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Yearly Archives: 2012
“Dear Alferian, I just received a wand for Christmas. How can I start learning magic?”
This is a question I get periodically and I am never satisfied with my recommendations, mainly because there is no single book I can wholeheartedly recommend as a starting point. The one I usually do recommend is Amber K’s book True Magic. There are hundreds of books on wicca or other varieties of witchcraft, voodoo, ceremonial magic, and even some good books on Druidry. But there is no book simply about magic without a particular worldview involving religious ideas. In fact, magic is an art and a science. It is closely allied to religions because one’s view of magery depends on one’s cultural viewpoint and religion is often the cultural zone where attitudes are formed regarding what has been called “spiritual” or “supernatural” matters.
The most recent brand of magery on the metaphysical book shop shelves is Chaos Magic, which intends to transcend any particular religious framework. That may be all well and good, if one has grown up without a religion, but for those who have been raised in one religious system or another, those ideas are ingrained in the neural pathways, the little grey cells. It is far easier to do magic within the frame of reference you already have than to try to erase it from your brain and adopt something new. It is true that some individuals desire to change their religious paradigm, usually due to some dissatisfaction with their old religion. A common example is the person who leaves a Christian church because of its attitude toward sexuality or women. Most of the Western religions (and I include Islam even though it is really very strong in the East) are based on the patriarchal ideas of the Bible, which means a male-dominant society ruled by the old men who use young men to fight their wars and treat women like a separate species with limited rights and little control over their bodies. I fully appreciate why individuals turn away from such a fundamental bias and seek a religion that honors the Divine Feminine and gender equality.
Such is one of the attractions of Wicca as a religion. Druidry offers very similar ideas (both systems sprang from the same group of thinkers in the mid-Twentieth Century). Druidry offers a little more depth because modern Druid orders were built on earlier writings about Druids from the 18th and 19th centuries and there is a literary tradition of Bardic tales and legends from which to draw. Wicca draws upon a much more tenuous history in which very little was ever written down, except what came out in the Witch Trials of the 17th century. “Witchcraft” has mostly been used as a pejorative term until the last century. The term “cunning man” or “cunning woman” is a more neutral term for someone wise in the way of herbs, potions, and spells.
It is here that we get to the nub of the issue with magery or wizardry — that it is a craft and actually may be thought of as something distinct from religious beliefs or practices. The two have similarities, but wizardry as such differs from most religions in avoiding the problematical stance that one religion is the “true” faith and others are false. Wizardry relates most closely to the esoteric schools because it is based on a cosmology that is essentially psychological. It is a layer beneath all religions, the perennial philosophy, in which personal vision, revelation, and experience are honored as truths and there are no dogmas or authorities to dictate what is “right” and what is “wrong.” As in other sciences, what is “right” is what works. That is, what ideations and actions have an effect on the manifest world. At its base, magery is about cause and effect.
So, the long and short of it is that I have decided to embark upon a series of log entries that attempt to answer the question I started with. Where does one begin with magic? Since we really do not have magical schools (though there are some valiant efforts), and since wizards are scattered rather thinly over the Earth, it is hard for a young person to know where to begin. Certainly I experienced the problem and in these pages, will try to give the benefit of my own experience. I am in fact dealing with the question of how to teach the magical arts in my novel House of Glass, and you will be able to read that shortly when I publish it in the next few months on my web site and on Amazon. So, in part, what I propose as a course of study is based on that work, though here I will reference books that you can find in book shops, whereas in the novel, I have the advantage of being able to make up book references within that fictional world 😉
As in all disciplines there is a special terminology that is required. The concepts of wizardry are not those of our ordinary lives and so, just as in chemistry or physics, which deal with invisible forces and reactions, special terms are required. I will endeavor to add to the vocabulary of the field where we lack clarity. To begin with, I use the terms magery and wizardry interchangeably in stead of “magic” because the latter word has mixed connotations. “Magic” may be the stuff of stage entertainments, or fantasy novels. Moreover, the word comes to us from the Greek mageia, which referred specifically to the Zoroastrian priests of the Persian Empire. The Magi of the Gospels were evidently such priests for that is what magi are. In English this is generalized into what the fantasy games call a “magic user.” The singular is “mage.” It is a convenient term since it has been almost wholly disconnected from its religious origins. Magery, is simply what mages do. The term also has the advantage of being gender-neutral.
Wizardry is magery by a more familiar name. Our English word “wizard” simply means a wise person. Yet, over time and the development of fantasy literature as a genre, the term has become associated with magical powers. “Magical” is a difficult term because it is based on “magic” and suffers from too much ambiguity. But what adjective can we use in its place? More on this in the next issue.
Magical Arts: Deportment and Physical Culture
Nobody. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney both lost. In fact, in a real debate, or even a civil conversation, they should have been thrown out, or at least scolded. I am waiting for the day when a moderator has the guts to say “Mr. President,” you aren’t doing what I asked you to do. You are not answering the question.”
What we need is a ninth grade school English teacher to be moderator. Of course, then the stage would have been empty because both candidates would have been sent to the vice principal’s office for disrupting the class. That might have been good. The audience could have then had more time to talk an they might have gotten to the roots of some of the problems in this country.
Roots is a good metaphor. The politicians we have today seem to talk about solving our buckthorn problem by hacking away at the branches. Anyone with buckthorn invading their garden knows that it has to come out by the roots or it will just come back. The budget over-runs is like that.
But why do we have to have candidates harping on about raising the debt ceiling (an unfortunate phrase designed to make it sound evil)? What? Is the USA going to default on its loan payments? That would be a little ironic, given the number of its citizens who have had to default on theirs. But governments defaulting on loans from other countries, like individual citizens, find their credit rating ruined — probably for a long, long time. Maybe that would be good for our country, from a moral and economic perspective, even though it would mean that poor and middle class people would suffer tremendously. If China cut us off from the addition of borrowing money and the Arabs cut us off from the oil addiction, we would go through a painful withdrawal, but we would then figure out how to make do with what we actually have.
Capitalists operate on the assumption that they can borrow money for a short term and build business with it so that they pay it back to their investors and make a profit. Usually if this doesn’t happen in five years or so, an entrepreneur will rethink the plan and maybe liquidate. I know Republicans like to use the analogy that government of a nation is like a business and other nations are out competition, but I am not sure the analogy holds in a case like this. We have been running our business as a country, taking care of our employees (businesses and individuals) with an eye to making profits. But the Republicans do not really allow the government to receive the profits. It is, as it were, the middle management of corporate stockholders and captains of industry who get billions, not the USA board of directors or president. So, government is not really like a business. And even if it were, our government seems to have some poor money skills.
The thing is, I don’t blame the president (whoever he is and whatever party). The Congress is the center of American government. The president is just the man to execute the laws passed by Congress. So, blaming the president, or firing him every four years, is really a smoke screen. The Congress are the chaps responsible. And if you look at them as individuals you find that they have very poor money-management skills too. They probably failed personal finance in high school because they wouldn’t stop yammering on to their friends or shooting spitballs at their enemies.
What we need is a president (and members of Congress) who listen. Really listen. And then work to solve problems in the real world. I do not want a person to reply to my problems with hackneyed rhetoric and zingers. If a debate about strategies and tactics is necessary, as it always is when a corporation or group is taking on a difficult challenge, then let it be done with the least possible amount of posturing. Do you come into your committee meetings at work or in a volunteer organization with “talking points” that you then endlessly repeat? Do you point out the past failings of other committee members in order to try to get elected chairman of the committee? Well, maybe sometimes this does happen outside the meetings. But in your meetings, where you work to determine the details of an action plan and a strategy to keep the organization profitable and solvent, you rely on reasoned argument and consensus-building. I expect you do.
Macho posturing and the tendency to try to interrupt and get in a comeback to something another member of the committee said, does not work well. That’s why they invented the talking stick. Men have generally a very bad communication style, compared to women. At least that’s what my feminist linguistics professor taught me in college. Men like to interrupt and seize the floor. Shouting has been a chief part of male primate behavior for millions of years, I suppose. Are women better listeners? Well, yes and no. When I see a group of women meeting socially, they all seem to be talking at the same time. Yet, they also seem to hear each other just fine. And they aren’t usually arguing.
In a work situation, I have not had that much experience with all-woman groups (obviously), but my wife has. From what I can gather, a lot of the stupid ideas come from men who think they know everything and are the only one who could possibly be right. Such men generate stupid ideas when they are, surprise, wrong. But let us not make it a gender issue. Everyone can agree that rational discussion and careful understanding of facts is the main thing needed. But facts do not, contrary to popular believe, speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted.
Our presidential candidates do not seem to even get to the point of debating the relative truth-value of different interpretations of the facts. They instead just deny that the other person is telling the truth about the facts themselves. Now, it is true that this sort of “debate” is purposefully “dumbed down.” Our leaders (the management of our big corporation) think that their employees are pretty dimwitted. They think we can only deal with issues like unemployment in a simplistic way. For example, some say that President Obama has not done what needs to be done to lower unemployment after the brink of a Great Depression. Well, that is pure speculation. No one can say for sure what “might have” worked better. That the unemployed people in America are frantic and unhappy is true. But to appeal to their unhappiness and impatience (very natural) and blame the CEO of the company for not hiring more people, seems silly. Everyone is an armchair general or an armchair quarterback, but the fact is that we have no way of knowing if things would have worked out better or worse for a Republican in the White House. So, why are we wasting time yammering about such pure speculation.
What we need is to get detailed plans and have them explained in detail. Not ideological generalities like “giving money to corporate bosses will generate more jobs.” What we need right now is more customers and giving money to the rich won’t do that as effectively as giving money to the poor. But both ideas are beside the point. We do not really have money to give away. We should not be running a politics of who can we bribe to vote for us? Giving away money was in fact the old Roman way of politicing, way back when Rome was a Republic. But it has not been shown to be really good policy unless you have money to give away.
Let’s debate the pros and cons of declaring bankruptcy and starting over. That’s what businessmen, and many American individuals have had to do. Why not the whole country? Well, I suppose you could only really do that if your country was socialist. As it is, because socialism is considered Satanism by most Americans, we really have nothing else to do but keep borrowing until the cart runs all the way down the hill and smashes up at the bottom. Then we won’t have any choice left but to start over. Either way, now or later, we lose our credit rating because, let’s face it, we are not trustworthy. Not the “government” — US. All of us have made this system. Not one party. Not professional evil politicians. Not a secret society bent on ruining Western civilization. Not even the commies. We build America the way it is and included a culture of irresponsible borrowing. There is only one person who loves borrowing — a banker.
As you may have seen from the comments on my other post about a Druid Lodge, I’ve learned that John Michael Greer (a marvelous author on many esoteric subjects) is putting out a book along these lines. It is really not so much a combination of Masonry and Druidry (it sounds like) as Druidry and the Golden Dawn (which uses the term “lodge” also). It should be very interesting, especially because of all the research he has done on the 19th century lodges and the intersection between Masons and the creation of the new druid orders.
Currently, I have been working on a book on Masonry which I’ve given the working title: A Freemason’s Handbook. It is designed to be a small-format book that Mason’s can carry about, and one that will essentially be a close reading of the rituals and lectures. I have already decided it will be three books for the three degrees, so brothers can engage in the work of the first degree without temptation to spoilers for the 2nd and 3rd. And likewise for the Fellowcrafts. The idea is to give brothers enough material to work on those degrees for at least a year before applying for the following degree. I do not harbor any illusions that any lodges will adopt this plan, but you never know. It is just my feeling that we Masons ought to spend time actually putting the material presented in each degree into practice for a year or more before we are really qualified to go on. By the time one becomes a Master Mason, in such a scheme, one would have a huge body of practices to continue and pursue from all three degrees.
We’ll see how long it takes me to write it! Ha!
I think I might just make it available privately through my web site and this blog and pass the Word through the Masonic grapevine. I can make it available in electronic and POD form. But I have to write it first and then run it by a few brothers for suggestions and improvements.
So, the starting of “Druid’s Grove Lodge” is a bit of a tangent from this project, yet it also connected. I feel that working through Druid material and perhaps drawing from Greer as well as the OBOD methods will help me reorganize my brain around the work and at the same time relate it to Masonry. This will cross-fertilize both traditions (at least inside my brain). At the most basic level, both traditions are based on semi-mythical figures: the ancient stonemasons in the case of Masonry and the ancient druids in the case of modern Druidry. These were historical people practicing real arts but have been take up as symbols since the 17th century (at virtually the same time).
It might seem that the stonemasons were pretty working class compared to druids, who were the advisors of kings and spiritual leaders of the ancient Celtic tribes. But on closer inspection, the work of the enchanter and seer was not, in the Iron Age, considered so high and mighty. It was respectable, but not “supernatural” because it was part of the cosmological model of nature that formed the thoughts and minds of people in that time. So, a druid was a specialist worker and the ovate, or vatis, was not only a seer, and healer, but also a smith. The Grandmaster of the 3rd degree legend in Freemasonry is actually an artificer in bronze, or in other words a metalsmith. The goldsmith and silversmith of the Celtic world was a magical person producing wonders in art that we still admire today. The smith working in bronze was the maker of tools and weapons, and when iron was worked, the “blacksmith” continued the mystique of his craft by transmuting one metal into another, or rock into molten metal and metal into swords and tools.
Given this craft connection to druids, one can see that the stonemasons are in something of the same class — learned men and perhaps some women, whose secret arts produced results so exquisite that ordinary people could not begin to imagine how it was done. Building in stone evolved over the centuries from the ancient world — Egypt to Mycenae, Athens, Persia, Rome, and then the revolution of the Gothic cathedrals produced in the Celtic parts of the former Roman Empire during the Middle Ages. The druids have arts that are more overtly magical, at least as they were represented in medieval legends, but what modern druids wished to emulate in them was a close and immediate connection to the Divine through working with nature. That is, learning the secret virtues of herbs, trees, metals, and minerals. They were metallurgists, herbalists, and the Greek historians lead us to believe, mathematicians in the tradition of Pythagoras.
Moroever, their order used three degrees or specialities and years of training. The stonemason’s symbolism centers on tools. The druid’s symbolism has tools of a different sort: trees, a wand, a cauldron, a robe. The Bard, of course, has his musical instruments — especially the harp — but his tool is really his voice and the mathematics of harmony and music. As a druid, I did not think about the symbolic tools of Druidry. We tend to take them more literally because they are magical and magic is what druids do — druidecht is the word for magic in Gaelic. Masons, on the other hand have not usually thought of their craft in terms of “magic.” But “high magic” really is self-transformation and the enlightenment of consciousness in connection with the Divine. And that is something that Masons might recognize in Masonry.
Neither Druids, nor Masons, devote themselves to Tarot cards and astrology or “godforms” as in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Nor is there any necessity to learn Hebrew letters or gematria. The craft of the Mason and the Druid brackets all “god-forms” and focuses on the Divine at its highest, undifferentiated level. Now, I am aware some druids — J.M. Greer among them — consider polytheism to be something completely distinct from theological monism. Natually, it is by definition not monotheism, but the belief in (or experience of) a Supreme Being lies behind much of the modern Druid movement. The avatars of the Divine One, are many. I myself think that the muliform divinities are important and by no means should be rejected as “idols.” I’ve never liked that expression, but it does not apply to gods and goddesses and their worship. Idolatry is like superstition: it is the worship of the images of gods and goddesses without any understanding of their actual existence as archetypal beings.
The Square and Compasses is a wonderful set of tools and the other tools of the builder, as well as the extended metaphor of “building.” is a superb system of thought. Druidry cannot do quite the same thing with the working tools of a bard, vatis, or druid. Druidry is not a physical craft — or lacks that hard physicality of Masonry. Druids don’t build temples, they meet in sacred groves. Yet, however erroneous from an actual archaeological standpoint, the Druids were associated with the “temple builders” of the earliest times. They were associated with stonehenge, Avebury, and the scores of dolmens and standing stones, henges, and circles, and burial mounds of the Celts and other Iron Age and Neolithic (as we now know) peoples. This is what the 19th century Druid revivalists believed to be the case.
So, in stonehenge and its amazing construction, we actually do find a connection with stonemasons and temple builders. And this might be what appealed to the Masons of the time. There was also a legendary connection. Caesar had mentioned that the druids never wrote anything down but passed on their teachings from mouth to ear. Because of this, some Masons jumped to the conclusion that the ancient Masons must have in fact been Druids. It seems like a quirky leap of logic to us now, but in the 19th century similarities were enough to demonstrate a causal connection. It is a fallacy, but where the story-teller’s imagination is concern, adherence to strict and careful logic is not necessary, nor is deviating from it a crime.
In this too, Masons and Druids share something. Both have accumulated a body of legend and story for themselves including origin myths without regard for the strict demands of academic scholarship. This has annoyed academics and led for a long time to scholars in universities turning their backs on both institutions as things not worthy of serious study. But it is about truth that is very different from academic proofs and consensus. It is about truths much deeper and more spiritual — truths of the human soul.
While modern druids tend to be pretty laid back and do not have expectations of superbly performed rituals, it is nevertheless true that they appreciate quality when they see it. Masons have known this for a long time but not always succeeded in giving the highest quality or standards of excellence. The members of any organization want to have their spirits fed by the work of the group. They do not want to have a lot of bickering and wrangling, which wounds the spirit. That’s one of the reasons that in groups only a small percentage of the members serve as officers and make decisions about the future of the group. Only the ones who can stand the heated disagreements and reach calm results without lingering rancor will be successful leaders — and those for whom such decision-making does not spoil the experience of the ritual and the feasting.
Both Druids and Masons like rituals and like feasting afterwards. It is an ancient pattern that crosses world cultures and all of human existence. If you have a ritual, follow it with a celebratory feast of gratitude and fellowship. Do serious spiritual work and then complement that serious dignity and devotion with light-hearted fun that cements the bonds among the members of the tribe.
There is a lot of discussion today about what Masonic lodges should do. The demographics of membership have changed. This is partly, no doubt, due to the demographics of American culture (and others) which are increasingly diverse. Freemasonry used to thrive as an institution of the Anglo elite. The problem with this heyday of Masonry is that the institution turned into more of a club than a spiritual workplace. After the WWII generation flooded the ranks of lodges, there has been no similar boom time. The result is that today many lodges have a disproportionate number of old brothers and there are deaths to report almost every month.
Not so in Austria! According to Peter Hoffer in a recent article in The Square (March 2012), Austrian Freemasonry was virtually wiped out by Hitler and the Nazis. So, following WWII rather than a flood of new members, Austria saw a trickle of survivors try to rebuild Masonry from scratch. Today it is thriving and growing more rapidly than anywhere in the world. Hoffer speculates on this success and lists a few characteristics of Masonry in Austria that have made it appealing and attractive to young men.
First, he notes that Masonry in Austria is kept very secret without displaying its symbols on its meeting places or parading in public. The staunch Catholic culture of the country keeps anti-Masonic sentiment strong there. Acts of Masonic charity are never announced publicly. Second, the Masonic ritual was altered to formally include educational talks lasting up to thirty minutes. These talks are part of the lodge experience except at initiation and raising ceremonies, says Hoffer.
Third, (and this may come as a shock to some American Masons), lodges in Austria meet every week except in July and August. My own lodge used to meet that often back in its heyday, but that seems partly to have been necessitated by the steady flood of new members needing to be put through the degrees. The Austrians open their lodges in the first degree in about 15 minutes, then a 30-minute talk follows, and the lodge is closed and they have dinner and lively discussion afterwards, all lasting from 7-10 pm. Hoffer does not say specifically, but it sounds like they do not waste their meetings on reading treasurer’s reports and a lot of introductions and committee reports. They get together to do Freemasonry!
Such a model would, I think, be excellent for a Druid Grove too. Though seasonal celebrations can last half an hour or more, most ceremonies are short enough to allow for a speaker. Since druids don’t care who hears what they say, the talk could even be an after dinner speaker on a druidical subject, such as trees, oghams, or meditation.
Hoffer notes that by “such frequent personal contacts and discussions the Brethren get well acquainted and form lasting friendships.” Moreover, each lodge holds only one initiation ceremony per year. This makes it a big deal and also gives each brother a year’s time to work within each degree before passing on to the next. These initiations are further emphasized and celebrated by encouraging members of other lodges to attend. In this way there is a good crowd and brothers from different lodges see each other regularly. The schedule of talks for each lodge is published months in advance so that brothers can plan to visit for the purpose of hearing the talk.
Finally, Freemasonry does not come cheaply in Austria. Fees average $50 per month (I suspect partly due to the fine dining experience). American Freemasons who complain and argue about dues of $100 per year, take note. Austrian Brethren “have to devote time and means to the Craft and attendance is high despite the frequent lodge meetings,” says Hoffer.
This model is the one all lodges should adopt. Only by making talks and discussions the center of Masonry once more can we throw of the worn-out notion that Masonry is only a “men’s social club.” Men today have lots of other things to do and will not be attracted merely by long, repetitious rituals that are never explained, nor even solely by the opportunity to make new friends. Masonry traditionally has offered more, and attention to the quality of the experience is crucial if we are to serve today’s young men. An analogy that constantly occurs to me is that my father’s generation was content with weak Folgers coffee for 25¢ a cup (maybe less) but a generation or two later men expect a finely crafted cappuccino made from Arabica beans and may select their coffee based upon what country the beans came from! When they eat out, they expect excellent food and wine. My dad’s generation — the WWII generation who grew up in the depression and served in the hard-living cafeteria conditions of the army or navy — liked the idea of going to lodge for a cheap meal. But does that idea appeal to today’s young men? No. I think I can safely say it does not appeal to anyone of the present generation under 55. Really fine dining would definitely be an attractive feature that would draw in members.
Now, druids seem to like potlucks and informal feasts. Partly this is because for at least half the year we hold our meetings outdoors. Because druids are both men and women and often bring their children to meetings too, the whole experience is more of a family affair. Masonry was that way too, through the middle of the 20th century, but that “family” social circle aspect of Masonry has about died out. When the last of the fine old ladies and their hot dishes are gone, pot luck dinners in Masonry may go with them.
All of this means more expense, but everyone knows you get what you pay for. If you want a lodge building where the dining room is aesthetically pleasing like a modern restaurant (and not like a school cafeteria), then the lodge has to raise money for such improvements. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem because the improvement in quality has to be done in order to bring in the active younger members who are willing to pay for it. My advice to lodges is to do the improvements, bring your physical space up to today’s standard of excellence to attract men, and then raise your dues and dinner fees to pay for it.
With higher dues there is always the risk of excluding some men of modest means. However, there are few men who would want to be Masons who cannot afford, say $300 a year. That is less that one pays for membership in a health club. But the members of Masonry have to get a quality experience out of it, just as they expect from a health club. They have to experience quality exercise for their minds and souls, and make quality friendships with men who feel the same way about the importance of the spiritual life.
Druids definitely have the advantage of coming to meetings expecting spiritual work to happen and their souls to be fed. Socializing has not eclipsed spiritualizing. However, providing a quality experience in a grove is equally important in the sense that rituals should be well-rehearsed and done well. Everyone should, if possible, have their part memorized because reading from a script does detract from the concentration of the group on the energy of the ritual circle. Druids do not have to worry about the quality of their surroundings quite as much — or not in the same way. If they have a good place to meet outdoors and indoors during inclement weather that is all that is needed. Yet, at the same time, privacy, trees or a stone circle are elements that improve the quality of the experience. A Masonic Hall is actually a good place for a druid grove to meet. If it is impressive visually an a pleasure to be inside, all the better. But the lodge room itself is easily adapted for a druid circle.
Usually in druid ceremonies everyone stands and if there is sitting down for a meditation everyone sits on the ground, or even lies down flat. The Mason’s lodge is all about chairs, many of which are symbolic thrones, and the rituals of sitting and rising to the raps of the gavel are part of Masonic ritual. A druid grove using an indoor space such as a lodge room might strike a happy medium by using a lower altar, a circle of chairs and maybe even slightly special chairs for the three principal officers. The typical Master’s and Wardens’ chairs of a lodge room are a bit too ostentatious for egalitarian and democratic druidry, and too heavy to move from their Masonic stations into a circle around the altar. But, as with other aspects of the ritual, if chairs are used in a druid circle, they should best be good-looking and comfortable chairs. Having a floor stand for the Chief’s staff and the Herald’s staff would be helpful too — another good Masonic practice to borrow.
Is it possible to get either Freemasons or Druids to attend weekly meetings? I doubt it. Just booking weekly speakers would be quite a task. It seems to me that two meetings a month with perhaps an additional meeting to rehearse a ritual would be reasonable. If each degree of Masonry is to be given only once a year, that would provide time for new members to decide if Masonry really is for them. In stead of revealing all three degrees to every new member, the lodge would instill in the new apprentices a clear sense of what they are expected to do as Masons and time for them to work at it. This is already true in Druidry — at least in my order, OBOD, because the work expected of the bard (the first degree or grade) is clearly written out in the form of a course.
Masonry needs a similar course. A clear Handbook for the Entered Apprentice, and subsequent handbooks for Fellowcraft and Master Mason. If Masonry was thus taken seriously and the Work was made clear, then a lodge might actually be able to attract more members because Masonry would then be restored to the experience of a real mystery school. It is hard to say. My experience with Druids in my area has been that they are a little hard to corral and keep working, but I attribute this in part to the fact that we only met every six weeks for the seasonal festivals and devoted no time at our meetings to talks and discussions.
When considered in comparison to Masonry, OBOD’s Druid courses are pretty reasonable in terms of cost. There are no annual dues for the Order and the cost of each course can be spread out over more than one year if the member wishes to do so or needs to do so for financial reasons. Druids do, more or less, take their druid practices seriously, but they are not set up with the expectation of regular meetings and rituals in a grove circle. Masons have the expectation of regular meetings but lack the content. Masons take grim and serious oaths to perform the duties of a Mason but then are not led to believe that the oaths are really serious. Moreover, the oaths at initiation are all about secrecy, not about promising to practice Masonry seriously.
Druids are even worse off in this case because they do not take any oaths at all. In OBOD it is understood that the upper grades do not reveal the contents of the upper course work to members in the lower grades, but it is not in the form of a solemn obligation with gruesome punishments for breech of their word. The gruesome punishments of Masonry sound tough, but in fact the oath is pretty simple: Don’t talk about the details of Masonic ceremony to non-Masons. It is not that hard. Especially when brothers do not take the effort to study the rituals. If oaths of secrecy served any purpose it was to make the lodge room a safe place in which brothers could discuss spiritual matters in a non-sectarian way and not be tattled on to the religious authorities.
Druidry today has grown up in modern times when religious persecution was not as strong a danger as it was in the 17th or 18th centuries. Pagans who live in parts of the country where there is religious intolerance and prejudice against anything unorthodox, often do keep their paganism private. So, in that sense, secrecy is a virtue. Since neither Masonry nor Druidry can really be explained to someone who has not experienced the work, it is better to keep silent than to mislead and confuse people who might become hostile.
It is very hard to explain what Freemasonry is to an outsider. Druidry has an advantage in that one can just say, “You know the Lorax? It’s like that.” But inevitably if you start to explain that it is not a religion so much as a way of life, a philosphical order that teaches spiritual attainment, and uses the ancient Druids as symbols and exemplars along with medieval Celtic myths and legends — well, it is bound to be a bit baffling to someone who has never heard of the ancient Celtic druids. It is easier for people to relate to the Cathedral and Temple builders, the stonemasons (who are still around in England preserving that medieval cathedrals). But what exactly a “speculative” Mason is, or what people do in a philosophical order still remains outside the ken of the average man on the street. One key is to present these things in such a way as to pique the curiosity of our men on the street.
Both Masonry and Druidry need to come together and arrive at the same goal of quality. In sum, here are the main ingredients I would suggest:
- Regular meetings at least twice a month (new and full moons would be best)
- Good meals with every meeting
- A talk presented at every meeting as the centerpiece
- Time during the meeting for interludes of music and silent meditation
- Time for a guided meditation that guides each member in his/her inner work
- An expectation that Masonry/Druidry is a practical art, a craft, and that we meet to work actively, not just socialize or passively observe rituals.
- Attendance is mandatory to remain a member of the lodge/grove
- Dues cover expenses and so may be higher than $100 a year if that includes renting space indoors or maintaining a building.
- Aesthetics of the meeting place must support the spiritual inner work
- Members move on to the next degree only after having demonstrated real proficiency in the work of the preceding degree (not just memorizing a bit of the ceremony)
- Initiations into the first degree might be held only once or twice a year
- prospective candidates may attend meetings as guests (this works for Druidry — Masonry’s tradition of secrecy prevents allowing guests to attend actual lodge meetings; yet, if talks can be untyled and open to guests that would give the visitor some sense of what was expected and a chance to meet the brothers and discuss topics while waiting for the time for the initiation ceremony. This waiting period would ensure that they are indeed “duly and truly prepared” to take on the obligations of initiation.)
- prospective candidates for initiation must attend a certain number of meetings before they can submit a petition. (This enhances the value of the petition for both the lodge and the petitioner.)
- Always think “Quality Improvement.” Never cut corners because it is easier or cheaper.
- Always think: Increase our social value and attractiveness, but don’t let everyone in.
- Gradual, sustained growth with members who will remain and participate for many years is better than periodic booms in membership and members whose enthusiasm fizzles after only a few years.
So Mote it Be!
One of my way-to-many-projects is the creation of a Druid Lodge, which is a “grove” that meets during the inclement months inside a Masonic Lodge building. The idea intrigues me because the history of British Druid Orders suggests that there was some amount of influence from Freemasonry upon those orders. Ronald Hutton’s book, Blood and Mistletoe is the place to go to discover the fascinating details of Druid orders and the whole enthusiasm for “friendly societies” that came over Britain and America during the 19th century.
Masons look back wistfully at the days when lodge’s had members numbering in the hundreds and cities had many such lodges. Freemasonry has waxed and waned in this way (numbers of lodge members) through its whole recorded history. It seems as if every war gave Masonry a boost: Men surviving a war seemed to desire the fraternal experience and to seek a deeper meaning in life. Since Freemasonry directs a man to face his own death and legacy, men who have faced death on the battlefield and lived, may justly feel they have been reborn in a sense, gaining a new life. This is precisely what Freemasonry offers its initiates.
Druidry, on the other hand, has grown quite steadily over the past 300 years. The history of Druidry in modern times may be more than a little legendary,and suffers from lack of documentation. Nevertheless, the claim is made that the Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1717, the same year as the foundation of the first grand lodge of freemasons. Thus there is a hint that the two societies had members in common or were running on the same cultural energies. My theory is that the men who chose to call themselves “druids” did so because they wished to draw upon the legendary figure of the white-robed, bearded wise man of Britain. However dodgy the evidence might have been for this vision of the noble wizard of past Celtic times, its Romantic appeal was so strong that it seized the imaginations of men and women of the 19th century.
Today, we have a lot more well-documented and careful scholarship on the ancient druids and bards, but even professional scholars in the field must acknowledge that research has only begun to scratch the surface of documents that might hold further keys to the wisdom and practices of ancient bards and druids. The figure of the ancient druid emerges from the mists of time and the lack of documentation about him makes the druid a perfect vehicle for our own modern yearnings for a closeness to nature and reverence for the wild that we sorely miss in our paved-over urban civilization. Yet more, the bard fills our desire for art and poetry, for Beauty — something that has been lost to us in some measure because Beauty has become a commodity and the property of advertising agencies and film producers. The result is that instead of experiencing natural beauty, much less making beautiful things of our own, modern men and women are constantly being bombarded with images and music manufactured by someone else.
That is not to say that we do not have great artists and musicians, poets and bards today. On the contrary. But they are not honored in our culture with the same simple, spiritual reverence and joy that we suppose them to have been honored among the ancient Celts. The denizen of urbania or “disturbia” as it is wryly called, seeks the values offered by Druidry. Some of the “druid” orders in the early days of the movement got together primarily to sing songs and have a good time. If that was paganism, well, so be it.
Values and Symbols
Freemasons offer a set of values and symbols taken from the tools and work of the ancient stonemasons, the temple-builders, and the geniuses behind Gothic cathedrals. Architecture provides an extended metaphor for the orderly life of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, which lays the foundation for the practice of true brotherly love and the revelation of truth. The differences between Masonry and Druidry are perhaps fewer than the similarities. However, modern Druidry did not become hidebound — tied to the verbatim transmission of rituals and lectures. As a result, it has evolved and taken many forms. Within the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (the largest international order today), the teaching turned to a highly flexible and open method.
While the lessons of Masonry are presented in 18th century language and explained with 19th century lectures, there is no organized method for teaching a Masonic brother how to practice Masonry. The rituals are three in number (though other Masonic organizations have proliferated additional “degrees”), so all that Masonry has to say is contained within those rituals and it is the study of them that will open up the actual work of being a Mason.
By contrast, OBOD’s lessons contain a variety of material, teaching by triads, myths and legends, folklore and rituals designed to be understood intuitively and performed creatively, not by rote memorization and recitation. As a teaching order and initiatic mystery school, OBOD draws upon current educational methods and psychological ideas that address how we learn, intellectually, emotionally, intuitively, and physically. Druids learn by doing things, not by simply having symbols and ideas presented to them in a passive state. Masons ought to work the same way, and there are clues in the “work” that suggest that whoever wrote our rituals did so with more in mind that taking three months to be led through three rituals and memorizing a brief recapitulation of the ritual to be recited before the lodge as a demonstration of one’s “proficiency.”
Druids tend to demand that proficiency in each “degree” or “grade” of the order actually means that one has learned a body of knowledge and practices, and can demonstrate that knowledge and true understanding before being allowed to pass on to the next grade. Freemasons do not seem to know what to do. They have passed on a system of simply “going through the motions” and saying the words, for three or four generations at least, with the result that as the numbers of Masons increased, so did the lack of understanding of what they were intended to do.
When a new brother is charged seriously to walk as a true and upright Mason, to keep himself from using the name of Deity in irreverent ways, and to attend lodge regularly to seek conversation and further teaching from knowledgeable brothers, those instructions are unambiguous. If a Mason walks away from that charge and tells himself that he doesn’t need to come to lodge anymore, that there is nothing more to learn there, he is simply not following the charge he has been given. But do modern men even understand what it means to be charged with duties? Maybe not. It is serious business and is not surely intended to be taken lightly. Nor is the behavior required idly, as a sort of option. If a Mason uses “God” as a constant, lazy expletive in his daily conversation, or if he denigrates women, or members of other faiths than his own, or other political persuasions or nationalities and ethnicities, he is failing as a Mason and is a disgrace to the order.
If he goes out and gets drunk regularly, especially with other Masons, he is showing the world a very poor picture of what Masonry is intended to be. Our forefathers and brother-ancestors who wrote our rituals and polished them into precise language did so for a reason and with intent. If a Mason hears the word, but does not take it to heart, then he fails as a Mason, no matter how many “higher” degrees he sits through, or how many other organizations he joins that are for Masons-only. Even if he serves as an officer of his lodge and takes part in the rituals and dramas of the lodge degrees, if he is just memorizing and cannot take it to heart, he has not actually received the instruction he is offered.
The same thing, of course, is true for druids. While druids may be men or women, what they are being asked to do is very similar. Druids are instructed to learn, to expand their understanding, their knowledge, and their sense of justice. They are instructed to respect all things, especially all living beings, and too look beyond the merely physical life toward a reality that extends to other worlds. By which I mean, the Otherworlds of the Faerie folk, the hidden people of the hills. Bards, the first degree of Druidry, are asked to open their minds and cultivate imagination that they might develop the Sight and see into the underlying intelligences that are everywhere in nature. They are not handed a dogma that demands they believe in something “on faith.” Nor, indeed, are druids asked to practice any particular form of religion. Druidry, like Freemasonry, is a spiritual practice that should not interfere with one’s faith, precisely because it does not tell you what to believe about divine entities or the supreme being. It tells you instead, how to cultivate your own inner resources — intellect, imagination, compassion — and to join yourself to the cycles of nature — seasons, phases of the moon, the sun’s voyage through the constellations of the zodiac.
Both Freemasonry and Druidry draw the devotees attention to the cycle of life too: birth, growth, maturation, decay, death, and rebirth into the Springtime of new life. These themes run through both systems.
Officers and Rituals
A Druid lodge, like a Masonic lodge, would have three principal officers. Corresponding to the Master, Senior Warden, and Junior Warden of Masonry are the more colorfully named Chief Druid, Pendragon, and Herald of the grove. These roles are taken from Arthurian legend and its symbolic structure. King Arthur was the Pendragon or Head Dragon. A Herald speaks for a king. The Chief Druid stands, like Merlin as the guiding hand behind the king and his round table.
Like the Wardens of Masonry, the Pendragon oversees the work of the grove by drawing the magic circle around the center, thereby symbolizing unity and deity, the sun, and the earth. The Herald proclaims the rituals of the grove circle, and leads the procession into and out of the sacred space. In this respect, the Herald may be compared to the Jr. Warden, whose job it is to supervise the “Craft” when they are at refreshment (taking a break from labor in the sacred space of the lodge room to eat, drink, and enjoy each other’s fellowship).
As in the Masonic Lodge there are four more officers, but they are not Deacons and Stewards. They are the Gaurdians of the four directions — the elemental guardians of the gates to North, South, West, and East. Respectively, they represent Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. Each of the four elements is understood to be not only a quality within the material world, but a quality within the spiritual world also. Earth is the quality of solidity, repose, and reflection; Fire, that of change, transformation, and agency; Water, that of feeling, relationship, love and dreaming; and Air the quality of intellect, reason, and communication.
It is around these four elements and their association with the four cardinal directions, four stages of life, and four seasons that the druidic circle and its rituals moves. The opening and closing of every circle turns upon these symbols. A Druid lodge would celebrate the eight seasonal festivals (the usual four seasons, each divided into halves). Four are determined by the solstices and equinoxes and so fall roughly upon 21 June, 21 September, 21 December, and 21 March. The other four are determined by ancient agricultural festivals marking the appearance of the spring lambs on 1 February, the planting of new seeds on 1 May, the harvest of the grain on 1 August, and the final harvest of squash and root vegetables, and the culling of the heard in preparation for Winter upon 1 November.
A Druid lodge would employ the traditional Gaelic names for these celebratory seasonal rites, and would mark them in a continuous cycle from year to year. The meetings for teaching, learning, and advancement in the Light of Druidry would be held at the Full Moon and the New Moon. Each marks a changing in energy, a turning point in the eternal play of light and darkness within all things. Not good and evil, only, but all that might be symbolized by Light or its absence. For the druid, darkness symbolizes gestation and withdrawal into meditation. The dark half of the year, the winter season especially, was a time to stay warm inside the round house, feed the fire, and tell stories, sing songs and wait for the rebirth of life in the spring. Similarly, this drama of light and dark is played out every 28 days by the Moon.
If the pattern were strictly followed, the meetings of the lodge could not be fixed on a particular day of the week and that would be a challenge for coordinating scheduling with other groups using the lodge room and the facilities of the a Masonic temple. Yet, to adhere to the awareness of the natural cycles of sun and moon, it would have to be done as well as possible.
Grades or Degrees
What would happen at these meetings? Well, in the first instance, the lodge officers would have to be prepared to conduct groves in each of the three grades. The bards would meet and study myth, legend, triad and virtue, music, dance, and joy. Once they passed to the degree of Ovate, a grove brother or sister would gather to study, herbs, trees, divination, and traveling across the veils of the worlds. In general the work of the ovate is more studious and serious.
In theory there would also be druid-grade meetings at which only the druid-grade members of the grove would attend and they would work on the higher matters of that grade, including teaching the bards and ovates, and continuing to seek more light and draw it down into the world of matter. Druid-grade brothers and sisters are like Master Masons, prepared to enter into sublime work — work that transcends merely mortal concerns. It is work that joins the mind of the wizard with the Divine in creative processes.
If the supreme being of Masons is addressed as the Great Architect of the Universe, the supreme being of Druids is addressed as the twofold Mother Earth and Father Sky — a natural pairing, complementary and inseparable. In Druid symbolism, the Architect does not design the Temple on paper and oversee its construction. Rather, the Creative Impulse within nature is self-creating, self-transforming, and always engaged in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
There would be no zipping through the degrees of a druid lodge. One would begin as a Bard, not quite as lowly-sounding as an apprentice, but similar in being the first of three initiation rites. In druidry, one can speak of being initiated as an ovate and as a druid, because each grade is like a new level of work, both higher and built upon the work that went before. Yet, unlike in Masonry, being a lodge brother or sister in the Bardic Grade does not imply any inferiority or subordination, nor is there any stigma if one choses to remain a Bard for many years — perhaps for life. It depends on the calling of the individual, and no expectation is placed upon a brother or sister to advance to the next grade until they wish to do so and the druids of the grove believe them to be ready.
OBOD’s instructional system is designed to be capable of completion within three years. Few do it that fast. However, to create a working druid lodge it would be best if the seven officers of the line could do so, working with deliberation to become druid companions of the grove and so serve it as instructors for each new crop of candidates for the “degrees.”
Such is my vision. It needs to be all worked out in writing and it remains to be seen whether persons joining our druid lodge would have to be required to enroll in the OBOD course of study. It might be best, rather than reinventing the wheel or leaving the instruction too loose and individualized. A shared experience and shared knowledge is of utmost importance to feeling united in a grove or lodge.
Would there be secrets and vows of secrecy? For druids such is not part of the tradition. Yet, obligating a member at each grade to seriously apply himself or herself is important as a sign of dedication.
So, it would unfold, I hope.
Druids do not look to scientists or priests (or any small human intelligence) to follow as if they were all-knowing and all-wise. Druids look to nature herself.
I think the God of Moses was trying to tell us the same thing. Mr. I AM is not bit on long-winded explanations. He wants you to figure it out for yourself because that is the only way you are going to get smarter. The verb “I AM” alludes to simple, pure Existence. And one does well to have a look at existence in all its forms to see what is the best thing to do. In other words, follow the order of the cosmos, Nature.
I was pondering the ten commandments the other day and thought: You know all of these things are just practical advice as to how to avoid making yourself and others unhappy, how to avoid getting hurt or hurting those others — family, friends, business associates, customers, neighbors — upon whom one’s happiness depends. If you violate any of the ten commandments, you risk very likely alienating those people upon whom your whole well-being and livelihood depends, and the loneliness or even material destitution that can result from that is Hell — deprivation and torture.
Researching on Wikipedia, I found that the King James version of the “commandments” messed about with the original Jewish version, which were actually called the ten “statements” or “sayings.” The numbering has also been done different ways and the Talmudic way seems more sensible to me.
Following the Talmudic numbering, I re-worded them this way:
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 1
I AM the Lord, that guy who did all the cool miracles through Moses. I AM = Absolute Being, Pure Existence. If you trust that, you will be delivered out of whatever bondage you’ve gotten yourself into.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 2
It’s an abstraction, for the love of god! so don’t be an idiot and start making statues and worshipping them insead of Pure Existence. Don’t think that any human being, including yourself, is all-knowing or all-powerful (i.e., don’t create false gods and by the way don’t try to make me into one either!). And if you forget that Existence itself and its nature is where your faith and hope belongs, god help you. If you start imagining that dumb little things like kings, political power, money, sex, sports, your iPhone, or Star Trek are the thing to worship, you are not only going to screw up your life, but probably pass on your stupid beliefs to your children and grandchildren and great-grand children and — well you get the idea, I hope. Don’t personify Nature unless you can keep it in perspective and think abstractly too.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 3
When you’re down and troubled and you need some loving care, and nothing is going right, close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest night. You just call out my name and you know wherever I am I’ll come running to see you again. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there. You’ve got a friend. So, stop with calling out my name when you don’t need help! OMG! Do you think I don’t have enough to do that I should come running every time you just get excited? Sheesh! And for god’s sake, stop damning people. You don’t have the power to damn people and you are just making yourself look stupid.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 4
Take a day off once a week. How about Saturday, or Sunday? You pick. Take two. Rest and take some time to think about your Existence and what you are making out of it. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And give everybody else a day off too, even your cattle.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 5
Respect and love your father and mother because even when you are grown up, you never know when they might be the only people you have to turn to. (i.e., don’t bite the hand that feeds you). This can prolong your lifespan.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 6.
Never, ever kill. It is never a real solution to your problems and will get you shunned by society faster than about anything. Plus it is likely to shorten your own life. Plus it is really selfish and cowardly. Don’t kill yourself even. Life is part of Existence. It isn’t up to you to destroy it. You are not smart enough. Mosquitos you can kill, but don’t go overboard with the insecticides. Somebody eats those bugs and you are fully capable of screwing up your own food chain. So, best idea is just do not kill anything. Keep your hands to yourself. Calamine lotion helps.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 7
Don’t fuck around. It just never works out the way you want it to and makes you and everyone else unhappy later. Trust me, I know. Get married, make a commitment to someone you like, and can trust with your life’s happiness, and then stick to it! If you don’t, you might just find yourself alienated by everyone else in your life, and then dumped by your ex-lover and feel incredibly stupid and miserable and feel like killing yourself (but see No. 6). Worse, nobody will trust you, and that’s trouble. And you almost never can rebuild bridges you’ve burned behind you. If you don’t believe me, look at Zeus and all the trouble he caused with his skirt-chasing. Get a hobby. Build model ships or something.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 8
Don’t steal other peoples stuff. It makes them mad and if people find out, they will never trust you again as long as you live. Get a job, save your money, buy it at the store. You probably don’t need it anyway. If you need food or shelter, go to your friends and family for help, if you haven’t already alienated them from killing people or screwing around (see No. 6 and 7). Oh, and remember No. 3: This would be a good time to call me. But not if you just want a giant plasma TV like your neighbor’s.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 9
Do not lie. Especially don’t tell lies about your neighbors out of spite. Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because, when everyone finds out that you are a liar, you are going to get yourself shunned again and become a paraiah. Nobody likes a liar any more than a murderer. Nobody likes a fanatic either, which is just another kind of pig-headed lying. If you believe your own lies, you are really in trouble. Call me. I’ll slap you upside the head.
BIT OF ADVICE NO. 10
And another thing. Stealing will get you shunned, but sitting around coveting your neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, or ass, or servants, or car, or TV, or iPod — this will all just eat away at you until you violate one of the other rules I just gave you. Coveting, means wanting to have what someone else has — Envy. It’s big, ugly, and green, and will overpower you and ruin you. Kind of like the Incredible Hulk. Just make do with your own wife and stuff. Probably you don’t really need all those servants anyway. Be content, be happy. When in doubt, call me and I’ll give you some advice.
P.S. Do you like my dog food? IAM’S. Get it? Oh, never mind!
(That ought to get the search engines working.) Freemasonry’s secrets are indeed hidden and therefore “occult” in the literal sense of the word. “Occult” is traced this way in my handy-dandy dictionary ap:
late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin occultare ‘secrete,’ frequentative of occulere ‘conceal,’ based on celare ‘to hide’; the adjective and noun from occult- ‘covered over,’ from the verb occulere.
And here are the definitions provided:
- of, involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena : a follower of occult practices similar to voodoo.
- beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or experience; mysterious : a weird occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before.
- communicated only to the initiated; esoteric : the typically occult language of the time.
Every Mason understands quite well (I hope) that it each of these definitions applies to the secrets of Masonry. Those brothers who believe that the “secrets” consist simply of words and grips, have not yet learned the Craft. I have been harping on this for some time, but since I am a bard, I guess harping on things is in my job description. All three definitions apply but without the sinister overtones. Masonry is hardly very similar to voodoo. It is about as similar to that kind of “occultism” as is any spiritual practice or religion. One will do well to bear in mind that “religion” comes from the Latin for “obligation” or “to bind.” What is more “weird” – binding yourself to a set of beliefs handed to you by institutional religious authorities or studying knowledge that is hidden?
Science is the study of hidden knowledge and is taught only to the initiated. But today, with such a vast flow of knowledge (or at least texts) at the fingertips of everyone with a computer, it is pretty darn hard to hide teachings of any kind. Still, Masonry is hidden in another way (as are the teachings of most religions), because one has to learn a special language including a symbolic language in order to study the subject. The problem with Freemasonry today (and it seems as if this has always been a problem) is that many men are made Masons and then do not receive any instruction in the symbolic language. Oh, yes, since Preston and Webb, Masons have received the instruction of the set lectures, but these are obviously still given in the symbolic language, so without understanding how to read a text symbolically and how to unfold the myriad meanings of a metaphor, no brother can be expected to learn these “secrets.”
I put “secrets” in quotation marks because the very word has grown connotations that are sinister, somehow suggesting spies and conspiracies to the modern mind, rather than simply knowledge that is hidden. Which is to say, knowledge of the world, oneself, other people, which has not yet been learned. Until one learns a piece of information and understands its place in relation to other pieces of a whole, one does not possess knowledge. Information (words and statements) is not the same thing as knowledge.
Information may be presented by a teacher, but it does not become knowledge until the student learns it and understands it in context of a larger system – the Big Picture. No word or utterance by itself can mean anything. It only has meaning in relation to other words and its context in life. That contextual quality is one reason we have such a hard time understanding old texts (such as the Bible, to take just one instance.) Masonic rituals are another old text for which even Freemasons lack the proper historical context. The words thus become obscured to the modern reader or listener.
“Secret” is (surprise) another Latin word, derived into English from secretus, “set apart.” Think about this not as “Top Secret” but in its more benign use in “secretary.” Yet even that word has been confused because of the odd fact that our Western culture shifted the job of secretary from the male sphere to the female sphere when women began to enter the workworld as typists. A secretarius, to a Latin speaker was a “confidential officer” of some sort, not a typist. He (or she) was charged to work with a superior and keep things confidential even though they might be written down. This relationship between the “boss” and the secretary is really very fundamental to human civilization for this very reason: that it permits things to be recorded and filed away for later reference. It permits the boss to keep all his knowledge organized and relieves him (or her) from the necessity of memorizing everything. Secret things are set apart because they are specific to a certain audience, and because they are stored.
Certainly the stored records in a computer system, or in “the Cloud” as we like to say now, are secreted away out of sight until they are called upon for use. This is the work of homo documentis that has built “civilization as we know it.” So, the idea that any thinking person today should be afraid of secrets is more than a little absurd. Yet, when such recorded information is labeled “occult” it takes on a meaning that is, as the dictionary intimated, fraught with “supernatural” overtones. Now, religious authorities have considered anything “supernatural” to be their own bailiwick. They have been losing the battle as more and more phenomena have shifted from the category of “supernatural” to natural. That is, the domain of religious institutions and their social power has diminished with the development of the natural sciences.
I am of the opinion that our fore-brothers in Freemasonry realized that this was happening. They saw the development of natural science in the 18th century when it began to study electricity and magnetism, chemical elements and physical forces. This new knowledge was clearly pushing its way into explanation of phenomena that had hitherto been filed under “supernatural” by the secretaries. But it would be a mistake to think that the shift in categories diminished God.
I Am OK, God is OK
The Supreme Being, even if we say “the idea of a Supreme Being” or source of creative power, is not diminished when supernatural things move to the domain of Nature. This absolute being, the “I Am” which makes the verb “to be” mean anything, is not one or the other. Religions have, for a long time, claimed the Supreme Being to be “supernatural” that is, literally, “above nature.” Some thinkers about spiritual things have always considered that this Divine was in Nature too. That is, Deity is not “part of” Nature, but is larger than Nature, and larger than whatever is considered to be supernatural too. It is both. It transcends the dichotomy of Nature/Supernature.
This idea was what the spiritual thinkers of the 18th century had begun to see. Such thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries have continued to realize the breakdown of the old dichotomy. Today, in the 21st century, thinking people have at least an inkling that “all things are One” and the implication of this fact, that each human being has the whole of creation within his or her being. Being with a capital B is everywhere by definition, and so the Supreme Being is understood to be omnipresent. But that omnipresence does not mean it is everywhere around you. It means it is Everywhere including inside you.
That heretical understanding of Being does not undermine the Divine in any way, but it does undermine the category of the “supernatural” upon which religious authorities have staked their claim to authority. Personal experience of the Divine – of Ultimate Being – of the I Am – has been filed under M for Mysticism. Freemasons declare that their Craft is “mystical.” Yet, how many Masons today have bothered to look into the meaning of the word “mystical” or “mystery.” At its base, the meaning of the word “mysterious” is “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.” Yet, we expect mysteries to have a solution. Mysteries are like puzzles and we expect that collecting clues and reading them correctly will lead to understanding the whole story.
That is to say, Mysteries are texts to read, just like life in general around us and within us is a text to be read. Nature is a text we can read. That isn’t a new idea. Medieval thinkers, or maybe even the ancients, gave us the metaphor “the book of nature.” But nature’s mysteries are always “hidden” or “veiled” in the old poetic language of natural philosophers. Science has created a jargon that is set up as the opposite of poetry – its speakers try to make it a language of factual statement and mathematical accuracy rather than a language of imagination and metaphor. Freemasonry gives honor to both. In the crucial second degree of the Craft, that of Fellowcraftsman, the apprentice learns that he must study and comprehend all of the seven liberal arts before he can arrive in the Middle Chamber of the Temple. That is, he must master grammar, logic, rhetoric (the way language and thought works), arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
Seven is a Magic Number
Today’s scientist might think the seven liberal arts of the medieval universities are old-fashioned and out of date, given the hundreds of disciplines and sub-disciplines articulated in universities now. Freemasons today make the same mistake, naturally following the dominant manner of thinking about knowledge. Astronomy is for astronomers; music for musicians. Scientific thinking has so dominated our culture that everything is given a compartment, a label, and some expert to do it.
The staircase upon which the Masonic apprentice climbs through the liberal arts is not a journey through compartments or professions or even “disciplines” in the modern sense of the term. It is a progressive science of understanding more and more about the way the cosmos works. Only then, when the order of the cosmos (Creation) is understood can one enter the Middle Chamber and encounter the Letter G there with comprehension. If one does not actually learn the liberal arts, one enters that chamber and is likely to think that the letter stands for something “supernatural.” That is one of the many traps of Masonic initiation. At every turn in the degrees of Masonry, the Apprentice, and then even the Fellow is set up to fall through a trap-door if he should interpret the signs incorrectly.
Freemasonry is like the old game Shoots and Ladders. You are invited to climb but if you make a false step you shoot back to the beginning and start over. Freemasons will fall down those shoots every time they encounter a Masonic symbol and fail to recognize it as a symbol. In other words, any time one encounters a symbol and takes it literally instead of figuratively, whoosh! — back to the beginning. The liberal arts are seven steps, but you won’t get past grammar if you take them literally. Learning each art requires that it be understood symbolically. For example, Grammar, is the knowledge of the structure of language. Does that mean knowing how to spell and how to make a sentence correctly, with proper punctuation? Or how to write a five-paragraph essay? Or how to avoid dangling your modifiers? If you said “yes,” then Whoosh!
Grammar is the beginning of the study of signs. It is the art of manipulating signs to communicate information. What are signs? Anything at all can be a sign. A horizontal line may signify the horizon of one’s vision as one looks across the surface of the globe. A perpendicular line may signify uprightness, a man standing straight and true, strong and reliable. Just a line! A letter, character, word – these are also signs and those alphabetical signs along with the signs of grammar (the ordering of words and the forms they take in order to convey nuances of meaning) are the very special sign system of human beings. If you have not mastered this system of signs in the first place, you can hardly be expected to master the more complex system of signs that comprises Masonry. For Masonry is a symbolic language. Its symbols stand for big ideas, abstract ideas, spiritual ideas.
Logic? Rhetoric? If you have grasped that language is a system of signs used to convey information, then it is easier to understand that our human utterances must follow certain rules of thought in order to make sense and convey true statements. Logic is the study of those rules and the mistakes that can be made if premises and conclusions are faulty. You may get all the words and punctuation right; people may even believe you have stated truth; and yet, if logic is flawed at some level, the proposition fails the test. Many religious utterances have this problem: that they are based on undemonstrated premises or unverified authorities rather than first principles. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized this problem in the Middle Ages and addressed it in his Summa Theologica. That work may be credited to a large degree with starting the scientific “revolution” in thinking, and the medieval universities themselves.
Rhetoric then – what is that? It is the use of signs to persuade. That is, we learn how utterances may play upon human emotions rather than (or in addition to) Logic, thereby convincing an audience of fallacies in the guise of fact. Why would a seeker after truth want to study such a subject? Because until you know how language can be used to convey falsehoods, you cannot proceed to the next step. Moreover, Rhetoric can be used to convey truths far more powerfully than Logic alone. Rhetoric appeals to our emotions, our feelings, our intuitive imagination. So, to learn Rhetoric is to learn a very important aspect of how humans work. Humans, as every Trekkie knows, are not Vulcans – they cannot think without imagination and feelings. Indeed, such abstract ideas as Justice, Righteousness, and Love cannot be arrived at with Logic alone.
And this is perhaps the most important lesson of this third of the liberal arts: that we cannot isolate logic and free it of feelings, nor should we try to do so. For our understanding of the world and thus the Divine, demands that we use all of our faculties. Emotions and feelings are not like an appendix that can be removed as a vestige of some earlier state of evolution (appendixes are proving to be not entirely useless too).
To continue up this staircase, here would make a blog entry into a book. I have given these three examples (the Trivium, as they are called) to try to demonstrate how each art helps us to understand the language of signs in which we make our knowledge, preserve it, and change it. The system of Freemasonry is a practice that includes but is not limited to the seven liberal arts. That gives you a pretty good idea of how big it is and why the dimensions of the Lodge are described as they are in the first degree lecture.
Having completely learned that one is working in a cosmos of signs, the Mason steps further into Arithmetic, a new and different language that used numbers and quantities instead of alphabetical letters. Arithmetic teaches the “grammar” of the new language of quantities. Geometry teaches its logic. Music teaches its Rhetoric.
How do quantities move us emotionally and convey feelings? In music. And music is itself more than simply the use of quantities of sounds as a language. It is where the quanta of numbers become something else again. They become a new language again that is both quantitative and qualitative. Music is mathematics that can be combined with the spoken word to convey things far beyond what either language could convey alone. Moreover, in music we create harmony or dissonance. Harmony is a very important idea in the Craft of Speculative Masonry.
Eternal in the Heavens
If I leave off here and let you figure out how Astronomy figures into this system, will you scream at me?
All right then. Astronomy is the study of the stars, but not as today’s science defines them. The liberal art of astronomy refers to the study of all things Celestial. It is therefore, not the study of things in space (that is Geometry), it is the study of the Divine. The Emerald Tablet of the Hermeticists (so beloved of all “occultists”) may be the ultimate in secret mysteries. It actually holds a vast set of ideas in its thirteen lines of text, but its most famous part is the simple statement “That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above within the Whole.” (*If you do not like my translation, then Whoosh!) It literally says, within the One, or the One Thing. If we take it that this really means Whole when translated into English, then the idea is that what exists in the Terrestrial realm is like that which exists in the Celestial realm and that both of these poles are not opposites but two halves of a whole.
When a Freemason approaches such an idea — approaches Astronomy, that is – he is given several symbols to work with in order to understand the truth. One is the Terrestrial and Celestial globes that he passed when he first approached the Fellowcraft’s staircase. Here they sit atop two columns, separate things. Yet, the columns are given names that fit together to form a single utterance: established in strength. Like all utterances or texts the words need to be understood in context and as signs.
As it happens, these two words are particularly tricky to get into English. We are given the words in Hebrew, but even that is tricky. There are undoubtedly many interpretations that can be made from these two signs, but one is that “to establish” is very like “to be” or “to create” and is a verb. That is, it signifies a certain action. The word “strength” or the phrase “in strength” as it is often given, signifies so many ideas in English that it is like opening a can of sardines. Or opening a dictionary. We use the word “strength” to describe not only physical endurance or power, but also moral force and good qualities (as in “he had both strengths and weaknesses).
Curiously, if you do open a dictionary and look up “strength” you will find that it is related to an old Germanic word “streng” which is the same root from which we get “string.” If there is some logic to this etymology, it may be that “streng” or “string” referred to setting things in a row. Think then of the strings of a harp or a violin, and we are back to cosmic music and harmony. (I am not even going to mention string theory…)
But I am reading the etymology with my imagination now. Reading it as symbolic. One should probably perform this operation with the original Hebrew words. I suspect, however, that one would find nuances just as interesting because when you dig deeply enough into word roots you almost always find symbolism.
I began this essay with the Occult – the idea of hidden knowledge. I said that hidden knowledge or “mysteries” are simply knowledge that one has not yet acquired. It is not supposed to be hidden, but it is because our brains are not endowed with the pleroma of universal knowledge at birth. We have to do it the old-fashioned way: we have to earn it. Freemasonry is just as occult as any other science. In fact, since in comprises within itself all sciences, it is as occult as all sciences put together. But that doesn’t make it “Devil Worship” or some such thing. Once the actual nature of Masonry as a Craft of learning to read symbols and then applying a particular set of symbols to the understanding of the Divine Order, the claim that it is some sort of “devil worship” sounds ridiculous and childish.
To say that Freemasonry is a religion or a cult is also wrong. When it is practiced in its true order, as given in our three degrees, the symbolic language of Masonry goes beyond “religion” to actual spiritual seeking. One does not “bind oneself” (remember the root meaning of “religion”?), to a limited set of utterances and beliefs handed down by traditional authorities. No. One sets forth on a journey to seek Light, to seek understanding, to See Truth.
The Masonic idea of Truth is not the religious idea – one fixed by authority and the past. It is the philosopher’s idea of Truth – a thing unfolding, spreading like Light itself, and our Understanding ever growing within it. Such Truth is not expressed in ten commandments or a list of a thousand rules and doctrines. It is infinite. It is Divine. It is the One Thing, the Whole, in which Freemasons are taught to see themselves as a single stone, a particle.
And yet, the Mason is also taught by the point within a circle, that this particle is not only a “part” of the whole. It is the very origin of the whole. For the point is where the one foot of the compass stands so that it may draw the circle. Point and circle are joined in a higher dimension of reality. That relationship is one of the symbolic meanings of the compasses in Masonry. Every Master Mason will appreciate that if this is the revelation given by the compasses upon the altar, then those other two great lights of Masonry that rest beneath the compasses are emblematic of two steps toward that highest Truth.
The two points of the compasses reveal that we must start with the wisdom of our ancestors first. Having understood that wisdom for what it is, we then cultivate the morality of dealing on the square with all men, including ourselves. That is, we cultivate a habit of constant truth, we test ourselves and all ancestral authorities to see if we or they are “right.” Only after this has been done do we find the lesson of the two points of the compasses, the higher meaning of the centerpoint and the circle’s circumference. Which is also the revelation in the Middle Chamber. We are the stone. We are the Architect. We die. We live on.
A wink is as good as a nod to a blind man.
— Hiram Owl McHobenny