Reconstructing a Golden Dawn Tradition?
My previous article on traditionalism, reconstructionalism and revisionism got a lot of mileage in the blogosphere lately, and seemed to answer some important questions about legitimacy and authenticity as well. I would like to use this article to briefly discuss some of the recent and relevant issues that my article seemed to encapsulate.
First off, there seems to be yet another dust up between Nick Farrell and his Golden Dawn tradition, and David Griffin and his Golden Dawn tradition. Noting the distinctions between the traditionalist and reconstructionist perspectives, it would seem that both Nick and David are talking at cross purposes with each other, and neither will ever find themselves in agreement. It has to do with whether the Golden Dawn is a fully revived living tradition, or whether it is a dead tradition that has been reconstructed from various sources to become a kind of living tradition. We will ignore some of Nick’s claims about the history of the order that have been shown to be quite erroneous, and instead focus on these two perspectives. You can see Nick’s article here, and David’s response, there.
If we are to accept what Nick Farrell is saying, then the Golden Dawn is truly a dead order, whose demise occurred when the mother temple collapsed and the Stella Matutina became moribund. Since Israel Regardie was supposedly only 5th degree, and never designated as a chief of that body (as far as I can tell), then the current branches of the Golden Dawn are based on what documents and materials that either Regardie published, or other sources of information that have subsequently come to light. Nick appears to say that all branches and factions of the Golden Dawn, since they no longer have any connection to the living tradition or the secret chiefs, are reconstructions of what that tradition might have been like if it have survived intact into the 21st century. Nick is clearly pushing a reconstructionist line, since he has stated that the Golden Dawn is discontinuous and headless, because it is bereft of its higher leadership (secret chiefs) and the third order lore.
Nick goes on to declare that the third order is a myth (one of many that he is seeking to completely debunk), and that secret chiefs and their ilk are completely irrelevant to the work. All lineages are suspect or false in the Golden Dawn, and that the warrants for the founding of the order were forged - it is, in this sense, a fake order. According to Nick, all we have left is the body of reconstructed lore, so the only relevant practice is the magickal rites and initiations encapsulated within that material. Of course, Nick will argue and negate anything that anyone might say that would contradict his belief that the current Golden Dawn is nothing more than a reconstruction. However, Nick is forgetting one very important feature about how one gives life to a reconstructed tradition.
In order to give life to a reconstructed tradition, you must believe in it as a thing unto itself, thus generating a kind of egregore. In many ways, a reconstructionist and a traditionalist meet at the point where the reconstructionist has assembled a spiritual system, then dubs it a viable and living tradition, and treats it with the same respect that one would accord a real tradition. A reconstructionist never says that his or her tradition is fake, but that it exists in a kind of metaphysical sense, “as if” it had never disappeared. There is a kind of passion in taking this perspective, but if reconstructionists don’t believe in the tradition that they have built, then it is still a dead tradition consisting of various assembled parts (with some missing), like some half finished Frankenstein monster laying on the operating table. Nick may have made the mistake of retaining the mind-set of the overly skeptical researcher who has rejected all of the myths of his adopted tradition, but others are probably not as foolish. I have no doubt that there are some Golden Dawn reconstructionists who have made the passage from critical researcher to true believer, where the myths have become real, the egregore has stirred to life, and the assembled system begins to function as a living one - although still headless. As Ben Whitmore has so eloquently said in his book “Trials of the Moon” about traditions (such as modern witchcraft and paganism) that they must “have not just myths, but history as well.” (Whitmore, p. 4) In other words, they must consist of both.
Nick’s role of nay-sayer and myth-busting iconoclast doesn’t help his cause of reconstructing a Golden Dawn tradition, since in order to give life to a reconstruction, one must emphatically believe in it. There is quite a lot of disagreement about what really happened during the founding of the Golden Dawn and about the source of its rituals and lore. Certainly, there isn’t an authentic history of the order that hasn’t been declared overly biased or poorly researched. Some would doubtlessly agree with what Nick is saying, and would believe that his claims of forgery, deceit and human folly are true. Yet suppose for a moment that the Golden Dawn rediscovered its roots and re-established the third order through the intercession of the secret chiefs. Would that not cause the Golden Dawn vehicle to be fully resuscitated into a viable and complete tradition?
This is precisely what David Griffin is claiming. Since I have met him and some of his associates, and privately talked with them about these subjects, I am inclined to believe that his claims are true. I may not agree with everything that David says or does, but in this matter, I believe that he is being completely honest and truthful. In the last twelve years, David Griffin has inexplicably found the source root of the Golden Dawn tradition and re-attached the “head” to the order so that it could fully function as a living and dynamic tradition. He has offered substantive proof and has declared that the entire second order of his faction has been modified so as to be in alignment with that current living tradition. What has been published by other branches of the Golden Dawn are mostly just a rehashing of the old documents and materials associated with the “dead” tradition, and supposedly, these documents and materials are not the same as what is used in the HOGD. Unfortunately, David can’t give any definitive proof, since that would violate his oaths, but enough has been shown to satisfy a reasonable inquiry - there’s obviously something there.
If we step back for a moment and admit to ourselves that even if what David is claiming is half true, than what he has presented to the Golden Dawn community is nothing less than a profoundly living, breathing tradition. That claim should have been embraced by the whole GD community, and the proof carefully examined and shared by all. It could have united the factions into a single organization, although retaining the various faction heads, but alas, individual egos prevailed and the flame-war of words and vicious litigation ensued. The opportunity for a Golden Dawn resurgence passed into oblivion, and now there are two perspectives amongst the Golden Dawn factions, one that’s a poor reconstruction (that only some believe in), and the other is a completely living tradition.
According to what Nick has declared in his recent blog, and what other leaders and members of the other reconstructionist factions have said, it would appear that what they are offering to the occult community is a sad testimonial to the Golden Dawn tradition - a headless corpse being passed off as a living thing.
Even a body must have a head or it’s just a decapitated corpse. To remedy that problem, some of the various faction chiefs have attempted to pass themselves off as the heads of their order, but they’re a poor substitute for the real thing. Three of those chiefs (I won’t name any names) never received any kind of third order initiation, and in fact, may have not received any kind of valid initiation in their respective traditions. So now we have a corpse, which has been barely resuscitated, modeling a kind of diminutive head, sort of like the comic characters Zippy the Pinhead or Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto.
Still, I have a problem with someone who is the supposed head of his order and who claims that the tradition he represents is fake and based on lies and deceit. It would be like the Pope declaring that he was really an agnostic, or the European Counsel of Religious Leaders announcing that organized religion was a farce. Unfortunately, pretending to have a living tradition that you don’t really believe in is the true farce. It boils down to the fact that you can’t occupy both sides of that argument - either you believe in your tradition (reconstructed or not) despite historical irregularities, or you don’t. Thus, I find Nick Farrell’s campaign self destructive and highly disingenuous.
I think that we can easily see that choosing a living tradition over one that is a headless corpse is a wise decision. One thing that is equally clear is that if there is no third order and no secret chiefs, then the leaders of each reconstructed faction of the Golden Dawn are accountable to nobody, and oaths are easily set aside for the sake of self promotion and expediency. Conversely, if one is promoting an order that has a direct line to the secret chiefs and a body of third order adepts, then the outer head of that order is accountable for his actions and how he governs that organization. It also means that oaths are to be taken very seriously. I think that I would rather trust someone who is accountable to higher authorities than someone who is answerable to none. There’s a lot less chance of corruption and tyranny if the leaders are accountable for their actions.
What we have here is an never ending argument between traditionalists and reconstructionists in the Golden Dawn. It also centers on whether legitimacy or authenticity is important - but a living tradition has both. None of what I have said here about the different factions of the Golden Dawn indicates that any of the various parties in the squabble are somehow incapable of doing the work or acting like competent magicians. Still, it does allow those of us who are outsiders to judge the organizations that they are promoting, whether they realize it or not.
The next point that I would like to discuss has to do with the article recently written by Ananael in his blog “Augoeides” about my article - you can find it here. I consider him to be a good friend, so I can comment on what he wrote and add my own two cents with a certain impunity. Ananael and I are both blatant revisionists, and we both consider that to be an optimal position in which to operate. Still, I wonder if he has ever met any bonafide reconstructionists, since I have found their work to be as sound and satisfying as my own. I must also give a certain high degree of respect to traditionalists, since like them, I also honor and respect a system of practice and belief that was given to me through initiation years ago.
Two points where I find that I differ with what Ananael said has to do with some minor adjustments to my declarations about traditionalists and reconstructionalists. Ananael has said that traditionalists are blinded by dogma because they are unable to change or amend their tradition. Also, he has said that reconstructionalists are required to carry archaic practices in their derived tradition, even if they would be considered illegal or socially reprehensible. I think that both of his opinions about the inherent flaws in the role of traditionalists and reconstructionists are over simplifications and need some further clarification.
Most traditions are reformed over time, and that is a fact of human existence; either they are reformed or they eventually fail. Nothing ever remains the same, so there are situations where a practice or belief is modified in a tradition. However, the process of modification is done in a careful and completely acceptable manner, with precedents cited and other evidential information given as a compelling reason for the change. The change doesn’t just happen, but it evolves and is given the stamp of orthodoxy by the elders of that tradition. A clear case of this kind of change is the reforms proposed and implemented by the Catholic Church in accordance with Vatican II. This kind of authorized ecumenical change has occurred in other traditions as well, including witchcraft and paganism. Change does happen in a tradition, although it isn’t immediate or arbitrary, as it might be in a revisionist methodology. Revisionists make changes to things that can be changed, which are those things that have been added to a tradition, but they rely on the authorities of their own tradition to modify or change anything in that tradition.
A case in point is that I am certain that Ananael would never deem to change any of the wording of the sacred writings of Liber Al in accordance with his opinions or sentiments, or because he found something there that he thought was revealed in error. If he really believed that something was amiss with Liber Al, he would present it to the authorities of the O.T.O. for their consideration. A revisionist and a traditionalist are closely related, except that a revisionist will add and accumulate other lore, while a traditionalist will work with what they have until that tradition has been properly amended or changed.
Reconstructionism, as I defined it in my previous article, builds a modern tradition using properly vetted historical information. The basic premise is to build an antique system as if it had survived into the modern times. Obviously, a Celtic reconstruction wouldn’t include human sacrifice, nor would it likely include animal sacrifice or any of the other culturally archaic and inappropriate practices and beliefs. It would represent what that Celtic pagan religion would have been like if it had survived to the present time, not as it existed in the early Iron age.
There are certain built-in limitations associated with reconstructionism, such as being able to gather together a complete set of data to reconstruct an antique system or being able to reconstruct the mind-set and culture of that period. Gaps and holes in the data are typical, particularly if that targeted system of belief is old and far in the past. Often, reconstructionists have to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. However, this is not a form of revisionism, since even the creative endeavors of a reconstructionist must be feasible and defensible based on current historical evidence. A revisionist will use whatever works, but a reconstructionist can’t behave in such a cavalier manner, since he or she is attempting to build something that has the aesthetic quality of being historically feasible and legitimate.
Curiously enough, a reconstructionist must also fashion a “head” for his or her tradition, and this is aptly done by working intimately with the chosen principal Godhead or pantheon of that tradition. A personal cult for that Godhead is created and it is imbued with power and authority through constant offerings, devotions and selfless spiritual love, often making use of a shrine with an altar and statues. After a time, the Godhead becomes a potent spiritual embodiment that the adherents of the reconstructed faith can easily relate to, having become a living and breathing Deity within the core of their tradition. It is far better for the “head” of a resuscitated and reconstructed faith to be a Godhead than some self appointed and flawed human being. Even the masters have a powerful spiritual alignment to a Deity that is beyond them.
I also wanted to remark on the issue of the importance of historical precedence to a pagan or a witch. As a traditionalist witch in the Alexandrian Tradition, I am not at all concerned about the accuracy or relevancy of the historical claims made by my past teachers. I don’t buy that witchcraft is the Old Religion, and it has no bearing on what I do as a witch. However, if an academic claims that there are no verifiable vestiges of pagan beliefs or practices in the modern world, then any amount of research into the historical precedents for pagan beliefs and practices would be groundless, particularly since pre-Christian European pagan folk beliefs were not adequately documented. Since the witchcraft tradition consists of a certain amount of reconstruction and creative invention, it is important for many who honor and guard those traditions to know that there were some precedents in the past upon which to base their beliefs. It signifies to them that their beliefs and practices weren’t recently made up out of nothing. What Hutton and some other academics have done is to judge modern paganism and witchcraft as being completely invented modern traditions without any historical precedence, which I feel is incorrect.
While this may not be important to a Thelemite, whose principal founder lived during the late 19th and early 20th century and whose life was well documented, it is important and not at all foolish for modern pagans to gather together some historical practices and beliefs to bolster their tradition. Otherwise, why even bother to call it a tradition, or for that matter, to passionately believe in it? Paganism and witchcraft may be magickal religions, but they are still religious, and such sentiment requires a history, as well as myths, mysticism and magick.
Finally, I think that a fourth perspective can be added to my list of philosophical perspectives in the occult arena. That fourth perspective is where people just cobble together all the various parts that work for them, and then from that collection generate for themselves a kind of ad hoc tradition. I would call this fourth perspective “eclectic pragmatism.” An eclectic pragmatist is someone who never acquires a tradition or assiduously avoids taking any vows, but who doesn’t have the discipline or sense of aesthetics to be a reconstructionist. Often, such people are dilettantes, but their desire to perform magick or engage in mystical practices causes them to adopt whatever is at hand. Potential sources are found in books, on the internet, copying what others do or by word of mouth. Some chaos magicians have used this approach to great effect, and the plethora of book reading solitaire pagan and wiccan practitioners could also be included in this category.
So these are my thoughts and opinions about the recent controversies, but I am certain that there will be more opinions and discussions on this matter in the future. If some other interesting factors come out of the discussion, you can bet that I will present them here for you to read.