A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend the opening of one of the more unusual exhibitions in NYC: “Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” at the American Folk Art Museum.
The “art” on display — ritual objects from various fraternities and secret societies, especially the Odd Fellow and Freemasonry — is rarely seen outside of a few small museums dotted around the US. Wooden hands on the end of poles, paintings of mythical scenes, skulls and crossbones, banners decorated with various symbols — all present in the exhibition — appear strange and alien today. Yet, a century ago or less, when membership in one or other fraternity was extremely commonplace, such art would have been familiar to the vast majority of men.
Besides writing, I also sometimes paint, and have painted a number of Masonic “tracing boards” over the years (if you are interested, you can see a few examples here), and these have been displayed in a couple of smaller museums, and have — perhaps more importantly — been used in Masonic rituals.
Here I want to ask what is the purpose of initiation? And, moreover, what is the purpose of symbolism?
My own opinion is that initiation serves to reorient the individual, away from his atomized self, away from materialism, and away from trends in secular thinking. He is reoriented, instead, toward the community (his Brothers in the fraternity or Order, his family, nation, humanity, etc.), toward the spiritual (especially by remembering his own mortality), and toward more archaic ways of thinking.
“Art” plays a particular role in initiation, of course. And if one could make a criticism of museums, it is that they display archaic objects under modern lighting, so that we see those objects from our perspective as modern people, and not how our ancestors saw them. You’ve probably visited a museum and seen a golden throne or Egyptian sarcophagus, with all its gold, and thought that it was gaudy, or that the gold was there merely to demonstrate the power of the monarch.
The real reason the throne or the sarcophagus was coated with gold leaf was that the room in which it stood or laid was lit by a fire, or perhaps by several smaller torches. The gold helped illuminate the room, but it would also have appeared quite different by flame — not flat and overly bright as it does under modern lighting. The same can be said about the display of secret society objects.
In prehistoric times, at least, there was no “art” as we understand it. People did not make art to express themselves. Nor did they view art for enjoyment, as such. Art was not clever decoration.
In a few cases (such as with religion and a few fraternities and Orders, such as Freemasonry), the sacred function of art and decoration has continued into the modern era. In other cases, (such as neo-pagan and some Western esoteric Orders) it has, to some degree or other, been rediscovered. Yet, most formerly sacred symbols (the skull and crossbones, cross, triangle, etc.) have found themselves reappearing as merely “cool” images in modernity, devoid of meaning. (The most obvious example might be the use of the “Laughing Buddha” or Budai by the brand True Religion for its jeans label.)
On the one hand, the secularization of sacred imagery is indicative of the Kali Yuga, in which materialism is increasingly dominant over the spiritual. Yet, on the other hand, outliving their era, it shows us the power of sacred images. Whether we come across them, secularized, in modern fashion or art, or whether we go to a museum to see the archaic, they are still able to remind us of a different way of thinking, living, and being.
Yet, can we truly grasp what that different way actually was? The ever decreasing number of men who experience genuine fraternalism, and the ever decreasing number of women who experience any kind of sisterhood, means an ever decreasing proportion of society who have any genuine understanding of initiation and the way of life it demands.
Initiation is available, yes, but, like many churches, many occult societies, for example, draw their morality and understanding from the secular, and, moreover, from the moral and political fashions of the day, and thus effectively initiate people into hyper-modernity — giving archaic symbols hyper-modern meanings. If this does not occur, then, in general, initiatic societies teach only what might be called the “inner Mysteries” of union with God, etc.
Yet, with no knowledge of the outer Mysteries of loyalty, brotherhood, courage, faith, a sense of mortality, etc., such initiations are akin to giving psychedelics to under-educated, disturbed teenagers and expecting them to into artistic and literary geniuses. It’s not going to happen.
Symbolism is memory. The Masonic “tracing board,” displayed, in the Lodges of many countries, reflects the memory of every Freemason that has been initiated. It is not his memory, however, but an archaic memory — memory of what is primordial and at the roots of consciousness and culture. The same is true for the Vajrayana Buddhist, the Tantric Hindu, etc., as it undoubtedly is even for those groups and societies that may be relatively new, but that have reached back to rediscover archaic symbols and values that give vitality to the body, mind, spirit, and society.
To put it more bluntly, initiation and symbolism immerse the initiate in the primordial memory. They do not illuminate like the lights of the museum or shopping mall, so that we are forced to stand back and observe, but, instead, they draw the initiate into a darkness bathed in gold — illuminated as if by the sun at dawn or dusk, the eternal fire of the Zoroastrian temple, and so on. Reality is not less real, but more so. With us are our ancestors as well as those yet to be born. So, too are the gods and the sages of antiquity. Everything has depth. Art is not decoration but the reemergence of truths that can be seen, felt, and experienced.