Hidden Mysteries of Nature

Hidden Mysteries of Nature

Recently, I was with a group of Freemasons having a passionate discussion about the word “magic.” Some of the members of the discussion group felt that Freemasonry is “magic,” while others disregarded the word as superstition and illusion. Still others were exploring different meanings, trying to find within themselves how the word made them feel, what it made them think, and what was their own relationship to magic. As Freemasons, we regularly discuss religion, or rather, being religious. We sometimes specifically compare religious symbols to one another and generally explore spiritual diversity and messages. Often corrupted by men, we lose site of what being religious truly is. We almost never talk about magic, even in free-thinking circles and in public, you only hear “magic” discussed, generally, with humor, disgust, or fear.

Most humans may lose sight of what being “magical” is. Our current world is corrupted by the thoughts of the fearful in so many ways, it’s often hard to tell that we’ve been conditioned by it, by ourselves, by our family, media, and friends. For example, when we use the word magic, it tend to conjure up thoughts of either something horrific, like ritual sacrifice or Voldemort (Yes, I said his name). It might bring to mind witches, burned at the stake, or witches doing strange things in forests at night. Yet, the word magical also tends to bring us to Disney artifacts (Tinkerbell, anyone?), gigantic film special effects, or even dreamy, personal experiences – think, Christmas at Rockefeller Center. The point is, we have not explored the word magic as much as we’ve explored the word religion. However, both may be important to humanity and the Freemason as well. Our ingrained fears stop us from talking about the word and stick it in a cave, hidden from the rest of the world. It’s time to do a little word spelunking.

img_0249The word magic is presumably derived from Old Persian and possibly from the proto-Indo-European language as meh-gh, which means “to help, power, to be able to.” It’s taken many forms over the years, from everything to indicate the workings of scholars, sages, Zoroastrian priests, rituals, spells, and eventually related to something or someone not of your religion. If you didn’t understand it as part of your personal religious upbringing, it was considered magic, especially by both Judaism and Christianity (13/14c C.E) . In Frazer’s The Golden Bough, he illustrates a very thorough journey from folklore, myth, magic, and religion, to the science of modernity. From what I have so far deduced and experienced, the knowledge and wonder of discovering how the natural world works is what magic has been for thousands of years. It’s learning, understanding, exploring, and working in conjunction with the natural world. Forget the word’s baggage and take it back to its origins: the wonder of the natural world that brings us awe and teaches us reverence and respect.

We’ve all learned that humans put their own connotation on the words we use, and shared and agreed-upon usage are how they become “fact.” We should do our best discard dogma; if something imparts an emotional response, it seems to be time to explore it, not shun it or parrot someone else’s belief. Understanding the words we use, like understanding ourselves, gives us authenticity and gives the words power.

Understanding the truth of what magic is seems to be related to how we are in relationship with our natural world. I understand magic to be the physical laws of nature and the universe that I do not currently comprehend thoroughly, and and magic is the process of continually learning how to “be” and be in harmony with our universe. This is not so far from what we perceive herbalists do when they understand plant lore and heal the sick, or weirdly enough, the gymnast who understands the laws of gravity and motion in his body, and can execute the most incredible flips and jumps. Have you ever had someone throw a ball in your direction and you reached up your hand to grab it at the perfect time, even if you might not have been looking at it coming toward you? How did you do that? Magic? Perhaps you understand the laws of motion and the physics of gravity well enough to make the catch. Others may not. To them, it appears as magical.

img_0250The “magical” feelings evoked are the impetus for the process of discovery. We first see something that entices us, intrigues us, gives us a certain spark of interest and imagination. What did we just see? What happened there? Then, we may try to recreate it, seek its origin, find out how to do what it is we saw. “To be able to” means we’re learning magic. From the learning how to do, we wonder and our interest continues. We start dissecting, breaking apart the machine of nature to figure out its meaning, its purpose, and its origin. We might take a path through religion to get there, or we may jump right to science – either is an option. Once we find the how, we seek the why.

There is a quote from a book by Arthur E. Powell, The Magic of Freemasonry, which takes me toward the part Freemasonry plays. It is this:

“Why do men love Masonry? What lure leads them to it? What spell holds them through the long years? What strand is it that tugs at our hearts, taut when so many threads are broken by the rough ways of the world? And what is it in the wild that calls to the little wild things? What sacred secret things do the mountains whisper to the hillman, so silently yet so surely that they can be heard above the din and clatter of the world? What mystery does the sea tell the sailor; the desert to the Arab; the arctic ice to the explorer; the stars to the astronomer? When we have answered these questions mayhap we may divine the magic of Masonry. Who knows what it is, or how or why, unless it be the long cable tow of God, running from heart to heart.”

So, is Freemasonry magical? Not in the way that Disney or Satanists or even fundamentalists of any religion would have the world think. That is fear and ignorance asserting themselves.

img_0253I believe it’s the discovery of the world around us that is magical. It persuades us to keep seeking and searching for the mysteries of nature and science. It speaks to us of understanding our world – not just the laws of men but also the laws of nature and whatever source it is that keeps us all “together.” Some may call it God, The Force, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Diana, Odin, the Tao, Krishna, and a host of other names. Perhaps they are just human mirrors of the same “thing” that ties us together. Perhaps that is the thing I am truly seeking: smashing the mirrors to understand what lies on the other side.

I would say that Freemasonry encourages magic and magical behavior, magical thought, and a magical mind. Ritual of any sort has a purpose and the structure, words, ritual, and trappings of Freemasonry are not as simple as to call them purely “magic.” Freemasonry requires a curious mind to work on its initiates. If one is not curious about Freemasonry and about the world in general, they will see Freemasonry as an institution, made for charity work, a fraternity in which to socialize, and a series of rituals that just encourage the participant to gain degrees. Maybe, for those masons, that is a first step, and maybe if there are more lives than this, we keep Freemasonry going for theirs, and our, future selves.  I see it as the Freemason’s duty to continue to keep our minds open and test our theories, test the world, be inquisitive; thus, perhaps Freemasons are magical scientists.

I do not think that magic is the antithesis of science. I think it is a step in the process of discovery, of which science is another. Science, which is “such knowledge, general truths, or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena” is another charged word, especially in the information and technology age. Is Freemasonry scientific? Take your own voyage and let me know what you think. This is your journey, too.

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

Imagine yourself as a citizen of the Roman empire. It is 52 BC and a warm summer night’s breeze brushes across your cheek, ruffling the tails of the blindfold tied tightly around your head. Perhaps you are a merchant or a sailor, possibly a soldier between campaigns. You are being led swiftly along a jagged rocky path, your hands bound, deep into the woodlands close to your home town. You come to a stop and you hear a series of passwords exchanged between your escort and a second voice. The words you recognize but their emphasis and arrangement is strange to you. Your escort tugs at your arm and you resume your brisk pace but as you step forward a few paces the unmistakably dank, cool air of a subterranean refuge fills your nostrils. After several twists and turns, your escort once more pulls you to a stop and says to you:

“I can bring you no further, neophyte. You must meet him alone.”

With a gentle push between your shoulder blades, he propels you forward into the unknown labyrinth. Your heart hammers against your rib cage as you take you first step into formless dark. Your foot meets nothing but air and you are plunged headlong into a pool of impossibly cold water. After negotiating several more trials of a similar nature, you feel an unnatural warmth on your skin and you begin to hear the crackling of a fire and the echoes of chanting ahead of you. As you step forward into this room, you are seized at either arm and rushed forward and pushed down on your knees. You are beginning to regret your foolish decision when suddenly your hoodwink is removed. You are blinded by the light of burning braziers and as your vision readjusts to the new light you see a man standing before you garbed in a black robe and wearing a fearsome mask. Behind him is a towering stone stele depicting a man astride a writhing bull, plunging his dagger into its breast. Plants appear to be growing from the wound and various animals are depicted as sharing in the feast. The entire scene is bordered by the zodiacal sigils and cornered by effigies of the Four Winds. The man in black begins to speak:

“When the peace of our world was threatened by the great demon Ahriman, humanity had no hope of prevailing against such a potent force of violence and despair. Ahriman sought to destroy this world by inducing drought, thirst and starvation. Not a drop of moisture remained in the kingdoms of the plants and animals and the whole world cried out in desperation. In our darkest hour, the great hero Mithras, sprang forth from the stone of the world and took up the orb of the Cosmos in his protective embrace. From his bow he let fly an arrow that struck the earth and from this wound came a renewing spring, which rejuvenated the Earth, if only temporarily. Still the threat of destruction persisted and with the assistance of the moon-mother, Selene, the vital fluid essence of life itself was secreted away in a giant bull on Earth. A raven, acting as the messenger of the Sun, came to Mithras and told him of the forest in which the bull was hiding. Mithras burned away the withered and desiccated trees and forced the great bull out in the open. He captured the bull and dragged it underground into the bowels of the Earth where he wrestled it into submission and plunged his dagger into its breast. Trees sprang from the wound, bees were born from the droplets of blood and all of the earth was rejuvenated by this great sacrifice.”

The man in black steps forward and cuts you free of your bonds and takes your right hand in his and, clasping it firmly, declares, “Behold the grip of Mithras. It shall ever identify you as being in allegiance with your brethren as Mithras and Helios were united in like manner. Rise, Raven, and take your rightful place amongst your Brethren!”

The Dawn of Mithras

Although embellished with artistic license, the above account is close to the experience that the novice initiate into the Roman cult of Mithras would have had. Mithraism has its roots in the dawn of civilization, a deity named Mitras making an appearance in the Vedas as the bringer of the light of dawn nearly 2,000 thousand years before his bull-slaying counterpart would appear in Iran. From Persia, Mithras made his way to Greece through Mithradates Eupator VI, a grizzled naval commando of the ancient Mediterranean Sea and king of the Cilician Empire who helped the Greeks repel the attempted conquest of

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Mithradates Eupator VI

Rome. Mithradates was the first to establish Mithras at the head of a mystery religion. This fraternity, created and led by Mithradates himself, functioned as a sort of ancient special forces to be used in piratical incursions across the Mediterranean. The Cilician navy rose to infamy and came to dominate the Mediterranean slave trade after the dissolution of the Carthaginian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. These “pirates of Mithras” also carried out an enterprise of kidnapping Roman magistrates and their families, most likely under the direction of Mithradates himself for political motives as well as profit.

These early Mithraists, who were in nearly constant opposition to the forces of Roman imperialism, conceived of themselves as a sort of hidden militia of Mithras, the cryphii or ‘hidden ones’. They recognized Mithras as a god of righteous warfare, of resistance to oppressive force. Eventually the iron hand of the Roman general Pompey shattered the rule Mithradtes VI and his fraternal mercenaries were scattered to the winds. A few of these Mithraic pirates were captured and paraded through the streets of Rome as part of Pompey’s tribute, the general then installing them as beekeepers in province of Apulia. From here, Mithraism was rekindled and slowly spread northwards to the teeming and lively marketplaces of Rome and found welcome among the Roman collegia, associations of tradesmen and merchants. Mithraism further ingratiated itself into the fabric of Roman society as the cult spread like wildfire among the legions, similar to the expansion of Freemasonry in the 19th century throughout the military of the British Empire. At the height of the Roman imperial period, followers of Mithras ranged as far afield as the scorching fringes of the Sahara to the windswept moors of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Mithras slaying the bull

The Cult of the Invincible Sun

Mithras was a solar deity and bore the title of Sol Invictus, “Invincible Sun”, in reference to his pact with the Sun to restore the Earth. Very few Mithraic liturgical texts have made their way into contemporary hands, as befits a secret society, but a few scraps do remain. Some scholars, such as Robert Turcan in ‘Cults of the Roman Empire’ (1996) speculate that in performing the duties that the Sun was normally responsible for (duties that Helios was somehow prevented from fulfilling), Mithras assumed his throne by his act of heroism. Within the mithraeum, Mithras’ position was always in the south, representing the Sun at full strength at the meridian. On the entrance of the Mithraic crypt and within the mythology of the fraternity, Mithras is flanked by two attendants, Cautes and Cautophates, who represented the Sun at dawn and sunset respectively. Cautes holds a torch pointing upwards while Cautophates directs his towards the ground. They have also been taken as representing the vernal (ascending) and autumnal (descending) equinoxes, which along with the winter and summer solstices, were of the utmost importance to the Mithraic cult.

Mithraism was a religion of the crypt and unlike other Roman mystery religions, had no exoteric function. They held no public ceremonies and the mithraeum were strictly off-limits to outsiders. Because they took no public tithing, Mithraism had to adapt to the circumstances of the individual chapters. The mysteries of Mithras were held in tent’s on the battlefield, discreet taverns and, when possible, in custom built subterranean temples financed by wealthy patrons of the brotherhood. These lavish temples, such as the mithraeum of Ostia, would have been ringed in statuary depicting the seven classical planets and had ceilings painted a deep sky blue, daubed with white stars. The regular meetings of the Mithraic brotherhood were known as “magic banquets” and were held weekly if not daily. They consisted of the brothers entering the temple in procession determined by rank of initiation and taking up places around the edges of the mithraeum. The master of the temple fulfilled the symbolic role of Saturn and sat in a throne wreathed in solar symbols. On occasions that required no extraordinary ceremonies, the proceedings began with a lecture upon spiritual and moral philosophy, no doubt illustrated by the symbolism and astrological allegories of the myth of Mithras. Following this period of study the brethren would participate in a symbolic meal of bread and wine, similar to the Catholic Eucharist, as a symbol of the feast shared by Mithras and Helios, followed by a communal meal.

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A drawing of Aion found at the mithraeum of Ostia

Under the Canopy of Heaven

The study of time and astronomy were of central importance to the mysteries of Mithras. One of the dominant artistic figures of many mithraeum, the lion-headed deity Aion watched over the proceedings of the mystery cult. At Ostia, he was depicted as holding the twin keys of wisdom, the scepter of royal power and the thunderbolt with the tools of a smith, a rooster and a pine cone at his feet. He also has a serpent wrapped around him, the snake’s ability to shed its skin representing infinity. Aion represented unbounded time, in contrast to the limited and linear form of time personified by the Saturnian deity Kronos and was often encircled by the zodiac. Mithraism came into being in the same era as the discovery by Grecian astronomer Hipparchus of the phenomenon now known as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by the subtle wobble of the orientation of the Earth’s axis and takes 25,920 years to complete. It has astrological significance in that every 2,160 years the Sun rises on the summer solstice in alignment with a different zodiacal constellation. The Mithraic mysteries were conceived in the midst of a change in ages. Mithras, as the newborn ‘Sol Invictus’, represents the victory of the fire-sign Aries over the previous age of Taurus the Bull. The twin aspects of Cautes and Cautophates symbolizing the addition of Gemini to the retinue of the Sun, the astrological age of Gemini having preceeded that of Taurus. In the tauroctony scene that could be found in every mithraeum, several animals are shown feasting on the bull, including a dog, a lion and a scorpion. These animals surely represented constellations though their exact symbolism and interplay within the Mithraic myth has been lost to history.

The Degrees of the Crypt

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An artist’s interpretation of the initiation ritual of the degree of Soldier

 

The mysteries of Mithras were divided into seven degrees, each connected to one of the seven classical planets. The initiation of the first degree gained the initiate the title of Raven. This oracular bird who could speak like a man occupied a position between the worlds and was thus the first point of contact between the neophyte and the ineffable. Candidates of the grade of Nymphus wore the flammeum, the bridal veil worn by Roman women on their wedding day. At the crescendo of the ritual, the veil was removed to reveal some particular arrangement of ritually significant objects. The words, “Look Nymphus! Hail, Nymphus! Hail young light!” were spoken, these phrases suggesting that the candidate held a lantern. The title of “Nymphus” implies that this degree represented a intermediate stage between the novice state of the Raven and the mastery implicit in the rank of Soldier. The Soldier bore a mark, either tattooed or branded, as a sign of his commitment to the militia of Mithras. During his initiation, the Soldier would have been presented with a crown on the point of a sword. He was then required to divert the crown to his shoulder, declaring that Mithras was his only true crown. The consecration of the degree of Lion was a ritual bathed in fire. The emblems of this degree are the fire-shovel, the sistrum of Isis and the heavenly fire of the thunderbolt. Fire being the enemy of water, the candidate’s hands were washed with honey to ensure his purity. The ritual itself consisted of physical trials by fire, presumably similar to the fire-walking stunts of the Hindu fakirs.  The candidate for the rank of Persian also had his hands washed in honey but for a different symbolism. The Persian was granted the privilege of harvesting the fruits grown by the grace of Mithras’ sacrifice. His emblems were thus the sickle and the Phyrgian cap of liberty. We know nothing of the ritual of the Heliodromos, the Sun-runner, other than that the symbols of his grade were the torch, a radiant crown and the flail. The Father, adorned in a headdress likening him to Mithras, led the proceedings of the temple and it has been speculated that he and a Heliodromos fulfilled the roles of Mithras and the Sun in the ritual re-enactment of the celestial feast.

There is one gift that the mysterious brothers of Mithras gave to the world that has survived to modern times. Every time we clasp hands with a friend, a colleague or a stranger in a handshake, we recognize them as brothers initiated into the mysteries of the cave-dwelling god of sacrifice. The modern handshake was birthed from the cult of Mithras and has endured millennia in its original form. It is obvious, from what scraps of their rituals remain, that some core concepts of Mithraism have survived in modern Freemasonry. It would be irresponsible to attribute the origin of Freemasonry to this cult or that society but it is beyond doubt that certain aspects of many ancient fraternities have been folded within the embrace of Speculative Freemasonry. The Mithraic obsession with utter secrecy concerning the whereabouts and operations of their temples is certainly echoed in Freemasonry, as is the practice of greeting brothers by certain handshakes. As Freemasons, an examination of Mithraism and similar ancient mysteries will surely bring us closer to timeless and unwavering truths glimpsed by so many throughout the vast expanse of time.

“When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart: ‘By the same powers that you are slain, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hands shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the Tree of Heaven.'”

-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese poet and Freemason