Sunday, May 21, 2017

Gnosis, Doxa, and Episteme, or, What Kind of Knowledge Do You Mean?

Last month’s post on the pretensions to superior authenticity that infest some corners of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement in modern American Neopaganism focused primarily on the social and cultural dimensions of that movement. Those are relevant, to be sure, since every religious movement is also a social and cultural phenomenon, and derives at least as much of its agenda from social and cultural factors as it does from the interactions with other-than-human entities that religion is meant to mediate.

That said, there’s another side to the question—the side just mentioned, where human social and cultural phenomena come face to face with powers that are not at all human: the powers that religious people call gods, goddesses, spirits, and the like. Religion can be most usefully defined as the toolkit of practices and theories that human beings use to interact with those other-than-human powers. Being human, religious people inevitably bring their own social and cultural background to bear on that toolkit, but it’s a serious mistake to assume that the social and cultural side is all there is.

Now of course this particular mistake is also extremely common, and potent cultural forces in today’s industrial societies not only encourage people to make it, but push back hard against anyone who refuses to do so. I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a religious studies class I took during my second pass through college in the early 1990s. The teacher, a brash young man with his eyes firmly fixed on the distant star of tenure, spent the entire quarter talking, not about religion, but about all the different things that other scholars had claimed religion was really concerned with.

It was quite a diverse panoply of theoretical analyses, stretching across a giddy range of possibilities, but one rather noticeable thing was omitted from the list: the possibility that religion might be what it claims to be, a way of dealing with deities. I was impolite enough to point out that omission, and got a classic slug-in-the-salad response. Most people would consider a class on botany rather odd if it refused to consider the possibility that plants might exist; most people, similarly, would raise worthwhile questions about a class on literary theory that took it for granted that there are no works of literature, and spent all quarter talking about why people pretend to read books. Somehow the same oddity passes unnoticed when religion is the subject.

The omission just noted might be less glaring if nobody had ever made that claim, but in fact—and you can test this by asking the ordinary rank and file religious believer of your choice—it’s the standard explanation you’ll get from most religious people if you ask them what their religion is about. That’s true across the spectrum of religions: a devout practitioner of Shinto will tell you that religion is about establishing proper relations with the kami, a devout Southern Baptist will tell you that it’s about getting right with Jesus, and so on through the colorful roster of the world’s deities.

Is it reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be about something other than its apparent purpose?  Sure—but it’s also reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be exactly what it appears to be. Of course the difficulty here is that this latter option requires an additional step .

That step, for what it’s worth, doesn’t require believing in the real existence of at least one god—though of course that’s one way to approach it. Exactly what the word “god” means, and exactly what the phrase “real existence” would mean when applied to such a being, are questions that have kept philosophers and theologians hopping for a good long time, and we can leave them aside for now. No, the additional step I have in mind is simply that of accepting the possibility of religious experience.

Religious experience? In the broadest sense, that’s what happens when someone engages in religious practice and gets a response. The nature of the response varies with the type of practice, and it also varies with the deity to whom the practice is directed. Despite the efforts of the one-size-fits-all sort of monotheist to insist that every religion is directed toward only one god (i.e., theirs) and results in only one kind of religious experience (i.e., also theirs), the literature of religious experience suggests otherwise. It suggests, in fact, that there really is a difference between (say) the presence of the living Christ experienced by a devout Christian in prayer, the state of enlightenment experienced by a devout Buddhist in meditation, and the medicine power experienced by a devout Lakota Native American on a vision quest.

There’s a lot that can be learned from the diversity of religious experience, and I’ve tried to explore some of it in my book A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism. For the moment, though, I want to tighten the focus a bit, and in the process return to the issues central to last month’s discussion.

The one-sided dispute that Celtic Reconstructionists have carried on against the Druid Revival for all these years is—aside, that is, from the factors discussed last month—a quarrel over the validity of religious experience. To participants in the Druid Revival traditions, what gives value to the legacy of Iolo Morganwg and the other eighteenth-century British eccentrics who sent the Revival off on its merry way is that their rituals, practices, and teachings work—you can apply them and fairly reliably get certain kinds of religious experiences. To a great many Celtic Reconstructionists, on the other hand, that’s not an adequate justification.

Nor are the Reconstructionists entirely wrong. It depends entirely on what you want to justify. It so happens that back in the day—the day in question being the early to mid-twentieth century—some of the most public Druid Revival organizations claimed to be descended directly from the ancient Druids, and they were wrong. It really is that simple. The Druid Revival was invented in the eighteenth century, and the fact that the rituals, practices, and teachings get good results when put to work does not mean that it really is ancient; it means, rather, that its founders were competent eighteenth-century mystics.

Now of course trying to insist that the Druid Revival isn’t spiritually valid because it’s not ancient falls into an equal and opposite plethora of difficulties. If, as I’ve suggested, religion is a toolkit for dealing with other-than-human powers, the validity of a toolkit hardly depends on how old it is, still less on whether the tools in it have endured unchanged since Roman times. Granted, that sort of thinking makes no impression on those for whom religion is a roleplaying game, or a Society for Spiritual Anachronism in which people go around pretending to be ancient Celts or what have you—but we can leave them to those entertainments, and pass on.

The point I want to make here is that there are things that can be justified by reference to religious experience, and things that can’t. Claims about the spiritual validity and effectiveness of a tradition fall into the first category; claims about the historical origins of a tradition fall into the second. These two sets of claims have no necessary relation to one another. A tradition can be gray with the dust of centuries and still useless or harmful; a tradition can also be newly invented and wholly valid—every tradition, after all, was brand new at one point in its history.

Yet the fact remains that inaccurate claims about a range of subjects are routinely made using religious experience as a justification. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of Biblical literalists, for example, the geological and paleontological evidence simply won’t support the claim that a worldwide flood exterminated every person and land animal on earth except the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark in the fourth millennium BCE. Despite the equally enthusiastic efforts of some of the older Druid Revival traditions, similarly, the historical evidence simply won’t support the claim that the ancient Druids used Iolo Morganwg’s rituals. Clearly you can have powerful religious experiences and still get your facts wrong.

This is where I’d like to turn to a phrase used very often in Reconstructionist circles: “unverified personal gnosis,” or UPG for short. That’s their term for the kind of claim that runs, “I had a religious experience involving X, and therefore X is true in some general sense, no matter what the evidence says.” It’s a common enough phenomenon, in and out of modern American Neopaganism, but the point I want to make is that the phrase embodies exactly the mistake that defines so-called UPG.

The word that matters here is the last one, “gnosis”—for those who aren’t familiar with the word, it’s pronounced “know-sis.”  People who know their way around the alternative religiou scene know that this is a Greek word for “knowledge.” Too many of them don’t remember that the Greek language is much better at sorting out the different kind of knowledge than English is.

Bentley Layton, whose collection The Gnostic Scriptures is to my mind the best one-volume introduction to classical Gnosticism yet compiled, translates gnosis into English as “acquaintance.” That’s the kind of knowledge that gnosis is: not abstract discursive knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that implies and requires personal experience.

The distinction between gnosis and two other kinds of knowledge we’ll be discussing in a moment can be best understood through a metaphor.  Imagine for a moment that you’ve just had a passionate year-long relationship with a woman who’s in the Federal witness protection program, and is living under a false identity. Literally every single “fact” you know about that woman is false—but at the same time, in another sense, you know her very, very well. The kind of knowledge you have about her, the results of your intimate acquaintance with her, is gnosis.

In ancient Greek, there are two other kinds of knowledge alongside gnosis. The first, doxa—that’s pronounced “dock-sa”—is opinion. This is something you know because you heard it from someone, or because you read it somewhere. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your source is, if you know it because you heard it or read it rather than because you experienced it yourself, it’s doxa. The world being what it is, far more often than now, when someone says they know something, what they’ve got is doxa.

The third kind? That’s episteme, pronounced “epp-iss-tay-may.” This is logical knowledge, the kind of thing you know because you understand the rules of reasoning and know how to proceed from premises to a conclusion. It’s also personal knowledge, because you have to do the reasoning yourself—if you trust someone else to do it for you, then for you, it’s doxa, not episteme—but it’s replicable personal knowledge. Most people, given patience and a willingness to learn, can be led step by step through a sequence of logic until they understand why the conclusion follows from the premises, and the moment they get it, they have episteme of it.

Notice that the same piece of knowledge can be doxa for one person, episteme for a second, and gnosis for a third—and for that matter, the same piece of knowledge can pass through all three stages in a single person’s mind. You learn a scientific fact in school, and simply commit it to memory: that’s doxa. Later on, in college, you major in that branch of science, repeat the relevant experiments, come to understand the logic that underlies that fact and gives it its meaning: that’s episteme. You end up working in that field, and experience that fact in action until you know it in your bones: that’s gnosis.

With that in mind, let’s return to the phrase “unverified personal gnosis.” That’s a double redundancy, because if something is actually gnosis, it’s personal by definition, and it’s also impossible for anyone else to to verify. At the same time, it doesn’t justify any other mode of knowledge; the mere fact that you have gnosis of something doesn’t mean that your claims to doxa about that same thing ought to be accepted at face value. As in the example of the woman in the witness protection program, you can have true gnosis and false doxa about the same subject, because there’s no overlap between these two kinds of knowledge.

And episteme? It occupies a middle ground because, as already noted, it’s personal but replicable. Your personal experience of episteme can be generalized to some extent, because you can show other people exactly how to have that experience themselves. The difficulty is simply that episteme is only possible in certain fields of human experience. You can have episteme about any subject that’s subject to objectively verifiable testing, but a huge amount of human experience can’t be tested in any objectively verifiable way. That means you’re stuck with doxa, on the one hand, and gnosis, on the other.

For about two and a half millennia now, intellectuals have tried to enlarge the empire of episteme:  to find ways to have replicable personal knowledge about things that nobody has been able to know in that way before. It’s a worthwhile project, and it’s produced three of the half dozen or so greatest achievements of the human mind—mathematics, logic, and experimental science—but one of the lessons of that project is that there are massively important aspects of human life that can’t be reduced to episteme no matter how hard you try.

The standard intellectual responses to that awkward lesson are, on the one hand, to find some way to pretend to reduce those non-epistemic aspects of life to episteme anyway, and on the other, to insist that the non-epistemic aspects of life don’t exist. Religious experience is subject to both of those gambits. My readers will doubtless be familiar with all the claims that religious experience can’t exist because it can’t be proven according to replicable quantitative tests. That’s one way of dodging the issue—but the response of the angry Celtic Reconstructionists discussed in last month’s post here is another.

To insist that religious experience can’t be real unless it conforms to some historical model verified by officially sanctioned scholars, after all, is simply one more way of trying to flatten out gnosis into episteme: to drag religion out of the uncomfortably personal realm of acquaintance and try to slap it down on the lab bench for dissection. That this maneuver inevitably misses what it’s trying to find is only one of many ironies in the situation.

Now of course there’s another factor, which is that certain kinds of spiritual practice are epistemic—that is to say, people who do them systematically, with the proper preparation and attitude, reliably get the same results. To understand that, and the immense challenge it poses to the entire history of rationalism, will require a great deal of discussion in posts to come.

On a theme by no means distant from the concerns we’ve discussed over the last two months, I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book of mine, The Coelbren Alphabet: The Forgotten Oracle of the Welsh Bards. It’s about one of Iolo Morganwg’s many inventions, a 24-letter alphabet of vaguely runic pattern with its own distinctive and quirky symbolism. Is it authentic? You bet; it’s absolutely authentic eighteenth-century Druid Revival stuff—I give all my sources, including the obscure 1856 Welsh book where, after years of searching, I finally found the key to the Coelbren’s symbolism.

It turns out in practice to be a lively and accurate oracle and a very useful addition to the already rich realm of Druid symbolism. What’s more, because Iolo invented it and the Druid Revival adopted it, if you use it, you’ll annoy the stuffing out of some impressively pompous jerks. So what’s not to like? Copies can be ordered from the publisher here.

Finally, as promised earlier, I have some announcements to make about my future blogging. My new blogging platform is mostly up and running at, and I plan on starting regular posts there around the summer solstice. I’ve also established an account on the social media site Dreamwidth at The main site will get substantial essays, at least one of them a month; the Dreamwidth account will feature book reviews, announcements of new publications, wry commentary on fatuous media articles, and other shorter bits.

While my blogs always tend to have a mind of their own, and head off in directions I don’t expect, my intention is to focus from here on out on a theme I’ve discussed only in passing here and on The Archdruid Report: the emergence of a new fusion of ecology and religion in our time, not simply as an abstract worldview but as a way of life and a system, or system-of-systems, of spiritual and esoteric practice.

I make no apologies for that change of focus, though I know some of my readers will not find it to their taste. Over the eleven years I spent writing weekly posts on The Archdruid Report, I said pretty much everything I can think of saying about the decline and fall of industrial civilization; over the few years that I’ve spent doing monthly posts on The Well of Galabes, I’ve sketched out some of the foundations on which I plan to build as we proceed—and now it’s time to move on.

I do have more to say about some of the topics touched, peripherally or otherwise, in the course of eleven years of blogging; among other things, I’m looking for a print or online periodical that would be interested in hosting further discussions of politics and culture in late imperial America from my jaundiced and idiosyncratic perspective—but we’ll see whether anything comes of that. In the meantime, there’s much to be said about getting out from under the crackpot fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature and relearning how to live as part of the Earth’s biotic community, and I propose to say some of it.

Please note the following, though: as of the end of June, both my previous blogs will be going away. The posts here on The Well of Galabes will be hosted as a read-only archive on my new site; the posts on The Archdruid Report will be going offline permanently—though they’ll be available soon in a complete ten-volume published edition, in print and e-book forms, from Founders House Publishing. Thank you all for reading my blogs, and stand by for the next giddy leap into new territory

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Few Words about Authenticity

I don’t generally attend Neopagan festivals these days—been there, done that, used the T-shirt to mop up a variety of messes—but I made an exception a few months ago for ConVocation, a midsized event in the greater Detroit area. It was pleasant enough that I’m seriously considering going back, which is saying something given my general experience of the species. That said, just as every rose has its thorns and every blog its trolls, there was one decidedly awkward moment.

I hasten to say that the moment in question was not the fault of the event, or of the harried and genial crew of people who run it. Rather, it’s something that every public figure in my end of the alternative spirituality scene gets to deal with on a regular basis. As I think most of my readers know, I’m a Druid—specifically, an initiate of several of the traditions of the Druid Revival, the astonishing rebirth of Western nature spirituality that emerged among circles of eccentrics in 18th-century Britain and hasn’t slowed down yet—and for reasons we’ll get to presently, some members (though only some) of a more recently minted brand of Neopagan spirituality seem to find it necessary to throw hissy fits in public whenever the Druid Revival comes within shouting range.

Yes, that’s what happened this time. I was one of the guests of honor, and there was a meet-and-greet scheduled with me as the designated target.  To this event came a certain person who’s something of a big cheese in the Celtic Reconstructionist movement, the freshly manufactured brand of spirituality just mentioned—those of my readers who are familiar with Celtic Reconstructionism will know his name, but it could have been any of several dozen others, and those who don’t follow the vagaries of that particular sub-subset of the Neopagan scene have probably never heard of him, so we’ll leave him his anonymity here. Of course he had to launch into the standard canned rant about just how much more authentic than mine he thought his traditions were, and did so at sufficiently great and dreary length that most of the other attendees were looking around in evident embarrassment by the time he finally got off his hobby horse and let someone else talk.

Under other circumstances I’d simply have rolled my eyes and gone on to the next event.  As already noted, you can count on facing this sort of tirade on a routine basis if you’re into the Druid Revival traditions and show your face at Neopagan events. Still, reflecting on that overfamiliar experience over a pleasant glass of scotch later that evening, I realized that there are actually a couple of lessons worth learning from it all.

To get to those lessons, it’s going to be necessary to take a couple of backward glances, first across the history of American Neopaganism and then across the history of American culture itself. I apologize to any of my readers who find this uninteresting, but there it is; across the board, whether we’re talking about the gyrations of alternative religious subcultures or the great arcs by which civilizations rise and fall, you can’t understand the present without getting some sense of how we got here.

In the case of modern American Neopaganism, “how we got here” starts in the 1960s, when Wicca—the brand new “Old Religion” that Gerald Gardner patched together out of a grab-bag of modern occultism, mid-20th century pop culture, and remanufactured medieval lore—leapt across the Atlantic to provide a more fashionable alternative to the traditions of American occultism then in circulation. Central to the rhetoric of Wicca in its early missionary days was the claim that it really was the Old Religion, the original Neolithic goddess cult of Europe, driven underground by a series of patriarchal religions that culminated in Christianity but passed down intact over the centuries by an unbroken sequence of third-degree grannies. Those third-degree grannies really got around; for a good many years in the 1970s and 1980s, everyone who was anyone in the Neopagan scene had at least one.

The difficulty with these ebullient claims was that they didn’t happen to be true.  As Wicca matured, and a new generation of initiates started asking for hard evidence to back up the historical claims made by Gardner et al., it became increasingly clear that the evidence in question simply didn’t exist.  Most Wiccans responded sensibly enough by recognizing that a religion doesn’t have to be ancient to be true, and kept on worshipping their goddess anyway. Some, by contrast, clung to their traditional history in the teeth of the evidence, in much the same way as those fundamentalist Christians who keep insisting that Noah’s flood must have happened even though all the geological evidence says otherwise.

There was a third response, though. Some people in the Neopagan scene responded to the disproof of Wicca’s ancient origins by deciding that they were going to find the real Old Religion and practice that instead of Wicca. It was out of that reaction, by and large, that the Reconstructionist movement emerged over the last decades of the 20th century.

There was, it’s worth noting, nothing whatsoever wrong with such a response. Returning to ancient roots, real or imagined, is one of the most common themes in American popular religion, and it’s among the creative ironies of our cultural history that most of our really innovative movements got their start from some such attempt to go back to one primal source or another. Most of the communities that emerged out of the Reconstructionist movement, for that matter, found their feet relatively quickly and don’t count any more belligerent bullies among their members these days than any other alternative religious scene. Unfortunately for the Celtic Reconstructionists, they discovered that the notional territory they wanted to claim for their own was already occupied.

Yes, that’s where the Druid Revival comes into the picture. Back in the 18th century, when nobody but a few British eccentrics interested in nature spirituality had the least interest in what little was still known about the ancient Druids—the priests and scholars of the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Britain, and Gaul—those eccentrics borrowed the label and a handful of surviving traditions and ran with them. Now of course the founders of the Druid Revival knew even less about pre-Christian Celtic religions than scholars do nowadays; nor were they particularly fixated on authenticity. They were more interested in having something that worked.

Two other factors made this latter detail particularly objectionable to the Celtic Reconstructionists. The first was the legacy of that force of nature, Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg. It’s not going too far to call Iolo the Gerald Gardner of the Regency era. He claimed to have inherited authentic ancient Welsh bardic traditions passed down straight from the days of the ancient Druids, and his claims, like Gardner’s, were broadly accepted in the counterculture of his time. It’s worth noting, in the light of what came later, that Iolo was in fact a Welshman, not merely in the sense of having been born in Wales of Welsh parents (which he was) but also in the sense of growing up speaking Welsh from the cradle and being utterly fluent in traditional Welsh culture from earliest childhood (which he also was).

He also studied traditional Welsh poetry with several elderly poets who had as much right to the title of bard as anybody did in 18th-century Glamorganshire, and even those scholars who critique him most harshly admit that he knew medieval Welsh language and literature as well as anybody alive in his time. That was exactly the problem, because he used his extensive knowledge to pass off his own very good Welsh poetry as the work of important medieval Welsh poets such as Dafydd ap Gwilym. The 18th century was one of the great ages of literary forgery, and Iolo was right up there with the best.

In the 19th century, when Iolo’s legacy was incorporated into the burgeoning Druid Revival, none of this mattered in the least. The extent of Iolo’s forgeries had not yet even been guessed, and a great many people took his invented bardic traditions at face value, as part of the heritage of the ancient Druids. That was only a small part of why the Druid Revival adopted his work, though. To 19th century Druids, what mattered was that Iolo’s inventions worked—that they made great raw material for ceremonies, meditations, and spiritual practices that furthered the Revival’s goal of a living spirituality of nature. To a sizable subset of the Celtic Reconstructionists, though, none of this mattered; the Druid Revival was using material that they considered inadmissible, and that was that.

The second factor referenced above fed into that reaction. Until the late 20th century, it was pretty much de rigueur for any alternative spiritual tradition in the western world to claim some ancient and romantic origin. When Gerald Gardner backdated his newly coined religion of Wicca to the Neolithic, he was following a grand tradition; in those days everybody, but everybody, had some equivalent of Wicca’s third degree grannies to provide them with a backstory. Sometimes the granny-equivalents were taken literally by the founders and promoters of newly minted spiritual traditions, sometimes they were simply part of the PR, but you couldn’t do without them if you wanted to find an audience.

A personal reflection may be relevant here. When I became Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) in late 2003, one of the first things I urged on the other members of the Grand Grove—all of whom were much older than I was—was that we ‘fess up about the order’s real historical roots. They were horrified by the suggestion, not because they had any particular illusions about AODA’s origins, but because they believed that nobody would join it unless it had a putative ancient source. I got my way, and people joined anyway; times had changed—but I don’t think the older members were just shoveling smoke. As recently as the 1970s, they would have been right.

None of that mattered to a sizable subset of the Celtic Reconstructionists, though. As far as they were concerned, all  that mattered was that when they set out to revive ancient Celtic religious traditions, the territory was already occupied by a mob of horrible fake Druids, who had to be driven off or shouted down so that the Celtic Reconstructionists could take their place as the spokespersons for ancient Celtic spirituality. This a certain large fraction of them proceeded to do, or at least to attempt.

For a couple of decades, as a result, the sort of rant I observed in Detroit was something that pretty much everyone in the Druid Revival community had to put up with on a routine basis. Of course it was worst on the internet. When AODA launched its first-ever email list in 2004, we very quickly found that the mere fact of our online existence was enough to bring a steady stream of drive-by trolls, who wanted to join our list for the sole purpose of posting lengthy denunciations of us as horrible fake Druids. We ended up having to make our email list 100% moderated so that members of the order could carry on conversations about anything else. Elsewhere? A lot of people in the Druid Revival scene simply stayed off other Neopagan forums entirely because the bullying was so pervasive.

I’m glad to say that things have calmed down somewhat since then. Partly that’s because the Celtic Reconstructionist movement got over its early growing pains, and a fair number of its members seem to have realized that the mere existence of the Druid Revival doesn’t pose any threat to their adopted identity; partly, it’s because people began to notice that the campaign of denunciation had the effect such things usually do, and spurred a remarkable increase in membership among Druid Revival traditions; and partly, it’s because those Celtic Reconstructionists who chose to throw stones were doing so from within some remarkably fragile glass houses.

The awkward fact is that we know very, very little for certain about the religious beliefs and practices of the Celtic peoples before the arrival of Christianity. The ancient Druids themselves had a rule that none of their teachings were to be written down, and apparently kept it, since exactly nothing survives of their lore.  In terms of the broader popular traditions, what has survived is a very modest number of texts written down by Christians in the Middle Ages, some of which contain some material that may—scholars disagree about this—date back to pre-Christian times. Add to that the equivocal evidence of archeology and an assortment of folklore collected in various Celtic countries, and you’ve got the sum total of raw material the Celtic Reconstructionists had to work with.

Is that enough to build a valid spiritual path? You bet, and at least some of the Celtic Reconstructionists did so. The difficulty, though, is that they had to engage in a lot of creative interpretation, add their own personal experiences, and bring in material from other sources to do it. That’s not a problem if all you want is a meaningful spiritual path; it only becomes a problem if you also want to insist that your spiritual path is more authentic than someone else’s. That insistence became unavoidable, though, because of another factor over which neither the Celtic Reconstructionists nor anyone else had any control: the vagaries of a certain enduring theme in American pop culture—and this is where we leap from the history of American alternative spirituality to the history of American culture in general.

Beginning in colonial times, American culture has had a complex and problematic relationship with its more-or-less parent cultures in the Old World. Among intellectuals, that’s generally expressed itself in one of two ways. There have always been some intellectuals who focused on the unique elements of the American experience, and sought to distance themselves from the Old World, and others who went the other direction, and emphasized their participation in Old World cultures. Among the latter, it’s long been fashionable to take this to the extent of pretending not to be American, and adopting the manners and traditions of some older culture instead.

For a very long time—from colonial times, again, until the first years of the twentieth century—the usual target for such exercises among white American intellectuals was England. All through those years, you could find people in the United States who aped English cultural fashions, rhapsodized about Ye Olde Days when knights were allegedly bold, went to the Episcopal (that is, Anglican) Church, and put on their best imitation of an English accent whenever they thought they could get away with it. For a variety of reasons, though, Anglophilia lost its exclusive grip around the time of the First World War, and things got colorful from there, as an ever-expanding smorgasbord of faux identities became fashionable in the American intelligentsia.

Those of my readers who were around in the 1960s and 1970s will remember when the standard pose was Indian—at the time, this could mean either Hindu or Native American, take your pick. The avant-garde in those days produced a bumper crop of (mostly) young men in Nehru jackets who claimed to be mystics and brandished paperback copies of the Bhagavad-Gita and Autobiography of a Yogi, and another bumper crop of (mostly) young men who’d bought ersatz buckskins at the local Tandy Leather store and brandished paperback copies of Carlos Castaneda and Black Elk Speaks. I don’t happen to know what the Hindu-American community thought of all this, but I knew Native Americans then and thereafter who rolled their eyes in sour amusement and referred to the young men in question as registered members of the Wannabee tribe.

Cultural fashions change, though, and so do the targets for exercises of the sort just described. Over the last two decades, as a result, many American intellectuals who wanted to play at being something other than American chose the Celts instead. As a result, plenty of Irish people these days roll their eyes in sour amusement at the antics of what they call “plastic Paddies”—that is, Americans who didn’t grow up in Ireland, got any knowledge of the Irish language they may have out of books, and in most cases don’t have a single ancestor from Ireland, but ape the manners, customs, and culture of the Irish. The Scots and, to a lesser extent, the other Celtic nationalities have also had to put up with equivalent vagaries from our side of the pond. Again, the Celtic Reconstructionists weren’t responsible for any of this—but many of them were influenced by it, sometimes to an embarrassing degree.

That influence became as pervasive as it did for the same reason that the (mostly) young men just mentioned clutched copies of the books just mentioned:  the role of spirituality as a lifestyle accessory in modern American pop culture. The rise of the “plastic Paddies” was thus paralleled by the rise of “cardiac Celts,” people who “feel Celtic in their hearts,” and who adopted some version or other of Celtic spirituality in the mistaken notion that this somehow made them honorary Celts. Of course actual Celts—people who grew up in one of the six existing Celtic nations, participating in the cultures of their homelands and speaking a Celtic language—responded to this wholesale hijacking of their heritage with various degrees of annoyance and amusement. That’s where the fixation on authenticity came in; human nature being what it is, a good many of the “cardiac Celts” started giving themselves more-Celtic-than-thou airs as a way of shoring up their dubious claim to an assumed Celtic identity, and the Druid Revival was a comfortable and convenient target for such airs.

What all this made it hard for many people to grasp, at least for a while, is that authenticity doesn’t actually count for that much in a spiritual context. Every religion and every spiritual tradition changes significantly over time as the various currents of culture and history force it to respond to new conditions. Those Christians who like to sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” would have a very rough time of it if they actually got their wish, and suddenly found themselves expected to follow the religious customs of Christians in the third century CE; in the same way, if the ancient Irish religion had survived to the present day—let’s say, as a result of the kind of forced political compromise that led to the survival of Shinto alongside Buddhism in Japan—the religion practiced in Dublin and Cork today would, to judge by historical equivalents, have next to nothing in common with the same religion as it was practiced at Tara in the second century CE.

As Richard De Mille pointed out some decades ago in a trenchant analysis, there’s an important difference between authenticity and validity. Authenticity is a matter of whether something has the source it claims to have; validity is a matter of whether it works. A spiritual tradition that fixates on authenticity at the expense of validity is usually slipping down the chute toward extinction, because people don’t generally practice a spiritual tradition because they want to feel more authentically (insert label here) than the next person; they practice it because they want results, and if they don’t get results, they’re normally going to head somewhere else in due time.

In a certain sense, Druidry—the spiritual tradition descended from the 18th-century Druid Revival—is a fine test case for De Mille’s assertion. Is it “authentic”? Depends on what you mean by that. It’s a wholly authentic example of early 21st century Western nature spirituality, and it descends—with a great many modifications, adaptations, and improvements, to be sure—from an equally authentic example of 18th century alternative religion. That’s all it is, and all it claims to be. You don’t become an honorary Celt by joining AODA, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), or any of the other Druid Revival traditions active these days, but then I trust nobody in those orders thinks otherwise.

The point that needs making, I think, is that the Celtic Reconstructionists can’t actually claim anything else—well, except that they don’t have a continuous heritage of three centuries to draw on, as we do. You don’t become an honorary Celt by taking up a Celtic Reconstructionist path, either; you simply become a modern American, or whatever you happen to be, who draws spiritual sustenance from a recently minted modern spirituality that draws some of its raw material from the fragmentary legacies of ancient Celtic tradition, as interpreted by current academic opinion. That’s an entirely valid choice, and it’s unfortunate that some people who make that choice are sufficiently insecure about it that they feel they have to go around trying to bully people who’ve chosen otherwise.

All of this, however, raises some crucial points about the relationship between tradition and personal spiritual experience. We’ll open that can of worms next month.

In unrelated news, I'm delighted to report that my first two books on occultism, Paths of Wisdom and Circles of Power, have just been reprinted in new, elegant, and corrected editions by Aeon Books. These are manuals of classic Golden Dawn occult philosophy and ceremonial magic; Paths is a comprehensive guide to the Hermetic version of the Cabala, the foundation of Golden Dawn practice, and Circles is a hands-on manual of ceremonial magic. You can order those direct from the publisher, along with my other Aeon Press books, here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Astrological Interlude: Aries Ingress 2017

As mentioned several times in previous months, this month’s post here on The Well of Galabes is going to be devoted to a bit of practical astrology. Regular readers will recall that alongside natal or, to give it its fine old name, genethliacal astrology—the astrology of the birth chart—there are also several other branches of the astrological art, and that one of those is mundane astrology, the astrology of politics and public affairs. There are various ways to gauge astrological influences on a nation, say, but the most traditional and widely practiced is the ingress chart—a chart cast for one of certain significant moments for the location of the nation’s capital. That’s what we’ll be doing here.

The astrological year begins at the moment of the spring equinox, when the Sun as seen from Earth crosses the celestial equator on its way into the northern half of the heavens. In astrological terms, that point in the sky is the first point of Aries—the zodiacal sign Aries, not the constellation. (If you have trouble understanding the difference between those, please reread this post.) According to the theory of mundane astrology, the position of the luminaries (Sun and Moon) and the planets (Mercury through Neptune)* as seen from the capital city of a given nation at that moment predicts certain things about the way the politics of that nation will unfold for a certain period of time thereafter.

(*Yes, I know this doesn’t include Pluto. It also doesn’t include Sedna, Eris, or any of the other Kuiper belt objects; nor does it include Ceres, Pallas, or any of the other asteroid belt objects. More on this in an upcoming post.)

Other points in the astrological year, the autumn equinox and the summer and winter solstices, are also influential, but they’re secondary. Depending on the details of the spring equinox ingress chart, as we’ll see, the conditions covered by that chart may remain in place for three months, six months, or a year. There are also minor ingress charts cast for the new moon each lunar month, and much larger-scale charts cast for conjunctions of the outer planets that have effects reaching over decades, but the spring ingress chart is the bread and butter of mundane astrology, the tool that tracks political moods and their expressions in events most closely.

Why? Nobody knows. That’s the first thing that has to be grasped about astrology, and more generally about most of the occult sciences. We don’t know the causative mechanisms that underlie them. In some cases there are theories, more or less far-fetched, but by and large what we know is that they work, not why they work. That’s a valid kind of knowledge; Isaac Newton was able to explain precisely how gravity functions, even though he had no idea why—and in fact people had been perfectly well aware that rocks fall when dropped for countless millennia before Newton figured out how to say the same thing in numbers. (I like to imagine an early skeptic, circa one million BCE, who insisted to his fellow hominins that it was irrational to claim that rocks always fall when dropped unless they could tell him the reason why they fell, and kept insisting that until he was brained one day by a falling rock.)

In astrology, we’ve gotten beyond the falling-rock level of knowledge to something like the Newtonian level: a detailed quantitative model that allows us to predict certain regularities in phenomena.  That’s the level at which we’ll be working with the mundane chart shown here.

Those of my readers who don’t know their way around an astrological chart may benefit from some pointers. The chart is an abstract representation of the belt of sky through which the luminaries and planets move, as seen from a certain spot on the surface of the earth. The horizontal lines represent the points where that belt crosses the horizon; the one on the left is the ascendant, the section of the eastern horizon over which luminaries and planets rise, and the one on the right is the descendant, the section of the western horizon below which they set.

The not-quite-vertical line with an arrowhead on top connects the zenith, the point of the belt that rises highest above the southern horizon, with the nadir, the point of the belt that drops furthest below the northern horizon. (It’s not vertical for complex reasons having to do with the relationship of the ecliptic to the Earth’s curved surface.) The other dividing lines are the cusps (boundaries) of the twelve houses, which are divisions of the sky that relate to specific areas of human individual and collective life. The little symbols around the wheel are the luminaries and planets

Got it? Now let’s get into specifics.

In a mundane chart, as in any other chart, the two luminaries and the ascendant—the point of the zodiac that’s on the eastern horizon at the moment for which the chart is cast—are the most important features. These have different meanings in a mundane chart than they do in a natal chart, though. In a mundane chart, the Sun represents the person at the head of the government—the president, in this case—while the Moon represents the people of the nation, and in particular the more articulate and politically influential sector of the people. Their positions in the heavens and their relationships with one another and with the planets tell you a great deal about the way that the political leadership of a country will relate to the people and vice versa.

It will come as no news to anyone who’s been watching the US political scene that the relationship in question is one of intractable conflict. In this chart, the Moon and the Sun are in an applying square aspect. The square aspect is an angle of 90 degrees from the perspective of Earth; an aspect is applying when it’s close enough to have effect (“within orb” is the astrological jargon for this) but has not yet become exact, while it’s separating when it’s already passed the exact angle but is still within orb. The applying square aspect means that the two things thus indicated are at loggerheads, and it’s just going to get worse over the six months to come.

There’s a wrinkle to the conflict, though, and it has to do with the houses. In mundane astrology, the first house—the house immediately below the ascendant—is assigned to the people, and the tenth house—the house immediately to the left of the zenith—is assigned to the government. In this chart, though, the Sun is in the first house and the Moon is in the tenth! This means that the president speaks for, and is supported by, a significant though otherwise relatively inarticulate fraction of the population, while the institutions of government are allied with the more articulate and influential sector of the population and opposed to the president. Here again, this isn’t exactly a surprise, but it’s intriguing to see it expressed so clearly in the chart.

The ascendant is something else again. To begin with, it tells you how long the conditions covered by the mundane chart will remain in place. In this chart, Pisces is rising, and since Pisces is classified as a mutable sign—the signs of the Zodiac are categorized as cardinal, fixed, and mutable—this chart is good for six months, until the autumn equinox. Pisces, though, also has a character of its own: changeable, sensitive, idealistic, easily confused and deceived, drawn in conflicting directions. That character is going to pervade the next six months. Thus, at least for now, we’re not going to see a clean conflict fought out straightforwardly over the issues that matter; instead, confusion, deception, loudly proclaimed ideals poorly anchored to everyday reality, and the kind of intractable conflict where no one is ever quite clear about what they’re fighting for, or against, will be the order of the day.

This is squared, cubed, and in spades because of another factor in the chart: Neptune rising conjunct the ascendant. Neptune, to my mind, is underrated by many contemporary astrologers; the Lord of the Great Deep and the outermost of the planets, it is the planet of unity, ruling the highest aspects of human possibility—but when you bring so elevated an influence down into the grubby realities of everyday life on Earth, the experience of being one with everything can all too easily turn into a blur where everything is muddled together with everything else, and fantasy and outright hallucination supplant reality. It’s going to be a very confused and murky time.

Neptune, though, also has a traditional connection with popular movements—the unity of the masses as distinct from the focused interests of particular groups. Neptune rising predicts that the masses will have much more influence than usual over politics and the national life. Mass movements for change can be expected as the people seek power over their soi-disant betters in both parties; it will not be a pleasant six months for either Democratic or Republican party leaders, as the movers and shakers find themselves moved and shaken by the people they thought they could lead. The confusion inseparable from Pisces rising will make it difficult to see exactly what’s happening, but massive realignments will be taking place below the surface.

Let’s move on. The Sun and the Moon both have aspects with planets, and from these much can be understood. The most important of these is the relationship of both luminaries with Saturn, who is square the Sun and in very close conjunction (four minutes of arc) to the Moon. Sun square Saturn in a mundane chart predicts quarrels within the government, conflict between the administration and the civil service, and an endless string of obstacles, hindrances, and delays with which the president and his administration must contend. The Sun is benefited, on the other hand, by a distant but still effective applying conjunction with Venus. Sun conjunct Venus in a mundane chart predicts that the president and his administration will have relatively good relations with foreign countries. This aspect is particularly beneficial for the head of state, and predicts some notable success for him.

Moon conjunct Saturn is an even less promising aspect than Sun square Saturn.  It’s unfortunate for tax revenues and trade, and predicts disorder and economic contraction. An economic crisis of greater or lesser extent normally follows the appearance of this aspect in a mundane chart. The Moon and Saturn both get some benefit from their joint trine aspect with Uranus—a trine is an aspect of 120 degrees, and as favorable as a square is unfavorable—which predicts important reforms and changes in political life that will ultimately benefit the nation; both these aspects, though, traditionally bring increased power and popularity to the party in power, which will not be at all welcome to the groups signified by the Moon and Saturn.

Saturn in the tenth house generally is considered a dire omen, predicting crises and misfortunes for the nation. Its precise conjunction with the Moon, though, suggests that the largest share of these troubles will fall on the institutions of government and their supporters among the articulate classes, rather than on the administration or the head of state. One way or another, though, there will be serious difficulties, discord, and misfortune enough to go around.

Each of the other planets also has its story to tell. Mercury in the first house predicts that the next six months will be a time of ongoing political debates, witih meetings, rallies, political speeches and essays receiving much more attention than usual. The media will be full of discontent and recrimination. Mercury conjunct Venus is a favorable aspect predicting that all this excitement will lead to the settling of longstanding grievances. Mercury opposite Jupiter—opposition is an unfavorable aspect of 180 degrees—predicts serious trouble for the education industry, and much more public discord and division among religious bodies than usual.

Venus in the first house is a strong favorable influence, favorable for prosperity. Notice that this indication seems to contradict the ones given already. That’s common in astrology, and of course it’s just as common in everyday experience, in which different sectors of society benefit differentially from changes, and an economic crisis that brings serious trouble to one class can actually benefit another. The indication here is that the broader economic crisis predicted by Moon conjunct Saturn in the tenth house may actively benefit a significant fraction of the populace. (For example—and this is just an example, not a prediction—a serious real estate crash, which would batter the financial economy and cost a great many affluent people heavily, could benefit a great many people outside the circles of the affluent by forcing rents down from their current sky-high levels.)

Mars is in the second house of wealth and the national economy, and this is not a good indicator at all; combined with Saturn in the tenth conjunct Moon, it’s a pretty safe bet that the next six months are going to see some fairly sharp economic troubles. Mars in the second house is associated with declines in stock markets and bank failures, but also with high national expenditures and popular discontent over extravagant government spending. Mars’ only aspect is a minor one, a semisextile (30 degrees) with Mercury, and this reinforces the indication of a time of strong feelings and public excitement over political issues, with debate and discussion on public affairs taking center stage in society.

Jupiter stands all by itself late in the seventh house, predicting favorable relations with foreign powers and high-profile meetings with other heads of state. Jupiter is also within orb of the cusp of the eighth house, where it predicts the kind of celebrity death that produces widespread public reaction and stirs up a furor in the media. His only aspects are oppositions to Mercury and Uranus. We’ve already discussed the first of these; the second warns that new legislation will spend a long time bogged down in Congress and that foreign powers will gain in strength and influence relative to the United States.

Uranus, finally, stands at the very end of the first house, within orb of the cusp of the second. In the first house it predicts reforms and changes in political life, but also riots, strikes, and general discontent with the political order. Applying hard to the second, it provides another indication of economic turmoil and disruption. All of Uranus’ aspects have already been discussed.

That’s what the chart has to say. How should it be summed up?

To begin with, we’re facing six months of protracted political conflict out of which there will be no clear winner. The indications affecting the Sun are somewhat better than those affecting the Moon, so the eager predictions by Democrats of a prompt implosion on the part of the Trump administration are wishful thinking; if anything, the conjunction between the Moon and Saturn in the tenth house suggests that the Democratic party and the Washington bureaucracies will come out second best in the struggle. Even so, the Trump administration can expect to see much of its domestic legislative agenda stalled in Congress and tied up in the courts, and the conflict between the new administration and its opponents isn’t going away any time soon.

In foreign affairs, though, the next six months promise to be relatively calm; there will be at least one really high-profile summit meeting, from which it’s likely that some important agreement will proceed.
By contrast, the economic news for the next six months is going to be pretty dismal, with crisis and contraction on the agenda. Banks and the financial industry generally are likely to fare poorly. By contrast, significant groups among the general population who’ve been shut out of the narrowing circle of prosperity produced by recent “jobless recoveries” can expect to see their economic lot improve to a certain extent.

The big story of the next six months will be the spread of political debate, agitation, and activism among the American people. This won’t be limited to one set of agendas, or one end of the political spectrum, nor will it necessarily move in directions that make sense in terms of the political alignments of the recent past. Broad dissatisfactions rather than specific, narrowly defined issues will be central to the rising tide of political unrest, and a great deal of confusion and vagueness can be expected—though the extravagance of federal expenditures seems likely to turn into a lightning rod that will attract a great deal of attention.  Where will it end? That’s not something an ingress chart can predict.

That last point is worth expanding on a little. As already mentioned, the chart I’ve just delineated is good for six months, and six months only. In September, we’ll have another ingress to deal with, and a sharply different set of astrological conditions will shape the political climate for three months afterward. (In that chart Capricorn, a cardinal sign, is rising, and cardinal signs only rule for three months.) In December, in turn, conditions will have shifted again; two placements we’ve discussed—Neptune conjunct the ascendant and Uranus conjunct the second house cusp—which aren’t in the Libra ingress in September are active again in December’s Capricorn ingress, but this time it’s the Sun that’s conjunct Saturn in the tenth house, while the Moon flounders on the cusp of the dismal twelfth house and applies to a square with Mars in Scorpio. After that—why, it’s time for another Aries ingress chart.

That’s the thing about mundane astrology. No matter how hard you try to make it foretell the end of the world, or the arrival of Utopia, or any of the other elements of folk mythology that play so large and unhelpful a role in the historical imagination of our age, it won’t cooperate. Those of my readers who took the time to cast a chart for December 21, 2012—the supposed end-date of the Mayan calendar, and the focus for a giddy rehash of all the usual fantasies—knew in advance that it was going to be a perfectly ordinary day, as in fact it was.

In the same way, according to all the rules of mundane astrology, the next six months are going to be an ordinarily troubled period in the national life of the United States of America, with bitter partisan conflict, economic dysfunction, and an unusual level of political engagement on the part of the masses filling roles that will be perfectly familiar to those who know their way around the ordinary processes of American history. That’s what the chart says, at least; is that what’s going to happen? Stay tuned and we’ll see...

By now I think all my readers will probably be aware that The Archdruid Report, my weekly blog on current affairs and the future of industrial society, has wound up its eleven-year run. The Well of Galabes will continue as is for another two months. Thereafter—time not yet settled, but it won’t be too dreadfully far in the future—I’ll be launching a new blog (probably monthly) on a different platform, with a somewhat different theme, and also going to a slightly less formal social media platform for more frequent and less formal commentary and announcement. As the details get settled, I’ll be posting announcements here and on The Archdruid Report. See you soon on the new blog!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Occult History, Part Two: The Purposes of History

Like most things in life, the fusion of dubious history and occult philosophy discussed in last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes is overdetermined; that is, it has more causes than the situation really requires. There are in fact quite a few reasons why occultism is well stocked with misplaced continents and the other hardware of alternative history; some of those reasons are quite sensible, but others are frankly rather embarrassing. The sensible ones are the main focus of this month’s essay, but it’s only fair—not to mention entertaining—to talk about the embarrassing ones first.

We can begin with simple salesmanship. Up until quite recently, if you wanted to attract new members to your occult school or magical lodge, or get favorable attention for your occult teachings, you pretty much had to claim some suitably ancient and romantic origin for whatever you were pitching. That’s why, for example, Dion Fortune made so much of  the supposed Atlantean origins of the system of magical work her Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light taught and practiced. If you know your way around the British magical scene of the 1920s, you know exactly where that system came from, and Atlantis had nothing to do with it.

What happened, rather, was that Fortune took the standard Golden Dawn system, ditched those parts of it that had turned out to be problematic in practice, and patched and filled the resulting gaps with an assortment of building materials she got from Theosophy, Masonry, spiritualism, Freudian psychology, translations of Sanskrit writings on the chakras by John Woodroffe aka Arthur Avalon, and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The difficulty, of course, was that if she’d been forthright about the process of occult bricolage that produced her system, she wouldn’t have had any students to speak of.

In the same way, when Julius Evola spoke of Tradition, what he meant by that word was an ideology he duct-taped together, out of raw materials from the pop culture of his own time, to suit his spiritual and political agenda. From Nietzsche and the the Italian Futurists to Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character and J.J. Bachofen’s Mother-Right, if it was considered edgy and interesting in the early twentieth century Italian alt-right scene—and yes, there was such a thing—Evola found a place for it in his supposedly timeless Tradition. What’s more, if you sort through Evola’s version of Tradition and toss out everything that had a straightforward pop culture source, you’ll have very, very little left.

Mind you, Evola knew exactly what he was doing; his invented Tradition was a tool meant for a specific and serious purpose. Fortune seems to have been somewhat less deliberate, and that leads us to the second embarrassing source for alternative history in occultism, which is an overly literal belief in the products of the creative imagination.

Used intelligently, the imagination is one of the great tools of the operative mage. One of the features of the golden age of occult alternative history, in turn, is that using the imagination intelligently was made very, very difficult by a range of unfortunate ideas. The most important of these was the claim, very common in Theosophical literature at the time, that any sufficiently advanced occultist could tap into the “akashic records”—the enduring traces of all past events in the akasha, the subtle fifth element of the Hindu system—and witness exactly what happened at any given point in the past. Of course plenty of people were convinced, or convinced themselves, that they were sufficiently advanced, and proceeded to take the products of their own imaginations far too seriously.

It does sometimes happen that people using standard occult methods get remarkably clear and exact information from the past. It happens much, much more often, though, that they get a mishmash of material from pop culture and the media, thickly interlarded with various kinds of mental static and stray imagery of the sort that plays so prominent a role in dreams. Combine that with a lack of critical thinking skills and a serene conviction that whatever happens to swim before your mind’s eye got there straight from the akashic record, and you have a playground where the most florid sort of make-believe can, and does, romp to its heart’s content.

It’s from this source that you get those vastly detailed, novel-length accounts of life in Atlantis et al. in which wish-fulfillment fantasies of one sort or another play all too obvious a role, whether it’s the spiritual-utopia kind of wish-fulfillment, the hero-with-a-bloodstained-sword kind of wish-fulfillment, or what have you. On a lighter note, that’s where you get Lemurians taking pet plesiosaurs for walkies on leashes, and the other lively touches that grace Scott-Elliot’s once-famous The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria.  It’s all great fun, so long as it’s treated as wish-fulfillment fantasy, and of course it’s not accidental that it lent itself so readily as raw material for pulp fantasy fiction. As a way of knowing anything about the past, though, it’s about on a par with treating The Flintstones as an accurate portrayal of Paleolithic humanity.

Dion Fortune’s Atlantis wasn’t anything like that silly. Like most English Atlantises of its time, it had a lot to do with sex, and it also got turned into pulp fantasy fiction—fans of lurid fantasy may recall a trilogy by Peter Valentine Timlett, The Seedbearers, Power of the Serpent, and Twilight of the Serpent; it’s entirely set in the imaginary past of Dion Fortune’s visions, with a double helping of brawny-thewed heroes, clothing-optional priestesses, rivers of blood, and the like sprinkled on top. In Fortune’s original version, it served as the alleged ancient source for her idiosyncratic and effective system of magic, but there’s no reason to think she faked it deliberately; quite the contrary, she used the standard methods of active imagination to see what she thought were the akashic records, saw Atlantean priestesses doing her kind of magic, and took that as confirmation that she was on the right track.

Alongside the demand for historically based sales pitches and the habit of taking the products of the imagination a little too seriously was a third factor, which I’ve discussed at some length in the other blog—the problematic fit between scientific claims to authority and the tentative and by no means infallible nature of scientific knowledge. In every era, a good many of the claims presented as proven fact by scientific authorities simply aren’t true, and will be discarded in due time as a result of further research. What’s more, people outside the scientific community very often know, and even more often have a well-founded suspicion that certain of the claims being presented to them aren’t true. Much of what passed for nutritional science in Dion Fortune’s time, for example, was known to be nonsense by anybody who paid attention to the relationship between their own diet and their health.

The difficulty here is simply that people who notice the gap between the pronouncements of scientific authority and the realities they experience too often fall into the trap of assuming that the gap is wider than it is. From that comes the habit of thinking that anything scientists denounce is probably true—a habit that gets a lot of use in today’s alternative culture, and got just as much in the days when Dion Fortune and Julius Evola were busily backdating their freshly invented notions to the dawn of time. Practitioners and aficionados of various forms of alternative thought and practice also tend to run in similar circles, and very often find room for each other’s beliefs in their own worldviews—it makes for more pleasant conversations at parties and the like—and so you end up with lost continents straying into occult philosophy, and vice versa, along with many other exchanges of the same sort.

Those are the three main embarrassing reasons why occult traditions have ended up festooned with dubious history. Those account for a great deal, but there’s another, far more serious reason for the Atlantises et al. to be where they are. To make sense of that, it’s going to be necessary to talk about the meanings and uses of history.

The commonsense notion that history is simply a record of what happened is as misleading as it is mistaken. A record of everything that happened in any small town in any normal one-week period would fill volumes; anything beyond that scale would be unmanageable. The task of the historian, rather, is to provide a record of important things that happened—and “important,” of course, is a value judgment, presupposing such questions as “important in what context?” and “important to whom?”

Every account of history, in other words, either is or implies a narrative, and assembles a sequence of past events that are important in terms of that narrative. The most common such narrative in today’s industrial societies, of course, is the narrative of progress—the story that tells us how we left the supposedly primitive and superstitious past behind us and marched onward and upward to today’s pinnacle of sophistication and enlightenment. Another popular historical narrative these days is the tale of the fall from the Golden Age—the story that tells us how we strayed from a supposedly blissful state in the distant past and sank deeper and deeper into today’s morass of corruption and misery. There are other such narratives, of course, but those are the two most popular.

Notice how these narratives impose specific value judgments on the present. From within the narrative of progress, the current state of affairs is good, because it’s the latest result of the march of progress, and all we have to do is keep going in the same direction we’re already going—the direction of progress—and we’ll be on the right side of history, on our way to something even better. (Of course there’s a constant savage struggle among pressure groups to get their agendas recognized as the next step in the march of progress, but that’s quietly swept under the rug by the narrative.) From within the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age, by contrast, the current state of affairs is evil, because it’s the latest and furthest result of our decline, and our only hope is to turn things around and try to head back up the slippery slope we’ve descended. (Here again, exactly what changes count as climbing back up out of the morass are the subject of constant savage struggle, but that’s not something believers in this narrative like to talk about, either.)

The narrative of progress justifies the present, that is, and the narrative of the fall vilifies it. Other narratives put other spins on it—and alternative history of the sort found in occult writings is very often a way to put a different spin on the experience of the present.

That’s what Julius Evola was trying to do, for example, with the potted history he presents in Revolt Against the Modern World. His is a classic example of the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age; his “world of Tradition,” manufactured as it is out of a lumberyard of early twentieth century pop culture motifs, is Evola’s notion of what the world ought to be like, and he uses the time-honored myth of the fall for its usual purpose of castigating the present for its departure from an imaginary past: the same thing that neoprimitivists do, for example, when they bemoan humanity’s abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or your classic rock-ribbed American conservative does when he compares the present day to an imaginary, apple-pie American past when everyone went to church on Sundays and all the gays and lesbians were safely interned in New York City.

The narratives of progress and fall aren’t actually all that common in occult literature, though. Far more common are cyclical schemes of history. That’s what you get in Dion Fortune, for example: Lemuria rises and falls, Atlantis rises and falls, Egypt rises and falls, and so on; in each age the schools of the Mysteries—that is, the people who are practicing Dion Fortune’s kind of magic—rise and fall with their societies, and then send out seedbearers to carry the wisdom of the ages to the future.

Blavatsky’s sprawling Theosophical vision goes well beyond this sort of simple cyclical pattern. From her perspective, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora are offshoots of the fifth of the seven root races who will emerge during this cycle of time; most other peoples are offshoots of the fourth, or Atlantean root race, and there are still some descendants of the third or Lemurian root race around, too. The time of the fifth root race began after the convulsions that finished drowning Atlantis, and will continue until another round of vast natural disasters dunks much of our land surface under the waves and pushes up a different set of continents—by one estimate, this will happen by the 26th century, when the sixth root race will begin its history in what’s now western North America.

These are just the smaller cycles, by the way. When all the souls presently incarnated as human beings finish working their way through all seven of the steps marked out by the seven root races, we’ll head on to the next world in the sequence—Jupiter, where we’ll be incarnated in bodies very different from the ones we have now—leaving the Earth to the next batch of souls in line, who are currently going through a similar sevenfold sequence on the Moon. (We were there during the last set of seven steps.) There’s a chain of seven planets, and each batch of souls goes through a sevenfold series of races on all seven of them seven times before it’s off to other modes of spiritual evolution.

Notice how this sort of thinking redefines the present into a shape very different from the ones we’ve just surveyed. From Dion Fortune’s perspective—which is very common throughout occult alternative history—our civilization is rising and falling like everyone else’s did before it, and so the schools of the Mysteries had better get a move on and make sure the wisdom of the ages is in good condition and thoroughly practiced when it’s time to hand it over to the next set of seedbearers.  The turmoil of the present is of practical interest, as the schools of the Mysteries have to pay their rent and keep out of the way of the usual waves of persecution, and it can also function as an early warning system for the time of the seedbearers, but what matters is working the magic and teaching the next generation.

From Blavatsky’s perspective, by contrast, the basic message is “don’t sweat it.” Of course there’s every incentive for individuals to busy themselves with occult study, to practice meditation, and to take up such standard Theosophical sidelines as a vegetarian diet—all this racks up good karma for your next incarnation and moves you up the line toward your destiny as a student and initiate of the Masters, which probably won’t happen for many lives yet. From within the Blavatskian worldview, though, the commotions of modern politics and culture are just the normal hurly-burly of souls going through the fifth cycle of the Earth phase of the fourth round on this planetary chain, nothing to get upset about, while our technology gets a glance of fond amusement from the Masters—oh, look what the little dears are playing with now! I do hope they don’t sink their continent ahead of schedule...

Of course both of these ways of looking at the past, and all cyclical theories of history, have something in common that makes them just as offensive to believers in progress as to believers in the fall from the Golden Age: our age doesn’t really matter that much. It’s not the cutting edge of humanity’s march to the stars, nor is it the festering swamp in which fallen humanity flounders nose deep and sinking fast; it’s simply a well-known stage in a familiar historical cycle, chugging through the usual stages toward an endpoint marked out ages in advance. That’s offensive, in turn, because one of the most jealously defended beliefs of modern industrial culture is blind faith in our own privileged status. We’ve got to be special; we’ve got to be headed for some sort of unique destiny—uniquely wonderful, uniquely horrible, it doesn’t seem to matter that much as long as it’s unique.

That, in turn, is one of the things that occult philosophy is meant to challenge: the frankly childish insistence that we, as one set of intelligent beings living on this particular planet in this particular instant of its long history, are of vast importance in the overall scheme of things. That’s a hangover—very much in the head-pounding, stomach-churning, clinging to the porcelain while repatriating all last night’s party snacks sense of the word—from the great prophetic religions that reshaped the Old World’s spiritual environment starting a little more than two thousand years ago. The idea that the great wheels of the cosmos revolve around the salvation of human beings (or of all sentient beings who, in orthodox Buddhism, can only be saved while in human incarnation) was doubtless worth exploring, and it made a great sales pitch in its time, but it’s played a huge role in feeding the overdeveloped sense of entitlement that shapes so much thinking these days.

All things considered, then, there’s a real point to the use of alternative history as a tool for helping people reshape their understanding of the present, and of their place in the cosmos. I tend to think, though, that other tools might have been used for the same purpose. Cyclic visions of history aren’t limited to occultism, as readers of the other blog will doubtless have noticed by now; there are perfectly sober and secular versions of the same teachings. There are also some very interesting scraps of evidence that suggest that there may have been entire cycles of civilization before the ones we know about, which could be used to undercut the myths of uniqueness on their own, without any need to drag in tame plesiosaurs and priestesses in their underwear.

Next month’s post, though, will explore the cycles of time in a different sense. A previous post talked about the role of astrology in traditional occultism, and the discussion in the comments that followed made it clear that many of my readers would be interested to see more about that. Thus we’ll welcome in the new astrological year on March 21 with a classic mundane chart, cast for Washington DC at the moment of the Sun’s entrance into Aries: the traditional place and time to forecast the influences that will shape the history of the United States over the following six months. See you there!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Occult History, Part One: The Magic Lantern Show

One of the things that routinely baffles newcomers to occultism is the amount of verbiage that occult literature tends to devote to exotic rewritings of history. Pick up pretty much any book written on occult subjects during what we may as well call the Theosophical Century—the period from 1875 to 1975, when the somewhat quirky faux-Hindu cosmology developed by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was the lingua franca of occult studies across most of the industrial world—and you’re as likely as not to find  references to Atlantis, Lemuria, and various other locations not found on conventional maps.

Though that’s still the most common version of occult history, others abound. It used to be de rigueur, for example, for mass-market books on Wicca to devote Chapter One to a colorful and dubious exposition of faux history tracing the origins of Wicca back through the medieval witch cult to some suitably romantic goddess-worshipping culture of the distant past. On a considerably more erudite level, most of Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola’s manifesto of Traditionalist occultism, is devoted to his account of a suppositious Heroic-Uranian past and its slow degeneration into what he saw as the effeminate slime pits of modernity. Other examples abound; for well over a century and a half now, it’s a poor excuse for an occult tradition that doesn’t have some topsy-turvy version of the history of the world on offer.

That habit has become so pervasive that it’s easy to assume that it was always the case. I well recall how surprised I was when I discovered that this isn’t true at all. From the oldest forms of Western occultism on record straight through to the heyday of Renaissance magic, occultists got along just fine with the same version of history their more conventional neighbors believed in. As far as anybody knows, the ancient Greek goetes and magoi who first fused bits of Greek philosophy and myth with the magical techniques of Egypt and Babylon, and created the first draft of Western occultism, didn’t concern themselves with colorful narratives about lost civilizations.

For that matter, when Aristocles of Athens—the philosopher whose broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato—put narratives about a drowned country called Atlantis into two of his dialogues, nobody seems to have connected those passages with anything particularly occult.  Students of his writings for centuries thereafter carried on boisterous debates about whether he’d meant Atlantis as a bit of actual history or as a colorful extended metaphor, of the sort he put elsewhere in his writings, but nobody in ancient Greece seems to have been interested in tracing their occult teachings back to some hypothetical Atlantean source. Occult wisdom, from their perspective, didn’t come from the past; it came directly from the gods.

Fast forward through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the same rule by and large applies. The classic magical textbooks of both periods—the Picatrix in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy in the later Renaissance—made plenty of noise about their dependence on old books and ancient sources, but the books and the sources came from places and times well known to the mainstream historians of the day. It’s when you jump into the dark age of occultism that followed the scientific revolution—the two centuries or so when magic, astrology, and the rest of it survived only among rural cunning folk and secretive occult lodges—that the scene changes abruptly: strange claims start popping up around a handful of points on the historical spectrum, and spread from there.

By the time Eliphas Levi kickstarted the modern occult era with his Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic in 1855, occultism and romantic rewritings of history were a happily married couple. Levi himself gave the pair a belated wedding present with his book A History of Magic, which is great fun to read but has rather less to do with actual history than your average Harlequin romance has to do with actual relationships. Thereafter the flood gates opened promptly, leading to the situation sketched out in the opening paragraphs of this essay.

So what happened? How did made-up history and occult philosophy meet, fall in love, and tie the knot? It’s a complicated question, but part of the answer certainly dates to the year 1614, when a scholar named Isaac Casaubon published an essay on the date of a collection of eccentric religious writings.

The writings are usually called the Corpus Hermeticum. They’re in koine Greek—the mutant form of ancient Greek that emerged in the eastern half of the ancient Mediterranean world after Alexander the Great’s conquests placed that end of the ancient world under Greek-speaking management—and they teach a religious doctrine that reads more or less like what you’d get if you took the mystical end of Greek philosophy and blended it with an assortment of borrowings from Judaism, on the one hand, and the more intellectual end of ancient Egyptian religion on the other. (As we’ll see, this isn’t accidental.) The two other facts you need to know about the Corpus Hermeticum are, first, that it says some very positive things about magic, and second,  that it was supposedly written by an ancient Egyptian sage named Hermes the Thrice Great: in Greek, that works out as Hermes Trismegistos.

Until 1614, all that anybody in Europe knew about the Corpus Hermeticum was that one copy—in all probability, the only one that survived the end of the Roman world—went onto the antiquities market after the fall of Constantinople in 1452, and got picked up eleven years later by a buyer for Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of the Italian city-state of Florence. Cosimo, who liked to fancy himself a patron of art and culture, had a brilliant young man on his staff named Marsilio Ficino, who promptly turned the Greek text into readable Latin and launched it on its career. Historical scholarship was still pretty much in its infancy; nobody saw any good reason to question the idea that an ancient Egyptian sage named Hermes Trismegistos had written the Corpus Hermeticum; and it didn’t hurt, either, that an early Christian author had written about this same sage, praising his wisdom and claiming that he’d been an older contemporary of Moses.

Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that you’re a typical Renaissance intellectual, fascinated by Greek philosophy, intrigued by magic, and less than impressed by the official religion of your time, though of course you wouldn’t admit to the latter two in public. All of a sudden somebody hands you a book that’s apparently the last surviving body of ancient Egyptian religious wisdom, full of stuff that looks a lot like Greek philosophy and other things that are highly reminiscent of your favorite parts of the Bible—and it says that magic isn’t evil and Satanic, far from it, it’s a way to worship God. Are you going to jump on it, as my grandmother used to say, like a duck on a June bug? Of course you are.

That was the historical accident that kicked Renaissance occultism into high gear. All over Europe, people interested in magic grabbed the Corpus Hermeticum and used it to convince themselves, and on occasion other people, that their interest in magic was perfectly harmless, even holy. In the process, an imaginary Egypt took shape in the European mind, a land of mighty temples where sages pored over the mysteries of the cosmos and, by the way, knew a lot more about everything worth knowing than anybody in modern times.  Then Isaac Casaubon came along and ruined it all.

He probably had that intention in mind, to be fair. A devout and dour Protestant with no time for occultism, he tackled the Corpus Hermeticum with an eye toward inconsistencies, of which it had quite a few, and showed beyond reasonable doubt that it had to have been written much, much later than its eager fans believed. Modern scholars agree with him, by the way; the current consensus is that it was written in Egypt in the first few centuries of the Common Era by various members of a religious movement related to, but not identical with, the Gnostics.

Casaubon’s essay was followed in short order by the scientific revolution, and by the huge change in intellectual fashions that swept away the last embers of the Renaissance and replaced them with the rationalist materialism that eventually gave us the modern western worldview. Most of the people who kept practicing magic, as already mentioned, were rural cunning folk whose magical resources were usually limited to a couple of printed books from the end of the Renaissance—Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, for example, was one of the standard texts for British and American folk magicians straight through into the nineteenth century—and a handwritten recipe book for things they’d learned themselves or gotten from other practitioners. Not many of them seemed to care much about Egypt, much less the Corpus Hermeticum.

Those secretive occult lodges I mentioned earlier, though, were another matter. That was the great seedbed of occult history, because one of the core ingredients of any lodge—magical, fraternal, or what have you—is narrative. Just as freemasons built their rituals around the story of the construction of King Solomon’s temple, the early magical lodges found their own stories to use as foundations for ritual. The rise, fall, and survival of the Knights Templar was a huge favorite; so was the curious set of stories surrounding the Rosicrucians, a supposed body of medieval mystics; and there were others—more and more of them as the years passed and magical lodges bred like bunnies.

Egypt had to wait a little while, but it returned with a splash due to the ingenious Antoine Court de Gebelin, who published a sprawling nine-volume opus on ancient Egypt beginning in 1773. Those of my readers who know the history of Egyptology will remember that in 1773 nobody on the planet could read a single word of ancient Egyptian, but this didn’t slow down Court de Gebelin at all.  He simply gathered together every scrap of evidence he could find from Greek and Roman sources, and filled in the myriad blanks with his own vivid imagination. He’s the guy who decided that the Tarot cards came from ancient Egypt (they didn’t; they were invented in 1418 by an Italian named Marziano da Tortona), and that the word “Tarot” itself came from the ancient Egyptian words tar rosh, “royal road.” (“Royal road” in ancient Egyptian is w3t nsw—the 3 is a glottal stop like the Hebrew letter Aleph—and if you’d like to extract tar rosh from that, you’re welcome to try.)

So all at once the Egypt of the Renaissance imagination burst back on the scene. Sometime, when you’re in the mood for occult nostalgia, take in a performance of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which is all about the conflict between Catholic orthodoxy (represented by the Queen of the Night) and the occult wisdom of Egypt (represented by the sage Sarastro). This is particularly nostalgic for those of us who’ve been trained in the occult system of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which uses the same lush mix of Egyptian decor, Greek philosophical mysticism, and Jewish and Christian symbolism you’ll find in the Magic Flute, or for that matter all over the more colorful corners of Freemasonry, which was where Mozart got it in the first place.

By the time the Golden Dawn got in on the act—it was founded in 1887—the luminous Egypt of the Renaissance was getting distinctly down at the heels from age, though this didn’t keep other magical orders from borrowing it thereafter. There was also the little problem that by 1887, scholars knew a fair amount about ancient Egypt, and each deciphered papyrus and wall inscription put distance between the impressive but distinctly down-to-earth realities of the Egypt of the pharaohs and the shining image of an Egypt that never was. The Templars and the Rosicrucians still had their followings—the Golden Dawn claimed Rosicrucian origins, for example—but there was a growing demand for something new and thrilling. That demand, in turn, was met by the inimitable Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

We could spend a long time talking about Blavatsky’s astonishing career, and sooner or later she’s probably going to get a post of her own. Though she wrote plenty of other things, her major impact on occultism came through two vast books: Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, and The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888. They’re very different books; Isis Unveiled is an all-out assault on the apparent certainties of the scientific and religious thought of the Victorian era, while The Secret Doctrine claims to present the ultimate spiritual teaching behind every religion and occult tradition, including the real history of the world and humanity—but both of them spend a lot of time talking about Atlantis.

In 1877 Atlantis was little more than a collection of footnotes in Plato, but it served Blavatsky’s purposes well. One of the things she wanted to challenge with Isis Unveiled was the insistence on the part of Victorian intellectuals that evolution equals progress, and that the late nineteenth century industrial world, its ideas, and its social customs were therefore unutterably superior to anything that any other human society had ever had to offer. Her response was to propose that human history was not a straight line but a series of cycles, in each of which civilization had risen up out of savagery and then descended straight back down to it again. The legend of the lost continent of Atlantis, for her, was a lingering memory of the last cycle before ours, and Isis Unveiled also discussed a cycle even before that—the age of Lemuria.

Lemuria? That’s what biologist Philip Sclater in 1870 called a hypothetical land bridge connecting southern India and eastern Africa. This was back in the days when continental drift was still crackpot pseudoscience, remember, and so scientists had to cook up any number of land bridges to get plants and animals from one continent to another at various points during prehistory. The distribution of lemur fossils inspired Sclater’s land bridge, thus the name, but Blavatsky wasn’t going to let that get in her way. Lemuria duly began its career as a lost continent from the age long before, in Robert E. Howard’s less than felicitous phrase, “the oceans drank Atlantis.” (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’ve always wondered how the continent got liquefied—you don’t drink solids, after all...)

Meanwhile, between the publication of Blavatsky’s two great books, Atlantis suddenly stopped being a footnote to Plato and became a cultural presence in its own right. This was the work of the astonishing figure of Ignatius Donnelly, a fire-breathing radical Democrat who served four terms in the US House of Representatives and then took up a second career as America’s first bestselling author of alternative history. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World first appeared in 1882, and ran through more than fifty printings; it’s still in print today, and you’ll have a hard time finding a book on Atlantis anywhere these days that doesn’t directly or indirectly reference it.

You’ll have an even harder time, though, finding a book on Atlantis anywhere these days that doesn’t indirectly reference Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine—next to none of them cite it directly, but that doesn’t matter. Blavatsky picked up all of Donelly’s ideas and ran with them, turning the fall of Atlantis into a morality play in which the Atlanteans brought about their own destruction by dabbling in evil magic, and a small remnant who hadn’t fallen into evil ways fled the doomed continent before its destruction. You won’t find that in Plato; you won’t find that in Donnelly—but once it found its way into Blavatsky’s sprawling epic, it was everywhere.

That’s true even when the authors in question had no interest at all in Theosophy.  Many of my readers will doubtless recall J.R.R. Tolkien’s references to Numenor, the drowned continent of Middle-Earth, which went under as a result of exactly the sequence of events I’ve described. Tolkien was a devout and highly conservative Catholic, and yet his Atlantis—Numenor is called Atalante in Elvish, in case you needed the hint—is Blavatsky’s Atlantis in all but name. I’m not sure if he got it by way of the pulp fantasy fiction he and his friend C.S. Lewis read voraciously, or if he actually took the time to read one of the popularizations of Blavatsky’s story—William Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria was widely available, for example—but one way or another, the connection is there.

Atlantis, Lemuria, and the other vanished continents of Blavatsky’s vision were all over occultism by the time the Theosophical Century drew to a close. Even when covens of goddess-worshipping witches preserving secret lore from ancient Utopian matriarchies became more popular than turbaned sages preserving secret lore from an assortment of drowned continents, the Atlantis link survived for a while—I’ve been told by more than one elderly Wiccan that among the oral teachings passed around in various Wiccan circles in the 1980s was the claim that Minoan Crete had been the real Atlantis, that Wicca had originated there, and that Wiccans therefore were passing on the secret lore of lost Atlantis.

Nor has there been any shortage of other alternative histories for occultists and neopagans who have an interest in such things. The ornate lineages by which various old-fashioned Druid orders have tried to claim descent from the ancient Druids, while their roots were by and large about as stable as those of Birnam Wood, are classics of of the type—and here again, if you poke around in the right places, you can find claims that the Druids, too, preserve mystical secrets from ancient Egypt and lost Atlantis.

All in all, the panoply of manufactured histories is reminiscent of nothing so much as the kind of magic lantern show the Victorians loved, in which brightly colored images were projected onto any convenient blank wall for the entertainment of those present. It’s a great source of fantasy fiction—and in fact most of the English-language fantasy fiction of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz through Robert E. Howard’s assorted barbarian heroes to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were heavily influenced by Theosophy’s version of occult history—but as a guide to what actually seems to have happened in the past, well, let’s just say that it makes great fantasy fiction.

Does that mean that there’s nothing to occult history but a resource for storytellers? Not at all. In next month’s post, we’ll look at occult history from a different angle, and talk about why it’s important and how it’s used as part of the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.