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by Dr ANDREW PRESCOTT
SEEKING THE LIGHT: FREEMASONRY AND INITIATIC TRADITIONS
FOREWORD for The Canonbury Papers. The proceedings of the Seventh International Conference organised by CMRC, 5-6 November 2005. Canonbury Academy, 6 Canonbury Place, London N1 2NQ
[How are we going in? We are going in as through a tunnel into a dark place. We are going in like monkeys.
Song from the Chisungu ceremony of the Bemba of Zambia[i]]
The Canonbury Papers record the proceedings of the series of international conferences held each autumn under the auspices of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre and the genial tutelage of the Centre’s manager, Carole McGilvery. The Canonbury conferences have established themselves as a landmark of the masonic year in Britain. Held on the first weekend of November, the final papers of each day are invariably accompanied by the cracks and bangs of fireworks being launched into the Islington night. Like the fireworks, the Canonbury conference is part of the ritual which, for the growing band of those fascinated by research and discussion concerning the cultural and social significance of Freemasonry, marks the transition from autumn to winter. It seems fitting to spend those first long dark evenings of the year contemplating and debating with old and new friends at Canonbury the many facets of that elusive yet constantly compelling and intriguing phenomenon, Freemasonry.
The Canonbury conferences explore the manifold social, cultural and intellectual connections and contexts of Freemasonry. The 2005 conference took a noticeably wider theme than previous events, but one which in the popular imagination of the modern western world is peculiarly associated with Freemasonry: ‘Seeking the Light: Freemasonry and Initiatic Traditions’. The conference attracted a wealth of interesting and thought-provoking papers, which you can share here. The names of the writers convey something of the qualities which make the Canonbury conferences memorable experiences for all those who attend them. Not only can we hear great masonic scholars at the peak of their powers, such as Neville Barker Cryer and Kirk McNulty, but we can also admire the brilliance of the rising generation of younger scholars such as Henrik Bogdan, Anat Harel and Pauline Chakmakjian. Moreover, the Canonbury conference is genuinely international – as well as a strong British contingent, the 2005 line-up included speakers from the United States of America, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The international character of the Canonbury conference already makes for fruitful dialogues between different intellectual traditions. The resulting synergy is made even more powerful by the marked interdisciplinary character of the conferences. While modern university scholars invariably pay lip service to the idea that there should be stronger connections between different fields of study, in practice this is rarely achieved. The realities of academic funding and power structures, together with an excess of academic caution and timidity, mean that most scholars ultimately prefer the safety of their disciplinary bunkers. However, the relaxed atmosphere of the Canonbury conferences and the elegant surroundings in which they are held encourage scholars to drop their guard, and we find new conversations developing across the disciplinary boundaries. This is reflected in the present volume, with its contributions from many different academic fields, ranging from history and literary studies to music, sociology and the study of religion. Moreover, the papers presented here represent a variety of scholarly traditions, including not only studies grounded in the classic orthodox critique of primary evidence but also analyses drawing on some of the latest theoretical insights.
Moreover, the distinctive character of the Canonbury conferences is not simply due to their interdisciplinary nature. They also foster contact between different masonic and esoteric traditions. Many masonic research conferences in Britain and America are dominated by representatives of so-called ‘regular’ Freemasonry, governed by the English-speaking Grand Lodges. The Canonbury conferences, by contrast, have always welcomed speakers from other masonic orders and traditions, and have played an important part in building bridges between these groups. The interest of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre in the wider esoteric and spiritual significance of Freemasonry means that it has also given a platform to speakers from other groups with esoteric interests which have not recently had a close connection with Freemasonry. One of the speakers in 2005 was Phillip Carr-Gomm, the Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a body which ultimately has its roots in the Ancient Order of Druids, which was formed by a group of freemasons in the 1780s. Philip’s appearance at Canonbury helped re-establish a connection between druidism and Freemasonry which has been lost and forgotten for over two hundred years. Appropriately, the subject of Philip’s talk was the composer Michael Tippett, who would surely have relished the heady philosophical, literary, historical and esoteric brew that is regularly dispensed at Canonbury.
The papers collected here demonstrate how the theme of Freemasonry and initiatic traditions has a strong resonance for researchers from a variety of different backgrounds and interests. Why has this proved such an evocative theme? Certainly, the popular perception of Freemasonry is deeply bound up with a fascination with ceremonies of initiation, which are seen as secret, mysterious and slightly spooky. A frequent reaction, ever since the emergence of Freemasonry in its modern form at the beginning of the eighteenth century, has been to poke fun at masonic initiations – one need only think of all those jokes about rolled-up trouser legs. Even freemasons themselves are not above using the masonic initiation rituals as a source of humour. One of the most popular early Victorian comic writers was Douglas Jerrold, a member of the Bank of England Lodge No. 329, and the Lodge of Concord No. 49.[ii] Among Jerrold’s most successful publications was Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, a series of bedtime monologues directed at Job Caudle, the quintessential hen-pecked husband, by his petty-minded and obsessive wife. Mr Caudle’s initiation as a freemason provokes the customary torrent from his wife. On the one hand, Mrs Caudle professes to be outraged that her husband has done something he cannot discuss with her. ‘What's right and proper never need be done in secret’, she declares. ‘It's an insult to a woman for a man to be a freemason, and let his wife know nothing of it’.[iii] On the other hand, Mrs Caudle is also very curious to know exactly what happened to her husband and the nature of secret imparted to him:
And you're not going to let me know the secret, eh? You mean to say,--you're not? Now, Caudle, you know it's a hard matter to put me in a passion--not that I care about the secret itself: no, I wouldn't give a button to know it, for it's all nonsense, I'm sure. It isn't the secret I care about: it's the slight, Mr. Caudle; it's the studied insult that a man pays to his wife, when he thinks of going through the world keeping something to himself which he won't let her know ... Caudle, you sha'n't close your eyes for a week--no, you sha'n't-- unless you tell me some of it. Come, there's a good creature; there's a love. I'm sure, Caudle, I wouldn't refuse you anything-- and you know it, or ought to know it by this time. I only wish I had a secret! To whom should I think of confiding it, but to my dear husband?[iv]
This theme – of the wife who expresses a lack of interest or even hostility to Freemasonry but who nags her husband to tell her the secret – was a mainstay of humour about Freemasonry until comparatively recently. The Canonbury freemason, Matthew Cooke, celebrated for his discovery and publication of the medieval masonic tract known as the Cooke Manuscript, draw on this tradition in his song ‘The New Made Mason’, published in 1859:[v]
ear to my tale, Brother Masons, I pray
night I was made I went home rather late,
said, ‘I would tell her some short three months hence’,
The wife became convinced that ‘some shameful hussy’ kept the new mason out, and that ‘something dreadful had happened’. Eventually, the truth is revealed when his new regalia is left at the house and his wife confronts him:
her hand was a bill, which she thrust in my face,
Mason your Lordship has lately become,
Despite the wife’s contempt for Freemasonry, her curiosity in the end overcomes her:
day, rather late, I indulged in a snore,
To introduce a discussion of initiation with such light-hearted pieces may seem to trivialise the subject, but to my mind the recurrent use of masonic initiation as a theme for humour reflects a widespread fascination with the nature and character of masonic ceremonies. Moreover, the willingness of freemasons themselves to make such frivolous references to their initiation may be seen at one level as a defensive reaction, concealing the fact that masonic ceremonies often have a deep and lasting spiritual effect on those who pass through them. In his paper in the present volume, Kirk McNulty conveys something of the spiritual character of masonic initiation. J. Scott Kenney, in his pioneering sociological study of Canadian Freemasonry, also provides some telling illustrations of the way in which modern freemasons are attracted by the character of masonic ritual and its sense of being a legacy from ancient times. Among the many striking comments by contemporary freemasons discussed by Scott in his various recent publications, one in particular seems to sum up this feeling:
Before my initiation, I sort of gained understanding, you know, obviously because the history of Masonry goes right back to the Knights Templar. It goes right back to the Crusades and even further back to the Roman times and I think ....I’m losing it... I’m just staring at the light, I’m like a bug here.[vi]
A similar fascination with the ritual and its supposed ancient connections is also evident in recent interviews with freemasons forming part of the Millennium Memory Bank in the British Library. For example, in an interview in February 2002, Peter Wetherill, a managing director who was a member of the Humber Lodge No. 73 in Hull, discussed his Freemasonry at length and emphasised how he valued the ritual performed by the lodge as like play-acting, something done for hundreds of year which was pleasant to watch, enjoyable and helped give him a sense of connection with history and his local community.[vii] Likewise, Brian Barrett, a journalist in Oswestry who had attended the Freemasons’ School, despite saying that he was ‘not too involved with the religious side’ of his local lodge, nevertheless added that he enjoyed the ritual for its theatricality – 'like Shakespeare!'[viii]
Part of the interest of masonic initiation is of course bound up with the view of Freemasonry as a secret society. Another of the British Library interviewees, Robert Cranna, a retired GP, interviewed in 2005, commented on this:
And the freemasonry? It is now becoming much more open and there's no reason why not. It is not a secret society, you can go to a library and read about all the rituals and the ceremonies and the signs, those are not the secrets of freemasonry. It is expressing a hidden meaning of originally the mystery plays. It is a dilute form of mystery plays. You have to be male, over 21, and have a belief in the Supreme being, whether you call him God or Allah or whatever you wish. You have to be a moral and upright person, and generous, there's nothing awful about it![ix]
There is a paradox here; if the rituals of freemasonry can be so easily discovered (now on the internet as well as in libraries), how far can it be considered a secret society? This important and difficult question is ably explored in this volume by Henrik Bogdan. The meaning and significance of 'secret societies' is certainly one of the reasons for public interest in Freemasonry, and Bogdan penetrates to the heart of this question.
Our Masonic interviewees also indicate another of the reasons for popular fascination with masonic initiation, namely the suggestion that by joining Freemasonry you are being admitted to a tradition which is very ancient, dating back to the Rosicrucians, the mystery plays, the Templars, the Egyptians or whatever popular explanation happens to be the flavour of the month. The assumption that masonic rituals embody ancient truths and traditions handed down by word of mouth is one that goes back to the earliest days of modern Grand Lodge Freemasonry. This idea has been reinforced by the insistence of masonic Grand Lodges that they act in some way as the custodians of the ‘ancient landmarks’ of Freemasonry, despite the well-documented instances of Grand Lodges shifting and altering these landmarks with considerable freedom. As Neville Barker Cryer illustrates in his paper here, while masonic rituals are certainly ancient, that does not mean that they were unchanging – like all ritual, masonic ceremonies have shifted and developed in response to changing cultural and social pressures. As both Anal Haret and Pauline Chakmakjian memorably demonstrate in their contributions to this volume, masonic ritual has been subject to extraordinary processes of reinvention and revision, even in very recent times. Yet that does not mean that we should assume that no early memories and traditions have been orally transmitted through masonic ritual and that the entire masonic corpus of rituals is a modern invention. Neville Barker Cryer’s work in York has shown how masonic traditions there reach back further than the landmark date of 1717. We also know through the work of such great masonic scholars as Gould, Hughan and Stevenson that there was a form of Freemasonry – maybe unrecognizable as modern, ‘speculative’ Freemasonry but a direct ancestor of today’s Freemasonry nonetheless – in Scotland by the beginning of the seventeenth century. It would not be surprising if this early Freemasonry was influenced by Rosicrucianism, which makes the discussion in this volume by Tobias Churton particularly pertinent. Moreover, the existence of this early Scottish Freemasonry makes it impossible completely to dismiss the intriguing suggestion made in this volume by Julia Cleave that early Freemasonry produced some remarkable literary fruits.
However, we should not necessarily assume that, wherever we can see a resemblance between a masonic ritual or concept and another form of ritual, there is a direct and lineal connection. In examining initiation, we are not considering a phenomenon which is restricted to masonic organisations or those directly related to them. We are looking at a social and cultural act which occurs across the world and stretches back to the dawn of human existence. Coincidences between masonic initiations and initiations elsewhere are therefore inevitable and easily found. Some of the parallels between masonic initiations and initiations of many other types – ranging from the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece through to baptism and monastic professions – are discussed and presented in this volume. Masonic initiation is one facet of a wider field of human experience, and one which retains its relevance and social importance even in modern urban societies. This is probably another further reason for the continued popular interest in masonic initiations. Yet, for those struggling to make sense of the significance and character of masonic initiations as a wider cultural phenomenon, the extraordinary range of connections and parallels presents an embarrassment of riches. How can we possibly hope to comprehend and analyse the connections across such a wide range of human activity?
This has been a problem which has also confronted many modern theorists, particularly anthropologists, struggling to understand social phenomena enormously dispersed in time and space, with no apparent causal connections between them, often continuing to shift and develop, but which nevertheless seem to contain some fundamental structural components which are very similar in nature. Scott Kenney has pointed out that the theoretical tools on objectification of the past developed by Margaret Mead in her studies of Samoa are very helpful in the analysis of modern Freemasonry in North America.[x] The difficulty of using conventional scholarly tools to confront hugely dispersed but related cultural phenomena was also one which preoccupied Claude Lévi-Strauss in his monumental works on myth. Lévi-Strauss declared that:
the analysis of myths is an endless task. Each step forward creates a new hope, realization of which is dependent on the solution of some new difficulty. The evidence is never complete.[xi]
This is a situation which researchers into Freemasonry will feel is only too familiar. To deal with this, Lévi-Strauss found it necessary to develop new methodological procedures: what has come to be known as structuralism, a term which has gained great notoriety but which nevertheless should be regarded as an intellectual advance on a par with the theory of relativity and the development of psychology, to which of course it is closely related. Lévi Strauss described the issues which prompted the development of this new intellectual tool as follows:
The study of myths raises a methodological problem, in that it cannot be carried out according to the Cartesian principle of breaking down the difficulty into as many parts as may be necessary for finding the solution. There is no real end to mythological analysis, no hidden unity to be grasped once the breaking-down process has been completed. Themes can be split up ad infinitum. Just when you think you have disentangled and separated them, you realize that they are knitting together again in response to the operation of unexpected affinities. Consequently the unity of the myth is never more than tendential and projective and cannot reflect a state or a particular moment of the myth. It is a phenomenon of the imagination, resulting from the attempt at interpretation; and its function is to endow the myth with synthetic form and to prevent its disintegration into a confusion of opposites.[xii]
We can see just such a process as that described by Lévi-Strauss in reading through the papers in this volume. Our authors suggest a wide range of parallels and connections, but the possible connections and links seem so overwhelming that one wonders whether the patterns suggested by some of our authors are not figments of the imagination, derived from the natural instinct to discern some sort of pattern – a sort of intellectual mirage. The way in which the papers collected together in this volume might be fundamentally affected by the background and outlook of the authors themselves is apparent from the way in which most of the links suggested here are White, Western European and seemed designed to reinforce the idea of Freemasonry as part of mainstream western European civilization, such baptisms or monastic professions, with the Eleusinian mysteries suggesting further links with classical civilisation. There is no hint in this volume that African or Oceanic societies have initiation ceremonies which make masonic or christian rituals seem beggarly by comparison. Partly of course this is due to inevitable constraints of time and space. It is also reflection of a natural inclination, when confronted by a potentially vast field of study, to focus on the familiar and close at hand. But the stress of our authors on christian and classical parallels also perhaps reflects an uneasiness about admitting that masonic ritual might provide a connection between comfortable and respectable professional men in western cities and ‘primitive’ tribes of the sort which Bruce Parry has visited in his recent television series.
In a compelling paper entitled 'White Men Can't Dance', presented at the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield in May 2006, Amy Hale of St Petersburg College, Jacksonville, argued that, while recent developments in anthropology encouraged a more sympathetic view of the variety of belief-systems among groups in Africa, Asia or Oceania, a similar view was not taken of western esoteric groups. As she trenchantly put it, ‘if one were to study secret societies in India or Africa, look at altar building in Haiti, Mexican peyote, or the commodification of folk religion in Puerto Rico, that's fabulous. Just don't say you are going to do research with ecstasy-popping technoshamans in London’. Amy introduced her talk with a story which vividly illustrated the point:
I was taking a graduate course on Folk Belief and Ritual. The professor, who was fantastic and actually was the second reader on my PhD committee, was a specialist in Haitian and African Diaspora religions. Incidentally, or possibly not, he was a white American of Italian decent. Our primary assignment in this course was to analyze a ritual of our choosing. First we were to get a videotape to share with the class and then do a 15 page analysis of the symbolism and meaning of the ritual to the participants. I decided to use a very elaborate wedding ceremony that two of my friends had written. It was about two hours long, and involved members of the local OTO and Golden Dawn chapters, as the groom was affiliated with one and the bride with the other. It was complicated and involved a variety of ritual and occult influences ranging from Wicca to the Kaballah. I thought it was fascinating. I was the only student in the course who chose to analyze something using elements of the western esoteric tradition. Everyone else looked at voudoun or Santeria, Native American or South American rituals, all of which were, frankly, as syncretic as the one I had selected. When I showed my video clip to the class, hilarity ensued. People couldn't stop themselves from laughing, despite the fact that it wasn't funny. The slides of the Kabbalistic ritual from Costa Rica that my classmate had shown, however, were treated with much more reverence. When I got my grade for the paper it was less than I had expected, so I went to the professor to get feedback. He told me that he would have liked more of a historical and contextual focus to the project and wanted to read more about the history of the Golden Dawn. I told him I must have misunderstood because I believed that the assignment was supposed to look at participation, experience and meaning. He then sighed and said ‘You know, Amy, perhaps this is a bias of mine and something I need to get over, but I just have trouble understanding why it's significant when white people do this kind of thing.’
Amy uses this story to develop a powerful argument for western esoteric studies to be taken more seriously, but this issue cuts both ways. Just as it may be difficult for us to admit that western esoterica should be given the academic prominence they deserve, so it may be difficult for those of us working in this area to admit that the best places to help us understand phenomena like masonic initiation might be Haiti, Zambia or Puerto Rica. Parallels with monastic professions, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Rosicrucians and Elizabethan literature sound more respectable. This problem is complicated by the fact that Freemasonry itself has been consistently presented as a product of modernity – a child of the Enlightenment, of rationality, of science and geometry.
Some writers on modern esotericism have claimed that conventional scholarly techniques are insufficient to address the study of esoteric currents in western society and to reveal the supposed ‘hidden’ dimensions of western history and society. Such claims would be more convincing if these authors had themselves developed new methodologies rather than simply used these supposed problems as an excuse for the uncritical handling of evidence and defective reasoning. Moreover, many of these criticisms seem to be directed towards an old-fashioned form of scholarship which today only clings on in a small number of effectively moribund disciplines, namely the kind of positivistic Cartesian methodology which Lévi-Strauss criticised. The work of Lévi-Strauss and the enormous range of new theoretical tools and approaches which have swept through the scholarly world in the past forty years have provided a host of different approaches which will enable us more effectively to digest and take forward the issues presented by the papers in the present volume.
In hinting at the way forward, we can do no better than look briefly at some of the approaches developed by anthropologists. In 1931, the young anthropologist Audrey Richards was undertaking field-work among the Bemba, the dominant people in the north-east of what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia. During that time, she witnessed the initiation ceremony for young Bemba girls who had reached puberty. This ceremony, which has now vanished, was known as chisungu. Richards described it as follows:
The chisungu ceremony I attended in 1931 lasted continuously for over a month. (I was told in the old days the rites would have spread over six months or more.) During this time I saw over eighteen separate ceremonies in the initiation hut and surrounding bush; each of these can be split into a number of simpler ritual acts the symbolism of which was as obscure to some of the observers as it was to me. Over forty different pottery emblems were made and handled during the ceremony and a number of others have come to my notice since that date. The walls of the hut were painted with nine different designs on the occasion in question. I recorded over fifty special chisungu songs during the rite and I should estimate that those I was able to take down formed a little over half the total sung.[xiii]
It is impossible to summarise the extraordinarily rich ceremonial described by Richards, but to give a flavour it might be worth briefly describing the events of the eighth day.[xiv] This began with the painting of ceremonial designs on the walls of the huts. Nine ceremonial paintings were made by two young women ‘with great concentration and determination but no one referred to the designs in my hearing in the forthcoming days: nor did they seem to be discussed or admired’. The designs were listed by Richards as follows: ‘the butterflies’ (cipelebushya): a red and black star design; ‘the guinea-fowls’ (amakanga), a conventional depiction; ‘the owl’ (cipululu), a conventional geometric design of black and red; ‘the bean’ (cilemba), another geometrical design; ‘the birds’ (fyuni), roughly representational; the cimbulumbulu, wavy lines of alternate red and black; ‘the whitewash’ (lota), a criss-cross of black and red lines; and ‘the fool’ (cipuba), alternative wavy lines of black and red. A circular patch was also painted on the top of two of the panels, which were said to belong to the two girls being initiated. Richards speculated that these represented the vagina of each girl.
Richards had difficulty in ascertaining the meaning of the designs; they were too great a secret. One of the older women eventually took her into the bush, out of earshot, and nervously outlined something of their significance:
People call whitewash ‘pemba’ but we women call the design ‘lota’. It was an old word from very long ago. Throughout the ceremony, the whitewash represents the washing away of menstrual blood. It was sent to chiefs in the old days to announce the end of the chisungu ceremony of an important Bemba princes. The bean design evidently had a sexual significance. Nangoshye said it was a parable (mulumbe) of manhood. The eye design was described as of teaching the girl submission. When her husband insults her and scolds her, she is to sit silent and merely raise her eyes at him. He will be ashamed and say ‘Indeed, you have done well’ (mwawamya). The wild guinea-fowl has also apparently a sexual meaning. It was to teach the girl to hold on hard. The cimbulumbulu was another name for a great nacimbusa of the past, referred to in song as Cibale. The owl is a name for a stupid person who suddenly becomes clever. The girl is taught at initiation so that she becomes clever or educated ... Another woman described [the fool] as a design to teach concealment. The girl should hide everything in her heart, all the things taught to her.[xv]
Richards declared that it seemed to her that these designs and their names were the most esoteric component of the chisungu. She regretted that she had not managed to get more information on them. In the evening of the eighth day, each of the girls being initiated were pulled into the hut, and stood under the circles that represented the design assigned to them. The drums began, and the company sang the words ‘You take the girl to the crocodile’. The crocodile was the emblem of wisdom and loyalty, and the song suggested that the ceremony would make the girls loyal to the tribe. Women then shouted at the girls ‘Look at what you have been given! Look at the lovely clothes your mother’s brother has given you’. This represents the point at which the ceremonial begins to focus on the passing over of secrets to the girls, which occurs in a series of further elaborate ceremonies during the following days.
The use of symbolic designs to impart moral lessons will of course be of great interest to a masonic audience, since it recalls the similar use of tracing boards in masonic ritual. Other components of the chisungu ceremony may well strike a chord in the masonic reader, such as the use of symbolic acts of isolation. An enthusiastic searcher after masonic parallels could perhaps even find similarities between some of the chisungu symbols and those used in Freemasonry. Doubtless, somewhere in the vast rubbish-heap of esoteric masonic scholarship, there is a paper which draws attention to supposed parallels between the ceremonies of African peoples and masonic ritual, and uses this to suggest very ancient origins for masonry. This is where Lévi-Strauss’s fundamental perceptions are relevant. Such similarities do occur, but they are not the result of direct contact between ritual traditions, but occur rather because the ritual reflects a common reaction to a universal human situation. There are fundamental underlying structures in human society which help shape activities such as initiation, whether in Zambia, Haiti, Japan or the Sheffield Masonic Hall. The interest is in trying to establish what these fundamental structures are.
This is a point of which Audrey Richards was conscious. She was also conscious that ritual was shaped by the demands of the culture which produced it and that it seeks to reinforce prevailing social structures. And this is as true of masonic initiations as initiations in Africa. For Richards:
Rites are, to my mind, invariably an effort to ‘do’ – to change the undesirable or to maintain the desirable, I believe that there is always some purpose, however general, behind a ceremony which the performers can, and will, express. In our society a man will tell us that he is going to church to marry Miss Brown although he may be quite unable to explain the symbolism of the different ritual acts which contribute to this end. In the cultures more usually studied by the anthropologist even the statement that ‘We do this because our ancestors did it’ may be an expression of some purpose or end.[xvi]
Invariably this purpose is one, as with marriage ceremonies in modern society, designed to reinforce prevailing social and cultural norms. Richards offers a very rich and nuanced discussion of the social contexts in which the chisungu flourished, which there is not space to discuss further here. It is perhaps however worth emphasising her conclusion that one fundamental thread within the chisungu was teaching and moral improvement:
The phrase ‘rite of transition’ began to have a new meaning for me when I reembered the dirty frightened exhausted creatures who had been badgered and pushed through the chisungu weeks, and compared them with these demuse and shy young brides [at the conclusion of the ceremonies]. They begged for little presents. Later I watched them kneel and clap obeisance outside each hut in the village. ‘They are submitting themselves to the elders’ was Nanghoshye’s proud comment. ‘They show they are willing to work for us’.[xvii]
This component of the chisungu was, for Richards, an educational one: ‘It is a rite designed to change the course of nature by supernatural means, and to test whether these changes have been brought about’.[xviii] In some ways, this could also be claimed as the aim of much masonic ceremonial. In seeking such overarching themes, however, there is a danger of falling into over-simplification and for ignoring the multiplicity of meanings of the signs and symbols which form the central part of such ceremony. This is a danger which Richards warns against and is one which the specialist in masonic research will also be conscious of. For the French anthropologist Jean La Fontaine, it was Richards’ awareness of the complexity of layers of meaning which made her discussion of these Bemba ceremonies particularly important and influential, pointing the way towards more recent modern anthropological discussions of initiation ritual as La Fontaine’s own provocative discussion, Initiation: Ritual Drama and Secret Knowledge Across the World (1985). Indeed, in her book La Fontaine draws explicit comparisons between the tests in the course of chisungu and masonic initiation ritual.[xix] La Fontaine also reports a fascinating remark to a German anthropologist by a Liberian who was a member of the Poro societies in Liberia, who said that it was a pity that the anthropologist 'who not a Mason, for then I could tell you more. The Poro is just like Freemasonry'.[xx] Some of the analogies drawn by La Fontaine in the course of her discussion of Freemasonry, with for example the Triads and Mau Mau, may be unpalatable to many freemasons. La Fontaine's account of Freemasonry is defective, as it is based on a nineteenth-century American anti-masonic work, but nevertheless the issues she raises are valid and important ones, and her work demonstrates the need for masonic scholars to engage with current academic discussion in these fields, so that the rich information provided by the Masonic traditions can be accurately and faithfully reported.
In one of his most remarkable passages, Lévi-Strauss argues that field work forms a kind of initiation ceremony for the anthropologist: 'Only experienced members of the profession, whose work shows that they themselves have passed the test can decide if and when a candidate for the anthropological profession has, as a result of field work, accomplished that inner revolution that will really make him into a new man'.[xxi] For Lévi-Strauss, it was necessary for the anthropologist to achieve, through the intensive and demanding test of field-work, an outlook and mentality which, on the one hand, inculcated an ability to absorb and empathise with the culture being studied but, on the other, still ensured a rigorously rational and scientific to the subject in hand. This is precisely the kind of balancing act that the student of Freemasonry has to achieve – to understand why, for many people, Freemasonry is one of the most important and potent things in their life, while at the other hand relating the study of Freemasonry to the wider study of human society.
If I may be permitted to conclude on a personal note, many of those reading this introduction may be aware that, since the 2005 Canonbury conference, I have resigned my post as Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry to take up a new position in charge of the library at the University of Wales Lampeter. To many in the masonic world, this may have been a surprising move, and they perhaps thought (even if they did not say) that this was only to be expected of someone who is not a freemason. However, I wonder if in fact my spell at Sheffield did not in itself represent a kind of initiation of the sort described by Lévi-Strauss, a spell of intensive field-work which ensured that I developed that necessary sympathy and understanding of the social phenomenon being studied. I have now, like the anthropologist returning from an expedition, got to absorb and digest the enormously rich materials I gathered in the course of my sojourn at Sheffield. I trust that the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre will continue to provide a vehicle for dissemination of the results of my researches.
It remains only to thank those who made the 2005 Canonbury conference such an enormous success: the Trustees of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, The Most Hon. The Marquess of Northampton, DL, the Marchioness of Northampton, and Michael Baigent; Carole McGilvery who, as ever, bore the brunt of the demanding work of organising the conference; Carole's Canonbury team, who every year give up much of their own time to help look after those of us who attend the conference and lectures; and to Robert Gilbert, for his contribution as one of the chairs of the conference and for his work in helping to prepare the papers for publication. But, above all, we must thank the spreakers, whose contributions made the occasion such a success, and whose work you are about to enjoy.
[i] Audrey I. Richards, Chisungu: A girl’s initiation ceremony among the Bemba of Zambia (London: Faber, 1956), p. 187
[ii] The Freemasons Magazine and Monthly Mirror 3 (1857), pp. 604-5. Jerrold was initiated in the Bank of England Lodge No. 329 in November 1831, and continued a member until June 1836. He joined the Lodge of Concord No. 49 in March 1838 and apparently left it in December 1844.
[iii] Douglas Jerrold, Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures as Suffered by the Late Job Caudle (8th edn., London: at the Punch Office, 1846), p. 25.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 25-26.
[v] Cooke was initiated in the Canonbury Lodge, then No. 955, now No. 657, in the Canonbury Tavern on 18 June 1857. A copy of 'The New Made Mason' is in the British Library, pressmark H.1771.d.
[vi] J. Scott Kenney, 'The Symbolic Reconstruction of the Past in Contemporary Freemasonry’, available at: http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/symbolic_freemasonry.html
[vii] British Library, National Sound Archive, Millennium Memory Bank, C900/07060.
[viii] British Library, National Sound Archive, Millennium Memory Bank, C900/15064.
[ix] British Library, National Sound Archive, Millennium Memory Bank, C900/05594.
[x] Kenney, op.cit.
[xi] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to the Science of Mythology (London: Pimlico, 1994), p. 5.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 5-6.
[xiii] Richards, op. cit., p. 55.
[xiv] Ibid., pp. 80-82.
[xv] Ibid., p. 81.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 113.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 109.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 121.
[xix] J. S. La Fontaine, Initiation: Ritual Drama and Secret Knowledge Across the World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 114.
[xx] Ibid., p. 94.
[xxi] Quoted from Structural Anthropology in Marcel Hénaff, Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology, translated Mary Baker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p. 24.