Review of J. M. Greer’s The Mysteries of Merlin

myst-merl

image: Amazon.com. Fair use.

Greer, John Michael. The Mysteries of Merlin: Ceremonial Magic for the Druid Path. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2020.

Let me be clear up front that I’m reviewing this book as an interested reader, obviously not as someone who’s tried out over time the specific rituals Greer presents and can speak from that perspective. After all, the book just appeared in print this month. If you’ve already worked with the materials in his Celtic Golden Dawn, you’re well on your way to intuiting and valuing what he is doing here.

That means I’m reading and responding as sensitively as I can out of my own experiences with comparable ritual and magical practices. The best “review” of such a book, of course, is applying the rituals and techniques in the manner Greer recommends, over time, and only then assessing the results for oneself.

A mystery, as I need to remind myself as much as anybody, is something that simultaneously deepens and opens with steady practice. It emphatically does not mean something that remains obscure or inaccessible despite our best efforts. The Mysteries of Merlin as Greer presents them here are a comprehensive and cohesive set of rituals and techniques that point us toward discovery. Mysteries in the older sense of the word, as Greer points out, are “the traditional name for rituals of initiation linked to seasonal cycles and based on the mythic narratives of Pagan gods and goddesses” (pg. 2). Greer’s Mysteries of Merlin are founded on a variety of sources that he names and discusses. Chief among these are Medieval authors like the 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Brittaniae) and of the stranger Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini).

Vortigern-Dragons

15th-century illustration for an edition of Geoffrey’s History. King Vortigern and the dragons. Lambeth Palace Library MS 6. Wikipedia public domain image.

The book, as Greer sets out in the very first sentence, presents what may seem an unusual marriage of practices: “a system of self-initiation that is based on ancient Celtic Pagan spirituality but uses the tools of modern ceremonial magic. That combination, though it has roots going back many centuries, may startle readers familiar with the attitudes of today’s Pagan and occult communities” (pg. 1) about magic. And Druidry, more than most revivals, has aroused suspicion in some quarters for its “awkward” (Greer’s word) position that straddles both worlds, incorporating elements from a variety of sources, magical and Pagan both. Furthermore, self-initiation, which has come under attack as a modern invention and a contradiction in terms, is something Greer reminds us was a valid and established ancient practice as well.

The proof, as always, lies in practice: quite simply, does it work? This is an experimental question, not one which armchair debate can answer. Work through the three grades of material, for Ovate, Bard and Druid (Greer prefers this older sequence) over the course of three years of seasonal practice with the “Great Eight” holy days of the Pagan year, and anyone can answer that question for themselves.

A book like this also necessarily relies on intelligent and wise reconstruction and improvisation. And that leads me to one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Greer’s writing: how he contextualizes what he writes, while suggesting directions for further study and exploration. Rather than merely springing a new magical system on readers as if full-grown from the brow of Zeus, he clearly acknowledges its origins, and notes where he has “back-engineered” aspects of his material from documents or from intelligent surmise. This is an honesty rare in many modern books on magic. One of the advantages of working with the Merlin material is that interest in Arthur and the Matter of Britain has led to good translations of many original Medieval sources. Greer directs interested readers in many cases toward specific editions of these, as a way to deepen the engagement with and the effects of the rituals he has provided, as well as to build on them.

In this book, more than his earlier ones, Greer also suggests promising avenues of exploration for ways other sets of rituals could be developed. Much of this perspective arises from his earlier work in The Celtic Golden Dawn, which meshes very well with this one. Greer plainly reminds readers about what they are practicing, and in the process answers the criticisms by some Reconstructionists of Revival Druidry:

It’s probably necessary to state in so many words that the rituals, meditations and other practices that will be presented in the chapters that follow are not the same as the ones that were practiced on Bryn Myrddin in the waning years of Roman Britain. The mysteries of that time are lost forever. Even if somehow it became possible to recover the words and ritual actions that once made up the mysteries of the god Moridunos [explained earlier], for that matter, their meanings have passed beyond recovery. Like all meanings, spiritual and otherwise, they unfold from a context in which language, culture, and history all take part. No one alive today can possibly experience the world in the same way as a Roman Briton of the fifth century CE, and for exactly the same reason — even if the ancient mysteries of Moridunos were available in their original form — no one alive today could possibly experience those mysteries in the same way that a Roman Briton would have done in the fifth century CE.

Times change, and so do the mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries themselves underwent countless changes, major and minor, over the period of more than a thousand years that they were celebrated. The transformations that apparently turned the mysteries of Merlin Caledonius into the Master Mason degree of modern Freemasonry are, as we’ve seen, far from unusual in the history of initiatory rites. What’s more, just as there were many different mysteries in ancient Greece that centered on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, using different rituals to do so, the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book are only one of many possibilities. In the work of initiation, there is no such thing as “only one right way” (pgs. 45-46).

Some specific details of Greer’s book that deserve brief mention:

+ complete rituals for each of the eight yearly holy days, for each of the grades of Ovate, Bard and Druid — pages 103-175.

+ the suggestion that Christian mysteries could be developed along similar lines (and that such a start has indeed already begun, citing John Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement).

+ the development of “The Rite of the Rays”, an awen mini-ritual, using the shape of the three-rayed awen /|\ for gesture and affirmation as part of the larger ritual for each holy day. On a personal note, this informs and confirms work I’ve been doing with the awen and its symbolism, as participants at Gulf Coast Gathering 2017 and MAGUS 2019 will discern.

+ Arthurian-themed visualizations and readings for inclusion in each of the seasonal rituals and for meditation and path-working. These seem to pair up well, I suggest, with Celtic and Arthurian tarot decks.

+ the use of a symbolic octagram throughout the eight seasonal rituals, and at the Druid level, an entire Octagram Ritual, with a detailed correspondence to a Celtic-themed and -named version of the universal Tree of Life.

+ the recognition that different levels of devotion and commitment to engagement and practice will naturally exist among practitioners, that this is a good and normal phenomenon, and that provision and recommendations for each level can help practitioners find what works best for them.

+ the flexibility of the ritual format provided here for both solitary and group practice. The focus is on solitary practice, but the rituals lend themselves to adaptation for group work if desired.

+ the value of continued working after having passed through all three grades. Practitioners can

decide whether to go on to become one of the epoptai, the initiates who continue to participate in the ceremonies after their initiation and gain the deeper dimensions of initiation that come with that experience. If you do, you will find — as the epoptai of the Eleusinian mysteries found in ancient times, and as members of other initiatory orders have found over and over again since that time — that repeated participation in a set of initiatory rites opens up portal after portal. Still, you and you alone can decide whether this choice is right for you (pg. 151).

+ the Appendix — “Other Mysteries, Other Gods”, which though clocking in at just seven pages, deserves careful meditation. Here again are humility and natural authority combined — something I savor! Greer observes,

The same process of revival and reworking I have applied to the legends of Merlin can, in fact, be applied to any suitable body of myth or legend to create a system of seasonal mysteries suited to regular performance by individuals or groups. Whatever deities or sacred figures you revere, whatever tradition of spirituality and magic you happen to practice, you can craft a set of mystery rituals suited to your own needs. If you’re prepared to put in the necessary work, the following steps will bring you to that goal (pg. 189).

+ the closing two sentences, which appear at the end of the Appendix just mentioned. Though Greer obviously completed the book before the virus launched on its current trajectory, the encouragement and value of his words in bolstering our spiritual effort is all the keener for its applicability in a time of choice, despair, distraction and spiritual need:

As you celebrate the mysteries, whether you choose the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book or a set of ceremonies you create yourself, you are participating in one of the great spiritual transformations of history: the rebirth of Pagan spirituality after more than sixteen centuries of violent suppression and persecution. The hard work and flexibility needed to make the mysteries you celebrate as rich and rewarding as they can be is a fitting contribution to that project (pg. 196).

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