Archive for the ‘secrecy’ Category

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 3   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2]

A Whole Ritual Language

So you still want not just a few phrases but a complete language dedicated to your rituals?! And you’re crazy enough not just to think about this but to actually plan to pull it off!  In spite of all the alternatives I mentioned in the previous post, like simply using a small number of individual words or phrases as ritual triggers, you’re still determined to acquire the complete ritual language package.  You want to be able to compose new rites in this language, not just insert a few fixed phrases here and there in your rituals.  And wrth gwrs (oorth goors) of course, your circle, grove, grotto, temple, fane, gathering or group is with entirely with you — 100%.  Or they will be, once you browbeat or bribe or trick them to try it out, once they’re enchanted and seduced by the undeniable power and majesty and beauty of your fully-equipped ritual tafod (TAH-vohd) tongue.  You know in your heart of hearts that soon enough they’ll be saying diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks” to you for bringing them into the light (or the luminous darkness).

The First Candidate

Here’s the first ritual language candidate for your consideration, Welsh, along with some of the stronger arguments in its favor:

*It’s one of the six living Celtic languages, so you’ve got the authenticity thing covered.  No one can accuse you of wimping out on that point.

*Hey, you already can say a couple of things in it, like wrth gwrs (oorth goors) “of course” and tafod (TAH-vohd) “tongue” and diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks.”

*It’s from the “easier” side of the Celtic family: Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton (the P-Celtic branch), are considered easier to learn and speak (for English speakers) than Irish, Scots Gaelic, or Manx (the Q-Celtic branch) for a number of reasons: pronunciation, grammar, and spelling.

*The writing system uses a version of the Roman alphabet.  True, because of the spelling of Welsh words like wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch, some have unkindly called written Welsh “alphabet vomit,” but Welsh offers a much better match between sound and symbol than does, say, English.  Different doesn’t have to mean worse, and it can sometimes even mean better. Think about such oft-cited English examples like the pronunciation of -ough in  through, rough, though, cough, and bough.  You’ll be glad to know there’s extremely little of that in Welsh.

*It has a solid and well-documented literary history — the Mabinogion, that medieval collection of marvelous tales, is one of its chief glories — one which several modern Druid orders have used as a set of Druid teaching texts.  Here for your delectation is the first line (in medieval Welsh) of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr:

Bendigeiduran uab Llyr, a oed urenhin coronawc ar yr ynys hon, ac ardyrchawc o goron Lundein.
“Bendigeidfran son of Llyr was the crowned king of this island, and exalted with the crown of London.”

[Bendigeidfran is pronounced roughly “ben-dee-GUIDE-vrahn”]

*There are numerous helpful learning aids available, including online materials like the Big Welsh Challenge.  That means there’s plenty of assistance for students of the language, in large part because enough Welsh people themselves want to learn Welsh.

*Welsh is arguably doing as good a job at surviving the onslaught of English as any of the other Celtic languages.  In other words, it’s not going away any time soon.

*Welsh makes a distinctive auditory impact on listeners — check out the short video below to hear several Welsh speakers:

Other Options — Proto-Indo-European

Or maybe Welsh still seems too much to tackle.  (Did you catch the last word of the video — diolch [DEE-olkh] “thanks”?) You still want your own language, but something different.  It doesn’t need to be a living language.  In fact, a more private one might even serve better.  You understand that ritual secrecy isn’t meant to exclude anyone but rather to focus and contain energies, like the Cauldron of the Goddess brewing those three drops of inspirational awen.  Yes, there are still other options.

For instance, you could investigate Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — the Big Kahuna itself, the “Grandmother Tongue” of the speakers of all the hundred or so Indo-European languages alive today, spoken by more than 2 billion people.  I’ve mentioned Ceisiwr Serith in a previous blog, whose fine book Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans offers much material for reflection, adaption and use.  Serith writes and practices from an ADF perspective, emphasizing historical scholarship.  You can also check out his website for more information and challenge.

Dictionaries and grammars of PIE are available online and through sellers like Amazon.  With some hours of initial study and effort, you can begin to create short sentences like this one:  yagnobi ognibi tum wikyo (YAHG-noh-bee OHG-nee-bee toom week-YOH) “I hallow you with sacred fire.”  Using such resources I’ve fashioned  these and other words and phrases for ritual.  While scholars and amateur Indo-Europeanists can and will quibble quite endlessly* about “correct” or well-founded pronunciation and grammar, you’ll be exploring a ritual essence you can incorporate into your rites to enrich and empower them.  Isn’t that the point?

(*It’s significant — and highly relevant for our purposes — that there’s much stronger consensus on PIE vocabulary than on grammar, details of pronunciation, or wider issues of culture, religious practice, original homeland, and so on.  That’s as it should be: we intuitively understand that it’s in the names of things that we reach closest to the heart of any language, especially ritual language.)

The Celtic Conlang

Or you could go the Celtic conlang route, selecting from the pool of shared vocabulary that Welsh, Cornish and Breton (or Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx) have in common, and build your language piece by piece.  Books like D. B Gregor’s Celtic: A Comparative Study (Oleander Press, 1980) devote several chapters to — you guessed it — detailed comparisons of the six Celtic languages.  If you have some skill with languages (and you do, or you wouldn’t be considering this route, would you?), you can adapt and regularize to your heart’s content.  To give you some idea, with a couple of dictionaries and the running start of sites like Omniglot’s Celtic Connections page, you can devise your own language with as much Celtic flavor as you wish.

Three Existing and Well-developed Celtic Conlangs

There are other conlang options too, like Deiniol Jones’ detailed Arvorec, Andrew Smith’s Brithenig and Alex Middleton’s Kaledonag.  All three of these are sufficiently elaborated that you could create ritual materials in them.  And you’ve got living conlangers that you can consult — or hire — for help.

Commission Your Own Unique Language

If you or your grove have some cash on hand, there’s yet another option, if you want to commission a conlanger to make you a unique never-before-seen-or-spoken ritual conlang.  As I mentioned in the previous post, you can call on the Language Creation Society for help.  Here’s the relevant LCS page for requesting a conlanger to create a language to your specs.  Note the following minimum costs, as of today, 3/26/14: “We require a minimum of $150 for a language sketch, $300 for a full language, and $300 for an orthography.”  (Each term is explained further on the page.)  The commissoning person or group gets to set a wide range of criteria — worth investigating if this option appeals to you.  Self-disclosure:  Yes, I’m a member of the LCS, because they’re the best such group around.  Like the ADF motto says, “Why not excellence?”

(Almost) Last, Best, and Deepest …

It shouldn’t come (almost) last, but here it is.  If you’d like a deeper ritual challenge, ask your spirits, guides or gods for help. I’ve gotten valuable material this way, including large portions of blog posts (see here and here for examples), and I’m certainly far from unique.  Others have also received names, prayers, rituals and other spiritual material from contemplation, trance, and ritual itself.  If the God/desses want you to use a special or dedicated language in your rites, they’ll help.  Just ask.  What is inspiration, after all?!

Another illustration may help.  Several years ago, over the space of about six or seven weeks, an acquaintance of mine named Chris received an entire ritual conlang  — several thousand words, names, grammatical ideas, and — how else to say it? — cultural practices, like gestures, ritual apparel, symbols, etc. — through a series of visions and inner communications.  We talked about his method, his process. He’d record as much as he could recall from a given experience or vision, then ask for guidance in recovering whatever he’d missed or forgotten, trying out names and phrases, for example, to see if they were acceptable in prayers and rituals, if they sounded right to the gods and to his own growing sense of “fit,” based on what he’d been given so far.  For instance, the name Nezu came through, an inner guide he could call on.  Testing the name, modifying it from the initial version he’d received, until it “worked” and felt right, mattered to him, and the name grew in impact because he took the time (hours and hours!) and made the effort.  In short, he sacrificed for what he desired; he hallowed his own efforts through his dedication and attention and love, and the gods hallowed them for him in turn.  Rarely is it just one or the other, after all.

Now Chris was interested in conlangs and had some experience learning, or learning about, several different languages.  He knows some Elvish, Klingon and Na’vi, and he’s studied several different human languages in varying degrees of depth.  Such a background doesn’t hurt, of course.  The gods work with what we give them.  If you’re a musician, you may get inspiration for songs.  If you’re a visual artist, you may get images, and so on. Nurture and encourage the ritual skills and human talents of the people in your group, and you’ll be surprised at what they can achieve.

So you’ve got it down — your ritual books (unless you and your grove are really devoted, and all of you memorize your rites) are meant to make using the language as easy as possible, both for members and any visitors who drop in for your Evocation, Consecration, Tranformation, Prognostication, etc.  Just hold off on the big-screen Powerpoint version until you become a Mega-grove, along the lines of the Protestant Mall-Churches.

A Note on Compiling Ritual Booklets

You know you can get your grove members to pronounce almost anything unusual reasonably well, just like Catholics have been doing with pronunciation guides like the following example from Pray It in Latin (pg. 3) by Louis Pizzuti.  (My apologies if you have bad Church memories.)  If you haven’t been paying attention, I’ve given short examples of this strategy earlier in this blog with wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch.  Now you’ll remember these three, right?  You’ve seen them three times, that magic number of manifestation and long-term memory.

OK, now see how well you manage learning to pronounce some Ecclesiastical Latin:

HAIL MARY

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,
AH-vay Maria GRAHT-see-ah PLAY-nah DOH-mee-noos TAY-koom
Hail Mary filled with-grace Lord with-you

benedicta tu in mulieribus,
bay-nay-DEEK-tah too een moo-lee-AY-ree-boos
blessed you among women

et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
ayt bay-nay-DEEK-toos FROOK-toos VAYN-trees TOO-ee YAY-soos.
and blessed fruit womb yours Jesus

Sancta Maria Mater Dei
SAHNK-tah Maria MAH-tayr DAY-ee
Holy Mary Mother of-God

ora pro nobis peccatoribus
OHR-ah proh NOH-bees payk-ah-TOH-ree-boos
pray for us sinners

nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen
noonk ayt een HOR-ah MOHR-tees NOHS-tray AH-mayn
now and in hour of-death of-ours. Amen.

 

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About Initiation, Part 2   2 comments

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

I speak for myself, of course.  It’s all that any of us can do.  But as I approach what is most deeply true for me, I find I can begin to speak true for others, too.  Most of us have had such an experience, and it’s an instance of the deep connections between us that we often forget or discount.  I’m adding this Part Two because the site stats say the earlier post on initiation continues to be popular.

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Within us are secrets.  Not because anyone hides some truths from us, but because we have not yet realized them.  The truest initiations we experience seem ultimately to issue from this inner realm of consciousness where the secrets arise.  Deeper than any ocean, our inner worlds are often completely unknown to us.  “Man is ‘only’ an animal,” we hear.  Sometimes that seems the deepest truth we can know.  But animals also share in profound connections we have only begun to discover.  We can’t escape quite so easily.

Our truest initiations issue from inside us.  Sometimes these initiations come unsought.   Or so we think. Maybe you go in to work on a day like any other, and yet you come home somehow different.  Or you’re doing something physical that does not demand intellect and in that moment you realize a freedom or opening of consciousness.  Sometimes it can arrive with a punch of dismay, particularly if you have closed yourself off from the changes on the move in your life. In its more dramatic forms initiation can bring with it a curious sense of vulnerability, or even brokenness — the brokenness of an egg that cracks as this new thing emerges, glistening, trembling.  You are not the same, can never be the same again.

The German poet Rilke tries to catch something of this in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”  He’d been blocking at writing the poems he desired,  poems of greater depth and substance, instead of the often abstract work he’d composed until then, and his friend the sculptor Rodin sets him to studying animals.  Rilke admires Rodin’s intensely physical forms and figures, and Rilke ends up writing about a classic figure of Apollo that is missing the head.  Yet this headless torso still somehow looks at him, holds him with eyes that are not there.  Initiation is both encounter, and its after-effects.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.  And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.  Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

I may witness something that is simply not there for others, but nonetheless it is profoundly present for me.  Or I see something that is not for the head to decipher, interpret, judge and comment on.  There’s nothing there for the intellect to grasp.  In the poem, the head of the sculpture of Apollo is missing, and yet it sees me, and I see or know things not available to my head.  I feel the gaze of the sculpture.  I encounter a god.  Or just a piece of stone someone shaped long ago into a human figure, that somehow crystallizes everything in my life for me right now.  Or both.

The sensation of initiation can be as intensely felt and as physical as sexuality, “that dark center where procreation flared.”  It hits you in your center, where you attach to your flesh, a mortal blow from a sword or a gesture that never reaches you, but which still leaves you dizzy, bleeding or gasping for breath.  Or it comes nothing like this, but like an echo of all these things which have somehow already happened to you, and you didn’t know it at the time — it somehow skipped right past you.  But now you’re left to pick up the pieces of this thing that used to be your life.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

You feel Rilke’s discovery in those last lines*, the urgency, the knowledge arriving from nowhere we can track.  I have to change, and I’ve already changed.  I know something with my body, in my gut, that my head may have a thousand opinions about.  I may try to talk myself out of it, but I must change.  Or die in some way.  A little death of something I can’t afford to have die.  There is no place in my life that does not see me, that feeling rises that I can’t escape, and yet I must escape.  It’s part of what drives some people to therapy.  Sometimes we fight change until our last breath, and it takes everything from us.  Or we change without knowing it, until someone who knows us says, “You’ve changed.  There’s something different about you.  I can’t put my finger on it,” or they freak at the changes and accuse us, as if we did it specifically to spite them.  “You’re not the person you used to be,” meaning you’re no longer part of the old energy dynamic that helps them be who they are, and now they must change too.  Initiation ripples outward.  John Donne says, “No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Sometimes it’s my own initiation, sometime I’m feeling the ripples from somebody else’s.  The earthquake is in the neighborhood, right down the street, in the next room, here — or across the ocean.  But ripples in each case.

Sometimes we “catch” initiation from others, like a fire igniting.  We encounter a shift in our awareness, and now we see something that was formerly obscure.  It was there all along, nothing has changed, and yet … now we know something we didn’t before.  This happens often enough in matters of love.  The other person may have been with us all along, nothing has changed … and yet now we feel today something we didn’t feel yesterday.  We know it as surely as we know our bones.  We can feel the shift under our skin.  The inner door is open.  Do we walk through?

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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*Mitchell, Stephen, trans. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (English and German edition).  Vintage, 1989.

Secrets, Part Three   Leave a comment

Yes, secrets can be dangerous.  But live long enough and you notice that most things which may be dangerous under certain conditions are often for that very reason also potential sources of valuable insight and energy.  Poisons can kill, but also cure.  Light can disinfect, and also burn.  Different societies almost instinctively identify and isolate their favorite different sources of energy as destructive or at the least unsettling, just as the physical body isolates a pathogen, and for much the same reason:  self-preservation.

For many Americans and for our culture in general, sex is one great “unsettler.”  We need only look at our history.  Problems with appropriate sexual morality have dogged our culture for centuries, and show no signs of letting up, if the current gusts of contention around contraception, abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education mean anything at all.  Wall up sexuality and let it out only on a short leash, if at all, our culture seems to say.  Release it solely within the bonds of heterosexual monogamy.  Then you may escape the worst of its dangerous, unsettling, even diabolical power.  You can identify this particular cultural fixation by the attention that even minor sexual miss-steps command, surpassing murder and other far more actually destructive crimes. Let but part of a breast accidentally escape its covering on TV or in a video, even for a moment, and you’d think the end of the world had truly arrived.

a Mikvah -- ritual bath

Other cultures diagnose the situation differently and thus choose different energy sources to obsess about and wall up, or shroud in ritual and doctrine and taboo.  For some, it’s ritual purity.  At least some flavors of Judaism focus on this, with the mikvah or ritual bath, various prohibitions and restrictions around menstruation, skin diseases and other forms of impurity, and the importance of continuing the family along carefully recorded bloodlines.  The first five Biblical books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, list such practices and taboos in often minute detail.

The Bible also testifies, in some of its more well-known stories, to the fate of individuals like Jacob’s brother Esau, who married outside the family, and thus forfeited God’s blessings and promises that came with blood descent from their grandfather Abraham.  And one need only consider Ishmael, son of Abraham but not of an approved female, who is driven out into the wilderness with his mother Hagar, a slave and not a Hebrew.  This Jewish Biblical story accounts for the origins of the Muslims, descendants of Ishmael or Ismail.  (The Qur’an, not surprisingly, preserves a different account.)  The flare-ups of animosity and sometimes visceral hatred between Jews and Muslims thus originate quite literally in a family inheritance squabble, if we take these stories at their word.

If secrets have at their heart a source of potent energy and culture-shattering power, no wonder Americans in particular suspect them.  We like to think we can domesticate everything and turn it to our purposes: name it, own it, market it, even cage it and sell tickets for tourists to see it in captivity, properly chastened by our mastery.  But the numinosity of existence defies taming.

Such an oppositional stance of course almost guarantees conflict and misunderstanding and ongoing lack of harmony.  But the experience of some human cultures tells us that we can learn to discern, respect and work with primordial forces that do not bow to human will and cleverness.  (Likewise, Western and American culture have demonstrated that fatalism and passivity are not the only possible responses to disease, natural disasters, and so on.)  Master and servant are not the only relations possible.  For a culture that prizes equality, we are curiously indifferent to according respect to sex, divinity, mortality and change, consciousness and dream, creativity and intuition as forces beyond our control, but wonderfully amenable to cooperation and mutual benefit.

So how do secrets fit in here?  The ultimate goals of both magical and spiritual work converge.  As J. M. Greer characterizes it,

… the work that must be done is much the same–the aspirant has to wake up out of the obsession with purely material experience that blocks awareness of the inner life, resolve the inner conflicts and imbalances that split the self into fragments, and come into contact with the root of the self in the transcendent realms of being (Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, 98).

Of course, much magical and spiritual practice does not (and need not) habitually operate at this level — but it could.  “By the simple fact of its secrecy, a secret forms a link between its keeper and the realities that the web does not include; a bridge to a space between worlds,” Greer notes.  This space makes room for inner freedom, and so the effort of maintaining secrecy can pay surprising psychological dividends.

Keeping a secret requires keeping a continual watch over what one is saying and how one is saying it, but the process of keeping such a watch has effects that reach far beyond that of simply keeping something secret.  Through this kind of constant background attention certain kinds of self-knowledge become not only possible but, in certain situations, inevitable.  Furthermore, this same kind of attention can be directed to other areas of one’s life, extending the reach of conscious awareness into fields that are too often left to the more automatic levels of our minds … Used in this way, secrecy is a method of reshaping the self … (Greer, 116-117).

Thus, the actual content of the secret may be quite insignificant, a fact that baffles those who “uncover” secrets and then wonder what the fuss was all about.  Is that all there is? they ask, usually missing another aspect of secrecy:  “things can be made important–not simply made to look important, but actually made important–by being kept secret” (Greer, 118).  The effort of maintaining secrecy and the discoveries that effort allows can mean that the supposed secrets themselves are often next to meaningless without that effort and discovery.

In this case, the danger of secrecy lies in what it reveals rather than what it conceals.  Once we discover the often arbitrary and always incomplete nature of the web of communication (and the cultural standards based on that web), we perceive their limitations and ways to step beyond them.  Here secrecy has

a protective function on several different levels.  To challenge the core elements of the way a culture defines the world is to play with dynamite, after all.  There’s almost always a risk that those who benefit from the status quo will respond to too forceful a challenge with ridicule, condemnation or violence.  Secrecy helps prevent this from becoming a problem, partly by makng both the challenge and the challengers hard to locate, but also by making the threat look far smaller than it may actually be (Greer, 127).

Secrecy forms part of the “cauldron of transformation”* available to us all.  Most of us balk at true freedom and change.  We may have to relinquish comforting illusions — about ourselves and our lives and the priorities we have set for ourselves.  So like a mouse I take the cheese from the trap and get caught by the head — I yield up the possibility of growth in consciousness in return for some comfort that seems — and is — easier, less demanding.  All it costs is my life.

Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them, goes an old saying of the Wise.  The deepest secrets we already know.  That is why awakening confers the sensation of coming home, of return, of reclaiming a birthright, of dying to an old self, of extinction of something small that held us back — so many metaphors that different traditions and cultures and religious and spiritual paths hold out to us, to suggest something of the profound, marvelous and most human experience we can have.

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Images: cartoon; mikvah; cauldron;

* See John Beckett’s excellent blog post on this topic here.

Secrets, Part Two   Leave a comment

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

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*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.

Secrets, Part One   Leave a comment

If you believe that everything should be “out in the open,” you’ll probably admit to a certain impatience with concealment and secrecy. We’ve heard the old saw: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” and up to a point we believe it.  Particularly in the U.S., we equate openness with being “aboveboard” and honest.  “Don’t beat around the bush.”  “Say what you mean.”  “Be upfront about it.”  We admire “straight talk.”

The Freedom of Information Act helped make at least some government activities more transparent, and we often welcome “full disclosure” in a variety of situations.  We still think of ours as an “Open Society,” and the current practice of large and anonymous campaign contributions from corporate sponsors has some American citizens up in arms. We’re wary of the con, and we tend to suspect anyone who doesn’t “tell it like it is.”  We’ve got talk shows where people “spill it all,” and public figures starting at least with Jimmy Carter who began a confessional politics by admitting he had “lust in his heart.”  But not all secrets are sinister.  They do not automatically concern information anyone else needs to know.  Each of us has some things that are innocently private.  And in fact, well beyond this concession, secrecy can serve remarkable purposes that conspiracy theorists and even regular citizens rarely acknowledge.

Some secrets, of course, appear to be built into the stuff of the Cosmos.  Robert Frost captures this in a brief two-line poem, “The Secret Sits”:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

We circle the thing we’re after, all the while convinced it’s there, that something will answer to our seeking, but somehow we still persist in missing it.  In spite of a couple of hundred years of scientific exploration, and prior to that, millennia of religious and spiritual investigation, existence and meaning and purpose often remain mysterious and not easily accessible.  What matters most to us springs from sources and energies we can’t simply subject to laboratory scrutiny and then write up in learned journals and magazines.  As some of the Wise have put it, “the eye sees, but cannot see itself” (at least not without a mirror).  Something about the nature of consciousness blocks us from easily comprehending it.

In our search, we reduce matter to atoms (literally, “unsplittables”) and think we’ve arrived at the true building blocks of the universe, only to learn that atoms can indeed split, and that they’re composed of subatomic particles.  Quantum physics further reveals that these particles are probabilities and exist only with the help of an observer.  Space-time itself is generated by consciousness.  We live in a “nesting doll” universe, worlds inside other worlds, an onion-like cosmos of endless layers.  True secrets, it appears, can’t be told.  They’re simply not part of the world of words.  As the Tao Te Ching wryly has it, “The Way that can be talked about isn’t the real Way.”  If that doesn’t have you pulling your hair out, it can at least cast you down into a terminal funk.  Where can a person get a clear answer?

Serious seekers in every generation come to experiment with some form of solitude, and if they persist, they may discover some very good reasons that underlie the practice of removing themselves even briefly from consensus reality and the web of communication we’re all born into.  This web helps us live with each other by building enough common ground that we can understand each other and cooperate in achieving common goals.  But it also builds our entire world of consciousness in ways we may not always want to assent to.  However, solitude by itself isn’t reasonable for most people as a lifestyle.  As my mother liked to remind me, “You have to live in the real world.”

But this “real world” runs surpassingly deep and wide in its influence.  Author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes,

The small talk that fills up time at social gatherings is an obvious example. There might seem to be little point in chatting about the weather, say, or the less controversial aspects of politics, business, and daily life, but this sort of talk communicates something crucial.  It says, in essence, “I live in the same world you do,” and the world in question is one defined by a particular map of reality, a particular way of looking at the universe of human experience.*

We need maps – there’s a reason we developed them.  But they limit as much as they guide.  We could even say that this is their genius and power – they guide by limiting, by reducing the “blooming buzzing confusion” of life to something more manageable.  Advertizing does this by simplifying our desire for meaning and connection and significance into a desire for an object that will grant us these things.  Trade one symbol – money or credit cards, paper or plastic – for another symbol, a status symbol, an object sold to us with a money-back promise to grant wishes like a genie’s lamp or the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling” gem of the East. (If that’s not magic, and a questionable kind at best, I don’t know what is.  How much more wonderful it would be – how much closer it would come to “true magic” — if it actually succeeded in quenching that original desire, which is merely sidetracked for a time, and will re-emerge, only to be distracted again, by another “new and improved”** model, spouse, diet, house, product or lifestyle.  We need a remarkably small minimum of things to flourish and be happy.  In a territory far beyond the blessed realm of that minimum, the market survives, yes, while the heart slowly dies.***)

Greer continues,

We thus live in an extraordinarily complex web of communication, one that expresses and reinforces specific ways of thinking about the world.  This is not necessarily a problem, but it can easily become one whenever the presence and effects of the web are unnoticed.  To absorb the web’s promptings without noticing them, after all, is also to absorb the web’s implied world-view without being aware of the process – and what we do not notice we usually cannot counteract.

The very common habit of passivity toward our own inner lives, a habit that is responsible for a very large portion of human misery, shows itself clearly here.  It’s one thing to accept a map of the world as a useful convenience, one that can be replaced when it’s no longer useful, and quite another to accept it unthinkingly as the only map there is—or worse, to mistake the map for the world itself.*

A secret breaks the web.  It remains something apart, the fragment that doesn’t fit.  It’s the puzzle piece left over that doesn’t match the gap in the nearly-finished picture staring up at you, that one annoying bolt or washer or other component remaining after you’ve put together the “easy to assemble” appliance or device.  It’s the hangnail, the sore thumb, the mosquito bite of awareness that something’s off-kilter, out of whack, out of step, no longer in synch.  We have words for these things — we can name them, at least — because they happen to us frequently enough to break into the web.  And we struggle to fix them as soon as we can, or barring that, ignore them as much as possible, that uncomfortable fact, that inconvenient discovery. As Churchill quipped, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

I’ll continue this topic in Part Two.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, pp. 114-115.  I reread this book about once a year, and its lucid style makes this pleasurable apart from its subject matter. In addition to being a “guided tour” of the workings of lodge dynamics (fraternal, magical and social) and group magical practice (with an example magical lodge that Greer examines in considerable detail), the book is a clear, demystifying meditation on group consciousness, secrecy, and the magical egregore or “group mind” at work in all human organizations, institutions and collectives, including families, churches, political parties, companies, clubs, sports teams — the scope is immense.

**As comedian Chris Rock says, “Which is it, new or improved?!”

***As a teacher at an expensive private school for students whose parents expect them to gain admission to the top colleges and universities in the country, I here acknowledge that I myself participate in another kind of wish-fulfilling enterprise marketed to a considerable degree to that now widely suspect 1%.  In defense of the school, however, if not of myself, every year scholarship students are admitted solely on merit.  They succeed out of all proportion to their numbers in earning top class rankings and coveted admission letters to the best schools.

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