalized criticism from those who would still prefer to burn witches as a duty to their god. Druids, mercifully, have been criticized not as sorcerers but as cranks and eccentrics and so escaped the need to post guards. Druids also do not perform rituals nude so there is less need for complete privacy and some druid orders even stipulate that their rituals must be performed publically in order to promote greater awareness of neopaganism as a religious option.
Because OBOD is more philosophical and not exclusively neopagan or religious, its emphasis is mainly on freedom and privacy. When the order gathers twice each year on Glastonbury Tor for public rituals in England, the public accept it with either mild curiosity or polite indifference. In the United States and other parts of Europe the reception will very much depend on where you are.
Finally, there is the role of the officers. Because druid groves are so loosely organized, the form of their business meetings is anyone’s guess. Within most groves there is an office called the chief druid who is to some degree in charge. Whether the person is elected, or more often simply the founder of the group accepted by those who join as the leader, the chief is responsible for the health and welfare of the grove. In my own case, OBOD stipulates that any two or more members of the order can form a seed-group and attempt to grow into a grove. To be acknowledged as a grove, the group must have at least two members in the druid grade of the order.
Not all druid orders have grades or degrees but where they do they follow the system of three which we see in Masonry. The great difference is that each grade is treated as a period of study lasting at least a year. In OBOD one starts as a bard and focuses on the basics of druid sacred geometry, ceremony, the four elements, and particular Welsh poems and myths used for teaching. Certain specific meditations, rituals, and exercises are proposed and certain reading and study recommended at the end of which course of lessons, the student must be passed on to the next degree by his or her assigned tutor. The second grade is the Ovate grade. An ovate is a seer, a healer, and a walker between worlds. One’s ovate years are given over to a variety of different topics and specializations, all revolving around cultivating a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimensions of nature and a stronger connection with ones ancestors. The final grade is the Druid grade, which is parallel to that of Master Mason. It is a grade devoted to the cultivation of spiritual Light, preparation to assume a leadership role and realize one’s calling within the order. It also includes lessons, many of which center on the wand as a symbol of druid power and the esoteric meanings hidden within the Arthurian legends.
It takes a minimum of three years to become a Druid Companion of OBOD. Usually it takes longer. I myself took about seven or eight years to work through the material, but I did so without the support and benefit of a grove. This formal study and inner work associated with each grade of the druid order substitutes for the Masonic system of working through the officers line. W. L. Wilmshurst writes eloquently of the service for several years moving upwards in the progressive officers line within a lodge as intended to be a course of study in which each officer spends a year contemplating the inner meaning of his role and position in the geometry of the lodge. In druidry, the grades are separated from the offices, just as offices in lodge or Scottish Rite or York Rite bodies are separate from the degrees conveyed. OBOD has moved away from the face-to-face communication of degrees as individual lessons, to a system in which each grade contains more than 52 lessons.
OBOD lacks the dramatic quality we find in the Masonic degrees from three to thirty-three, but with larger numbers of order members and a will to do so, it might be possible to devise dramatic presentations to accompany each grade. As it is now, the initiation rituals are simple and symbolic but do not involve large numbers of people or dramatic storytelling.
In sum, there are many similarities and many differneces between these cousins. Each order has its own special initiatory current and its own coherent body of symbolism and legend. They are complementary rather than competing orders, each seeking the same fundamental goal — to increase Light in the world and thereby become better human beings and change society for the good.
Minneapolis, Spring Equinox 2008
Alban Eilir is the Welsh druidic name for the Vernal Equinox. It is a joyous celebration of one of the two points in our astronomical year when light and darkness are held in perfect balance. I’ve been asked whether druids “worship nature” and I usually reply that they do, but you have to understand the root meaning of worship. As in Freemasonry, worship and worshipful are used in the somewhat outdated idiom in which they mean simply “respect.” For some reason, over the past hundred years or so in America the word “worship” has been relegated entirely to religion where its meaning has become lost.
When I was raised, I thought “worship” meant something like going to church, singing hymns, and praying. It never quite made sense to me. Encountering the term in Freemasonry prompted me to examine its etymology and other uses. Not so much in the U.S. but in the U.K. and other English-speaking parts of the world high officials and especially magistrates may still be addressed as “your worship.” So, clearly the word is not religious in its meaning, but has been applied to the forms of respect and high courtesy that one should address to one’s superiors, especially a judge. The fact that Jehovah is most well-known in His role as judge in the Final Judgment can lead us to well-understand why He might be addressed as “your worship” as well as “Lord.”
The Great Magistrate of the Universe is the God of many Christian sects and denominations, but druidry has no Final Judgment in a cosmological sense. And what this idea of Doomsday refers to is really everyone’s “final judgement” at death. The ancient Egyptians and Hermetic wizards understood (and still do understand) this to refer to a process whereby a living soul is evaluated and its time in the body living a mortal life is examined. For druids there is no particular god, such as Thoth in the Egyptian pantheon, who writes down our deeds and weighs them. No Maat to put our heart in a balance and see if it is heavier than a feather. I like the Egyptian story, the idea that one’s heart should be “light” as a feather. “Light” has that double meaning of luminous and weighing little. Our hearts, at death, should not be heavy with guilt, shame, or regret.
The Celts seem to have been remarkably free of guilt and shame (until they became Catholics). Warriors gaily went screaming into battle naked and painted with woad in the strong faith that they would be reborn in a better life in the Otherworld. The Romans noted particularly that they even passed their debts on to be paid in the otherworld. Quite a good solution to all that credit-card debt, I must say.
But Alban Eilir is a time when we are just itching for Spring. In Minnesota we are enduring March, the month that typically comes in like a lamb with temperatures in the 40s and goes out like a lamb, but is a lion all through the middle full of snow and slush and freezing rain. It’s a time when one wishes one could pass into the Summerlands. But it is a time of balance, when the Sun himself may invite us to weigh our hearts in the balance of light and darkness and examine our feelings and deeds.
In our mundane lives it is all too easy to fall into the trap of being cranky or short with people and forgetting to pause and appreciate those in our lives for what they are. That is, to respect them, regardless of their quirks or faults; indeed to worship them. In the Far East one bows to another person in greetings and says “namaste” to honor the god within that person. Americans could do well to take up that custom and to pause when greeting each other to really take a look at the other person and realize that the divine is within each of us. Those of us who are hypercritical of others or of ourselves, need to remember that. There is too much hatred in the world today. Probably there always has been in the West. People are too prone to see the Devil in the people they meet, to consider their fellow citizens to be obstacles and adversaries at best, and at worst conspirators who are trying to destroy the middle class either through too much taxation or too few public services and an economy geared only for corporate bosses and a few oligarchical families.
It is especilly obvious during a political campaign that we fail to see the divine in other people, and if we cannot see it in others, we probably are not attending to the divine in ourselves.
When someones says that pagans “worship the Sun” or “worship Nature” they all too often seem to think it is some sort of “idolatry”. Sunday school lessons and sermons teach us that idols are things that pagans mistake for the True God. That is an unfortunate judgement and one that I doubt is true in most cases. People of any religious faith who have statues of their divinities do not think that statues magically contain the deity or that a mere statue is a god. That would be silly and extremely ignorant. Gods are beings and statues represent the god. A god dwells in a statue the same way each of us dwells within a photograph of us, or the same way George Washington dwells within a bust of him. No one with an ounce of sense mistakes the representation for the absent object, but representations have the power to bring absent objects (especially people) into a state of presence for us. That is one of the miraculous powers of the human imagination and human art. We can make representations of things which are not actually present, or are invisible and can only be symbolized. Statues of pagan gods are almost always symbols.
But so is the Sun. Druids do not worship the Sun as a god in some sort of exclusive and simply literal sense. I doubt our ancient ancestors were more stupid than we are, especially in matters of spirit and worship. God is a profound mystery. The Creator, the Creation, the cosmos, and our own bodies and minds, are all mysteries. Scientists have misled the public at large into supposing that all mysteries can be “solved” and thereby “mystery” can be eliminated. There is no evidence for that. Some puzzles can be solved, but inevitably in Nature you end up with nine more puzzles generated by the solution to the first. And the first mystery seems alwasy to go away only for a while and then re-emerge as a mystery again.
Isaac Newton, the famous alchemist, gave us calculus and formulas for describing how gravity works, but that does not make gravity any less mysterious. It is still an invisible force that we cannot understand and barely can define. We can only describe its effects in a crude way. If that makes you think that you understand gravity and it is no longer mysterious, then you need to clean your glasses. The Sun is a marvelous mystery and we barely understand it at all. Science has added to its story and has spoiled the old stories with its myopic disdain for personification and poetry. But only fools mistake poetic tropes for literal descriptions. The Sun is a big burning ball of gas, but it is so much more than that in the life we actually live and experience. Our lives would not be richer if we convinced ourselves that the Sun was “nothing but” a big burning ball of gas. Our lives would be poorer for the loss of poetic vision.
Druids in the Bardic tradition love poetry and therefore offer up their profoundest respect to the Sun and preserve its mysteries rather than striving to believe they have been explained away. Druidry is not about explaining. It is about respecting, worshiping, and appreciating the marvel, wonder, and mystery that is in every part of Creation. Most especially, the mystery that lies at the center of the human being. Intellectuals in the West have spent almost two hundred years trying to explain away human beings along with everything else in nature. I do not consider that to be the Druid Way. There is not any one single Druid Way, of course, but in any event, that doesn’t seem like it.
So, here’s to the balance of light and darkness. Here’s to the Sun as he returns to that perfect place rising in the East and setting in the West. And here’s to the wonder of the faith we can place in the return of Summer. Unless we — or a volcano — create another ice age or a period in which Winter will never lift because the Sun is obscured by dust and particles in the air, we can rely on the return of Summer. Druids are not, however, complacent about it. Druids know that nature is change and that catastrophes happen often and it is only a matter of time before we experience one of those terrible times of famine, due to some cataclysm or another. Those catastrophes are not signs of “the End Times” for druids; they are part of nature and however disastrous for us or for other species, they are not primarily a punishment for our behavior or beliefs. Catastrophes are indeed a time of judgment, however. They are a time for us to pause and judge ourselves, to consider our lives, and weigh our hearts and to take action to lighten them by doing good and loving others.
In Christianity the term “King” and “Lord” are often applied to Jesus and to God the Father (Yahweh). Growing up in American culture, I have often felt uncomfortable with these terms that come out of our monarchical and feudal past. In the Bible there are very few really admirable kings. They are usually admirable for the violence they inflict on the “enemies” of their people and how well they advance the interests of their kingdom.
Americans in the Revolution rejected kingship. Thanks to George Washington, who was a Freemason, we did not establish a monarchy over the newly federated states of America. Instead, we rejected noble titles altogether. This did not itself free us from plutocracy and oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy and a few powerful families. And in rejecting noble titles, we created a kind of romanticism about them — a medievalism that has only gotten stronger over the past 200 years. Witness the genre of fantasy fiction.
I for years had trouble with all the lord and king imagery in Christian hymns and sermons. Why is it good to call God a “king”? and his cosmos or “Heaven” his “kingdom”? Why address Jesus as “Lord”? Isn’t that rather against the whole idea of God as a “father” and Jesus as the “Son of Man” and so forth? It gave me a case of cognitive dissonance.
Curiously, modern neopaganism reproduces this language of noble privilege. It is probably unwitting, as it was most likely inspired simply by Christian useage. You have a god and he ought to be addressed as “lord”. The logic behind this etiquette may have been lost on the neopagan, which is to say that one is addressing one’s god as a social superior, one with powers of life and death over you, and one distinctly removed from the sphere you yourself occupy. One grovels before a king and at best pledges feality to a lord. Most people under a monarchical system or a feudal system (or even a patrician system as in pagan Rome) were slaves to the lords, or tenants with very few rights at all. Think of the modern absentee “landlord” who owns your apartment building.
Lords (much less kings) were distant beings of a sphere of wealth and power that could hardly be imagined by most common folk. So a religion that promulgates the notion that gods are lords and goddesses are “ladies” runs the risk of unwittingly promulgating the whole mindset that goes along with those social terms. Grovelling supplicants, powerless before a being that might be helpful or might be cruel. You make your supplication and hope for the best. Offering up gifts sometimes helps. That is called bribery today.
Is that a good model for religion?
We pick our metaphors. Can we do better?
I ran across a similar problem in Freemasonry. Masons are sometimes derided for their collections of seemingly pompous titles. The term “knight” is often used in the chivalric degrees, but there are other titles such as “elu” from the French for elected delegate. Even the simple “master” is one that is not used in modern American society (except vestigally in the Master’s degree of Academia, which is universally acknowledged to be of small value). Nobody calls someone with a Master of Arts degree “master” in forms of address. Nor do we have an apprentice system of economics anymore, so underlings in modern corporations and businesses do not call their “bosses” master either.
The title “prince” is the most difficult. In Freemasonry some of the degrees use this title. For example Prince Ameth and Prince Adept. What on earth do such titles mean? The modern American is not only completely ignorant of noble titles and their significance, but is also ignorant of Latin. So, it will be the rare fellow who recognizes that the word prince, which has come to be used to honor the son of a king, comes from the Latin word princeps, which has the same root as our English word “principal”. It meant “first” among men. We see the shadow of the term when we refer to a U.S. president as First Citizen. Hardly anyone does anymore, though. We have only preserved the term in “First Lady” for the president’s wife.
But does Prince Adept then mean “first” adept? No, I don’t think so. There is a symbolic or metaphorical meaning in “princeps”. It doesn’t mean simply that one is “first” in a numerical sense, or even “first” in a superiority sense, or order of precedence — like first in line at the banquet or seated at the head of the table in the “first” position of honor. Eighteenth century society was very concerned with precedence and honor.
No, “first” in this Latin sense has to do with another concept, that of sovereignty. That is, after all, the concept that lies behind the title “king” too. Kings were not always absolute monarchs or oriental potentates. They were not always equated with gods either. The old Irish kings and Saxon kings of England were just the chosen war-leaders and magistrates over their tribe. A kingdom was just as far as any given king’s authority and influence extended. That is why we have so much talk in the early Middle Ages about “petty kings” — they had the title, but not a very big following.
But underneath the reality is the concept of sovereignty and this is usually interpreted to mean that a person is acknoweldge to be whole and complete in himself. Nobody rules over him or her. A sovereign king or queen is at the top of the pecking order. But this isn’t meant literally in Masonry, or indeed, I think in Christianity. These terms had some literal sense in the beginning of their use in religions, no doubt, but in the Christian revelation the idea was to erect an idea of a transcendental, divine kingship and lordship over the worldy kings and lords that existed then (and still do). Jesus was “Prince of Peace” the very opposite of the warlords that have dominated human civilization (and still do). The idea of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man suggests that each of us, each human being has the potential within to be a “king”. That was in its time a very radical idea, almost inconceivable.
In Freemasonry assuming titles such as “Sir” and “Knight” or “Eques” (the latin version of the term), or indeed “Prince” take those historical titles of nobility and turn them on their heads. The titles of a Mason are not hereditary. They do not indicate the inheritance of land or power. Nor do they indicate a bestowal of land or power by a sovereign monarch for services rendered to the crown. In Freemasonry, being a prince means being One. It means finding the philosophical One of the Hermeticists within oneself. It means mastering one’s own personality with all its disparate and conflicting parts to find oneness, wholeness, which is indeed the philosopher’s gold.
The Gold of the alchemist is arrived at through the creation of the philosopher’s stone, and that stone is no literal stone, no chemical compound arrived at in the laboratory of the modern chemist. No, it is a recognition, a state of consciousness in which the sovereign person (the prince) perceives Nature not as mere “stone” — that is mere inanimate matter — but as imbued with layer upon layer of spiritual substance, spiritual energy, and spiritual bodies, all of which make up our being.
This Nature, once perceived as such, is the Philosopher’s Stone. And he or she who opens the doors of perception to see the philosophical reality in the natural world, sees the cosmos as it is, not as it is merely imagined to be by the finite and limited senses employed by modern science. Is it a matter of belief? In a sense it is, but it is also a matter of knowing. Modern scientific thought separates “belief” from “knowing” — the one being something that cannot be demonstrated or proven and the other something that can be demonstrated.
There is truth in that distinction, but only partly. For in matters spiritual, one may know from experience and revelation and vision, from senses beyond the mere five employed by modern science. The sciences of the past, before the 18th century, included these more intuitive senses and yielded more knoweldge as a result. Knowledge which could not be easily demonstrated in a lecture theater, but which is not “false” because of that.
The Prince Adept knows his own sovereignty, feels the unique union with the Anima Mundi, the Shekinah, or Sophia. Poetry is the language of such knowledge, symbol, metaphor and an understanding that goes beyond literalism. Beyond literalism, whether that be the literalism of materialism, or the literalism of religious fundamentalism. The Druid is also one of the People of the Book, but the “book”, the “bible” (book in Latin) is not a single printed volume, it is the volume of Nature. The medieval philosophers understood this truth, this way of knowing: That Nature is a book which may be read and interpreted. And she may be interpreted a thousand ways, not just through the single vision of modern materialism.
Materialism deserves some criticism not for its way of seeing, but for its claims to be the only way of seeing, the only path to truth, the only describer of reality. In this, modern science has erred in exactly the same way that so many religions have erred. Freemasonry — and I believe also Druidry — demands more. It demands a truly open mind and truly opened senses that respect other people’s knowledge and beliefs with humility. Any Druid who puts down others for their beliefs is not much of a druid, just as any Mason who does so is not much of a mason.
It is hard work. We have an innate desire to believe that our beliefs are true and those of others are wrong. But I am not so sure this is entirely innate. It might be a part of how our brains are constructed but it is certainly a part of how our language and our culture have been constructed, and those things are, as Blake said, “mind-forged manacles” we have made for ourselves. Freedom — that is “salvation” — must come from our willingness to work at casting off those manacles while keeping our sanity and civility. These are true freedoms, and that true basis of being a sovereign prince.
The last post to this blog is probably a good example of less light in Masonry. Delving into Masonic mysteries tends to lead to obscurity before one sees the light. The other day a young clerk at a store asked me about Freemasonry after seeing my ring. I felt later as if I didn’t do a very good job, though the circumstances didn’t favor me — checking out in a line with people waiting behind me! I hope that I piqued the young man’s curiosity, but as my lodge education officer, I feel rather bad at the job. I do not yet have a clear vision of how to present Freemasonry. This is the same problem of concise exposition that I face with Druidry. I do not have a quick, simple answer.
Obviously, a complex of ideas like Druidry or Freemasonry cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences. The fact is that it takes years to understand the teachings which have been collected in the Masonic degrees. Yet, I grow to understand (or suspect at least) that many of my brothers come in the category sometimes called “sleeping masons.” That is, they attend the degrees, even participate as candidates in some, but do not do the masonic work required after the degree to understand its content.
“Content” is not even perhaps the best word. When it comes to Freemasonry, the distinction between the vessel and its content does not seem to apply. The degree rituals are the vessel, to be sure, but their “content” goes beyond the mere words and actions of the degree, or even the visual symbols presented to the initiate. Masonry is a collection of materials and ideas and symbols from the world’s mystery traditions and religions. Albert Pike and his compeers in Scottish Rite masonry gathered together the wisdom from all of these various cultures and traditions and examined them through the lens of Hermeticism.
Hermeticism is a lens that reveals the underlying structures of reality in a way that has been lost to the modern materialistic mindset. That is, we are conditioned to think of and experience the world as matter. Physicists today do acknowledge that there are many energies and forces which exist and are integral to the “material” world. Yet, we in the West persist in the mistaken (or oversimplified) dichotomy between “matter” and “energy” as if these two “things” could be separated. Conceptualizing them as separate things with different names is a convenience to permit us to study them scientifically. However, the split between the concepts of matter and energy (and forces) should not be taken as a true reflection of the way things are. That is, Nature makes no such distinctions, except within human minds. Human minds are part of Nature, and that is another dichotomy that needs to be dissolved to understand the true nature of existence.
Such philosophical thinking seems far away from what many Freemasons desire, yet it is the Work of Freemasonry. Many brothers seem to think that the “Work” is merely the correct and careful performance of the rituals. Although care and correctness and an adherence to the accurate conveyance of our traditions is important, it is only the beginning of the Work. Albert Pike certainly understood this. His book Morals and Dogma of Scottish Rite Freemasonry is a very long and heartfelt attempt to teach this truth: That we are engaged in the same Magnum Opus as the alchemists and hermeticists of the middle ages and the renaissance. Indeed, this Art goes back to the dawn of human history and we can even see it in prehistorical cultures.
It is worth remembering that it has only been since the nineteenth century that we in the West have had any idea of “preshistorical cultures” and academics have only barely begun to study them, let alone understand what these cultures were doing. When we have only symbols and artifacts left, it is very hard to sort out and come to agreement about what ideas and actions those artifacts suggest.
However, it seems safe to say that the ideas expressed in Hermetic thought and attributed to Hermes Trismegistus are older than the Hellenistic Age. The texts may be products of their historical moment, certainly, but the ideas expressed in them are perhaps as old as the human brain. Pike attempts to examine the “history” of human development. He follows a common belief of his own time: That humans once had knowledge of the Unity of Divinity and the mystery of spiritual Being, but then lost it. This is the Lost Logos. We once had gnosis – “knowledge” – but having lost a grip on it (probably when we started to evolve written literate culture), we humans have spent the subsequent millennia arguing and philosophizing about whether we have spirits or souls and whether they are part of a single whole Being or whether they are individual and unique, and also then about whether our souls die with our bodies or somehow are reincarnated, and how that works, etc. etc.
Pike takes the view that we lost our clear understanding of our being and have been working for thousands of years to recover it. This is the meaning behind the myth of the Fall and the various myths of Salvation. We fell from pure knowledge (gnosis) into a state of doubt and confusion that is symbolized masonically by the image of darkness. We are blindfolded, hoodwinked, as we live our lives, until each of us makes the effort (work) to return to the Light.
Light, in this sense, is not the 18th century notion of “Enlightenment.” In that period of our history, thinkers came to the conclusion that religion was getting in the way of the truth. The truth was that the cosmos was a giant machine, a mechanism made up of mechanisms. This idea captivated Western culture and has been the dominant metaphor for the cosmos ever since. In the 20th century the metaphor of the computer was added so that the machine was acknowledge to be far more complex than a mere collection of cogwheels and springs. The idea of the cosmos as a fine timepiece gave way to the idea of the cosmos as a vast computer.
These ideas about the cosmos are, in the first instance, ideas about ourselves. We humans are most interested in understanding ourselves, our own being. Scientists do so by looking at the cosmos, Nature. However, in the 18th century the scientific thinkers of the West decided that they would discard the lens of Hermeticism and instead employ only the lens of Materialism. After Descartes articulated his mechanistic metaphor to explain the cosmos and human life (or at any rate non-human life), it was not long before Academia did an about face and passionately embraced the premise that there was no such thing as a “spirit.” Everything was carnal and mechanical.
I say that Academia did an about face because prior to this turning point, universities had been dominated by theologians. Indeed, it was against this domination by theologians that Freemasonry was elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Men like Isaac Newton and Elias Ashmole, who were instrumental in the creation of the Royal Society in England, were also instrumental in fostering the Masonic lodge as a space for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience. Universities did not provide such a space in their time. Far from “academic freedom” the Academies of that earlier period would send a professor to prison for denying the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity or any number of other religious ideas.
There can be no freedom of thought where some ideas are made sacrosanct and cannot be questioned. There can be no evolution of thought or progress in human understanding of the cosmos where a few ideas are held up to be incontrovertable. Curiously, the creation of the Royal Society by these free-thinking alchemists and hermeticists did not have the effect they desired. Freedom of thought abandoned religious ideas altogether. When Reason was applied to religious teachings, they were found so wanting that they were discarded. Thousands of years of human cogitation and vision were tossed aside by this arrogant and blind generation of men, so that the 19th and 20th century became an age in which spiritual searching was ejected from universities altogether in favor of rationalist materialism. Positivism rejected visionary experience so forcefully as to render it laughable, and no one could pursue a career in academia as a professional paid thinker while openly including such ideas as the Trinity or even God in his or her thoughts about the universe.
Offended at being so rejected, religious leaders and thinkers removed themselves from academia to private seminaries and carried on their religious thinking within the narrow confines of one particular sect or another, enforcing orthodoxy upon the seminarians to a greater or lesser extent. So, the idea of the separation of church and state combined with the idea of the rational secular state to yield the separation of Faith and Reason.
Yet, through all these past two centuries Freemasonry has continued. Within its lodges and its sacred space, both Reason and Faith have been allowed absolute freedom. Free speech and freedom of thought are maintained within the institution of Masonry as the most profound necessities for peaceful coexistence and brotherly love. Modern Druidry, as it evolved out of Masonic institutions in the 19th and 20th century in England, took on this mantle and extended it to a universal doctrine of Caritas. Fraternitas is, within Druidry, interpreted to mean both sexes — brotherhood and sisterhood equal in virtue and equally necessary among men and women. This is an idea we can see in the early Irish monasteries, which included both brothers and sisters in their orders, living together, not separated by a fear of sex and the body as “evil.”
I myself believe that this Irish monastic tradition was carrying on an earlier druidic practice of including men and women in the spiritual orders of bards, ovates, and druids. Trees, animals, and even stones are acknoweldge to be our “brethren” in this broad sense, our kin, in fact. This is a doctrine shared even by American druids who grew out of the American neopagan movement. Whether they knew it or not, many of the “pagan” ideas inherited by neopagans have been preserved and fostered in the Light of Masonry for centuries. The general promotion of freedom of thought which the secular materialist universities promoted did accomplish good. For even if Academia excluded from its walls and payroll thinkers engaged in spiritual thinking, they nevertheless have cultivated a general legal system of tolerance. Whether Academia itself is to be given credit for this legal system or whether in fact it arose from Freemasonry and its teachings is impossible to say with certainty, though I think the latter more probable.
So we enjoy freedom of thought and ought, in my opinion, to go to work exercising that freedom. That means working to recover the lost Logos, the union of Reason with all the other faculties of Mind and Body. Blake had it right when he identified Reason as only one of four faculties of the human soul. Reason, he argued poetically, had made itself a God, and cast down the other divine attributes of the human being — Imagination, the Body and its Joys and Emotions, and Feeling, the capacity to love, relate, and join with others. That idea of Feeling is really Fraternitas, the virtue of brotherhood, the virtue of connection among peoples. The modern druid seeks that connection with trees and the land itself, with mountains, oceans, and indeed the whole planet as a living being.
Here are Paracelsus and Fludd and Dee and Bruno, the great natural philosophers of the Renaissance. Some modern neopagans are too quick to reject these thinkers because their thought was couched at times in Christian symbols. Such a rejection can only be explained by ignorance of their true depths of thought. Among modern pagans too often it seems there is no study, no work at cultivating understanding, gnosis, through understanding these ancestors and their minds. Instead, the modern pagan seeks direct gnosis, an epiphany or revelation that comes through well-performed ritual and freedom from the dogmas of the dominant religions. Polytheism now seems liberating just as monotheism did in the time of our ancient ancestors two millennia ago.
But all of this spiritual searching, synthesizing and balancing the ideas of many gods and one god have been going on for at least a hundred generations of our ancestors. There are those among us, and among our ancestors, who desired to join the dominant religions of their day, to be a part of a dominant group with all the security that implies. There are many others who desire to ally themselves with oppressed peoples and religions, those who have been rejected and persecuted, the victims of religious bigotry. I find myself among the latter type. Dominant religions are too often bigoted, chauvinistic and smug in their self-righteousness. The problem isn’t their religious teachings or symbolism, but this smug self-righteousness and tendency to lord it over other religious groups. The vice of Superbia.
So, I am among those brothers who are drawn to Judaism, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, the old polytheisms of our ancestors, but more than I am drawn to the familar hymnbooks and structures of Protestantism or even Catholicism. Islam because it is in fact a hugely dominant religions worldwide, holds little attraction to me, but some of the Sufi poets and their mystical ideas draw me, because they are a part of the esoteric currents that run deep in the oceans of thought.
The obscurity that exists in the esoteric schools is partly due to the realization that the Book of Nature is symbolic and all sacred texts may be interpreted and reinterpreted infinitely. The lack of simple, clear answers to life’s persistent questions makes the work of the wizard seem confusing and obscure. It is part of my quest as a worker in the the field of Masonic and Druidic education to find the way to shed more light upon the pursuit of Light itself. I feel unequal to the task!
Alrighty. Now this is going to be really arcane. The Grand Lodge Education Officer in Minnesota, Right Worshipful Brother Ed Halpaus posed this poser in a recent emailing of his called Masonic Matters. Someone noticed that on the base of the pillar called Jachin (one of the two outside Solomon’s temple), there are carved four zodiacal signs — Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, and Cancer. This is, apparently, one of those unsolved Masonic conundrums. Why are they there? What do they mean? Can they be “decoded”?
First, it is fairly obvious why these signs would be carved on Jachin (the celestial pillar) and not Boaz. That seems safe. Constellations and astrological symbols logically go on this pillar. At least we can take that as a start. It may have more significance later.
But, why these four signs? It seems clear that it is not a reference to the equinoxes and solstices (which first springs to mind with 4 signs). Of the four, only Cancer corresponds to one of these key annual solar events. One notices that Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer are adjacent successive signs. Arguably, these four signs constitute the season of Summer — or at any rate the first half of the summer months. In pagan calendrical traditions, the 1st of May marked a particular celebration of the return of life to the earth, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in earnest. Now, that would not apply in ancient Judea, but across the northern latitudes it does and Masonic symbols are as likely to derive from Northern Europe as from ancient Judea. The fact that Mason’s traditionally (like modern pagans and ancient Celts) start their yearly cycle with November 1st (Samhuinn in Irish), lends strength to the idea that May 1st should also be significant as the start of summer, or the light half of the year.
Cancer is the constellation (and time segment of the wheel of the year) containing the summer solstice and the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The saint’s day is celebrated by Masons. We know that in many mystery traditions the point at which the Sun has its greatest power is significant and that is one of the reasons put forth for our own Masonic observance of the Baptist’s feast day. Masonry, which is devoted to the cultivation of Light (as is the modern Druidry which descended from it), must place special significance on the longest day and the point of greatest illumination.
So, in Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer we see the three months of summer, which certainly resonates with the interpretation R.W.B. Halpaus mentioned that the ruffians represent the three months of winter. I would dispute that interpretation mainly on the grounds that there were a total of 15 fellowcrafts in the rebellion, three of which turned out to be murderers. If it was three out of twelve, I would find the interpretation more convincing. I do wonder, however, if the “twelve companions of Hiram” might not be considered to represent the twelve fellowcrafts who repented and came to him in white, and who subsequently brought the murderers to justice and found Hiram Abiff’s body. Those twelve, and the signs of the zodiac also are often interpreted as symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, which in turn are often considered to have some correspondence to the twelve signs of the zodiac.
But, that leaves Scorpio. Does it signify November 1st which lies in the middle of the constellation in our astrological system (ignoring the knotty matter of the procession of the equinoxes). Scorpio is, in fact, one of those winter months that are supposed to correspond to the ruffians and the extinguishing of Light. If we look at the circle of the zodiac, we will see that Taurus is opposite Scorpio, so that in the listing of the four signs on the pillar, our mind is invited to move across this access of the year — from May 1st to November 1st, from the sign dominating the inception of the light half of the year to the sign dominating the inception of the dark half. In druidic terms this alludes to samos (the light half) and giamos (the dark half) and the holy days of Bealtaine and Samhuinn respectively.
Can we go further than to interpret the astrological signs with their traditional meanings? Does the sequence Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, Cancer encode a meaning based upon the significance of these symbols? Can we read them?
I do not have any good ideas on how to interpret that pattern. It looks to me as if we begin with the start of summer in Taurus, then move across the wheel of the year to the end of summer at Scorpio. Then our mind is brought back to the other two signs under which the Light increases and reaches its zenith. Is it even useful to reduce this symbolism to words? Symbolic messages are usually best understood intuitively, gesturally, without being “explained” in words. However, a crude translation might be that the writer wishes us to behold a pattern in the foundations of the cosmos (the celestial pillar), the balance between darkness and light, and then draws our attention to the triumph of the Light.
Can we go still further, though? Cabalists are inclined to see in the signs of the zodiac references to the four evangelists and the twelve tribes of Israel. What is the point of doing so? Well, the interpretative move allows us to tie our symbols to the myths and legends of the Bible and so add another layer of meaning, or to conceal a deeper message in a further set of symbolic correspondences.
So, one aspect of the four signs we are considering is their traditional animal symbolism. Taurus is the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, and Scorpio is often associated with the Eagle, or the serpent as well as with the scorpion. Similarly, Cancer is very closely associated with the Moon, being considered the sign in which the Moon is most exalted. That gives Cancer the interesting quality of being a Lunar sign in which the Sun reaches its summer solstice (in the Northern hemisphere, the point of greatest strength and the longest day, or most light). What meaning can we derive from these associations?
These symbolic creatures correspond only partially to the four creatures assigned to the four evangelists (or the beasts seen in the vision of Ezekiel) so we might dismiss the attempt as strained and likely not intended. However, let us look for a moment at what might be there. The Bull is the symbol of St. Luke and the Eagle the symbol of St. John. It may be that the Eagle is associated with St. John precisely because the sign of Scorpio presages the winter solstice and the re-birth of the Light (Logos).
The bull is a symbol central to the cult of Mithras, in which cult the hero sun-deity Mithras is often depicted wrestling a bull. The Eagle is a prominent symbol in Scottish Rite Freemasonry (which is to say the Masonry developed in France and most often associated with the Knights Templar). The Eagle in this Masonic rite is two-headed like the Hapsburg or Romanoff eagle. It does not, however, imply that Freemasons allude to these two empires. Rather, I think the empires borrowed the symbol from the same sources as the Masons and for the same reason – that the eagle with two heads looks both East and West. In the case of the empires, they looked in these directions for dominion. In the case of the Masons, the eagle looks in these two directions for wisdom — the two great traditions of eastern and western philosophical understanding.
The other two “beasts” associated with the four evangelists area human figure and a lion. Arguably, to stretch the interpretation a bit, Gemini could be compared to the Human figure which is traditionally assigned to symbolize St. Matthew (usually assigned to Aquarius). If this human figure is, as I read, supposed to symbolize human reason, then Gemini also may be said to do so, for it is a sign particularly associated with the human capacity for thought, reason, speech and writing. But if Gemini is here being chosen to represent St Matthew and his gospel, that raises a question about why. Why twins? If one human figure is traditional, deliberately choosing a constellation that represents two human figures (Castor and Pollux) invites the question. Is it a veiled allusion to a reference to “twins” in Matthew’s gospel? Does it suggest a duality or complementarity of some kind? Doubling? Does it invite us to interpret the gospel of Matthew in the light of the myth of Castor and Pollux, or in light of the Israelite tribe which corresponds to Gemini?
Alas, we have no lion at all, Cancer being symbolized by Crab or Moon but presaging Leo. If the four signs in this sequence we are considering are intended to correspond to the four evangelists, there are some deliberate changes being made, some diversion that must be intended for us to unearth something secret and unusual in the evangelists. The theme of the Twin, the symbolism of a Crab, or the Moon. Do we proceed to comb the gospels or the Greek myths or both? I have not yet tried to do so, but that would be one approach to test this vague hypothesis. The problem is, of course, that once you start looking for hidden patterns of meaning, you are likely to find them, whether that was the intention of our Masonic carvers?
A similar long digression which I have followed in part is the one that takes signs of the zodiac to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. These are the sons of Jacob, for the most part, with a couple of the sons of Joseph added in after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Now, allusions to these tribes could encode meanings based upon the Biblical accounts of the tribes and/or their founders. Or, there may be meta-meanings connected to the fact that the whole lot of them went into Egypt and then came out again. In the occult and esoteric traditions of the West, Egypt has long been considered the font of all wisdom and magic. Freemasonry, particularly in the 18th century looked to Egypt and it has been argued that the ancient Hermetic traditions passed through alchemy and Renaissance philosophy and Rosicrucianism to pass down to Freemasonry its web of insights into the cosmos conveyed in symbols.
Be this as it may, the correspondence of the twelve tribes and the twelve signs of the zodiac is, alas, not simple. There have been many theories and attempts and no consensus. Albert Pike attempted it (perhaps based on Eliphas Levi) and this was taken up by Macgregor Mathers, the founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The associations of Pike would give us for these four correspondences: Taurus – Reuben; Scorpio – Dan; Gemini – Zebulun; and Cancer – Issachar.
As I researched Pike’s attributions, I found the logic of them unconvincing. There are a number of ways of approaching putting the twelve tribes of Israel “in order” but in my opinion the method used by Pike and Mathers carries some aspects that do not fit with my own esoteric intuitions and training. The associations are based on drawing strained comparisons between the animals to which the Bible alludes in reference to the tribes and the animals of the zodiac signs. So, most notably we get Judah called “the lion” and so (obviously) he must correspond to Leo. Mathers and his cabbalistic compeers also assign Judah to the East because it is considered to the be the place of honor. These two logical moves end up producing the illogical association of the constellation Leo with the East. And this is perhaps the best of the associations. Issachar, associated with an ass, does not fit the zodiac at all, and the attempt at matching animals becomes quickly ridiculous.
In my own druidic training, which is fairly mainstream in its associations, East represents springtime and renewal. It is the place of beginnings. Judah is associated with the East in another part of the biblical legend of the twelve tribes — namely the description of their encampment. In that description of the encampment, as David Godwin explains clearly in a fine article (see: “Astrological Attributions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel“), Judah is named as camping in the east of the encampment. The tribes are grouped in triads each assigned to one of the quarters. This means that if we can link the quarters to the seasons, we can link the tribes in each quarter to the three signs in each season.
If we follow the strained bestiary associations of Mathers and Pike, we end up with one arrangement of the tribes. An arrangement that does not accord with the description of the encampment. So, I prefer to follow the description of the encampment as this is the origin of our notion that the tribes ought to correspond to the four seasons in the first place.
Doing so, I place Judah due east. Today, East is usually taken at the point of the circle corresponding to the Vernal Equinox in Aries. The others listed “in the East” are Issachar and Zebulun. I take the simplest route and place these in order following Judah clockwise — so, Issachar is Taurus, and Zebulun Gemini.
Now, arguably, one could interpret “in the East” different ways. Do Issachar and Zebulun, for instance, flank Judah (giving them to Pisces and Taurus then)? Or should we go counterclockwise through the signs? I reject both of these possibilities. Clockwise is the more usual way of unfolding things in the northern hemisphere. The Sun moves through the signs in this order anyway. If we wanted to go counterclockwise, the signs of the zodiac would have to be reversed. To my druidical mind, starting in the East means moving clockwise round the circle of the seasons from Spring, the dawning of the new light.
The observant reader will note that I said earlier that the light half the the year is considered to start May 1st at Bealtaine, not at the Vernal Equinox. But the fact is that the light half of the year is considered to start in both points. The equinoxes mark the point of balance. The vernal equinox is the astronomical point at which the light starts to outshine the darkness and the days become longer than the nights. Bealtaine is the point (six weeks later) when we can really start to notice that this is happening. The trees and the weather also notice it. Again, I am speaking in terms of more northerly lattitudes. I cannot speak to Jerusalem. However, in northern lore, it is in May that the risk of frost passes reliably.
So, back to the tribes. Following my logic, I come up with Cancer assigned to the first named of the tribes encamped in the south of the camp. This is Reuben. I will not list all twelve, but we find Scorpio, of course, located in the beginning of the darkening of the year, actually the middle of the three tribes assigned to the West (Autumn), which is Manaseh.
I fully expect that these tribes are meaningless to the majority of my patient readers, and indeed they do not bring anything immediately to my mind either. So, I turned up my copy of “Who’s Who in the Bible” first of all for the overview. Here is what I found for each of the four tribes and their founders, those corresponding to Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, and Cancer in turn. Let us see if any pattern emerges that might have Masonic significance.
Issachar (the ass) actually means “man of reward” or else “hired man”. The Mason will likely think of the apprentice or the fellowcraft — the laborer. Issachar was the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. The sons of Leah are significance in general because Leah was the unloved wife whom Jacob was tricked into marrying by her father who forced him to marry the older sister before he could have Rachel, the more beautiful younger sister whom Jacob loved. Jacob, who had tricked his elder brother Esau out of his inheritance by playing a trick on his blind father Isaac, was in turn tricked by his uncle Laban, who was Rachel and Leah’s father. He didn’t have any money for the bride-price so he offered to work seven years for Laban in return for Rachel.
Now, the seven years indentured servitude sounds familiar too – the customary time for an apprenticeship. Issachar was the fourth son of the marriage of Leah and Jacob. Leah repudedly kept thinking with each successive child she bore Jacob that he would come to love her. Issachar apparently died in Egypt during the time when his whole family had come there under the protection of their brother Joseph (whom they had tried to sell as a slave on account of his amazing technicolor dream coat).
When the children of Israel returned to the promised land, Moses gave the tribe of Issachar land near the River Jezreel, near the tribe of Zebulun, who we will meet in a moment. Two kings of the Israelites descended from Issachar — Baasha and Elah). Baasha reigned for twenty years in the northern kingdom but came to his throne by assassinating the previous king, Nadab. In general he seems to have been a conniving, unsavory fellow. Elah was Baasha’s son who rigned as king of Israel for only two years (877-876 B.C.E.). He was reputedly a drunkard and idoloter, and was murdered along with all his household by Zimri, the commander of the royal chariots. So, the claim to fame of Issachar’s tribe in terms of kings is not an admirable one. Baasha’s name meant Baal hears, so he is numbered among those who turned away from the worship of Jahweh and took up with Baal in the ninth century B.C.E.
Manasseh. The firstborn son of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath. His name repudedly means “God has made me forget” referring to the fact that Joseph, who had been sold into slavery and then made his fortune in Egypt, was trying to forget his old family and their beliefs. However, after being reunited with his family, bringing them to Egypt and thereby causing the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt that ended when Moses led them out. When they came back into the promised land, the tribe of Manasseh had been acknowledged (by Jacob) as one of the twelve tribes (remember Jacob was re-named Israel). So, the tribe of Manasseh was given lands in Gilead and the highlands west of the Jordan River. It was a big tribe and yet it was among those northern tribes that disappear almost entirely from history when the Assyrians invaded and took the northern tribes to Babylon.
The captivity in Bablylon, as Scottish Rite masons know, plays a major role in the higher degrees of the Lodge of Perfection. Issachar and Manasseh are, we postulate, represented by the two signs, Taurus and Scorpio, lying on opposite sides of the zodiac and the year. The one represents spring and beginnings, the other, the dying of light, or its fading and implicitly its rebirth. Such an interpretation is plausible if we think of Issachar as the workman-apprentice and Manasseh as the Master (at least the Master Joseph’s heir). The Master represents old age and maturity; the apprentice the unskilled youth. The Bull and the Eagle — the animal who inseminates and is the foundation of wealth counted in cattle, and the animal who soars above all, closer to God and the spirit world, as well as the celestial sphere.
Having drawn this diameter across the wheel of the year from southeast to northwest, we are now drawn by the next pair of zodiac signs to the summer and the south. These two tribes are as follows.
Gemini corresponds to Zebulun. He is Leah’s and Jacob’s sixth son an his name means something like “honor, exalt, or dwell”. Might we imagine it means to pass on to a higher degree of honor? The Tribe of Zebulun was settled in the area of Galilee and is associated with the port of Sidon as well. Powerful, but eventually, like all the northern tribes taken away to Babylon by the Assyrians.
Cancer corresponds to Reuben. His name means “behold a son” and is Leah’s first son by Jacob. This illustrious position among the sons of Israel rings true with the significance of Cancer as the sign in which the Sun reaches its summer solstice, its height and the longest day. Reuben also died in Egypt and his tribe was settled in Gilead but sunk into obscurity after the time of King David.
Reuben’s story has a few other weird twists. He had been conceived through the use of mandrake, a magical aphrodisiac. Later, he himself had sexual relations with the servant-woman with whom his father had had two children. This action was a symbolic usurpation of his father’s property, one of his women, and because of it Reuben, the first born and eldest son was disinherited. Later it was the sons of Joseph who inherited the birthright of Israel.
All of this family history is significant as the history of royal succession in what is effectively the royal family of the Hebrews. One of the aspects of these legends or histories that strikes me is the role of the women who are, often as not, manipulating the outcomes through their sexuality and their tricks.
Is there a pattern here? Does the key to interpreting the four signs of the zodiac lie in the tribes of Israel? Is there a key to the establishment of God’s kingdom, the cosmos? Is it all idle musing? Is the purpose behind it merely to think and ponder and make meanings within our own imaginations? I suppose the Cabalist would want to delve further to see if there were numerological significances — Gematria (Geometries). Stay tuned!