Secret Societies And Ritual Magic

One of the cultural trends m which twentieth century pagan witchcraft is rooted consisted of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manifestation of a central theme of the current series; the European tradition of learned ceremonial magic. The latter became caught up in one of the most remarkable and (until recendy) least studied characteristics of Europe m the penod between 1600 and 1800; a tremendous growth of secret societies, into which members were initiated upon an oath to observe the confidentiality of proceedings, and which incorporated an important element of ntual. The well-spring of these was Freemasonry, and David Stevenson has recendy solved beyond reasonable doubt the question of its origins. He has shown that these lie in Scodand, at the end of the sixteenth century, where William Schaw, the royal Master of Works, either devised or supervised the development of the traditional trade craft of masons into a national network of permanent lodges. The latter were open to members who were not working masons, and their purpose was to build upon the medieval associations of masonry with sacred geometry and the arcane knowledge of ancient Egypt and King Solomon. These were mixed with Renaissance hermeticism, to produce a series of pnvate and well-protected spaces in which ethics, symbols and mystical concepts could be discussed by members, and practical skills (such as the training of memory) imparted (Stevenson, 1988a, 1988b).

At the end of the seventeenth century the system spread to England, where it was fully developed by the 1720s, and during the course of the eighteenth century it was taken to France, and then to Germany, where it proved especially popular. In Britain it was valued above all as a means for Christians of all denominations to share a social and intellectual life in a hidden world beyond the reach of confessional strife. The European equivalents tended to be more concerned with its esotenc potential, and sometimes with that for subversive politics. Ritual tended to grow more elaborate, degrees of initiation to multiply, and the component of magical work and the claims to preserve ancient and esotenc knowledge to become more pronounced. In the process, many of the European societies broke any connection with the original Freemasonry. To historians, the descent is clear, but the new organisations often preferred to compete with the parent tradition, claiming to derive from the same old wisdom but to preserve the latter in a yet more direct and authentic form. From such roots came associations such as the Ancient and Accepted Rite, the IUummati, and the Knights Templar and Rosicrucians of the late eighteenth century (Roberts, 1972; Partner, 1981; Stevenson, 1988a).

Certain features were already present in the masonic organizations of seventeenth-century Scodand which are especially important for the present subject, and which were merely elaborated during the subsequent 200 years of development in Britain. One was the insistence that they preserved knowledge and practices which had been handed down in secret from the most remote antiquity. At first this hidden tradition was linked mainly to Biblical characters and events, but as information about ancient civilizations increased, it was expanded to include the classical mystery religions. The whole body of supposed arcane learning was summed up under the simple label of !the Craft', a relic of the Masons' ongms in a medieval craft, or trade organization. Another major feature was the system of progressive initiation through degrees, which by the eighteenth century had been fixed m Britain as three, corresponding roughly to apprentice, journeyman and master. Another was the use of special marks and signs. From near the beginning one of the most important was the pentagram, the five-pointed star long prominent in the Western magical tradition. The triangle, square and hexagram were almost as important.

The earliest and most important of all masonic rituals was that of first-degree initiation, which developed slowly from the 1690s to take its final form about 10Q years later. The candidate was 'properly prepared', that is blindfolded and bound with a special knot called the cable tow, which allowed him to be led easily. With his breast bared, he was taken to the door of the lodge, where a blade was pressed to his heart and removed when he made the correct ceremonial response. Once admitted, he was sometimes stripped naked and reclothed in a white robe. He was presented to the cardinal points of the compass, which stood for certain qualities; east for wisdom, west for strength, and south for beauty. Only the north was ignored, as the place of darkness. He then had to kneel and take the oath of secrecy, which included a recital of terrible penalties consequent upon any breach of it. He would then have read to him one or more of the documents which Freemasons called Charges, exhortations to ethical conduct, and be shown the 'working tools' suitable to his degree, a set of masonic implements, each of which had an important symbolic association. In addition, he would learn the ntuai greeting and response of Freemasonry. This, then, was the basic structure, although some lodges elaborated it with further exhortations and ordeals. Many also incorporated riddles into the process, so that the postulant was initiated 'neither standing nor

Iymg\ 'neither naked nor clothed', 'neither bound nor free'. The higher degrees had their own admission ceremonies, and the postulant for these was never blindfolded.

The lodge usually had an altar in the centre, cubic in form and bearing the most important symbols and working took. The lesser of these were kept at the three honoured cardinal points. The working space was consecrated before use, with corn, wine, oil and salt. In addition to special greetings, by 1696 Freemasonry had developed a distinctive embrace, called 'the Five Points of Fellowship', being 'foot to foot, knee to knee, heart to heart, hand to hand, and ear to ear', The formal expression of assent to any action or proposition was 'so mote it be\ Some lodges had similarly standardized formulae to close proceedings, such as this, which ended second degree gatherings by the eighteenth century:

'Happy have we met, Happy have we been, Happy may we part, And happy meet again.'

All these trapping and actions (recorded m Slade, 1754; Cartwnght 1947; Poole, 1951; Jones, 1956; Stevenson, 1988a) were built into the myth of immemorial antiquity which has been part of: the Craft1 from the beginning. It was merely elaborated with time, so that by the later . nineteenth century Freemasonry was held by some of its spokesmen not to have derived from the ancient mysteries, but actually to have produced them, and to be older than civilization itself (Paton, 1873; Ward, 1921).

It is difficult to overvalue the importance of Freemasonry in nineteenth-century British culture. It was patronized by royalty, existed in every part of the nation and m town and countryside, alike, and was an accepted part of local life; at the Scottish market town of Melrose during the mid-century, the local lodge laid on a public parade on the traditional fire festival of Midsummer Eve. Its officials were elected during the day, and when dusk came the members marched through the streets bearing torches and its banners, with a band playing (Dyer, 1876: 320-1). More significant still was the way in which masonic practice conditioned the way in which later associations and confraternities behaved. One example of this was provided by the early trade unions, the modern successors to the medieval 'crafts'. During the 1820s and 1830s many of these organized themselves in local lodges, coordinated by a Grand one on the masonic model. Like Masons, they invested in banners, robes and ritual regalia, and instituted ceremonies of initiation; two union members at Bxeter were arrested by suspicious policemen on their way to a meeting with !two wooden axes, two large cudesses, two masks, and two white garments or robes, a large figure of Death with dart and hour-glass, a Bible and Testament.1 (Pelling, 1976: 40 ).

More impressive still, and' more enduring, was the influence of Freemasonry upon the friendly societies or benefit clubs and private insurance companies to provide working people with care in sickness and old age which appeared m large numbers all across Britain from the end of the eighteenth century; by the 1890s, they had at least four million members, compared to one and a half million trade unionists. Like masonry, they were found m town and country alike, so that over 100 were founded in the rural East Riding of Yorkshire in the years 1838—43 alone (Neave, 1991: 1). All the societies adopted the lodge system, and regalia such as sashes and banners. Some, however, rapidly developed into national associations with colourful rides and trappings, such as the 'Ancient Orders' of Foresters, Druids or Royal Shepherds, and the Society of Oddfellows. From Freemasonry these took a claim of immemorial antiquity; the Oddfellows claimed that they had been established by Roman soldiers, the Foresters included Alfred the Great among their earlier members, and the Druids named Noah as their founder.

They took over also the system of matiation through degrees, and acceptance into the group with a ceremony which involved blindfolding and binding, an oath of secrecy, and some component of ordeal. Thus, around 1830 a candidate for initiation into the Shepherds was brought blindfolded into the lodge, to a rattling of chairs, shaking of sheet iron to imitation of thunder, clashing of swords, stamping of feet, upsetting of furniture and much more. , , - Then, in a sudden cessation, the beautiful words of the making would be heard in the otherwise silent gathering.

Ceremonies were further dramatized by the wearing of robes, usually in nch colours, the carrying of symbolic tools or weapons, and the use of sacred geometry* the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes always opened proceedings by forming a circle, as a symbol of brotherly love and equality. At times the mythology of the societies, to represent unbroken continuity from an ancient past, rebounded on them. One was at Huddersfield in 1833, where a clergyman warned the Oddfellows that they were 'worse than devils or mfidels ... if you do not foresake your badges which are emblems of wickedness . you will sink down to hell eternal' (Gos'den, 1961: 127-34; Brown, 1982: 7-11.

In those parts of Britain where Freemasonry and Friendly Societies were weakest, the rural hinterland of Scodand, the masonic model evolved into its most bizarre popular form. The name 'Freemason' was itself English, and the original Scottish association had been called 'The Mason's Word', after the secret password which was one of its features (Stevenson, 1988a:

9). During the eighteenth century the grain millers of Scotland produced their own craft organization in imitation, The Miller's Word, to restrict entry to what had become a very desirable trade. It was likewise based upon a system of local groups with initiations, passwords and professional secrets, but was given an additional spice by holding meetings at night, and by spreading the beliefs that members acquired magical powers and paid for them by having to read the Bible backwards, three times over in three years. The initiation ceremony had come by the nineteenth century to include a strong element of deliberate blasphemy or mock-diabolism. The postulant had to bring a loaf, some jam and a botde of whisky, as a mock-sacrament, and had to answer a parody of a catechism before a man impersonating a minister and standing before a bushel of corn representing an altar. At the climax, still blindfolded, he was told that he had to shake the Devil's hand, and was given stick or heated spade or a bullock's hoof to hold, while chains were clattered across the floor (McPherson, 1929: 292-3; Carter, 1979; 154-5).

In the early nineteenth century, horses began to replace the traditional oxen as the draught animals m the mam agrarian areas of northern Scodand: the region west of Aberdeen and south of the Moray Firth, and Orkney. The skills required to manage them suddenly became much in demand, resulting m reputable and highly paid work. To train young men for it, regulate competition for it, and ensure that both services and rewards were maintained at a high level, a new secret society was formed, called The Horseman's Word. It rapidly became much more celebrated than the Miller's, being both numerically stronger (by 1880 three-fifths of farm-hands in arable areas worked with horses) and much less exclusive. The Horsemen took over the same structure of meetings and initiations, substituting their own craft knowledge, passwords, oaths and ordeals. The oaths varied, but were modelled quite recognizably on those of Freemasonry, with the same terrifying range of promised punishments in case of breach. The ordeals often included a tnck whereby the postulant swore never to wnte or otherwise reveal the hidden word which was the symbol of the society's power. A short while later he was commanded to wnte it down, and flogged across back or knuckles if he was foolish enough to forget his oath and obey. The basis of the ceremony — the gifts of bread and whisky, the blindfolding of the postulant, the mock minister and catechism, and the encounter with the Devil — was taken straight from the Millers (McPherson, 1929: 290-2; Leask, 1933; Davidson, 1956; Henderson, 1962; Carter, 1979: 154-6).

During the course of the nineteenth century, the society spread out of its stronghold in the north-east, to most parts of Scodand and to large areas of eastern England where farms were either worked or leased by Scots (Davidson, 1956). As it Anglicized, it became known as The Society of Horsemen, but in ail other respects remained the same (Davidson, 1956; Whidock, 1992). In all its range, the organization absorbed and propagated much older skills and traditions; after all, a power over farm animals had been one of the immemonat attributions of witches and cunning men. During the late eighteenth century, a greater specialization appeared, m which individuals made a profession out of their particular ability to control horses. This was a truly international phenomenon, the most famous of such figures in Victonan England including Irishmen, Australians and Americans, As die century drew on, more was heard of the diffusion of this knowledge among fraternities of such specialists, known variously as the Horse "Whisperers (a term imported from Ireland) or the Toadmen (who claimed to derive their power from a magical toad's bone, gained through a complex ritual). Although these disposed of the same sorts of training and lore as the Society of Horsemen, and are sometimes confused with it, they seem to have lacked its elaborate initiation ceremony (Youatt, 1859: 456-8; Evans, 1960: 239-71; Evans 1975: 29-35; Whidock, 1992).

The striking diabolism of the Miller's and Horseman's Word may well have been a direct parody of the dominant presbytenan Christianity of the place and time; the meetings of the Horsemen were also characterized by hard dnnking, and by jokes, songs and toasts which deliberately mocked conventional morality (Henderson, 1962). In this sense, it was a male anu-society, bent on deliberate misbehaviour in a private and controlled setting. It may well be, however, that its initiation ritual was influenced by traditions of the witches' sabbac, absorbed either directiy from Scottish folklore or from the published accounts reprinted at intervals since the seventeenth century. It was this similarity, and those to Freemasonry, that caused some twentieth-century folklonsts to speculate that The Horseman's Word, Masons and witchcraft were all ancient organizations descending from a prehistoric fertility religion (McPherson, 1929: 290; Davidson, 1956: 70-2; Evans, 1966: 228-36, 259; Evans, 1972: 225; Evans, 1975, 42-3). By the 1960s this idea had been taken up by members of The Horseman's Word itself, which stiU survives as a secret society of horse-lovers in northern Scodand (Evans, 1975: 36; Evans 1987: 56—63). It could only be supported by failing to consider any historical records. Now that Ian Carter has done this work for the Horsemen (Carter, 1979: 1545), just as David Stevenson has earned it out for early Freemasonry, it has been possible to put together the chronology outlined above.

All these were popular outgrowths from Freemasonry. It remains to consider some which derived from the same root m the late nineteenth century, but were of a very different kind; closed orders of working magicians. These were mspired direcdy by the revival of interest in learned magic, viewed pardy as a branch of science and pardy as an antidote to the rationalist tendency of some thought of the age, which occurred in Europe in the middle years of the century. Its epicentre was in France, and its most famous exponent Alphonse Constant {'Eliphas Levi'). Working partly m response to the French example, but drawing upon older esoteric traditions, a set of British Freemasons led by Kenneth Mackenzie and Robert Wentworth Litde set out to promote new study of the Cabbala, the Hermetic texts, and other arcane wisdom of the ancient world. The result was the Societas Rosicruciana m Anglia, founded in 1866 and restricted to men who held the top grade of Mason and explicidy avowed Christianity. It had itself a hierarchy of three orders of three grades each, and was governed by a Most Worthy Supreme Magus, a structure copied from an eighteenth century German society of mystical Freemasons, the Order of the Gold and Rosy Cross. Mackenzie claimed to have been initiated into this order by a member of it still operating in the Austrian Empire, which made his British organization a direct offshoot (Regardie, 1937-40; 1.19-20; iv.270; King, 1971: 17-18; Howe, 1972: 15—26; Gilbert, 1983: 16-20). In 1887 Hargrave Jennings provided it with a pseudo-history of its own, to match those of Freemasonry proper and the Friendly Societies, linking the eighteenth-century order direcdy to the probably mythical early modem Rosicrucians, and through them with a chain of succession coming down from the mystery religions and mystical philosophers of pagan antiquity (Jennings, 1887).

It may be helpful at this point to address direcdy the question of why a belief in (or at least an assertion of) a direct and unbroken descent from the immemorial past, should have been such an important component of all these secret societies. Any answers must of necessity be inferences, as the members themselves were naturally not disposed to discuss something which was taken to be unquestioned fact. The issue must none the less be confronted, as it has equal relevance to the later development of modem pagan witchcraft. One answer is a truism, that virtually all human societies, at all times, have turned to the past to authenticate the present. Another is functional, that a system of initiation in itself begets a sense of continuity and a curiosity about origins, providing an incentive for the production of foundation myths. Two others are more specific to the times and places considered here. One is that a particular value of these secret societies is that they provided safe spaces within which members could operate more or less independently of the surrounding public culture; something all the more important when that culture was suffering the strains of pronounced social, economic or intellectual change. The sense of safety was much enhanced if the space was believed to have existed from ancient days, surviving all the stresses of the intervening ages. Furthermore, these bodies usually attempted to provide services, skills and knowledge which would make members more potent in that wider culture. As that culture was dominated by political and religious institutions which themselves claimed authenticity, at least m part, from the past, and often did so by a system of succession, the ability of the societies to represent independent forces was greatly increased if they could claim a proportionately independent, and antique, origin.

It is also important to develop the comments made above, about the particular attraction of occult studies to some Europeans m the late nineteenth century. The challenge of scientific rationalism increased this attraction in two very different ways. It could drive people to whom a sense of divinity was mstinctually important to seek a more direct contact with the superhuman, replacing that offered by orthodox religions. To such people the mediation of the established faiths had been badly compromised by the errors which the progress of knowledge had revealed in their teachings. At the same time, the impulse towards a revival of magic could itself be scientific, addressing precisely those areas which the new sciences had most neglected, and applying their techniques of empirical study and experimentation.

This is the context of Theosophy, the movement inspired by the much-travelled Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which was founded in New York m 1875 and spread rapidly thereafter through North America, Europe and India. Like the bodies considered above, it was embodied in a society, orgamzed in lodges. Unlike them, it had a much more public face, represented by open lectures and the publications of its leaders. The basic tenet of the latter was that behind all the world's major religions and philosophical systems had always lain a single, accurate, body of arcane wisdom, which could now be reconstituted. To Madame Blavatsky herself, and to her most important early associates, the purest traces of that wisdom were to be found m eastern teachings, and one major effect of the Theosophicai Society was to make Buddhist and Hindu mystical literature relatively well known in the West for the first time. She did not merely promise theoretical knowledge, however, but practical powers of the sort generally reckoned to be supernatural. These she apparendy manifested herself, causing voices to speak and objects to appear from empty air; although the authenticity of these displays has been disputed ever since her lifetime. Whereas previous European esotenc societies had claimed an impressive lineage, Blavatsky went further and taught that her instruction and authority derived direcdy from certain mighty sages, themselves long possessed of semi-divinity, who resided on the physical plane in the Himalayas. To her European contemporaries she offered both the comfort of teachings handed down from an antique golden age and the prospect of a future in which humans might evolve into divinities. Her most significant contribution was to popularize the notion of reincarnation in the West (Blavatsky, 1877; Cranston, 1933).

Neither the Societas Rosicruciana nor the Theosophical Society actually practised ntual magic; the most that the latter would do was establish an Esoteric Section in 1888, for the study of it. This was itself an indication of growing interest in the subject, which ran m tandem with a tendency among some British Theosophists to dislike the Society's emphasis upon Indian and Tibetan traditions and to call instead for a concentration upon ancient European and Near Eastern occult teaching. In 1884 some of them seceded to form the Hermetic Society, dedicated to this end. These concerns, and organizations, came together in the persons of the two men who led the Societas Rosicruciana at the time, its Magus, William Wynn Westcott, and his deputy (also a leading member of the Hermetic Society), Samuel Liddell Mathers. In 1888 they announced the existence of an organization which was to become known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Like the Societas Rosicruciana, it was a secret body with a hierarchy of grades entered through initiation rites, and rooted -m Western esoteric traditions. Unlike it, but like the Theosophical Society, it had no restrictions of gender, religion or masonic membership. Unlike either, its main purpose was to study and to work ritual magic.

Westcott and Mathers initially represented the order as a long-existing organization. They rapidly modified this claim in favour of two other forms of legitimation; first, that the order had been based upon, and recognized by, an initiatory line of German Rosicrucians, and second, that Mathers had been contacted and supported by semi-divine magi of the same kind as Madame Blavatsky's Himalayan Mahatmas. Both assertions remain m the same historical category as Blavatsky's powers of psychokinesis. What is certain is that Westcott provided much of the theory behind the Golden Dawn, and Mathers worked out its training programme and developed its system of rituals. To do so he mixed ancient Greek, Hebrew, and medieval and early modern Christian magical traditions, to provide an interlocking series of ideas and images. The result was the most celebrated society of magicians in British history (Regardie, 1937-40; King, 1971; Howe, 1972; Torrens, 1973; Gilbert, 1983).

For the purposes of a history of pagan witchcraft, two aspects of the Golden Dawn are of especial interest. The first is the way in which it blended masonic forms with those of traditional ritual magic. Like Masons, its members had symbolic objects, but their nature and associations were different. Pre-eminent were the 'elemental weapons \ the chalice (for water), pentacle (for earth), dagger (for air) and wand (for fire). Behind these ranked the sword, representing the mind. The medieval association of the pentagram, as a sign which controlled spirits, was developed by Mathers into an elaborate ntual whereby it was drawn m a different fashion at each cardinal point to invoke elemental powers, using the ntual

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