Medieval Pagan-Hermetic Initiation and Tradition

The recent lunar eclipse, wonderfully visible all night in Perth, was the culmination of over 20 years of magical-pagan training for me. On that night, as the moon was not, I received the final of seven ‘bindings’ in a magical-pagan tradition I have been blessed to work within since a trip to England in 1987. Now that my apprenticeship is complete, I will hopefully be able to talk more freely about this tradition in future.

There is no real distinct name for this tradition; each group and each generation seem to refer to it in different ways. Its internal mythology and all the material, songs, ways of magic and archives I have seen suggest it stems from the time of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. In medieval England its presence was more or less underground depending on the prevailing mood of the civil and sometime ecclesiastical authorities. Its main areas of activity were Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and by transplantation Warwickshire, Hampshire and Dorset.

Its mysteries and practices often merged with local and church tradition, sometimes being contained in plain sight within local song cycles and stories, as well as the architecture, decorations and motifs in local churches, graveyards, wells and village halls. An example of this is found in Alan Garner’s Strandloper novel where the mysteries are contained in a foliage leaf pattern on a church wall, only able to be understood during the exalted state of initiation.

Following the violence and changes of the Reformation, the tradition went more underground and began to merge with the bourgeoning magical-hermetic tradition. Its practices began to include more formal wording and Hermetic motifs. Some of the adepts of the tradition around this time include notable English ‘Rosicrucians’ such as Anne Finch, Lady Conway, and the circle that surrounded her and her family at Ragley Hall. The merged presence of the tradition and Rosicrucian-Hermetic motifs can also be found in the gardens, private chapels and surrounds of several stately homes in England. An excellent example of this is Arbury Hall  in Warwickshire, not far from the home of McGregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn. An earlier, more public example is the Garden of Planets at Edzell Castle, Angus.

In providing a material and physical representation of the mysteries ‘in plain sight’ these noble families were continuing the tradition established previously in the decoration of wells and church grounds. Many of the these families have passed on the tradition, as well as English Rosicrucian-Hermetic lineage, through their descendants and close family friends right up until the present day. There is evidence in the letter archives I have seen that show Ronald Heaver and others from the early 20th century being involved in tradition, being close friends of one of the lineage holders. The resonance between the tradition and much of the work of RJ Stewart seems to stem from this connection. As readers of MOTO know, I require solid evidence before making historical claims, and have personally seen and experienced more than enough to satisfy my innate scepticism of the nature and age of the tradition.

We have coyly released surface elements of the tradition previously here and here, attributing them to the Simon Goodman collection as a convenient foil, as well as given hints on the work of Alan Garner and another novelist connected with the tradition – and a few more clues 🙂

I was blessed to discover the threads that led to the tradition when helping to clear the back yard of a friend’s newly brought property in one of the older river suburbs of Perth 25 years ago. There we discovered a grown over circle area and buried artefacts that made no sense to my fellow workers, but spoke volumes to me a newly initiated magician. Eventually, I tracked down the original owners, who were very elderly, and was ultimately given a letter of introduction to a hidden Master in the New Forest area, where I visited in 1987. More on this and the tradition in a later post…

And oh, by the way, the above account is  a load of bollocks.

However, and here is the kicker – I defy anyone to prove this did NOT happen.

Such is the way with trying to prove a negative historically. Add to that the sub rosa activities and assertions of magicians and secret societies, and it becomes almost impossible to prove something someone claims did not happen. However, that is not evidence it did happen. Besides, like all good con men, there are many half truths, just about truths and could-be-true things in the account above. 🙂

So really, this MOTO post is about evidence and veracity. Just because someone says something, offers a few titbits of original interpretation of traditional material, makes lots of wonderful claims, it does not mean it is true. We can never prove it is not true, but without evidence – and I mean primary source letters, archives, documents etc – we can also never prove it is true. Of course I am thinking of the Golden Dawn and certain claims, counter-claims and hints being thrown around at the moment. Many of these, use the same structure and method of my little story above… analyse them for yourself and you will see what I mean 🙂

“Magicians”, Alan Richardson writes, “fib a lot”. How right he is 🙂

13 comments

  1. Mike Howard · December 16, 2011

    The trouble is that now you have ‘put it out there’, a load of bollocks or not, it will soon become reality and an accepted truth Unfortunately ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Harvest Home’ and Rhiannon Ryall’s ‘West Country Wicca’ have a lot to answer for. However, to use one of my favourite sayings, we have to be careful not to throw the baby (and the bath) out of the window with the bath water.

    Because people invent fantasies, often for commercial gain, does not mean that the real thing does not still exist. There are certian ‘keys’ that can be recognised that mark the genuine from the false and in my forty-five plus experience of witchcraft I have come across several survivals that have convinced me – and I am not easily convinced as my bullshit meter works very well!

    Mike

  2. MvdV · December 16, 2011

    Ha ha ha ha ha haaaa, you almost had me there Peregrin, you could have saved that for April!
    Also important food for thought.
    In a similar note some believe that despite the falsity of legendary origins there are benefits to be had in identifying with and creating a line of continuity. This will enhance and improve all of their undertakings as an organisation as they ‘know’ where they came from and the relevance of where they are going in the future.
    Pax

  3. Samuel · December 16, 2011

    Once again, Peregrin, you present a well reasoned jab at those that make the most outrageous claims within the esoteric community – showing them to be nothing more than cons and ne’er do wells.

    Great post!

    In LVX,
    Samuel

  4. Arcad · December 16, 2011

    Ohh you should have skipped the last part to see what reactions you would get on this.

    I also say one never knows and there may be lots of traditions which survived hidden and secretly. HOwever I believe they either remain secret or, in case they decide to go public, would do it in a way that people can follow and understand. As long as these claims also are supposed to serve as justification for having the “better” or more original linage, one would wonder why only high grade adepts are entitled to see the real evidence. Wouldn’t it make sense to enlighten the seeker who looks out for the tradition?

    However, I am not wiser as teh next man, so who knows. Sweet post!

    In L.V.X
    Arcad

  5. John Porter · December 17, 2011

    Nice one! :-0
    You b*llsh*tters know who you are …
    apart from the chronically deluded, of course, a number of whom I have met on my journey
    and who have acted as unwitting mentors in the development of the Virtue of Discrimination – gawd bless ’em
    John

  6. Peregrin · December 17, 2011

    Hi folks, thanks for the comments 🙂

    @ Mike, yes I did wonder about it ‘getting out there’ 🙂 thanks for the comments, and yes I think you would be one of the experts at sniffing out the bullshit, after all your efforts and time. Again, for newer readers interested in paganism, Mike’s ” the Cauldron” is essential.

    I think the most significant aspect of your comment Mike, is the word ‘survivals’, which makes sense and I have also personally encountered. However, the idea of fully fledged self-reflexive hidden pagan traditions spanning the countryside etc has little evidence, as far as I can see. And once more, for anyone interested in those survivals, Mike is your man 🙂

  7. Peregrin · December 17, 2011

    @MvdV – thanks. Yes, mythic and real history is very important in a tradition. I just do not like to see it used as a sales pitch. And, in the context of new-paganism, as I have pointed out, the real space-time history is as awesome and exciting and divine as the mythic. I expect the same is true for many things. Even the little I have read on the early reforms of John Schaw in Scotland that seem to be the genesis of freemasonry is gobsmacking. What was the guy up to? 😉

  8. Peregrin · December 17, 2011

    @Samuel- thanks. It seems like good timing considering a post that has just come out from one of our continental friends 🙂 go well…

  9. Peregrin · December 17, 2011

    Ah, Frater Arcad, that would have been fun, if a little naughty 🙂 judging from two honest phone calls from friends, the reactions would have been interesting. Both of these said, as they were reading it, they were disappointed I had not shared this with them previously! Such is our desire to connect with history and secrets!

    Yes, there may have been and still are survivals…I doubt full traditions. But if so, then yes, they would behave sensibly not in the way I have seen them presented. If we look at the base level structures, ideas and themes, the modern days stories and claims of secret chiefs etc are identical to that being claimed over a hundred years ago. Viva la tradition! 🙂

  10. Peregrin · December 17, 2011

    @John – thanks 🙂 yes, I like the chronically deluded tag. Thanks. I think a large part of this could be solved if people read history not read modernity into history. Even the medieval world view, let alone the ‘ancient pagan’ was completely different to ours. Reading claims that have medieval and ancient folk thinking and acting like moderns is all to embarrassing sometimes 🙂

  11. Mike Howard · December 17, 2011

    Thanks for your kind comments about ‘The Cauldron’. I have not come across a genuine surviving ‘pagan’ tradition in the countryside either. What I have encountered are groups that claim to belong to a form of traditional witchcraft or ‘cunning craft’ based on historical precedents that may or may not have a physical link with the past. These include groups that seem to have elements of neo-druidism dating from the 19th century. and connections with the Horseman’s Word. Any such past link is obviously hard to prove. As I have said elsewhere, I am very sceptical of any group of this type that claims antecedents before 1800. However the fact that lodges or offshoots of the GD survived into the 20th century suggests that some witch covens founded 100-150 years ago could have done so as well . In at
    least four separate cases known to me I know this to be a fact.

  12. Rebsie · December 26, 2011

    Very amusing – I was impressed for a moment there! I find it a bit sad how often people get hung up on the issue of ‘lineage’ and ‘tradition’ when really it doesn’t matter very much. You can find far more through your own intuition and insights (if you work on them) than through digging up leftovers of other people’s efforts, and a group that is a year old is as valid as one that is a century old. Of course a bit of digging for traditions and clues and connections with the past is very helpful in that it stimulates and focuses the imagination so you can make your own connections. It only becomes a problem when it becomes a basis for making claims – delusions of exclusivity and entitlement – which begins a slippery slide into ego. If somebody out there has a genuine thriving ancient tradition going – that’s great. But nobody should be afraid to proudly forge their own!

  13. Pingback: Medieval initiations | Icusurveys

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