Sunday, 29 July 2012

Philosophical Investigations: Foundation Myths

In the ancient world, Christianity came as something of a novelty. It was not a long established cult, with a well-attested pedigree. But in that world, something novelty was always treated with suspicion, and hence we have gospels that are peppered with quotations from the Old Testament, linking the stories of Jesus with the Jewish roots, and hence giving it an authoritative genealogy. And yet within it was also the break from the past - the new wine needing new wine skins.

This discontinuity played out quite early in the history of Christianity, when Marcion truncated the New Testament on the grounds of Faith (the New Testament) against Law (the Old Testament); he also jettisoned the entire corpus of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Gnostics followed, with a radical disjunction between the created world of matter (evil) and the world of spirit (good), to which those enlightened with this "true wisdom" would seek to leave behind the common herd of humanity. Yet unlike Marcion, the Gnostics claimed to have the hidden secret truth of Christianity, one that went back behind the New Testament to the real Christ. They too sought to place their authority in the past. Modern gnosticism, although it bears little resemblance the the ancient forms, selectively takes those ancient gnostic texts that agree with modern gnostic thought - while ignoring the rest - and so lays claim to historical continuity and authority from the past. The "Gospel of Judas" documentary by National Geographical was a perfect example of how to use texts selectively to prop up a thesis - and it was the modern gnostic thesis rather than the ancient one. The whole panopoly of emanations, the lists of arcane names, which were so important to ancient gnostics, were not even quoted.

Both the Reformation and Renaiscence saw a resurgence of interest in the past. For the Reformers, it was a Christianity that had been corrupted over the centuries, and assimilated to Paganism. For the scholars of the Renaiscence, it was the discovery of ancient texts, of hidden knowledge from the Greek thinkers, and also the Hermetic corpus of Magic. The Occult featured high on this agenda, often with purported provenance of traditions stretching back to ancient Egypt.

Novelty there was, but it was a novelty bound to the past. The circle can be seen as a paradigm of this kind of thought. Circular motion was a perfect kind of motion, so much so that it was a dominating idea which shackled thinking. Copernicus could place the sun at the centre of the solar system, but the orbit of the planets remained circular, still requiring the mathematics of epicycles to "save the appearances" and describe planetary motion, even if less were needed. It wasn't until Kepler broke with this and plotted the course of the planets as ellipses that the dominance of circular motion was broken in astronomy, but it remained important in the occult traditions. Kepler was driven by complex occult ideas about perfect solids, but his desire to find a best fit, led him to elliptical orbits.

But while the rudimentary forms of modern science were coming into being, and breaking from the age old need to locate authority in the past, the tradition was still alive and well elsewhere. Early freemasonry seems to have originated from guilds of the Middle Ages in Scotland, but at some point it broke from its origins in stone working and, at the same time, created a foundation myth of origins deep in the past in the Temple of Solomon. It seems to have come south with James I and become popular and spread in London. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England and the records become more complete. What happens is interesting - the rituals and foundational mythology (although this is taken as actual history) becomes increasingly complex but at each stage in the development, the origins and rituals are back projected to the earliest groups. Revisionist history within freemasonry itself points to a formation between the death of Robert Cochrane in 1482 and the death of James I in 1625.  But the date of 1717 is important, because it established the first Grand Lodge, and hence the priority of the English lodge over the Scottish lodge as "most senior". Priority claims are important as well as claims for authenticity in the roots of belief.

We see the same occurence in Wicca, the Neopagan movement founded by Gerald Gardiner. It is supposed to have originated from a New Forest Coven which Gardiner came across, which was a surviving group of witches whose roots went back to the time of the persecution of witches. In this thesis, which Gardiner lifted from the writings of Margeret Murray, the witches persecuted in the Middle Ages were not a satanic movement, but an underground Pagan movement which predated Christianity. Although wholly discredited, the Murray thesis still has a strong hold on the popular imagination, and the linking of witches mentioned in the 16th and 17th century persecutions with modern witchcraft is still very much part of popular belief, even where better research into documents and trials in the Middle Ages has meant the academic world has shown that although the word "witch" is in use in both cases, that is all there is in common. Fortunately Gardiner kept notebooks, and the ability to determine how his "Book of Shadows" develops shows that Wicca is pretty much a modern creation, with degrees of initiation being taken not from ancient pagan roots, but from freemasonry (Gardner was a freemason). But the witchcraft museum at Boscastle mixes ancient depictions of witchcraft, witch trials, and modern Wicca - folk magic artefcats jostle with the symbolic instruments use in Wicca, as if there was continuity between them. The foundational myth is still alive and well, and Margeret Murray's influence can still be felt.

Within Wicca, there was a break in the 1960s, where  Alex Sanders (also known in his own self-publicity as "King of the Witches") with his wife Maxine, took Gardner's Wicca, in which he had been initiated, and set out a priority claim, that while he had joined Gardner's group, he had in fact been initiated by his grandmother in 1933 into an ancient witchcraft, which predated the public foundation of Wicca. As with freemasonry, the mythology of foundation - always presented as history - was used to justify who was authentic. Sanders did say that Gardener's version of Wicca was false, he simply staked a claim to an independent foundation.

Modern Druidry has the same dislocation in its early roots. Edward Williams, better known by his self-created bardic name Iolo Morganwg, invented much of the panopoly of Welsh druidry, both drawing on real manusrcipts and forging them to ensure there was an established and authentic foundation for his druidry. He founded the Gorsedd, a community of Welsh bards, at a ceremony on 21 June 1792 at Primrose Hill. He organised the proceedings, which he claimed were based on ancient druidic rites. Williams himself was a Christian Unitarian, steeped in Arthurian mythology, and with a very real desire to preserve Welsh language and culture. The Gorsedd survives to this day, as part of the Welsh Eisteddfod. As a result, in the Welsh Gorsedd, a person may become an ovate or a bard by passing an examination in the Welsh language. Although Williams faked much of the origin of the ceremonies, he was undoubtably correct in his understanding that the remaining Gaelic  languages such as Welsh, embodied Celtic history in the language used itself.

Ross Nichols' Book of Druidry is one of the foundational documents of OBOD, the Oder of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which Nichols established in 1964, breaking away from the Ancient druid Order, which had been started around 1909 or 1912 by George Watson MacGregor Reid. Clearly the Welsh Druids had an equal if not more legitimate claim to authenticity through their connection to the Gaelic languages, so Nichols set about to establish a priority claim.

Nichols began by dismissing the National Eisteddfod  as very distinctly Welsh and concerned with poetry, prose, and musical composition and performance. He argues that the robes, , a few formalities and prayers, are all that really links this organization to anything more than bardism, and dismisses it as not really authentically druidic at all. He also complains that only Welsh speaker can be druids, and is in many ways anti-Welsh,. And against William's establishment of druidry at Primrose Hill, he presents a list of Chosen Chiefs of OBOD which begins with John Toland in 1717, followed by William Stukeley, Edward Finch Hatton, David Samwell, William Blake, and Godfrey Higgins. Now David Samwell was inducted into William's druids, so  Nichols is presenting a claim in which he had already been Chief of a druidic order for 20 years previous to his induction into Iolo's order. Moreoever Toland, in this history, founds modern druidry in  1717, well before the Welsh druids were established.

While Toland wrote a book on druidry ("History of the Druid"), he was evidently a Deist, not a Neopagan, as can be seen in his book "Christianity not Mysterious" - an outspoken attack on all the trappings of images, garments, altars, fasts, rites and priestly ranks that had been added to the simple doctrine of the gospels since Jesus' time. That someone would take that position and supposedly found a Neopagan order with garments, rites and quasi-priestly ranks is a priori incredible. With his own pantheistic creed, he suggested playfully, a Socratic society with liturgy drawing on recitation of odes of Horace and quotations from Cato and Cicero. This has no connection with druidry. So why does Nichols claim otherwise? Nichols wanted a version of druidry which was stripped of Welshness, and for which Welsh language was not a requirement for entry. As a British college professor, he also mirrored academia with a semi-academic system, with Bards, Ovates and Druids being the equivalent of bachelor's, masters and doctors degrees. This is reflected in the foundational mythology, and back projected by the lists of Chiefs to establish its authenticity.

The desire to establish authenticity with long established traditions, along with a wish to stake out priority claims on the basis that older is better has a long pedigree. But unlike the stories of Adam and Eve (taken as myth except for fundamentalists), most of these foundational stories are presented as history. Because they are matters of belief, it is very difficult for those who have invested so much in them to regard them with critical scrutiny. But it can be done - both with modern witchcraft and druidry, the late American writer Isaac Bonewits provided a critical analysis of the spurious claims involved, and also good reasons for being creative within Neopaganism, much as liberal Christianity retained the essence of Christianity while applying historical criticism to its foundational texts.

The lure of the authentic ancient sources of beliefs remain, with the golden age of the past, and often as ego enters the picture, claims for priority assert themselves - my beliefs are more ancient than your beliefs. Some stories may be genuine history, and some may be just story, but once we commit to a story as history, it is very difficult to regard that critically. Foundation myths will persist even in the modern world for some time to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Undoubtedly the same could be said of the Olympic Games. It really rather shocked me that Jersey people wanted to participate in an event created for the 1936 Berlin Olympiad by the same people who went on to invade and occupy the island four years later...