Now, I have been thinking…some of this I’ve said before on MOTO, some is new. Hopefully all is interesting 🙂
Professor Ronald Hutton
Much of my thought stemmed from reading Ronald Hutton’s article in the Pomegranate, Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View. Here Professor Hutton writes about his work in the academic and pagan re-evaluation of the history of modern paganism and Wicca. This was a much anticipated article, as it was one of the first opportunities for Hutton to address the criticisms of his work (and him) in Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon. Hutton was clear and direct in his views of Whitmore’s work, views echoed by most academic and non-academic reviewers. After all, there is a difference between academic primary research and cherry picking a variety of secondary sources for material to support an argument. The first is scholarship, the second is non-fiction writing which may make many valid points but does not rest upon the rigour required by the Academy.
However, for me the article was interesting and inspiring for other reasons. Whilst essentially not saying anything new (I’ve been following the works of the good Prof for years), Hutton refocused on a few key points of his work. Now, Hutton is sometimes accused of robbing Wicca and Wiccans of their history by describing and unpacking many of the myths that make up the foundational history of Wicca. However, Hutton aimed to, and I believe did, give Wiccans a deep and strong history. This actual history, as much as we can discern it, may not be Wicca’s foundational or mythic history but it is still one of inspiration and the bringing forth of real divine powers.
I mean look, here we have a regular retired English civil servant in the 1940s, Gerald Gardner, who has for years been in and out of the fringes of many occult and esoteric movements. Following Crowley’s death in 1947 he was for a time edging to be the British leader of the OTO, an organisation he really did not know too much about. He was an ordained (heterodox) Christian priest, Druid and Co-Mason. At some point though he became a Witch and soon found himself in retirement promoting and expanding a little ‘witch cult’ which he himself felt had a very short shelf life:
…I think we must say goodbye to the witch. The cult is doomed, I am afraid, partly because of modern conditions, housing shortage, the smallness of modern families, and chiefly by education… science has displaced her; good weather reports, good health services, outdoor games, bathing, nudism, the cinema and television have largely replaced what the witch had to give.” (Witchcraft Today, p129).
Idries Shah who was the actual author of the biography of Gardner, Gerald Gardner – Witch, reported how he was informed by inner contacts that Wicca would be one of the most significant religious movements in the next century. However, he shared the same view as Gardner; “personally, I can’t see it”, he said on completion of his biography and allowed it to go out under Jack Bracelin’s name.
In hindsight we can see just how wrong Gardner and Shah were. Professor Hutton has gone far in explaining the reasons for this, showing how Wicca brought into outer focus and religious practice currents of spirituality and deity forms that had been generating and influential upon the British soul for centuries:
It [Wicca] became a distillation of major developments within the whole of British society over the previous two centuries, which sprang from the essence of modernity. Its goddess and god were not the deities of a few cranks, drawing on long-distant ancient images, but deity-forms who had manifested themselves to some of the greatest of all British poets, novelists, and scholars. Its beliefs and rites reflected some of the deepest needs of the modern British soul, and it was not a phenomenon marginal to society in general but drew on impulses which were central to it.
The real history of Wicca then is just as deep and just as powerful as the mythic history. The eternal mystery, the unknowable and the unnameable became revealed in a new religious expression, slowly at first but from the 1960s on with increasing speed as a viable and engaging religion. As I recount in this post I experienced this truth viscerally and deeply when I first read Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, becoming aware that Wicca was a true and bone fide religion of the modern era. I don’t know about you, but I find this gob-smacking and awesomely exciting. A real religion, a real revelation of Mystery born within the byways of 20th century Bournemouth, not on a distant and ancient tree or desert rock somewhere out of bounds, but within our own time and culture. To me this is more exciting than any secret Witch cult hidden throughout the ages.
What this means is that while the history of Wicca may not be “real” it is nonetheless, true. Most Christians know this about their own religion since there is little doubt that a video camera following Jesus around first century Palestine would record a very different picture to what we find in both the Canonical and extra-Canonical gospels. Yet the life, acts, death and resurrection of Jesus are real and this reality inspires millions each day to love, compassion and service.
Similarly, the duo-theistic myth of ancient pagan religions being practiced in secret, kept alive by wise counsellors within Witchcraft is true. It may not be the kind of history which would have been captured on medieval-cam, but it is just as true, just as powerful and inspirational. Even now, having argued for pagan acceptance of “real” history for over 20 years, get me inside a Wiccan circle and the myth is real. In the circle, between the worlds, Goddess and God are not modern deity forms of the eternal mystery; they are living deities who have been worshipped down through the ages.
This of course is the point of myth. We enter into it and engage deeply, we believe it and are changed by it. Otherwise what is the point? If we don’t enter, we become esoteric equivalents of pedantic film critics who never suspend their disbelief and critique every special effect, even as others flinch in terror or laugh uncontrollably.
A difficulty arises however if our consciousness is always ‘in the circle’, always engaging with the reality of the Gods and the true, but not historically accurate, myth of the Hidden Children of the Goddess. This is functionally equivalent to the Christian who insists Jesus physically did say and do all that is recorded of him in the Canonical Gospels, even when the accounts differ remarkably. Or the child who goes home from the latest James Bond movie and continues to play secret agent.
Stephen Jay Gould, whom I am sure I have mentioned previously on MOTO, described the fields of religion and science as “non overlapping magisteria”, each having their own internal logic, methods of engagement and functioning. So too it is with Wicca and the history of Wicca – one does not disperse or disrupt the other. But, as I have said, the actual, real, true academic history of Wicca is one of wonder, awe and inspiration anyway. I just wish more Wiccans would accept this.
So much for Wicca…what about the main love of my esoteric life, the Golden Dawn? Here too the academic and historically verifiable history of the Order clashes with the mythic and the assumed history by some groups and people. R.A. Gilbert one of the foremost researchers of the Golden Dawn opens his Golden Dawn Scrapbook with these words:
Recent research into collections of Golden Dawn archives has produced an almost complete prehistory of the Order.
The evidence for this prehistory he later asserts “is not circumstantial but entirely documentary”. This documented evidence clashes directly with the myth of continued lines of Rosicrucian descent from the early 17th century secretly controlling and forming outer Orders. Of course, the actual practice, inspiration and study of such mystical and magical currents does form a long and rich history and current in the west.
Here though I am not discussing the actual physical history of the Golden Dawn but am interested in it as a vehicle for revelation, much as Wicca was and is, because there is no doubt there is something about the Golden Dawn. I and many people love it, beyond all rationality and beyond all sense, despite its flaws, gaping holes and undeniably odd adepts.
As I have recounted elsewhere I first came across the words, “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” in Wilson and Shea’s Illuminatus Trilogy. The name alone electrified me and moved me into rapid and immediate research and I loved what I found, quickly entering into the pool and discovering I would swim an Olympic mile. It resonated and touched me and was right.
By no means is this a unique experience. Many others over the last 25 years have recounted similar tales to me. They know the Golden Dawn; they have always known it, even before they come across it. Since at the most there were 1000 members in the classical GD era, we cannot ascribe this situation to serial reincarnation – even if were to be egotistical. There are far more adepts now than there ever were. Nor can we ascribe it to ancestral knowledge – I know several excellent Asian adepts. Somehow though the Golden Dawn becomes for many the ideal spiritual home, their first experience of GD ritual being that of homecoming. This situation is similar to what I describe in my post on Wicca, where the childhood reading of books from Rosemary Sutcliffe and others awakened me to the spiritual currents I later encountered as religion within Wicca, feeling like I had come home.
The Golden Dawn then, I believe, and I am speculating here, is similar to Wicca in that it is a wonderful manifestation of modern spirituality and magical practice. Since it was formed and reformed in the crucial years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many new paradigms of religious thought and criticism were abroad, the Golden Dawn came to embody and exemplify the ancient practice of magic within the modern era. The shift of emphasis from operational to spiritual magic within the 19th century, spearheaded by Levi, became a core component of the GD. It thus made it an ideal vehicle for the new modern practice of spiritual and transformational magic. Further, the Golden Dawn was one of the first (and I would argue, the most systemised) groups to share the modern spirit of universalism:
In true religion there is no sect. Therefore take heed that thou blaspheme not the name by which another knoweth his God. For if thou doest this thing in Jupiter thou will blaspheme YHVH (Jehovah): and in Osiris, YEHESUAH (Jesus). (Fourth Knowledge Lecture of the GD).
Here of course Mathers is not referring to a kind of magical ecumenism but elucidating a modern version of an eternal esoteric verity, which Dion Fortune would later restate: “All the Gods are one God, and all the Goddesses are One Goddess, and there is One Initiator”. This is a crucial aspect of contemporary western spirituality, first publicly espoused on a large scale by the Theosophical Society from 1875 onward. The Golden Dawn became one of the first groups to take this truth into magical and spiritual practice.
Viewing the Golden Dawn as a vehicle for modern western magic makes a lot sense and explains why it is so right and resonant for so many people. After all there were and are Christian esoteric traditions that offer as deep, as powerful and as systemised experiences of mystery as the GD. Since these however, require traditional Christian religious commitment they do not have such universal appeal as the more contemporary Golden Dawn with its emphasis on universalism, transformation, individualism and plurality.
The Golden Dawn, like Wicca, became a springboard for the appearance of an array of new and reconstituted traditions. Some built upon or adapted the GD; some simply seem to simply use the ground broken by the GD as a soil in which to grow, almost gaining permission to be ‘out there’ following the public revelation of the Golden Dawn. In some ways several of these traditions have supplanted the GD, moved magic forward and onward seeking new manifestations of the eternal inner traditions of the West. In this vein I would argue that the work (and life) of Gareth Knight is a perhaps the best public example of this. But that’s for another post – in the meantime wander over to his site and Skylight Press and see what I mean for your self.
In any and all cases of authentic continuation of the Golden Dawn, whether in spirit, lineage or standing upon its shoulders, these newer traditions contain the same current, that of the sacred, the divine and the Gods. This is the same message as Ronald Hutton gives when talking of Wicca’s manifestation in the 40s and 50s: “the sudden eruption of particular deity forms in the human consciousness is what has long been termed revelation”. In the case of both the Golden Dawn and Wicca the primary aspect of this revelation is love:
…the Soul by true direction must be brought to study of Divine Things, that it may offer the only clean Oblation and acceptable sacrifice, which is Love expressed towards God, Man and the Universe. (GD Equinox Ceremony).
…for my Law is Love unto all Beings (Wiccan Charge of the Goddess)
May there be peace, and peace and perfect peace profound. 🙂